New Film Explores the Tough Art of Derek Hess

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Like many local artists, Derek Hess works out of an old industrial space that he’s reclaimed as a studio where he creates some arresting imagery. A self-described loner, Hess spends hours here with a pooch named Romel at his feet (“Bark!”) crafting images of lightness and dark. In one drawing, he calls “Bait”, a fallen angel places a heart in a bear trap. In another, a stooped figure, nails his own hand to the ground. The title reads, “I am my own worst enemy”.

DEREK HESS: We as a society are all of the above --- it’s a strain, it’s a struggle. Not a lot of us had the silver spoon.

The look of Derek Hess’s illustrations is rooted in techniques learned from his artist father, from a childhood consuming comic books, and from teachers at the Cleveland Institute of Art. As a student, he wrangled a job booking bands at the nearby Euclid Tavern during the early 1990s. A heavy metal fan from childhood, he cut deals with up-and-coming punk and indie groups to play Monday nights at the century-old watering hole. To promote these concerts, Hess drew-up striking and often humorous hand bills illustrating acts such as Helmet, Guided By Voices, and Soul Coughing

DEREK HESS: Soul Coughing, I made a Cabbage Patch girl, dancing to “Mr. Death” in the background, because Soul Coughing was a lot of fun, but there were a lot of dark undertones to it.

MUSIC: Soul Coughing UP & UNDER

Hess cranked out his mini-posters weekly and dropped piles of them in area record stores, pasted them on mailboxes, and stapled them to telephone poles.

DEREK HESS: The telephone poles I found I was having the problem of them being taken down, that was because people wanted the flyers. So then, I’m finding I have to use an entire clip of staples throughout this entire flyer to make it next to impossible for someone to tear it down in one piece, and so they would give up.

Hess’s posters started creating a buzz locally and nationally. Dennis Barrie could see that when he came to Cleveland in 1993 to be the first director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

DENNIS BARRIE: Punk bands, grunge bands, alternative bands --- they were big in that period. Derek fed into that, and knew what he was talking about through his work.

For the Rock Hall’s grand opening, Barrie commissioned Hess to create a special poster.

DENNIS BARRIE: We opened in 1995 in Cleveland --- a tough town. We weren’t opening in Los Angeles or New York. And Derek SO represented the look and the attitude of this city at that time, that he was the perfect choice to do a poster.

Hess’s work is now on display in museums around the world, including the Rock Hall and the Louvre, in Paris. His images can be found everywhere from tee-shirts to tattoos. In the early 2000s, he returned to his love of music by booking
a popular series of outdoor concerts’ at Nautica stage along the Cuyahoga River known as Strhess Fests

MUSIC: Strhess Fest concert

One of the fans in the audience was a teenager from Solon named Nick Cavalier. His new documentary seeks to understand Derek Hess and what drives his art.

NICK CAVALIER: When we did have to get into those really intense things that are behind his art --- the actual life experiences that fuel the dark artwork --- I didn’t want to overstep my bounds. So, it was a dance that me and him kind of did throughout the process to get something that was compelling. And that’s the word. That’s what his art makes me feel --- it’s compelling.

The man who makes that compelling art, picks up Romel and smiles as he cradles his dog. Derek Hess is a tough guy with a soft center. A guy who seems like he’s trying to figure out how to rescue that heart from the bear trap.

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