From guitar riffs to brush strokes

Ronnie Wood claims his "day job" as a guitarist in a rock 'n' roll band is more secure than ever. But if that band - the Rolling Stones - ever splits up, he can always return to his first love: visual art.

He probably doesn't need the extra bucks, but Wood's works - mostly semirealistic depictions of fellow rock legends - command up to $200,000 for an original and anywhere from $300 to $6,000 for prints, according to Danny Stern, an art dealer in San Francisco.

Wood is just one of many musicians who can produce a drawing or painting as easily as a guitar riff or song lyric - and get paid handsomely for it.

To critics who might scoff that famous performers are just looking for one more way to cash in, it should be noted that Wood and many of his contemporaries are art-school alums, not just dabblers brush-stroking their egos to rhythms of ringing cash registers.

Mr. Stern also notes that most people don't buy these artists' works for financial reasons, either, since they almost never come up for resale.

"They're not being collected simply because they're decorative and they're beautiful," he says.

"They're being collected because people have a lifelong relationship with the genre, the music, the history, and the individual artist they depict."

Wood's printmaking partner, Bernard Pratt, says Wood knows his work might be taken less seriously because he's a rock star, but Pratt insists, "I think he's most probably a lot better as a draftsman than a lot of artists that are actually making a living out of art alone."

Wood may be one of the most visible rock artists today, but a number of his musical contemporaries from that fertile creative era of the late '50s and early '60s also trained as artists.

John Lennon's art-school friendship with original Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe changed the course of music and pop culture. (Lennon talked Sutcliffe into using earnings from a painting sale to buy the bass Paul McCartney eventually would play, and Sutcliffe's girlfriend created their moptop haircuts and early look.)

David Bowie, Ray Davies of the Kinks, and the late Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia all pursued art before music. Joni Mitchell illustrates many of her album covers with Van Gogh-influenced self-portraits.

The phenomenon is hardly limited to rockers. Crooner Tony Bennett has a second career as an artist. Jazz great Miles Davis began expressing himself visually late in life, but generated a compelling body of work.

Creative overflow

The burst of creative energy that fueled rock's British invasion seemed to incubate in art schools and is still fed by artists who revel in unorthodoxy. David Byrne and his former Talking Heads bandmates met while attending the Rhode Island School of Design.

Later-generation recording artists whose creativity can't fit within the confines of music alone include Beck, John Mellencamp, R.E.M's Michael Stipe, and Red Hot Chili Pepper John Fruscianti.

Former Jefferson Airplane/Starship singer Grace Slick isn't quite in Wood's formally trained league, but even her oil, acrylic, or penciled portraits of rock contemporaries fetch up to five figures. (She counts Sting and The Who's Pete Townshend among her fans.)

At a recent art trade show, her former Starship bandmate, Marty Balin, priced three original oils of rockers at $15,000 to $18,000.

This raises the question of whether these artists, regardless of skill level, should capitalize on images of their fellow musicians - even though they're hardly stooping to mall-kiosk levels.

Defenders say that by portraying their peers and influences, rock artists are simply painting what they know, as artists have done throughout history. Fame also increases the value of any artist's output. As Slick says, "I think you're born with every talent you've got. Just plain born with it. And then what you do is hone it."

Wood's art gives him satisfaction

In the world of fine art, true acceptance comes through museum exhibits and other documentation.

When Wood's portraits were mounted in November at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum in Cleveland, he was asked what gave him more satisfaction: knowing that 300 people paid to attend his exhibit preview, or that he would play to some 15,000 Stones fans the next night.

"That means a lot," he said of the art-show turnout, though he noted the events aren't on the same spectrum.

Even if the rock hall were to hang Degas paintings, fine-art aficionados are unlikely to grant it "art museum" status. But Pratt says Wood is well respected in English art circles and was commissioned to exhibit at a Royal Academy of Arts show. He also has exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo, Brazil.

The rock hall also displays works by other musicians, including Jimi Hendrix, who had planned to become an artist, and Sutcliffe, who critics say might have been the next Jackson Pollock had he not died shortly after leaving the Beatles to pursue his original passion.

As for subject matter, Wood says, "Portraiture was a way to get my foot in the artistic door, really, and then I could develop.... I paint animals and landscapes or buildings. It doesn't matter.

"Dylan's got an interesting face," he says. "I enjoy doing him." (Dylan himself flirts with visual art, and illustrated his Self-Portrait album with an image he painted.)

Patti Smith's first art retrospective

Rock poetess Patti Smith has had exhibits at art museums, but never a career retrospective until "Strange Messenger: The Work of Patti Smith" opened in September at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pa. The show (which contains 1978 portraits of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards) moves to Houston in March and later to Philadelphia.

Unlike some of her fellows, Smith's career grew not from choice, but artistic frustration. Her angst poured out as words on canvas, then as poems, then songs, and eventually, performances, all encouraged by her friend and mentor, the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe.

In her concerts, Smith uses elements of each, and during a show marking the exhibit opening, she read from "my first [art] catalogue that's just mine."

"I'm very proud of it," she added.

Unlike Wood and Smith, Slick insists she's too old to perform rock 'n' roll and that even if she still wanted to, her '60s and '70s musical output is "so era-specific that it would be ridiculous."

Now she concentrates on her art, which started with wildlife drawings and morphed into acrylic or oil-stick rock portraiture at the urging of a book agent.

Her latest series, "Wonderland Suite," is based on "Alice In Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" and inspired by the early Airplane hit, "White Rabbit."

Initially reluctant to turn her art into a business, she's now happy with the decision. "Fortunately, everything I've enjoyed doing in my life, eventually, I get paid to do it," she says. "I mean, it's spectacular. I love it."

• 'Strange Messenger: The Art of Patti Smith' is on display at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, from March 18-June 15; at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Sept. 3-Dec. 3.

Grace Slick's 'Wonderland Suite' will be on display at Fingerhut Gallery in Carmel, Calif., Feb. 14-15, and her work is available via several galleries accessible through www.areaarts.com. Ronnie Wood's art is available at www.ronniewood.com and at various galleries.

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