The Life and Work of Artist Derek Hess Examined Through New Film

Derek Hess may be Cleveland’s most well known visual artist. Although he has quite the pedigree, he took a very unique path to success. And although he’s become a relative household name in Cleveland and beyond, few know much about the man behind the iconic, gestural line drawings and legendary concert posters. Recently, Cleveland-native Nick Cavalier created a documentary exploring the artist in depth.

Forced Perspective will screen this Friday, March 27, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, March 28, at 6:30 p.m. as part of the 39th annual Cleveland International Film Festival. Friday’s screening takes place in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gartner Auditorium (Saturday’s screening takes place at Tower City).

Hess was exposed to art at an early age thanks to his father, a professor at Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA). Later, Hess would attend CIA (as well as the College for Creative Studies in Detroit). After graduation, Hess began booking bands for the Euclid Tavern. The gig led him to create concert posters to promote his events. Eventually, the posters caught the eye of leaders in the music industry. Hess’ work now resides in the permanent collection of the Rock Hall, the GRAMMY Museum, the Louvre in Paris and many others. His trademark style has helped brand an entire sub-genre of contemporary rock music.

Forced Perspective reveals an intimate portrait of Hess, offering unique insight into both the artist’s success and struggles. For the first time in his career, Hess opens up about his battles with alcoholism and bipolar disorder, and how these issues continue to impact his work. The film explores the link between mental illness and creativity.

“The goal of the film was to use Derek as an allegory for the plight of creative people,” explains filmmaker Nick Cavalier. “My hope is that the film inspires people to greatness through Derek’s life story. I also hope the film gives people with mental illness a bit of comfort in the fact that bipolar disorder is not a disease that has to make you a societal pariah, but rather a personal affliction that can be channeled as a gift, and can propel you into greatness.

“The film creates a strong link between creativity and bipolar disorder,” he continues. “I feel the film will help educate people on the effects of biploar disorder and how a diagnosis of the disease is not necessarily a weakness. But can be channeled into a gift and leveraged as a strength. Alleviating the stigma of mental illness through dynamic storytelling and a relatable subject.”

Hess has plenty of other exciting projects in the works. He recently published his latest book. Black, White and Red All Over showcases the artists’ trademark gestural ink drawings created a decade ago, primarily between 2004 and 2005.

“Three colors and a black pen, or two colors, the absence of color and a black pen are the elements that the pieces in this book were derived from,” explains Hess. “The initial idea was to use impactful color and strong black line figure drawings to grab the viewer’s attention and draw them in. The use of those elements evolved along the way with subtle tones, transparent washes, symbols and objects which appear to tell more elaborative stories. But the initial idea remained: to grab the viewer’s attention and hold onto them.”

Black, White and Red All Over is separated into three sections, or groups. As Hess explains in the introductions to each group, group three wouldn’t have been possible without group one.

“The beginning pieces of this series were done in 2004,” Hess explains in group one’s introduction. “The pieces in these pages evolve from the first ones where the figures expressing a tormented soul which become amplified as they progress.”

“Most of this series was done in 2005,” he continues in group three’s intro. “New imagery, like the garbage can, was introduced to the mix, creating a nice visual vocabulary. I pushed the ideas I’d been developing to create some more thought provoking pieces. Some of the work could cross over from one group to another because the ideas were all heading in a similar direction. Once completed, I found I wouldn’t have been able to express the ideas I have in group three when making group one because those ideas didn’t exist yet. Therefore, group three could not exist without the first group’s foundation of ideas.”

Hess’ other big news is still a few months way from realization, but later this spring, Hess and longtime business partner Martin Geramita will open Hess’ new studio gallery at 78th Street Studios. The space was previously used as Geramita’s office. Years ago, Geramita was one of the first gallery owners at 78th Street Studios. Geramita’s 1300 Gallery was where he first developed his renowned 50/50 Shows.

“I think the gallery joining the 78th Street art explosion is a perfect fit,” says Hess. “Marty has actually been in that spot for over 15 years, and was one of the first to develop galleries in the building, so for his space to now become a gallery is fitting. The space will be a place to showcase my work for the most part. There has never been a gallery in town that has represented me, so we just decided to make our own. There will be the occasional show of other artists, but that will be the exception rather than the rule.”

While the official opening date is still to be determined, Hess and Geramita are planning a book signing for opening night. Stay tuned for more info as things progress.

(Cleveland Museum of Art) 11150 East Blvd., 216-421-7340,
(Tower City) 230 W Huron Rd #7256, 216-621-1374,
(39th Annual Cleveland International Film Festival), 216-623-3456,

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