Interview with artist Nate VandenBos - Inspired to create a growing music gallery with his fingers and rags

"Why is the blues still with us? Because the blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll!"

Nate VandenBos: Art As A Fingerprint

Kalamazoo, MI, portrait painter Nate VandenBos is a big music fan and has painted black and white images of famous musicians. There are over a hundred portraits in VandenBos's garage at his home in Kalamazoo and familiar faces of musicians such as Albert Collins, BB King, Neil Young, Kurt Cobain, Grateful Dead, Dr. John, Carlos Santana, Janis Joplin, Allman Brothers, Beatles, Melanie, Lou Reed, Keith Richards, Blues Brothers, Paul Butterfield, Steve Ray Vaughan, Willie Dixon, Eric Clapton, CSN&Y, Willie Nelson, Frank Zappa, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and Jerry Garcia look out from the canvases.

"Any artist can do any subject but if the artist isn't interested in the subject matter the work suffers—and so does the artist." Despite his affable, laidback demeanor, there's a rebellious undercurrent lurking just below the surface of this working man turned artist.

VandenBos finds he gets a different perspective each time he changes the distance between him and a work in progress. One more thing you should know about this painter's technique. He doesn't use a brush. He paints with his fingers. Each canvas starts with a coat of black paint and VandenBos uses a white pencil to draw the face. "I've freed myself from conventional techniques; I use my fingers and rags - not brushes - to apply paint, and I prefer plywood to canvas. I draw inspiration from the emotions I feel when I'm listening to music." And, he adds, a picture with half the face in shadow can take him about half the time to complete as a full face image. And since he paints every day, producing about 100 portraits a year, quicker can be better. His love for music keeps him motivated.                               Photo by Fran Dwigh

Interview by Michael Limnios  Artworks © by Nate VandenBos

When was your first desire to become involved in the visual art?

First desire age 15, basic level art class. Assignment: Draw a portrait of a fellow student. The hottest babe in class nodded yes in my direction. Naterism #1 comes to mind: “Subject matter matters. If the artist isn’t interested in the subject matter, the work suffers and so does the artist. I’m not here to suffer.”     

...And how the Rock & Blues changed your life?

She (fellow student) introduced me to the party crowd and where the music played…..Frampton Comes Alive......

What has been the relationship between music and visual art in your life and artwork?

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  Music was #1……all I had to do was listen to it.  Art I had to work at.  I’m not a born artist---I learned how to draw.

Keith Richards © by Nate VandenBos

What characterize the philosophy of your art and how do you describe Nate’s progress?

(Philosophy) Naterism #2 “What’s hot is hot, what’s not is nowhere.”  I’m a realist. I paint what I see. For me “invention” is the mother of chaos.  Thankfully that’s not the case for all artists! (I know my limitations).  

(My progress) It’s taken 35 years from my 1st portrait to when I had my aha moment. Since then (the past 4 years) I’ve done nothing but portraits.  I’ve dialed in a “formula”. I am working on #358 presently.

How does the music affect your mood and inspiration?

Music is a savior. 

What are the triggers for the creation of artwork?

My trigger is born of angst...I can’t imagine a life without the need to create and I know a look when I see one….maybe that’s my gift.

Some music styles can be fads but the Rock n’ Blues music is always with us. Why do think that is?

Musical fads…they’re products of the music “industry”…people in it for the money.  As for musicians and artists, we don’t think like those people.

Why is the blues still with us? Because the blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll!

Make an account of the case between: Music and Art. What characterize the sound of art and the art of music?

You have people who play music, you have people who make art……some look, some listen.  Believe it or not, some people aren’t interested in either.  What they’re up to I don’t know!

Duane Allman © by Nate VandenBos

What characterize the faces and colors of Rock n’ Blues culture?

It’s like pieces of a puzzle. But instead of only one way to put it all together, there are as many ways as there are people.      

What kind of music you hear when you work?

I hear the music of the person I’m painting while I work.


Why did you think that the Blues & Rock personalities continued to generate such a devoted following in art?

Music generates memories. People view my art (musician’s portrait) and tell me a story….something you don’t get when you paint landscapes.

Which incident of Rock n’ Roll history you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting with you?


What are you miss most nowadays from the art and music of past? What are your hopes and fears?

I miss the commonality music used to provide. It bonded people.  That aspect has fallen off a bit.  These days you either have satellite radio or you don’t…. (I don’t) so what I get is a little bit of music and a lot of commercials. As far as art goes, from the past, I’m not a historian and haven’t studied on that subject. I miss Jackson Pollack’s approach and Monet’s.

"My trigger is born of angst...I can’t imagine a life without the need to create and I know a look when I see one….maybe that’s my gift."

If you could change one thing in the musical and art world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I’d put musicians and artists higher up on the food chain. Pay them wages they can live on so they can continue to create/evolve. (aka: quit their day jobs)

What made you laugh lately and what touched (emotion) you from the music and art circuits?

Bob Dylan said, “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry.”  Joni Mitchell said, “Laughing and crying, you know it’s the same release.”

What from your memorabilia and things (books, records, photos etc.) you would put in a "capsule on time"?

Willie Nelson’s bandana, the Allman Brothers Decade of Hits 69-79, Jethro Tull’s Benefit. (Lots of room for additional books/recordings/photos)

How you would spend a day with Ronnie VanZant? What would you say to Howlin Wolf ? And what would you like to ask Frank Zappa?

Ronnie VanZant: fishing

Howlin’ Wolf: How did he get that nickname?   

Zappa: I’d ask Frank what was he thinking when he came up with the GTOs…

Nate VandenBos - official website

Frank Zappa & Nate VandenBos © by Nate VandenBos


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