When Jason Fennell arrived at Bakersfield Mass Ave restaurant on a recent Friday afternoon, he wore a red St. Louis Cardinals T-shirt, a flat-bill baseball cap with an orange and black Zubaz print, along with '90s-style sunglasses with wild tie-dyed-looking frames. His brash wardrobe contrasted starkly against the sea of drab business attire donned by the clientele of this popular downtown Mexican eatery. The bright colors and conflicting patterns evoked the bold lines and singular characters that serve as his work's signature style as the visual artist Homeless Cop.
Fennell moved to Chicago from his native St. Louis in his mid-20s. Before following his girlfriend to Indy last spring, he spent more than a decade in the Windy City establishing an aesthetic based upon precise, black lines, primary colors, pop culture references and cartoonish recurring characters. At first glance, his paintings display a mechanical attention to detail that could be mistaken for computer-generated graphics. Upon further inspection, the artist's hand is apparent, if obscured.
"It's super tedious" Fennell said of his process. "Most people will look at one of my works in progress and assume that it's complete, but I'll obsess over those lines for hours and hours until they're perfect."
He plans each piece in its entirety at the outset of the project. He selects the painting's various elements and uses an old projector and then traces them onto canvas, carefully sketching the border in pencil. "Composition is really important to me," he said. Once he has the piece mapped out, he goes over the pencil lines with black paint pens and begins to fill in the work with layers of color.
During talks with Fennell, the conversation invariably returns to Adult Swim, the late-night, subversive alter-ego of Cartoon Network. He made a name for himself in 2010, when the network commissioned him to create 10 animated bumps to bookend commercial breaks and design several billboards. A longtime fan of the network's Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Fennell initiated a relationship with the comedy team during their stand-up tours. Whenever they performed in Chicago, he would present them with a painting inspired by the show, free of charge. That interaction led to an opportunity to create an official print for the series. Fennell's willingness to put his work out there has helped him forge similar connections with celebrities ranging from John C. Reilly to Conan O'Brien and Chef Gordon Ramsay.
For the bumps, Fennell partnered with a small Chicago design firm called Doejo. The company also collaborated on a pair of animated shorts with the intention of developing Fennell's artwork into a series. The series never came to fruition, and the professional relationship with Doejo eventually soured. "People will try to take advantage of you, for sure," Fennell said. "As an artist you just have to learn from that ... All the bad business stuff, I'm not a bitter person about it. I think every artist should go through something like that." Those experiences forced Fennell to become adept at licensing his name and work.
Upon moving to Indy, Fennell reconnected with Andy Salge, a friend from his Chicago days. As a bassist in the local rock outfit Blue Moon Revue, Salge vowed to make some introductions to Indy's creative scene and encouraged Fennell to submit to Oranje, where he wound up a featured artist. Around that same time, BMR was in the process of recording its most recent album Make It Reel, and eventually tapped Fennell to handle the album artwork.
"I really didn't want to put a picture of us on the cover of the album unless it was a cartoon, and that got me thinking," Salge said. "So we invited Jason to our Queensize [studio] and he partied with us while we were recording. He came in and took individual pictures of the tape machines and took pictures of our faces. Then he gave me a basic sketch, and we told him to run with it."
A talented drummer in his own right, Fennell has collaborated with musicians in varying capacities for years. He and Salge met around 2005 when Salge subbed on bass in a short-lived band called Skitzophonic, for which Fennell played drums. The trust that the two have built over the years since those first jam sessions allowed Fennell to lower his guard and relinquish his artwork to BMR without any formal licensing arrangement.
"I like doing designs for bands, because I know they're going to promote it and I know Andy's a great guy," Fennell said. "The flip side to that is now I'm kind of tied to this band and how they sound. So I like it, but it's kind of weird because I don't want to get attached to a single artist or genre."
Those reservations haven't prevented Fennell from furthering his involvement with the group. He has since collaborated on a T-shirt design and a logo for a bass drum head for the band Jomberfox, which features Salge and BMR guitarist Dave Sullivan. In the coming months, Fennell plans to cut back on the collaborative work to focus on a July show at Cleveland's BUCKBUCK gallery, alongside like-minded artists Dima Drjuchin and Oliver Hibert. He also has tentative plans for a T-shirt line entitled Wife Patrol.
For his part, Fennell views the commercial potential for his artwork as a creative advantage rather than a hindrance. "If somebody wears a Homeless Cop T-shirt and it gets seen out somewhere, then it's out there doing its thing," he said. "My art is being seen. Nothing lasts forever, so it makes me happy to know it's out there and people are enjoying it."