There's nothing more desolate than a well-frequented bar on a Sunday morning. But on this particular Sunday morning, Henry's Bistro is playing host to artist brothers Kevin and Laird Dixon, both sporting paint-splattered shirts and tousled hair, each holding a cigarette the same way, both in a hyper-aware state caused by long days--and nights--of preparation for their art opening that evening. Their first joint exhibit, as it happens. Their mother, Beverly, the third contributor, has dropped off her paintings and sketches and gone. (Interesting family note: The brothers' grandfather, Francis Dixon, was an American Impressionist of some renown.)
Sleep deprived and bleary, the brothers assemble their sculptures carefully atop the bar tables, ready to be hung. Paintings, sketches and a couple of dioramas lean against the walls. Although all three draw and paint (Kevin's cartoons have appeared in several local publications), the brothers are increasingly caught up in their three-dimensional work. Laird's even designed three complete chess sets: an African set, an ape/primate set and an "old men in stuffed-animal pjs" set.
Their work is truly original--the paintings accomplished and eccentric--and also immediately recognizable. Whether it's at the Cat's Cradle, The Cave, Local 506 or someone's home, you can spot Laird and Kevin's work in a heartbeat. The sculptures and figures, cast in plaster (ultimately, they'll be cast in resin, Laird says), run the gamut from familiar creatures to anthropomorphic oddities sprung from the brothers' fervid imaginations. It's truly like stepping into another world.
Beverly's work--paintings of farm animals and portraits, all glazed, richly textured oil works--can be seen yearly at the N.C. Craft Gallery in Carrboro (her October show sold all 23 of her works). She's also done commissioned portraits of animals and prize-winning livestock--she recently painted Ramses the ram, for example.
Ironically, none of the artists have much--if any--formal training. After their parents' divorce, when the boys were small, the brothers moved with their father to Iowa and California before settling in Springfield, Ohio, rejoining their mother in Chapel Hill after finishing high school.
"I got a suitcase for my 18th birthday," Kevin recalls, adding that the move was the "best thing that ever happened to me."
Beverly had been in the studio art program at UNC-Chapel Hill and hated it, dropping out. Years later, Kevin would similarly try and reject the local academic art scene. After winning awards at the N.C. State Fair, Beverly began showing (and ultimately selling out shows) at the N.C. Art Gallery in Carrboro, where her multi-layered, glazed oils of farm animals and realistic scenes are always a hit.
Kevin and Laird showed talent early. By third or fourth grade, Laird was taking weekly drawing lessons at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where the tot was--on his first day--confronted with not only classmates "three times as tall" as him, but a grown man disrobing in the corner--the model. He adjusted.
Since the boys weren't allowed plastic action figures, says Kevin, they took to making their own, which they then involved in elaborate battles and fantasy games.
"You could ask the parents for a little block of clay, and they were more inclined to get it for you than if you asked for candy or monster movie cards or something," Kevin explains. "So I guess we took advantage of the fact it was 'approved.'
"Each game would have a different theme: Superheroes was an early one, and then the Beakers, the post-apocalyptic little weasel creatures. They looked kind of like little mice or something, and there were the Sewer Beakers, City Beakers and the Trash Beakers; they were different tribes and they would fight.
"You could kind of pose them and give them various different weapons, and poke 'em full of holes and stab 'em. And I remember too, that a stickpin was sort of the ultimate weapon 'cause it could really slice through the clay--it was like the light saber, basically.
"For clay games, there were various sorts of Hobbit ones--there were Orks vs. elves and stuff--and there was a whole spaceship series. I always remember, too, the 'Plague of the Beakers' when we had to move them outside because we were grinding too much clay into the carpet."
"The sun would kind of bake them over the days, and they'd get all crumbly," Laird recalls. "And they had the plague; if you tried to move their arm, it would come off."
"It kind of became part of the game," Kevin adds.
At this point, their father, Kent Dixon, joins in: "There was a fair amount of escaping going on--marriages breaking up, parents leaving--to be Freudian about it."
But warriors and battles were in the boys' genes: "I had a sandbox in my room as a kid, with hills, valleys, train trestles and everything," Kent says. "And I had lead soldiers, and I played with them incessantly until I was about 17."
"Speaking of those lead soldiers, I think that could explain a lot of things," says Kevin, meaningfully.
"Brain damage?" asks Laird, excitedly, and somewhat hopefully.
"Playing with lead soldiers, and then picking your nose and biting your fingernails ..." Kevin says, launching into a tale involving a childhood birthday cake that came complete with a fleet of tiny lead boats.
"Dad used to make great cakes where part of one of your presents would be on the cake, so you'd get some army men, and he'd make this whole diorama of a battle scene from D-Day out of army men, blood frosting ... . It was a good thing that the cake tasted so bad that we ended up just basically playing war in the cake, blowing up chunks of it and smashing it around, because it was inedible. And thank god it was, because it was covered with lead."
Laird: "I remember years later, playing with those same ships, taking pieces of the petrified icing out of them and eating it."
They both agree that Laird's painting style was forever transformed after an accident involving the "Pirates of the Caribbean" paint-by-number sets they received one Christmas.
"I think I probably meticulously did mine by the numbers, and Laird was doing the same thing," Kevin recalls. "Then just as he put the finishing touches on it, he got up in a hurry and put his hand down on the table and put it on the paint-by-numbers thing while it was still wet, and then he kind of slid a little bit and smeared it. We both looked at it and agreed that it looked much better that way. I think that was a decisive moment in Laird's painting development--learning how to blend those colors together and soften the edges and stuff."
Kevin, a huge fan of the Tintin cartoons, spent his high-school days drawing cartoons in class, mostly non-PC fantasies where some of his "creatures" would come to school and blow away the teachers and people he didn't like in "various violent and disgusting ways."
Both brothers had an art teacher straight out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Mr. Wetzell, who did his best to stifle any unruly creativity that might pop up during art class. An assignment for a simple ashtray would become, in Kevin's hands, an ashtray with clay fantasy figures climbing around the edge. But when one of Kevin's creatures was flipping the bird with its clay "finger," he was ordered to remove the offending appendage.
"The plan was to build another finger on there [peace sign-style], make it weak, and then after it was fired break it off--so it'd be 'peace' for a little while, and then it'd be back to flipping you off. So the next day, I go in and Mr. Wetzell's ripped off all of my guys--totally destroyed my sculpture."
In revenge, he not only built the creature back, but this time it had a large knife and it was paired with a likeness of Mr. Wetzell ("a good one," Kevin adds) strapped to a structure. "He'd been disemboweled; clay intestines were hanging out and a clay crow was eating his clay eyeball ... ."
"The punch line is that on top of all that, his middle fingers were cut off," Laird adds.
"And he let that one pass," says Kevin, wonderingly. "I guess you can't flip someone off but you can have extreme gore."
Laird's art class trick was to watch kids struggle with their projects, make an exact replica (he could do it in minutes) and then, when they left their desk for a minute, replace their work with his own. When they'd come back to their seat, he'd walk up and say, "Hey, how's it going?" and smash it. "They were in a state of shock, so then I would quickly bring out the other one. It was never funny to anybody except me," Laird says, shaking his head.
After graduating, Kevin relocated to Chapel Hill in '83 and moved in with Beverly; Laird followed the next year. In 1986, Kevin co-founded the band that came to epitomize the slacker, intellectual soul of Chapel Hill indie rock: Zen Frisbee. Later, Laird joined on guitar. Legends surround the guys-in-bands squalor that characterized the "Zen Frisbee House," but Laird's room was always hung with his puppets, sculptures and art--a mini-gallery of sorts.
"I have wished that they weren't artists, because I think it would be an easier life being something else; it's a really hard road," says Beverly of her sons' lifestyle. But it's hard to imagine either Laird or Kevin doing anything mundane or by the book.
"I created them; they're my art," says Kent with pride.
It's a family saga come full circle. Besides their art, the Dixons are still respected soccer players (Kevin works for Rainbow Soccer). Laird's got myriad musical projects as well. Besides Shark Quest and Trailer Bride, he's sat in on bass for Two Dollar Pistols and appears on albums by The Comas, The Mayflies USA and The Buttons. The Dixons are talented, cheerful eccentrics, their antics both legend and legion, their stories seemingly endless.
"Kevin said the sweetest thing to me once, and I think it's very telling," says Kent. "He said, 'Dad, I know you don't agree with everything we've done, but I gotta tell ya, our childhood couldn't be beat.'"
"I said that?" Kevin asks, wonderingly.
" ... when we were on Ecstasy," Laird interjects.
"Probably when we were playing together in the sandbox," Kevin quips.