- 'RADIUS': A detail of Shea Hembrey's work made of wheat straw, foam, wood and plastic.
Several years ago, comedian Dave Chappelle came to Little Rock on an impromptu tour after he'd been on hiatus for seven years. The crowd called the Hogs. Chappelle was baffled. "Ladies and gentleman, I've done a million shows in my life. I've never heard a crowd make that noise before," he said. Later, he wondered aloud about famous Arkansans. Someone from the crowd suggested Joe Johnson. Chappelle was baffled again. He said that was a made-up famous person. A bunch of people in the crowd hollered out exasperatedly: C'mon, it's Joe Johnson.
But like most of the famous Arkansans who are not Bill Clinton, Billy Bob Thornton or Mary Steenburgen, Joe Johnson is not actually that famous in the broader world. He's famous only in the world of basketball fans, where he's known as a solid small forward who, at one time, was said to be overpaid to such a degree that some commentators called his contract the worst in sports.
Do people in other states chart the relative fame of native sons and daughters as dedicatedly as we do in Arkansas? Probably not, based on our experience discussing minor celebrities with people who are not from Arkansas, whose eyes typically get squinty or go dull as we talk and who usually try to change the subject quickly. So this isn't for them. For those invested in Arkansas pride arcana, here are a few expats who are doing notable work outside our state:
The former Little Rocker has long had a small but devoted following for his music. He was a vocalist and guitarist in Shake Ray Turbine, a late and lamented post-hardcore band that was popular in the late '90s, in the last days of the Towncraft era. He went on to lead Blood Feathers, a vintage-sounding rock band based in Philadelphia, before moving several years back to a 5,500-acre cotton and corn farm in Caddo Parish, La., where he recorded a delightful solo album, "Sexy Birds & Salt Water Classics," which was released last year. His longtime friend Ethan Hawke directed two videos of songs on that album, and this year directed Dickey in the lead role in "Blaze," a feature film adaptation of a memoir by Sybil Rosen about her life with cult country songwriter Blaze Foley, a Malvern native who spent much of his rambling life in Texas. Alia Shawkat, Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn, Richard Linklater and Kris Kristofferson co-star. No word yet when the film will be released. LM
Musicophilia's mix maker
Even though the days of the Recording Industry Association of America aggressively prosecuting grandmas and teenagers for illegally downloading or sharing music seem to be in the past, we're still going to preserve the anonymity of this brilliant creator of music mixes, because, technically, he's putting music out in the world without permission from its creators. The Little Rock native is most well known for his 10-disc box set of CDs of post-punk music recorded in 1981. It became massively coveted in the mid-aughts, with music journalists like Simon Reynolds singing its praises. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, a digital version of that collection is preserved on the mix maker's website, musicophilia.wordpress.com, along with dozens of other compilations he's created over the years. Especially recommended: the four-volume "Young Lady's Post-Punk Handbook." LM
You won't find as many IMDb credits for Bentonville High School alumnus Heidi-Marie Ferren as, say, the ridiculously accomplished Hendrix grad Ashlie Atkinson, but Ferren has saluted her way around the world as the 2009 Miss USO, appeared on ABC's "American Housewife," and carved out a spot for herself in Los Angeles theater companies, most recently as the lead in The Actors Company's production of Matthew Sprosky's "bloodbath" allegory, "Malicious Bunny." She's also starred in a number of big-budget Shakespeare productions, notably, as Helena/Puck/Flute in PBS' broadcast of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." She's probably stopped more often on the street, though, by cultish fans of a noir comedy called "Bored to Death," directed by graphic novelist, essayist and amateur boxer Jonathan Ames and starring Ted Danson, Zach Galifianakis and Jason Schwartzman (who, confusingly, plays a character named Jonathan Ames, while Ames guest stars as "Irwin"). In a second-season episode called "Super Ray is Mortal!" the egomaniacal George Christopher (Danson) becomes obsessively preoccupied with meeting the woman in the legendary superhero costume at a comic convention. That woman is Ferren. Oh, and she sings big-band and honky-tonk music on the side. Check her out at heidimarieferren.net. SS
Shea Hembrey, 43, born in Hickory Grove (Newton County), hit the big time in 2011 with his publication "Seek: 100 in 2011 — The Inaugural Biennial," a catalog of work by unknown artists from around the world. The catalog noted such performance art pieces as "Dig Jig," in which the artist created a new Tennessee tradition to dance joyfully on one's grave, and recorded another artist's efforts to paste all the leaves back on a tree one autumn. The catalog included paintings and drawings and art made of lichen. One ink and chalk drawing, by a former prostitute, was of a man's buttocks. Another was a strip of frozen grass made by an artist blowing on her yard on a cold night to create weather on her body's scale.
The 100 artists were unknown because they, and their work, derived from Hembrey's imagination. The book was itself performance art and people were so taken with it that he was invited to give a TED Talk about it. He was later featured in a long article in The New York Times, where he was described as "a gentle presence" who "tells looping stories involving things like tornadoes, all-terrain vehicles and wandering armadillos" (exotica to the NYT writer).
The artwork photographed for "Seek" was both funny — one of the criteria Hembrey applied to the work was that it had to be understood by his grandmother in five minutes — and skillful. His trompe l'oeil paintings of strings and sticks are technically amazing. His own description of himself is as "hick" artist and trickster.
Since his rise to fame, Hembrey has returned to the South from his home in New Jersey to give a talk at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, create a mixed-media installation "The Secret Ingredient" for the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford, Miss., and, most recently, to show work made of feathers and corn husks inspired by natural forms at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. LNP
Kenneth Culver Johnson
While you may not know the name, if you grew up in the '70s and '80s, you surely know the work. Might I direct you to a little series called "The Incredible Hulk," starring Bill Bixby and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno as Bixby's big green id? Johnson, a Pine Bluff native, created that show, which ran from 1977 to 1982, along with yet another 1970s example of must-see TV, "The Bionic Woman." He also wrote and directed the 1984-85 sci-fi series "V," in which reptilian, rat-eating aliens take over the planet, and 1997's "Steel," starring basketball star and noted Giganto-American Shaquille O'Neal as some kind of cyborg robot ... or something. Don't hold that last one against him, though. The man is a sci-fi legend! Now walk away slowly, thumbing a ride while sad piano music plays. DK