Art in real time

RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW: After selling art on tour with bands such as Phish, Blais Bellenoit parlayed a love of music and making (and the creative crowds that both draw) into a career as a live painter. Pictured, Bellenoit at work at One World West. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Local painter Blais Bellenoit of Belle Noir Arts has something akin to a creative pedigree. His mother was a professional illustrator (one of her works appeared in Stephen King’s The Talisman); his grandmother offered paper and pens instead of toys during visits; he attended the Rochester Institute of Technology for illustration. But Bellenoit’s own journey took direction not from that inherited or academic path, but from some interesting side trips.

These days, Bellenoit can be found live painting on Tuesday nights at One World West, a form of in-the-moment artwork that’s become part of his signature. In fact, he was a featured live painter at Pigeons Playing Ping Pong’s New Year’s Eve show at the Arena.

“Art and music have always gone together on all kinds of levels,” he says. “You have album covers, you have logos. … Live painting has become popular at local events here in Asheville and in other cities around the country and also really, really big in the festival scene.”

He continues, “I enjoy being around people when I’m making work. Being an artist [can be] a solitary experience: You spend a lot of time in a room, completely by yourself. When I discovered live painting, it was a great way to combine what I already enjoyed — the festival scene and live music — with my art. It’s a practical way for sharing my art with other people and for enjoying my process a little more.”

Band tours (such as those extended jaunts of The Grateful Dead) and music festivals provide an environment for visual artists to express themselves, Bellenoit explains. He sold thousands of prints on Phish tour: “It was a gig, it was a part-time job, and I shared a lot of artwork with a big community.”

But live painting didn’t make its way into his repertoire until 2013 at the Gratifly Music and Arts Festival. “I had a friend drop me off,” says Bellenoit, who used to have a studio at the Phil Mechanic building and was without a car for most of a decade. “The first day I walked onto the concert field, there had to be 25 or 30 painters there. It was a real substantial element of the festival. … People watched us paint all weekend and I did a piece start to finish. I must have painted three 15-hour days right in a row.”

As he’s continued on that path, he says, “Live painting has influenced the work a bit, because if you’re going to do a live painting, it’s nice to start and finish something in the time that you have. … I’ve definitely [sped up] my process and made my process more visually appealing in a short period of time.”

Just because Bellenoit found his niche doesn’t mean he’s strictly stuck to it. “I have to change my approach pretty regularly,” he says. “Sometimes it’s very natural — I don’t think about it at all — and sometimes it’s [out of] needing to do something different.” His nebula-inspired collection of spacey, galactic paintings, which he’s known for, evolved from an intentional shift in direction.

Bellenoit’s more recent black-and-white series came by way of a fluke: He was covering a canvas in black gesso and ran out of the background material. Necessity led to innovation: “The combination of the texture of the raw canvas, the friction of the brush I was using and the paint [created] this really neat, charcoal, pastel-y, smoky effect that was accidental.” He’s gone on to create more than 20 pieces in that style, including an ethereal and crowd-pleasing jellyfish that looks to be as much of the air as of the sea.

Having lived in Asheville on and off for nearly two decades, Bellenoit admits the local art scene is densely populated. “It’s a small city and it’s completely chock-full of art and artists trying to survive.” He doesn’t depend only on Asheville for his livelihood: “Fortunately, there’s the internet, and I do travel outside the city. … I’ve built a customer base that goes coast to coast.” But he estimates his Western North Carolina buyers to be 90% local rather than tourists.

“It’s difficult to make the art and sell the art simultaneously,” Bellenoit notes. “Artists are doing 40-hour-a-week labor jobs [to support themselves] and aren’t able to share their art.” For him, live painting as a practice centers his work within musical inspiration, fans and a creative community. And it pairs well with social media, allowing him to post works in progress and recently finished pieces for admirers — many of whom witnessed the process in action — and furthering the interconnectedness of art and music.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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