Grosswiler joins friend and Baltimore-based artist Tom Hamrick for an online exhibition celebrating Prince

Kent Grosswiler has known fellow artist Tom Hamrick since the early 1990s, which means that Hamrick, who’s lived in Baltimore for the past two decades, has witnessed Grosswiler at some admitted low points.

“He has seen me at my absolute worst,” Grosswiler said recently shirtless by phone. “So there was a stretch after I got clean where he was really grateful and supportive, basically because I didn’t die. And, he and I have never talked about this, but there was a time, and there’s a little humor to it, where I started to say, ‘Well, I need to start doing a little better than not having died to make my friend be proud of me.’”

For Grosswiler, part of this meant rededicating himself to art, which he gravitated toward as a child but moved away from at age 14 as he entered into what he referred to as “my light descent into alcoholism.” “I didn’t start getting serious about art until I was 40,” he said. “I think it was just something that was percolating [inside of me].”

As a kid, Grosswiler’s drawings existed in a surrealist realm shaped by late night Sunday TV screenings, where movies like “I, Claudius” were followed by more comedic fare. “You'd have a bunch of Roman dudes stabbing other Roman dudes, all in white togas, and it’s all bloody,” he said. “And that ends and then Monty Python comes on and it’s all fart noises and boobs and hilarious stuff that doesn’t quite make sense.”

These descriptions hold similarly true for many of Grosswiler’s profanely wonderful Photoshop creations, which can incorporate cleverly disguised anuses, “marg” hats, dental grills and a rotating cast of characters who have been known, in the past, to terrorize select neighborhood Facebook forums. 

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The art the self-taught Grosswiler explores in a more professional setting can take a similarly twisted direction, such as a forthcoming exhibition with fellow artist Frank Lawson that features anthropomorphic superhero animals in space, a concept that could have sprung from the mind of “an unruly 7-year-old jacked up on Skittles and Mountain Dew,” which is how Grosswiler described his time management skills.

In more recent years, though, Grosswiler has become best known for his portrait work, which focuses on icons both local (Camu Tao) and universal, such as Prince, who is the subject of a new duo show from Grosswiler and Hamrick. Originally scheduled to take place this month at Glean, the show will now unfold online in a thread via Grosswiler’s Facebook page. The virtual exhibit takes place today (Tuesday, April 21), which also happens to be the fourth anniversary of the music legend’s death. Rather than mournful, though, Grosswiler intends the affair to be celebratory, with he and Hamrick sharing images of the portraits they originally painted for the Glean show. Grosswiler said he also intends to ask Alive columnist Scott Woods to record a reading from his collection of Prince essays, Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods, in addition to inviting visitors to the page to share their recollections of the musician.

“There was so much music in the household I grew up in. … My mom told me that even before I could speak, I would crawl up to the speakers when music was playing on the stereo and bob my head,” Grosswiler said. “The first Prince record I remember hearing was Controversy, and it was so wild and different, and Prince and his band looked so wild and different. … I have lots of the cliche stories, like I lost my virginity to ‘Erotic City.’ Prince and I go back.”

For years, Grosswiler, 50, resisted the calls his friends made for him to pursue art, and he said a lot of the good things that have happened to him in recent years are “despite me; I was in the way of it all.” A breakthrough arrived when artist Charles Wince, whose work Grosswiler had admired since he was a teenager, gifted him a wood cutout in the shape of a monkey wearing a bellhop hat, which Grosswiler subsequently painted and shared to Facebook. “And somebody bought it,” he said.

From there, Grosswiler started cutting out his own wooden silhouettes and transforming them into lovingly detailed portraits of eclectic figures from pop culture, including AC/DC guitarist Angus Young, Tex Perkins from the Beasts of Bourbon and actor Charles Nelson Reilly, among others. In 2013, Grosswiler even painted a self-portrait that he described as “terrifying,” which caused an ex-girlfriend to crack that the artist had nailed the rendering. She then took her index finger and circled it around her chest, as if to suggest the artist had captured what he looked like on the inside. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know how I feel about that,’” Grosswiler said, and laughed.

“I’m super lucky I fell ass-backwards into something that people seem to love, and seems to resonate with them,” Grosswiler said. “And, as far as the execution [of the portraits], I’ve got systems with which I paint them, and what I paint first, and how I build the face. It’s kind of OCD, yet at the same time it allows me to shut my mind off, which is therapeutic and restful, especially for someone who used to need a lot of narcotics in order to relax.”