Why Denver Artist Detour Wants You To Touch His Paintings

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<p>(Corey H. Jones/CPR News)</p>
<p>Denver artist Thomas Evans, aka Detour, stands in front of his portrait of Kendrick Lamar that also plays the rapper&#039;s music at the Art Gallery at the DPAC on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015.</p>

It’s not often that you can walk into a gallery and touch the art. Denver artist Thomas Evans wants to change that.

Evans, aka Detour, paints portraits of musicians. The pieces look like normal paintings. But behind the canvases you’ll find a system of wires, circuit boards, amplifiers and speakers that play music.

Now an exhibition called “Portraits of Frequency” features works by Detour at the Art Gallery at the Denver Performing Arts Center through September 12. He says the goal is to make his art connect with people. And that means letting them touch it.

“I’m not your Bob Ross, I don’t want to be that,” Detour says. “It’s really like taking art to a whole new level.”

For about a year, Detour has been using interactive paint that responds when you touch it. He says it’s brand new technology that he customizes to work with electronics. So it’s up to the viewer to trigger the sounds by pressing the surface. Detour is working to patent the technology, but he's also still working out the kinks.

“Every day is an experimentation day for me,” he says.

Detour has no formal art training and he started pursuing art professionally just last year. His dad served in the military, which meant his family moved around a lot when Detour was a kid. So he connected with others by sharing his doodles.

“Pretty much everywhere I had to move, I had to make friends,” the artist says. “And art was like that common denominator between anyone of different backgrounds.”

His drawings led him to airbrushing, which led to painting with oils and acrylics. Detour went to business school, but he kept coming back to art. He loves breakdancing and music, so he painted his favorite musicians to practice his craft.

Now he creates portraits of jazz, soul and hip hop icons -- from Nina Simone to Tupac -- full-time.

“Most of the people I paint are big influences in my life,” he says.

Sound Paintings For Denver's Hip Hop Community

Photo: DJ A-L performs on painting by Detour
Denver musician Aaron Ladley, aka DJ A-L, performs on a portrait of him painted by Detour during Westword Artopia on Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015.

Detour collaborates with Denver musicians and producers too. He paints portraits of them, and they make original music to pair with the pieces. Some, like Aaron Ladley, actually perform on the canvas, which is hooked up to a computer.

Ladley, aka DJ A-L, taps different touch points on the painting to play it like a midi controller. The nodes trigger 12 different notes and beats, turning it into an instrument.

Detour’s sound paintings appeal to the hip hop community because rappers and DJs have always made music with whatever is around them, DJ A-L says.

“When I was growing up, you could bang on a lunchroom table and spit a rhyme and you’re creating music,” he says. “So (it’s) very similar in that vein of taking whatever’s at our fingertips and making music from it.”

Detour says he wants to further blur the boundaries between art, entertainment and technology. And he imagines that one day people will perform on his paintings at concerts and music festivals.

“And then take it off the stage afterwards and put it back in a museum,” Detour says.

Detour will participate in an artist talk at the Art Gallery at the DPAC on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015.