VIEW: Glenno Smith Art

In February our beloved brewery cat Blackie was hit by a car. Within a couple of hours we’d received a message from Glenn Smith aka Glenno. Unprompted, he had produced a faithful rendering of Blackie and posted it to Instagram saying, “This is a portrait of Blackie...a much loved cat that always smooched about people down at Young Henrys brewery. I don't know how she died, but it sucks and drawing this cheered me up. I'm lucky I can draw my way to better thoughts.” (Of course we agreed such a thoughtful tribute deserved pride of place on a t-shirt for the staff to remember her by.) 

This is fairly typical behaviour of Glenno. The artist/musician/beer lover has been a part of the Young Henrys family since the very early days. Along with curating numerous exhibitions, he's behind many of the t-shirt designs immortalising some of our most treasured characters  - the gents and ladies of Old Fashioned Love, the Beer Wizard, the Hops Man (and of course Blackie). We chatted, fittingly over ‘The Black Cat’ black rice ale, about art and music, and life and death, about cats with necrotic tails and how drawing is like “accidental yoga”…

Can you tell me a bit about your background?
My background? Ok, well I grew up in the country out at Orange and always knew that I’d come up to Sydney to do art college ‘cause I made that decision when I was 10. And did that for three years and just felt like I didn’t want to do anything but art. And I’ve always just drawn, whether I got paid for it or not, and music as well, I’ve always been in bands. And that’s really my background, just a little guy that used to like to pick up a pen and draw.

And when did the music side of things start - because I feel like they seem very intrinsically linked?
In the country you play sport, and then I started to listen to music and hanging out with the wrong kids, and then I started to smoke cigarettes so that put sport on the back burner. And then as soon as I discovered punk rock, that was it, I knew that anybody could be in a band, so why not me?

So did you start doing band posters…?
Yeah, well most of my favourite artists were guys that worked in bands in Sydney. I started coming up to Sydney every fortnight almost without fail to shop for records, also to take records back to friends. So I was like this conduit between the city and the country. And I used to buy records on the strength of their album covers so I knew that one day that would be the ultimate job. And it is! It’s a really good job, I do a lot of artwork for bands that I love.

You must have seen the scene change quite a bit?
Oh yeah, there’s always going to be great songwriters and music out of Sydney. I’m to the point now where I don’t complain. I’ve got the best band in the world at the moment…

This is Chinese Burns Unit, what are you guys up to these days?
We’re up to our third record, and our third single. And yeah it’s all about to happen really soon. We don’t play a lot but we play to some nice people.

You’ve played some Blackwire shows?
Yeah mainly Blackwire and DIY sort of stuff. I think that’s just the way that Sydney has evolved, I s’pose the word is.

So where will that be now because Blackwire’s closing?
Yeah I don’t know, I’m in the process of negotiating with a Greens member in Leichhardt to see if we can’t get some sort of place with a five year lease. There’s a lot of fear in Sydney, over rent prices…

Yeah I feel like in Sydney you have to work hard….
I’ve never worked so hard in my life…and [am] constantly treading water.

You’ve been working with Young Henrys for a long time. Did that come through the music connection?
It sort of did, you know. One of the first gigs that we did was supporting an awesome band that I used to love as a teenager called Frozen Doberman. And [Oscar’s band] Hell City Glamours was the other support on that bill. And I used Oscar’s amp, which is a lovely thing for anybody to lend another musician their gear, especially because it was such a good bit of equipment, and after that I really thanked him and stuff. Turns out my wife Gina taught Oscar at Newtown High School. Gina’s taught quite a lot of cool people that have become our friends. And then because I like beer I found out about this place [the Young Henrys tasting bar] and came down and realised I knew a lot of people down here. And forward four or five years later, or however long this place has been open for…

Young Henrys Hops Man by Glenno

So I’m guessing you’re more of a cat person than a dog person?
Yeah my family always had cats and, yeah, I love cats they’re great. They bring your blood pressure down and every one is completely different. We just got a new little guy that we rescued from underneath the house of our next door neighbours. His tail fell off the other day, half of his tail fell off.

Yeah, he just had a necrotic tail. We booked him in for surgery and then one morning it looked really bad and took him in to the vet and it just fell off, it was like a lizard.

Does that change his balance and stuff?
I don’t know, he’s actually quite squat, his legs are quite short, so I expect he’s going to be a close to the ground, short stumpy guy anyway. But I love cats. Actually something I’ve found myself doing a lot of in the last three years or so—it’s semi described as ‘petraiture’—is portraiture for pets. One thing’s led to another, I’ve stopped publicising myself because work sort of turns up. I’m very lucky. Friends go, ‘I saw the cat picture you did of blah blah, can you do my cat?’

Do you work off photos?
Definitely. Cats have personalities, they’ve got facial features and quirks. So I actually organised an exhibition down here years ago for the Cat Protection Society and that was really cool. And I’ve done portraits of [brewery cats] Jeff, and Blackie and Patchy.

I saw something where you referred to yourself as an ‘art mercenary’. Where did that term come from?
I think it’s ‘cause I don’t usually say no to jobs. Like I’ll take a job on, even if I’m not completely qualified just so that I can do it. And it’s a bit of a baptism of fire with a lot of art jobs. And because I can draw anything, and I’m handy with most mediums, you know murals whatever, I’ll take it on. And I also think it’s a strange time and a strange place to be doing what I’m doing. Like I know a lot of freelancers that are doing what we’re doing now and they feel a little bit the same. You do have to be a bit mercenary. I’m a very easy going guy and I’ve had to actually not be, and that’s the mercenary part…

You have to hustle a bit…
Yeah you do have to hustle, and you do have to realise that your skills are things that people are gonna pay for, and not everybody has. So I do think I’m a bit of a tradesman in a lot of ways.

There is this air of if you’re doing something creative that money’s not really important, but obviously you’ve got to pay the rent like everybody else.
I agree. I’ll stop describing myself as [an art mercenary] when I get to the point where I don’t have to do any corporate work, I don’t have to do work for bands that I don’t particularly want to do. I’d probably like to do three or four bands a year, instead of 25-30. And I’d also like to just be able to wake up and go ‘I’m just creating today stuff for the exhibition that I’m gonna have at the end of the year’. And I think that’s a bit of a dream that I’m aiming towards.

Beer Wizard by Glenno

Well I guess I was interested as well because you say ‘art mercenary’ but then I feel like from looking around at your work it seems like you are led by your heart a bit as well. There’s a lot of stuff that you do for charity or for causes that are important to you…
Yeah I feel very lucky…yeah full stop. I’m just lucky. And I’m even more lucky to be married to my wife Gina who’s always been my best friend, a muse to my art. And without her I wouldn’t be where I am…

I wanted to ask you - when you posted the illustration of Blackie you said “I’m lucky I can draw my way to better thoughts’
Well drawing’s really good for you. I’ve drawn quite a few people and beasties that have left the planet and it’s a very nice thing to do.

How do you describe that, is it sort of meditative?
Yeah well it’s actually the actual practice. I think people basically are religious, in that we do things sometimes without really understanding what we’re doing. We’re just doing it because it seems right. Or—I shouldn’t be saying this because I’m an atheist—but there are rites of passage that we have lost over the years that allowed us to transition between difficult and unusual times in our life. So that’s one thing that’s good is to sit down and draw.

Do you sort of mean in a grieving way?
Well yeah, it’s a way to grieve. It’s also ritualistic. And I find, on a psychological level, if I don’t draw for awhile I get very strange. It’s like someone that jogs, and it’s probably, they’re chasing an adrenalin or pathways in their brain that put them in a great place. That’s what happens when you draw, your beta waves are all in sync and you breathe really well, it’s like accidental yoga.

I think I feel quite jealous of people who create visual art because it does seem like it’s that—the only thing I can compare it to is—if I get stuck on something that I’m writing, if I go for a walk it’s that freeing up of…
Yeah yeah yeah, the cog’s are always turning. I wake up in the morning and I’m under the shower and I go ‘of course!’

Yeah the shower is the best! Best ideas in the shower.
Yeah a lot of people say the toilet, but not me, it’s under the shower and I go ‘of course, that’s how that song…that’s how those two bits get together.’ Or I’ll be doing a drawing that just isn’t working and some element comes into my head that just makes total sense now. Lyrics as well.

If you get stuck, I think it’s either go for a walk, have a shower or if you’re somewhere that’s not really possible, just go to the toilet.
Or bringing it back to Young Henrys, just have a beer or have a chat.

Describe a typical day for yourself
Wake up, have a shower, feed the cats, sit down, look at my list that I’ve carried on from the day before and just get as much of my list done as I can. And hopefully by the start of the afternoon I can sit down and do some drawing. Because when you’ve got your own business a lot of it is chasing money, sending off emails, making phonecalls…you know buying food, doing your laundry. It’s great being at home but there’s so many distractions. I’ve got a routine and a discipline, that’s my average day. If I’m bored or whatever I’ll pick up my guitar.

Do you listen to something while you work?
Yeah I’m constantly listening to music or watching movies or TV shows

Any current favourites?
Yeah I’m actually watching Westworld at the moment. But yeah I love the TV show thing, that’s a great thing. I actually just love getting on to Youtube and, I write pop songs, so I like power pop collections and somebody would put up 50 songs and just discover three or four amazing new songs that were written when I was born and go ‘geez!’

Yeah the internet, it’s both a distraction and inspiration.
Well without the internet there’d be none of this. It accelerates creativity. For me to do what I’m doing now it’d be: Go to the post office, send away the artwork. Did the artwork turn up? What do you think? Oh we need some changes made. Fuck! Send that back. Now you can get all that done in a day.

Even social media - sometimes I think, I’m just going to get off social media because it’s so time-sucking…
I hate Facebook but I love Instagram.

But you also just see so much stuff!
Yeah it’s great. As an illustrator you want to see what other illustrators are doing, just to keep that fire under your ass. Because each drawing that I do, and I’m very conscious of this, has to be better than the last drawing I did. Or it has to include some new innovation in something that I’m doing. I don’t feel sorry for people that can’t draw because that would be condescending but I feel sorry for artists that have got talent that do the same thing over and over again.

So going back to what you were saying about taking corporate jobs, is there anyone you wouldn’t do work for?
Yeah, oh yeah. There is, and there’s a lot of bands that I’ve had to say nah…

“Too busy”?
No actually I don’t say I’m too busy I just say I don’t like what you’re putting out there. I mean there’s some styles of music that I just hate and I could never be part of. I can’t say I hate hip hop but I don’t understand it and it’s never really resonated with me but I’ve actually done a little bit of work for some hip hop bands. There’s some bands that—I’ve got nothing against political incorrectness but I don’t like hateful for the sake of hateful—and there’s a lot of that in grindcore and hardcore punk and some metal. So there’s been some bands where I’ve just gone ’nah’.

And any dream projects or collaborations?
Oh yeah I’ve just put in a proposal to do artwork for the Darkness which is one of my favourite ever bands, they’re amazing! And a friend of mine is bringing them out and I’ve just thought this is the perfect chance for me to do like a screen printed limited, edition poster. I sent it off yesterday, cross fingers

I do think a lot of the best things come about when you just go ‘I just wanna work with this person’ and you just approach them.
Oh look, you can see the love. If an artist really likes a band and they’ve been approached, like that’s just very very rare. A lot of management types will go ‘who’s cool at the moment’ so they’ll go ‘you’re doing the next Metallica poster’ you know, whoever you are, and it’ll be such a weird match. Sometimes that’s cool. Like I’ve done this a dozen or so times where I’ve just gone ‘hi, I did this, what do you reckon?’

What’s your favourite medium to work in?
Black pen. Just pencil to sketch and then black pen.

Is there a most memorable project?
Actually I’m working on a project now that is pretty amazing. It’s a graphic novel and it’s about 150 pages and it’s my friend Drew who’s one of the most interesting fellows I’ve ever met and a brilliant writer and he told us this story at a barbecue over at my house. And both me and my wife had tears in our eyes and we were just like ‘that’s a beautiful story’. Drew usually writes quite full-on, almost disgusting sort of stories, but this was lovely. And he looked at me, like waiting for a response and I just went, ‘I think you want me to draw this, is this a graphic novel?’ and he went ‘yeah’ and I went ‘ok, done’. So that was five years ago that I’ve started it and I’m only a third of the way through it. Basically because time’s hard to find and also there’s a lot of detail in this comic. That’s probably my favourite thing that I’ve been doing, only cos it’s so hard, ’cause it’s basically I’m making a movie, it’s like a big movie with lines and emotions.

Obviously you don’t want to tell the exact story, but what sort of story is it?
It’s like a loss of innocence sort of story based in the ‘70s in Hong Kong, in Kowloon in the Walled City, the most populated square mile, no rules, there’s no rules there, there’s no police, totally enforced by the triads and it’s this little girl’s story. And it’s amazing, it’s really beautiful. It’s called…no, I won’t even say what it’s called.

So when do you think that you might finish it?
When it’s finished.

What was the first gig you ever went to?
I think it was like an all-ages show in Orange that was put on by some people there, they used to bring up a couple of Sydney bands. And I can’t remember which one it was, for some reason I think it was the Happy Hate Me Nots or Asylum or one of those bands but yeah...I was never taken to shows with mum and dad or anything

And the last gig you went to?
Oh…Descendents at the Enmore Theatre! Yeah it was amazing

And you’ve got an exhibition coming up at M2 Gallery?
Yeah it’s for, it’s called Headset, and it raises money for mental illness, to raise awareness…But yeah, I drew a cat on a bike. It’s actually about exercise is really good for you if you’ve got depression. The guy that’s running it is a mad bike guy and so there’s like this crossover with exercise, cycling, yeah. Hopefully, there’s a lot of good artists in it, hope it goes well.

See Glenno's art on Instagram.
Headset exhibition opens Wed Mar 29, 6-9pm at M2 Gallery
'The Black Cat' black rice ale (limited release) available from the brewery. 

Blackie t-shirts (limited!) available from the brewery.