Today my friend Derek Nehrbass came over to the house so we could make prints of one of his drawings. We were both contributing artists in a group show at a local bar/gallery recently, and one of his drawings, which he calls “BP Lovecraft” drew so much attention that he had to start promising everyone they’d have a chance to own a copy. It’s an ink drawing of an oil platform seen at a distance and from a cross section of the sea, with it’s submerged drilling apparatus extending into the depths and either emerging from or giving birth to a gargantuan, tentacled beast that has a body only Jules Verne could love and the soul of the dark writer from which he derives his name.
Derek and I are both co-workers at this aforementioned local bar, but my first encounter with him, years ago, was as one of the whiskey regulars who would have a couple of beers, a couple of shots and a couple of good stories to tell. And Derek would always pass time sketching with a pen on bar napkins, and leave one or two behind as a token. It seemed to me kind of like his way of tagging, only way less aggravating and unsightly and way more like something we wanted to post on the wall over the bar. Over time Derek and I became friends and he became employed at the bar. Many of those napkins, tacked onto the wall over my desk at home, made their way into one of his art pieces, along with contributions from bartenders all over town.
Though I’ve always been aware of his talent and his various interests, I didn’t know too much about Derek’s artistic pedigree and the thing that got him interested in doing what he does. We were able to chat while futzing with scanner and printer today, and I got to pick his brain a little.
SS How do you call yourself?
DN What do I consider myself?
SS When someone says, ‘what kind of art do you do?’, what do you say? I’ve never known what to call that. A draw-er?
DN Well, draughtsman, I guess, would be the correct term.
SS I’m an idiot.
DN I always tell people that—even though I haven’t done a lot of it lately—I consider myself a printmaker, primarily. That’s the craft that I was trained in. But yeah, draughtsmanship. As much as I’ve liked painterly traditions, I’ve always been drawn to the line, more than anything. I grew up in a really artistic family—my father’s a painter, my great-grandfather and my great-uncle were both architects and graphic artists—so I grew up around a lot of artwork, art books. There’s something about the quality of line in everything from Rembrandt‘s etchings to…I don’t know if you know Heinrich Kley, he’s a German cartoonist, mid-century…
SS Reference Ralph Steadman for me?
DN He’s most famous for doing the artwork in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas…
SS Oh, right. I knew it was familiar.
DN But his graphic work is just…absolutely phenomenal, his handling of line. It’s one thing to do something like Rembrandt or Albrecht Dürer, where you’re very meticulous and your line work is just perfect. Then you get up to guys like Kley or Steadman, where five or six strokes of the pen and you’ve got a face sitting on the paper. To me, that’s the most impressive thing. That’s what I’ve tried to develop over the years.
SS What is that, exactly?
DN That quickness, that relaxed drawing from the elbow instead of from the wrist.
SS I think you used the word trained. Did you study somewhere?
DN I grew up in Lafayette and I began studying printmaking at what was then USL [University of Southwestern Louisiana] and became UL-Lafayette, which has a great program. Actually, the reason I became a printmaker in the first place, when I was in high school we took a field trip to the Ooh La La [UL-L] print shop, and I walked in and I saw all these prints all over the wall by Tom Secrest, who was the professor of printmaking at USL for the longest time. He’s still one of my favorite living artists. He taught my father, actually. So I walk in and there’s all these beautiful prints, etchings primarily, woodcuts. And there’s all this heavy machinery, it looks like an archaic medieval torture dungeon, the whole place smells of linseed oils and ink and chemicals and I was like, this is what I want. If I can use these things to make images that look like this, than this is the route I need to go.
SS So, is that field, or craft, still reliant on the old technology? Or has that also been brought into a new age, where they don’t do it that way anymore.
DN It’s definitely an evolving medium—in the Green age, they’re finding non-toxic methods, where you’re using physical methods instead of chemical methods. However, everybody I know that’s doing classical etching, they’re still using Dutch mordant, the same stuff Rembrandt and Dürer were using to make their etchings. They say you just can’t get the quality of line with anything else. I was trained with a substance called Ferric chloride, which reacts to copper. It’s an acid, but really it’s more of a corrosive salt, and you have to be more careful with it, because it’s a slower etch. But it’s the same, you just can’t get the same quality as Dutch mordant, but with those old methods, you’re talking about wearing a mask and big rubber gloves, and you have to be in a very well ventilated area.
SS Back in the old days, how many people did that kill?
DN I’d love to see the statistics. If you were an assistant under Dürer, you were going to get pretty sick pretty fast. That’s one of the reasons why all those guys had so many assistants. But they’re doing so many green methods now, and alternative ones. Just because it’s not the classic method doesn’t mean it’s not going to work. One of the things I really like about printmaking, especially etching, is that you’re talking about how to get a mark on a piece of copper. Whether it’s chemically or physically, whether you’re engraving it, even adhering things to the plate. I’ve experimented with spray paint and chemical suspensions and all kinds of stuff. It’s really one of those things where the sky’s the limit.
SS How much of that traditional printmaking are you actually doing, in terms of your time, as opposed to just sort of the sketches and drawing that you do, whether for an exhibition or just what you make on a bar napkin?
DN The problem with printmaking or etching—you can make woodcuts or relief prints in your living room—whereas with etching you need a chemical bath, you need a press, you need drying racks. I don’t have a studio set up right now. I’ve had offers from some guys at UNO, where I graduated from, to go back and make some prints. I’m in a process of working on a series, and trying to translate some of these images to copper. But it’s expensive and meticulous and requires an assistant. Right now everything lives on my sketch pad. In fact, this piece I brought today, this BP Lovecraft, that’s a study for a larger piece I’m working on.
SS You said your dad does this? He’s a printmaker?
DN He’s a painter primarily, and a graphic artist. He comes from a school—David Alpha, Elemore Morgan, Jr., Fred Daspit—I call them the Cajun Impressionists. You have all these guys that are really enamored of the Louisiana landscape and want nothing more than to draw these colors out and these shapes out…. Lately, he’s been working on a series of collages, which he just showed in Lafayette. He chooses a particular native or migratory water fowl and intersperses them with images of the landscape and repeated images of pin-up models.
DN So there’s all these girls in thigh-highs and mallards or wood ducks and these kind of rice mills. It’s a really odd juxtaposition but they’re really interesting.
SS Does he make a living doing that?
DN No, he tried for a long time to make a living as an artist, and he did quite well in Seattle, actually, but he moved back down to marry my mother, and a little bit before they had me, he went into the oil field. He was in the oil field up to about a year and a half ago, when he retired. So now having returned from the oil field, he’s returned to his craft.
SS Sometimes I wish I’d just gone into the oil field, or the metaphorical one, and just made some fucking money so I could retire now.
DN Exactly. You know, that’s one of the things that I dislike about bartending. Even on my days off, I’m so exhausted from working these long hours and these late shifts, that it’s rare that I just have time to spend in my sketchpad or on my drafting table.
SS I hear that. [We’ve given up on making prints for the moment, because my large-format printer is being stupid] I want to talk a little about when I first became aware of your work, when you were doing a lot of the bar napkin drawings and you turned it into a thing, which was the show that I went to.
DN Oh yeah, the Canary Collective. I’d had the idea because I had so many friends that told me that over the years they had collected them. They’re like, ‘oh yeah, I have 3 or 4 original Derek’s on my refrigerator or in my office’ or whatever.
SS (laughing) Yep.
DN So I borrowed some back for the show, and I built a small bar, put a lip on it and stained it, and put all these things under plexiglass, very haphazardly, because I wanted it to look like I end up after a night of drinking.
SS It was awesome. And so…talk a little about that ethic. I mean, that’s kind of the other end of the spectrum from the classic quality of the etchings. I’m trying to liken it to photography, and I guess…there’s the darkroom print. And then there’s the iPhone snap. And not just the process, but the subject matter.
DN A lot of the subject matter in my napkins is bar culture, you know? It’s an interesting way to capture people in a different way. People, you know, especially down here, people like to talk with their hands, so gesticulating and facial expressions and there’s just a cornucopia of raw information in front of you and it lends itself well to these dialogues—I grew up on comic books—so it lends itself well to that. And then, a lot of it is just practice, you know, it’s just lifting weights. Being able to scribble a hand in half a second and have it be convincing on the page, and making it look effortless. I had a painting professor one time who told me he always enjoyed going to see retrospectives of different artists that he liked because he liked looking through their sketch pads. Because you know a painting on the wall, or a finished print on the wall, you’re looking at something that took a lot of time and standing back from and working and reworking until you have a finished piece. Whereas if you’re looking through someone’s sketch pad, you’re really just looking at them daydreaming….You get these things that are very raw and very immediate. Also, I mean, living in New Orleans, we live in such a bar heavy culture, it’s a way for you to still keep that creative part of your mind flowing, even though you’re just sitting there having a drink and staring at all the pretty girls.
DN And, they make great tips. (laughing)
SS That’s true. Let me ask you, if you can answer it, what is it that you would like to be doing? I mean, to distill it down, what is it that brings you the most joy?
DN I’ve known quite a few graphic artists who love going to visiting artists at universities and you’ve got all these students around that are eager to learn….Being able to have the freedom [of teaching and working with printmaking students in a lab]. Of course, I’d love to have my own small home studio as well. But, I mean really, I’m happiest spending my hours just putting marks to paper.