Atom Basham

An out artist paints his interior world.
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By Jason A. Heidemann |
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Atom Basham is not a gay artist. By his own assertion, he falls in the category of artists who just happen to be gay. “You’d be surprised how many people are offended by that answer,” he says. “For some reason I’m obligated to draw naked men all the time.” 

Nevertheless, it’s an understandable question. Despite the fact that there’s not a whiff of homoerotica to be found in his playfully nightmarish paintings of monsters in various states of mischief or recline, there’s something about their precocious, impish and lovelorn facial expressions that suggests a queer interpretation. Basham, whose work will be displayed at Parlour starting Saturday 10, admits his paintings reflect his subconscious.

I first encountered Basham, 38, several years ago at his smoke-filled Uptown apartment that looked not unlike the Rogers Park pad he occupies today. Every bit of wall space at his current digs has been taken over either by his own paintings (which are either diminutive or gargantuan and hung cheek by jowl in outlandishly ornate and gaudy frames) or with books, CDs, DVDs and pop-culture tchotchkes.

Basham’s upbringing was turbulent to say the least. Born on Treasure Island, a former naval base connected to San Francisco via the Bay Bridge, he grew up on a farm in rural Wisconsin a mile from any neighbors. “My parents were a little bit crazy so I wasn’t really allowed to go anywhere or talk to anybody, so I was a very imaginary-friend-friendly person,” he says. It’s what led him to drawing. His mother cheated on his stepdad with his biological dad, whom she divorced when Basham was a baby for “crazy-town reasons,” according to Basham. The family was subsequently booted off his stepdad’s farm, and after Basham’s biological dad broke up with his mother she started dating his brother (Basham’s uncle) who lived in Grayslake.

Basham escaped, first to Kenosha where he would hang in ska clubs in Milwaukee on weekends and had his first gay experience. At 28, he decided to move to Chicago. “I literally grabbed $200, packed a few backpacks worth of stuff and jumped on a train to Chicago to be an artist,” he says. He wound up at the then scruffy intersection of Clark and Belmont, and the rest is history.

In 2011, Basham had his first Parlour showing (he has also shown at Oak Park gallery Bright Olive). Nearly half the pieces sold. Basham, who lives around the corner, is a part-time bar back at Parlour. On his days off, he’ll wake up at 10am and paint for stretches that sometimes last 20 hours. His in-home studio is littered with a half dozen works-in-progress including one daunting piece that’s nearly six feet tall. Ideas happen without rhyme or reason. “I finish something and then I just sit and think for a moment, and usually something will pop in my head and I’ll draw it down,” he says. “Once in a while I’ll have things inspired by something else, but I don’t like to work that way if I don’t have to.”

His business sense isn’t the keenest. His paintings are priced cheaply in the hopes that the more he sells, the more name recognition he’ll receive. “If they can give me enough money to pay my rent that month I’m great,” he says. He agrees that his wide-eyed and larger-than-life creations lend themselves to plushy dolls, animation and a line of children’s books and he’ll get to that one day. Until then, he’s content using his art to shake out the loose contents of his brain. “This is how I get everything out of my head,” he says. “I love every piece that I do. I refer to my stuff as my kids.”

Atom Basham Art Opening happens Saturday 10.

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