The Art Behind the Artists: A Conversation with Reina Salt
For decades, music fans have enjoyed not only the sounds of their favorite bands, but the album art, event posters, and t-shirts associated with those bands. This article looks at a current artist involved in creating “the art behind the artists.” She is Reina Salt, a Seattle area resident whose multi-faceted skills and interests influence her art. In addition to being an artist, she is a wife and mother, author, and passionate gardener, with an interest in growing her own fruits and vegetables from heirloom seeds.
Most recently, she has worked with Gangstagrass, a group that fuses bluegrass with rap. Salt created artwork for their new single, “Freedom,” from their album Nickel & Dime Blues, released on August 14. She has worked for years creating art for Too Many Zooz. Both of the bands mentioned are based in New York City and have developed a loyal fan base in Upstate New York.
Brian Cornish interviewed Salt about her art, writing, gardening, family, and more.
Brian Cornish: Did you have any formal art instruction, in school or with private instructors? Was it a typical progression of drawing, to painting, and then taking the leap to convert to digital creation, or did you dabble in a lot of different areas, and just do more of each over time?
Salt: I’ve been making art in any medium I could get my hands on since I was a little kid. I grew up in a situation where I had a whole lot of nothin’, so I didn’t have good materials to use, I had whatever was at hand: usually ballpoint pens, scraps of paper, anything. I got in trouble more than once for using up any paper I could lay hands on. Academically, I struggled a lot in school, but in art classes, I really flourished. I was hungry for it. I never got formal training or higher education; I’m mostly self-taught, but as much as I know now, there’s still a mountain of creativity out there to learn, and I’m still hungry for all of it. I think that I always will be.
The path from drawing and painting to digital art for me was, as everything else in my life, an unusual journey. I’d given up painting for nearly a decade during the Great Recession, a period in my life where I was a single mother juggling side hustles to get by and living with extended family, then meeting my future husband, moving to England for years, and coming back to America, and I was asked by my sister to make her husband a painting for Christmas. It was a copy of a painting of a Sasquatch with these really fun, cheesy lightning bolts around its body. I’d forgotten how much it had meant to me to make art, and I wanted so much more. I began my Horror Americana monster paintings series, sold some of those, and through word-of-mouth, I was put in touch with Steve Hutton, a music industry veteran, and driven, hardworking, creative genius in his own right. He needed digital admats (advertising materials) for one of the bands he represented, Too Many Zooz. At the time, I just had GIMP for windows, that I’d used for 20 years. But Steve pushed me creatively, and really challenged me, and over time, I got the better gear: a Wacom tablet and Photoshop, and I haven’t looked back.
Too Many Zooz, I’ve been so grateful for their continued partnership, with their incredible energy, especially when you see them live, which makes music in the time of COVID-19 especially unfair. Until the pandemic hit, those guys were touring almost non-stop, all over the world. They are a juggernaut when it comes to working hard and getting crowds on their feet! And it was a real trip to see people tagging my artwork on posters on display in places like Berlin, or wearing merch I designed in Italy.
Brian: What are your earliest and/or most lasting/influential musical memories? And where did they come from? Radio, word-of-mouth from friends, digging through books and magazines?
Salt: My family had a record player and a modest, but good collection of vinyl, which I really loved listening to. The first vinyl record that I bought myself, I think I was around 8 or 9, and I found The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Axis: Bold As Love, and bought it with some birthday money. What an absolutely gorgeous album that is! We had stuff like David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Iggy Pop, Siouxsie & the Banshees and Debbie Harry in our vinyl collection, and cassette tapes of things like Talking Heads, U2, Billie Holiday, and Fats Waller. That Fats Waller tape, I think I wore out listening to; I was obsessed with it. We also used to check out stuff from the library, which is where I first heard the Library of Congress field recordings of Alan Lomax, “No Thanks! The 70’s Punk Rebellion” compilation album that came out in the early 2000’s, and so much more. The first CDs I bought for myself were The Dead Milkmen’s Beelzebubba, and Toadies’ Rubberneck.
I was raised in the boonies in the Pacific Northwest, and we only got reception to a few radio stations whose signal could somehow trickle through the thick woods and hills. A rock station from Seattle, and an oldies station called KBSG that played some honestly GREAT artists you just can’t find getting played anymore these days, and as a result I’ve got an impressive mental library of early R&B, rock, soul, and blues. I got so nostalgic for that radio station that I made myself a Spotify playlist of some of the songs I remember them playing, and I think it’s over 900 songs now. If there’s a good song, I wanna hear it.
Brian: Where, when, how did you make connections that enabled you to do the artwork for bands and musical events? It really reminds me of the days of album art. Are there artists that have influenced your work? How has technology made your work easier, or harder? It seems you can create pieces, and have them in a sort of digital inventory, and then combine them as needed or in whimsical ways. Do some artists give you free rein, or are they sometimes very specific, requiring multiple re-do’s?
Salt: I’m lucky enough to have some fierce, fair, encouraging supporters at my back, like my sister, Rakhel, and her husband, Griff Morris. Griff is a high-energy, no-bullshit music industry veteran of the Grammys, Amazon Music, a few labels, and now he’s managing some great artists with Crush Music. The dude is covered in tattoos and like 6’7″ or so, and he does not give false flattery. If he likes your work, he likes it; if he doesn’t, he doesn’t. He and Rakhel really liked my Horror Americana monster series of paintings, and he’d show people he was networking with some of my stuff sometimes, and that’s how I picked up some client work initially. Word-of-mouth.
I’ve got a lot of influences that seep into my digital work, like Mike Hinge, the great science fiction artist, Ken Taylor of course, he’s a legendary music poster artist & illustrator. Victo Ngai is another badass illustrator; I hope to one day achieve the kind of work she puts out into the world, because it’s all flawless.
Technology has actually made things a lot easier than painting, that’s for sure. No waiting for layers to dry, no happy accidents or weird smears to contend with, because I can just work with multiple Photoshop layers and edit them at will. I definitely like to keep drawings of things like animals or objects, with a transparent background, so that I can work them into pieces at will. It saves me a lot of time, and after a few years of doing this, I have a decent collection of “artifacts” as I call them, with which to use for my client work.
Most clients have some basic idea of what they want, and I give them a draft, then they give me feedback, I make more edits, and we work together on it. Steve Hutton, who I mentioned before, is probably my favorite client to work with, because we’ve done a bunch of stuff together and we kind of mind-meld creatively on projects. He missed a calling as a creative art director, because he’ll come up with some truly fun, outside-of-the-box ideas, and so he’s constantly challenging me, keeping me on my toes, and pushing me further in my skill sets. The harder he works me, the better I get.
Brian: How and when did you meet your husband, and what did you find so different when you went to England? Was that 2012, or did I lose track? And when did you return? Did your art change at all through your time in England, or was it largely on hold, with a new child?
Salt: I met my husband Patrick online, oh around 2008. I wasn’t looking for love or signed up on some dating website kinda deal, in fact, I was notorious for busting chops and not taking any shit from misogynistic dudes online. Patrick wasn’t scared of me and struck up a conversation about Twin Peaks with me, one of my many obsessions, and the rest is history. I went from being a single mother to my son and I spending summers in England, to moving to England and getting married in 2012.
Living in England was a cool experience. Not without its downsides for sure, but I’m of the “any experience I can walk away from with all my limbs is an adventure” type of mindset. Aside from the occasional doodle, my art was on hold for that time, but I had this character in my mind, and a story, and I ended up writing two horror stories. I had to excise it from my head like a boil or something; it wouldn’t let me go until I did. I’m not sure I would ever write again, because it was an excruciating mental act to pull off, but I have no regrets that I did it. Sometimes, art just has to come out of you, so you do it.
My husband and I had our daughter in 2014, and the birth was traumatic. I lost a lot of blood, and came close to dying. It kind of crystallized my mind, though, and made me see things in a different, sharper light. We came back to America in 2016, and it wasn’t long after that when I started painting again.
Brian: Talk a bit about your paintings and books. Horror, horror characters, and mythological monsters are recurrent themes.
Salt: I’ve been a massive horror fan since I was a kid. I was the quiet, morbid child who liked monsters, and honestly not much has changed! My favorite horror movie monster was Freddy Krueger. I’ve also had a lifelong passion for folklore and mythology, which helped inform much of the actual lore that appears in the books I wrote, Graveyard Blues, and Mojo Hand Blues. It’s got everything from black cat bones (mentioned in blues songs, as well as the work of Zora Neale Hurston), to Baba Yaga (the Russian witch), to Chilean & Aztec creatures, to an Appalachian boogeyman called a “Hide-Behind.” They say to write what you know, and I know about monsters.
Brian: Also, your interest in growing unique varieties of fruits and vegetables is certainly important to you. How does living in the Pacific Northwest impact decisions in those matters?
Salt: I think that my intense interest in learning how to grow my own food, heirloom fruit and vegetables, and gardening stems from a childhood of poverty, and frequent hunger. When you come from a bleak past, it can give you a lifetime of hunger for everything that the world has to offer. When you know what it’s like to have nothing to eat, there’s nothing in this world better than a really good apple. I have a lot of gratitude and wonder. Did you know that there are tomatoes that turn purple as they ripen under the sun? Have you ever grown green corn? There’s so much more out there than what you can see at a grocery store.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, summers meant foraging for berries. The warmth and sweetness of ripe blackberries picked at roadsides; the tart pink sweetness of huckleberries crowning a bush that can only be found growing out of tree stumps; the subtle sweetness and orange clusters of salmonberries. I carry the memory of their taste and scent with me, inside my heart.
You can see more of Salt’s work, purchase books, art, and merch, and contact her through her website.