Every time I see Charlie Hewitt, which tends to be about every month or so, he is deep into some new project.
First it was particolored urban sculptures. Then it was working to make a film about the Ali-Liston fight in 1965 and to get a sculpture of Mohammad Ali erected in downtown Lewiston. More recently it’s been his ubiquitous neon Hopeful signs (“Hopeful light in dark times,” March 16, 2022).
And now Hewitt has taken the plunge into non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, the crypto-art currency of the moment.
A few weeks back I paid Hewitt a visit at his new Electric Greenhouse out in Portland’s Deering neighborhood. The Electric Greenhouse is the former home of Dodge the Florist. It’s not really a studio or a gallery, though it has elements of both. It’s a place for Hewitt to show his electric signs by appointment and to make the wry little Sharpie drawings that form the basis of his NFTs.
If you know anything about NFTs you know more than I do, but you’ve probably heard that an artist dba Beeple (real name Mike Winklemann) last year sold an NFT, a collage of 5,000 digital images based on the artist’s daily drawings, for $69 million.
Basically, NFTs are digital images that are certified and posted (or minted) for sale on a blockchain so they can be sold to collectors. Hewitt, who doodles obsessively on his desk calendars, originally had the idea of having 20 years’ worth of his calendars photographed, digitized, and turned into NFTs. But then he decided to create a whole new body of drawings.
The inspiration for Hewitt’s new NFTs came from purchasing time on an electronic billboard in New Jersey in order to promote his Hopeful signs.
“Hopeful opened the gate for other ways of thinking about art,” he explained. “When I put Hopeful on an electronic billboard I realized I could put other things on the billboard. So my gallery is a 20-foot by 60-foot billboard in Newark, New Jersey.”
The close to 300 drawings Hewitt has done for NFTs so far are bold, colorful, and humorous works created with Sharpie pens and then cut out and collaged. They are done in image series such as Tin Men, Sharks, Lighthouses, Skulls, Squids and Whales, Men in Caves, Houses on Fire, and Cars on Fire. For his first release, Hewitt plans to focus on images with nautical and Maine themes.
He draws constantly and pays a team of young, tech-savvy artists to photograph and digitize them and then mint them to the blockchain Etherium 50 at a time. The first 50 Hewitt NFTs go on sale on Sept. 14 for $800 each. For that price, a buyer receives exclusive ownership of the digital image which they can display in an electronic frame.
NFT collectors can also trade images. The artist receives a royalty whenever an NFT is re-sold.
Some people may have difficulty crediting NFTs as art, but Hewitt cites Robert Rauschenberg’s crushed and stapled cardboard boxes from the 1970s as examples of artworks that challenged existing norms and expanded the concept of what art could be.
“NFTs are disrupters. Art should be a disrupter,” he said. “I’m daring people to tell me this is not art.”
Everything new is misunderstood. A critic stuck in a rut of convention once wrote that a Winslow Homer painting looked like “a dirty door-mat.” You dismiss the new at your own peril. I would not claim to understand or appreciate how a line of computer code can become a valuable work of art, but I have written about art long enough to realize it can and it will.
“You will go to a museum in 50 years and they will be showing NFTs,” Charlie Hewitt insisted.
I have no doubt he is correct.
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978. He also writes the weekly Universal Notebook column.