DAVENPORT — A Rock Island artist whose colorful works are well-known throughout the Quad-Cities and the world is going abstract for his latest exhibit.
Johnnie Cluney — a laid-back, 36-year-old East Moline native — will celebrate the opening of an exhibit of 30 new watercolor paintings at coworkqc, 102 E. 2nd St., with a free reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21.
Cluney was a member of the original staff at Daytrotter, a Quad-Cities recording studio and music venue. He spent 12 years creating over 10,000 small, hand-drawn portraits of the musicians who recorded with Daytrotter, first in downtown Rock Island, then in downtown Davenport, as well as at other sites around the country.
Each recording session is available at pastemagazine.com/daytrotter, accompanied by a portrait and the artist's description.
In addition to recognizable work for Daytrotter, Cluney created the 12-foot-by-24-foot “Welcome to downtown Davenport” sign located at the base of the Government Bridge that highlights city landmarks.
After his involuntary departure from Daytrotter last June, Cluney began focusing on abstract paintings and grayscale portraits.
“Since Daytrotter, I have gotten more abstract and at the same time more realistic,” he said recently. “I put my Daytrotter work in a box, literally, for 12 years. This was intentional from the start. I wanted the look to have the same vibe from Day One until the end.”
The new exhibit at coworkqc is his first series of this style and his first public showing of this work. Some of the paintings were inspired by nature and the Pacific Northwest. The framed abstract paintings will be for sale through May.
“I like doing both,” Cluney said of making portraits versus abstract pieces. “It's nice to have a break, going back and forth. This will be my first showing of my abstract stuff. I've always done it. After Daytrotter, I thought I should do a big series.”
Leslie Klipsch, co-owner of coworkqc, has showcased local artists quarterly since the venue opened two and a half years ago.
“We've tried to make a beautiful space here, and love when it can be enhanced by local artists,” she said. “Not only does it enhance the workplace atmosphere, but also beyond that, we really want to be part of the community and celebrate this incredible community. We love to give opportunities for local artists.”
Though he took art classes at United Township High School in East Moline and Black Hawk College in Moline, Cluney said he's mainly self-taught.
He's also a guitarist and singer/songwriter, and he performed in the former local bands Mondo Drag and Bedroom Shrine. He met his first rock stars when he was 8 at Iowa City's Carver-Hawkeye Arena, after a concert that featured Bon Jovi, Poison, Skid Row and Dokken.
His mom was “kind of a groupie,” and was friends with a Dokken guitarist, Cluney said. He was thrilled to meet Rikki Rocket, the drummer with Poison.
Cluney mostly plays acoustic and electric guitar, and he recently recorded original songs for his first solo album, which will come out this year.
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He's not going to tour again. “I'm a homebody; I kinda hate touring,” he said. “If there's a reason and money, yeah, for sure. I'll do some shows after it's out.”
He was laid off by Daytrotter last June, along with some other staffers, when owner Wolfgang's Vault stopped doing live shows at its venue at 324 Brady St., Davenport, which opened in 2016. Recording sessions still take place in the studio there, and the company has a partnership with Paste magazine.
"He was the only person I even thought about when I came up with the concept of Daytrotter," concert booker and Daytrotter co-founder Sean Moeller said in 2015 when Cluney exhibited Daytrotter portraits at Rozz-Tox in Rock Island.
"I think his art has become absolutely iconic in a lot of circles, and it's certainly one of the most signature aspects of the site. Everyone wants to be drawn by Johnnie."
Cluney has designed art and album covers for several acts, including Iron and Wine, Chuck Ragan, Ani DiFranco, John Denver, Deertick and Justin Townes Earle.
When Cluney started working at Daytrotter in 2006, he used watercolor and pen, then pen and marker from about years two to 12.
“I just drew the people as I saw them,” he said of the mostly upbeat, childlike renderings. “I knew from the start that I wanted them all to look the same. I could do a few different styles, but I wanted somebody to say, 'I know this one. It must be the same person who drew them all the way through.'
“I wanted to capture like the mood of the band,” he said. “Definitely tried to set the mood, to make a package, so if this is the only thing anybody ever hears from this band, this is like an album cover for it. It's gotta be good.”
He did a Daytrotter session with his band Mondo Drag, the first Quad-Cities group to record with the company, about 10 years ago. Cluney did the band's illustration as well.
“It was fun; it was cool to be the first Quad-City band to do it," he said. "Sean asked us. We were the only band touring around the country. I'm the type of guy, I wouldn't be asking.”
During his years with Daytrotter, he's proud to have met Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and Echo and the Bunnymen, one of his favorite bands. Overall, he averaged three portraits a day — usually 3 inches by 4 inches — and the most he ever did was five per day for a full year.
He said he's a fan of Pop art style, such as Andy Warhol's works, but he doesn't base his style on any one artist. “I just do what I do,” he said. “To me, I always thought of Pop art as something pleasing to the eye.”
The “Welcome to Davenport” mural is definitely in that style, Cluney said. “I was trying to be as colorful as possible, to grab your eye.”
The work, in classic postcard format, highlights downtown landmarks. It was commissioned by Kyle Carter, head of the Downtown Davenport Partnership, and unveiled in August 2017,
“We both had the same idea about the old postcards,” Cluney said, noting there are actual postcards of the mural for sale at Crafted QC in downtown Davenport. “It's really cool. ... It's a good feather in my cap for sure.”
"Johnnie's artwork is immediately recognizable," Carter said recently. "Whether it's a Daytotter drawing, Bent River Brewing label, or the downtown welcome sign that's quickly becoming a Quad-Cities icon, his work is unmistakable. Johnnie's art is globally known yet also intensely local, and that's a rare mix."
Among other freelance projects, he illustrated the 24-page children’s book “Something’s Missing” by Davenport author Lauren Wood, which was released in the fall of 2017. Cluney said he is interested in doing another kids' book, maybe with his wife, Bambi, who works as a sign-language interpreter.