by Eric Ginsburg
When Mike Duggins talks about his pen-and-ink drawings, the word “outrageous” comes up a lot. And what better way to describe the style of a set of flashy black musicians including Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Little Richard and Lightnin’ Hopkins?
Duggins’ portrait series of R&B and rock pioneers, entitled Great Conks of the 20th Century, focuses on the… well, outrageous hairdos of five music legends that Duggins has long admired.
“Some of the innocence of early rock appeals to me,” he said in a mildly Southern, almost gruff bass voice. “I prefer, I guess, the ’50s and early ’60s lexicon of rock and popular music. Everything’s sort of jaded now.”
Some of the men in his set, such as Muddy Waters, maintain more acclaim while others like Nathaniel Mayer have slipped into obscurity, but all five were pioneers in their own right. That includes their conks — which Duggins selected in part due to their varying approaches to big and bold hair.
There’s Little Richard’s up-do that looks like a grossly exaggerated pompadour, Mayer’s bulbous creation akin to a woman’s beehive, the glistening waves of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ hair and the macabre flair of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins that undoubtedly influenced future generations of punk-rockers.
Duggins looks pretty sharp himself — though far from the ostentatiousness of his subjects — with smart attire and some spritely life in his graying hair. This is the second time the Davie County resident’s art has been displayed at Earshot Records in Winston-Salem, previously as part of the Art on Record exhibit, but it’s his first solo show here.
The portraits called for several mediums including charcoal, pencil and brush for larger black areas, though most stuck with pen and ink. Duggins strayed from the intricate cross-hatching style of the small, celebratory prints for an accompanying piece, a skull rocking shades and a conk painted onto a record as background, that still evokes the same era and edge.
“I’m basically sort of a glorified cartoonist,” he said.
Duggins avoided tracing, usually relying on one photo of each artist as a model. Each presented its own challenges — Little Richard’s likeness was harder to nail, he said, and the Hawkins piece took longer due to its shading and built-up surface.
Before he was drawing them, Duggins’ reverence for the greats and their lesser-known compatriots, including Winston-Salem R&B stars the 5 Royales, mostly expressed itself in obscure mixtapes he compiled. His vinyl collection is still daunting, spreading across other genres including vintage surf, early punk, and “old hillbilly stuff,” but despite his varied interests, he felt the outrageousness of the conks was most compelling.
Duggins’ art bleeds into other areas as well. Though he describes the monstrous characters he pens as generally “ugly,” Duggins said he usually wants people to think his illustrations are comical. Inventing creatures in the vein of Edward Gorey’s dark and detailed children’s book drawings is significantly easier than the portraiture of Great Conks, though he enjoyed this series and still has thoughts about one or two musicians who would make strong additions, he said.
No doubt they’d be equally outrageous.