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Kansas Artist Prepares For A Post-Pandemic Future With Sci-Fi Robots And Old Time Music

It’s been a long year of canceled gigs and postponed shows for local musicians and artists. Creators are slowly emerging from their time of isolation with new ideas and attitudes with hope and trepidation.

In the basement studio of his home in Lawrence, Kansas, Howard Rains is putting the finishing touches on a painting of mythical sea creatures. It’s part of a series of large-scale, fantasy works inspired by months of hunkering down during the pandemic.

“You know, sometimes I can sit here and just listen to the sound of the brush for hours," Rains says, as he brushes acrylic paint onto his canvas. "Sometimes I listen to music but my favorite is just the sound of the brush.”

Rains is sensitive to sound because he’s both a painter and a musician. He’s perhaps best known for the quirky watercolor portraits of musicians and other scenes he observes while on the folk music circuit. But these days he hasn't been traveling, and his studio is filled with paintings of sci-fi robots and rampaging dragons.

A rampaging dragon floats above a cityscape in 'Dragon Over City.'
A rampaging dragon floats above a cityscape in 'Dragon Over City.'

“I know how incongruent all this seems probably," Rains says. "Traditional, old time music, and paintings of robots. It’s pretty weird.”

Rains' pandemic paintings will go on display tonight at the Cider Gallery in Lawrence. As the opening of his art show approached, he admitted to being a little apprehensive.

“It's kind of weird to be coming out of this pandemic and feeling I'm wanting people to come out, but also a little bit hesitant about that,” Rains says.

The opening will also feature a folk music set performed by Rains and his wife, Tricia Spencer.

Howard Rains and Tricia Spencer perform 'Dandy Lusk'

They met at a music festival nine years ago and have been playing together ever since.

“The first day we met, we knew right away that we were going to be at least best friends,” Spencer says. "Both of us come from a passion and a love for traditional fiddlin.' And we knew right away we had that in common. We feel pretty lucky."

Any normal year they’d be on the road together traveling from gig to gig. This past year, without regular work, has given them some breathing room.

“It freed me up to re-think what I'm passionate about and making sure that I'm in the line of what I need to do as a musician and artist and not doing what makes money — because I wasn't making any money," Spencer says. "And the freedom of letting go of that and then do other things that were so fulfilling was a huge gift.”

Spencer says she’s glad Rains has found a way to express his passion for science fiction.

'A Beautiful Day For Flying' features a blue sky crowded with flying machines.
'A Beautiful Day For Flying' features a blue sky crowded with flying machines.

“I love it. I mean, there's a part of Howard's brain that I don't get." Spencer says with a laugh. "But I totally appreciate it.”

Rains and Spencer both say they’re ready to let their new work out of their living room and into the world.

“This is kind of moving into that next sphere of reality," Rains says. "It's kind of exciting and a little bit scary and I'm a little bit curious as to what exactly is going to happen”

Spencer says, after the long hiatus, artists will be looking to their fans for support.

“We're not everyone's cup of tea and we know that," Spencer says. "So if you have a cup of tea, start looking at your artists right now, because I think anyone like us is wondering, what does their future look like from here on out. And so if you have your favorites, let them know and support them.”

Brainchild: New Works by Howard Rains” opens tonight with a live concert and new paintings at the Cider Gallery in Lawrence, Kansas. Old Time Music duo Tricia Spencer & Howard Rains will perform a set at the gallery at 7 p.m.

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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