The gallery at 111 Minna teems with hipsters and yuppies slurping beer, laughing aloud, and making small talk over the blare of punk rock. In walks Oakland artist Brian Brooks, with long, stringy brown hair and a kinky six-inch beard. He is looking for a place to hide.
"The art thing is for a very small group of people," says the rail-thin 35-year-old. "It's for the artists and the hipsters. It's a lot of schmoozing and looking over your shoulders and watching what other people are wearing. I stopped caring what other people were wearing a long time ago."
Ten of Brooks' most recent drawings of the cartoon character Emily the Strange a sullen thirteen-year-old girl who has become an international icon of rebellion for girls and women hang on the wall of this SOMA gallery. From 1999 until 2006, Brooks was one of the primary artists behind Emily, and an accessory to her current fame. Emily T-shirts, handbags, camisole sets, and other merchandise now sell in 35 countries. European high fashion designers have based clothing lines on her, and stars, including Courtney Love and Julia Roberts, have been known to wear her.
At least fifteen artists have collaborated to create the Emily brand, either as employees or freelancers of Cosmic Debris, the Emeryville-based design house that owns Emily. But as the first artist assigned to work on Emily full-time, Brooks shaped her more than most. The show at 111 Minna features renditions of Emily by Brooks and twenty other artists. But his drawings are the most bizarre, colorful, and eye-catching images exhibited. In one, Emily wears a Jerry Garcia wig and beard and leads three of her signature kitties costumed as aliens through a barren landscape. She strides high and long as in the famous Robert Crumb drawing Keep on Trucking. Brooks calls the 15 x 13-inch piece Friend of the Devil, after the Grateful Dead song.
Viewers give Brooks' piece an approving nod. But only part of him wants to be at this art opening. That's the part of Brooks that craves recognition and takes pride in the hundreds of designs he created when he was an artist and art director for Emily. The other part is a recluse who abandoned his catbird's seat after 20th Century Fox began developing a movie about Emily.
Fox optioned the rights to a movie for an undisclosed sum in 2004 and is scheduled to either develop the movie or return the rights to Cosmic Debris by the end of the year. If Fox makes the movie, Cosmic will get another undisclosed sum, but Brooks won't be owed another dime.
"I don't want to be known as the Emily guy," he says. "I'm very proud of what I did with Emily. But I don't want that to be on my epitaph."
Brooks slaved over Emily for fifty to sixty hours a week for six years. To fulfill his duties as an artist and art director at Cosmic, he felt like he had to forego his personal creative vision. He reaped a large enough fortune during those years from Emily and another character he created for Cosmic to avoid working for the past year and a half. But just as Emily was about to make Cosmic really rich, Brooks let go of her coattails. He wanted the world to know that he is an artist who deserves recognition independent of Emily the Strange.
So there's more than a little irony to Brooks' first art show in ten years being all about Emily. He agreed to the exhibit because it would give him a chance to show that he's grown as an artist since leaving Cosmic in February 2006 and retreating to his dingy Shattuck Avenue flat. To cope with his uneasiness, he plays the jester, an appropriate role considering his mélange of clothing. A maroon wool scarf hides beneath his hair and under the two jackets he wears. A red fanny pack girds his waist. Silver earrings dangle from his ears and a set of beaded bangles covered with brass charms dangle from his left arm.
The DJ, Noel Tolentino, a New York-based former Cosmic artist who helped Brooks land the gig drawing Emily nearly eight years ago, comes over to say hello. He tells Brooks that he's moved in with his girlfriend.
"Are you getting some sex?" Brooks asks.
"Yeah, online," Tolentino says.
"Well is it .com or is it .org?" Brooks asks.
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