Artist Hopkins calls Mukilteo homeNarrative historical painting feeds former movie poster illustrator’s soul
As a 20-something artist living in Los Angeles, painter Chris Hopkins racked up his share of hits illustrating album covers and Hollywood movie posters.
“I was an airbrush artist in the ‘80s,” said Hopkins, now 63. “The look I would get was slick and glossy with not a paint stroke anywhere. I was using illustration tools dictated by Hollywood, like acrylics and other fast-drying paints.”
He painted posters for “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “Return of the Jedi,” as well as posters for Super Bowls XX, XXI and XXIII. He was also nominated for a Grammy for Styx's “Paradise Theatre” album cover.
“I still get a fair amount of email about stuff I did back in those days,” said Hopkins, who has made Mukilteo his home since 1990.
By the late 80’s, the rise of digital illustration techniques brought an end to the heyday of movie poster illustration. For Hopkins, it was both a blessing and a curse.
“The initial income drop wasn’t good, but getting out of airbrushing was because I hated it,” he said. “Eventually, everything started to get the same look. It destroyed the market.
“I don’t know of anyone still doing airbrush work. A lot of illustrators have given up altogether, having lost their passion over the years. That shift forced me to instead focus on more heartfelt, soulful work.”
Making Mukilteo home
That shift also precipitated his return to the Pacific Northwest. He and his wife, Jan Hopkins, an accomplished artist in her own right, moved with their young children to Edmonds in 1988 before settling two years later at an Everett address in the Edgewater area less than half a mile east of Mukilteo.
“Actually, I feel more Mukiltean than anything,” Hopkins said. “Mukilteo is where we call home.”
Three of their four children graduated from Mukilteo schools – one from Mariner and two from Kamiak.
For Chris, who grew up in Mount Vernon before moving to Medford, Oregon, at age 10, the move was a sort of homecoming.
“I enjoyed Los Angeles, but when summers rolled around I wasn’t really happy,” said Hopkins, recalling the grey skies of his youth. “It was crowded there, and it was hard to get away. Here, all I have to do is walk out of my studio to be surrounded in natural beauty.”
Unless he and Jan are walking nearby trails or off on vacation, Hopkins said he spends most of his waking hours cooped up in the makeshift studio space in his attached garage.
“I love what I do,” he said. “I also have deadlines, so that’s part of it.”
Hopkins takes commission work to pay the bills, but these days he finds his real passion in portraying stories of American perseverance.
Painting for passion
Since shifting from the slick, airbrushed style of his younger days to a slower, more painterly style, he’s depicted the histories of Northwest Native tribes, men and women serving in the military overseas, and the history of America’s first African-American Air Force pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen.
“I’m trying to make people think about history and stimulate thought,” he said. “I try to get the real deal, all the warts and pimples and everything else.
“I try to be as accurate as I can. I look at the Tuskegee Airmen series as a chance to depict what actually happened. Those men and women were pioneers and were part of the catalyst for the civil rights movement.”
Throughout, Hopkins said he’s found a common thread in the goodness of humanity. As part of the Air Force Art program, he’s visited war zones in Afghanistan, as well as operations in Central America, Japan and Thailand, among others.
“In Thailand, we were always told they hate Americans so don’t tell them you’re from America,” he said.
“I found just the opposite to be true. They were all very kind and gracious. Everywhere I went there was a common thread of human goodness.”
While some of his Tuskegee Airmen series’ nearly 70 pieces hang permanently in the Pentagon, much of the rest has toured the country over the last few years.
“When the show first opened, we had people there who were former Black Panthers and people who were Tea Party folks all paying tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen,” he said. “Again, there is a common thread bringing people together.”
That series returned to the area last month and remains on display at the Schack Art Center in Everett through Feb. 25.
“This is the first time it’s really all been together,” Hopkins said of the nearly 60 pieces on display.
The tour is not quite over, he said. Museums in New Orleans and Honolulu have shown an interest, as has Garfield High School in Seattle, he said.
And yet, another such series is in the making. He, his wife and his son, Justin Hopkins, are collaborating on a series depicting the plight of West Coast Japanese Americans interned during WWII.
“This is something that’s been really meaningful to us as a family,” he said, noting that Jan’s parents were interned at Minidoka camp in Idaho. “This has been a very personal project for her.”
Many of Chris’ pieces in that series, which can be seen at chrishopkinsart.com, sit strewn about his home studio waiting to join Justin’s paintings and Jan’s works of sculptural fiber art.
“We started this about three years ago,” he said. “Jan is working on sculptural pieces that are narrative and personal, getting at her family’s stories. Some of her sculptures are representations of stories her mom and dad had told her.
“She’s actually stretching herself out a bit more on this, and using some great new techniques. Her work is so labor intensive and takes so much time. I just slap paint on canvass, and it’s done. I think Jan’s work will be the most compelling.”
Faking it and making it
Hopkins began drawing in the fifth grade, selling his early works to classmates for nickels and dimes. In college, however, he was a star on Southern Oregon University’s wrestling team.
“Being an artist in the wrestling room was strange,” he said. “I wanted to do art, not end up a physical education teacher.”
He dropped out and followed his then-girlfriend to the University of Montana in Missoula.
“I thought I’d go over there and get into the wrestling program,” he said. “I went over there only to find out they had dropped their wrestling program three years earlier.”
He broke up with his girlfriend and began working odd jobs, ending up in Boise, Idaho, where he worked at a boys shelter, operated the lift at a ski resort and played guitar in bars.
“I used to BS my way into a lot of things,” he said. “I would get jobs I was utterly unqualified for. I would go into places with bravado and act like I knew everything I needed to know, and it would work.”
He met Jan while bouncing at a bar in Boise called the Bronco Hut, though they didn’t get together until a couple years later.
“Finally my older brother Steve said, ‘You really need to settle down. Why don’t you devote yourself to your art?” he said.
Still living in Boise, Hopkins set his sights on applying to the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles.
“As a lift operator, I worked nights,” he said. “I would spend my time in the lift tower drawing and working on my portfolio. If the manager knew I was doing that I would have been fired immediately.”
A year later, he applied and got in. He and Jan made the move together. While a student, Hopkins attracted a steady stream of magazine illustration work.
“As soon as I graduated, it all dried up, and I couldn’t get work anywhere,” he said. “I had to go pour concrete and do hard labor. It wasn’t a pleasant time.”
Hopkins soon found a job at a new studio started by two legendary illustrators. He was introduced to airbrushing, and four years later set off on his own, making many of the iconic movie posters he’s still known for today. When the digital age arrived, he reinvented himself.
“I had always wanted to be an oil painter, but I hadn’t done much other than in class,” he said. “I called up my agent in New York and asked for some oil work, anyway. I had to relearn everything, so I faked it until I made it. I banged out an oil painting, and they liked it. Soon more work came my way and, eventually, I learned to be sloppy correctly.”