Art School Dropouts Who Became Successful Musicians

Updated on October 5, 2018
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American art history includes more than just studying the Abstract Expressionist and Pop art movements that flourished in New York City.

Early Pink Floyd

This rare photo of the original five Pink Floyd members includes (clockwise from bottom) David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Syd Barrett, Roger Waters and Richard Wright. All except Gilmour studied either art or architecture in London.
This rare photo of the original five Pink Floyd members includes (clockwise from bottom) David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Syd Barrett, Roger Waters and Richard Wright. All except Gilmour studied either art or architecture in London.

Why Art?

The list of successful musicians, who first studied art in a formal setting, is quite impressive. Not only does it include the likes of John Lennon and Joni Mitchell, but also other steadfast performers, such as Cat Stevens, Ronnie Wood, Syd Barrett, Keith Richards, David Byrne, Kanye West, Pete Townsend, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Chuck D, Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett.

Then there are those musicians, such as Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Paul McCarthy and David Bowie, who have found success as visual artists, but for the most part they were self-taught or at the very least did not study art in a post high school setting.

On the surface, it would appear that there is no logical connection between the two disciplines, but according to Keith Richards, who attended Sidcup Art College in London, "A lot of good musicians came out of art school, but not many good artists.”

Teaser and the Firecat

Teaser and the Firecat was not the only Cat Stevens album to feature the musician's artwork on the cover.
Teaser and the Firecat was not the only Cat Stevens album to feature the musician's artwork on the cover.

He Designed His Own Record Covers

Born as Steven Demetre Georgiou in London, England in 1948, this aspiring young man attended one year at the Hammersmith School of Art before breaking out as a stage singer named Cat Stevens. When first admitted to Hammersmith, Steven's main goal in life was to become a cartoonist, but before he left the London art school, he had already begun his musical career with live performances around London.

Strangely enough, his two most successful albums, Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat both featured his own paintings on the cover. In 1977, Cat Stevens converted to Islam and thus changed his name to Yusuf Islam. Most recently, he has returned to performing and writing songs.

British Art School

Painting by Ronnie Wood, currently with the Rolling Stones
Painting by Ronnie Wood, currently with the Rolling Stones

The British Scene

With the breakout of the British Invasion in the late sixties, it is almost impossible to separate the art school students from the big British bands, for it seemed like almost every good band had one prospective visual artist among its ranks. With a selection that includes John Lennon from the Beatles, Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones, Pete Townsend from the Who, Jimmy Page from Lead Zeppelin, Eric Clapton from Cream, Mick Jones from the Clash and Ronnie Wood from the Yardbirds, the list is quite impressive.

Many of these future performers chose art school because the lifestyle was laid back and easy going. Furthermore, these specialized education institutions presented more of a freethinking atmosphere than one might find at a music school or conservatory, where practice demands could be quite rigorous. In fact, back in 2006, the BBC ran a three part TV documentary, entitled The Art of Pop. This presentation explored the connection that British art school had on so many members of popular rock bands from the small island nation.

The Talking Heads Display Their Art School Influence

Two Art House Bands

Members of two major bands, one American and one British, share a similar history. Both bands were formed by a small nucleus, who all were enrolled in art school. The American band, Talking Heads, was basically started by David Byrne and a young couple, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth, while all three were attending the Rhode Island School of Design. Eventually, the band moved to NYC, where they took on new members and became a major force in American music.

The British counterpart to this phenomena would be the very popular band, Pink Floyd. Syd Barrett was the only member of this band to actually attend art school (Camberwell College of Arts), but several of the band members, Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright, attended a London architecture school (London Polytechnic) together. Here, the students formed a band and soon began performing on campus and later on at various gigs around London.

P.S. The Irish band U 2 gets an honorable mention, due to the fact that all four members attended Mount Temple Comprehensive School, a secondary school in North Dublin. They weren't art students, but the foursome began playing together while still in attending high school.

Cover Design by Mitchell

This Van Gogh parody for Turbulent Indigo was created by Joni
This Van Gogh parody for Turbulent Indigo was created by Joni

A Return to Her Roots

"Oh i am a lonely painter, i live in a box of paints" from I Could Drink a Case of You, by Joni Mitchell

Of the many musicians, whose education is rooted in art school, perhaps none is as fascinating, as the Canadian folksinger and songwriter Joni Mitchell. For not only did Ms. Mitchell take a strong interest in making pictures before and during her singing career, but also, since her last musical release in 2007, she has left the music business behind and dedicated herself to her artistic pursuits, often receiving critical acclaim for her colorful paintings.

In the sixties, Joni Mitchell dropped out of the Alberta School of Art in Calgary and moved to Toronto, where she started out as a fledgling singing performer. Even when success came as a folksinger, Joni never forgot her love for making pictures. All throughout her singing career, Joni was responsible for the design of her album covers, often creating a painted self-portrait to grace the front. Even more important was her complete return to the visual creation process after her last album was released in 2007.

Sadly to say, Joni Mitchell's health took a bad turn for the worse in 2015, when she suffered a brain aneurysm that left her unable to talk and walk. Reportedly, Joni is now doing better, for she is able to talk, walk and paint again.

Joni the Painter

Self-portrait by Joni Mitchell
Self-portrait by Joni Mitchell

An Interview

Last But Not Least

A whimsical self portrait by Janis Joplin proves that pictures do not have to be very elaborate to make a point.
A whimsical self portrait by Janis Joplin proves that pictures do not have to be very elaborate to make a point.

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