There’s nothing like sitting in Atlanta traffic after a grueling day of work, feeling famished and exhausted, and spotting a goofy painting of a grinning bear tacked to the top of a telephone pole with a hand-painted sign that says, “Don’t Sad.”
It’s like a wink from the universe. “I see you,” it seems to say. “Isn’t this world absurd? Don’t worry, we’re in it together.”
That's the kind of magic Atlanta artist BlackCatTips, aka Kyle Brooks, creates with his rainbow-colored images of grinning bears, cats and clouds and his street poems that proclaim "Ducks are happy" or "Let go harder."
Brooks is no longer just a street artist anymore. He has gallery shows and produces murals for corporate clients such as MailChimp, Moxie, Netflix, BET, the Atlanta Braves, the Weather Channel and SweetWater Brewery.
Although not originally intended for children, his work inherently appeals to youngsters, so it’s only natural it would now find a new outlet in a small, slick-paged board book sturdy enough to withstand a toddler’s sticky grip.
Self-published this month, “Smile a While” is a charming collection of Brooks’ illustrations accompanied by a playful poem he wrote about the art of the grin. It has already sold out the first run and is into its second printing.
Available on Brooks' website, the book was produced at the impetus of Laura Thompson, owner of Helium marketing company and a personal champion of Brooks' work. She was inspired by a similar book she bought for her young son that featured the artwork of pop artist Andy Warhol.
“It kept resonating in my brain, Kyle could totally do something like this,” she said.
Although the book is marketed as a children’s book, Thompson and Brooks describe it as a hybrid art book.
“It’s a collection of my art in a small format that is at a lower price point that just about anybody can have,” said Brooks, whose pieces sell for $500-$3,000.
The book was designed by Brooks’ wife, Maria J. Villamarzo, whose name Brooks mentions often when he talks about his work.
“If it hadn’t been for her, I probably wouldn’t have started working on my art as a career,” said Brooks, 45. “Like any good boss, she can be tough. She is a harsh critic of me at times. But when I get over getting grouchy about it, it’s good. She’s helped me in a lot of ways.”
The couple live with their 16-month-old son, Teddy, in Lithonia in a home that backs up to the Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve. In 2017, a year after they moved in, Brooks ran afoul of DeKalb County code enforcement when he installed his art in the yard and was cited for not having a sign permit. He went to court and it all worked out in the end; Brooks still displays his work in his yard. Although lately, he's started to wonder if it's such a good idea to advertise where he lives.
The run-in with DeKalb was a distant memory earlier this month when Brooks was invited to speak at the McDonough City Council meeting about his work and the benefits of public art. His appearance coincided with a commission he received to paint a mural in town along the side of Pasta Max Cafe.
McDonough real estate broker Beau Kelley, another champion of Brooks’ art, was among a group of citizens and business owners who helped fund and facilitate the mural.
“I’ve been collecting Kyle’s art for years,” said Kelley. “It’s cheerful and bright, and when you drive by, it just makes you smile. Art is such a part of a city’s identity and culture, and we want McDonough to shine as a cultural city. When I found out he (grew up in) Henry County, I thought, what a great chance to bring in an artist with a great identity and whose art is approachable. The feedback has been absolutely positive and encouraging.”
Brooks got his start in 2008 when he began painting his bears and phrases on reclaimed wood and tacking them up around town.
“I came up with the term street folk because it’s kind of street art, but it’s very folky and Southern,” he said. “It’s free flowing, not judgmental, not serious on the surface. I do like to include words. Sometimes I put thought into it, but sometimes I just paint, and sometimes that’s the best ones.”
Once people started noticing Brooks’ work, commissions for murals and posters and T-shirt designs began to come in. And as is his style, the work typically featured cheerful, hopeful scenes rendered in bright colors.
But contrary to the sentiment of his work and the response it usually elicits, Brooks admits that his state of mind is often more gloomy than one might expect.
“I definitely have a deep, dark well inside of me that bubbles up and I don’t like it,” Brooks said. “It is odd that I can go through some of these down mental, spiritual times, but then if I start painting, it’s going to come out the opposite. It’s going to come happy and like a bubbly birthday cake. It’s like self-medication in a way. I love it when I’m painting something and I paint a little face and it’s looking back at me. I feel better, especially if I haven’t been feeling too happy.”
Brooks paused, then continued.
“I’d like for folks to think I’m a source of joy or a funny thought. But I’m not always happy. Painting is one of the things in life that helps me.”
Lucky for the rest of us, in the process of cheering up himself, Brooks spreads joy to others.
BlackCatTips. Kyle Brooks reads and signs "Smile a While." 10 a.m.-noon Aug. 8. Free. The Grove at Colony Square, 1197 Peachtree St., Atlanta. blackcattips.com.