Almost Famous

Renton artist Heidi Barack has a brush with the big time.

One Saturday morning of yore, Heidi Barack woke up jobless and depressed in Renton, having just been laid off from her job as a field marketing representative for the record label BMG. A painter of famous musicians in her free time, Barack stood dreary eyed in her breakfast nook, mulling getting out her artist's tools and sketching something.

"Painting is like therapy," she says. "I'm a binge painter. I'll go a month or two without painting, but I draw all the time."

At the time, Barack had managed to stage an informal exhibit of her paintings—Warholian portraits of Elvis Costello, Jimi Hendrix, Nick Cave, and others—at Easy Street Records in West Seattle, where she knew much of the staff from her gig hustling albums at BMG. At around 11 a.m. that Saturday, Barack, still in her pajamas, saw "Easy Street Records" pop up on her Caller ID, so she answered the phone. On the other end of the line was a record store clerk who said she had a customer who liked Barack's Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone paintings, and was interested in commissioning another of Ramone's brother, Johnny.

So the Easy Street employee put the customer on the horn with Barack. The customer, it turns out, was Eddie Vedder.

"Eddie came in one morning and had one of the clerks call [Heidi]," says Easy Street manager Adam Tutty. "I think he had her make a whole bunch of Johnny Ramone buttons so he could always have one on his jackets and T-shirts. Then [Pearl Jam's] new record came out, and he offered her a chance to do some buttons of them."

Now Barack's custom-made Pearl Jam buttons (one for each member of the band), viewable on her Web site (, are touring the world as official concert schwag. But that's not all: Several of her paintings of black musicians—namely Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Ray Charles—are featured in the acclaimed movie Half Nelson, which is generating considerable Oscar buzz for Ryan Gosling, who plays a crack-addicted eighth-grade history teacher with Barack's portraits hung above the chalkboard in his Brooklyn classroom.

How Barack's work ended up in Half Nelson makes her Pearl Jam story seem pedestrian. Barack, who now works as a field rep for Warner Music Group, was sifting through her junk e-mail folder one day when she came across the subject line "Heidi Barack's artwork for movie" with an unfamiliar sender's name. Nevertheless, she opened the message, which turned out to be a request from Beth Mickle, the production designer for Half Nelson, who'd stumbled across Barack's work while searching for paintings of Miles Davis on the Internet.

"I put in a Google search, and Heidi's work was the first thing that caught my eye," says Mickle, who's based in New York City. "I saw this one image of Miles that she had done, and it was exactly what we were looking for: higher-end art, but also something for teenagers. So I e-mailed her and she e-mailed me back the next day. It was so lucky for us. She directed me to her Web site to see other images, and we ended up using a ton. Then she sent me several buttons she'd done, and we ended up sticking them on a bunch of the kids' backpacks.

"Heidi's work instantly reaches the eye," adds Mickle. "I'm thrilled that it got as much screen time as it did."

Lightning struck twice for Barack when Beth Schacter, the Los Angeles–based writer and director of the upcoming New Line release Normal Adolescent Behavior, embarked on a Web-based prop research process similar to Mickle's.

"We found Heidi's work by Googling some of our favorite musicians—especially P.J. Harvey, Bob Dylan, and Tom Waits," says Schacter. "We sort of fell in love with all the imagery; it was very right for a movie about teenagers and relationships. I'm a big enough fan that I've been bugging her to do a Bob Dylan for my boyfriend."

Schacter is also using several of what Barack calls her "coo-coo birds"—simplistic, poppy depictions of birds with big, googly eyes. She gives other animals the same treatment, having landed her "Animal Fiction" line of buttons in Hot Topic stores nationwide. The coo-coos are intermingled with her original paintings as well as framed album covers on the walls of her Renton townhouse, where Barack, who grew up in San Diego, has lived for the past three years ("It's cheap and centrally located," she says of her residential rationale).

An effervescent redhead who likes to watch The Price Is Right while hammering on her laptop in her breakfast nook (where she does all her drawing and painting), Barack clerked for Sam Goody and Tower Records while other kids her age attended college. She parlayed her passion for music into industry stints with BMG and now Warner. Her art, meanwhile, started as a pleasant diversion that has since taken on a life of its own.

"I've always drawn," she says. "Then a friend of mine said, 'Why don't you paint?' My memory of painting was messy, but I bought an 8-inch-by-10-inch canvas and some red, white, and black paint and did Nick Cave. I draw on 5-inch-by-7-inch pads and photocopy onto clear paper. It's kind of like Andy Warhol, but I do my own drawing."

Despite her recent notoriety, the hobbyist at heart is well aware of her limitations: "The one thing I can't do is teeth," Barack acknowledges, pointing to the closed mouths on her walls. "I suck at teeth."

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