Sam Hurt desired to become one of the best comic strip artists, ever.
He reached that goal. Unfortunately, fame and fortune did not follow.
The Art of Hurt
If you suffer from Stendahl’s Syndrome, take care with Hurt’s work. The bizarre splendor of burned out matches carrying lit candles, of spoons loving forks, of profound, yawning oceans bursting from the canvas will disorient even one with a normal psyche.
The blazing weirdness of Sam Hurt, 56, is not for those wanting to buy art to match their color scheme. Rather, you might consider designing a room around just one of Hurt’s pieces.
Of the thousands of artists in Austin, Hurt has emerged over the last decade as a giant who is known by those artists, but not by the public at large. An uncanny, poignant light burns in Sam Hurt’s paintings and drawings that draws one in like a child who can’t distinguish cartoons from reality.
Hurt’s work is composed of deep, wistful sorrow and the joy you feel in a relationship with a close friend or family member. Not just people, but how you felt as a child toward a favorite toy, animal or object like a spoon or blanket. Hurt captures just how alive these objects were to you, as much as any person. That’s Hurt’s gift. He sees how realities of one sort become realities of a different sort, sometimes without distinction, as a child sees things.
When you look at works such as Puzzling Fable, Hope or Fisherman’s Luck, you realize one thing. Hurt will be famous sooner or later. He’s that good.
Hurt grew up in Midland, Texas. He attended The University of Texas, receiving undergraduate and law degrees. He is known for his comic strips Eyebeam and Queen of the Universe and, more recently, his explosion of art.
Hurt’s journey to art initially began through his dry, clever humor tinged with a poignancy. He wanted to be a cartoonist. However, he was at UT the same time as Berkeley Breathed, creator of the renowned Bloom County comic strip. Breathed’s college strip, Academia Waltz, was a major impediment to Hurt being published regularly in the Daily Texan.
At a traffic light “on the Drag,” Hurt was on his 50 cc Vespa scooter. He looked up and saw Breathed on a “real motorcycle” next to him. They jokingly revved the engines, and as the light turned, Breathed left Hurt in the dust. For a long time, Hurt saw that moment as a metaphor for their respective careers.
At the time, the Daily Texan ran student cartoons on the editorial page, which was not much space. Hurt was relegated to political cartoons. He was willing to do anything to try to get into print, and he did illustrations for a weekly arts/entertainment supplement. Gradually, a few of his strips ran sporadically.
Hurt was accepted into The University of Texas School of Law. Ironically, the Daily Texan asked for a daily Eyebeam comic strip at the same time.
Hurt the Comic Strip Artist
In Hurt’s third year of law school, a character from Hurt’s strip, Hank the Hallucination, was nominated for president of UT’s student government. The UT student body elected Hank through a write-in vote, and he soundly stomped the human candidates. (UT Men’s Athletic Director Steve Patterson was Hank’s campaign director. Now CNN contributor Paul Begala, beaten by Hank, ended up serving as president).
As a result of Hank’s successful campaign, Hurt was invited to run his daily strip in the Austin American-Statesman. From that toehold, the comic was picked up by other newspapers. “I used to say coast to coast and three or four places in between,” Hurt said of his strip’s exposure.
Collections of his strips were compiled and published as books during the 1980s, including The Mind’s Eyebeam, Teetering on the Blink and Eyebeam, Therefore I Am. Hurt himself published the first few books, Andrews McMeel Publishing did the next two and then Texas Monthly Press published his sixth and seventh books.
Hurt graduated from law school and practiced law while putting out Eyebeam. However, he left the practice of law “before I did any serious damage” and enjoys his inactive status with the Texas Bar.
As Hurt drew Eyebeam strips, fans questioned why it wasn’t famous. In one blurb about Hurt’s Eyebeam books, Berkeley Breathed asked the same question.
By 1989, Hurt had been pitching Eyebeam to different syndicates. While there were nibbles of interest, no deals were made. Then a package of Eyebeam strips that focused on character Peaches was sent to the United Features Syndicate.
The syndicate wanted a strip named after Peaches. So Hurt discontinued his Eyebeam strip to do Queen of the Universe. That strip started in 1990 and halted suddenly in 1992.
When it ended, Hurt was crushed. He’d been trying to do a daily strip since his college days. Now he felt he’d come to the end of the road.
“I didn’t know what was next,” he said.
Evolution into Master Artist
He started experimenting with animation and sculpting.
Some of his associates at Blue Genie Art Industries started a small Christmas bazaar, which slowly grew into a bigger and bigger event. Blue Genie’s specialty is large, outdoor sculpture. For example, the big relief pieces at the Bullock Museum depicting different stages of Texas history are from Blue Genie.
Hurt participated in the bazaar and found people who loved to buy his cartoon originals. But the purchases were limited to those who were already familiar with his cartoon strip. So Hurt started developing art for people who hadn’t seen any of his work before.
The success at Blue Genie was a catalyst. Hurt got some decent paper to doodle on, and noticed that his spontaneity was often more graphically interesting than the stuff he planned out. He started using homemade paper that allowed him to use white ink, and then started using brown and tan paper.
The drawing and cartooning evolved into painting. Works such as “Cactus Catfish” and “Candle with Books” have a solid feel with a depth that denies the thinness of the canvas. The colors are strong, vivid somberness that play with simple themes becoming complex. And the influence of all the comic artists he ever admired, such as Dr. Seuss, R. Crum, Michael Priest, George Herriman and others are there, as well as his own unique voice that rose in the early Eyebeam days.
When the mood strikes, Hurt still puts out Eyebeam comic strips. Though he used to worry about distinguishing cartooning and painting, he doesn’t any more. He was a cartoonist. Now he’s something more.
Where to View Sam Hurt’s Art
Sugar and Paris
1510 1/2 S. Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704
1912 S. Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704
December, through Christmas Eve: Blue Genie Art Bazar
October 7-November 18, 2014: Cherrywood Coffeehouse
November 8-9, 2014: Travis Heights Art Trail
J. Alan Nelson is a writer, actor and attorney. His written work also appears on Texas Business.