If you frequent concerts at the Mohawk, Hotel Vegas, or Barracuda, you've likely spotted Amitai Plasse. At first glance, it's hard to know what to make of the 6-foot-4-inch, 44-year-old bald dude dividing his attention between the performers onstage and the sketch pad in his hands.
"A lot of times people see him on the side of the stage drawing and aren't quite sure what he's doing," says Mike Manewitz, a close friend of Plasse who runs sound for bands. "That's like our inside joke, 'What is this guy doing?'"
As "Snapshot" learned by shadowing Plasse during several SXSW events, the story behind his motivation to draw is more multilayered than one might imagine. A former graffiti artist turned illustrator and animator who moved to Austin from New York in 2011, his work's genesis resides in more than 2,000 illustrations drawn on subways over more than a decade.
"The interesting thing about it was that it was so anonymous," Plasse recalls. "In New York, you draw this person and you'll probably never ever see 'em again. And so I moved to Austin in 2011 and I was like, 'What am I gonna draw now?'"
"With Austin's live music scene, the energy was there," Plasse recalls of his new muse. "It wasn't just the bands – it was the people and the clubs and the bartenders and whatever else gave things a sense of place. What was different about here than drawing on the subway was that I could actually get to know these people .... It gave me a certain sense of community and inspiration which I had lacked, I think, for a long time."
Plasse sketches Kurt Vile's March 17 performance at Stubb's. "Drawing from life is how I express myself better than speaking – it's the way I try to connect with people. ... What's really special about music is that I see others connect to themselves. Maybe it's my own experience [in New York], but I see a lot of pressure and danger of this scene going away, and I wanna capture and experience it as much as possible before it's gone through drawing."
Drawing the line outside of Fair Market before the March 17 Roots show (it was canceled shortly after due to a bomb threat): "Something that came over from my subway drawings was capturing the essence of who this person is very quickly, and then I'd start filling out details after that. It was like, what is it that's special about this person? Is it their expression, is it their clothing, their gesture? Capture that – it's the most important thing – and then you can add details if you have time."
Plasse sketches Atlanta-based artist Mattiel during SXSW at Hotel Vegas. "He's able to capture musicians impressionistically in a way that often feels more natural than a photograph," says friend Mike Manewitz. "Bands are so stoked when he walks up and shows them what he's done during their set. It really means a lot to them, because it's clear that he cares about what he's watching."
Though Plasse spent more time during the final days of SXSW drawing touring artists like Mattiel – who here holds a just-finished preliminary sketch backstage at Hotel Vegas after her March 17 show – the majority of his sketches are focused on frequently performing locals. "Ami's drawings are extremely important to me because they document the electricity of bands that I love and the music that I play," says Lauren Burton of Austin rock group Lola Tried, who Plasse mentions as a favorite. "His sketches reignite what's so special about this community ... it's a combining of music and art and it's so present. You watch him make his interpretation of you while you're doing what you love so much."
Plasse finishes his drawing of Vile with watercolors, which he favors as a "motion-based medium" in line with his ethos: "I think a lot of people live in the past or look only to the future and they don't live in the present," he muses. "I'm like, look around you right now and there's all this great shit happening. I wanna either be part of the bigger story or help tell that bigger story, or at least be someone who's communicating what's happening here and what has happened here to a bigger audience, so that it's not forgotten."
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