Leland Cobain spreads a few yellowing pieces of art across his dining room table. The Aberdeen Museum of History, in the next town over, has asked him to contribute to an exhibit about his grandson, late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.
One adorable Christmas card Kurt made for his grandparents at age 13 shows a hapless toddler, fishing, who has hooked the back of his shirt. There are radiant watercolor seascapes and depictions of Disney characters.
Then there are the other paintings, in an apartment 55 miles northeast of Leland’s trailer. They are surrealistic, stark and powerful, revealing skeletons, aliens and the dark forests of a haunted mind.
Like Cobain’s music, these images illustrate the tormented genius of the man who shot himself 10 years ago Monday.
“By the time he left here, I saw him as the type who could have been a professional painter in New York, L.A. or Chicago,” says art teacher Bob Hunter, Cobain’s favorite teacher at Aberdeen’s Weatherwax High School. “But even then I don’t think I appreciated how sensitive he was. When I look at his lyrics now, I can see more of what went into his art.”
In fact, says Cobain biographer Charles Cross, during the last two years of Cobain’s life the singer frequently spoke of giving up music for a career in visual arts. In 1992, he spent six months in Los Angeles, taking time off from Nirvana to focus on his heroin-inspired painting.
It was a prolific time for Cobain, a time when he was experimenting with mixing his own blood and semen with paint. But those works have been seen by very few people – Cross being one of them.
“People only think of Kurt as a musician, but he was a very multitalented guy,” Cross says. “I got access to a lot of those paintings, and they’re just amazing. There’s a possibility he could have been a visual artist of note.”
While Cobain’s estate keeps his Los Angeles paintings in a secure vault and did not respond to a request from The Associated Press asking to see them, the AP was able to view several paintings owned by one of Cobain’s close friends in Tacoma. The friend asked to remain anonymous to help ensure the security of the paintings in the apartment.
The paintings were done while Cobain lived in Olympia in the late 1980s. One shows a fetus floating amid what appears to be the white silhouettes of tree branches. Another shows a smiling, mad, dwarfish creature surrounded by childish stick-figures.
A third is of a strangely bent skeletal figure resembling a ghostly white E.T. It was a self-portrait, the friend said.
Some of the paintings were done on the back of board games that Cobain bought at thrift stores because he was too poor to afford canvas. None is titled or signed, though he wrote a birthday message in red ink on the frame of one. “Love Kurt,” it ends.
According to Leland Cobain, 80, Kurt could draw well from the time he was 6, and Leland’s wife, Iris, an amateur painter herself, encouraged him and taught him.
“He come over the house one day and he had a picture of Mickey Mouse. He says, ‘Grandpa, look what I drew,'” Leland recalled. “I said, ‘You didn’t draw that, you traced it.’ He got mad and said, ‘You give me a piece of paper and I’ll draw it again.’ And he sat down and drew it again.”
Hunter recalls that Cobain was a good art student, that he took most assignments seriously and, when he didn’t feel like participating, he would sit at his desk and read, which Hunter didn’t mind.
After Cobain’s death, Hunter found a striking picture Cobain had done in class of a sperm turning into a fetus in 12 steps. He thought about auctioning the picture off to raise money for a Kurt Cobain scholarship for Weatherwax High art students.
Instead, Kurt’s mother, Wendy, asked to have it. In exchange, Nirvana’s management company, Gold Mountain Entertainment, donates $3,000 to $5,000 for the scholarship every year.
Of course, some of Cobain’s visual art can be seen more readily. The cover of “Incesticide” is one of his paintings. He also designed the cover of “Nevermind,” which shows a baby boy swimming underwater after a dollar bill, and the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which shows a pep rally gone wrong.
Said Hunter: “The art he had within him did as much for the music as the music did for the art.”