Leave it to an artist to beautify and soften the edges of a polarizing social and political issue like gun control.
San Antonio artist Matt Tumlinson, a 2007 Early High School graduate, has made a statewide name for himself by painting images of Americana and the western frontier on the bottom of gun shell casings.
Tumlinson calls his almost-unique art medium brass canvas and it, along with his mural paintings, has earned him recognition on the TV show “Texas Country Reporter” with Bob Phillips and in Texas Monthly magazine.
The idea of painting on bullets began while Tumlinson was working his way through college with a summer job at his uncle’s shooting range in San Antonio. Tumlinson scooped up shell casings during the day and painted at night while living in a room above the range.
“It was kind of a metaphor for how I saw my view of firearms changing,” Tumlinson said. “It’s a controversial, debatable issue. I grew up in Early, and my parents (Mike and Mona Tumlinson) are both schoolteachers. I grew up around guns, but I didn’t own a gun. Maybe I wasn’t comfortable with it.
“Working at the gun range, you meet all kinds of people, and there, I felt like a spokesperson for firearms. I came to think that guns being good or bad depends whose hands are on the guns. Someone on the south side of Chicago may use a gun as a violent weapon to hurt someone else. I see a gun as more of a tool for hunting and protection, not violence.”
Whether his brass canvas paintings mostly on 9mm gun casings are of the Texas flag, a cowboy or a mountain lion, Tumlinson leaves the gun debate up to those viewing his work.
“I understand how guns make some people uncomfortable,” he said. “I want to take these bullets and, instead of seeing them as weapons, I want people to see it for what it is as artwork.
“People see my work and draw their own conclusions. That’s exactly what I want my artwork to be.”
Tumlinson initially tried sculpture work on the shell casings, but it didn’t work.
“I thought, ‘Well, I could paint on them,’ ” he said. “There was no handbook on how to do it. I had to figure it out on my own by trial and error.”
Tumlinson works on a couple of projects at a time, but it takes him about two months to complete a brass canvas with a frame bordering it. The size depends on the subject matter or if a client wants a specific size.
“I have to scoop up the casings, sort them out and then clean them out,” he said. “The painting is the easy part. It takes a week or two to finish a painting.”
Painting on shell casings is different because the surface isn’t consistent. “Some of the bullets have divots in them, and there’s physically nothing to paint in the gaps between the bullets,” Tumlinson said.
“Painting on brass canvas is tougher on brushes. It’s a rough surface that takes a lot of layers to get in all the cracks and crevices.”
Besides clients who want specific content, Tumlinson’s brass canvas paintings often take on controversial subjects and let viewers determine their own interpretations.
“I’m working on a new series of celebrity portraits of rock stars,” he said. “Rock music can be viewed as a destructive force or a creative force. It’s what you do with it.
“When Elvis first came on the scene, people thought rock and roll was the work of the devil, that it was going to ruin the morals of the younger generation. Now, everybody loves rock and roll. I choose subject matter that allows for different perspectives out of the painting.”
Painting on brass canvas gave Tumlinson’s artwork a unique identity. It also enabled him to become a full-time artist who could make a living doing what he loves. Now 30, married and with a 1-year-old son, he no longer has to work as a tour guide on a boat floating down the San Antonio River Walk to help pay the bills.
“It’s a real luxury to do whatever you feel creatively inclined to do and be able to make a living at it,” Tumlinson said. “A lot of artists have to do a lot of jobs that they are not artistically into for the money. I’m fortunate that I can do what I choose and people will buy it.”
Three galleries represent Tumlinson’s art and sell his work -- Copper Shade Tree Gallery in Round Top, Texas; Texas Treasures Fine Art Gallery in Boerne, Texas; and The La Jolla Gallery in La Jolla, California. He also does some commission work.
“I do enough of both to stay busy,” Tumlinson said. “When it’s slower at the galleries, I do some outdoor art shows. We’ve been around Texas and to Utah and Jackson Hole (Wyoming). It’s a chance to travel and receive some face-to-face feedback. Going out west exposed us to a broader audience.”
Tumlinson has been painting on brass canvas for five years now, and even though a couple of other artists have given it a try, no one paints on bullet shell casings with the attention to detail like Tumlinson.
That said, he still dabbles in what he calls “artistic cross training,” which is painting on more traditional surfaces. He has also distinguished himself with multiple murals around Texas, particularly those of country music icons. His murals range from Willie Nelson painted in the vast spaces of Rankin in West Texas to George Strait in a city of 1.5 million as part of the San Antonio Street Art Initiative.
“The murals get me out of the studio,” Tumlinson said. “There’s not a lot of color in painting on brass canvas so painting murals keeps those skills sharp.”
Tumlinson painted Strait with his signature black cowboy hat, but with a crown on the front to symbolize his country music stature as “King George.” Nelson is painted as a saintly figure with a wide smile and smoking a joint. The murals are presented respectfully, but also meant to bring a second look, along with a chuckle or a smile.
“My philosophy is to ask forgiveness instead of permission,” Tumlinson said of his portrayals of celebrities. “I didn’t hear from George Strait personally, but he put a photo of the mural on his social media and he tweeted out a thank you. It was pretty cool.
“I did a mural of John Wayne (also in West Texas) as a teacher in a classroom because I learned more from watching John Wayne movies than I did from any professor,” said Tumlinson, who attended Hardin-Simmons and graduated a history major from Texas Tech.
He said murals are challenging because of their sheer size, plus he’s painting on ladders and scaffolding.
Even though his artwork reflects his Texas roots and upbringing, the uniqueness of his artwork on shell casings may eventually make him known well beyond the borders of Texas.
“A guy from South Korea came into The La Jolla Gallery and saw my work and actually bought one of my pieces,” Tumlinson said. “They shipped it to him in South Korea. That’s a long way from Early.”