Brian Butler naturally radiates that kind of effortless cool that some people work hard to cultivate. He mentions hanging with Blondie or The Talking Heads with the same warm ease and nonchalance that he uses to describe teaching his art students how to draw comic book panels. Both evoke a just far off look in his eyes that would seem to indicate he’s taking a stroll down memory lane.
And the art instructor at Perkins Center for the Arts has quite the memories and knowledge to share with his students. An artist in some shape or form for practically his whole life, Butler has painted, sung, worked on toys and taken a circuitous route to find his way back to his first love of drawing.
Butler grew up in Haddon Heights, and from an early age, his mother encouraged his love for drawing. She taught art classes at home in their basement, so Butler inevitability became part of the class. He and a friend spent their summers drawing and creating their own comic books.
When he graduated from high school, Butler didn’t have a lot of money, so he sought out the cheapest art school around. At the time, it happened to be University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He paid his way through school selling paintings to lawyers and other Philadelphia elite, but after two years, the financial costs were adding up. So, he changed gears.
“Like all people back in the day, I Immediately joined a band and went on tour,” Butler said.
Butler and his brother were songwriters, and eventually, they were signed with Columbia Records. They were recording an album in the same studios that Frank Sinatra had once used. But time passed and the band never managed to make a hit record, which led to some tension among the bandmates. So, they broke up, and Butler and his brother left to start a new band.
They would venture up to New York to get their songs played on the radio and to hit the local hot spots. They found themselves backstage at the famous music club CBGB with the likes of Blondie and David Byrne of The Talking Heads. Eventually, they were signed again – this time to Epic Records, the same label that had artists like Michael Jackson in its repertoire. Their band, Smash Palace, even managed to make a music video that made it on to MTV, but a combination of factors ultimately led to this second band breaking up as well.
From there, Butler and his brother became professional songwriters for BMG Publishing. They wrote songs for a variety of genres, and they shopped their songs around to different artists. At one point, one of their songs was very nearly recorded by Roger McGuinn, frontman of the Byrds, but Tom Petty discouraged McGuinn from recording the song as he thought it didn’t quite evoke McGuinn’s sound.
Butler eventually married, and his wife, who is also an artist, inspired him to pick up where he’d left off with art. The pair would create posters and other creative pieces for different people and companies. He had gotten out of the songwriting business when a friend told him that Mattel was looking for someone to put decals on racing car toys. They were paying $25 an hour. He jumped at the opportunity.
While Mattel typically hired people with industrial art degrees, they saw what Butler was doing and eventually brought him on full time. He worked there for eight years before he was laid off during a series of cuts. But he took it in stride.
“I thought, ‘This is great. I can get back into art,’” Butler said.
He didn’t have a degree, but he knew he had the experience. He showed his portfolio to Rowan University, Camden County Community College, University of the Arts and Perkins Center for the Arts. They all hired him.
He was juggling four workplaces and making less money than he had at Mattel, but he was more satisfied than he’d ever been because he was sharing what he loved.
“I felt like at the end of the day, I was really doing something that meant something,” Butler said.
Butler has now taught at Perkins for more than 15 years. He said he’s seen the dynamics change in recent years. When he first started teaching comic book drawing at his home in the early ’90s, his classes were almost entirely boys. These days, he said the class is more of an even mix.
He said Perkins has always been his favorite place to teach because there’s a real “arts community feel” to the place. He currently teaches four classes at the Moorestown location, and he said he gets a certain satisfaction from seeing students return year after year.
“At least half the students come back again, and I get to see them grow up,” Butler said. “It’s really rewarding.”
To learn more about Perkins Center for the Arts or to sign up for one of Butler’s classes, visit www.perkinsarts.org.