Before bringing his books and art to Boston’s streets, painting and music saved CJ Hutchings’ life
Pedestrians hear songs by John Lennon, Jimmy Hendrix, or Jim Morrison, then glance, then stop for a closer look. About two-dozen small colorful paintings are propped up alongside an amp. In front of them, a man in shorts strums his guitar.
“It may take people a couple looks, but everyone does that second look,” says artist Christian Jordan Hutchings, better known as CJ. “No one can look just once.”
The 46-year-old self-employed musician and recording artist started selling his paintings in 2018. All he needs is his amp, easel, and guitar. Hutchings never takes a day off, alternating between spots in the Public Garden, outside Fenway Park, and on Newbury Street, Dartmouth Street, and near the Boston Public Library in Back Bay. He sells $20 paintings as well as his CDs and copies of three published books.
“You have to go through hell to create good art,” he says.
Hutchings would know. He was 10 when he fell off his bike and ended up in the path of a drunk driver. His younger brother Joel witnessed his head run over around the streets of Warwick, Rhode Island. Hutchings landed in a coma; the subsequent traumatic brain injury affected his everyday life from then on.
“I used alcohol and drugs as my medication,” he says. “I couldn’t think straight for 30 years, until I got sober.”
In the 14 years since, Hutchings has practiced sobriety and lots of self-help to refrain from drugs and alcohol. Painting, music, and writing have allowed him to find his purpose again.
Hutchings recalls always being around music and the arts as a child. His first concert was the Grateful Dead; his uncle, who painted and played guitar, was his biggest inspiration growing up. But while he always doodled, he never painted. When his brother died, he picked up his first paintbrush. An uncle gave him his first lesson, with Hutchings following, stroke by stroke. He was hooked.
“It was a mourning thing,” Hutchings says. “It puts me in a zen state. It’s similar to the zen when you feel when you are sitting at a school desk, doodling because you want to get away, or just distracting the teacher.”
In time, started combining his love for music and art. He painted artists from John Lennon to Amy Winehouse, saying his first step was to sketch.
“I’m not Bob Ross, yet,” he says.
All of his paintings are $20, and are displayed on 8″x10″ canvases. Hutchings says that the diversity of colors in his paintings speaks volumes—his Winehouse piece is painted in black and white except for her poppy-red lips; Ozzy Osborne’s name is dripping in hot red.
“When I was younger, I didn’t want to be a painter and writer,” Hutchings says. “I just wanted to rock out on my guitar.”
Hutchings says that painting and writing make his music grow and mature.
“Everything works hand in hand.”
Music was his first love though. When he was 4 years old, his uncles and aunt were in a band called Rocky Hollow. Hutchings fell in love with string instruments and started playing guitar seriously at 14.
Abolition was the name of his first band, a three-piece metal outfit with his brother on drums and a buddy on bass playing at house parties and in basements. On the street, meanwhile, Hutchings just set up and strummed. He’d play his favorite singers: Lennon, Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and John Mayer, as well as his own songs, as pedestrians rolled by. After he started painting, some people strolled right past the artwork and immediately went towards his guitar.
One time, while Hutchings was playing Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” on Newbury Street, a pedestrian asked if he offered guitar lessons. He replied with a strong yes. In their third or fourth lesson, he mentioned his passion for writing not only songs, but also prose about his life. He wanted to share his story—from his brother’s death, to his traumatic head injury.
The student offered to read his work, then gradually helped him through the process of self-publishing Hutchings’ first book, 30 Sum Odd Years and a Ton of Rage.
In the years since, he’s followed up with two more, And Sharp Teeth, and, Try Beyond
“My painting, writings, and music saves me,” he says. “Writing, music, and painting are my higher powers.”
Charlotte Howard is a journalism undergraduate student at Boston University. If she isn’t people-watching or listening to music, she spends her days overbooked and busy. She was a founder of The Pelham Examiner, the first independent student-run newspaper in the country and currently writes for the satire paper The Bunion, and Off the Cuff Fashion magazine. Facebook Status update: She’s gen-z but currently married to matcha.