The voice, the man, the art
photography by Philip Pietri
There’s a treasure nestled in the neighborhoods surrounding Cleveland Heights Boulevard. A quiet, unassuming home houses an art collection that rivals many of Florida’s galleries, the paintings and sculptures a riot of colors and shapes that dominate every room and hallway. Eyes peer down from every corner; a group of Balinese puppets grin together in the study; two enormous black dogs hold court over the living room’s fireplace; and the kitchen boasts scores of small painted sculptures the size of your hand. Among the paintings lives George Lowe, a voice actor and television personality best known for his role as Space Ghost in the show Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Although he’s famous for his voice acting, he’s also well-respected in art circles for his involvement in self-taught art, his art collection, and his own artwork.
Lowe loves doing voices and acting. “I’ve always done voices. I’ve always been a deadly mimic,” he says. “My friends hate that I can imitate all of them.” When he was 15, he put his vocal talents to work when he began working at Brooksville radio station WWJB. He went on to study broadcasting in college, and he worked briefly as an anchorman for a student-produced program at the University of South Florida. Various television roles catapulted him into a job at PM Magazine, a show that ran on the network that would later become TBS.
Lowe’s irreverent sense of humor and writing abilities endeared him to the producers he worked with during his early television years. “They liked that I was raw and unedited and funny,” he says. “Whatever popped into my head came out of my mouth.” Those relationships proved profitable. “All of [the producers] had fun with me. And no less than a dozen of them kept dropping my name when they were building Cartoon Network.” The referrals worked in Lowe’s favor, and he began working as the voice of Space Ghost on the Cartoon Network original series Space Ghost Coast to Coast.
At the time, Lowe had been living and working in Atlanta, so the transition to working for Atlanta-based Cartoon Network was relatively easy. “Everything amazing that’s happened to me happened in Atlanta,” he says. “It’s odd. I was born in Florida; I’m a native; I’ve always lived here; my house is here. All the years I was up there, I was paying to live here. It’s just weird.” He lived in Atlanta when he won his first Emmy, when his broadcasting career really took off, and when he began working at Space Ghost
Among the paintings lives George Lowe, a voice actor and
television personality best known for his role as Space
Ghost in the show Space Ghost Coast to Coast.
Atlanta also happened to be the central hub in a burgeoning self-taught art scene, and Lowe’s love of self-taught art proved to be as valuable to his career as his referrals from different producers. When he worked at The Morning Show in Atlanta, he developed a friendship with Bill Phippen, the general manager of the station. “People hated that he and I were just instant friends. He knew I was into art; we’d go on these three-hour lunches and nobody could do anything,” Lowe laughs. “They’d say, ‘Where have you been?! Oh … hi, Mr. Phippen.’ We’d go get a steak somewhere expensive, and then we’d go hit the galleries. He was great.”
It was also art that helped Lowe establish a good relationship with Mike Lazzo, the brains behind Space Ghost Coast to Coast and, eventually, executive vice president of Adult Swim. “I used to see Lazzo in the halls — he was not a tall guy — but his office was packed with folk art. And that was my connection with him,” Lowe says. “I would stop in and say, ‘Ah, you went to R. A. Miller’s!’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah man, you know R. A. Miller?’ And that kind of became our common bond.” Lowe’s love of unusual art wasn’t limited to gallery visits, either. Though he began collecting art in high school, his collection grew rapidly during his time in Atlanta, as its location made it easy to seek out folk artists. “You could get in the car, and, in just a three- or four-hour road trip from the house, you could be in Pink Lily, Alabama, buying a sculpture from Charlie Lucas.”
And so he did. Lowe often went on road trips with his friend Bob, visiting artists at their homes, befriending them, and buying their work. He fondly recalls driving out to visit artists like Charlie Lucas, Lonnie Holly, and Howard Finster, many of whom are now widely popular in mainstream art circles. He finds a special charm in the lack of traditional training that makes self-taught artists stand apart. “It’s like beat poetry. They’re really geniuses,” Lowe says. “To have no education and to be able to do these minimalist, modern-feeling things with all the talent and soul of someone who’s gone and done the professional training … it’s really astounding stuff.”
Lowe’s collection now boasts hundreds of pieces, and the rate at which he buys new pieces has somewhat slowed. That may be due partially to the fact that he has a hard time finding room for new acquisitions — he even stores some pieces, carefully packed, beneath his bed until he can come up with a place to display them. “I’m an addict,” he laughs. “A lot of people want money so they can go around and just be idiots with it. But if I had it, I’d just go around buying art. I couldn’t stop. Art really is a complete addiction.”
Now, he is mostly content to feed that addiction by creating artwork of his own. Like the artists whose work covers every square foot of his home, Lowe never trained formally as an artist, but he can’t remember a time that he didn’t draw. “I’ve always drawn,” he says, “ever since I could hold a pencil.”
Today, his drawings are detailed, complex pieces that he usually creates with colored pencil and graphite on paper. “From a distance, [my drawings] work on an abstract level. I get a lot of pleasure from looking at them from a distance. But then you get in on them and you’ve got your little networks of roads, eye flowers, biomorphic bird creatures, code wheels, and code structures. There’s a lot of symbolism.” He estimates that he spends “probably a couple hundred hours” on each piece.
And, like many well-known self-taught artists, his talent was discovered accidentally. He fondly recalls the day in 1999 that his friend Bob looked through his drawings. “Bob said, ‘Oh George, those are really good! Can I have a couple of them?’ And I said, ‘I don’t care — here, take three or four,’” Lowe laughs. “And he took them to Barbara Archer, the best museum curator in the city. She said, ‘Who are these, Bob? These are wonderful!’ and he said, ‘George!’ And she looked at him and said, ‘OUR George?’”
Shortly thereafter, some of Lowe’s work was purchased as part of the permanent collection at the High Museum in Atlanta. “When they bought me, it just blew my socks off,” he says. He notes that many people didn’t even know he drew at all before his drawings went into the High’s collection, and that many of his friends were surprised by what he joked was a secret life. “You know, you go and hope you get a liniment commercial to pay the bills, and then you have this whole other secret life!”
He has since moved back to Lakeland from Atlanta, but he continues to do the things he loves best. His house is full of self-taught artists and more traditional artists (think Picasso, Warhol, and Dali), and his kitchen table is covered by enormous, intricate drawings in progress. His small studio is dominated by paintings, lithographs, and sculptures, but he’s carved out enough space to set up a small desk with a computer and recording equipment that he uses for various voiceover jobs.
Lowe has high hopes for the art scene in Lakeland, that galleries will eventually thrive here. “It builds a city,” he says. “This is what a lot of smaller towns don’t get. It’s why people visit a city. If you have a killer museum, if you have a killer art scene, if you have a killer endowment at your local museum, people come for that. And nobody gets that except bigger towns.” He eagerly awaits the day when smaller galleries and fellowships are established in Lakeland, helping to build a thriving art scene that will attract people from Central Florida and beyond, but he knows that it can take a long time. Until then, he contents himself with his own collection, his own work, and his growing network of artistic friends.
Want to learn more about George Lowe’s art collection? Keep your eyes peeled for a show that will include many of his collected and original pieces, which is slated for Fall of 2016 at the Polk Museum of Art.