Using the written word to paint portraits

Books, articles are the media for collages of notables


Staff Writer

Christopher Lee Covert was standing on line at the supermarket when he noticed a tabloid with a story that splashed across its front page, claiming Elvis Presley is still alive.

Inspiration struck.

He bought 10 copies of the tabloid and started cutting them up and gluing them down. The next day he went out and bought more.

“I thought, ‘That’s kind of weird that he’s in the news,’ so I made him out of the news,” said Covert. “It all made sense at the time.”

After months of putting down the work and picking it back up again, he finally finished an almost life-sized portrait of “The King” out of the tabloid that keeps his memory alive.

“He’s still in the tabloids all the time,” said Covert, holding up the latest issue of The Weekly World News that has a cover story about Elvis.

Covert opened The Covert Gallery on Monmouth Street recently to display his celebrity portraits, many of which are crafted out of the tabloid that first inspired him.

To date, Covert has completed at least 30 celebrities out of scraps of paper and glue, and has 25 of them autographed by the celebrities themselves.

On the walls of the gallery hang pictures of subjects from Cindy Lauper to the Mona Lisa, from Howard Stern to Jesus.

Lauper and Mona Lisa are created out of the usual materials, but Covert crafted Stern out of “Private Parts,” Stern’s autobiography, and Jesus was created using pages printed with the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

“They are Jesus’ own words,” said Covert.

He prefers to use people’s own words to create their faces, so he prefers doing portraits of people who have written their own books, like George Carlin whose portrait Covert made out of the comic’s book, “Brain Droppings.”

FARRAH MAFFAI staff Artist Chris Covert uses the pages of newspapers and books — including the Bible — to create portraits of famous people,  sometimes in their own words.FARRAH MAFFAI staff Artist Chris Covert uses the pages of newspapers and books — including the Bible — to create portraits of famous people, sometimes in their own words. Covert’s process for creating the pieces begins when he chooses an individual to focus in on.

“It’s got to be someone I like and someone I can probably meet,” said Covert. “I get the heads up on who’s going to be at Fameabilia or Count Basie Theatre because I feed everybody in town.”

When he’s not at his gallery working on a new piece or helping care for his 10-month-old son, Christopher Lee Covert Jr., he works at Elsie’s Sub Shop next door to the gallery.

Elsie’s is a Red Bank institution, owned and operated by Tish Reddington, Covert’s girlfriend and mother of the son he affectionately calls his best piece of art yet.

“I was used to doing it all for me and Tish,” said Covert. “Now everything I do is all for him. He just makes me want to do the best stuff. And Tish has been an incredible wife, incredible inspiration, and my best friend.”

Covert said that a portrait of Chris Jr. is in the works, and it will probably be made out of Elsie’s menus.

Once Covert has his subject in mind, the process begins.

“From there I go on the Web, find a billion pictures of the person, find a good one. I’ll sketch it out on a blackboard and then start cutting,” said Covert.

Although Covert prefers to work from books, because of the correlation between the medium and the subject, he works mainly with newsprint.

“The Weekly World News” has everything. They have the blacks, the grays, even the different types I use. They have it all,” said Covert. “I’ve basically got it down to a science now. I know where everything is, because it’s basically the same paper every week, they just change the words around.”

The artist became part of his own source materials when he was interviewed by The Weekly World News in May.

Covert said that one of the questions he is frequently asked is whether his portraits are made totally from newspaper articles about the subject.

“I say, ‘No, I wish it was.’ I don’t have a staff of a million people to be going through 10,000 newspapers,” said Covert. “I like doing people out of their books, their own words. Or, like I did Penn and Teller out of playing cards because they’re magicians.”

Covert has been creating his whole life, even before he discovered the joys of collage.

“I do paint and I air brush. I just don’t think it’s good enough,” said Covert. “You know us kooky artists, nothing’s ever good enough.”

Covert credits his artistic style with impressing on him the importance of patience, something that may come in handy as a new father.

“Every other artwork I have done usually had to be done that day,” he said. “You watch TV and you see Bob Ross do something in 20 minutes, and you’re like ‘I can do that.’ And then, you don’t do it. Doing this, you put three weeks into it, and you’re like ‘I’m not quitting now.’ It’s the only thing in my life that I have followed through with.”

Covert has also learned a great deal about paper preservation, like how to keep the newspaper from yellowing.

“My first Elvis has yellowed a lot,” said Covert. “For that I used rubber cement. I used to love that because you could change your mind after you put the paper down.”

Now he can choose which pieces he wants to yellow, and how yellow he wants them to get.

“Some I want to yellow, like the Mona Lisa, I want her to yellow, get kind of antique looking,” said Covert. “Willie Nelson yellowed; I didn’t want him to, but he did. It looks all right. I picked out a frame to suit it, to pick up the yellows in there. It kind of looks rustic. Most of the frames I picked out myself, and I tried to get it to go with the picture.”

Covert has a frame with a design resembling metal spikes for pro-wrestler King Kong Bundy and a rustic western-style frame for Kenny Rogers, both of whom have autographed their portraits.

Although Covert says he does not do what he does because he gets starstruck, he has gotten to meet celebrities like comedians Bill Maher and John Leguizamo, magicians Penn and Teller and Court TV’s Rikki Klienman.

“I love comedians. I find comedians to be the realists of the entertainment types,” Covert said. “I’ve never, ever had a hard time getting an autograph from a comedian, or from anybody for that matter. Nine times out of 10 I get to meet them.”

Despite his proximity, Covert has yet to meet Bruce Springsteen, but has his portrait, as large as Elvis’ up on the wall.

Because The Covert Gallery is just a stone’s throw away from the Count Basie Theatre and Fameabilia, it is the perfect location for Covert to work from to get autographs.

“I just did Joy Behar from ‘The View.’ I did her out of her book. She was just at the Count Basie. Nice girl, very sweet,” said Covert. “When I get the autograph, it all comes together.”

He has already sold a few prints since opening the gallery last month. But Covert is unwilling to part with some of his works.

“I don’t ever sell my autographed pieces,” he said.

Covert said he is better at selling pieces by the other artists exhibited in the gallery. Mike Harper, an air brush artist, who has several pieces of Mr. Potato Head visiting famous artists like Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Zeet Peabody, who paints bold, botanical panels, have been welcomed into the space.

“It’s nice to have someone bring some color into this place,” said Covert.