Tim & Amy Cantor: The Art of Smoke + Mirrors

The happening was an unsettling one. Imagine meeting someone. For a brief period of time you are present with them, you feel them and their beauty and – once you part company – genuinely sense the loss. Is that even remotely normal?

Tim & Amy Cantor

Tim & Amy Cantor

It’s probable that I have very little grasp on our modern concept of “normal” and perhaps normal is overrated. But however the experience is classified, such was the case of meeting San Diego residents, Tim and Amy Cantor. To the art world, Cantor is world-renowned: so extraordinary and immediate is his surrealistic expression and innate creativity that revealed itself by the age of 5. Five. Now his collaboration with Imagine Dragons where he’s created a series of pieces for the band’s second album, Smoke + Mirrors, has aligned contemporary art with the world of rock n roll in ways it’s never been before. Easing its accessibility to art world outsiders, making it comfortable but no less dramatic and impactful, they’ve created The Art of Imagine Dragons Smoke + Mirrors gallery.

More than just simple and static album artwork, it’s now a travelling road show of sound and vision that makes a stop in every venue along the Smoke + Mirrors Tour where one can visit Cantor’s striking artwork as well as hear the album in DTS Headphone:X immersive technology (I’ve listened to Smoke + Mirrors many times but had no clue how dense “Friction” actually was). But these are the nuts and bolts of the program.

Tim and Amy Cantor are as handsome a couple as you’ll ever meet and nothing prepared me for meeting them. Not a press release, not a web search – nothing. We’re seated in the DTS Space Lounge at Flood Magazine’s Los Angeles art space a few hours before doors opened for the evening’s showing. Between the two of them is Tim’s shy, gentle and brilliant soul fully accented by Amy’s graceful and tangible warmth. I feel as if I’m speaking with two halves of a fascinating whole; so much that I wonder if one could exist in the absence of the other. Intimate space is felt and I’m not uncomfortable with it: just surprised. I wasn’t expecting to feel as if I wanted to know what they had for breakfast or what their zodiac signs were. Where Tim is soft-spoken, Amy is vibrantly animated. Where Amy begins a memory, Tim effortlessly supports it. It’s a dynamic that’s fascinating to behold and preciously charming. And yet, simple. I’m there to ask questions: we talk and exchange bits ourselves with one another, but what I’m suddenly privy to are the elements of a life and love story.

From Amy’s recall of Tim’s modest “I’m kind of an artist.” answer to her elementary question, “What do you do?” when they first met to the wash of emotional awe felt upon laying eyes upon his paintings for the first time, phrases like “know your destiny” and “dreams come true” accompany the adventures of their past, their present and their future. Like early in his career with a van loaded with his art and supplies, Tim and Amy went “on tour” so to speak, routing from city to city, showing his work around the country at art shows, festivals and even the occasional side of the road. It was an unconventional and very ‘rock n roll’ way of life long before the music came calling. It was also the birth of a devoted and high functioning partnership: one where Tim created the art and Amy served as its gracious ambassador. Possibly the most complementary tag team then and now, 24 years later.

And literally on tour, they are, with Imagine Dragons: we’re talking tour bus, catering, meet and greets and all. “I think that’s why we love this way of life.” Amy shared. “It feels like when we first met. And it’s so special to wake up and have this new adventure where you have no idea what’s going to happen during the day.”

What happens usually includes some random activity such as being the reveal at the end of a fan scavenger hunt, signing hundreds of tour posters, being plied with emotional appreciation for his gift or being called out, singularly and repeatedly praised by Imagine Dragons’ front man, Dan Reynolds, whose father randomly discovered Tim’s work after wandering into their San Diego gallery. Where so much up close and in person outright adulation is a Monday at the office for Imagine Dragons, it’s far from Tim’s comfort zone, but where there’s constant comfort, there’s little growth, challenge or the chance of the unexpectedly exciting occurring. So when you get a phone call from a band requesting your services for their album cover (not knowing that it’s a band you already love and had just recently seen perform on Saturday Night Live), you embrace it and all the madness that comes with. According to Tim, this experience with Imagine Dragons is the first time in his career where the spotlight on him has been this magnified. “In the beginning, I was so nervous.” he admits recalling his first Smoke + Mirrors event but he’s adjusted. It was the Las Vegas listening party and Tim describes himself being interviewed by Mac Reynolds (Imagine Dragons’ manager) on stage in front of 300+ people. It feels as if I’m watching him relive a few anxious moments behind is eyes, but between the band being so accommodating and the fans being so responsive, this marriage of art and music has been a powerful and powerfully satisfying one.

“It’s so fulfilling, it’s so right.” Tim adds. “If it were another band, I might question if I were taking the right path. But there’s never been that question with them.” That sentiment comes out so naturally and with a little smile attached and Amy describes the band as “the greatest guys.” Case in point, at the San Diego show on July 21st after breaking down the art exhibit at the arena, Tim and Amy arrived side stage to watch the rest of the show. “I walked in and he’s [Dan Reynolds] talking to the crowd. And I realize he’s talking about me! He’s telling the crowd the whole crowd this story…about his dad going in and discovering my art…it was amazing.”

“And what he was saying was so incredibly heartfelt…I was balling my eyes out.” Amy laughed. And what Reynolds was saying was what an incredible person Tim was and how much his work inspires him: this at a hometown show with so many of their friends and family present. She finishes by calling that testimony “Everything you hope and dream that someone could say.” I’m not sure if there could be any more love and pride in her voice.

After our talk, the rest of the evening is spent in the role of an appreciator of things far greater than I could understand. The pieces are hung, the listening stations are up and active and throughout the evening I run into at least 9 people I know, including Mac Reynolds. I cycle through each song from Smoke + Mirrors in the order that they’re laid out: the sound is insane. Through the DTS headphones I’m hearing vocals, effects and instrumentation in each song that I had no idea existed: my Marshall headphones and consumer quality mp3s are so sad compared to what was going on between my ears. Amy and Tim circulate through the room together, apart, together again and, oh my, but that caprese hors d’oeuvre is on point. The tree. There’s that damned, disconnected tree for the album’s closer, “The Fall.” Its golden leaves, its roots exposed, above the Earth yet connected? It’s my personal favorite of the Smoke + Mirrors artwork for a few reasons but mainly because it’s the one where, the very first time that I saw it (and every instance since), without hesitation or ambiguity, it evokes one very firm, specific and unexpected thought/feeling/image. That thought is of the Bodhi tree: the sacred tree Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) sat and meditated under for over a month before attaining enlightenment. Wisdom, ancient, compassion…that and more is what I connect and see because of what Tim’s mind saw.

“I try to have meaning to all of my paintings, it’s not just something decorative. Some people connect with certain images, don’t connect with others, but that’s what I love: that everybody who does like my work seems to connect with something.”

Something, indeed. Connections, in general, are special and something to be valued: Tim and Amy’s, the art to the music, the art to those who view it. This connection with Tim and Amy Cantor and my time spent with them is one, in particular, that I’m going to cherish because I’ve never felt anything quite like it. That and that damned beautiful tree.

Enjoy Imagine Dragons’ video for “Shots” where many of Tim’s paintings literally come to life. You can also check out the DTS Headphones:X version of the video HERE.