When you say the name Brad Cushman to an art-minded Arkansan, two things are pretty likely to happen. First, their eyes light up. Cushman’s spark is the kind that imprints itself on the people around him and, like a sort of invisible ink, can make a sudden reappearance under the right conditions. Second, they’ll give you a clue as to which Brad Cushman they know.

For public radio listeners, he’s the host of “Picture This,” a short segment in which Cushman distills centuries of context and art history into a 150-word, 60-second spot on KUAR-FM, 89.1. 

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For the UA Little Rock students he mentored before his retirement in April, he’s the art teacher who loved the ceramic and porcelain pitbull statue in your senior show so much he bought it from you after the exhibit closed. 

For a fellow artist like Delita Martin, he’s the friend who books a trip halfway across the world to see and celebrate your work exhibited at the prestigious Venice Biennale. 

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For his neighbors, he’s the amiable guy who lives in that house with the neon green door with his husband, Bobby Williams Cushman.

Brian Chilson
‘PICTURE THIS’: Brad Cushman and his husband, Bobby Williams Cushman, in their art-centric living room.

For patrons of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts (then the Arkansas Arts Center), he’s the curator responsible for “Face to Face,” a 2013 exhibit of eccentric self-portraits from the collection of Jackye and Curtis Finch Jr., which people still talk about almost 10 years after the fact.

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From “Face to Face.” Ian Ingram’s “Easter Island,” 2011, charcoal, pastel, silver leaf on paper, 82 1/2 in. x 51 in., Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation Collection, Purchased with a gift from Jackye and Curtis Finch, Jr., in honor of Helen Porter and James T. Dyke. 2011.028.001.

For his physical therapist, I suspect, Cushman is the patient constantly on the move, mounting resistance straps on a doorway outside his laundry room to do strengthening exercises; Cushman was born with cerebral palsy and has managed pain  and mobility limits his entire life. 

courtesy of Brad Cushman
The Peanutmobile, created with art students at Southeast Oklahoma State University; Mickey Howley, mechanic, and Cushman.

For residents of Durant, Oklahoma, he was the local art professor who made headlines for “The Big Peanutmobile,” a 1976 Delta 88 Cushman bought from his landlord for a dollar and then, with his students’ help, covered in shell peanuts affixed to the car’s exterior with silicone caulk.

 

Cushman’s aesthetic is a mosaic marvel — part queer Americana, part weirdo outsider art, rarely neutral, resolutely playful, often preoccupied with the human face. The walls in the front room of his and Bobby’s home pay tribute: a wooden head by pop art pioneer Leo Jensen serves as unofficial substitute for a doorbell at the front doorway, donning wire-rim glasses and a functioning metal whistle sprouting from the top of his head, while a trio of images of Black women with natural hairstyles transmit messages in declamatory text: “THE BIGGER THE AFRO THE CLOSER TO GOD” and “I AM AMERICAN/THE PART YOU WON’T RECOGNIZE.” A few feet away is a print with a familiar silhouette — that of the Big Bad Wolf crouched in Grandma’s bed, ready to pounce, hovering above an alternate version of the fairy tale: “I am a little girl. I have a red hood. … I go to grandmother’s house. I carry a basket. ‘Son of a bitch!’ ”

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courtesy Brad Cushman
Brad Cushman standing on the hood of The Tie Rod, Outside of 500X Gallery, Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas, circa 2000.

Like the work that lines every wall, floor to ceiling, Cushman’s own work skips and hops from medium to medium. A serene, soft-focus strata of deep blue oil and acrylic called “Rivercrest I” came from the same hands that embossed a rusty soda can with a spooky, hollow-eyed bunny figure using an antiquated process called solarplate etching, and along the stairway in his home are a series of ’90s-era pieces based on Stellen optometry charts — ruminations on the multiple eye surgeries a young Cushman had for detached retinas, and the month he spent with protective patches over both eyes. When asked to give a “Picture This”-style synopsis of his own work, Cushman told this publication in a 2015 interview that he was probably “a burlesque dancer, vaudeville performer or sideshow barker” in a previous life, but that “today I am just having fun making uncomfortable art in uncomfortable shoes. If you hear anxious laughter in the gallery, then hopefully (good or bad) I have hit a nerve.” 

Cushman has carried that love of the uncomfortable into the halls of academia, too, as curator for the galleries at UA Little Rock. From the time he took the job in 2000, he’s remained steadfastly committed to displaying work from historically ignored voices, and work that grapples with systemic racism, political enmity and institutional bias, like Joe Jones’ meticulously restored mural “The Struggle of the South.” When word hit our editorial desk in 2021 that Cushman was curating something called “A Visionary Vernacular Road Trip,” an exhibit that included, among other wonders by self-taught artists, oddities by the late painter Jane ‘in vain’ Winkelman and by Gurdon (Clark County)-based railroad man and folk artist buZ blurr, it was clear that Cushman had no intentions of playing it safe with the exhibition space the university had named after him, let alone running out the retirement clock with conservative curatorial choices.

courtesy UA Little Rock Windgate Center of Art + Design
From “A Visionary Vernacular Road Trip,” “Tank Head” by buZ blurr, 2000, mixed media.

Chalk it up to his warmly mischievous personality, or to his decades of experience. Cushman’s first curating gig came when he was a high school student in Illinois, before he even knew what a curator was. Cushman’s art teacher, Mr. Edwards, assigned him to keep some display cases full of objects — seasonal decor, maybe a megaphone for a pep rally. “He was the first one who got me thinking about objects and their relationships,” Cushman told us, “how you create a setup. And those are all the elements that come into play when you’re staging an exhibition.” 

The same goes for his art. Before Cushman thought of himself as an artist, he was honing a skill most fundamental to the craft: Make what you can with what’s available. As a child in the Midwest, Cushman and his brother staged backyard carnivals and DIY haunted houses, soaking up dramaturgical sensibilities from “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Adam-12,” “Gilligan’s Island” and Sonny & Cher’s variety act. (Later, Cushman would see Sonny and Cher live at the Illinois State Fair, and to this day remembers Cher turning to Sonny and saying in the throes of comedy: “Oh, fuck off.” He counts this as a pivotal moment in his pop culture education, along with the time he and his family ended up at the same St. Louis hotel as The Monkees.) “We were making boats out of scrap wood to float in the creek,” he recalled, “or doing paper mache birds. It was like, ‘Make your fun. Make your stuff.’ And that was a gift.” 

These days, he and Bobby find any excuse they can to host friends in their dining room — the room a realtor escorted them into 7 years ago, sealing the deal right then and there with an abundance of natural light and a grand view of where the Little Maumelle meets the Arkansas River. A thickset Kensuke Yamada sculpture extends its childlike ceramic hands toward the sky, and the couple’s 15-year-old cat, Charlie, wandered over to find a spot on the sun-warmed tile as Brad defended the thesis that he is not the only artist in the house; Bobby “has an engineer’s mind,” Brad said, and when Bobby’s real estate job got slow in the early days of the pandemic, he designed a series of decorative leather masks, donating the sales to the Arkansas Foodbank. Their origin story as a couple is quintessential modern gay romance: They found each other on a site called Manhunt (IYKYK) while Bobby was working as an over-the-road trucker, and the two began what Brad called “a telephone courtship, truly,” talking for hours on end and plotting ways for their paths to intersect along Bobby’s work routes. “We talked about what we wanted, what we believed in,” Brad said. “A true courtship, which is kind of a rare thing in this world.”

Brian Chilson
Brad Cushman and Bobby Williams Cushman

Sitting in the dining room with the river view, they finish each other’s sentences. They’d just returned from two weeks in Spain and Italy on “contemporary art overload,” and were comparing the Spanish wine they bought in Little Rock to the wine they’d had in Barcelona. The older streets and plazas of old Europe aren’t especially known for their accessibility, and Cushman wanted to retire early enough to get in some travel while he still feels like it. “It’s a 60-year-old body! There’s a lot of wear and tear.” Last fall, his doctors told him his body was producing excessive amounts of calcium. Bad news for the spine, with no real surgical remedy. So, he formed a plan to retire, and he and Bobby googled “mobility-friendly cities in Europe,” turning up search results like London, Barcelona and Berlin. And off they went. “You can tell a lot about a country when you see how they take care of the vulnerable people, the people who need extra care,” he said. “It is embedded into the culture very deeply in Europe.” 

In a downstairs guest room, I watched Cushman pick up a weathered baseball glove from his childhood with the letters B-R-A-D in faded Sharpie on the blonde leather, his arm resting on the forearm crutch he uses to help him get around. Cushman had told me in an earlier conversation that as a kid, he wasn’t big on reminiscing. “I was always saying, what’s the next thing we can do? How are we gonna decorate our bikes next?” Born two months prematurely, Cushman said he jokes that he had to bust out of the womb early: “I got stuff to do! … So, I’m still running, I think. Running in place. And that’s an interesting place to be as I’m retiring. I’m stepping out of a job, and there’s a little pause, and I’m gonna exhale, and we’ll see where the shift is gonna go. To be determined.”