Art Chat with Kevin Sloan
Kevin Sloan's paintings are magical. The Denver based artist renders breathtaking imagery of flora and fauna sprinkled with elements of civilization all designed to convey a deeper message on humanity. In anticipation of the unveiling of his painting, 'Optimist's Reef' in Platinum Blend 2, we took an opportunity to have a chat with Sloan and gain more insight into his work. Here he talks about growing up in the Midwest, the symbolism in his art, and Titian's 'Bacchus and Adriande'.
How did growing up in the Midwest shape your creativity? Did anyone in your family nurture your creative talent?
I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. While the stereotype is one filled with farms and ignorance, the opposite was true for me. I was very fortunate to have had an amazing and supportive high school art department and access to a world class museum where I took classes at night and weekend for years as a kid. My family is definitely not “artistic” in the traditional sense. However, my mother was always working on some sort of furniture refinishing or craft project so there were always brushes and tools around to play with. I think her interest in creating or transforming something had a positive effect on me. I’ve always felt like growing up in Iowa was a little like being in the middle of everything and the middle of nothing. Living so far from the large coastal urban centers, I always yearned to visit those places and cities like New York and Los Angeles held a mythic spell over me. Eventually I would see and live in many of those areas however my relatively modest upbringing allowed me to see the greater world with awe and gratitude.
Has painting allegories given you more insight into the human condition?
Creating visual stories by the use of allegory allows me to point at something in the world without screaming about it. I don’t feel like my visual language has given me more insight into the human condition but it definitely lets me describe the world as I experience it. My intention when using allegorical imagery is to open up possibilities of seeing the world through a different lens. My deep concern for the natural world and our part in supporting or denigrating it is expressed in a more poetic/allegorical way. My hope is this allows for a softer introduction into the idea at hand. No one likes to be screamed and likewise, I don’t want my art to scream at the viewer. Allegorical imagery is a way for me to invite the viewer in gently and if they let themselves, go to a deeper level where the more challenging story is being told. To paraphrase the poet Robert Frost - I believe a painting should begin in delight and end in wisdom.
Tell us about your process. How does a painting evolve from conception to completion?
I keep a small sketchbook with me nearly always. Most paintings start here in the form of a small, very simple sketch or more likely, a written note to grab the idea that just floated by. I’ve learned to be very respectful of ideas as they appear to me and immediately write them down. From there, I’ll figure out the format for the idea - sometimes it’s a small idea and needs a small surface to be realized, others need more space and drama of scale. If I”m working with very specific images I will start looking for reference materials. I keep hundreds of printed photos as well as many on my computer to refer to. I also avidly search online for images that will be helpful. Currently, all the work is acrylic on stretched canvas, I prepare the canvas and start drawing with soft charcoal; this can go on for days as I work out compositional issues, etc. Eventually, the drawing process comes to an end and I brush way nearly everything, leaving a ghost of a drawing. I then start with very thin washes of color which eventually grow into more realized areas of shapes, backgrounds, etc. Through all this, I’m constantly drawing on the painting to work out issues as they arise. Ultimately, this process begins more precise until the point where the painting doesn’t need me any longer.
There's a myriad of imagery and symbolism happening in your work for Platinum Blend 2, 'Optimist's Reef'. Tell us a little bit about what’s going on here.
“Optimist’s Reef” is a story about threat to the oceans and hope. I’ve essentially created a still life, kind of a marine bouquet which appears to be simultaneously under water and in a dark, theatrical space. The lit candle being held above speaks to hope, the falling dice refer to risk and gambling, the clock to time passing. Human presence is evidenced by the discarded and broken teacup. I’ve spent a lot of time snorkeling in coral reefs and the still healthy ones are incredibly beautiful but very fragile. When you’re in that environment it’s clear it’s a complete and complex ecosystem but amazingly, when you come above the surface it suddenly disappears from view, like it’s not even there. I think we often disregard or forget about the things we do not see. This painting is a plea from below the surface - the candle is being held aloft in order to be seen - like a tiny lighthouse offering direction and hope.
If you cold hang only one artwork from art history in your home or studio, what would it be and why?
I’m so deeply in love with so many artworks from throughout history it’s very difficult to choose only one! But, for many years I’ve a small reproduction of Titian’s painting “Bacchus and Ariadne” in my studio. It would be amazing to live with the actual painting. I was able to see the it a few years ago at the National Gallery in London where it hangs in a room with other stunning Titian paintings. It’s about 68”x75” so it’s a decent, impressive size to support the crazy scene he portrays. It refers to Greek mythology and while I know a little of those stories, I don’t know a lot. Despite that, there is a pageantry and drama in the painting which transcends my lack of knowledge of the source material. There is elegance, beauty, a flying man, a man entwined in a snake, a barking dog, a severed cows head and leg, drunk people and gods all in an amazing parade banging cymbals and tambourines in a gorgeous landscape. It’s like an out of control party and yet, it’s so incredibly, perfectly in balance and harmony. It’s a masterpiece.
Tell us something about yourself we wouldn’t necessarily know.
The answer to this question goes back to the first question in some ways. While I was born and raised in Des Monies, Iowa and currently live in Denver, I’ve had the great fortune of living in what I feel are some of the most interesting places in the United States. I’ve taken advantage of my relative freedom as an artist and followed my curiosity and love of travel and lived in a lot of places. Here’s the list so far in chronological order: Philadelphia, Tucson, Phoenix, San Francisco, New Orleans, New York City, Key West, Ft. Lauderdale, Santa Fe, NM and now finally Denver. All these places have affected my work in some form and become part of my visual cast of characters and language.
If I were to spend the day with Kevin, what could I expect?
You could expect to go to work! I have the great privilege of getting to go to my studio every day and work. No more “day job”, so I can focus all my attention and energy into my studio work. I generally get up fairly early, around 6am, and start my day slowly and quietly with coffee and reading the newspaper - yes, the real newspaper delivered to the door! I love the paper and the size of the thing and the turning of the big pages. I also spend some time checking emails and all that before I either get ready to go to the studio or on certain days some exercising, then off to the studio. I try to get to the studio by 8:30-9:00. I get started pretty quickly after getting there and depending on the day it’s either painting on a work in progress, preparing new canvases or dealing with gallery and client correspondence . I also, sell prints of my work so some days there are print orders to be shipped and all the work that comes with that. My studio is in a wonderful artist studio community in Denver, Ironton Studios, so most likely I will run into a studio mate throughout the day, have a brief conversation and we go back to work. It’s kind of like being alone together - the perfect balance of solitude and community. My day continues like this - paint a while, check emails, social media, etc, paint, walk outside, paint, etc., etc. Somedays a short nap is involved and all days have a nice coffee break mid afternoon either in the studio or at a cafe in the neighborhood. I tend to go home around 4:30-5:00 so I can spend the rest of the day with my partner Mark and our crazy dogs Otis and Poppy. I try to not go to the studio on weekends and instead get outdoors and play. Denver has a great mix of urban and natural world, I love to dive into both.
Platinum Blend 2 opens January 9th at Modern Eden Gallery, 801 Greenwich St., San Francisco, CA 94133, www.moderneden.com