Interview with Ryan Richey
Questions by Nancy Kim
I heard that you’ve recently moved to California after living and working in your art community in Chicago for 12 years?
Yes, we left our beloved Chicago for the Bay Area in the fall of 2016. About a year later, my wife was offered a wonderful opportunity that brought us to Southern California, and closer to Los Angeles. It’s been really good for both of us.
Has California started seeping into your artworks yet visually or conceptually? If so, in what way?
My paintings have become more colorful. I don’t know if that is because it is so bright out here or it’s due to my mood improving from all the sunshine. The pace of life is more chill here too. It has made me slow down and spend more time on each painting.
Are there things in California that you always seem to notice or think about?
I have taken notice of how everyday looks beautiful and similar. When we first moved to Southern California, I would forget what day it was. I love how there’s no humidity. The nature is gorgeous. The vibes from people are generally positive.
How have your circumstances changed and how has this impacted your work? Have you noticed a change visually or conceptually? Have you noticed a change in how you work?
When we first moved to California, I found myself thinking about Chicago more often, and what it’s like to be new to a place. You’ll see some Chicago in a few of my recent paintings, “Lap Swim,” and “Tourist.” “Lap Swim” is the public pool that was at the end of our block in Chicago where I would swim every week. “Tourist” is from the viewpoint of someone surrounded by Chicago’s buildings when you are new to the city, and looking up, can only catch a glimpse of a little sky peeking out. Additionally, the buildings in that painting are ones that made a lasting impression on me.
I have kept the same working routines as in Chicago. I paint as much as I can everyday. Some days it’s eight hours, other days, like yesterday, all I have time for is to paint a perfect circle in a half hour. When I’m not able to paint I think about what has happened or what is to come. A lot of decisions are taking place when I’m running errands or at work. That to me is just as valid as working on the painting.
The biggest change since moving to our new place is that I’m working in a studio instead of a room in where we live. It is a shed that a previous tenant had converted into an office. So my work is separate from my home life, however I do sneak into our living room from time to time to paint.
The environment where we are has helped too. I mentioned the sunshine earlier, but there’s also the peacefulness. I tend to work better in solitude and there’s plenty of that to be had. At the same time it’s not too far from LA, when I need to see other artists and shows.
You talk about seeing Chicago appearing in your paintings. Does Chicago appear more since you moved away? Do you find Chicago appearing in your paintings in a way that goes beyond subject matter? Is there a look or Chicago style of artwork or history that you tap into? Does Chicago have a Chicago-ness? What does that look like?
Chicago has had something to do with most of my new work. I can understand my time there better, since I have distance. It is where I came of age. I feel like my experiences there have set me up for the rest of my artistic career.
While we were living in Chicago I was influenced visually and conceptually by the work of my peers, the Monster Roster and the Imagists, professors, co-workers, and many others. Maybe it’s a Midwest thing, but I’ve always felt that Chicago art keeps it real most of the time. That realness is something that has to be there in each of my paintings. For example, my painting “Artist/Server”, addresses the reality of many artists, including myself at times, working jobs that’ll generate a quick steady income, like waiting tables. The sugar caddy is a staple at many of these jobs in the industry and has strong formal elements that I’m attracted to. I enjoy making the sugar caddies look good by arranging the correct numbers of sugar packets in a aesthetically pleasing color scheme. I love how art bleeds into life and vice versa.
I’m struck by a sense of nostalgia. In Chicago, themes seemed to reflect moments in your hometown of Knightstown, Indiana. Now you seem to be pulling back on moments in Chicago while in California. Is it nostalgia? What role does nostalgia play in your work?
Nostalgia certainly plays a role in my paintings. All of my paintings are inspired by memories, or situations that have happened. Each painting has a background story, that relates on a micro and macro level and shifts between past and present. When I moved to Chicago, I thought about Indiana a lot. Out in California, Chicago is often on my mind. However it's the things that are happening now which are stirring these memories. For example, I just finished a painting called "Daytime TV.” This painting came about because I had game show television on in the background during the day while looking for a job when we first moved to California. For the longest time I've been interested in the game show "The Price is Right.” In the small town in Indiana where I grew up, everyone seemed to watch “The Price is Right.” It's exciting, you can win all this stuff, but then you have to pay taxes on it. There’s a certain amount of sadness in the frenzy and the game show producers are clever enough to never mention this side of the business. I'm sure a lot of prizes get left behind. My paintings are both personal to me and have a message that rings true with many people.
What is it that you understand better when you move away from a place and look back on it?
When living in a place it takes me a long time to figure out what’s going on. Even after all the time I’ve lived in different places there is probably much I still don’t understand. However as the years pass my mind puts the puzzles together. I’m a late bloomer.
The not knowing and then figuring things out have kept my life interesting. That goes for my artistic practice as well.
When I look at your work, I often feel as if they circumnavigate a concept of “home”. Do you think this is accurate? If so, where is home or what is home? Is it a specific place or is it always shifting? Is it a concept? Are you homesick?
Yes, I feel like I’m always searching for home. I feel like I’m continuing to try to find my place in this world. To me, home is being around my loved ones. When I’m in the company of them, I truly feel comfortable. Being shy it takes me a long time to develop these relationships. I’ve been moving around and so have my friends and family. Being far away makes it harder to connect. I wish we could all live together in a big house or in the same town. An artist friend of mine mentioned creating an artist nursing home once.
How important is an art community to an artist? In what ways? What do you miss most about your Chicago community?
Being a part of an art community has been vital to my art practice. To feed off the energy and contribute to it helps us all out. Painting can be lonely. We need each other! I am inspired by everyone’s successes, enjoy seeing them succeed, just as I’m sure they are happy for me too.
Chicago gave me strong, deep friendships that will continue on throughout my life. The Chicago art community was really the first place where I grew deep roots in the art community, and felt embedded in the art culture of the city. Although we don’t see each other as often, we are still connected.
Can you talk about your artistic practice? It’s a typical studio day: How do you start? Do you start with a clear picture in your head? Do you start knowing what the painting is about? What’s your studio environment like? Do you work in short bursts?
The ideas for my paintings can hit me any time, any where. I’m highly influenced by the physical environment around me, so I may be struck by an idea that is inspired by how a single lily was not growing as fast as all the others in our backyard (“Late Bloomer”) or a sense of calm in anxious moments that my grandma experienced as a Beekeeper (“The Bees will Know if You’re Afraid.”) I don’t plan, or prepare, for ideas, they just come to me. As an Artist, I try to be as open as possible to internalizing the environment around me. I keep a journal and write and sketch everything down, but the most important ideas keep coming back like they are asking to be made.
When it comes to actually creating the artwork, I dedicate as much time I have each day, even it is a little bit. I can work at any time of the day. Sometimes it’s like working out, but way better. At first you may not want to or have a million other things going on, yet you will realize how good it is once you get going.
I also will try to go to a show each week or engage with other artists in some way. It’s just as important to see new work, meet new artists, catch up with the artists you have been traveling with, feel connected to your community, as it is to create the art itself.
Lately my paintings have been getting progressively more detail-oriented and require much more time, effort and concentration. When I sit down to start working on a painting, I am able to pick right back up where I left off because I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to do or try up to that point.
You’ve talked about your use of symmetry in past interviews, what about pattern?
It’s human nature to seek out patterns in our physical environment. In order to understand the world, we recognize patterns. I like patterns because they are able to create structure in an otherwise chaotic environment. Patterns are also able to depict the rhythm of movement in a painting. My paintings are intimate and domestic, which lend themselves to patterns. For example, there are several patterns in quilts, neck ties, shirts and dresses. The things that we put on our bodies, that comfort and protect us. I don’t know if there are patterns that are completely universal, but I like to use them in that way. The more recognizable the better. I use certain shapes, colors, and objects for the same reasons. I would like everyone to get it.
I know you as a writer, musician, performer, as well as, painter. Are you still engaged with all these parts of yourself? How do these aspects feed into your work? Do you find that different media extracts different parts of yourself? Do you explore different themes when you cross over to a different media? How does the media affect your expression?
Yes, I still write and make music. I love to sing. I have a pretty good amount of writing and songs that I’ve been working on. I’ll perform if the time is right. However painting has been taking up more and more of my energy.
I mostly just made paintings before going to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. While there, as you know, we were encouraged to be interdisciplinary. There I discovered all these other talents I have, but never previously pursued. After graduating, I slowly I began to fold all of those talents back into painting. I experienced a point of doing too many things at once without having enough time to do everything to the extent it needed to be done. Since that realization, I’ve refocused my energies onto painting.
In the past you’ve described your work as being about the “vulnerability of living” and punctuated by a “desperateness to belong.” How have these themes come to be? Are these themes ones that you’ve personally experienced?
Those feelings have been with me since childhood. I’m still trying to fit in. The challenge is to keep putting yourself out there. There’s a part of me that would like to just make art all of the time, but it’s almost like if a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it.
I’m lucky that I was able to find the world that is right for me. Growing up in a small town in Indiana I had no idea about the art world or any other world outside of where we lived. I just felt different than most people there. It could’ve been because of my Mom’s religion, my Dad being gay, or my introversion. Maybe I was just too sensitive or in my head too much. My mom working as a nurse to help me get to college was the best thing that ever happened to me.
In Chicago, during graduate school at the SAIC, was the first time I felt normal. I recognized and met others who were just as drawn to the creative life as me. And it was the first time I felt connected to a community who understood me and my passions. The professors felt like family. I’m grateful I was able to have these experiences and life-long friendships from the SAIC.
Your paintings always have a story behind them and yet with your current works, there is a way in which the images are crystallized. They feel like symbols or markers for your stories.
Yes, when I think of the stories there is usually an image that I start with. I ask myself, “What to leave or take away? From what angle? How close or far away?” There are many questions that have to be dealt with. Eventually the image will click.
My earliest paintings were extremely specific to the stories. As I have grown older and gained more experience in the world, I have been opening them up to as many people as possible, searching for the wide-spread themes.
When you look at your previous work and current work, how has your work evolved? Where do you see it going?
That’s what keeps me hooked. I don’t know where it is going. I try to focus on one at a time. Giving each painting the respect and attention it deserves. Once the painting is finished, I start stirring up the next one.
I used to make a lot of paintings fast. One year I made a hundred or so. Now I make about one a month. Slowing down the volume has helped each painting. It has also created a backlog of ideas, from which I will be able to draw from for some time. My journal is full with ideas. The ideas are marinating longer, cross pollinating with other ideas, and becoming stronger.
All of my previous work stays on mind and continues to serve as either an inspiration or reference. I have created a visual library over time for myself. That is why my website is helpful not just to showcase my work, but also to help me remember.
As an artist, what do you find to be the biggest obstacle to making your work? What struggles do you face in the studio?
I often get that familiar, haunting feeling of “what the hell am I doing” between paintings and usually during the middle point of making a painting. Sometimes I feel like I follow a classical narrative arc in the creation of a painting. This feeling is essential, because it pushes me to find the solution.
Is there a particular work of yours that holds special place in your heart? Why?
“Our Last Childhood Pet” I’ve felt the closest too. Nancy, I think you saw it being made. I figured out a lot of things in that painting. Along with the title there was just enough information in that painting to convey the narrative. It was about the last pet in our family dying and all of us standing around her grave at a makeshift backyard funeral. The painting was also about the closing of childhood for me, the end of innocence.
In your career, where are you? Do you feel like you’ve made it? What did “making it” look like 10 years ago? What does it look like now?
I feel like I’m still making interesting work, so I’m actively making it. My last year in Chicago I got to show in two galleries I’d always wanted to: Shane Campbell and Roots & Culture. I also got to help run a space for a while, ADDS DONNA. Currently I’m trying to figure things out in California.
I felt like I made it when I was accepted into the SAIC years ago. I didn’t know much about the art world at the time, just that it was one of the best schools. A few years after I graduated, in 2010, I felt like I made it again. I had a solo show at Rowley Kennerk’s gallery on Peoria St., which was the main art hub in Chicago at the time. The opening was the night of all the big openings. Kehinde Wiley had a show open at Rhona Hoffman right across the street. My whole family came up from Indiana.
I have made it enough times to know that it can happen again if you keep making work and putting yourself out there. My inspiration has always been Alice Neel. All that she went through. Her boyfriend destroying all of her work. The decades of obscurity.
Were you always interested in art? Was the path to art-making a linear one?
My mom said my favorite thing when I was really young was to sit in a window sill and color all day. I always felt at home in art classes. Art is what I excelled at. There has not been a time where I haven’t been thinking about art or making art. When I first went to college at Purdue University, my mom encouraged me to go into a promising field of study, so I chose accounting. Accounting switched to Graphic Design, because it’s like art with money-making opportunities (what my guidance counselor told me). Finally I switched to Fine Art and everything felt right in the world.
I love looking at pictures of my paintings from that time. It wouldn’t be until I went to the SAIC that I would even know about the art world. It seems like another person made that work. It was without all of the rules and the toolbox I have now.
Besides the art community, for a lot of people, their families play a supportive role. Does your family support your artistic career? In what way? If not, where do you find support?
My family is the only reason I’m able to do it. The root of my practice comes from my family having a long tradition of storytelling. That’s what we always do whether in person or over the phone. A lot of the time it’s the same stories, but each time they change a little. Also each family member tells the same stories differently. We fascinate each other and crack each other up.
They are always there for me in life and in art. My family will listen to anything. Ultimately they just want me to be happy. I also get a lot of support from my friends, past professors and coworkers.
Do you ever get in your own way? How?
The only thing that gets in my way for me is life, but mostly a day job. I’ve always wanted to be able to paint all day long and at the same time wondered if I could handle it. I have to say though, that my day jobs, have not only provided me with money, but also I’ve gotten to really know people from all walks of life, from all over the world. We’ve spent so much time together. A lot of ideas about how to live life and what to make art about have stemmed from these experiences.
Ryan, you always have such a particular take on people you meet or situations you find yourself in that seems to work their way into your paintings. So what has been on your mind lately? What is your latest painting about?
The current painting I’m working on is about riding the bus. In Chicago I rode the 66 for ten years. It was one of the more diverse routes, because it went through so many different neighborhoods. I loved riding that bus up and down Chicago Avenue, especially if I had a seat! I would walk down to further away spots just so I could get on earlier. The very back by a window was my spot where I could come up with ideas in my sketchbook, read, or daydream.
I will never forget the first time I rode it. I was working overnights at the time, so I would fall asleep almost anytime I would sit down. When I took the bus home after my first shift, I fell asleep on there and woke up at the end of the line. I got back on the bus, fell asleep again, and ended up back downtown. The third time I got back on I stood up hugging a pole and told the driver my stop. Years later I developed the ability to take a nap on the bus and wake up on time.
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Ryan and his work, check out his website.
Written by Nancy Kim. Nancy is an artist living and working in Bologna, Italy. For more about her work check out her website.