Assembling Ghastly Figures
“Adults grow up and they are forced to stop creating because of pressure from the rest of society. It’s “normal” to draw, color, act a fool when one is young. For some reason, a lot of grown-ups think its immature to “waste” ones time making things. It’s a damn shame that so many art programs in schools around the US are being cut. It’s the most important thing a child can learn: it stimulates the brain and gives kids a real positive outlet.”
Introduction by Alexandra Nicholis Coon – Executive Director, Massillon Museum
Interview Theo Constantinou
All museum curators hope for the opportunity to work with artists who inspire and consistently surprise them, and who demonstrate humility in spite of their larger-than-life talent and prolific gallery showings. Steve Ehret is the breed of hometown talent that makes me proud to work in this rustbelt Ohio community, and he is a genuinely nice guy to boot. Whether Ehret is speaking of his love of running, of music, or a favorite book, he shares his passion for all these things, and life, equally with art making.
Many of Ehret’s gritty characters are brought to life through the slick media of oil paint on board. That he finds himself paralyzed in the presence of lavish and magnificently succulent still life paintings by 17th-century Dutch and Flemish masters comes as no surprise. In some ways, Ehret is a throwback to an earlier era; he embodies that romantic ideal of the isolated artist, working obsessively in his studio with little evident influence from the outside world. His paintings—whether on traditional media or sprawled out over building façades—have their own sets of mythologies constructed within the realm of Ehret’s imagination. His repertoire includes monsters with bulging eyeballs and egg-shaped creatures, marine mammals and landscapes with dilapidated houses and treacherous terrain. A mixture of fictional beasties and animals from the natural world often inhabit the panorama of Ehret’s large-scale murals, and emerge from their dimension directly into ours like all hell is breaking loose.
The ghastly figures assembled in his paintings are reminiscent of those in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, yet, we don’t feel as though Ehret is preaching any messages about morality or teaching us history lessons—it’s uncertain as to whether or not there is any intended narrative. The artist’s cast of characters is used more as a vehicle to explore different themes and experiment with a variety of media. His monsters, though mostly terrifying, are at the same time whimsical.
It’s evident that Ehret has fun with his art, and that he aspires only to continue experimenting with new media and subjects in the future, getting better and better each time at materializing the creatures from his wild imagination into our world. Soon enough I expect them to literally leap from the surface of his work. Whether or not they will I can’t say, but one thing’s for certain: I can’t wait to see what this guy does next.
Steve, you said that you did not discover that you were an artist until your late teens. Can you talk about this further?
I think I always knew that I really enjoyed drawing when I was in grade school. All through high school I drew almost every day, in every class. Bad grades. I don’t think I realized how much I wanted to paint until right after I graduated. I started painting when I was 18 and I have not stopped since. I just never thought of painting or drawing to be a real career choice until then. No one seemed to be too thrilled about me only wanting to paint all day and night, but once I was out of school I could start making my own choices, good or bad.
When I first saw your work it slightly reminded me of the scene in the film The Phantom Tollbooth, when Milo drives his car into the Doldrums. Are you familiar with this book / film, and if so, does any of your inspiration come from these characters?
Somehow I have never read this book or scene any of its illustrations. I looked it up after I read your question and I’m not sure how I never sought out this book. Maybe I will dig into in over the winter months.
It was Kerouac who said, “All human beings are also dream beings. Dreaming ties all mankind together.” What are your thoughts on this statement?
It’s true. No one can really control what they dream when asleep which makes everyone equal. Nothing better than waking up from a dream that has you running for your life or fighting off some kind of demon that you swear is real. When I was younger, I was an avid sleep walker and I still sometimes wake up in the oddest places: it makes sleeping fun. Almost an adventure. I hope to never walk into the middle of the road or stumble out a window.
One of the first interviews I did was with Ed Templeton, and asked him about something he had said, “Kind of the weird tragedy when you become an adult is that you grow up and stop creating and involving yourself in the joy of coloring and creation, and I feel that I was lucky enough to never lose that.” Why do you think that the majority of adults lose their sense of creativity?
That line really stuck out when I watched Beautiful Losers for the first time. It’s so fucking true. That’s all I could think. Gave me chills. Adults grow up and they are forced to stop creating because of pressure from the rest of society. It’s “normal” to draw, color, act a fool when one is young. For some reason, a lot of grown-ups think its immature to “waste” ones time making things. It’s a damn shame that so many art programs in schools around the US are being cut. It’s the most important thing a child can learn: it stimulates the brain and gives kids a real positive outlet.
Can you talk a bit more about being an artist in the Midwest, specifically Ohio? Does a scene exist or, are their just some lone renegade artists perfecting their craft waiting to show their art on a national level?
Ohio is interesting because I see both things going on…I can only really speak for NE Ohio though. There is an incredible amount of talent from Canton, Akron and Cleveland. There are pockets of artists in each city that are killing it. Almost all the artists know one another and there are always a million ideas floating around. I grew up showing in Canton, Ohio and the scene has really evolved in the last eight to ten years. So many new galleries popping up and so much talent showing in these spots. People have really embraced the arts; it’s helped really bring Canton back. There are some artists who are looking for a springboard to some bigger galleries in the big cities, but not everyone is on that road. For me, Ohio is great because it’s cheap to live in. I live off artwork which would be super tough to do if I lived in a big city with high rent. It’s in the middle of Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York and Philly: all great cities, and each one only a few hours away. I think I’ll always have a home base in Ohio and, as long as I keep traveling when I can then that’s just dandy with me.
Carl Jung said, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” Do you think it is important to realize your deepest darkest parts of your conscious in order to become ‘enlightened’?
I think it’s important to search for everything good and bad. Light and dark. I tend to pull more inspiration out of the darker parts, rather than be when the sun is setting, while out in the woods or just from a feeling. I get inspired by the times when most are inside their houses or asleep. Some people are afraid of the quiet moments; I tend to thrive in them.
I am not sure if you have seen this, but I recently just saw this portion of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart about SOPA. What are your thoughts as an artist who produces ‘copyrighted’ works, and the idea that the American government can shut down people’s websites who publish copyrighted materials illegally and jail people for up to five years for streaming copyrighted materials?
This law will be tough to pass because artists are much more informed these days about legislation coming down the pipes. They can’t arrest everyone: as long as we are all in it together were good.
In the book Running with the Buffaloes, Chris Lear says, “In many ways, a race is analogous to life itself. Once it is over, it cannot be re-created. All that is left are impressions in the heart, and in the mind.” Life is truly like a race but, do you think that all that is left are impressions of the heart and mind, or do you think ones legacy leaves something more than just those impressions?
One of the most important books I read growing up was Running with the Buffaloes. Coming from a running background I understand that a race is a special and also challenging time that cannot be re-created. It can be re-played in one’s mind, but once the finish line is crossed it’s over. I would say that running relates to life in the fact that there are up’s and downs in the daily training and racing. I think we leave behind ideas and memories. I believe one’s legacy is just a sum up of their life.
Atmosphere’s song “Always Coming Back Home to You” has had a serious impact on me since I heard it nearly eight years ago. At the end of the song he says:
“No matter where I am, no matter what I do,
They can leave me for dead they can take away my true,
Through the lies and the sins that ride the wind that blew,
If only I had known what you already knew,
From the heaven I’ve had to the hell I been through,
I’m always coming back home to you …
Can you take each line and relate it to your life in some way, and describe what each line makes you feel?
Man, this song. This album. At the time I listened to this song I was going through a shitty time. These tracks really helped me out in a big way. I used to paint every night after work when everyone was asleep and these songs just sank right in. During that time, I think I really realized how much I needed to paint and improve myself. I found out that no matter what happens to me, or where I may end up, that drawing and painting will always be there. That gave me a lot of comfort. I can’t say that each line has an impact on me, but the song in its entirety is very moving.