By Kaely Monahan, GetOut
Imagine standing on the edge of a pier looking out over the ocean. It’s night. The blackness is absolute and yet the demarcation between horizon and ocean is visible — just barely. A feeling of incredible awe and smallness overwhelms you as you stare out over infinity.
“I tried doing a painting of it, but it’s really hard to depict the feeling of that.”
That’s contemporary painter Jon Wassom. He described the feeling as he toured GetOut through his studio home in Phoenix. It’s rare for him to not capture the essence of his subject. His works are wild, expressive windows that invites the viewer to make a journey. The colors are amped up to the max. Only seeing them in person can do them justice.
However, an all black painting of the ocean probably wouldn’t capture the feeling of standing at the edge of night. Not to mention it would be a direct opposite of Wassom’s usual vibrant style. Working mainly with oils and acrylics, he meticulously layers his paint, allowing it to evolve there on the canvas.
“It’s always a challenge to work on getting a cohesion. Paintings will flip into new paintings — they evolve just like us.”
Inside his cozy home turned studio visions of faraway landscapes cover the walls. Some are actual places like Red Square in Moscow or Ocean Beach in San Diego; others are direct from his imagination like the glacial blue of A New Zealand Dream.
“I really want to travel the world,” he said with wanderlust.
The paintings reflect this, like a visual bucket list they show places that Wassom would one day like to visit.
“Traveling and experiencing things is the most important thing,” he said. “It kind of boosted the tail end of my inspiration for my show Palettes of the World.”
Palettes, showing Aug. 7-30 at The monOrchidstudios on Roosevelt Row, is a visual journey of color and pattern that wouldn’t be remiss in a Fantasia film.
“I like the mix of abstract expressionism with realism because people can project their own experience into the paint,” he said. “I like it, but it’s also a challenge to mix both.”
It is human nature to look for patterns and faces in things. Wassom is a face-seer and adds the realist human element to each of his paintings. They invite the observer inby throwing in familiar things like buildings or figures, but once inside, the viewer can take their own journey. He’s more interested in allowing the audience to become part of the “how” of his paintings, rather than get hung up on the “what.”
“Some people will be like, ‘Oh! Hey! Do you see this? Or that?’ or ‘Is this another face?’ I’ll be like it wasn’t intended to be but it is for you. It’s like looking at clouds.”
Each person brings their own experience to his works and he gets excited by what others will see. In his painting of Hong Kong, there’s a swirl of paint that looks almost like the Death Star from Star Wars. In his landscape of New Zealand, one can almost see Middle Earth, but someone else with a different history could see entirely different things.
Wassom said that he was introduced to art late in life. He wasn’t one of those kids industriously scribbling on sidewalks or in notebook margins.
“I didn’t start doing it until high school,” he admitted almost sheepishly.
It was his high school art teacher who ignited the spark for art in his heart.
“She was a crazy lady. She was fun,” he said with a grin.
That teacher was Zan Burningham — a renowned and award-winning artist. Her zeal motivated her students to reach new levels in their art. Under her guidance the high school artists were creating award-winning works of their own, both regionally and nationally.
“I just remember being fascinated.” Wassom said. “It was art 24/7 once I hit high school. Zan Burningham was a big, big part of inspiring me.”
Once kindled his flaming passion for art took him to Utah State where he studied art. Out of all his courses, painting was the class that consumed him.
“I kind of flunked out of art school because I painted too much — I wouldn’t do the other classes. But I got really good at painting! I probably took advanced painting like 10 times.”
Movement is the underlying theme in all of Wassom’s works. He is constantly trying to capture the physicality of life in his paintings. He is an ice skater as well as a painter, and he draws a lot of inspiration from that.
“I originally moved to Phoenix because I’m a competitive figure skater — or was,” he said.
He started skating around the time he started doing art and the two have bled into each other. The experience of skating, the movement and fluidity of it, is something Wassom is constantly trying to capture in his art.
“I’ve always been drawn to things that have movement and music. I grew up playing all sorts of instruments. I did karate; I was a gymnast, a diver. There’s just that flow and the movement.”
Painting might seem a strange medium in which to portray movement, but therein lies the challenge. He compares his paintings to television. He wants them to be just as captivating.
“I think that paint should have that same kind of interest and energy going on.”
Palettes of the World is a culmination of who Wassom is: an artist; a skater; a traveler. In every painting he mixed his pigments directly onto the canvas. Like life, every motion counts — where to place the paint, what color, how to conduct the stroke. With each canvas, Wassom is one step closer to capturing the essence of life.
Palettes of the World is on display at the Shade Gallery in The monOrchid studio, 214 E. Roosevelt St., in Phoenix Aug. 7-30. The opening reception is Friday, Aug. 7, 6-10 p.m. Third Friday artist reception is Aug. 21, 6-10 p.m. For more details on the exhibition, visit monorchid.com. To learn more about Jon Wassom, visit wassomgallery.com.
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