Artist Feature: Yusuke Asai

Street art is an incredibly important aspect of the art world for a number of reasons, but one of the most important is its openness. The modern idea of graffiti is based on the fact that great artists, often from marginalized groups, couldn’t get their work into galleries and other traditional places where people show off their art. Faced with no place to showcase their skills, these brave artists took to the streets and created a more open and inclusive art community.

Over time, the established art scene and graffiti have melded together: Banksy is shown in galleries around the world while people with classic artistic training, often from expensive schools, have started painting on the streets. The collapse of this binary is almost complete, but there are still people who cannot break into traditional art because of their class, gender, or race.

One such person is Japanese graffiti artist Yusuke Asai. Asai grew up in the Japanese city of Kumamoto and studied ceramics in high school, but his dreams of a higher arts education were dashed based on simple finances. Faced with alternative ways to express himself, Asai started painting murals with literally anything that he could get his hands on, including mud, rice, leaves, and discarded pens. As his skills progressed and his work became more widely-known, Asai switched his entire focus to using earth-like materials, creating murals from soil, straw, and even cow dung.

Asai grew up, like many people in Japan, in a very urban environment, separated from nature by the sheer force of urbanization. His use of discarded objects, specifically dirt, is based both on his approach to class and his upbringing. “I choose to use the earth as a medium because I can find dirt anywhere in the world and do not need special materials,” Asai says on his website. “The collection process and digging in the soil is so much fun, and they strengthen my feeling of connection to a place.”

rice gallery artwork by yusuke asai using texan soil

Since 2008, Asai’s popularity and notoriety has only grown, partially because of his close connection to the Rice Gallery, the world’s only art gallery that focuses on “site-specific” art like Asai’s, but also because of his work around the world. Asais enjoy using the materials from the area, collecting dirt and mud specific to where he’s creating to give it a localized feel. In Houston, for example, he dug up earth that’s unique to the area. In India, his room-sized mural was made up entirely of dirt and mud found in the local area.

Asai’s humble beginnings and insistence on using free, local materials proves that great art shouldn’t depend on class, access, or where you were born. All it should require is a drive and desire to create something with which people can connect. For Asai, that means literally getting your hands dirty and creating beauty from literal dirt. His process is an incredible metaphor and a reminder that art doesn’t require a degree or a gallery.

sten & lex painting a mural

Artist Bio: Sten & Lex

Stencilling is one of graffiti’s most popular methods, raising to new heights thanks to Banksy, but Banksy was hardly the first person to use stencils in their street art. The technique has been popular in street art for decades for a couple of reasons. First, it cuts down the actual amount of time painting the graffiti, which is pretty advantageous when you don’t want to be arrested for making art. The second is the high level of detail that stencilling provides, which can help with the generally imprecise tools of spray paint that graffiti artists generally use. And while Banksy may currently be the most famous stenciller in the world, he owes a great debt to two Italian artists who go by the name of Sten & Lex.

Sten & Lex were both born in Italy and grew up in Rome and Taranto. Their work has been showcased around the world and currently is on the streets of New York, Madrid, and their hometown of Rome. As one of stencil graffiti’s most prominent artists, they have become famous for their detailed work that has, up until recently, almost exclusively dealt in stencilling.

fantastic stencil mural from sten & lex

Stencilling is a form of art that uses cut outs of a design, the stencil, to paint without the need to do the lines by hand. An artist creates the stencil, which is an inverse of the design they wish to make, and puts it over the surface they want to paint. They then spray over the stencil and remove it once they’re finished, leaving the intended design on the surface with little to no spillover.

Sten & Lex were one of the first Italian street artists to use stencilling in their work, but they also pioneered the “halftone stencil” technique, which is when “the greater part of their stencil portraits is composed of thousands of lines,” leading to more complex stencils that can contain a greater amount of detail.

sten & lex stencil artwork

Sten & Lex’s art has traditionally focused on portraiture, choosing anonymous individuals or people they’ve found in their own family photo albums as subjects. Thanks to their methodology, the portraits have a level of detail that many artists envy. Their works have varied from near-photorealism to abstract, but they have also recently turned their attention to other subjects beyond that of portraits. In 2013, they started creating very abstract works, again using stencils, that ranged from plants that also look like fireworks to optical illusions on the sides of buildings. While the artwork remains detailed and still uses stencils, Sten & Lex have also moved it past their usual styles.

sten & lex stencil of man on building with tie

Sten & Lex are an important moment in graffiti art, not just in their home country of Italy, but around the world. Their pioneering work in halftone stencils brought a new level of detail and sophistication to the art style, and their continued exploration of different subjects continues to push the envelope. Banksy may be the world’s most famous stenciller, but Sten & Lex laid an extremely important foundation and continue to develop the techniques that others have drawn from.

photograph of diego rivera

Artist Profile: Diego Rivera

While many people will point to Frida Kahlo as Mexico’s most famous artist, the impact of Diego Rivera on murals, both in his home country of Mexico and around the world, is still felt today. Known for his particularly large frescoes, his work helped to establish the Mexican Mural Movement in Mexican art.

Rivera grew up in Mexico and studied art from a young age. His studies would eventually take him to France and Italy, where he learned from such artists as Eduardo Chicharro, Ilya Ehrenburg, Chaim Soutine, and Amedeo Modigliani. While in Europe, Rivera witnessed firsthand the growing popularity of cubism and his own work saw a heavy cubist influence in those early days. He gradually shifted towards post-impressionism a few years later before coming back to Mexico at the request of Mexican officials. It was during this period that he and two other artists, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, started painting frescos and murals for the Mexican government.

Artwork by Diego Rivera, c.1916, Maternidad

Diego Rivera, c.1916, Maternidad

Rivera’s mural style became and important moment in Mexican history, not simply because of their political messages (much of his work dealt with Mexican history and its major revolution in 1910) but because of their incorporation of Mexican art styles. While trained mostly in Europe, Rivera used “large, simplified figures and bold colors with an Aztec influence.” His frescos also took storytelling techniques from the Maya, and many of his larger pieces tell entire stories. Combining his technical training from Europe with his Mexican heritage, his work became widely renowned and continues as an example of Mexican art to this day.

artwork titled flower carrier painted by diego rivera in 1935

Diego Rivers, c.1935, “Flower Carrier”

Diego Rivera is one of Mexico’s most famous and most notorious painters, mostly due to his volatile relationship with Frida Kahlo. Rivera met Kahlo while he was still married to his second wife, Guadalupe Marín. They met at a party hosted by a mutual acquaintance, Tina Modotti, where Kahlo asked for Rivera’s opinion about her paintings. Later, Rivero was quoted as saying Kahlo’s art had “an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity … They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own … It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.”

picture of renouned mexican artists diego rivera and frido kahlo taken in 1932

Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera, c.1932

Despite being 20 years her senior, and being a noted womanizer, the two married in a civil ceremony at the town hall of Coyoacán on August 21, 1929. They remained married for ten years but divorced due to “their mutual infidelities and his violent temper.” The divorce was short-lived, however, and they remarried in 1940, staying together until her death in 1954.

Diego Rivera is often eclipsed by his wife and life, but his art remains an important moment for muralists and street art. Despite sharing a close relationship with the Mexican government, his ability to weave a distinctly Mexican style into his work helped pave the way for a national character of art. Other countries, such as Brazil, has made similar steps, drawing on the skills of muralists around the world and infusing them with a nationalistic flavour. His work, while largely lost now, is a testament to the importance of producing and supporting local artists.

calvin nicholls paper sculpture featuring an eagle

Calvin Nicholls’ Paper Sculptures

When most artists want to create something fine and delicate, they reach for single-hair paintbrushes or extremely fine pencils. When Calvin Nicholls wants to create a realistic style of sculpture, he grabs a sheet of paper. The former designer combined his love of nature and his desire to create paper sculptures into an ongoing project. Since 1989, his series of nature-based paper sculptures have been seen in galleries around his home province of Ontario, throughout Canada, and around the world.

calvin nicholls artwork feature a bird looking to the right

Paper sculpture is a popular and frequent form of art. You can find it almost anywhere, from your grandma’s scrapbooks to your local art gallery, but the level of detail and craftsmanship in Nicholl’s pieces are rare. His sculptures are almost exclusively 3D models of animals, carefully mounted onto mat-board frames. Each sculpture brims with lifelike realism and, because of the 3D effect, look ready to leap off of their frames. The level of detail can be staggering, especially considering the material, and Nicholls recreates dog whiskers and hummingbird feathers in stunning specificity.

calvin nicholls paper sculpture of a tiger

Nicholls’ process is actually shared on his website as well, where he walks through the simple steps of creating his realistic and beautiful paper sculptures. He starts out by drawing the picture using a pencil, a sort of conceptualization from which he can work throughout the process. From there, he traces from the pencil sketch and transfers the actual paper used in the sculpture. Cuts are made with scalpels and sharp knives to get the perfect angle and cleanest cut. He then uses a toothpick to attach the tiniest amount of glue to the paper pieces and attaches them, starting from the bottom and working his way up. While much of his pieces are white like the paper, Nicholls occasionally uses coloured paper for an accent effect.

calvin nicholls paper sculpture featuring an eagle

The beauty of Nicholls’ work is clearly in the craftsmanship and time dedicated to each piece, but also how the work straddles navigates ideas of realism. Photorealistic detail usually extends past the point of colour, meaning works that try to look as “realistic” as possible often use colour to achieve this. For Nicholls, his highly-detailed pieces are often monochromatic, void of colour, creating a deeper appreciation for the piece in and of itself instead of its adherence to accurate depiction.

Capturing the beauty and majesty of Canada’s natural environments has been a dominant mode of artistic expression in Canada since even before the Europeans arrived. Artists like the Group of Seven made a name for themselves based on natural landscapes and paintings, as did Emily Carr. To see this subject extended to another medium, that of paper sculpture, is a fascinating development. Hopefully, Calvin Nicholls work will continue to be seen and created for Canadians and people around the world.

basil smith looking out of his caravan

Basil Smith and his Wonderful Romani Caravans

Some people love to cross their home country in an RV. The combination of open road and love of travelling make it the dream for many. In fact, it’s the retirement plan of many people in North America. But on the other side of the world, in Australia, a man has turned his love of travel into an art project unlike any on his continent.

Basil Smith, an Australian by way of England, has spent his life making beautiful, intricately-detailed caravans reminiscent of the Romani people in Europe. His work combines the bright colours and rounded shapes of the caravans with his own special touches, and he and his wife spend much of their retirement travelling around Australia, and living in one of their caravans.

Basil Smith grew up in England and doubtlessly saw and encountered Romani people during his childhood. He developed a fascination for their nomadic lifestyle and caravans and has since turned that fascination into a hobby.

Most of Basil’s caravans start with recycled material, from which he designs a caravan to build. He apprenticed with hand tools and still does the majority of the work by hand to this day. Basil isn’t alone in his pursuit, either. His wife helps him with designing and building each caravan, and has a particular skill for the special window stylings of the Romani caravans. Basil provides her with the plans and she makes them a reality, making every caravan a real team effort. The end result of all their hard work is a wholly unique caravan that he and his wife often take on road trips around the country.

While many people are attracted to the exterior, which he paints in bright colours and adorns with intricate designs, it’s the interior living space that really makes the difference. Basil includes all the necessities of modern living in his caravans, despite the fact they are often much smaller than their Romani counterparts. Inside, the walls are decorated with beautiful cloth and there’s space for a bed, a place to cook, and more, in almost every single one.

As far as hobbies go, the Smiths’ love of travel, recycled material caravans, and staying active is a great idea. They have also turned a popular way to spend retirement, on the road in an RV, into an artistic pursuit, one that embraces the aesthetics of an important group of people in Europe. It shows that many of the things we have an enjoy have long, rich, and varied histories that weave together art and function. For Basil and his wife, it’s the love of travel and the rich culture of the Romani people.

Artist Bio: Steve Casino

On this blog, we’ve talked about all kinds of artistic approaches, but many of the pieces have focused on the materials used more than the canvas on which they are created. Projects like organic graffiti, which uses plants to create beautiful murals, or creating art projects from roadside debris, are all about what is used to make the art, not what the art is made on. But this can be different, too. The world is not limited to simply building walls, large pieces of canvas, or the printer page.

Artist Steve Casino has chosen a rather unique canvas on which to make his art, one that complements his funky and cartoonish art style. Rather than paint caricatures on regular pieces of paper like an artist on the street, he paints his pieces onto peanuts. That’s right, the humble and very common peanut shell.

steve casino's peanut shell artwork showcasing the beatles

Casino has invented a very specific process to ensure his creations are able to be preserved for years and even decades after he creates them. First, he removes the nuts from the shells. Next, he seals the shells back together using a special archival urethane mixture. He then paints the pieces, sealing the final work under a layer of clear acrylic. Finally, the finished piece or pieces are sealed inside a specialty glass dome for added protection.

Casino’s pieces are beautiful and painstakingly created, with as many as 20 hours dedicated to the painting alone. Unlike the novelty caricatures you often see around town, these are artistically beautiful and unique objects that can last for years to come.

The peanut is only the base of the work, however, and most of Casino’s pieces feature additional work that extends the object beyond the simple shape of the peanut shell. Hands, feet, legs, and more are added to the piece before painting, creating a unique and interesting piece that’s more than just, well, the shape and size of a peanut. The full extent of Casino’s capabilities can be seen on his website, and range from realistic to outright audacious.

What Casino’s work shows us is that art is not limited to just a few common kinds of canvas, but what the art is put on can vary as widely as the materials placed onto it. His pieces also challenge the idea of high and low art. While his artwork often fits into the style of caricature, the artistry, skill, and beauty he created from a peanut shell and some paint proves this is more than a novelty. In fact, it shows us that art of all styles deserves attention, and maybe even earns a place under a protected glass dome for people to enjoy for years to come.

Zen Palagniuk posing infront of thread art

Zenyk Palagniuk – Thread Art

When we think of street art or portraits, we usually think of one medium: paint. Sure, there are hundreds of materials you can use to create art anywhere, from rocks to spray paint to almost anything else. But one type of material we often don’t think of when it comes to portraiture is nails and thread. Yet one Dallas-based artist has done just that.

In his studio, Ukrainian artist Zenyk Palagniuk started hammering nails into a large piece of wood, intent on creating a portrait of American singer and actor Justin Timberlake. Wanting to get as accurate a look as possible, Palagniuk then set about winding string between every nail, “drawing,” as it were, Timberlake’s face across the board.

Zenyk Palagniuk thread art

Zenyk Palagniuk thread art

The entire process took Palagniuk over 200 hours of work and labour. Starting with a rough sketch, he then used over 24km of string across 13,000 nails to create the work. The end result is a pencil-sketch type portrait of Timberlake that has a unique depth and feel thanks to the unique materials.

The technique is very similar to another artist, Kumi Yamashita, but with one important difference: Yamashita only uses one width of string to create her pieces, where as Palagniuk uses different widths and will wrap around the same nail multiple times. Comparatively, Palagniuk’s work is sparser than Yamashita’s, probably because the string can stretch over more space.

Kumi Yamashita thread artwork

Kumi Yamashita thread artwork

Palagniuk’s piece shows us that the process and work itself has influence on the end result. While an impressive piece on its own, this Justin Timberlake portrait becomes something else once a bit of the process is revealed. While all art has a right to be admired for its craft, this portrait’s beauty and awe is in part from knowing what the artist physically did.

Of course, Jackson Pollack had similar notions about art and the process of making art. Many of his most popular abstract pieces are done by bending at the waist instead of the elbow or shoulder, which is most common for paintings. Pollack’s work is in part an exercise in making the labour of art known, rather than shrouding it in mystery.

While Palagniuk has remained fairly quiet on what his future plans may be, his piece has already become a sensation online, and there surely is a fascinating career ahead for this resourceful artist. His commitment and transparency is impressive for the young, Dallas-based artist, and his peeling back the layers of how art is made will surely fascinate spectators far into the future.

Michael Grab showcasing rock pile art

Michael Grab aka Gravity Glue

While we focus on painters a lot on this blog, this is only one form of public art. There are an incredible number of mediums out there that all contribute to the art we see on an everyday basis, from sculpture to topiary (hedge trimming art) to, in the case of this week’s featured artist, balancing rocks. 

Canadians and North Americans are probably familiar with the Inukshuk, the stacked rock sculptures made by the Inuit. These human-like figures have captured the imaginations and attention of people around the world. These beautiful creations come in many different sizes, but they have also inspired people to create smaller versions at places around the world. In fact, small yet intricate rocks piles are a common sight in many national parks and areas in Canada and North America, but one artist has taken this notion to a completely different level. 

rock artwork by gravity glue

Michael Grab, the owner and purveyor of Gravity Glue, is not a painter but a type of sculptor, one who creates intricate rock piles in places around the world. The practice started out as a simple hobby and fascination when he was in Boulder, Colorado in 2012. In Grab’s own words, he was drawn to rock piles because of an “awe at the stillness, let alone possibility, of such precarious formations, amidst sometimes very turbulent conditions. For me this reflects our own potential to maintain a still-point amidst the variety of challenges we each face throughout our lives.” 

Grab practices rock piling every day as a meditative and artistic practice and has gone on to create some truly wondrous and seemingly impossible creations. While many of them operate to challenge the laws of gravity, precariously positioning larger, pointed rocks onto smaller ones, others are more ambitious. One piece in his portfolio is an entire bridge of rocks, complete with arches, that was made entirely from rocks in the area. 

Since garnering a name for himself with rock piling, Grab has expanded his scope to include film, photography, and even DJ mixes and sets, but there is something serene and amazing in the work of his rock piles. 

What Grab’s art shows is that street art doesn’t require paint or even a street, it only needs a will and, at some point, an audience, even if that is an audience of one. Rock piles like Grab’s are artistic and meditative endeavours that draw people in at their simple mastery, but can also be left for others to discover. So the next time you’re in a national park, keep an eye out for rock piles, or make one yourself. It’s a wonderful exercise and an interesting way that people have been leaving pieces of art for others for centuries.

Daim infront of piece

Artist Bio: DAIM

There are few graffiti artists with the acclaim, success, and widespread recognition like DAIM. This German graffiti artist rose to prominence in the nineties and has since been on the cutting edge of graffiti and street art. Widely recognized as the man who popularized the 3-D art style of graffiti, his work is often replicated by artists, but few have managed to match his skill and technical proficiency.

DAIM, born Mirko Reisser in 1971, showed an early interest in art and was already getting commissions by the time he left high school. He entered the world of freelance artistry soon after and spent the next five years making a name for himself in the German art scene. It was during this period, the mid-nineties, that graffiti art became a more widely-recognized form of art and DAIM’s pieces soon became the picture-perfect examples of the European and German graffiti scene. In his own words, DAIM’s “geometric figures and letters obey the laws of light and shadow but defy gravity and curve space.”

artwork by DAIM

Mirko Reisser (DAIM) | “D/-IM – up and around Marta Herford” | Spraypaint on wall | 8,8 x 21,5 m | 06.2013 | Museum Marta Herford | Herford / Germany

DAIM’s first major contribution to the art world was his now trademark 3-D style. Inspired by artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Salvador Dali, DAIM sought to create 3-D images without relying on outlining, as was common at the time, but with forms made from shading. The result is brightly-coloured pieces that seem to hang just off the wall, all with a profound eye for technical merit and style, something that DAIM further honed when he did his fine arts degree at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Switzerland.

While at school, cofounded “getting up,” an art collective that operated primarily out of Hamburg that consisted of DAIM, Gerrit Peters, and Heiko Zahlmann. The group works together to this day.

Mirko Reisser (DAIM) | "round trip" | Spraypaint on 30 Alu-Dibond plates | total: 653 x 772 cm / 50,41 m² | 2015 | commission work for TUI "Mein Schiff 4" | Courtesy: TUI Cruises / Galerie MaxWeberSixFriedrich | Photo: MRpro

Mirko Reisser (DAIM) | “round trip” | Spraypaint on 30 Alu-Dibond plates | total: 653 x 772 cm / 50,41 m² | 2015 | commission work for TUI “Mein Schiff 4” | Courtesy: TUI Cruises / Galerie MaxWeberSixFriedrich | Photo: MRpro

The vast majority of DAIM’s work even today focuses on letters and words, and his photorealistic stylings before he came to graffiti are present in each of his pieces. Combining a fresh look at graffiti writing with a strict adherence to the art and styles that form the backbone of European art, DAIM can be seen as one of the integral artists for moving graffiti from an attraction to an art-form with a history and connection to the European art scene.

DAIM’s impact is still felt on the graffiti and street art scenes to this day, not just for his early pioneering work, but for his contemporary projects. He was responsible for providing a certain technical mastery to the craft at a time when street art and graffiti artists were seen as amateurs unable to enter the art gallery, and his 3-D style has become a mainstay and standard for anyone who wants to make art with a spray can.

artwork by bordalo ii showcasing dynamite on railroad tracks

Artist Spotlight: Bordalo II

Found object art has a long, rich and deep history. It’s arguably the oldest form of art we have, dating back to when ancient humans found simple instruments or pieces of nature and turned them into things of symbolic importance. The idea, at its heart, is about using what you find, not what you buy. It’s about making things slightly more difficult. Instead of getting exactly what you need, you use what you have around you.

bordalo ii artwork on side of building featuring a raccoon

Found object art has always had a healthy number of people, but its recent uptick in popularity is likely due to a couple of phenomenons that are impacting young artists. The first is simply a matter of cost. Art supplies are expensive and artists, especially street artists, are often expected to work on a never ending of supply of exposure as payment, despite the costs involved. The second reason, however, seems integral to one Lisbon artist, who uses found objects to create pieces of natural beauty.

Bordalo II has gained international renown for his found object pieces, which blend the natural with what is, at its essence, trash. In creating these natural pieces from things simply lying around, Bordalo II is an excellent example of the second reason why found object art is enjoying a resurgence of popularity: it’s a way to clean up.

The idea that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure is a pervasive idea taught to us at a young age, right around the time we learn about the Three Rs (or, depending on your age and where you were raised, 4 Rs). The idea of reduce, reuse, recycle, and sometimes recover, are literally built into everyone of Bordalo II’s pieces.

3d bordalo ii artwork of bird fixed to side of building

Bordalo II’s work largely consists of three-dimensional animals affixed to walls, where they are painted to partially blend into their surroundings, usually a wall. Each piece combines manufactured materials, usually scrap metal, and the area around it. Through this blending of different environments, Bordalo II’s work shows us that nature and the things we derive from it aren’t as separate as we may think. These things are blended.

The combination of nature and trash brings together an aesthetic of the role of nature in the urban setting. While planning cities usually try and demarcate specific spaces as natural environments, such as Stanley Park or Central Park, these areas aren’t as separate as they seem. Nature is everywhere, from the rusting scrap metal to the many animals that live all around us. If Bordalo II’s art can show us anything, it’s that things blend together, be it art and streets, nature and urban, or simply some scrap metal made to look like a frog blending almost seamlessly into the side of a tenement building.