Entering painter Jonathan McAfee's studio, located in the basement of his home near Garfield Park, is a bit like magic. What looks like a few tables, some scattered lights, and a variety of paints is really so much more. It's freedom to explore his art after his workday at public relations and marketing firm Bohlsen Group. It's losing himself in the challenge of working with the same subject matter over and over -- most recently, late author Kurt Vonnegut -- and meditating on the possibilities in repetition. It's space to hand-build canvases to capture his subjects in bold, visible brush strokes and vivid colors reminiscent of those found in pop art.
A studio visitor, I was treated to the sight of McAfee's most recent works -- 15 Vonnegut paintings ready to be installed at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library (340 N. Senate Ave.) for the opening of McAfee's latest show, "What People Like About Me is Indianapolis," on Friday, July 11, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
For the past three to four years, McAfee has been drawing and painting portraits of iconic individuals who've influenced him. "Typically, they've been writers, theologians, musicians and artists," he says. "Vonnegut was one I drew originally. He's got such a fun, almost-caricaturelike face that I kept going back to. People reacted positively, and I'd get commissioned to paint him again."
The idea to paint Vonnegut repeatedly came to McAfee when he encountered an image online that piqued his interest. "The artist had focused on the same subject, the same person, and had painted him 25 times," he explains. "I thought, that's a great method to practice and get better with different styles and techniques, but also narrow my focus on one individual." McAfee credits his wife, Sarah, with suggesting Vonnegut as a repeat subject.
Everything just clicked for McAfee after that. He started with Slaughterhouse-Five, his favorite in the series, and approached the library with the idea of the show. He says they really embraced the idea and put it into motion.
McAfee describes Vonnegut as a "local hero a lot of Hoosiers root for," even though he left Indianapolis after high school and never returned. "He spoke up and out for creativity, the environment, for being yourself," McAfee says. He credits a positive influence, Herron professor Marc Jacobson, for giving him similar freedom: "I was able to do whatever I wanted. He provided structure and constructive criticism, but he stepped back and let me find myself," he says.
McAfee also gives props to professor Anita Giddings, who has been supportive of his post-graduation work. "My mentors are inspirational people I admire who have done this before me," McAfee says simply.
The self-identified abstract expressionist paints with acrylics, having abandoned oils after leaving Herron. In addition to not having "the patience for oil and how long it takes to dry," McAfee "likes the challenge of acrylic being a little less forgiving." He starts his work using a Sharpie or Magic Marker and follows that by painting it, an approach that he says can be a good thing. "You can see what you intended to paint or it can mess up the drawing," he adds.
In a fascinating process, McAfee also uses oil pastels, spray paint and house paint in his work, dipping his paintbrush into different colors without rinsing out the brush first, although he stops before the color becomes muddy.
He doesn't want to paint out of tube for his next series, preferring to use house paint samples -- available in a wider variety of colors than the paint sold at stores such as Michael's. He was first introduced to the medium when he was given gallons of it while studying at Herron. "I loved how liquid and fluid it was and how you could get these great drips. There was so much of it, it didn't matter if I messed up; I could keep going." He continues, "It was a great gift and much more freeing. I could really try anything."
McAfee's goal for his future work is to apply paint thicker, create larger pieces and really experiment. "I like to paint bigger," he says, however, noting he can't fit a canvas larger than 4 feet by 4 feet up the stairs from his studio.
Painting the Vonneguts on smaller surfaces -- most of the canvases are 14 inches by 18 inches -- admittedly challenged McAfee as an artist to keep a series together, looking like the same hand painted all of these, but yet trying new avenues and approaches. He says some have been easy; some have been reworked. It's all a process.
"Fear can totally come into play, and it did with some of these paintings," McAfee explains. "At first, I was much more brave, experimenting with different approaches, and seeing what worked. But time was ticking and closing in on the show date, and I found myself saying, 'Play it safe, there's no time to mess up.' I definitely had to snap myself out of 'I'm going to ruin it.' Okay, you're going to ruin it! You're not performing open-heart surgery."
After the Vonnegut show -- which will feature catering from Indianapolis' Vonnegut-inspired restaurant, Bluebeard; beer from Flat 12 Bierwerks; and music by deejay Ryan Stroblé -- McAfee will be doing a series of drawings for Fletcher Place Arts and Books. The show will open Sept. 5, coinciding with another show McAfee has at Pure Eatery (curated by artist Mike Graves), and it will feature drawings of iconic people, including Abraham Lincoln, John Dillinger and Benjamin Harrison.
Jonathan McAfee knew at 15 that he wanted to be an artist. A high school art class trip to Europe introduced the then-teen to the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay and the Rodin Museum. But at 32, McAfee knows he didn't have the ability to appreciate the artwork the way he would now, and he also knew he "was seeing something beautiful, sacred and special." He'd taken art classes as a kid, but then it was just a hobby. Today, he says, "This is what I feel I'm the best at and what I want to do forever."
Visit McAfee's website for more information about the artist and his upcoming exhibitions.