Spriguns Equinox painting of a troll

Communication Arts and Design seniors participate in artist lecture for “Spriguns Equinox” exhibit

Seniors in the Communication Arts and Design program had an opportunity to connect with Portland-based artist Steve Brown, whose exhibit “Spriguns Equinox” is currently displayed in the King-Shivell Gallery in the Cannon Student Center.

Bringing artists to campus provides a way for students to dig deeper into the works they are studying and to learn from professionals working in the wider artistic community. And attending lectures prepares students for the artist presentations they give as part of the senior studio course.

Steve Brown has had an extensive career as both an artist and a curator. He participated in the San Francisco Mission District art scene in the early 1990s before earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina Asheville. He currently runs the contemporary art gallery Helen’s Costume in Portland and teaches at Portland State University.

Brown started his lecture by describing how the “Spriguns Equinox” exhibit came to be. He explained that at the beginning of the pandemic he had consulted a practitioner of Chinese medicine because he was feeling stuck creatively and needed some assistance.

“One of the messages I got was ‘do it now, don’t overthink it,” Brown said.

When Michael Iauch, an assistant professor in the Communication Arts and Design program and the coordinator of the King-Shivell Gallery, approached Brown about displaying his work at Lees-McRae, Brown’s first impulse was to create something brand new. But reflecting back on the diagnosis he had received, he decided to not overthink the show and to display work he had on hand.

The five pieces of the “Spriguns Equinox” exhibit were works that had slowly emerged over the past few years as inspiration struck. They combine several themes that Brown has come back to again and again throughout his career, including the draw of nostalgia, the juxtaposition between fantasy elements and common or ugly objects, and his interest in experimental rock music.

The pieces were created using cardboard and cheap paint Brown found used at a small art supply store, along with leftover pieces of construction paper, old plywood, cuttings from books, and more traditional materials like acrylic paint.

Cardboard appealed to Brown as a canvas for multiple reasons. As a teacher, he often sees students use expensive canvases and paints for their work, then leave the completed paintings behind and never pick them up. Although the materials themselves have intrinsic value because of their cost, the students don’t place value on the work they create with the materials. By using the cardboard from the back of the art pads that students throw away and craft paint that someone else gave away, Brown can bestow value on materials that are inherently worth little.

Aesthetically, cardboard is softer and more naturalistic than the harsh whites of some other types of canvas or paper, which worked with Brown’s interest in exploring the natural world and the world of folklore. Cardboard also has nostalgic properties, as Brown discussed when one of the students attending the lecture, Chandler Houck, pointed out that the material combined with the depictions of supernatural creatures on several of the pieces made him think of “cereal box horror.”

“I like that you said ‘cereal boxes,’” Brown said. “I think that whatever generation you grew up in, the characters from cereal boxes, fast foods, and cartoons are a nostalgia trigger. I think cardboard might even have nostalgia in it, whether it’s a board game, or a puzzle, or a cereal box.”

Brown explained that the idea of nostalgia drives much of his work. The name of the exhibit comes from “Spriguns of Tolgus,” a British folk-rock group from the early 1970s. During that time period, many groups in England were digging up traditional songs and giving them a modern twist, demonstrating a rejection of the current time while maintaining cultural relevancy.

“A ‘spriggan’ is a malignant Cornish pixie, according to Wikipedia,” Brown said. “I like the idea that it was a malignant pixie, like in some of the fantasy movies where the pixies are kind of mean and menacing, or mischievous at least. One of the definitions of malignant, besides being spiteful or malevolent, is infectious. I was thinking about cultural obsessions, and how you get infected, and can’t let it go.”

After discussing his inspirations for the various pieces, including European folk imagery from the old amusement park Magic Mountain and short-lived plants called “waxy bells” that grow around his neighborhood, Brown answered a few questions from the students. Jessie Greene asked if one of the pieces inspired the rest, and Amber Corvin asked if Brown planned to continue the series.

Brown said that the green painting served as a kind of trial run for the rest of the series, as he played around with color, texture, and moving away from realistic representation. Those ideas carried over into the other works. As for continuing the series, he has a few similar paintings in progress that he would like to finish, but feels himself being drawn back into more traditional materials like canvas and oils.

The lecture concluded with a question from Iauch, who asked if Brown had any advice to share about balancing the joy of creating art with the need many artists feel to ensure their work is meaningful. According to Brown, attempting to find “meaning” is the wrong way to approach art, and attempting to prove that your work has meaning is the wrong way to approach talking about art.  

“I’ve been to a lot of artist lectures,” Brown replied, “and the best ones to me are the ones where you’re not trying to convince people you’re a good artist. You aren’t going to be able to convince people your work is valid. You made the work because you have an interest, and you want to share that interest with them. You want to show that you’re excited about something. Nothing annoys me more than a self-appointed spokesperson.”

“Spriguns Equinox” is currently on display in the King-Shivell Gallery, located in the Cannon Student Center. The exhibit, consisting of five paintings and a short video, will be up until Feb. 28.  

By Emily WebbFebruary 12, 2021