Steve Ehret: The Man behind the Monsters
As we approach the middle of August, one wouldn’t expect candy corn displays and Halloween cardboard cut-outs to be lining the aisles of our favorite grocery chains but somehow the seasons get away from us and the retailers know to prepare everyone for the coming changes. Just when you get comfortable in the sunshine: it is back to school, or back to work, or even just, back to reality.
That was exactly my sentiment, when I found that the exhibition Rummage: Works by Steve Ehret and Kat Francis was coming to a close this week at the Little Art Gallery inside North Canton Public Library, after its short run from July to August. How time flies.
Summer is the perfect time to take road trips and explore new art venues. Although, The Little Art Gallery lives up to its name as a small sacred space, it is such a lovely, down-to-earth and approachable hub for arts and culture in Stark County. One could argue that in such a tiny venue, every work appears even more precious with petite spotlights gently tilted and arranged by the curator, Elizabeth Blakemore.
Steve’s girlfriend, Kat Francis, a CCAD graduate student who focuses her artwork on urban renewal/devastation, was the perfect pairing for the exhibition. They often exhibit their work side-by-side, which is just as charming as it sounds. Her fearless ability to explore collage, dreamlike imagery, and fine pencil drawings, can keep gallery visitors circling around the works, making new discoveries about her implied narratives and characters. I recommend exploring her work in person to capture the nuances of what seems to be very personal approaches to illustrating the world around her.
As I mentioned, I am tardy for reviewing the exhibition but as a result, it seemed only appropriate to sit down with Steve Ehret and collect some of his thoughts about his progress as an artist. Steve is no stranger to the change of seasons and could easily celebrate Halloween all-day, every day. His monster paintings often inhabit public spaces throughout the Midwest, and his genuine self-taught style blurs the lines between fine-tuned illustration, expressive street art, and lowbrow urban culture.
Rob Lehr: Although, I just viewed some of your smaller gallery pieces at the Little Art Gallery, it made me reflect on your larger public art projects. I know you have worked on murals in Detroit, Indianapolis, Chicago and, of course, Cleveland. Tell us about your interest in public art.
Steve Ehret: I am drawn to doing outdoor murals or public work because of the scale. I love painting large and the challenge of conquering outdoor spaces is a lot of fun. Public venues allow for a collaborative approach and I enjoy the social interaction with other people from different communities.
When I’m painting on site, I get some interesting questions and remarks. Public art also gives me an excuse to travel and get out of my comfort zone, often working with talented artists from around the Midwest. I have learned so much by painting with other artists.
RL: The style of your artwork brings back so many nostalgic qualities yet still expresses your individual approach to character design and narrative. What are some of the things that influenced your early work?
SE: I was a sucker for anything Halloween – spooky, creepy or crawly. As a teenager, I loved The Maxx, Ren and Stimpy, The Burbs, and horror flicks from the 80s/90s. There was a comfort in the iconography of monsters and outsiders. I struggled to find my own voice at first, mostly replicating my heroes in the field but later finding my own path, which I have been following as a professional artist for several years.
I am very interested in how viewers relate to the monsters that inhabit my artwork. Often my monsters are the least intimidating figures in my compositions, the humans appear to be untrustworthy or following a hidden agenda. Yet, the monsters are trying to hunt, eat, or survive. Some of this behavior is reminiscent of my upbringing where I often saw raccoons, rats, and possums in the nearby woods, next to the train tracks, or near the steel factories. The concept of a bottom feeder who consumes scraps, plants, flowers, and litter is in some ways grotesque but very much part of nature.
RL: When viewing your some of your canvas works, landscapes appear to be a reoccurring theme, often forests without figures. Switching between the urban public art, which is part of a living industrial landscape, compared to your canvas pieces, which have hills and greenery: What has been your inspiration for this shift?
SE: The fantasy landscapes have become a completely separate body of work for me. I get entranced by painting them. I find myself strolling through the hills and foliage – they have a calming effect on me. Exploring textures and experimental formations help me create my own imaginary worlds with complete freedom. The difference in mark-making gives me a new experimental approach and it never gets boring to produce them.
Obviously, these pieces really have nothing to do with the city or urban landscape. I think my inspiration came from the trails that I would run in the Cuyahoga National forest. With an ever-changing profile of greenery, I welcomed learning the lay of the land during my runs. Streams, plants, and dirt paths are so beautiful. I never used took any reference photos while visiting the forest but would often create mental notes for painting.
RL: Your work has really evolved and matured throughout the years but you are entirely self-taught. How have you become the competent artist that we see on the streets and in galleries?
SE: As a child, I remember my first field trips to the Cleveland Museum of Art and obsessing over the Flemish oil paintings. They honestly just blew my mind. I realized two things upon leaving the Museum. One: In comparison, I was a horrible painter. Two: I could really learn a lot by just looking at really skilled masterpieces.
Today, I use a similar approach to educating myself. Often when I visit art museums, I attempt to visually break down the layers within the paintings. In addition to looking at other artwork, I learn a lot from being curious, dedicating my time to painting and pushing myself. In some ways, I am never completely satisfied with a finished artwork. I am fortunate to have met so many great local artists who have been willing to provide advice, help and guidance over the last ten years.
RL: As any artist should, you had mentioned that other artists have had an influence on your work. Who are some of the artists that have influenced your work and what advice would you give to an aspiring artist who will be starting an art career?
SE: Early on, Juxtapoz Magazine and the artists featured in the publication were an important influence on appreciating beauty in the strange and gross. When I was in high school, it gave me hope for the art world. Obviously, those publications have affected the art scene globally in one way or another but on an artistic level, it did affect me.
On a local level, there are several artists who I respect and appreciate in the Akron/Canton area: Joseph Carl Close, Erin Mulligan, Kat Francis, Patrick Buckohr, Kristi Wall… the list goes on. We have such a strong art community in Northeast Ohio. It is pretty incredible.
My best advice for new artists emerging in the scene: Treat it like a job. Clock in everyday and try your best to continue to grow as an artist and a human being. Do not expect to be inspired daily. Inspiration will come from time to time but your main focus should be on producing work regularly. Form real relationships with other artists and gallery owners. Get involved in the local art scene as much as you can and respect your peers. It goes a long way.