It’s finally here: the last semester in my undergrad program! (Applause Now)
It’s true, I’m finally growing up, developing my self as a person, and moving my life in the direction I want it to go. I’ve worked very hard on this long road, and once I finally got to my last semester things seemed a bit surreal. Finally I was done with the majority of necessary classes–only needing two to graduate–and found myself with two spots open to take whichever classes my heart desired; that’s right, the world was my oyster. After much soul searching (okay really it came down to which classes were still available), I decided to follow through with my interest in art, and take a painting class.
I’ll be honest, I had hesitation at first (the class goes from 5:30 at night to 8:15 twice a week, yeah), but I could not be happier with my choice to suck-it-up and follow through. Of course there is the obvious fact that I get to paint for credit, but I also lucked out and got a really cool professor, who just happens to be a great artist as well.
Ahren Hertel is an art professor at UNR (kind of a mix between Michelangelo and Socrates in teaching methodology) as well as a fantastic local artist, who’s work to me has a modern feel, with a style that mixes both realism and abstractism subtly and successfully. His paintings are a mix-up of people, animals, and his local environment, all portrayed in interesting scenarios and situations. His choice medium is oil on canvas. This last week after a class that consisted of constructing canvases, I was able to sit down with him and really find out who he is, once his teaching hat comes off at the end of the day.
My favorite (I have a slight polar bear obsession).
Lets start with the first question, why painting?
I started out really being interested in drawing, I was always interested in the representational. For a long time I was scared of color until I finally got into painting. There’s a rich history in painting, and I’m attracted to the paint itself. I actually think paint is kind of sexy, it’s really fluid. It sexy in a sense that you can get lush surfaces, and rich images– working with it it’s, I don’t know very personal and involved. Most of my favorite artists have always been painters. Starting with a flat surface and creating this allusion that someone can believe; you’ve created a narrative. It starts as a blank something and you are able to create something by just wiping colors onto something, it’s pretty cool.
Do you have schooling, or are you self-taught?
I think everything is a little of both. Got my BFA in illustration in 2002 from the Savana College of Art Design in Savana, and my MFA from UNR in 2009 in painting. I think that essentially all artists are self-taught in one way or another. School provides instruction, but I always felt it provided problems. School presents you with problems that you need to solve, in materials that you’ve never used before and then you get instruction on those materials. I think ultimately we are all left on our own to just do something, and the schooling is just a reassurance when it’s right.
Where do you find your inspiration?
That’s a tricky one. Lately I’ve been working on a series that has sort of more of an environmental theme to it. I think there’s this topic of conversation that’s out there in the world right now. As an artist I want to engage it, I think it’s an interesting topic and this is my way of engaging in the topic. For me, painting something I’m interested in is my way of starting a conversation.
Have a favorite artist?
I have a lot of artists that I really look up to, and there’s been a bunch that have been influential, especially Northern Renaissance artists, but to say that one is my favorite is to say that I think they are better than everyone else, and I just don’t think that way.
I think any artists dream job would just be to live off of their work, but I really enjoy teaching. I almost view them as one in the same, I kind of think that teaching is a big part of me. To me now in my mind they kind of go hand-in-hand.
What do you aim to do with your painting, other than making money?
I think, continue. I don’t know, cause I can’t really think of a particular thing I would like to do, or a particular–I mean I just want to do it, and keep doing it. Being an artist you put your work and ideas out into the community, and you can put your work and opinions out there and have a message with it, and it can sway people’s minds without directly telling them to change. Again it’s putting your work out and engaging in a conversation. I try to answer things, at least for myself in my work, but beyond that I don’t know what I want it to do. It seems cocky almost to want it to do something.
Best experience painting?
I think the best thing is when you’ve been struggling with something, and you finally figure out how to do it.
Struggling with something and not figuring it out. I think because you have to make time for painting, it’s always enjoyable. Even if its frustrating, it’s still a hell of a lot better than something else. I think if it’s frustrating, either destroy it, or walk away and give it some space. I’m not a person to walk away from it, so I’ll beat my head over it until I figure it out.
What do you find most rewarding about it?
It almost becomes one of those things that you just do. Painting becomes rewarding, in and of itself, and I think it’s always rewarding in different ways. It’s rewarding when an artist you look up to tells you they like your painting, or a gallery invites you to bring your work in, but again these are fleeting, so you keep working. Looking back at how long I’ve been doing this, it’s rewarding to see that effort pays off, that I’ve gotten better.
What do you find most difficult?
Navigating the art world is difficult. It’s this weird sort of thing where, in a way you’ve always been taught or told or built into yourself ‘don’t try to fit in,’ but then you almost have to try and fit in. You have to find a gallery or something where you fit in. Pricing your work is really hard too.
How would you describe your style?
If you follow the things that you’re interested in, textually, esthetically, your style kind of comes out of that. I’m not really trying to do anything. I’m trying to create paintings that are realistic, but also sort of romanticized in a way. I think style is kind of a biprodict of just not thinking about style.
Do you think your painting could change the world?
No. Maybe but it’s out of my hands.
Do you want it to?
Well, maybe change a couple people. I think it’s sort of your desire to want to be important, but to say that you’re important, or that you want to be, is difficult.
What other kinds of things do you do?
Not much anymore, really. I have an old motorcycle that I like to ride when it runs, that I’d like to sell more paintings to make it run. I like to hang out with the wife. I’m kind of looking for something new. After grad school, I started remembering that I used to do stuff other than art. It’s important to try to reconnect with things. I really like cooking with my wife, it’s really fun. I like doing things with my hands: gardening, cooking, working on my motorcycle.
You’ve lived in Reno for awhile, what are the ups and downs, artistically and otherwise?
I think it’s always had its own identity–even though its losing it a bit–but Reno, and Northern Nevada, and the West have their own identity, and I like being an artist in those identities, and using them in my work. I like our enviroment. You can always show your art elsewhere, but Reno has always been supportive to me as an artist. If you use your region in your art, people here can be attracted to your work because its familiar, but if you go elsewhere people are attracted to it because its different. I think it’s important to engage in that. I think Reno is kind of growing ad an art community, and it always has been, but I can’t even think of a flourishing art community elsewhere. I think most of the time when people say that they wish Reno had a bigger art community, they just mean bringing in artists from elsewhere.
Are you methodical and by the books, or impulsive and random?
I think that I’ve created methods that I like. I’ll alter those, but I like having kind of a game plan. I actually do think of painting as a long series of choices.
Ahren is really a really funny guy, so I had a great time talking with him and exploring the way that he sees the art world.
A few paintings from local artist and professor Ahren Hertel
Ahren Hertel has a website that he can be reached at, which is also a great place to just check out his work. I recommend exploring his portfolio, and–if the chance ever arises–taking a class with him, because he is a blast to work with, but also just good at doing what he does–painting and teaching.