I’ve always wondered what it would be like to step into an artist’s mind. I could never fathom how artists conceptualize their work. Their methodology is often unconventional and experimental, yet they manage to transform an idea or observation into something palpable. In his luminous 1967 piece “Window or Wall Sign,” Bruce Nauman posited the role of an artist with the neon-infused phrase, “the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” The artistic process is both exploratory and revelatory. An ardent creator strives for new insights while refining his or her craft.

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His workshops are unbelievably incredible. One by one, everyday people with no artistic backgrounds, hold up masterpieces that they seem to have magically created on their own. The portraits, comprised of all different colors and faces, have one thing in common: each image represents a person the participant of the workshop loves. Whether the finished product reveals a spouse, child or best friend, the art produced illustrates the very core of the art instructor’s philosophy: paint what you love. Full of warmth, creative energy, encouragement and passion, 34 year old artist Kevin Nance-West not only inspires future generations of artists, but he encourages adults to channel their artistry as well. Whether running a workshop, painting abstract designs for a neighbor’s’ home, collaborating with schools or simply painting a portrait of his daughter, West is for the people.

kev1Despite being a professional artist with over 15 years of experience, this Indiana based painter never graduated from college (though he did attend Danville Area Community College). In fact, his journey is as unique as his approach to art. In many ways, his artistry started as a kind of therapy. Diagnosed with stage three cancer, West was forced to reevaluate what was most important in his life. That of course, was his family, comprised of his wife Roshawn Scott West and their daughter Brooklyn. But in lieu of cancer bringing his spirits down, West channeled the little energy he had into his art, by painting what he loved. As if his works of art were tangible expressions of his prayers, West won his battle with cancer. Years later, he’s still painting portraits of people.

West’s artistry embodies a modern style. Colorful and realistic, his portraits carry the essence of the person he’s painted. He has a particular fondness for creating acrylic paintings of celebrities and pop icons. His abstract work, often custom designed, is generally vibrant and illuminating, adding light to almost any room in a home or corporate office. One of his most memorable paintings, “Deception,” demonstrates the vast range of West’s ability. The painting shows the back of a woman’s body. Her bare skin is covered by red streaks tossed onto the canvas. Her hands are wrapped around her body. In a similar fashion, West’s art is tightly wrapped around and involved in his local community. His latest venture, Gifted Custom Art, is one of the many ways West is an artist for the community.

kev5Following his surgery to remove a football sized tumor, West found himself in the garage painting. After printing out a photo for his daughter to paint, he converted the photo into a simplified paint by number image. Within an hour’s time, Kevin envisioned expanding this technique. Today, Gifted Custom Art is the first fully automated paint by number organization. Based in Indiana, the company has branches in Michigan, Illinois and Missouri and is expected to have a location in every state by the beginning of 2016. With every new location, West is inviting people to paint what they love and people are doing just that. Jake, one of West’s younger students painted a picture of his 4th grade teacher. Shocked and amazed, his teacher received the gift with great joy. It’s moments like this that put West’s heart on display. Though talented, he’s not selfish. Instead, he wants to share the gift of art with the world.

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Kevin Nance West is the kind of artist that holds the capacity to change the world, one community at a time. Whether hosting date nights, workshops, school or community events, his artistry has always been about connecting people to other people. A family man at his core, cancer, though terrible, has given this artist a new outlook on life. Every day counts and every person embodies talent. Likewise, when people are granted the opportunity to paint what they love, they are bound together by humanity- the same humanity that allows us to express ourselves and understand each other much more than before.

-Sharita Gilmore

You’ve seen it in museums all over the country (or even all over the world). There’s a massive, blank canvas staring at you from across the room. As you approach, the “art” is finally realized. It’s a line, the world’s tiniest circle or maybe an impossibly small cube. This is the part where some might say, “How is that art? I could do the same thing.” This is how John Franzen’s art comes across at first; it’s a splash, a line or a speck of paint that is supposed to convey some meaning that I simply don’t get. Then, you see the other side of his art.

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A blackened canvas, completely scorched from flames, sits next to another just like it, but why? When we see art like this, the immediate response is that it’s supposed to make us think. Our own interpretations are projected onto the piece, but Franzen has a clear message for his pieces. For “Darkness Archetype,” the collection created by setting fire to canvas, the artist said the following on his website, “Become the unseen, the unknown and the non existence. Beyond borders of perception and awareness, we exist in darkness as much as we exist in light.” And there it is – a simple explanation of what we as an audience might try to over complicate. Existing in the light, letting the flames lick our toes, leaves us in the dark. We then exist scorched in darkness as a result of the light. We tend to think of darkness as nothing; it represents absence, but in Franzen’s collection, darkness is shown as a result of a rather dangerous and destructive light. Instead of thinking in terms of light and dark, existing and not, our presence is fluid. Our existence is fluid and nothingness begins to have meaning.

jfr2The collection “Someone Died” is another example of Franzen’s irony-driven work. This is a series of preserved flowers cast in porcelain. In each grouping, the flowers are laid out meticulously – perfectly spaced and aligned by length. As Franzen explained on his website, “All monochromatic, they sleep silently. Dead. Their beauty has been preserved for posterity but only at the cost of what made them so exquisite in the first place: their vitality.” It makes us question the longing for immortality instead of appreciating a living beauty. It makes me think of Botox and plastic surgery – we nip and tuck until a new person emerges – which is fine; do what makes you happy. But where do we draw the line? What makes us want to destroy that which makes us human? Humanity is gorgeous! We come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and colors. The variety alone is astounding. Placed together, we are a magnificent spectrum of life. We replace that life with plastic and fillers, preserving our beauty but simultaneously destroying it.

“Each Line One Breath” is a collection of thin lined drawings. Thousands of tiny lines are drawn mere millimeters apart and the inspiration is something that comes naturally: breathing. By allowing the breath to control movement, a piece is created and no two will be the same. “The line carries the energy of the breath, makes it visible and binds it into matter,” Franzen said of this collection on his website.

Born in Aachen, Germany, Franzen later moved to Belgium with his mother. There, he attended the Robert Schuman Institute where he spent 20 hours a week on art education. He went on to get his Bachelor of Fine Arts and has been making art ever since. Belgium was also where Franzen grew close with nature, which brings some of his themes some context. After looking at all each of these collections, one specific word comes to mind: life. Franzen places such importance on sheer organic existence and actively engaging with it. So, it will come as no surprise that a piece of paper blank other than a single line continues to hold much meaning and depth to the artist.

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The “One Line” collection features multiple pieces of a single line in graphite with resin or in 24 Karat gold with gold pigment and resin. This is related to the “Each Line One Breath” collection in that each line is created during one exhale. The idea of creating a single line came from artist Shi Tao, who described a single brushstroke being the origin of everything. According to Franzen, this single line is all lines. “It is pure possibility, constantly defined by that which it is not or has not yet become.”

So, we might be able to draw a line on a canvas, but that kind of insight only comes from years of working with art. It comes from years of existing in the present moment and allowing the art to speak for and create itself. In this way, Franzen is a guide. He is a vessel that art flows through to get to us. Simply put, he’s an artist.

-Geneva Toddy

Somewhere roaming the streets of Atlanta you can find Rich Montgomery, commonly known as FRKO, a name taken from shortening his other nickname, Freako Rico, talking to everyone and experiencing life in a way that suits his specific style. He’s probably riding a BMX bike and carrying around a Four Loco. You would never know that he was an accomplished and classically trained artist from first glance, but that is exactly what he is, although his art isn’t necessarily what someone would describe as “classic.”

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Fans of Seinfeld probably recall that classic moment when George Costanza frantically screamed, “Vandelay! Vandelay! Say Vandelay Industries!” Although George concocted this company as part of an unemployment scheme, it inspired the creation of an actual business. As a huge Seinfeld fan myself, I was pleasantly surprised to learn of this company’s existence. Whereas the fictitious Vandelay Industries manufactured latex, the real-life enterprise, spelled Vandal-A Industries, specializes in street wear fashion. With an impressive catalog and high-profile clients, Vandal-A isn’t just a punchline—it’s real, and it’s spectacular.

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When it starts to rain outside and I become bored out of my mind, I find myself playing video games, watching TV, or my personal favorite, lying on my bed with a large bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with music blasting through my Sony headphones.  I will listen to almost any type of music out there, whether it is music by the sensational rapper, Lil Wayne, Japanese pop music by famous singer, Utada Hikaru or even tribal music from Mexico and Africa.   I listen to a lot of different kinds of music; however, country music isn’t something that I could listen to on a daily basis.   When I think of country music, I would usually associate it with tractors, plowing and guitars, and the only country singer I can think of is Taylor Swift.  Yet, when I came across the music of country singer and songwriter Luke Bryan, I found it to be very enjoyable.  Fortunately, his music didn’t possess the things that I believed all country songs to have, but instead, it was just really good music.  While I won’t acknowledge country music as the greatest thing I have ever listened to, listening to the music of Luke Bryan can definitely change your mind about country music.

lukeb3Luke Bryan is from Leesburg, a small, rural town in Georgia.  Bryan had planned on going to Nashville right after high school, but after his older brother died in a car accident, he stayed in Georgia and enrolled at Georgia Southern University.  It was here that he met his future spouse and mother of his two kids, Caroline Boyer.  After four years, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, something that has helped him in his music career.  In a recent interview with Simon Glickman, a writer for the online magazine, Hits Daily Double, Bryan told him, “If you’re not a good person to work for, then you’re stacking the deck against yourself right off the bat.  I’ve just always tried to be a positive, good employer and hear what people are happy about and not happy about, and go from there.”  Years later, he made it to Nashville, and when his dad told him to get all of his stuff together and make a career out of his music, he agreed to it.  Once in Nashville, Bryan networked with as many musicians as possible and he continued to write music, eventually working his way through.  A lot of people kicked him out, tossed him aside and spat him out (figuratively, of course), but that didn’t stop the driven country singer.  It could have been the end for Bryan, but no, it was only the beginning of his successful career.

lukeb2Bryan’s success began as a songwriter; his first widely recognized one being the title track of My Honky Tonk History, an album performed by Travis Tritt, an American country singer famous for releasing multiple top-chart songs through Warner Bros. and Columbia Records.   At the time, he had joined a small publishing company, but then later he was signed by Capitol Records.  During his time with his new record company, he co-wrote Good Directions, a single by Billy Currington, and shortly after that, he co-wrote his own single debut with producer, Jeff Stevens titled All My Friends Say.  His single quickly rose to the number one spot on Hot Country Songs in the middle months of 2007.  And in August of the same year, Capitol Records released Bryan’s debut album, I’ll Stay Me, with eleven of the twelve songs being written or co-written by the songwriter.  Two of his songs in the album, We Rode in Trucks and Country Man, received top 50 placements on the Hot Country Songs chart.  It was at this point that all country singers and country music fans had heard of the name, Luke Bryan.  It was kind of hard not to.  With all the recognition from his fellow country singers and country music critics, his fanbase grew rapidly.  And while you can argue that his fanbase is a very diverse populace, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of his fanbase consists of women who enjoy looking at a lean, handsome man strumming a guitar and singing in a amazing voice.  Women (oops, I mean people) bob their head to his music or strum their air guitars or lip-synch with his voice because they find his music very enticing.  There is a reason that he has multiple songs that have reached the top of the charts in a matter of days. It’s simple: he is a talented singer and songwriter, period.

In October of 2009, Bryan released two singles, Rain Is a Good Thing and Someone Else Calling You Baby, both of which went to the top of the charts in the same month.  He had written both of this songs with the help of his friend and producer, Jeff Stevens, and he had also received the help from Dallas Davidson, a country songwriter.  The two songs were included in an album named Doin’ My Thing.  The three had worked together previously to work on several extended playlists that would be included in the album.  From there, Bryan just increased his success in the industry.  In 2011, he released three singles, I Don’t Want This Night to End, Drunk on You and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, all of which made the number one spot on country songs.  Later, in 2012, he created his first compilation album, Spring Break…Here to Party, which featured several songs from his earlier album, Spring Break 4…Suntan City.  The compilation album comprised of eleven tracks from earlier playlists and two new tracks, one of them being Buzzkill, a song that reached the top 20 on Billboard 200.  The album as a whole didn’t slack at all.  Spring Break…Here to Party debuted as number one on several top country albums list.  Hot Country and Top Country Albums were just a couple of the charts that listened to Bryan’s music and his audience and placed his album at the number one spot.

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Crash My Party, the fourth album written by Bryan, was a huge success compared to his previous works.  The album’s single by the same name was first performed in April of 2013 at the ACM Awards and thirty days later, the song was number one among the Country Airplay charts.  Country Airplay must have adored his music because the chart had listed his music as the best country music on several occasions.  Singles like Drink a Beer, That’s My Kind of Night and Play It Again all received number one spots on the charts of Country Airplay.  Play It Again, the song that was released with the album, Crash My Party in 2014, hit his viewers like a hurricane.  This song had quickly risen to the top of the majority of country music charts, as well as music charts in general.  His songs have been receiving more and more attention lately, and with his latest album, Spring Break…Checking Out, his fame and his name became known to country lovers everywhere.  The 2015 album contained five previous songs from his earlier extended playlists as well as five new singles.  Kill The Lights, an album that is releasing later this year, is expected to get a lot of praise from his fanbase and critics alike.  His music is always expected to be exceptional and it seems that he has always had that consistency to put out various songs that his audience will cherish.

Some people like the writers at Total Frat Move (TFM), a website dedicated to news about masculinity, describes his lyrics as generic and his personality as a “fame whore.”  Most recently, Zac Brown, a lead vocalist and guitarist for his Zac Brown Band, bashed Bryan’s latest song, That’s My Kind of Night,  saying it was the worst song he had ever heard.   While some might claim that he hasn’t had anything to show for his singing and songwriting, it’s apparent that he has had plenty of success by looking at all of the awards he has earned.  In 2010, he won the Top New Solo Vocalist and Top New Artist for the Academy of Country Music Awards, among being nominated for four more awards in that year alone.  But it was in 2012 that he shocked the world by winning nine awards at the American Country Awards.  He received the Artist of the Year, Male Artist of the Year and several other awards  based on his single, I Don’t Want This Night to End. He also received the Album of the Year award on the same night for his album, Tailgates and Tanlines.  Another thing that is extremely amazing about the country singer and songwriter is that he is the only country artist to ever to release an album that had a total of six number one singles on both Mediabase Country chart and Billboard’s Hot Country Songs.  After his big year in 2012, he continued to make the top of the charts and get nominations for several country artist awards.  His awards, though amazing on paper, can’t portray the time and effort that he has put into his songwriting and his singing.

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Luke Bryan has gone through several difficult times, mainly the passing of his sister, Kelly, and shortly after, Kelly’s husband passed away  as well.  Even with all of the turmoil that he has experienced in the past few years, he keeps his head held high.  Without focusing on the present and the future, you will be stuck in the past, and fortunately for Bryan, he realized this and kept moving on.  Writing music is something that he lives for, but that doesn’t take away the fact that his family (his wife, two children and nephew) is the most important aspect in his life.  After writing 40 or 50 songs every couple of months, only a couple are chosen that fit the bill of what he wants to relay to his audience.  The ideas that he feels are important are the ones that will make it into his singles, his albums and his extended playlists.  His music career is very promising, with an extraordinary fanbase for such a short amount of time, and it seems there is always at least one song that fans love to replay and replay and replay until the loud music presents a migraine.  Fortunately, I’m not like that and I know when to stop playing music before my head begins to pound.   His music is something that I can possibly bob my head to every once in a while.  Now, I can’t say that Bryan’s good country music has made me whole and now I plan on listening to only country music.  No, that would be absurd.  But I can say that his music has made me look at country music in a slightly different way.  So when his next album comes out, I just might lie on my bed with my Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, with his music blasting through my Sony headphones.

-Te’Ron Adams