an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
I came to learn about Richie Deegan through my search for artists who have experienced and depicted Austin over the past decade or more. His evocative work highlights the many emotions that I think Austinites and visitors feel when contemplating our skyline. Richie has an upcoming solo show at Imagine Art Gallery opening May 6, 2017. The following interview was completed via email in March 2017 by associate editor Stephanie Malak.
You mentioned you’ve lived here since 1999. Tell me briefly about how you to came to live and work in Austin, first from the east coast and then from Nacogdoches where you attended school. Can you identify any of your own stylistic differences between creating art in these disparate spaces?
I was born in a small town 20 miles outside of Boston. My dad moved my family (me, my four sisters and my mom) to Spring, Texas – a suburb of Houston. After graduating from Spring High School in 1993 I moved to Nacogdoches, Texas to study art. I bought the lie that I could not make money with paintings so I segued into computer art studies. I also formed a rock band in which I played drums and we moved to Austin to see what would happen. Our band’s album was recorded by Mark Younger-Smith (Billy Idol’s guitarist and producer) and, when it was finished, was licensed to MTVs reality show – The Real World. Then, we quickly were accepted by SXSW and played that several years in a row. The band split up in 2003 and we all started families and got day jobs. In 2004 I started a graphic design business specializing in logos and websites. All this time, during the band and the design business, I put painting on the back burner. It wasn’t until 2013 that my band’s lead singer and bassist-turned-Lutheran pastor contacted me for artwork for his new church. When he said “artwork” I assumed he wanted paintings. When I asked him what size canvases he wanted he informed me that he wanted digital background graphic design prints and not canvases…and I was bummed. But that sparked an idea in him and he ended up commissioning me to paint seven large canvases for his church. That started me on my full-time painting journey. A creativity and productivity was unleashed in me that had laid dormant for a decade or more. I ended up painting 200 pieces in two years and had my first solo art show in May of 2015 where I sold 30 of 40 pieces. Up to 2013 I can’t say my art was affected at all by my surroundings or my location. Now though I am incorporating all three places into different pieces of art I’ve done. But my main influence is Austin, in all of its growing glory, right now. In 2014 I painted a piece called “The High-Rise/Cathedral Exchange” after a trip to London. It is based on the ever-changing skyline in London. Where once you only saw the classic skyline of Big Ben and the cathedrals one now sees that same beautifully classic architecture masked by the glass, steel and concrete of the modern skyline. This year I plan on doing the same for an Austin version of the painting. I’m thinking these Austin paintings will have more to do with something like say…the Saxon Pub being bullied by the high-rise condos and offices, or whatever they are, that hover way too close and overcrowd the cherished Austin landmark. Similar situations are happening all over town, so the subject matter is plentiful.
What do you feel is the general concept behind your body of work? What motivates you to paint?
Buried emotion is the general concept of my art. Since I was a boy I’ve always been very sensitive. I hurt easily and I am encouraged easily. But the hurt, I’ve learned to bury. I hide anger and rage really well and I always have. I hide happiness too but not as much as I do despair. But it has to go somewhere. It used to manifest itself in the form of anxiety, depression and even physical pain, but I’ve learned to channel it all and turn it positive through painting. Even when the negative emotions are released onto the canvas I still think of it as a positive result because now we end up with a painting rather than pain.
Unnamed (eventually painted over, no year)
What elements of the human experience are most communicated through your work?
I paint what’s happening in my soul. That sounds a bit trite but it’s true. Things I sometimes do, I wish I didn’t. Things I know I should do, I don’t always do them. Whenever that disconnect happens I feel it deeply. It saddens my spirit. That (mostly self-inflicted) pain has to go somewhere and for me it goes onto the canvas. I guess some people talk to friends or a therapist or someone to whom they can vent, and sometimes I will too. But mostly I confide in the canvas. No matter the subject, style, art movement, category or realm I paint within, there is substantial emotion attached to it. I think that’s why my work scurries across genres so easily. I feel like it would be disingenuous to try to confine the ups and downs and wide array of everyday life’s emotions to a specific style, school or strand of art. My conscience dictates what will go into a painting and most of the time I just start applying paint and the result is what I may or may not have already known I had to unload. I paint from the unconscious mind, I guess.
The Austin cityscape appears in your Horizons series (and an in-progress piece you’ve recently posted on Instagram). You have early and more recent work that features the Pennybacker bridge. Has painting Austin changed since 1999? And alternatively, how has painting in Austin changed since the late 1990s?
About the only thing in Austin that hasn’t changed is that bridge. But really, the only difference between painting it in 1999 and again in 2017 is the vantage point from which it’s depicted and that one is a day painting and the other done at night.
The Bridge’s Moons (2017)
Discuss what being an artist in Austin means to you. How, if at all, do you see yourself as contributing to our beloved motto: “keep Austin weird?”
Austin is home. I’ve lived north and south of the river. I have a gallery I show in that’s on the East side, and soon, a studio space there. It’s all home. Austin feels like home and I treat it like home. When I go downtown I feel at home. But for instance when I go back to Houston…well, let’s just say I want to get back to Austin as soon as possible. I really don’t think of myself as contributing to the weirdness of Austin. I mean…I’m a happily married, church-going man who is raising three daughters in the suburbs and I have no tattoos. But…maybe that’s the new weird.
The City of the Violet Crown (2014)
Tell me about the narrative thread of the work featured today. What’s the story you tell?
My story is one about everything changing, and at the same time, nothing changing at all. Austin is different in so many ways but it is still Austin. My life in general is different – from living a band life of sex, drugs and rock & roll to having three beautiful daughters to take care of and a marriage to nurture. Those are two opposite ends of the spectrum, but it’s still me. I lost a best friend as he left one of my band’s shows in 2002 in a single car accident and that had a massive impact on me spiritually. I lost my dad in October to heart disease. It all goes into the paintings and whether it can be deciphered or not, it’s all in there.
New Austin at Night (2017)
Lastly, could you name two things you love about Austin: one that’s not changed since your arrival and one that is completely new.
I love Austin’s vibrancy and that aspect hasn’t changed. It’s sense of home to me hasn’t changed. We have a lot of new and interesting people living in our proverbial home and we’ve built new wings on the house and have tried to accommodate our newcomers and growth always hurts a bit but it’s still our home, it’s still Austin. I love that new jobs are being created and there is a whole lot of opportunity in Austin and the fact that we are sort of protected economically speaking because there is so much growth, that’s a good thing. Austin is a very cool place to live… and people around the world know this so it’s bound to continue to grow and change. We can all choose to wallow in the nostalgia of what once was…but I say we embrace change. I have to remember, in 1999 when I first got here, people were saying the same things I hear now about how Austin isn’t the same… and that sentiment is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Richie Deegan is a painter and musician, father and husband, who lives in Austin, TX. His upcoming solo show can be seen at Imagine Art Gallery beginning May 2017. Check out his work online: http://www.richiedeegan.com. All photography credit for the paintings exhibited in this article belongs to Richie Deegan.