Austin Power, originally of Clinton, South Carolina, is a New York artist whose beautiful, haunting watercolor portraits make you wish you knew his subjects. You can read about them at the end of this interview.
Where are you from originally and where do you live now?
I am originally from Clinton, South Carolina. It’s a very small town in SC that we locally pronounce “Clinnen”. They recently changed the welcome signage slogan to “Welcome to Clinton, South Carolina! The Tea is Sweet and the T is silent!” Poignant!
For the past eight years I have lived in Manhattan/Brooklyn, New York. The tea isn’t sweet, and nothing is silent, but I absolutely can’t imagine living anywhere else.
When you were growing up did you always know you'd end up in New York City?
I don’t think I knew I’d live in New York per se, but I knew I would be leaving my hometown. I always wanted to be an artist. When I was little I used to tell my Nana that my dream was to show my drawings in a gallery. I’m not even sure how I knew what a gallery was, there definitely weren’t any in Clinton. Nevertheless that was my goal. I made a pit stop for high school in Charleston, SC. Charleston provided a richer cultural background and a little more exposure to art, but once I had the chance I bolted to New York.
Impromptu chalk portrait, Neely.
What are a few of your favorite places in New York?
I have always chosen people over places, so my favorite past times are eating, drinking, and making new friends. Consequently, my favorite places are all restaurants/bars that facilitate these needs. Bare with me, they’re worth it!
SAKE BAR SATSKO (202 e 7th st, between avenues B & C) has been my hang out and home for the last four years of my life. The owner, Satsko, is my New York mother, and it’s impossible to leave this place without a full belly, fuzzy vision and new friends! She also allowed me to have my first solo exhibition of my watercolors in her space, and the regulars liked them so much I rotated new pieces in and out for the entire year.
DIECI ( 228 E 10th st, between avenues 1 & 2) is my absolute favorite food in all of New York. The chef, Akiyama, is a food psychic! He knows what I am craving before I can even articulate it. I go almost weekly to taste new specials and old favorites. It’s my time to experience Akiyama’s art and reflect on my own. The vibe is elegant and romantic, a perfect place to treat friends to some lavish one on one time.
EL QUINTO PINO (401 w 24th st between avenues 9 & 10) is a cozy tapas/wine bar right near the Chelsea art galleries. EQP has the perfect summer drink, a frozen gin and basil infused lemonade. It’s an absolute must before or after gallery crawling. You can always find someone creative in the crowd.
AMOR Y AMARGO ( 443 E 6th st between avenues 1 & A) is my newest obsession. Miniature in size with minimal seating, I absolutely love this bitters bar. A perfect place to sit close and get to know someone while having a tasting experience that is super unique and superbly crafted.
How long have you been creating your watercolor portraits?
I am beginning my fifth year of working in watercolor.
I remember you said that you used to work solely in oils. What was the turning point?
When I realized myself as a painter I was working in oil. My scale was six feet by five feet, a size that felt equal to my physical body, and I was working predominantly on self-portraits. I had just moved to Paris to study abroad and I found myself completely culture shocked. I felt like I had no language, and without language I had no personality. I traveled to Paris a month before my studies started and I knew no one, which is when I became obsessed with social perception. I wanted to know how these people, these strangers, were viewing me. I wanted to know who I was.
I continued creating these larger oil works, often with multiple representations of myself, for almost two years. During my final semester of college (at Parsons) I came down with mono and it ravaged me. I was too weak to physically work on my large oil paintings. I couldn’t paint, I couldn’t see my friends, and I was awake for three or so good hours each day. That is when I began to watercolor. I had pads of paper and this Loew & Cornell tray of sixteen watercolor cakes from a high school trip to Michael’s art supply store, and I went to work. I would comb Facebook, equally missing and envying my friends and family, and paint portraits of my loved ones.
After thirty days I had 90 drawings. I whittled those down to 21 pieces, which became my very first watercolor series “21 Portraits of People I Miss”. The work was immediate, emotional and enlightening. . I showed them to one of my mentors, Sharon Louden, and arrived at my artist statement:
“I am interested in showing the difficulty and discomfort in fully understanding a person. I leave my subjects incomplete to highlight their limitations, as well as my own inability to see the subject beyond the influence of myself.”
(Clockwise from top left: Kevin, Payton, Amy, Pauline, Ki and Marino.)
Who are the people in these series? How are they connected?
All of these portraits are of Artists & Designers that I personally know and admire. I wanted to make a show in the spirit of your work here on BSDA and Art Hound. Someone had the admiration and respect for me to write about my works, which lead you to finding me, which lead me to this show where I am allowed to directly contact this audience. I wanted to share that love and respect with artists and designers in my life. So rarely are my viewers allowed to access my subject at the same time as my painting. I think that this platform allows a special opportunity to connect the work with its origin and inspiration.
KEVIN is Kevin Yu: When I met Kevin he was a sophomore and I was a senior at Parsons School of Design. I could see that his technique and perception of color were really something special. Four years later his work is arresting and breathtaking. Kevin continues to blow me away, and I can’t wait to show beside him once he returns to New York. I so wanted to own “Laying It Down” from 2010, but I was beaten to the punch.
PAYTON is Payton Cosell Turner of Flatvernacular: Payton and her husband Brian make the most exquisite sticker and hand drawn/screened wallpapers. Creating patterns with incredible whimsy and impeccable taste she transforms the walls that contain us into spaces that inspire us.
AMY is Amy Ontiveros: Amy is one of the most tender souls I have ever met. Brimming with knowledge and love and insight. Amy crafts beautiful spatial interventions that call into question our relationship with our environment as well as the hidden materials that comprise it.
MARINO is Marino Isolani. Marino is a fabulous designer with an elegant taste for cuts and fabrics. One of my first friends, confidants and peers upon moving to New York, we continue to have honest critiques about each others' works.
KI is Ki Yoong: Ki is an artist that I found online and instantly fell in love with. One of my newest and initially unknowing muses; the sensitivity in his portraits feels achingly familiar to me. I’m currently mapping our growing friendship through watercolor portraits. The portrait you see here was painted before I properly met him, built only from my perceptions of his work and online presence.
PAULINE is Pauline Hersart de la Villemarque: I studied with Pauline in Paris. She creates incredible figurative sculptures predominantly from wax and resin. We were learning and elaborating on our obsessions with the body together five years ago and are both still going strong. We will be showing new work together in New York on Thursday May 31st from 6 – 9pm during “Memoraphilia”, a group showing at The Rogue Space (526 w 26th st, #9E). I hope one day she will make a sculpture of me.