Artist Sells Out at Competitive NYC Art Event

By Valerie McArthur '18
Monday, March 27, 2017

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John Holcomb, a 2007 John Brown University graduate, submitted 20 paintings to be sold at the competitive Outsider Art Fair in New York City. After the four-day event, he returned to Mayetta, Kansas without a single one.

The Outsider Art Fair celebrates artists who are not influenced by trends, perceptions or parameters in today’s modern art world.

Accepting submissions from many large galleries around the world, the steep competition makes selling one painting a success and three a victory. Holcomb sold a year’s worth of paintings and outsold every gallery at the fair.

“With a booth overflowing with people, bidding wars and fights over who wanted what painting broke out; while other paintings sold before they could even be unwrapped - it was a frenzy,” Holcomb said.

While selling the paintings was a gratifying experience, Holcomb was blown away by the stories he heard and the emotional connections people made to his paintings.

“Everyone has a story to tell.” Holcomb said. “I am so close to my own story that I forget it’s interesting to someone else. The gallery has helped me distill the heritage and history of my upbringing here in Middle America, and turn it into a repeatable theme.”

This theme deals primarily with the unique cultures that have come together in America, and is shown in the textile patterns, style of dress and bright colors Holcomb uses in his paintings.

Holcomb’s inspiration derives from historical archives. Often working simultaneously on five different paintings, he paints from reference material.

“When I feel stuck on one, I can work on a different one for awhile,” Holcomb said, describing his painting process. “If I’m feeling really good about the progress on a specific painting, I often stop working on it and try to transfer that good energy to one of the others. There's always one that just doesn't want to cooperate, and I really struggle.”

Holcomb, a graphic design student while at JBU, knew he wanted to be an artist.

“Graphic design felt logical and attainable with a job waiting for me upon graduation,” Holcomb said. 

His love for more traditional art forms never disappeared, as he took electives that developed the fine arts. Self-taught in traditional painting techniques, Holcomb uses the mediums acrylic paint, spray paint and oil pastels.

“One of Charles Peer’s greatest lessons that always stuck with me was in regards to the quality of a line,” Holcomb said of the JBU professor who taught him the basics of color and art history. “I love line work, and he imparted his wisdom to me – that a confident but incorrectly drawn line is better than a perfect line drawn unconfidently.”

While at JBU, Holcomb also learned “to break the rules and to mess things up” in regards to his artwork, which gave him the confidence to experiment and try new things.

Bobby Martin, JBU associate professor of the visual arts and a painter, doesn’t see Holcomb’s foray into painting as surprising, saying that the JBU’s visual art program is so good because it doesn’t let students be limited by their major.

Martin said students and faculty work together across disciplines to create work in an active, collaborative environment.

“I believe that is why someone like Holcomb, who wasn’t ‘trained’ as a painter at JBU, can move into painting or any other creative field and be productive in what they’re doing,” said Martin.

Art is a driving force from within, a character trait that cannot be taught, only wrestled with,” said Holcomb. “In all honesty, I’ve always wanted to paint, but it was scary. My dream was to paint all day, in isolation, and see where the work takes me.”

Holcomb’s work will take him to Paris at the end of this month, San Francisco at the end of April and New York City again in early May.

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