“I first realized I was an artist when I was about 12 when I sold a sketch for $20 to a random person at an ice skating rink,” Bryan Ramey, the Georgia-born, now Boston-based artist remembers. “I’ve been drawing since I could walk,” Ramey says, citing sidewalk chalk as one of his earliest mediums. To learn to draw at a young age, he copied comic books and placed paper on the TV screen to trace out the cartoons. So, how did this artist move from tracing cartoons to the realistically detailed, yet fantastically unreal aesthetic he is known for today? The Orris sat down with Bryan Ramey to learn his story.
“I always liked art,” Ramey starts off. He explains that he began taking art classes in high school, under the tutorship of a very traditional, Renaissance style painter. He remembers working through hundreds of studies, compiling stacks of sketchbooks. Curiously, his art teacher also happened to be his football coach. Throughout high school, Ramey was a three sport athlete, playing football and soccer as well as training in martial arts, which he has practiced now for 19 years. Ramey seems thankful that his parents encouraged athletics, recognizing the benefits of socialization and camaraderie that came from his time on team sports.
He says that “by senior year, it clicked” and he began preparing his portfolio for college. “Dad was military,” he explains, but his father encouraged Ramey’s choice to attend art school, though under two conditions, 1) Bryan had to minor in something practical (he chose marketing), and 2) the family would not pay for anything less than a B.
Art school was “very rigorous,” Ramey reflects, speaking of his time in the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. He remembers staying up all night working on his art; teachers tearing him apart in review. “In art school, they don’t push you to do any one thing, but around junior year they ask you what you want to do with your life.” If you say “to just be an artist, they kind of look at you sideways, ‘good luck with that.’” There was a “reality check with the artist profession” and he “was aware of that reality.” Ramey seems sincere when he admits that he “did not have delusions that I would have a sold out show in NYC right away.” He fully expected “having a second job” and maybe “getting a few things shown and sold” along the way. After Alfred, Ramey went on for his post-baccalaureate at SMFA. You can see this extensive training in Ramey’s detailed work. His representations of the human form are studied, with carefully chosen lines, colors, and shades that reflect the Renaissance influence of his early art education.
“I typically sketch every day,” Ramey says, describing his work process, “when I find an idea I like I tweak the sketch until I’m happy with the layout. Then I crank some music, anything from John Lee Hooker to Underoath, and layout the drawing work on the canvas or Yupo. Lastly comes the inking which is almost meditative for me.” Ramey works primarily on Yupo, a plastic paper designed for watercolor. Finding watercolor paints “too chalky,” he uses inks instead, which stains the Yupo and helps him achieve the crisp lines in his work.
Though Ramey has developed a distinct style, which he describes as “Dali Drew Comic Books,” he is always looking for new directions for his work. Next, he’d like get into children’s book illustration. He sees it as a powerful way to reach people. He mentions Maurice Sendak as an influence, who he once met at conference. He owns some of Sendak’s original sketches which he displays in his home as a reminder of “how important that book was to me.” Ramey is also drawn to late 19th century illustrations, like those in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. “Those books, the illustrations in them were these moments out of the story, how important, how iconic they became, the scene at the tea party, to me, speaks volumes more than just having your work in a gallery space. Art is so personal, this concept that your art is only validated by the gallery space, the critics, to me, it is silly.” What’s important, Ramey says, is his audience, especially when his work “reminds them of something deep,” when “it haunts them.” Ramey knows how “subjective” art is, a point that he feels “is really important for the mainstream art world to recognize.” He takes particular issue with the artificial divisions between ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ art, which only seem to restrain critical taste and limit the reception of deserving artists. Ramey is critical of much modern art, citing Warhol as an example, who he believes often relied on a “cheap trick.” “They found the right trend at the right time,” Ramey explains, adding that “I would take Renaissance art over modern art any day of the week because of the skill involved.” Though there is a clear lineage to Renaissance painting in his work, Ramey’s aesthetic is also clearly influenced by surrealism and the fantastic.
Ramey is drawn to surrealism because of the sense of open possibility it evokes. Ramey thinks one of the most important questions to ask in life is “What if?” Ramey explains, “That ‘What If’ to me is really important” in not only art but in literature because it raises crucial questions about the nature of reality itself. He greatly admires Neil Gaiman, who “writes books just over the line of reality.” Ramey is inspired by the mythology in Gaiman’s stories, naming American Gods in particular. Gaiman’s work challenges readers to question reality. “You know it’s not real, but the way it is set up, the way he composed it, you want to believe it. I want that reaction, what happens next?” Like Gaiman, Ramey sees fantasy as an aesthetic space to raise questions of reality in the minds of his audience.
Ramey feels his work is rarely political. “Everyone is so caught up on trying to be political or anti political, judgmental or make some brash drastic statement on the way our world is. Sometimes it’s good just to let your mind wander and explore the untapped and uncertain things that make life such a grand mystery,” Ramey adds. The purpose of his art is to “stir a passion in the audience,” “to transport you either metaphysically or emotionally.” He hopes his work inspires people to dream. “People nowadays don’t dream anymore,” Ramey reflects, nostalgically looking back to mid-century America, a time he sees as ripe with dreams of space exploration and technological innovation. Through the dreamscapes of his work, he hopes to rekindle that forward drive in his audience, “I want it to spark something.
Though the figures in Ramey’s work are often solitary, they invoke a longing for human connectedness. This desire for connection is evident in one of Ramey’s pet passions: old-fashioned letter writing. He values the material physicality of letters, the feeling of holding them, of sending and receiving them in the mail. He says, “Things like Twitter have made it so people don’t recognize the tangible.” Though he sees Facebook and Twitter as “too impersonal and impermanent,” he certainly recognizes the growing importance of online mediums in the art world.
He is cautiously optimistic about the ways artists use digital platforms to share their work. “I do feel a lot of people who aspire to be artists take the first thing that comes about to show their work.” He reminds us that “you are recognized by the company you keep.” Ramey is cognizant of the established art community, recognizing the important role galleries and critics play in scrutinizing, curating and essentially filtering the mass of available works. He reminds artists that “the galleries see where you show your work” and though “some venues will get your work out,” Ramey is “picky about where he shows his work.” He recommends that artists develop a process of self curation, whereby they think not only of the quality of their own work, but also of the vehicles they’re using to share their work. Websites, like deviantART, could potentially “devalue your work in the eyes of the galleries.” “The interwebs” are “this weird double edged sword for artists,” he says. There is a need for “juried, curated” collections, for work to be “truly scrutinized.” He knows, by personal experience, that “young artists want to be shown, but you should also understand why some things are not as good as they appear. Don’t just jump at the first opportunity.” “Be patient, make good work, and it will come,” he advises.
Ramey also points out the increasing influence the public has on the art world in the digital age. “The public is important in the online world,” Ramey comments, “galleries and critics know their opinion matters. If enough Joe Shmoes like it, the galleries will catch on. They are a business. Like any business, they want popular things.” Ramey differentiates between artists who are making money and those who supposedly “sold out.” There is a difference between artists who change their ideals and aesthetic simply to fit in, and those who start making money off their original work. Sometimes, Ramey reminds us, the success of artists simply means they’ve “arrived.” He brings up the painter Sylvia Ji as an example. Sylvia Ji helped make the Day of the Dead aesthetic popular again through her senior thesis paintings which featured hauntingly gorgeous portraits of women in Day of the Dead costuming. Her work went from that initial reception to influencing a much larger resurgence of this aesthetic in tattoo culture. As Ramey sums it up, “she’s 27 and she can buy cups with her work on it. She didn’t sell out. She found a way to self-sustain her work.”
Ramey is a “a huge proponent of Etsy,” seeing it as “a way for creative people to market themselves the same way you’d see at a vendor fair.” Ramey sells sketches and prints off Etsy, but also sees it as an opportunity to network, a “way to connect with a much larger audience.” Ramey recognizes that, in today’s market, it is “a lot harder to sell original work because you have to pay for it.” Though “people love artwork,” often “they don’t like to buy it” because of the cost of original paintings. But Ramey reminds us that “you are getting what you pay for: the time, energy, skills, and materials” that go into a one-of-a-kind piece. For a vibrant art scene to sustain, we must invest in the artists around us. For him, it’s about “finding the right audience for your work,” “finding your patrons,” those “people who just like your work.”
If you like Bryan Ramey’s artwork, you can view more of it on his website or become a patron of his work by purchasing it on Etsy. You can also view the original illustration Ramey made to accompany Guy Rotella’s “Revelation,” exclusively on The Orris.
Ramey is one of the artists featured in the 30 Under 30 exhibit at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, MA. The exhibit runs from October 4 to November 10, 2012, with an opening reception on October 18 from 5:30-7:30 pm.