This week we had the pleasure of interviewing US-based artist, Ken Vrana. Ken's paintings are surrealist in nature and often contain figures arranged in a montage-like fashion. Ken spoke to us about meeting Andy Warhol on a street in New York, being taught by Larry River and Willem de Kooning and sending a painting to the Pope!
Ken is currently finishing a book on Elvis Presley, making a documentary film and creating a weekly podcast, all whilst building a studio in which cancer can take free art classes.
Read on to discover more about Ken's colourful career.
How did your career as an artist start?
I was abandoned at birth but I was fortunate enough to be adopted by two people, who, while being very conservative, encouraged me to pursue my love of art. I was also lucky enough to be adopted by people who lived in an area called The Hamptons, because I went on to study with 3 of the most influential contemporary artists in the world: William de Kooning, Larry Rivers and then later Andy Warhol.
I actually met Andy for the first time whilst walking down a street in NYC. I saw a door with a name plate on it, that said 'Warhol'. I figured there was no way it could be him but decided to find out if it was, just for fun. I tried to steal the name plate on his door and whilst doing so, he opened the door and invited me up to his famous studio. Looking back I sure wish I'd realized how famous these men would soon become. You would not believe the art they threw away in their dumpsters.
You’ve had a really varied career - including your work as a filmmaker - and have done a lot for charity. Can you tell us some more about these other projects?
I went to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. I received a degree in commercial interior design but I much preferred residential design so I never used my degree. I went on to work as a photographer for 2 different American presidents and then moved to Atlanta, GA and opened an advertising agency.
Slowly but surely I was moving west as I went on to Houston, TX next and then ended up in LA. I knew I wanted to be in the movie business but had no background. After being there only 2 weeks I sold a screenplay and went on to write and produce for the next 16 years. When I then moved to North Carolina I went to law school at the age of 55 and ultimately ended up leaving to start a documentary film company. One of the films I wrote, shot and produced was called 'Snow Angels' which followed 3 women throughout a year of their lives, all of whom had breast cancer. Shortly after I began working for a cancer charity Sir Paul McCartney owned. I have owned my own cancer foundation for the next 24 years.
Are there common themes between those projects and your art?
I do occasionally develop themes for my work, but that's unusual. I am always fascinated to hear artist pontificate about their work. I know it sounds simplistic but I paint what I feel and hope people find something they can take away from that. I seem to never run out of ideas and often get frustrated when I think I have so much more I want to do and not enough years to do it. I write as well, and feel the same way about my writing.
Tell us about your Invisible People project.
Some years back, I had an idea to create a photo series called Invisible People. My thinking was that there are so many people in this world we never think about twice; often people standing behind us in line at a store, who have amazing lives and we just don't know about them. So I went on social networks and found 40 unique people that I wanted to paint.
Each was unusual in their own way and sure enough, each had a story. The idea was that I'd travel to where they were, photograph them and paint from those photos. What each of them shared was a hard life but also a very positive attitude. One guy had lost a leg in Afghanistan when his Humvee hit a land mine. The other 3 men in the vehicle were killed but when he came home, rather than being bitter, he decided he'd be the first one-legged professional wrestler. You can't help being inspired.
Right now all my 'Invisible People' are on sale for 25% off and that money is being used to build a studio for people who have cancer to take free art lessons.
Some people might say that your work is garish or offensive. What would you say to that?
It's very interesting that while I have had a few people who have reacted negatively to a painting here or there, most of the time I get the opposite reaction. I don't paint to be edgy or controversial. I just have things to say and people see to get that. I do find that people I would consider serious collectors tend to 'get it' more easily and those are my primary buyers. As a result I do have quite a few celebrity collectors.
The average art buyer might not buy a one-legged army vet to hang over their dinner table but these folks do and invariably that gets me even more work because their friends tend to like what they like. A few years ago I met an art critic in Philadelphia who liked my work so much that he told me he thought I was one of the 25 most influential artists he knew. I never quite knew what to make of that but it was very flattering. While he was visiting Philadelphia a few years back the Pope saw one of my paintings and loved it so I sent him a print of it. It's fun to say 'The Pope has one of my paintings.'
What are the best and worst things about being an artist?
The best thing about being an artist is in some ways the worst thing about being an artist. You can't help it. I find if I take a few days away from painting I get very edgy. Painting is like a drug.
I do however hate the commercial side of the business. In major markets like New York City, Miami and Los Angeles (here in the States) some of the most financially successful artists are so trendy. Many put a few stokes of paint on a canvas and sell it for tens of thousands of dollars. I have seen scores of artists on Artfinder whose work is so much better and they don't have an agent or gallery who create personas of them.
The other thing I don't like about being an artist is that it's expensive. You can paint 100 canvases a year and not sell one. Meanwhile you're still spending the same money on paint, canvas and brushes as the guy who's selling his $60,000 canvas.
How would you describe your experience with Artfinder so far?
I am an extremely loyal person and I would be lying if I said I wouldn't like a couple of high-end galleries representing my work as well as selling my work online. I really like Artfinder. I can't say that I sell a canvas a week but I recently told one of my paintings (the same one that the Pope owns a copy of) for $14,500 on Artfinder.
Perhaps as importantly, the people I've communicated with at the Artfinder home office are wonderful and I can't wait for them to open their Miami office. I have been lobbying them to open a gallery down there as well.
What's next? Do you have any major plans or exhibitions for 2017?
For the moment I'm putting a lot of energy into finishing up the art studio for people with cancer. We need to raise about $18,000 to finish and as I don't take a salary for the work I do for the cancer foundation. It's tough.
I am also finishing up a book on Elvis Presley, called "Love Me Tender." I interviewed over 300 of the most famous musicians in the world about their personal experiences and hope to eventually release a 13-hour boxed set of the interview on DVD. As far as my painting goes I've just completed my most detailed and complex painting ever, called 'Drain the Swamp'.
From here on in, I intend to do only one painting a month and to focus on that instead of creating a 'product' for a limited audience of people who want 'decorative art.' There are plenty of people already doing that. Meanwhile I am also working on a weekly live podcast.