An artist splashes neon-hued paint on a canvas, while another hunches over a computer, clicking furtively. A third artist is making an absolute mess, while a few blocks away, a fourth sketches a stranger in tears. It might seem haphazard, but these artists, from different corners of the U.S., are all creating work inspired by a single principle, a sort of modern take on the Golden Rule, coined UnitedSTATE.
What exactly is UnitedSTATE? Simply put, it’s the celebration of being the best we, individually and collectively, can be. Being a fully realized, confident individual and relying on others are not mutually exclusive -- we make each other better when we’re united. It’s synergy.
Let’s back up a step. Days earlier, upon meeting for the first time, these artists embarked on a crash-course in relationship building. They bonded over workouts, family-style meals, and bottles of wine. They reflected on their core values and hopes for the future. The goal: To build meaningful connections. And, to open up a larger conversation on why it’s important to do so — to grow to be the best we can and support one another, breaking down the barriers that divide us. Essentially, it was an exercise in living UnitedSTATE.
So, on the morning of May 4th as they filtered into HUBseventeen, a community-geared venue beneath athletic retailer lululemon’s 5th Avenue flagship, the artists were inspired. Chosen because they are distinctly different not only in their cities of origin, but in their styles, processes, and philosophies, they were ready to channel the experience, and the larger concept, into something tangible.
After a guided meditation session and a quick announcement (“Pencils down at 7:30”), they were off.
“There’s a lot of bullshit involved in the art world. Even the word ‘art’ itself is kind of a grandiose term,” says artist and musician Brian Wooden.
But, I think this idea of the UnitedSTATE — it’s not an abstract concept. There are a lot of things that exist in the world that divide us: racism, sexism ...”
Wooden hails from Nashville by way of Ohio, where he grew up - and he’s a straight shooter. His work, often inspired by the human form, is typically larger-than-life, playing out on expansive hand-built canvases.
This morning, however, Wooden takes to the laptop. “I wouldn’t call myself a digital artist; I just happen to be digital today,” he explains. “I don’t really have a process. Everything I do is pretty experimental.”
Although the Savannah College of Art and Design alum’s strategy for today’s project is largely unfettered, the concept of empathy, and its power to break down walls, is on his mind.
“Everything boils down to empathy... the ability we have to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and recognize each other’s consciousness,” says Wooden.
Wooden has been staring intently at his laptop for hours, making deliberate marks on his connected drawing tablet.
“I’m trying to create the idea of a big complex web where we’re all within and connected somehow,” he explains. “I literally keep drawing lines.”
It’s true. Gesturing figures, made up of many tiny lines, begin to populate the screen. “I wanted to see how much I could abstract the human form,” he says. From afar, the lines comprise what appears to be a human figure. Closer up, they’re really just lines.
“It’s the dissection of the human body, getting rid of the physical characteristics that tend to divide us.” He smiles: “If you go back to the whole Big Bang idea … we’re all made up of the same shit.”
Aside from a stint with paint on canvas to play with texture, Wooden’s primarily medium today has been pixels.
Wooden’s line-based figures are now part of a tangled, seemingly breathing, and potentially infinite landscape. “The idea is that it can expand as much as possible, but it still all remains as one cohesive unit.”
“Each one of us is more or less compatible with every single person on the planet. It’s cool to know that there can always be some sort of connection — even if there’s a language barrier or age difference,” he continues.
He sits back and savors a celebratory sip of wine from a freshly corked bottle, taking in the end result. “Also, I think it looks cool,” he laughs.
Allison Kunath’s plan seems simple — she aims to create a series of three-to five-minute sketches throughout the day — but in some ways, her approach is the most ambitious of all. “The idea is to go into Union Square and cross my fingers that busy New Yorkers will be willing to sit down with me for a few minutes,” she laughs.
“I want to get all different types of people: The vast cornucopia of culture that’s in New York, and in America in general. I’m hoping for young and old, white and brown, men and women,” says the Venice, California-based artist.
Blind contour drawing, an exercise favored by art instructors to develop observational skills, is her game plan. Here’s how it works: Place your instrument on paper, and don’t remove it until the drawing is complete — the finished product should be a continuous line. Oh, and don’t look at the paper, not even once: The artist’s gaze must remain on the subject.
“I chose it for this project, because of the one line that makes each portrait,” she explains. “Like we’re all woven together in the same fabric.”
Despite the threatening rain, Kunath camps out at the southwestern corner of Union Square Park. Her portrait peddling has paid off: She’s several drawings in, and a small crowd of intrigued passersby amasses.
In fact, it’s been an unexpectedly profound experience. “The first guy that sat down and introduced himself grabbed my hand and started pouring out his life story. He started talking about his family — he had tears in his eyes. I spent probably 10 minutes just listening,” she says. “He gave me a big hug and a kiss.”
In only a few hours, her encounters span the gamut of human experience. “One dude asked if he could hold up his cell phone with a photo of his child while they were potty-training — they both had diapers on their heads!”
“There was another guy who moved here from Ghana seven years ago, was imprisoned a week after he got here, and just got out seven days ago,” she continues. “I asked him how his life’s been, and he was like, ‘I’m just trying to get my feet under myself again.’”
While the interaction was sobering, it was what Kunath hoped to capture. “It’s exactly what I wanted … moments with all sorts of different people, living all sorts of different lives, and all sorts of different experiences of what it is to be an American right now,” she explains.
After retreating from the park, and sketching some of her fellow artists back at HUBseventeen, Kunath curates her favorite drawings of the lot. Some made the cut because of the subjects’ stories, while others were chosen because of the physical outcome. (“My favorites are the ones that have the signifying accessories,” she says.)
Although the day has ended with separate drawings, Kunath is excited for her next steps: Digitally weaving the drawings together as if they're “strung on the same string of pearls.”
“I have nothing planned,” says artist Jeremy Penn.
What he does have is a feeling, rather, a clear-mindedness, the product of the last few days spent with his newfound family of artists. “It was very enlightening to open up,” he explains. “It challenged us to be vulnerable with one another, and with strangers. And it’s true: it brings people closer … We’re all usually so guarded; it’s been beautiful.”
The Brooklyn-based artist exudes an intensity about his craft, which has received major recognition: Penn’s works have been shown internationally, with honors from MoMA and Met curators to boot.
The New York native is classically trained, but his work is a departure from your traditional white-walled galleries. Instead, Penn often finds inspiration in urban decay and street art.
“Before I hit the canvas, I took time to walk some of the sketchier areas of Manhattan, to get that feel. This project is about a UnitedSTATE of mind. I need both of those energies: the positivity I’ve been soaking up for three days, and I needed that other element to drive me.”
By late afternoon, Penn’s canvas is an environment in and of itself. The luxuriant layering of paint, a juxtaposition of vibrant cool and warm tones colliding, seems to have its own atmosphere and gravitational pull.
He reflects on the balance of light and dark energies represented by the opposing colors, a UnitedSTATE-inspired choice. “This kind of calm and happy experience that we immerse ourselves in for three days is beautiful, but this is about uniting people. And it’s important to see the darker side too.”
To achieve depth and texture, he started by applying paper underpinnings to the canvas surface — a collage of sorts. After they dried, he peeled them off to reveal a mottled, absorbent surface.
On this surface, a work of art itself, he began pouring paint. “It’s all instinct.,” he explains. “Another sense takes over … it’s like I’ve submitted; I’m in some sort of dance with the paint.”
Penn continues building layer upon layer, adding spray paint to create soaring highlights and cavernous shadows. Although the finished product is multidimensional, Penn has bigger plans.
“One of the things that stuck with me throughout this week was this term: ‘I am.’ That was really powerful — it resonated with me because it was so undefined, and so subjective, like art.” Penn will integrate this sentiment within a to-be-determined text component.
And, at the end of the experience, how does he feel? His answer is simple, “I am clear.”
Heather Day is making a mess. Tubes of paint, scraps of paper, pencils, squeegees, rags, and brushes are strewn across the floor of the space.
The bespectacled artist sits smack dab in the middle of the chaos, hunched over a notebook. Turns out, making a mess is integral to her work. “It leaves room for accidents; it leaves room for experimenting. If you have a space to make a mess, and if you have space for your mind to be free, it’s really significant.”
“It’s like stretching before a workout,” she adds. “I’m trying to wake up this side of my brain.”
The experiences of the week have made today’s creative process — which, for Day, usually takes place in a studio behind closed doors — feel natural. “We’ve all gotten to know each other really well, really fast and that’s helped make this a comfortable space to speak our minds,” she says.
Day grew up in Hawaii, lived on the East Coast for years, and is currently based in San Francisco. Travel has always been a major source of inspiration. In fact, her globetrotting experiences helped form her signature mixed media approach.
“[Travel has] allowed me to explore different mediums and figure out that I couldn’t interpret a texture the same way I did with a pencil or with acrylic paint,” she says. “It’s like having a different lens on a camera — it gives you a different perspective.”
She means it — the littered floor is testament to her mix of mediums.
By mid-afternoon, Day has not one, but several pieces in the works, stark dreamscapes of graphite with bold washes of paint. “There’s a dialogue between line and color,” she explains. “There’s a marriage between the types of tools I’m using and the mediums in that there’s so much diversity.”
She continues, linking the experience to the UnitedSTATE concept as a whole: “That’s a lot of what being an artist is about: working through a medium and learning a lot about yourself, and trying to find another way to understand the world around you.”
Day sinks into the couch. She’s finished with eight minutes to spare. “I’m mentally drained right now,” she says. “But it’s a good kind of mentally drained, like after a good workout.”
Of the several pieces Day was working on in tandem, she’s dubbed this one, a textured pencil and paint pairing taped to the wall, the day's winner. “These kind of merged together and then drifted. This piece had a lot more energy, which is why I chose it,” she explains.
As the clock strikes 7:30, the artists put down their tools. “There’s such a unity in art because it’s something that anyone can do; it’s for everyone,” Day smiles, as her fellow artists, now finished with their own projects, come together to take in each other's accomplishments.
Although the experience had come to a close, the journey wasn’t over. The creators would carry their newfound perspectives with them, and no matter which corner of the country their adventures would take them, they’d always have a close friend to call up. The works themselves would also live on, taking new shapes -- fittingly, as part of one united lululemon collection.
To find out more about UnitedState, visit lululemon’s website here.