Brenden Spivey finds inner calm in chaotic, colorful canvases

Like his mother, Brenden Spivey came to art later in life.

“She was a mom, a wife, a businesswoman – all of these things. And then along comes this creative energy she didn’t necessarily know was there,” Spivey said in an early August interview at the Ohio State University Faculty Club, where the artist’s new solo show, “Paradise,” is set to open on Friday, Aug. 4. “But as soon as she picked up the hot glue gun and flowers, she’d be at it and gone for hours.”

While her work centered on gluing dried flowers to straw hats in increasingly ornate arrangements, the influence of Spivey’s mother can be seen in the similar focus on color and composition displayed in his abstract geometric paintings.

Spivey started painting six years ago, initially approaching the craft as a way to manage anxiety and mild depression. Spivey began as a fluid artist – an abstract technique in which free-flowing acrylic paints are poured onto a canvas – adopting the approach in part because there was such a low barrier to entry. “It seemed like a quick way to get started,” he said. But it also proved instructive, helping the artist learn how to let go and to accept the potential inherent in those moments of randomness.

“I have a controlling-type personality … but with [fluid art], if you don’t get the paint right and you pour it out and hate it, there’s no recovery,” Spivey said. “And that’s where I learned that patience, and I found that peace where it was like, ‘Okay, here’s this cup full of paint. Here’s this blank canvas. You’ve got one shot to do this.”

In the years since, Spivey has expanded from fluid art and embraced more traditional painting techniques, but even with brush in hand he’s maintained the exploratory spirit of those early days. He paints with dirty brushes as a way to create complementary colors. He glues dried paint skins to canvases. He creates transparency effects by pressing sheets of deli paper to wet paint, leaving behind only the thinnest sheen of color. And then he'll go back over the dried canvas with wax pastels, adding marks, sketches and coded messages that are only visible upon closer inspection. Numbers like 13, 14 and 22 reappear in his work – the numerals making reference bible verses, including Genesis 22:14, introduced to Spivey by his aunt, and which he said serves as a reminder to be patient. 

For his paintings, Spivey draws inspiration from everything from architecture – he’s a fan of mid-century modern homes and often paints with a specific space or room in mind – to his travels.

Paintings on display in “Paradise” pull from trips to Palm Springs, California (“The Journey,” with its broad streaks of white meant to capture the winds that kick up in the desert valley upon approach), and Cuba (“La Havana”), which Spivey journeyed to in March with a contingent of Columbus artists. “This was actually the first piece I did after coming back, and it was earth, water, sand,” he said of the color palette, reflective of the landscape he absorbed as he moved through the island. “And these were colors I saw a lot in the buildings, these yellows and not-quite pinks.”

Other paintings on display are more abstract in concept, including a pair of pieces Spivey completed as part of his “Kinetic” series: the massive, wildly colorful “Kinetic III,” and the more toned down “Kinetic VII,” which applies more muted blacks and whites adorned with pops of red and metallic gold. Initiated during the early months of the ongoing pandemic, the canvases capture a sense of movement absent from his life at the time, when even Spivey’s regular work travels were grounded by the coronavirus. 

“It was like whatever excess energy I had; I could slam it on these canvases. I was just creating work in that moment and living through it,” said Spivey, who started the series in the days after he moved into his first artist studio space at 400 West Rich in Franklinton. “Before that, I could never paint this large, and [400] gave me that space to expand, to stretch out. Looking at energy, you have to have a place to move. Your wings have to be able to spread.”

As Spivey paints, he’ll often listen to jazz, allowing that he has a mild form of synesthesia in which certain instrumental tones can evoke particular colors. Once in this zone, hours can pass in a blink, with the outside world disappearing amid repeated circles of yellow, blue and brown.

“I always bought art, and was always an appreciator, but now that I’m a part of it, I realize the thing that was missing was this, and I’ve never felt so complete,“ Spivey said. “It stops all the madness in my head, like, ‘Did I wash the laundry? Did I take the dog out? How’s my mom?’ All of those things that go through my head at all times pretty much come to a dead stop once I get in the studio. It’s that one thing I’ve found that makes everything from the outside turn off.”