The sound of rattle, rattle, hiss, rattle, rattle, hiss is a common tune at Belen stencil artist Kevin Harding’s garage studio.
Here, the faintly sweet, yet chemical smell of spray paint is a scent that has long seeped into the studio’s fibers, much like the paint itself, which covers rows of canvases, shelves of cans that have painted themselves from frequent use, and the walls themselves — illustrated with the iconic face of Marilyn Monroe in a dripping blue, a pink blossomed cherry tree with the silhouette of a couple smooching beneath and a floor to ceiling portrait of a woman inhaling a rose.
The paintings spill out into the house itself where the large living room, hallways and bedrooms play host to a gallery of Harding’s work.
For the 28-year-old artist, painting has become an obsession. When he isn’t painting, he says he’s thinking about painting. And when he is painting, he’s thinking about what he is going to paint next and how he will do it differently.
“I guess I’ve always been interested in art. And then I got really sick and was just bored and in bed and I’d always draw,” Harding said. “It’s just something I picked up and I liked it enough to keep trying to go to the next level with it.”
At first, he began doing what he calls space art, creating ethereal landscapes using spray paint with different types of brushes, sponges and his fingertips. From there, he picked up airbrushing, but frustrated with the length of time it took to clean the device between colors, he looked for an art form that could be accomplished more immediately, and found stencil art.
His first stencil pieces, made with one or two stencil layers, he calls “primitive,” an accurate description in comparison to the large scale works of art that dominate the walls today, which he creates using up to eight stencil layers, sometimes more.
Colorful, yet dark, Harding’s work is reminiscent of the vibrant, iconographic work of Andy Warhol, as well as Ralph Steadman, whose splattered paint technique was made famous alongside the controversial work of author Hunter S. Thompson.
But both observations are news to Harding, who admits he knows very little about the art world and doesn’t draw inspiration from any artist or art movement in particular.
For him, stencil art and painting is a compulsion and an outlet, something he says he probably couldn’t quit if he tried.
“I almost feel like I owe a debt to art because it saved my life. Literally, I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for art,” he says. “I used to drink and stuff before and that’s what got me sick, and I feel like I almost used to drink as much as I paint now, so it’s almost like to fill that void. I don’t know how to explain it. I feel like I almost have to paint.
“Even if nobody bought any, I’d still be painting and still spending my money on it,” he said. “I really don’t know why.”
Harding says he often gives his art away for free to friends and his Facebook fans, but he also sells at the flea market in Albuquerque and over the Internet. Harding sometimes gets commissioned pieces from other countries
His latest endeavor is creating gray-scale portraits for people from photographs. From a distance, these portraits look almost like black and white photographs, and he says gray is his favorite color to paint with because it is able to create such realistic images.
For the flea market, he makes smaller images that are more likely to appeal to the public that he can sell for less, such as small canvass pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Tupac and The Simpsons characters, which he creates from stock stencils that he can reuse over and over.
For his larger pieces, such as the painting of two women with Day of the Dead makeup, he destroys the stencil afterwards so that it will remain a one-of-a-kind.
He says the hardest part of the process is creating and cutting out the stencil, which takes between 8 and 12 hours after he uses Photoshop to break down his chosen image into separate color layers and has each layer professionally printed on card stock.
He says he is always on the look out for an eye-catching image and spends a lot of time online looking for something inspiring to paint. For the picture of the women with Day of the Dead makeup, he says it was a picture on a Facebook page he found and asked to use. In an interesting turn of events, the girl in the makeup turned out to live up the street from him.
Right now, Harding is working on a gray-scale picture of the exterior of the Hard Rock Casino and Resort in Isleta Pueblo and says he has several of his portraits of famous musicians in the hotel’s governor’s suite.
Since spray paint will go on anything, he also likes to paint on found objects, such various paintings he has done on boards from a 200-year-old barn that was torn down. He says he has a collection of “rusty junk” he is itching to paint.
But, while no surface is safe from Harding’s imagination, he says illegal “tagging” is not his style, despite what the neighbors might think when they happen to see inside his garage.
In the tagging world, a tagger has a tag name, and one of the objectives is to put it up in as many places as possible within a city, which he says is pointless in a town the size of Belen.
“I always thought I already knew everybody in Belen, there’s no need to (tag),” he said. “That’s kind of the thing, to put your name up so everybody’ll see it — it’s kind of pointless to do it in this town … So I don’t really see that as an accomplishment or anything. I’d rather get some art in a gallery and then sell it. That’d be more of an accomplishment than anything.”
At first, he says his family wasn’t too sure about his fascination with stencil art, but after seven years of working on it and improving, they’ve come around to appreciate it.
“My grandma is like my biggest fan,” he says with a laugh. “She loves my art. Every time, she’s all, ‘What are you painting? What did you do?’
“And my dad, he’s like, ‘Dang, I never thought you’d be able to do anything with this. I saw you with a spray can all the time and I thought, ‘You’ll never be able to do anything with a spray paint can, nobody wants spray paint.’ And now I want you to paint stuff for me.’”
Harding says lately all he can think about is “going big, huge,” such as painting a mural.
“I’m trying to save money from doing some of the small ones and spend it on something big,” he said. “I want to paint something with the splatters, but then I want to do something colorful, so I was thinking some macaws flying. So maybe there’ll be some splatters but you’d still see the definition and everything in it, but it’s all about finding the right pictures.”
To contact Harding and to see more of his artwork, visit his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/istnclart.
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