Inspired by the sphere of human sight, Ryan and Trevor Oakes come by their talents rightly, as fifth cousins of Edgar Allen Poe.
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On a bitter, winter day in Manhattan, office workers look out their windows to see what they think must certainly be two government agents with a strange contraption on the rooftop of the Union Square Cinema. But what they actually see is Morgantown’s own Ryan and Trevor Oakes, artists who are changing the way art is seen and created.
Since 2004, twin brothers Ryan and Trevor, graduates of Morgantown High School, have been creating intricate, ink perspective drawings on arched paper with a one-of-a-kind, bowl-shaped metal easel—something they patented in 2008. From rooftops, parks, cemeteries, and museums, Ryan and Trevor draw scenes with the easel that are inspired by the shape of the field of human vision—all the angles at which you can see an object without moving your head or neck. Their public drawings bring crowds of hundreds no matter where they are, and the brothers answer questions while drawing all day for up to three to four weeks per drawing. Most recently, they completed a curved black and white ink drawing of the gardens at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. “It was nonstop—22 days of work. We would get there as early as we could and stay until the last drop of daylight,” Ryan says.
Ryan and Trevor say the concave easel they designed and built in a week with their second cousin, Willis Bowman, a metal machinist in Ohio, enables them to create realistic images of scenes inspired by the field of vision. The inspiration for their elaborate landscape drawings comes from a kind of strange optical play that happens in the human brain. Ryan and Trevor say it can be a little tricky to explain, but they encourage others to try the technique for themselves: Hold a pen in front of you and attempt to look beyond it. Optically, you see the pen divide and split into two pens. If you change your perspective and look directly at the pen, you see what’s in the background split into a double image, too. “By way of splitting your pen into a double, you perceive its ghosted twin to be floating off to the side of a piece of paper, and then you can use that to trace over what you are seeing and capture the rendering. One eye is looking at the paper and the other eye is looking at the scene. That’s how the drawings are done,” Ryan says. A lot of practice and refining of the technique were required to be able to draw this way, but Ryan and Trevor are now able to copy or trace the space exactly as it appears to their eyes using this method.
Ryan and Trevor say being twins is an advantage when it comes to making elaborate perspective drawings, building their easel, and entertaining crowds during drawings. “Being twins makes our artwork doable. We can accomplish more complex and challenging projects because we have four hands and two brains. We’ve worked together since we were kids, and we can take on projects with a higher level of complexity,” Trevor says. “Even having a conversation with somebody, the two of us are paying attention to what they are saying and we can have a more fully-minded conversation. There’s not as much nervousness like you would have in a one-on-one conversation. We can co-attack whatever situation we are in,” Ryan says.
Born in Boulder, Colorado, in 1982, Ryan and Trevor were also raised in Blacksburg, Virginia, and in Morgantown, where they spent their senior year at Morgantown High School. As children, they gravitated towards creating art with whatever raw materials were available. “When we would come home from preschool, one of us would say to the other, ‘Let’s have a snack and then let’s go make stuff.’ We’d spend most of the day constructing things out of Popsicle sticks, construction paper, pipe cleaners, or Elmer’s glue,” Trevor says.
The twins continued to explore art when they moved to Blacksburg, taking watercolor classes in high school. During their senior year of high school in Morgantown, they enjoyed three hours of art class before lunch every other day through block scheduling. They remember when another student took a photo of the colors reflected in a second-story window at The Metropolitan Theatre on High Street, and Ryan adapted it into a self-inspired painting. For a project in English class, the brothers painted a dragon and castle mural on the windows at Morgantown High.
Also during their senior year, a mentorship program with the late WVU art professor Urban Couch, influenced the twins to pursue art as a career. Urban was a professor emeritus of the WVU College of Creative Arts, a U.S. Navy Veteran, artist, and curator. The professor’s stories about creating graphic arts diagrams of how to tie knots for the Navy inspired the twins, as well as Urban’s simple idea of painting the edge of staircases and hazardous areas on ships yellow, so they would be more visually noticeable, Ryan says.
Ryan and Trevor were accepted into Cooper Union School of Art in New York City early in their senior year at Morgantown High School. Linear perspective and other art classes piqued their interest and they began to discuss what the shape of the field of human vision might be. Little observations like examining how you can see the profile of your own nose in your stream of vision—how if you close one eye at a time you can see your nose “jump” from side to side—got the twins interested in analyzing vision in artwork.
“We weren’t reading science texts or dissecting eyeballs; we were just looking and focusing,” Ryan says. “In a nutshell, we realized that your perceptual reality, or the experience of looking, was just as real as any physical reality. Real is such a weird word; it’s hard to say what real is. We recognized that the reality of any piece of visual art is that it has a physical and a perceptual component. It’s physically there, yet for a viewer to see it they rely on the perception of their eyes to intake its content into their brain. We decided that perceptual reality was interconnected to physical reality, and then our art started to stem from operating within the perceptual realm.”