Inspired by the sphere of human sight, Ryan and Trevor Oakes come by their talents rightly, as fifth cousins of Edgar Allen Poe.
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.”
After graduating from Cooper Union, Ryan and Trevor spent the summer of 2004 living in a small basement studio apartment working for their landlady doing odd jobs, light duty construction, and painting apartments. They continued to draw while doing whatever they could to pay rent. Gradually, they realized they needed a curved easel to do the artwork they really wanted to do.
When they designed and completed the easel and brought it back to New York, people took notice. “As soon as we brought the easel back to New York before Christmas, a neighbor who lived in our apartment building saw the easel and immediately commissioned us to do a drawing because he had never seen anything like it,” Trevor says.
The first drawing with the easel was a city landscape scene on top of the Union Square Cinema in downtown Manhattan. It was drawn over the course of four cold days in early January. Wearing layered clothes and quirky ski hats with tassels, Ryan and Trevor could smell theatergoers’ popcorn as it wafted up to the roof where they were drawing. They worked on the corner of the building, close to the edge of the roof’s protective wall—one leg of the easel over the wall. They could see people working at their desks in an office across the street. Some workers stared at Ryan and Trevor when they went up to the roof of the nearby building for smoke breaks. “At one point, I called over to them: ‘Is it possible for me to come over there to take a photograph?’ They gave me the address, I went down there, rang the buzzer, and they were like, ‘What are you guys doing? We’ve been watching you all week. It looks like a satellite dish standing off the side of the building, and we thought maybe you were CIA, but then you both had tassels on your hats, so we figured CIA wouldn’t have tassels on their hats.’ They all thought the drawing was interesting, and a couple of people wanted to buy prints of it,” Ryan recalls.
Gradually, the twins made more connections and found benefactors—some of them twins themselves. “A lot of our early supporters have been twins. People saw we were young twins who were trying to do something creative and they were extra supportive of us. It’s like a twin mafia of sorts,” Trevor says. A pivotal moment in the Oakes’ career took place when they met Lawrence Weschler, a long time contributor to The New Yorker, at an art opening for identical twins, Margaret and Christine Wertheim, who are known for their crochet coral reef project. Lawrence was thrilled by Ryan and Trevor’s ideas and ambition. He helped them get their first public sculpture into O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, connected them with the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and recently curated an exhibit of their artwork at the CUE Art Foundation in New York from September through October 2011. With Lawrence’s support, more and more projects with the concave easel became available to Ryan and Trevor.
When Ryan and Trevor begin a drawing, much thought and discussion goes into the piece before any ink touches paper. “Once we choose a specific spot, we will determine what the logic of the rendering is going to be—things like color, vantage point, and how much detail we want to include. Then, we move into the execution phase, roll out each morning, set up the easel, and execute the rendering based on the logic and the rules we have determined,” Ryan says. They will store the easel at a friend’s apartment near the site, and they often work during winter. “Working outside during winter is actually pretty nice because there are no leaves on the tree branches, so you can get a greater amount of detail through the tree branches and see further,” Ryan says.
Ryan and Trevor keep a studio in Soho out of a space that is loaned to them by an arts patron and friend who primarily lives in Los Angeles. In New York, they spend most of their days working at the studio, scouring for supplies, or sending e-mails to set up drawing opportunities. “For a long time, we didn’t make any distinction between a work day and a weekend, and we weren’t really aware of weekends,” Ryan says. “That has changed a little bit now because of communicating with outside parties. If we are setting up a project in a museum, those people are only at their desks five days a week.”
One of Ryan and Trevor’s proudest accomplishments is a black and white ink drawing called “Have No Narrow Perspective” of Chicago’s Millennium Park, which is on permanent display at O’Hare International Airport. The piece was an extended drawing of Anish Kapoor’s gigantic, reflective sculpture also in Millennium Park, called “Cloud Gate.” Other drawings are held in permanent collections at The Field Museum and Spertus Museum in Chicago. This winter, Ryan and Trevor spent five weeks drawing an elaborate auditorium scene at The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) in Troy, New York. In the fall, they will return to the Palazzo Strozzi Museum in Florence, Italy, where they’ve previously lectured, to reinvent an artwork of Filippo Brunelleschi with their curved easel. Brunelleschi is considered to be the father of the first linear perspective drawing experiment around 1425. Ryan and Trevor Oakes have also created works of art with matchsticks, pipe cleaners, cardboard, and paintings. Much of their work can be seen at oakesoakes.com.
Ryan says he and his brother are really just out to make art focused on the human perception, and their method comes directly from their own line of sight. “It gives you a representation of what the world looks like through human eyes. It hits on a universal human chord, and that’s what excites us about making more and continuing to explore this territory.”
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