Double Vision

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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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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