Joel Edwards already wears several artist’s hats — accomplished portraitist, teacher, gallery owner. And now a previously unacknowledged influence in his early training finds him taking a sharp detour. “My latest paintings are the result of me trying more and more to get out of my own way while working,” Edwards says.
His provocative abstract compositions will show this month at CANVAS, the Hendersonville gallery and studio space he oversees with his wife and fellow artist, Jennifer. Veering from the rigid parameters of formal portraiture, a style for which he’s long been known, Edwards now allows a latent experience to guide him — his few months working as an assistant to the post-war abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), known for her “soak-stain” technique of luminous color washes.
Edwards didn’t realize at the time how deeply Frankenthaler’s approach had penetrated. “I feel privileged having had the experience but, honestly, at the time I wasn’t really interested in her work,” he admits. “I now look at her paintings more as an influence in many ways. It’s interesting to see that she’s become so important to a younger generation of artists.”
His new work evolved when Edwards began experimenting with both sides of the canvas. He applied pigment straight from the tube and it bled through the linen to the other side. This, he says, “ignited an unplanned image that would feed the next decision. I found myself flipping back and forth between the front and back a dozen times before deciding which side spoke to me more.” Instead of imposing the formal constraints of the portrait artist on the canvas, he allowed the paint to form the image almost all on its own.
From the start, his career choice was guided by his family background. “Both my mother and father are professional artists and teachers and have been a big part of the early success of CANVAS,” Edwards notes. (His parents’ paintings are also scheduled to be exhibited at the gallery.) But he studied for his MFA in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with the figurative painter Eric Fischl (it’s also where he met and worked with Frankenthaler). Fischl’s robustly modeled depictions of the human form underscored Edwards’s own interest in portraiture, born of many hours in the company of the Old Masters at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. “[Fischl] was an insightful and articulate thinker, and very charming,” Edwards says. “I can remember him looking at a student’s painting and how, slowly, the entire class would migrate over. There was a kind of magnetism to his conversational approach, and it would open up into an hour-long impromptu discussion about art.”
Joel and Jennifer met in New York but chose to marry, in 2006, in Flat Rock, near where Jennifer’s parents lived in Brevard. Back at home up north, they sought refuge from the frantic city energy in a 19th-century farmhouse in the Catskills, spending long weekends there but moving permanently when their first child was born. “The Catskills were beautiful but pretty rural, so a part of us missed being close to the arts and culture of New York City,” he recalls. “Jennifer’s folks lived in Brevard, so we’d been visiting the Asheville area for years and loved the balance between city life and country life.” A move south followed, and CANVAS came along soon after, opening in 2016 on South Church Street in Hendersonville. “We wanted to create a place to offer art instruction and a studio to sell my commissioned portraits,” Edwards says. “We realized the space had such incredible natural light and [it] just begged to show other artists as well.”
Edwards values his portraits as an opportunity to switch back to a more traditional way of working. “Achieving a likeness while creating something meaningful to people is challenging,” he says. “It exercises a completely different area of my brain and grounds me as a painter. To me the surprise of the unexpected has become the starting point.”
“Walking in the Dark, new paintings by Joel Edwards” opens Thursday, June 14, with a 4:30-6:30pm reception and runs through Saturday, July 7. CANVAS ArtSpace, 212 South Church St., Hendersonville. For more information about current exhibits and class schedules, visit canvaswnc.com.