Justin Brennan in his studio at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.

Justin Brennan has a lot on his mind, and as his thoughts take form, so does his art

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz

“Buenas Noches” (2017); 34.5 x 34.5 inches; enamel, spray paint, charcoal on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

“Buenas Noches” (2017); 34.5 x 34.5 inches; enamel, spray paint, charcoal on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Reaching milestone ages often induces a certain amount of self-reflection – something to which 40-year-old Justin Brennan can attest.

When asked his age, the soft-spoken artist chuckles and immediately acknowledges he’s been “thinking about things.” Later, when asked what the future holds, he confesses, “Being 40, you start to question everything.”

But thinking about things seems to be a creative sweet spot for Brennan.

He draws inspiration from personal relationships. He churns day-to-day interactions in his head, ruminates on them in his studio – a long and narrow room carved out of the PopEye Gallery-curated Survival Kit space on the third floor of 78th Street Studios – until it’s time for paint to meet canvas.

Cerebral musings fuel his work, and at the moment, his artistic tank is full. His evocative new series of portraits, some 20 of which will be on view starting in July at HEDGE Gallery, is evidence.

Greeted at eye level, these Francis Bacon-inspired paintings invite viewers in for a conversation about what’s on their mind. There’s a directness to them that way, but they’re simultaneously elusive. Bright colors mask potentially darker themes, and the ways in which facial features are blurred and distorted suggest an emotionally charged static interference that never quite lets the viewer connect with the solitary figure portrayed.

The tension is palpable.

“I did portraiture before, but it was more realistic. This is completely abstracted,” he says, highlighting their ambiguity and indefinability.

“I always leave the viewer to determine what they want from the piece, to take what they want from it,” he says. “I want it to affect them. I want them to look into it. I want them to remember it.”

He wants those who view his art to think about things, too.

‘No second thoughts’

“Justifiable Fear” (2017); 34 x 32 inches; oil, spray paint, enamel on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

“Justifiable Fear” (2017); 34 x 32 inches; oil, spray paint, enamel on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Brennan was born and raised in Lakewood, the second oldest of four children. He credits his mother Maureen’s side of the family – her father drew and collected art, and her grandfather was a vaudeville dancer – for his creativity.

For his drive, determination and work ethic, Brennan credits his father Sean’s entrepreneurial side of the family. Brennan’s Catering & Banquet Center on the west side of Cleveland is the family business. It’s also where Justin Brennan holds a title of manager/chef.

As a child, Brennan was both good at and interested in art but admits he “never took it seriously.” It wasn’t until his senior year at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland that his interests and talents started to take shape. It was then that he learned of abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, whom he credits with leading him to painting as his art form of choice. He also gives a nod to some formal arts education he received.

“Ignatius wasn’t known for its art program back in ’93/’94,” he says. “I had to wait until my senior year to take drawing or painting. I really enjoyed painting a lot, and it just kind of took off from there.”

He matriculated at Kent State University to study graphic design. He took studio art for a semester but ultimately stayed at the university for only two years.

“Then years later, I went to Tri-C, and I took Painting I,” he says, clarifying that was about 2004. That class would mark the end of Brennan’s formal art education – he’s largely self-taught – and the beginning of his artistic career.

“When I was 28 is when I really decided, ‘Hey, I want to be serious about this,’” he says. “It’s only been about 12 years that I’ve been going strong at it – completely focused on it, no second thoughts and 100 percent devoted to it.”

Hitting his stride

“Unforeseen Monster” (2017); 24 x 24 inches; oil, enamel, spray paint on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

“Unforeseen Monster” (2017); 24 x 24 inches; oil, enamel, spray paint on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

What led to his shift in focus?

“I had some life-changing experiences,” he says. It isn’t a topic Brennan wishes to dwell on or discuss in detail but he concedes he wrestled with anxiety during that time.

“There’s a cliché that abstract expressionism is expressing emotions,” he says. “I had trouble expressing my emotions … so it was a way to kind of, not communicate, but yeah, express how I (felt) and what was going on.”

Brennan channeled that energy into his creativity. His early work involved stylized portraiture, and his first show was an ARTMart: SPACES Members Show and Sale at SPACES Gallery.

He later shifted to nonrepresentational abstraction. A July 2016 show entitled “Turbulence” at Maria Neil Art Project in Cleveland‘s Waterloo Arts District showcased that later phase.

“The term ‘turbulence’ refers to my psychological state, thoughts, emotions and the interactions throughout the past eight months of creating this work,” he said at the time.

The abstract portraits he produces today are a combination of those two approaches. Those “thoughts, emotions and interactions” are now taking form – a dynamic he admits he stumbled upon while pushing himself to do something different.

“When I do a big series or body of work, usually around the 15th or 20th piece, I’m usually like, I’m painting this and it’s kind of repetitive,” he says. “People like them — they’re good paintings sometimes – but I’m not satisfied as an artist. So I always change it up.”

Brennan’s willingness to experiment is what drew the attention of HEDGE Gallery’s Hilary D. Gent, who started representing him at the outset of 2017.

“As a painter, I think that’s important because as a gallery representing him, it shows promise for new bodies of work in the future,” she says. “That’s what excites me about showing an artist like Justin. He’s adventurous. He’s willing to mix new mediums into his work and … to experiment with them to develop new bodies of work.”

Brennan’ s place

Brennan lives in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, but his home away from home is his 78th Street studio – a space he’s quite enjoyed since moving in back in late 2015.

Brennan applies spray paint to “Gaia” (2017); 24 × 30 inches; oil, spray paint, enamel on panel. In Greek mythology, Gaia is the first female as well as the personification of earth. Brennan named this piece “Gaia” because it was the first woman he depicted in his latest series of portraits.

Brennan applies spray paint to “Gaia” (2017); 24 × 30 inches; oil, spray paint, enamel on panel. In Greek mythology, Gaia is the first female as well as the personification of earth. Brennan named this piece “Gaia” because it was the first woman he depicted in his latest series of portraits.

“Once a month, hundreds of people come through my studio – and it’s great,” he says. “I love being here. It’s super inspirational.”

His paint-splattered studio floor and paint-caked A-frame easel – both of which suggest an artist who feverishly capitalizes on that inspiration – are favorites of Third Friday Instagrammers, he jokes.

“It was immaculate (when I moved) in here, and this is my second thing of cardboard,” he says, pointing to a layer of cardboard meant to protect the floor from said paint. “Yeah, this is all my paint.”

A Miles Davis “The New York Sessions” poster that hangs on the back of his studio door also provides inspiration. Whether it‘s Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonious Monk, jazz is in the air every time Brennan works. Actually, he considers it more “superstition” that inspiration.

“Back when I first started painting – I like rock ’n’ roll, too, a lot – so I would drink and turn on the Rolling Stones, paint – and think I was Jackson Pollock. And then I’d realize 20 minutes or half an hour into it that I was drunk, my painting was complete shit and I’d wasted all these supplies,” he recalls with a smile. “Now, I don’t really drink when I paint and I listen to jazz. I love it, and it keeps me focused.”

A jazz-infused soundtrack isn’t Brennan’s sole self-professed superstition.

“I don’t like violet,” he says unwaveringly. “I like pinks, reds, blues, browns, yellows. I just don’t go near violet – and rarely green. It’s superstitious – I’m a superstitious painter at times.”

Less eccentric are Brennan’s commitment to craft and his ambition to improve as an artist.

“My last piece is always inferior to my next piece. I feel like I can always do better,” he says. “It keeps me driving, it keeps me painting.”

And one thing he doesn’t have to think too much about – or question even at the milestone age of 40 – is his creative future.

“I know I don’t want to stop. … I can’t stop and I won’t stop,” Brennan says. “I don’t think about it anymore. I just do it all the time.” CV

On View

Justin Brennan

Justin Brennan will take part in “Free Style: Tease and Tension Between Abstraction and Representation” from May 12 to June 24 at Zygote Press Gallery, 1410 E. 30th St., Cleveland. Other artists in this group show will be Dave Cintron, Jamey Hart, Michael Lombardy, James March, Kelsey Moulton, Patricia Zinmeister Parker, Scott Pickering and Grace Summanen. An opening reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. May 12.

“No Expectations,” a solo show featuring 20 to 25 of Brennan’s paintings and drawings, will be on view from July 21 to Sept. 1 at HEDGE Gallery, 1300 W. 78th St., Cleveland. An opening reception will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. July 21.

Lead image: Justin Brennan in his studio at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.

Some observers indicate more red dots like this one, which indicate a piece of art has been sold, are popping up around Northeast Ohio.

Northeast Ohio’s market for art is rising; for those who haven’t yet navigated the challenging but rewarding landscape, now is the time to buy in

Story and photo by Michael C. Butz

High-quality art has become increasingly popular in Greater Cleveland. Art lovers swarm 78th Street Studios every third Friday, art walks in Tremont and Waterloo clog the streets, and even the artists themselves are justified in congratulations, both self and to each other.

But do the traffic and art’s newfound popularity translate to sales? It’s one thing to create art, and there’s no shortage of that in the region. It’s another to market it, and that’s gotten easier, with new galleries popping up and increased arts coverage in weekly newspapers and magazines like this one.

But there’s a bottom line to art, too, because after the artist creates – the painting’s ready to hang, the sculpture screams for a living room to call home – he or she has to sell it. Art is an expression. It’s a profession. It’s also a business.

With the quality of the art escalating and the outlets proliferating, the Cleveland art scene seems to be thriving, even booming. Artists are eager to sell their work. Are Northeast Ohioans buying?

Anecdotally, at least, the answer seems to be “yes,” according to two longtime keepers of Cleveland’s art scene.

“I’m going to say more people are buying local art just from the sense I get from artists,” says Joan Perch, exhibition coordinator at the Stocker Arts Center at Lorain County Community College. She also once owned a commercial gallery, ArtMetro, in downtown Cleveland, and founded the RED DOT Project, a nonprofit that sells and markets the art of its artist members.

“A lot of artists I knew and represented are doing well with selling their work,” Perch says.

Dan Bush, owner and developer of 78th Street Studios, a veritable beehive of creativity in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, sees the same trend.

Bush – with encouragement from Bill Scheele of Kokoon Gallery, who said to him several years ago, “This place is boring, we need to have a party” – helped launch Third Fridays, a regularly recurring arts bazaar.

Third Fridays quickly grew from a quarterly event to a monthly event, and in terms of participation, 78th Street Studios has seen it grow from “a couple of hundred” people visiting 30 to 40 businesses to “between roughly 1,500 and 2,000 people” visiting the building’s more than 60 businesses.

“I’m constantly astounded by two things,” Bush says. “One is that people keep coming, which is great. … The second thing is that people are buying art in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s beyond good – it’s astounding. And being someone who enjoys that, I certainly enjoy the fact that there are other people like me out there.”

But are there ever really enough art sales? Certainly not, and accordingly, both Perch and Bush see room for growth ­– if not necessarily in terms of quantity of pieces purchased, then in terms of the volume of buyers – and have advice for those who haven’t yet made the leap from art socializer to art shopper.

“It’s OK to take a while, it’s not like walking into a grocery store,” says Perch of the virgin art buyer.

Perch, whose background includes arts education and nurturing new art-buying clients, suggests newcomers engage in a process they’re likely already good at: making acquaintances.

“It’s all about relationship-building. It’s about personal relationships and trusting the artist and the dealer,” she says. “In the galleries at Lorain County Community College, I often talk to anyone coming in. You really need to start a conversation and a dialogue. That’s where art is – the art is telling you something.”

That dialogue – that exchange of thoughts and emotions – can continue for years as the art hangs on the buyer’s walls for years. What develops following a purchase is a symbiotic relationship between art and buyer, as well as artist and buyer.

“Those pieces of art remind you of the people you know and the things you’ve learned about them and learned about their art,” Perch says. “If you purchase something that’s made by hand, and you get to know (the artist), and you’re helping someone making a living in a creative endeavor, there’s a sense of accomplishment.

“When buying a piece of jewelry or ceramics, a small print, a painting, you’re not only supporting the artist, you’re supporting the gallery,” she adds. “It’s important to support those galleries, too.”

Of course, when supporting artists and galleries, one’s financial ability to do so comes into play. After all, art isn’t functional – not in the same way furniture or a home appliance is. As a result, some struggle with justifying a potential art purchase.

“It really just goes back to the fact it’s art, you can’t eat it,” Bush quips. “Technically, you could heat your house with it if you had to, but people don’t have to enjoy it and they don’t have to engage in it, and I’m just thrilled that they do – and that I get to be a part of it.”

Set a budget but be prepared to exceed it, if only slightly. In Northeast Ohio, many galleries and events offer works at a wide range of price points.

“Not everyone is going to be buying a $3,500 or $35,000 painting, but we’ve got anything from those price points down to a $35 pair of earrings – and everybody can walk away with a piece of art in their hands,” Bush says of Third Fridays. “It’s a good experience for everybody.”

And while “you can’t eat art,” there’s a monetarily unquantifiable value to it.

“Don’t be afraid to get in where you’re comfortable, and look for a price point at which you’re willing to get in,” Perch says. “Once you have some successful acquisitions, you’re ready to build on it. A lot of times, clients like to start with something smaller.”

Starting small helps some overcome what might be considered an intimidating process, from figuring out what you like to knowing the tricks of the trade. Unless you’ve been raised in a family that buys art, you might not know where to start. Is there a right or wrong way to buy art?

“If you like something, there’s not a wrong approach,” Bush says. “I actually have sold art here; I’ve just talked to people. It’s not my business, by any means, but it’s certainly exciting to see somebody walk away with something you can tell they really enjoy. I have a handful of friends I’ve gotten involved with and it’s really fun to see how engaged they are in collecting and learning about the artists they enjoy.”

Some consider buying art risky, and in a sense, it is – but so is making art. Artists take risks, as do those who buy their work. But with risks come rewards.

“I was just talking to some art students about doing something different. We’re working with different technology that artists can use, and they’re a little uncomfortable. And I told them to step out of their comfort zone; that’s what artists do,” Perch says. “People need to trust themselves a little more. Just trust yourself. People can get to know a whole lot more than they think they can.”

“I enjoy seeing people buying art, not purely for selfish reasons,” says Bush, who’s been collecting for 30 years and focuses on Cleveland School art. “I know how much I enjoy it and how it makes me feel, and I want to share that with people. I know a lot of people who have that same itch. So it does my heart good when I see somebody pulling the trigger on something.”

From first-time buyers to “loyal customers” eagerly awaiting new work from artists they’ve long targeted, Northeast Ohio’s art scene is gaining traction.

“Cleveland is a very solid hometown town, and yes, people do support their friends, and they do support their artists and they do support the scene,” Bush says. “There is a really solid art scene in Cleveland right now. It’s not bringing top dollar, it’s not bringing New York or LA figures. I would venture to say, however, that it should be.” CV


Lead image: Some observers indicate more red dots like this one, which indicate a piece of art has been sold, are popping up around Northeast Ohio.