Co-authored with Dr. Yasmine Van Wilt, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Mellon Fellow at Union College, NY, Kobalt/AWAL singer-songwriter, dramatist, academic, and contributor to Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global.
This is the fifth of a series of interviews with extraordinary people who are working in partnership with or using their skills and training as artists and humanists to improve their communities, challenge assumptions, and advance our understanding of the human condition.
Ryan Jude Novelline is a Boston-based contemporary artist whose experience includes work for Amazon, Sony, Universal, Diane Von Furstenberg, GAP, & Walt Disney Imagineering, amongst others. His work has been recognized domestically and internationally by the Huffington Post, New York Magazine, Fashion Police, Yahoo News, Asian Geographic, and a host of others. He holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Illustration from Rhode Island School of Design.
CH: Your work is so whimsical and imaginative! Can you talk about your creative process?
Whenever I am looking for a new pair of shoes or a chair or a lamp or a doll, and I cannot quite find what I want, or when the piece that I envision doesn’t yet exist, I make it myself. I am also a romantic at heart and believe in the magic of art. In this chaotic and hurried world, I want to think that there is still a place for dreamers to illuminate the stars. Fairy tales have also always been a huge inspiration to me, and I love blurring the boundary between fantasy and reality. I also enjoy reviving antiques with character. I briefly made a living restoring and reselling vintage dolls on eBay. It was remarkable restoring or recreating a dusty, unwanted object into a striking and beautiful heirloom. There is a power in that transformation.
CH: What does being an artist mean to you? Has your artistic vision changed over the years?
I speak with honesty and integrity through my work; this aspiration or vision has not changed. I have a colorful and sensitive voice that is also unique, bold, and worthwhile. Against all of the odds, I think daring people stand out and inspire fearlessness in others. If my art can impact others like that, then I will feel fulfilled. When I release new work out into the void like a message in a bottle, what happens to it afterwards is beyond my control. That is thrilling in itself. Anything can happen.
CH: I love your reference to the impact of daring and fearless people. I think this bold confidence you reference really transpires through your work.
I believe the fearlessness in my own work comes from tremendous self-awareness. I was raised in such a way that I know who I am. When I express myself, I feel empowered. I know what I want to say. And I use my medium to say it. That gives me the freedom to operate without the fear of criticism or judgment.
My mom always let me choose the Barbie over the Hotwheel at McDonalds. It may sounds silly in this decade, but it meant everything to me that she was strong enough to do that in the early nineties. I did not know then how significant her openness was to forming my sense of self and identity. I am so grateful to her for allowing me the freedom to choose. You know, the fact that I played with dolls as a child embarrassed me as a teenager. So those Barbies collected dust in storage for years while I worked on my self-esteem and identity. In retrospect, of course I can see that my fascination and love for fashion dolls became the vital link between my innate childhood interests and my adult pursuit of fashion design. But I had to undergo a lot of pain and struggle before I could stand behind one of my gowns and say, "I made this!"
When people lack self-awareness and are unsure of what they want to say, they make art with trepidation. And you cannot make art cautiously. There are too many people already screaming in the world. We can’t afford any room for timid art.
CH: What do you consider to be the role of the artist today?
The character Rumpelstiltskin spins straw into gold. This is an important concept: transformation through magic. This is how artists create art. I think alchemy for the contemporary artist occurs only when an artist has a passion for risk-taking and a willingness to see the world from a varied, daring, and often unpopular perspective. I believe that the artist must be fearless enough to not only envision how to transform trash into treasure but also to act on and realize this vision.
CH: That’s brilliant! So what is the trick, Rumplestiltskin?
The trick to doing this successfully is to subvert the expectations of the viewer. You have to truly morph the material from its original, intended use into something extraordinary. And you cannot allow the desire for this object to be sustainable become a crutch. Good ideas cannot make up for poor execution or poor craftsmanship. If you do this correctly, you can inspire others to see value in items otherwise discarded. You can even broaden the boundaries of what we consider “art.” Sometimes innovation can come from the past. This kind of innovation starts with thinking in new ways.
CH: As a professor of literature, I am especially intrigued by your reuse of books. Can you tell me a bit about the philosophy behind these designs?
I make art about what I know. I know fairy tales, Americana, classic animation, and painting. Picture books and literature have always had a profound impact on me as a person and as an artist. Both the book and 1993 Agnieszka Holland film adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and the 1991 edition of J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan illustrated by Scott Gustafson were supremely influential to me as a child. Their lush and fantastical worlds of magic and romance have never waned in my mind and likely permeate into all of my work. And then influenced by these tales, I tell new stories through fashion. I think we have enough costume and high fashion, but we always need more art. It challenges us.
CH: Many students today believe that a career in art is not a viable option. What advice might you give to these students?
Oh boy. My family and most notably my inspiring parents have been vital in supporting me to pursue the arts, and I recommend anyone interested in this field to build a similarly supportive foundation. Seek your own path without comparing your personal achievements or social media statistics to anyone else’s along the way. It’s only distraction. Consider that Leonardo Da Vinci would have been considered a failure most for his adult life if he had lived his career today.
Art is and will always be the light peeking through the cracks. And there will always be people trying to block it out. The artist must wrestle with naysayers on one hand and appreciators on the other, and must be strong enough to fight for his vision without being unduly influenced by either. This is the ongoing dichotomy of choosing the artist’s path. If it means enough to you, then in spite of it all, you, too, will find your own way.
This Interview Series is a co-production of the forthcoming book on How Extraordinary Partnerships with the Arts and Humanities Are Transforming America.