Observing the human condition
This story was featured in the October 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art October 2013 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Fifteen years ago Ned Axthelm was living in Chicago when he first started exploring the idea that has become a recurring theme in his work: observing people. He began this practice one year at the annual Chicago Marathon. These days, however, Axthelm does his people-watching on trains and buses and in cafés. “People are endlessly fascinating and interesting with all their varieties and nuances,” he says. “My interest has its roots in being surrounded by people every day who I don’t know and inventing narratives.”
About five years ago Axthelm left Chicago, moved to San Francisco, and enrolled in the master’s degree program at the Academy of Art University. Taking public transportation such as the BART system became a regular part of his life, and he had long stretches of time to take photographs of his fellow passengers as reference material. After graduation a year ago, he continues his observations. Sometimes he is discreet with his camera, and other times he asks permission from people to take their pictures. Axthelm notes that he always has an explanation ready if they ask what he is doing with the photographs. Surprisingly, he says, few people pay much attention.
One of a number of influences on his paintings is the work of famed 20th- century realist Edward Hopper. But Axthelm sees an important distinction: “His tone is more lonesome than I think mine is. I am coming from a more positive and hopeful place,” he says.
Since graduating, Axthelm, 34, says he has been painting furiously and working hard at his studio in South Berkeley—and his efforts have been rewarded. This year one of the pieces from his Watched series, a sensitive portrait of a homeless man, was juried into the Oil Painters of America national show at InSight Gallery in Fredericksburg, TX.
Axthelm says he likes to give viewers the sense that they are walking or sitting alongside him while he is pointing out things that grab his attention—small moments and little details that otherwise would get neglected and ignored because they are common, everyday occurrences. “I imagine myself saying, ‘Hey, look at that,’” he adds. —Bonnie Gangelhoff
Featured in the October 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art October 2013 print issue or digital download
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