Ron Hicks’ artistic path led to work that feeds his soul
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the May 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art May 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
One day, Ron Hicks’ kindergarten teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he was “all grown up.” In response, little Ron divided a piece of paper in two. On one half he drew an artist. On the other half he drew a man changing tires in a racing pit crew. As far as he was concerned, the art half of his future vocation went without question. After all, he’d been drawing for two or three years by then, flipping through his mother’s correspondence-course booklets from the Famous Artists School and copying pictures he saw. As for tire changing, the Denver-based painter smiles. “I’m glad I chose the art side. Not that there’s anything wrong with changing tires, but it could get old.”
There’s been nothing remotely tiresome or old about the artistic path Hicks has followed since kindergarten. For the next two years in elementary school he could be seen bent over his wooden desk in concentration, pencil in hand, gradually covering the entire surface with elaborate miniature “murals” of people doing things. Strangely, he was never admonished for defacing the furniture. With this implicit encouragement, his mother’s inspiration, and a series of encounters with the right people at the right times over the years, he eventually developed into the highly respected, widely collected painter he is today.
Landmark moments along that path are reflected in some of the items Hicks keeps in his studio, a 20-second commute out his back door into a former garage. Along with shelves of art books and a burgundy couch where models often pose, the 49-year-old artist has a number of his own paintings from what he calls “discovery tangents” over the years. The earliest is a still life. “That’s when I was painting without truly having a voice. It’s very tight and stiff,” the artist observes. “You start out thinking, ‘ooh, I can paint this! I can make it look like that!’ Then at some point you get away from just transferring information and start searching for something other than a pretty painting.”
One of Hicks’ first such searches yielded a painting rendered in dark hues with little contrast. It portrays a young woman sitting on a couch holding a book. “I went through a period of very dark paintings. I had to explain to my friends that, no, it’s not related to my divorce, and, no, I’m not depressed,” he relates, smiling. “I just really wanted to understand value.” Then came a phase of experimenting with hard and soft edges and deciding where to establish focus. “You can find probably a hundred ways to express a subject,” Hicks points out. “You have to focus on something. If you tried to paint everything, then the painting would be about nothing.” Finally, at the almost-magical point when the elements of a painting come into balance, the result is what the artist calls “corporate movement—all the pieces moving together to make a statement.”
For Hicks, the pieces of becoming an artist came together step by step. Born in Columbus, OH, he was one of four sons of a truck driver and an occupational therapist aide. The family moved to Denver when Ron and his twin brother, Don, were 2 years old. (Years later, Hicks would return to the same Denver school district he grew up in to help bring art to more than 600 kids who otherwise would have little or no art instruction.) When he was 13, his parents divorced, and he and his mother and brothers returned to Columbus. There, a group of first-rate teachers in his high school encouraged students to try their hands at all types of artistic mediums. In high school, too, Hicks discovered that his talent for figure drawing extended to caricature. “You know how kids banter? I would make little caricature drawings and use them like weapons: ‘Here, take this!’ And they’d say, ‘Okay, we’re not going to mess with that guy!’”
After graduation Hicks spent two years at Columbus College of Art & Design on a scholarship, majoring in fine art with a minor in illustration. Later, at the Colorado Institute of Art in Denver (now the Art Institute of Colorado), he reversed his focus, unsure of the prospects for making a living with fine art. It was at the Colorado Institute that he met a teacher who would tilt his world just enough to make him see painting in a new way. René Bruhin, a life-drawing and painting instructor, was a perceptive, no-nonsense man who previously had taught painter Quang Ho. One day Hicks showed Bruhin an image he’d done of Tinker Bell sprinkling magic dust. It was illustration quality, highly polished and airbrush finished. Bruhin looked at it for a moment and then said, “This is nice. But it’s irrelevant because you are a painter.” The young artist’s initial response was to shrug. “But about a semester later, I realized he was right. I was glad he said it,” Hicks recalls.
Still, a few years of freelance illustration work and other jobs, while painting at night, would elapse before Hicks leapt full time into fine art. In the meantime he also studied with Quang Ho at the Denver Art Students League. Important perceptual doors swung open for him, revealing a world composed of shape, color, value, texture, and edges, rather than subjects to be replicated in paint. These discoveries spurred an artistic journey reflected in the early paintings Hicks keeps in his studio, like breadcrumbs in the forest showing the path to where he is now. Where he is now: an accomplished figurative painter with a decidedly romantic tilt, whose representational work is actively underpinned by an abstract approach.
For instance, on one level THE SECOND MOVEMENT depicts an orchestra facing the conductor, whose baton is poised in mid-air. The audience applauds behind him as the musicians wait for the next movement to commence. For the artist, however, the painting revolves around the relationships between various shapes and values—those that are dominant, those that play a supporting role, and those that serve as accents within what he sees as an essentially simple abstract design. Together these elements create a visual movement whose energy Hicks enjoys.
The artist’s romantic side comes out in many of his figurative works, especially those portraying couples in love. As with most of his multifigure works, these often begin as ideas and sketches from which he conceives a more detailed scene. Models are posed and background elements are sometimes brought in from his large collection of photos taken during his travels. While the two models in LOVE ON THE ROAD were painted as if engaged in a car-to-car kiss, they were actually in the studio, reaching for each other from separate chairs. Hicks added the cars and completed the mood with background imagery from an Italian trip. Did the lovers plan to meet, or happen to come upon each other on the road? Were they strangers who stopped and stole a kiss? “I like my paintings to be open-ended. I like to lead you in a direction but not give you everything,” the artist says. “There’s no right or wrong way to see it.”
Likewise, many of Hicks’ paintings appear set in indeterminate periods from the past. The clothing of earlier times is more flowing and conducive to the movement of a painter’s brush, he explains. More importantly, the feeling that emerges in these works is of timelessness, a still moment when nothing but the lovers exists. In the same way, the artist’s use of color contributes to an intimate quality and undefined historical period. “Most of my paintings are about the moments that are soft and tender and quiet, so a muted palette is in line with that,” he says.
Recently, however, the occasional appearance of more contemporary elements can be noted in some of Hicks’ work. As he puts it, “I’m on this kick where I’ve come into acceptance that things are the way they are.” That might mean modern sunglasses or a contemporary urban setting, yet still infused with a sense of timelessness. “I’m interested to see what that combination will look like,” he says. “I’m also playing around more with color, like reds. I don’t think I will ever go with Day-Glo orange, but as with other elements, I’d really like to explore how much I can push it.”
What is not likely to change is the artist’s focus on the figure, including multiple figures in paintings suffused with emotional undertones. “Sometimes as artists, we paint part of our soul,” Hicks reflects, noting that his 12-year marriage to his wife, Sharon, provides endless inspiration for the romantic element in his art. “I like the beauty of relationships, even if there’s some tension there. Once you’re past entry-level thinking, you want to say something with your painting. If I was to make paintings that didn’t feed my soul, it would just be a job.”
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