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Austin Painter Hunter Ash on Inspiration, Color and Process

Hunter Ash

Outside the Lines

Legs pulled up on her studio sofa, Austin painter Hunter Ash begins to rattle off artists whose work and innovative techniques inspire her: Helen Frankenthaler and her dilution of oil paints to create a medium that could be poured directly onto the canvas. Clyfford Still. Cecily Brown and her manipulation of the human form. Cy Twombly’s huge, almost childlike works and use of lines and materials. Joan Mitchell. Elaine de Kooning. Heather Day. The name of one more rule-breaking innovator rounds out Ash’s list, but stands apart for obvious reasons – Michelangelo.

Ash, a transplant to Texas from Basalt, Colorado, spent a college summer in Austin. After falling in love with the creative community here, she knew she had to return. Working out of her home studio in a North Austin neighborhood, Ash is now solidifying herself as a part of the city’s creative core. Drawings, maps and frames cover a rich green living room wall and her colorful canvases greet visitors in the home’s entryway.

Before picking up the paintbrush, Ash breaks her ideas down into visual components. Photograph by Jaime Arthur.

As Ash describes her process of painting as an uncovering and unveiling of what the canvas contains, I can’t help but draw a parallel to the way Michelangelo famously explained his sculpting as chipping away at the block of marble to reveal the statue within. Rather than chiseling a “David,” Ash uses paint to translate her experiences, memories and relationships onto her canvases in vibrant color, complex lines and soulful movement.

“It’s like conducting an orchestra,” she says of her work. “Is there balance, contrast, interest, complexity? I have to make all these elements play well together.”

Listening to Ash talk about her process in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner feels like I’m getting exclusive access to an Inside Out-style tour of her brain. A glimpse inside her mind compares to looking into a kaleidoscope; each turn of the device – each painting – reveals a new, yet connected, pattern, memories strung together like paper dolls holding hands.

“I definitely feel and see experiences in color,” Ash explains. One piece, “Mo & Me,” portrays her relationship with her sister. Another, “If It Helps Yours Beat,” contrasts a fierce love with the feeling of pouring everything out to another without caring for yourself, and is inspired by a song. “But these things need to be developed. I almost always hate a painting before I like it,” she says with a laugh. “I’m wrestling to find clarity until the very end.”

Ash uses color to create depictions of emotion, like in her painting “If It Helps Yours Beat” featured above.

Before picking up the paintbrush, Ash journals, listens to specific songs and turns her thoughts over in order to break her ideas down into visual components. She starts with large sections of color and begins to determine how these colors will relate to each other. Then she covers the entire canvas with paint, even if it’s simply white, before stepping back to evaluate. Along the way, Ash creates what she calls a “roadmap of reminders” – places on the canvas she wants to return to and explore further. This intentionality gives each brushstroke and line, every movement and swath of color deliberate purpose on the canvas.

“I love sharing my art and talking about my pieces,” Ash says. “That’s the best part of this – connecting with people. It’s really important that what I create matters to others.”

For Ash, painting is a powerful way to reach parts of herself that she wouldn’t otherwise wander to. Her work has also become a conversation starter for challenging topics or emotions, something she believes abstract art has a unique ability to do. Frustrated when people dismiss art claiming they don’t understand it, Ash believes that abstract art isn’t necessarily about what is literally portrayed on the canvas, but rather the potential it holds to challenge both the artist and the viewer.

What’s on the horizon for Ash? Continual learning and development of her technique, and getting more experimental with bigger canvases and using paints and materials in new ways. Right now, she is working on completing a series of paintings that explore what she calls “graceful defiance,” and along the way wrestling with and discovering what being defiant in a graceful way means for her.

Ash working on large-scale piece, “Nurture.”

“I want to paint for the rest of my life,” Ash states, the passion for the paint and the canvas coming through in her voice. Seems like we’re just looking at the tip of an abstract, colorful iceberg.