In Pacific Art League show, tablet and smartphone replace canvas and sketchbook
by Elena Kadvany
On a recent afternoon at the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto, students in a painting class perched on stools in front of tall wooden easels, using brushes to paint on white canvases. In the room next door, two men vehemently explained how using pressure-sensitive styluses to paint on iPads is the art world's next big thing.
Seth Schalet, the Pacific Art League's executive director, and Sumit Vishwakarma, a hardware engineer from India with a passion for mobile art, were discussing plans for the art league's newest exhibition, which is composed of artworks created on mobile devices such as iPads, iPhones or Android tablets. The show opened earlier this week.
"What you see as art and what somebody else might see as art could be a pretty big disparity," Schalet said. "We want to be able to actually shed that entire image. We want art to be whatever art should be, which is the process of creativity and some end product."
"Taking Digital Art to the Streets," a convergence of traditional and new media, is the result of a partnership between the 92-year-old Pacific Art League and Vishwakarma's Mobile Art Academy, an art-education venture that teaches classes, workshops and webinars on mobile art.
On display from July 2 through July 31, the show features 50 pieces of art created on any mobile device that were submitted online by artists from all over the world and then judged — also online — by a panel of jurors.
The final submissions include an almost photographic black-and-white recreation of the Brooklyn Bridge lit up at night and an eerily lifelike portrait of a man whose shaved head is tattooed with stripes. His fingers, also tattooed, cover his mouth, leaving his green eyes staring directly at the viewer.
The portrait was done by Anat Ronen, a Houston mural and street artist who was initially wary of mobile art. Then she bought a tablet and started to explore. "I just started challenging myself more and more and trying how to do different stuff to see if I can do the same thing I do with real paint, stuff that I don't usually do. ... It's been a great adventure."
She drew the portrait of her friend, another Houston artist, freehand using an application called SketchBook Pro on a Samsung tablet, the Galaxy Note 10.1.
Schalet said that as far as he knows, the Pacific Art League's platform-agnostic exhibit, accepting art created on any mobile device rather than a single one, is the first of its kind.
Vishwakarma also said that an essential aspect of the exhibit is to understand the distinction between mobile and digital art. "People always question me, 'Why is mobile art different than digital art?'" Digital art, created on desktop software such as Photoshop or Adobe, has been around for decades. It's expensive and requires a lot of know-how.
"In a nutshell, if you ask a digital artist to draw something, then he'll say, 'I need a desktop, I need a professional tablet and I need professional software like Photoshop.' Everything on average is $1,000, so it's a $3,000 proposition just to create a single piece of artwork," Vishwakarma said.
But with tablets, smartphones and applications becoming ubiquitous, mobile art — much more consumer-friendly than digital in cost and accessibility — has taken center stage.
To judge the submissions, the art league and Mobile Art Academy planned a three-tiered process meant to draw from both camps of art experts, traditional and high-tech. Jurors were Sue Diekman, chair of the Cantor Arts Center Director's Advisory Board; Pacific Art League Exhibition Chair Jo Kileen; renowned mobile artist Susan Murtaugh and actor-artist James Franco.
Kileen did a first look at the 250 submissions and narrowed them down to 100, and then Murtagh further narrowed them to 50. Diekman chose the top five submissions, and Franco picked a bonus top five pieces of art.
"I just looked at it as though I was looking at a group of 50 paintings and picked out the ones that I responded most to, that I would like to see in my house, perhaps," Diekman said. "I was amazed at how painterly they look."
The final 50 submissions will be printed and hung on one wall of a room of the art league's temporary home on Forest Avenue (next door to its original building). On the opposite wall will be a separate exhibit: 40 photographs, drawings, prints and sculptures. The top five mobile-art submissions, plus a few pieces by Vishwakarma and Caroline Mustard, will be on display in a conference room in the front of the building.
Vishwakarma, who compares his extensive use and exploration of art apps to getting a Ph.D., said he loved drawing as a child, but took a different career path, heading to the United States to study electrical engineering at Arizona State University.
He first experimented with a drawing application when he bought his first iPhone in 2011. He soon needed a bigger canvas and graduated to an iPad, on which he now produces a range of painted pieces: a couple walking arm-in-arm down a rainy street lined with psychedelic-colored trees; Spiderman crouching in the foreground, clad in his iconic red spider-suit with the Empire State Building in the background; the black shadow of a son jumping into his father's arms, set against a blue-sky backdrop.
Besides creating his own digital art, Vishwakarma has taught classes on it at local libraries, and given TED Talks and led workshops. He said that he sees tablets and apps as conduits for "infus(ing) creativity."
"Tablets are more considered consumption devices," he said. "So if you go to a restaurant, you see kids playing video game or doing Facebook or social media. But you can engage them in doing some creative stuff just using a tablet."
Paper, a free iPad application, gives users a digital, portable canvas where they can use pen, pencil, felt pen, brush and a color mixer to draw as they please. It's also has a social-media component; users can follow other artists whom they like and scroll through their portfolios with a swipe of the fingertip.
Another popular sketching and drawing software, Sketchbook, works on Windows and Apple desktops as well as iPads. Vishwakarma said Sketchbook stands out because of its recording capability: When you start drawing, you can hit record and the software documents the entire process of creation.
"With digital art, there's a question of credibility," Vishwakarma said. "People always question, 'Maybe you just downloaded it from Google or just copied it from a site or used Photoshop.' So this app takes this to the next level." He added that the recording option is also useful for teaching students how to draw on Sketchbook.
Caroline Mustard, a 67-year-old woman with a slight British accent, broad smile and infectious enthusiasm for all things technology, is the other half of Mobile Art Academy. A trained artist with a degree from the University of Brighton in England who now teaches digital-art classes to middle-schoolers, she sees herself as the yin to Vishwakarma's yang. "He's like a techie with a passion for art, and I'm an artist with a passion for tech. So we match."
While working as a painter in England in the 1960s, Mustard said, she attended an exhibit at the Tate Gallery, Britain's national gallery of international modern art, about "these new things called computers."
"It was like an epiphany for me," Mustard said. "I went: 'What am I doing, doing these oil colors? ... I want to do that.'"
She switched gears and began a new career in graphic design and advertising. After her son gave her an iPad with Paper downloaded, she became a digital convert. She created a portfolio of her work on Tumblr and joined artist social networks, such as the Mobile Artists Collective. She soon got in touch with one of the group's administrators, Vishwakarma, and their shared passion for art, technology and education led to the creation of the Mobile Art Academy.
Mustard, Vishwakarma and Schalet all share a vision of a world where art is returned to the individual creator. "The goal is to bring this emerging form of art and bring it to the masses," Vishwakarma said.
The three plan to do this by going beyond the exhibit with education. The art league has already begun hosting digital-art workshops led by Vishwakarma and Mustard, and more are in the works, as well as after-school programs and evening classes for working adults.
They also hope to bring digital art directly to working people by offering on-site classes to companies.
"If you're in marketing and your job is to create products, it's fairly similar to the process of starting a blank canvas," Schalet said. "You have a concept, an idea, you do a few iterations, maybe you toss it, throw it away. It's the process of evolution. We think we've got a great vehicle to go into corporations and use this to help them with team collaboration."
These plans for expansion go hand-in-hand with the renovation of the art league's home on Ramona Street. Construction will add about 5,000 square feet to the three-story building and is estimated to be complete by May, Schalet said.
The mobile-art exhibit comes at a turning point for the art league, as it enters its second century of existence with the opportunity to merge artistic tradition and innovation under one roof.
"At some point — not today — but at some point, digital art will have all the respect that the traditional art mediums have," Schalet said. "It's not going to happen overnight, but we hope that the things that we're doing will help gain that credibility."
Mustard agrees. She's partial to wondering what iconic artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent Van Gogh would have thought about digital art.
"Can you imagine what Leonardo would have done?" she asked. "He would have been into this."
What: An exhibition of mobile art by various artists
Where: Pacific Art League, 227 Forest Ave., Palo Alto
When: Through July 31, with a reception set for July 12 at 5:30 p.m. Gallery hours are weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Info: Go to pacificartleague.org or mobileartacademy.com or call 650-321-3891.
Editorial Assistant Elena Kadvany can be emailed at email@example.com.