René Felt, ’15, takes a piece of sandpaper to his canvas, gradually scraping away layers of paint to reveal the colors below. Bits of yellow shine through the cracks in purple paint. An image of the Buddha is stenciled on top, but is quickly painted over with a thick layer of red, only to return later as the layers build and recede.
The painting is dramatically different from Felt’s prior work, which depicts cartoon-like drawings of modern architecture, drawn in the heavy black lines of a Sharpie. A large-scale painting at the other end of his workstation in the Modlin Center combines concepts from both — the black lines of structures placed alongside the Buddha are just visible behind blues and greys, while dots of green and red and orange light up the canvas.
These layers of paint also reveal the layers of Felt’s identity. Half-Japanese, half-American, Felt lived most of his life in Germany. When he received a UR Summer Fellowship to spend his summer creating art, he decided to turn his focus to exploring these cultural intersections.
“I was wondering, how can I make these [identities] come together?” he says. “How can I balance them? How can I make something of my own?”
In his paintings, temples and images of the Buddha call on his Japanese heritage, while influences of graffiti reflect his life in Germany, where public walls are designated specifically for that purpose.
He didn’t think much about incorporating the Buddha in his work, but his advisor, art professor Erling Sjovold, pointed out the subject might not be quite so random. Sjovold noted the Buddhist concept of non-attachment, which encourages a person to reach a broader perspective by letting go of the desire for approval, among other things.
It was a message Felt needed to hear as he broke away from his Sharpie-dominated style into new forms of expression, and one he conveys through the reappearing and disappearing Buddha in his paintings.
And just as a person’s layers of identity aren’t always visible, the full depth of Felt’s paintings can’t be seen at first glance — a challenge he solved by photographing each stage of the painting’s creation and producing a video of the transformation.
“In my experiments and meditations to explore concepts of layering, this piece created an illusionistic, but also physical, sense of depth through layering and sanding through paint,” Felt says. “The result is a moving painting that shows how interesting things can develop by understanding and separating oneself from one's attachments.”