Alea Hurst has been showing her student work since she was in middle school, with her first professional art show happening at twenty years old. To say that Alea Hurst is going places isn’t quite right, as she’s already there. Her work has been featured on watches, magazine covers, in art publications, and she's shown in galleries across the southeast. Currently earning her MFA in Painting at SCAD Atlanta, Hurst stays busy with school, local art shows, and charity events.
I sat down Alea in her home studio is McDonough, Georgia to learn about her process, how historical figures and masks play into her work, and how she plans to grow her young career.
AAR: Tell me how you began your journey into art?
Alea Hurst (AH): Like most kids, I doodled around at a young age. Then when I was eight I decided I wanted to be a fashion designer, so I was drawing dresses and fashion on everything, on scratch paper, in class, in church. I started taking oil painting classes when I was seventeen with a local artist around McDonough. Her name is Rhonda Hull and she actually has classes at the senior center down here. So I was the youngest person by a lot. We met once a week for a couple of hours and she taught me all about oil painting. She never really let any kids take her class before, because she didn’t think they would be mature enough, but I'm pretty mature, so she let me. I’m glad to have that experience. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a studio artist. It seemed like everyone wanted to be a fashion designer at the point and I thought they were probably better at it than I was. Also, never having experienced studio classes, I didn’t know what I was missing out on until then. So, that was when I decided to take it more seriously and go that route. I’ve been doing it ever since.
AAR: When would you say your art career began?
AH: I feel like I’m still starting out. I really started thinking about an art career at fifteen. I wanted to go to SCAD as an undergraduate. It didn’t really work out ,but I’m there now. During my second year of undergraduate classes at UGA (University of Georgia), I took a Professional Practices class. The requirement was to apply to some shows or galleries, which I hadn’t really been doing too much before, maybe one or two times. I kind of got into it then, and I’ve been applying to everything since. I’m just trying to get my name out there as much as possible. There’s been a lot of growth and opportunities in the last year or so, but I still feel like I'm way below where I want to be. I’m aiming high.
AAR: What is your undergrad degree in?
AH: I have a B.A. in Business and Painting. The business people were ok with it. They all thought it was cool that I was painting, but in art classes I got looks about being in business. They weren’t as supportive, but there were a few who thought it was smart. I think people thought it was a backup in case painting doesn’t work out, but actually some time in the future I want to work in a gallery, and some day own my own gallery. The business degree will really be key with that. The work load was ok, business classes were pretty straightforward and easy for me. Painting and the art side took more time, because you have these projects. I spent several hours on each project. I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. You have to be very driven. I tried to fit two completely different degrees into four years. I did take an extra semester, but it was a good experience.
AAR: Who were some of your biggest influences? Both professionally and personally?
AH: There are a couple of artists, Karen Ann Myers, she’s from Charleston. She actually was showing at UGA right when I started this mask series. She does a lot of patterns in her work, so at the time I wasn’t thinking about it, but subconsciously it got into my mind to use patterns. I went to school with Hannah Yata, and I think she is absolutely amazing. She has such a great career going on right now. I look up to her a lot. So, I aim to be like her. My favorite artist of all time is Bernini. He’s a Baroque sculptor, which is weird because I’m not into sculpture that much, but his stuff gets me every time. One of my life goals is to see his work in person. I’m also influenced a lot by music. My favorite bands AFI and Evanescence. I’m always listening to music when I’m creating. I can’t really have silence.
AAR: What is your favorite tool to work with?
AH: I like to work with fabric a lot. I used to draw all the time. I haven’t been able to a lot lately because I've been so focused on painting. The last couple of weeks I’ve been focusing on drawing more and it’s been nice. I forgot how much I loved drawing. Originally I wanted to be a drawing major, but it didn’t work out that way. I could graduate sooner with a painting degree. I do like charcoal and graphite.
AAR: I didn’t realize you were using actual fabric. I was thinking maybe it was canvas that was painted. What kinds of fabric do you prefer?
AH: I limit it to cotton duck fabric, so it’s very canvas like. It still has that texture and it’s thicker. I tried thinner fabric and it didn’t seem to want to take the paint, so I limit myself to that. Otherwise I would be all over the place collecting even more fabric than I already do.
AAR: Where do you purchase your fabric?
AH: A little bit of everywhere. My Grandmother collected a lot of fabric, so I inherited a lot of that. Then normal stores, like Hobby Lobby and Jo-Ann. More recently I started painting my own patterns, but I haven’t really decided how I feel about that. I enjoy the hunt of finding the perfect fabric so much. I was also getting more into designing my own fabric and having it printed. Taking a little more control over the patterns, but I haven't fully wanted to let go of the search yet.
AAR: What is the process if you were to print your own fabric? Do you design it online?
AH: Yeah. At SCAD, they have fashion classes about designing fabric and printing it out. They have printers, but only at the Savannah campus, so I don’t know if I’m going to take quarter down there or not. I guess for the Atlanta students they go into Photoshop or Illustrator and then make their own patterns and then send them off to companies online that print it. It’s just expensive. I don’t use a whole lot, with my paintings being smaller in size, so I could save up and do that.
AAR: Walk me through your process.
AH: For several weeks, I go through what I call my research phrase before I even start painting. I collect a lot of masks that I like. I collect fabric. A lot of my figures come from fashion ads, because I’m dealing with present day high fashion or modern fashion. There’s not a set way I pick each piece. Some pieces I come up with a title, like my painting “Queen Bee.” I had the title “Queen Bee” picked out before I started anything else. Then I found the fabric and it kind of looked like honeycombs, but more geometrical, and I thought it would look perfect. Then I found a bee mask, then the figure, then the clothes to go with it after that. Most of the time I pick figures and grab masks that go with them, then try to find fabric afterwards. Occasionally I buy fabric in bulk, when I don’t really need it, but it’s too good to pass up, and cater the figures and masks to that. Then I come up with the titles. I know the idea and meaning behind the masks, but don’t really title them until after everything's said and done, because sometimes they look one way and once they’re finished I’m going to change them up a bit and they take on a whole different tone. I try not to get too stuck on what it's going to be.
AAR: So masks. How did you arrive at the idea to use masks in your work?
AH: I was in a class at UGA and I was painting the white theatre masks. It was the same general idea of people showing their inner feelings through the mask, but the white wasn’t working out too well and it wasn’t a very successful series. I wasn’t happy with it, and I wasn’t getting great feedback. It even got to a point where I was having nightmares about the masks. There was this painting with a little kid in it. He was standing over me, like he was going to kill me, and I was like. “Yeah. Maybe it’s time to change.” At the same time I was also in an Aqueous Media class and one of the assignments was to work on something non-traditional. My professor suggested fabric. I went a different way with that class, but it kind of stuck with me that I should paint on fabric, so I tried it and it was really fun. I got better feedback on that. I changed the masks from white to cultural, and it was just more interesting for me. Ii guess the more interested in something the more effort I’m going to put into it. Usually when I work on a series, I work on it for a semester and then just move on. This is the longest running series, so eventually I'll probably change or I’ll lose interest, but for me, right now, it’s still really interesting. I’m still working on ways to change it and make it grow. I feel like since I haven’t lost interest in it yet, means I should still continue with it. I definitely never wanted to paint the figure. I’m completely shocked that that’s where most of my work has turned out.
AAR: What ways are you trying to change?
AH: I’m playing with scale and adding multiple figures. I have the one piece called, “The Three Graces,” and I have it somewhat done. I took suggestions about leaving it more unfinished than I would have originally wanted. I kind of lost interest, and I let it sit for awhile, even put it in a couple of shows. Then I got it back a couple of weeks ago, and I’m looking at it, and it still looks unfinished to me. I feel like it’s my piece, and I want to take consideration of other people's comments, but it just didn’t feel right to me. I just finished it Wednesday, so I’m a lot more happy with it. I think it looks more finished. That was the largest piece that I’ve done, but just a few months ago, I started a panel that was 7’ x 4,’ so when that’s finished it will be largest. It’s full figure and it’s not on fabric. I’m actually painting the patterns, so that’s one thing I’ve been dealing with, to take more control of that. I got the suggestion of using automotive paint, which is super glittery and multi-faceted. I thought that might be really cool in the background, so that’s something I’m going to be playing with over the summer. I think that might take it to the next level. Also I’ve been playing with embellishing them a little bit, there’s on up here, that has rhinestones added. I don’t think I would want to do that sort of thing to every single one of them, but the two I’ve used them on kind of needed it. Before they were added it was just ok, but I added those, and they looked better. More recently I’ve gotten into making my own masks. I’ve been playing with fabric and getting the fabric to form into a mask, and embroidering and drawing my own patterns on that. I’m not exactly sure where I’m going to go with that, but it’s something I’m going to be playing with in my off time. During school there are so many assignments, and I haven’t had time to really focus on other ideas. I’m taking a bit of a breather right now and over the summer I’m just going to go crazy working in my studio, trying new ideas, and seeing what happens.
AAR: Your masks look very authentic. Did you or do you research culturally appropriate masks?
AH: The masks are mostly authentic or more recent reproductions of what they would have looked like. I do a lot of research on that. I have a stack of mask books that I flip through. I do a lot of internet research trying to find important cultural masks and I pick what jumps out to me. I like a lot of adornment and detail.
AAR: Do the people come for your imagination or do you use models?
AH: Occasionally I do draw from my head, but most of the time I like to have a reference. I to have an idea of where I’m going. I have usually a figure and a mask already put together in a collage and then I go from there. I don’t straight up copy it. I kind of work intuitively after that point, especially where the fabric comes through. So, I have a general idea of where I want the fabric to show through, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way, and it looks better showing through in an area I didn’t think of or it doesn’t look good showing through in an area I thought would look good, that sort of problem solving is pretty cool. I know a lot of people say you get bogged down knowing what you’re going to do before you start, but it’s not like that. I mean I have a general idea, but it does change.
AAR: Sometimes the fabric that peeks through looks like it was hand painted. How do you achieve that look?
AH: I actually go through with a glaze to give it shadows, especially in the areas where it’s clothing coming through, like scarves or ties. I don’t want it to be completely flat. A lot of times people think I actually do paint it in those areas. I like the trickiness of it. You have to really get up and explore it, just to figure it out. I like to draw the viewer into my painting and let them just search for the little details. Sometimes people just glance at it, and they don’t realize that the fingernails are open to the fabric, until they get up in there. Then they’re like, “Oh, wow!” Those are the things I like to see happening.
AAR: Archetypes play a major role in your work? Tell me more about how you use them.
AH: Most of my work deals with the ideas of archetypes, personalities, and characteristics being passed through ages to the present day. They don't go away just because we’ve evolved as a society. We have material progress, all this technology, but we still have those basic, primitive personality traits. So, that’s what I’m dealing with, connecting the past to the present. Even in my work that isn’t part of the mask series, like in my drawings, I still play with the idea of identity and connecting past traditions with the modern day.
AAR: Which archetypes do you feel are to most important or transcend most easily into modern day? Like The mother figure, the hunter, what the big ones that you’ve come in contact with and/or have used in your work?
AH: I’ve done a lot of research, and I wrote a paper on Jung’s twelve main archetypes, but there's been so many more since then. I had a piece that I called “Valiant,” and that was based on The Hero or The Protector archetypes. I haven’t done a Mother or Lover archetype, but I’ve been playing around ideas about those. I also branched out from those main archetypes to explore personality traits. For instance, you might say that a person is sly as a fox, so I have the fox painting and it was titled, “ Sly.” I also have “Dark Horse”, so which is a type of person. When you look at a painting, it may not look like someone you know, but based on the title, you’re like, “Oh, I know that type of person.” I also like to show the positive and the negative sides of people. I didn’t want to shy away from that. It’s hard to tell, because some of the faces are covered up, but I have a good representation of all different cultures in the figures. I wanted to make it equal, and not shy away from that.
AAR: Your work has been featured on local magazine covers and in merchandising products. Tell me about that experience.
AH: I’ve actually had my work on the cover of quite a few publications. Most of them are literary magazines. When I was working with Oz Magazine, it happened out of nowhere. It was right after I had signed my contract with you. I thought maybe they found me through you. I had to ask them how they heard about me. It was actually though Beep Beep’s website.
With the merchandise, I noticed that a lot of the artists that I was following were teaming up with Modify watches. I sent a general email saying, “Hey. I’m a local artist from Atlanta. I just wanted to see how you pick your artists.” They asked me to send them some of my work, and they loved it. If I hadn’t asked, it never would have happened. I take a lot of risks. Just being interested and asking has helped me and it works out sometimes.
AAR: Tell me what your ideal day in the studio would look like?
AH: I like to be alone. I used to be ok with a bunch of people, when I didn’t have my own studio, but now I’m used to doing my own thing. I like to work early in the morning and I’ll start around eight or nine in the morning, which is my most productive time. By the afternoon, I’m like, “Ugh. Painting.” I can draw in in the afternoon or late at night, but painting not so much. Basically, time to myself, music, coffee is always nice. My dog likes to come in here and it’s nice to have him. I like to take breaks and go outside and sit in the sun for a few minutes to get away.
AAR: Do you work on one project at time or numerous projects?
AH: I used to just work on one painting at a time and then get that done before I thought about anything else. Now I work on two or three paintings at a time. When I’m frustrated with one, it’s nice to have another one to work on to get away from that first one, without wasting time. Also, drying time sucks. When you need this to dry in two days and you come back in two days and it’s still wet. So, I like to have two or three going, just to keep me productive even when things don’t work out.
AAR: Are you using oil paints or acrylics?
AH: Oil paints. I’m fussy with my paint. I like to be detailed and acrylic just dries too fast for me. I can sit there and blend forever and ever. With acrylics, if I put it on there, when I come back to it it’s dry and that can be frustrating. So i’ll just stick with oil. I paint really thin and I’m working on painting thicker to work on blocking out the pattern. Acrylic is usually really thin and it seems like with acrylic, no matter how thick I get it, the pattern still shows through.
AAR: What is your favorite gallery in Atlanta? Why?
AH:I really loved Beep Beep before they closed. It was a small space, but they had such a good following. At one opening I had there, it was packed, people were standing outside and waiting to get in. I thought that was really good to have in Atlanta, that kind of following and support for a gallery. Smaller galleries are nice, they’re more intimate, more family-like, and less commercial. I’m partial to Mason Muier, which is now Mason Fine Art, because I interned for them when they started their Instagram account. I had a professor who is represented by them, and I was looking at their stuff and the caliber of the work they show. I wish I could paint like that. Maybe one day.
AAR: What is your favorite gallery to show in?
AH: I had a show in South Carolina at The Aiken Center for the Arts that was nice. I didn’t get to go to the opening because it was far away, but the gallery was set up really nicely. It was the place I sold my first mask painting, so it has a special meaning to me. The piece was called, “Sly,” and it was actually the second mask painting I had ever done.
AAR: Do you have any experience with or connections to the film industry?
AH: Oz Magazine contacted me because there was a film that wanted to use their magazine in it and it had my image on the cover, so they had to get my permission. It was for “Baby Driver.” Who knows if they used it? It would be awesome to see it in there, though.
AAR: If your art were a film, what film would it be?
AH: Maybe a surreal film.
AAR: What’s on the horizon for Alea Hurst?
AH: Exploring new themes and ideas. Growing my series. I have a few more paintings planned for the summer and a lot of experiments. I don't know where they will take me, so we will see where it goes. Hopefully more shows. I’ve been applying to a lot of things lately and we’ll see if those come through or not. If they don’t, I’ll just keep trying. I’m kind of stubborn. I’m not just going to give up. If someone says, “No,” I just move on to the next person. I mean it does sting, but I kind of got over that because I’ve heard it so much. When someone comes through, and says, “We really love your stuff,” it makes it that much better. I just want to keep developing this series and make it better. I don’t want to be stuck doing the same thing.
I have a a couple of things that i’m involved with that might come out over the summer, there is an interview that I did with the Eastman Collective in NY. They were doing a fashion launch for a branch called Fourth of November and we were given jackets and instructed to paint the backs of them. I painted the front too, because I'm such an overachiever. I like to put more work on myself than necessary. We had them hanging and displayed. They had a film crew, and were filming it for advertisement. In September, I’m participating in the More Than A Cone charity. They auction off the cones we paint. They have a lot of big name artists, and I’m like, “ I can’t believe my cone will be next to theirs.” Hopefully it raises a lot of money, because it goes toward pet adoption and awareness. I’m such a dog lover, so it’s hits home a lot more than other charities I’ve worked with. I was also one of the artists chosen by the City of Atlanta for their bike rack mural program. In the next couple of months I will start painting a bike rack, that corresponds with my mask series, which will be displayed for several years. It will be unveiled in the fall during Elevate.
That's a wrap!
To keep up with Alea you can visit her website!
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