“I hope that my art can continue to grow and evolve and inspire others to believe in the possibility of a more compassionate world.”
A Plan to Fail; acrylic on wood; 2005
Spencer Reinhard belongs to that fascinating line of artists that have no choice but to explore and communicate life through their art. At one point in his youth, he allowed this exploration to take him down dangerous rabbit holes that would open his eyes and forever change the way he views the world. But necessity breeds invention and his creativity wouldn’t be contained while he was in prison where he painted on bread ties, extracted ink from magazines, and even used candy as a medium.
Today we see a mature body of abstract and figurative art that unashamedly tells a very human story: one of fear, anxiety, and pain — but also one of transformation, hope, and continued evolution. Recently he has concentrated on painting birds in a natural world that is not so different than ours. Though some of his birds are contorted or ominous, others are playful, peaceful, and carefully hopeful. Make no mistake, this quiet contemplation hasn’t come easy. Spencer’s transformation invites the viewer to decompose reality and truly see, to be better to nature, to one another, and ultimately, to oneself.
His most recent work in The American Animals Collection explores this evolution by revisiting paintings from different periods and reinventing them, with the help of technology, from a newly evolved perspective that ties his life’s work together.
Badlands; ink on wood; 2014
Tell us a bit about yourself and what led you to become an artist.
Ever since I can remember I wanted to be an artist. There was always something alluring about creating art, the life that an artist would lead, and the freedom. For the first part of my life, I was being funneled into a typical mediocre American story but in the middle of my sophomore year in college things took a much different turn. I was involved in a robbery of my school’s special collections library. I was charged with multiple felonies and sentenced to seven years in prison. The heist has since been chronicled in the feature film American Animals. From pre-sentencing probation to my six years in prison I never gave up the dream of being an artist, in fact, I used my experience as a catalyst to solidify my desire and determination. The privileged life I had lived was gone and the only way I would be able to make something of myself would be to work harder than I ever would have while fulfilling the expectations of graduating from a liberal arts college.
The Flood; acrylic on wood; 2015
Do you remember an early experience when a piece of art really affected you? Does any of that experience influence you today?
I remember on my 12th-grade school trip to New York getting to see works by Willem de Kooning at the MET. The energy and intensity of the paintings made me feel that I hadn’t experienced anything, nothing in my life of comfort and soccer tournaments could rouse in me such emotive work. I began to study de Kooning and was fascinated with abstract expressionism. Even to this day I take inspiration from his masterpiece Excavation.
Just Weight; acrylic on paper; 2017
What in your personal history has influenced your work the most?
Nothing in my life has been more influential than my experience in prison. From day one I took it on as an artistic opportunity. The perspective and real-life suffering I found there allowed me to evolve into the best version of my artistic self. Free from the burden of expectation and capitalism I was able to explore any direction my inspiration would take me. I became fascinated with ink transfer; where I would lift the ink from magazines and suspend it in layers of gel medium. For six years I pushed the evolution of my ink transfer method to new heights and to this day my prison experience influences every piece of art that I make.
“Head Fruit”; ink transfer on wood; 2014
What do you think makes your work unique? How intentional are these choices when you’re creating?
I think that my unusual life story and the desire I have sustained throughout have allowed me to create a unique visual language. Over time I have learned to balance the intuition of the brush with the control and intention of a well-thought-out painting. I believe it is only through years of experience and practice that one can hope to create something original.
If All Else Flails; digital hybrid; 2022
You’ve had many periods with different styles. Could you tell us about these periods and why you think they look so different?
The different periods of my work are intricately linked to the diversity of my life experiences. In prison, I was working mostly on a small scale with ink transfer and my inspiration was the self and the prison industrial complex. Once out of prison I began to transition away from ink transfer as it restricted the freedom and energy I now had the space to unleash. I started working on large panels creating abstract scenes inspired by the strange new world of smartphones, social media, and a renewed desire for things. Once that period ran its course I began to see the potential of painting birds. American Animals was going to be made and I wanted to create a dialogue with my infamous past, one that would highlight the transformation and rehabilitation that had taken place in my life.
Bread-Tie Cockatiel; graphite and ink on paper and bread-ties; 2010
In creating this collection I have had to revisit works that were made at difficult times in my life. This has not been easy but overall the experience has been enlightening. It was my intention late last year to take my most recent bird-themed works and combine them with my earlier abstract style. AI has allowed me to do that with such speed and accuracy that I feel like my evolution as an artist has leaped forward. The ability to change older works into unique hybrids has allowed me to reconnect with styles that were created by a version of me that doesn’t exist anymore. In doing so I am able to unify themes and subject matter across all periods of my work creating a unified collection.
“Fit the Bill”; digital hybrid; 2022
What artist or artists have had the greatest influence on your work?
As a young man I found most of my inspiration from modern artists like, de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Gorky, and Bacon among others. The passion and importance of painting to them was something that I wanted to believe in and understand. I studied Manet and Matisse and read countless biographies. Nothing inspired me more than reading what other artists had done and how they worked. I wasn’t going to get an art degree so I felt the need to study what others had done and were doing as much as possible. Subscriptions to Art Forum and Modern Painters allowed me to keep abreast of what was happening in the art world while I was in prison. Seeing what contemporary painters like Dana Shutz, Richard Prince, Gerhard Richter and Amy Sillman were doing made me believe in the relevance of painting in our hypernovel environments.
What do you think are the benefits of NFT technology? What do you hope NFTs will change about the future?
I just recently crossed over to the NFT world but already I can see the potential attracting us into the future. For me the greatest benefits of NFTs are their global reach and for their ability to be sold and traded easily in a way that gives back to the artist responsible for the work. In the future I hope that NFTs will give the public more access to fine art than ever before. People will not only be able to curate their own digital art collections but have access to the collections of museums all over the world.
In Position; digital hybrid; 2022
Do you have any other passions besides art?
Once out of prison I became passionate about birding and this was partly responsible for my decision to start painting our avian neighbors. One of my other passions is ceramics, I keep a Kiln in Kentucky that I use every summer when I’m visiting the States. I am passionate about plants, I have over 100 succulents, cactus and small trees in my house and I am passionate about Soccer. I played for twenty years and although I only play once or twice a year now I still keep up with the European leagues and players.
Sally Bird; digital hybrid; 2022
What in the future excites you the most?
I rarely get excited about the future. I have two small children and I try to stay in the moment enjoying each stage as it comes. Though the world seems to be sliding closer to some of our worst dystopian nightmares I feel extremely lucky to have a career that allows me to be present with my children at such a fundamental stage of their lives. It is exciting to think that NFTs could allow more artists to exist and sustain themselves through their artwork.
If you could only work with one subject for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I always struggled to find subject matter that would sustain my interest. That is until I started painting birds. The endless variety of form and color offers enough challenges to last a lifetime. If I had to pick one bird it would probably be a heron.
The Great Opportunist; acrylic on canvas; 2021
If you could go back to any moment from your life and relive it, what would it be and why?
I would probably go back to the time when I first got out of prison. I wasn’t prepared for the real world and it nearly got the better of me.
Prison Factory Hazards; digital hybrid; 2022
What do you hope your art accomplishes?
My art has largely been a private endeavor. I haven’t had any large exhibitions and so I have been left to toil in peace without too much consideration for my audience. The movie and the attention it brought my work has shown me that my story connects with something in people. I hope that my art can continue to grow and evolve and inspire others to believe in the possibility of a more compassionate world.
View the American Animals Collection here:
Check out more of Spencer Reinhard’s work on his artist website:
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Interview edited for length and clarity.