Painting by Paul Richmond

War on Canvas

As a child, Paul Richmond baffled his parents, who worked for a mortgage company and a railroad. The three-and-a-half-year-old seemed to want to do nothing but sit at the dining room table and draw, sometimes hundreds of pictures a day.

By the age of four, Richmond was studying art with a private teacher and painting with oils. Now the Columbus College of Art and Design graduate is an illustrator, storyteller, and activist whose work has been exhibited around the country. However, public display was not originally what Richmond had planned for his work.

When Richmond came out as gay to friends, he began to deal with his emotions the way he always had—by painting. Thinking his work was too personal to be shared, the paintings went, ironically, into his closet. A friend encouraged him to exhibit some of his work, and the result was a revelation, a break from the use of art as therapy.

“It’s not just a one-sided thing,” he realized. “It’s not just me dumping something onto a canvas. It’s about somebody seeing it and receiving it and getting something from it.”

Gradually, as Richmond brought more of his work into the public eye, and as people began to respond, his painting became more intentional and politically themed, responding to the striking down of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or Kirk Cameron’s vocal opposition to homosexuality.

“I did [a painting] called Noah’s Gay Wedding Cruise, which is like Noah’s Ark, but with all gay celebrity couples and also gay animal pairings,” he said. “But in the water around the ark, the drowning sinners are the Republican politicians who were so anti-gay.”

The heavy political themes engaged audiences in both positive and negative ways, including the Westboro Baptist Church, who Photoshopped their interpretation of Noah’s Gay Wedding Cruise online and threatened to picket Richmond’s wedding. But for Richmond, knowing his message was making an impact was important.

“It was still all about communication. Even the negative stuff brought attention to my work and added to the conversation,” he said. “For me, I’m not really an activist in terms of being out in crowd with a bullhorn, but I can be an activist through my work and get people to look at something a different way.”

Gender and equality have continued to be important elements in Richmond work. The Cheesecake Boys featured men in “hapless victim” pinup scenarios typically occupied by women. The War Paint series, mostly male subjects with self-applied facial and body paint, explores the construct of masculinity. Richmond notes that culturally, body paint has served purposes from battle preparation to spiritual healing.

“We’ve been force-fed this idea that men behave a certain way, that they don’t express their emotions … here they’re actually wearing their emotions.”

To create the paintings in the War Paint series, Richmond first fills a canvas with color and expressive strokes. Working with photos of models, he brings the figure up through the foundation through four to five layers of additional color. The series was partially born from Richmond’s desire to become more expressive. The paint is often applied with a palette knife, or splashed on the canvas, rather than painted with a brush.

“I love to tell a story with the painting. And the story isn’t necessarily just the scene that’s being depicted, but also the energy around it, the movement, the mood, tone. And I think all of those things kind of come across through the way you apply the paint, the colors that you choose, the layers,” he said. “It’s infusing the paintings with a little bit more life and energy…making the process a little more spontaneous.”

After the War Paint series closes out in February, Richmond believes he will delve more deeply into expressive painting. But right now he’s especially excited about the newest form of display his work will have—as part of James Franco’s upcoming indie film The Long Home, shot in and around Cincinnati. Kristen Adams, a CCAD graduate working as a production designer on the film suggested Richmond to paint a needed portrait of James Franco’s character, which hangs in a bordello. The caveat was that the painting—one which normally would have taken Richmond a month to paint—had to be completed in a week.

“It was like being back in art school for a week—lots of caffeine,” said Richmond, who used acrylics rather than oils to give the work sufficient time to dry. Since the bordello burns down in the film, Richmond anticipated his week-long labor would also go up in flames. But when Franco saw the painting of himself decked out in a black vest and tattoos, he liked it too much to let it be destroyed and decided to swap it out for a print that will be used for a dramatic, final flame-engulfed shot.

Richmond and a friend also got to be extras in the film in scenes with Franco and Courtney Love. “It was neat to see everything that goes into that process,” said Richmond, who was shocked at Franco’s transformation from shy actor to maniacal character.

“The movie comes out next year,” Richmond said. “Look for the painting and for the two guys who look like they do not belong in a bordello.”

Richmond welcomes anyone to stop by his studio at Grandview’s Brick Box Studios (1523 Chesapeake Ave.) or to check out more of his work at paulrichmondstudio.com.

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