Ken Garduno

Ken Garduno


Painter, Illustrator: Los Angeles

Take a walk down any street in New York City and you’re bound to conceive some notions about the locals you encounter. No fault, there. It’s just that New Yorkers are said to be a certain way; to have a certain reputation. And some of those things you’re thinking right now may to some extent be true. But I also think much of what you’ve heard is unfair. And I know I speak for many in saying that.

     For instance, although I do often have a place to be and do like to get there today, if you were stop me to ask for directions I would certainly try to assist. I wouldn’t, contrary to belief, bowl you straight over or harshly blurt out, ‘eyyy, I’m walkin’ here!’ I don’t even have a New Yawk accent.

     Generally, we’re a very kind, ambitious group. And if you visit I think you’ll see for yourself that there exist many more genuine, everyday ambassadors of the city than you’d imagine. Good things are happening here all the time.

     Now, having said all that, I am a native New Yorker. And New York blood does run through my veins. So when Ken Garduno told me he thought his home of Los Angeles had better pastrami than New York, the native New Yorker inside my mind immediately stood up and said, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! And shot Ken a very sideways glance.

     Truth is, I’m not even sure why that happened. I’m a peaceful individual; far from an expert on deli meats. I’ve never even had Los Angeles pastrami. And as such, I’d like to claim neutrality – especially on such a sensitive issue. But New Yorkers will stand up for their city whenever necessary. That’s just how it is. So that’s what I did.

     Ultimately, it was easy to let it all go. You see, Ken had recently obtained a studio space for the first time, and that’s exactly where we’d been sitting. There was far too much good energy going on for the two of us to do anything but laugh about the pastrami debate. I looked around the studio and asked him how it felt.

“It’s just not as limiting. For years I got used to working sitting down on a couch, with a table in front of me. I mean, I do really enjoy working here on my lap. [laughs] It’s a lot more comfortable for me to work that way, but I’m trying to break free from it. So now I have an art desk set up here with the intention of working at an art desk like I’m supposed to.”
     He also eagerly pointed out large amounts of empty wall space on which he could hang works in progress, and various tool boxes and materials that were now within close reach: brushes, paints, sculpting tools.

“These are all materials I’ve accumulated over time. I would be excited about them when I’d buy them, and then like a week later they were forgotten and just put away. But now they’re all here and I’m waiting to use everything.”

     Most pleasing about all of this to me is that working from a couch for all these years, using primarily the same medium (acrylic ink), Ken has already created so much beautiful work. And although on that day I’d point out many of those pieces as my favorites, he’d still very humbly remark that ultimately it was all just paint on canvas. Flat. Two dimensional. And that he’s sometimes even surprised that anyone would take an interest in what he’s created.

     In a way he’s right, of course. It is just paint on canvas. But with Ken’s work we do take an interest, and for me it’s not even a voluntary action. It’s more like an involuntary reaction. Sometimes I wonder exactly what it is that can make us do that. What stops us in our tracks to just stare at a painting, enthralled? Amazed? No one tells us to feel that way. But it happens. It’s the uncommon artist who can make it happen.

     I think part of it is storytelling. Think about some of your favorite pieces of literature. Part of the reason they’re your favorites might be the fact that the author gave you hints by plainly spelling out certain areas of the plot – but also left you to put some storylines together on your own. It may take some time and thought, but when we as readers turn our own gears to arrive at those answers, that’s where the greater satisfaction lies. It’s a technique Ken knows very well. But instead of pen and paper, he employs it with brushstrokes.

“I think people just don’t like unresolved mystery. Our brains want to come up with ways of resolving mysteries. And no matter what, people are going to come up with their own interpretations. Even if I tell them what a piece is about, I’m sure at some point there might be somebody who knows a lot more about psychology or something who can delve way deeper into the piece than I ever could.”

     And that’s just it. Ken gives us a lot to delve into. Look at any of the portraits. Those expressions. Those eyes hint at mystery all by themselves. It’s almost as if Ken has chosen these characters specifically for that quality, and he’s instructed them to hold the pose. Then, picking up a paintbrush, he captures that expression – giving only visual clues as to what they might be going through at that moment in their lives.

     And look: there’s not even a thing to distract you. No background. No scenery. Just a light coming from off frame, casting a shadow on those wistful figures. Highlighting that body language. You can’t help but wonder.

“I had somebody come up to me and ask me a question at an art show this weekend about the piece that I had there, and they wanted to know what the piece was all about. But that’s not as much fun for me as just standing next to my piece and hearing what somebody is saying, or asking somebody directly what they think the piece is about."

"I have a collector who will just interpret everything that he gets, and his stories are way cooler than anything I can come up with. For me they’re not really stories as much as they are intros to stories. One line. I could look at a piece that I do and just say one thing that comes to mind. But I like that I’m creating a narrative – that I’m putting just enough information out there to start the dialogue.”

     It works. When was the last time you wanted to actually get to know a portrait? Talk to them? Look at Matriarch. Do you want to reach out and place a reassuring hand on her shoulder? Ask her what’s on her mind? Ken’s work draws that kind of sympathetic reaction from us. In essence, it’s the sign of a good artist.

     So now think of Ken’s new space, and of his eagerness to approach new tools and media. Combine that with his ability to captivate a viewer with just an introduction, and what becomes increasingly exciting to me is how his artistic gifts will grow. Lately he’s been filling up sketchbook after sketchbook with ideas.

“I still really enjoy working with acrylic inks, but I’m having a great time exploring a new medium in gouache. It’s so different. It allows me to make even more mistakes and to bring myself back from those. It’s a lot more of a forgiving medium for me."

"Part of the process that I think I enjoy the most is just making a mess. [laughs] I’m not very careful at first. I just like to let the water medium do what it’s supposed to do – just go all over the place and make a mess, and I can tighten up later. I know people who work quite differently and they have really tight watercolors and everything. Everybody works different ways with their mediums, but I just can’t imagine not letting it do what it wants to. It has beautiful effects. I just love the little edges, or, I don’t know, just dropping water on top of it.”

     There’s a daydreamer to be found in that sentiment. And there’s a man not afraid to experiment, to modify his style, or to grow as an artist, despite the success he’s already had – and regardless of how that future work will be perceived. It’s what boundless creativity and inspiration will do.

“It’s nice to have a direct connection to people who are your art patrons. It’s nice to have conversations with them and find out what it is that they like about your work, and also when you stop hearing from them, wonder why – what it was in your work that changed, that kind of pushed them away. But that’s ok, though. That’s part of taking the risk and evolving in your work. Switching it up and evolving is cool. It’s such a difficult formula to figure out, though. If you’re still keeping a little bit of what defines you but altering it enough to make it fresh…man, that’s the formula. That’s the secret formula.”

{april 2012}
Images courtesy of Ken Garduno