In 1912, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso worked in the south of France as friends and collaborators. That summer, Braque happened upon some fake wood wallpaper in the window of a shop in Avignon and incorporated it into a set of charcoal drawings. The finished work was different from anything he could have anticipated. “After having made the papier collé [paper collage], I felt a great shock,” he admitted afterward. “And it was an even greater shock to Picasso when I showed it to him.”
In that moment, Braque and Picasso revolutionized our conception of what art could be--and how far we could stretch its definitions. When we think of artists, we often have fixed categories--someone is either a painter or a sculptor, a photographer or an illustrator--but in reality, these lines and boundaries are blurry at best. Some of history’s most monumental creative innovations were the direct results of “breaking the rules,” pushing past perceived limitations, and challenging the art world to think differently about media and materials.
We spoke with six artists who’ve taken routes that were wholly unexpected. Each of them is different from the rest, but they all share a willingness to take risks and travel into uncharted territory. Whether they’re working across seemingly disparate media or using unconventional materials, these individuals refuse to be labeled or pigeonholed--reminding us that when it comes to art, limits don’t mean much after all.
Patrick Cabral, who is based in Manila, has done everything from calligraphy to 3D rendering to sculpture, with materials ranging from cut paper to medium-density fibreboard. Recently, he’s also ventured into high-end, conceptual furniture design. “I actually made a career out of jumping from one creative pursuit to another,” he tells us. “I see myself as more of a professional connect-the-dotter.”
While his areas of expertise might seem distinct and unrelated, Cabral says it’s just the opposite. “My work is mostly appreciated because of its intricate details, but for me, everything is a cross-pollination of a lot of different creative pursuits. It uses the dexterity that I developed by doing calligraphy--which I started practicing when I was eleven years old. It uses the design sensibility that I developed while moonlighting as a CAD (computer-aided design) operator when I was in college.
“It uses technical knowledge I cultivated while working at my father’s machine shop while I was growing up. It has the artistic sensibility I learned while working as a designer for a lot of different fashion clients in the past. It uses the same principles as when I worked as a motion graphics artist, creating online banner ads to capture people’s attention."
Cabral has unconventional beginnings, and he grew up in a town without any art museums or galleries, but all those experiences shaped him into the artist he is today. “My biggest ambition growing up was just to have enough money so I could keep on drawing every day,” he tells us. “My work is constantly evolving because I became adaptable, and that’s a byproduct of having to survive through my work. My artwork is the product of layers and layers of different skills and years and years of experience.”
Clare Celeste Börsch
“I’ve always kept elaborate scrapbooks filled with collage and montage,” Clare Celeste Börsch admits. “But I used to see my scrapbooks as a private creative practice and a place to collect ideas, not as an artform in themselves. Once when working on a drawing from a very intricate collage, I realized I liked the collage more. I never went back and have been doing collage ever since.”
That might be an understatement. Börsch has lived all over the world, and she uses photographs and found and hand-painted images to create immersive installations evocative of our planet’s most diverse ecosystems. Her collages transform ordinary rooms into lush forests and imaginary jungles, all of which serve as a powerful reminder of the preciousness of the earth’s threatened flora and fauna.
Challenging art-world conventions--and subverting expectations-- took time and guts. “I did a podcast with The Jealous Curator around the time I decided to be a full-time artist,” Börsch remembers. “I spoke to Danielle Krysa about a dream I had when I was 18. In my dream, I found a tiger I had forgotten in a cage for 20 years and finally set free. Looking back, it came to me in a flash that the tiger is my creative voice. At 37, I am now the age I was in that dream. I didn’t realize this until last year. When I hit a dry spell and work is scarce, I remember that dream, and it reminds me to keep going.”
Jason Mecier’s grandmother’s house and yard were always filled with her artwork when he was growing up. “She would rather paint on the back of her cigarette cartons than buy a canvas,” he remembers. She was inventive and resourceful, and from a young age, he followed in her footsteps: “If she was working on an art project, she would set me up at a nearby table with a project of my own to work on. One of my earliest pieces is a mosaic made from beans, noodles, rocks, and cut bamboo sticks glued on a piece of wood--all stuff from my grandparents’ kitchen cupboards and backyard.”
As an adolescent, he created pop art, inspired by album covers by The Rolling Stones, Pat Benatar, and Olivia Newton-John. And now, as an adult, he brings together all these influences to create mosaic portraits of celebrities--all using unconventional materials, from candy and tater tots to trash and computer parts. Phyllis Diller, Barbie Benton, Florence Henderson, Jane Wiedlin, Parker Posey, and more have contributed their own discarded items to the cause. Some of his most daring creations appear in his book Pop Trash, released last year.
“Everything is up for consideration as art supplies,” Mecier tells us. “Nothing is safe in my house. My partner Adam Ansell and I are both artists, and our home is generally pretty put together except for the art studio, which I hog ninety percent of, and which can look like a room out of an episode of Hoarders, although I do try to keep all the materials organized in bins by shape, color, and theme.”
On Thanksgiving one year, Ansell couldn’t find the turkey baster because Mecier had incorporated it into one of his mosaics. The artist knows his path has been unusual, but that’s part of what made it so much fun. He tells us, “It sounds cheesy, but my advice to any artist would be to follow your heart and don't give up on your dreams.”
Even before Debra Baxter established herself as a jewelry designer and sculptor, she dabbled in different disciplines, from photography and painting to quilt-making. In college, she was introduced to metal and woodworking, and the possibilities seemed endless.
“I loved my foundations and sculpture teacher Brad Jirka at Minneapolis College of Art and Design,” she tells us. “He helped us learn to think in a different way and problem solve. One of our assignments was to take an 8-foot long 2x4 and make it 12 feet-long and able to hold two people. I spent all weekend making it.”
Now, Baxter creates sculptures, jewelry, and wearable sculptures using all sorts of materials, including metals, crystals, minerals, and more. Her pieces often incorporate elements of the human body, like hearts and hands. When asked about ignoring limits and breaking convention, she remembers one moment ten years ago in Seattle, when a man remarked, “This work shouldn’t be in a fine art gallery. It is craft.”
“The whole idea of ‘fine art’ being better than ‘craft’ is completely absurd,” Baxter explains. “I don’t care what genre you put me in, and I don’t care at all about labels. My work completely breaks boundaries. People think they are insulting me by saying my sculptures look like ‘design objects,’ but just today an amazing design gallery in Switzerland contacted me about selling my work to their clients.” Her work is already in Renwick Gallery in the Smithsonian--now it might be in people’s homes as well.
These days, Justin Richel might be best-known for his sculptures, including a 9-foot-tall silicone, urethane plastic, and acrylic sandwich that made headlines earlier this year, but he was a painter for more than a dozen years before he went three-dimensional. When he took the plunge into sculpture, he put all his chips on the table by uprooting his life and accepting a residency at Kohler Factory in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
“I needed a full immersion, a baptism by fire,” he remembers. “I needed a catalyst for change. I would either succeed or fail miserably. Shortly after that, I found myself right in the middle of the pottery factory floor making my work alongside the union workers churning out sinks, toilets, and bathtubs. It was hot, sweaty, loud, intense, and challenging. After a few weeks, I hit a fast-paced stride of productivity, and this foreign environment actually began to feel normal.”
After his return home, Richel didn’t have access to the same materials he had at the factory, but that didn’t stop him from brainstorming and evolving: “I made almost no finished artwork for about a three-year period, during which I would just sit and sketch, research materials, and problem solve, trying to develop a direction to take the work.”
Today, Richel effortlessly crosses the boundaries between two fields. “I now incorporate painting and sculpture together, playing with the trappings of each and navigating the space between,” he says. “My pace has changed considerably; my process is slow and meticulous, allowing ideas to unfold over long periods of time. I am grateful for this--I make fewer pieces, but they are works that I am deeply engaged with.”
Before becoming the multi-hyphenate artist and creative director she is today, Laci Jordan earned her degree in Criminal Justice, minoring in Computer and Political Science. In college, she interned with the FBI, where--by a serendipitous twist of fate--she discovered the Adobe Suite. She fell in love with design, got another degree, and went moved to Los Angeles to intern at Disney Imagineering. She hasn’t stopped since.
In her own words, the move to California forced Jordan to break out of her shell. These days, she’s breaking through all sorts of barriers by working across illustration, photography, graphic design, and more. Known for her vibrant and fearless use of color, she advocates for working authentically, honestly, and without a filter. Her inspirations are as far-reaching as the work itself, with influences ranging from Matisse to Solange.
Jordan has also used her powerful platform to give voice--and representation--to women and people of color. “I love this feeling of a Black Renaissance that’s happening,” the artist told Forbes last year. “We’re seeing people of color winning and creating new and exciting stories. I want to see art that includes people that look like me, so I create it.”
Jordan refuses to be boxed in or limited to just one thing. She knows her craft, and she does it well, but she’s not afraid to explore and try new things. As a result, she always keeps us guessing. You can find her work everywhere from leading publications to everyday accessories--her iconic “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “Stay Woke” pins are classic examples of her creative versatility.
Ready to stretch your own creative boundaries? Laci Jordan teaches a new Skillshare Original on digital illustration that will help push your craft and inspire your imagination.
Cover image: Crystal brass knuckles (Sterling silver, quartz crystal, 6x4.5x2in) by Debra Baxter. Photo: Kim Richardson
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