Arrian Yves Wheeler (“AY”) is a Boulder, Colorado-based artist, entrepreneur and all around cool dude. He’s always got something new cooking, and his artwork - using Bavarian crystal and simian to create massive, stunning paintings - is a passion that’s recently been taking off.
"When the lighting is right, it's like the wall is alive."
MB: So give us the background. How did you get started?
AY: "Well my father is a photographer, and so I was in and around photography studios my whole life growing up, and I was always interested in it. When I moved to San Francisco, I started doing a lot of second shooting with other photographers and did some fashion work, some weddings, and some corporate stuff. And I saw the writing on the wall where all of that type of work was going, and I started to get my own clients, but I really wasn’t that inspired by it.
So I shifted away from doing more commercial photography - the professional trajectory that I had been thinking about - toward more fine art photography. And even that wasn’t as stimulating as I thought it was going to be, and so that’s when I started experimenting in different materials. I went through probably fifteen different materials - crushed glass, plastic glitters, all different types of just sparkly mediums - and eventually arrived at higher and higher-end glasses and crystals.
And then I finally found this one company that makes a Bavarian crystal that’s actually coated in silver and then dyed whatever color it’s going to be. It’s an actual crystal shard, a little 3D rock. And I started making paintings with that and using photography as inspiration for the pieces that I was doing. It took me about ten years to create the technique that I use now, to really nail the shading and to be able to capture the nuances in both colors, black and whites and silvers. And it kept evolving into the mediums that I use now, which is this Bavarian crystal with another product called simian, which is a 2D PVC material. And it’s all archival in quality. I’ve done 36 paintings now, and sold 33 of them, so it’s going great."
MB: And they’re huge. What's the average size, and why is that so important?
AY: "Yeah, they are big. The smallest work that I will do is about five feet by five feet. But most everything is six feet by ten or so, or five by ten. The reason is that the medium is so much more impactful when it’s big, and I absolutely love the way they look when lit properly - with low light, candlelight, or little spot LEDs. When the painting is lit right, it makes the entire wall feel like it’s alive. Depending on where you’re standing it’s twinkling and it’s alive. And the bigger I go the more breathtaking it is when finished. So I’ve never really worked with anything smaller than five by five and would love to do 20 by ten, but it comes down to transportation issues and being able to get it around."
MB: How long does it take to do a 6x10?
AY: "Roughly 200 to 350 hours. I’m at a point now where I do all of the creative, come up with a concept, draw everything, code everything, and then I go through and blend all of the crystal - it’s just like blending paint but it’s with crystals. There are only fifteen different colors of the Bavarian crystal and there’s maybe ten of the Simian, which means that in order to do kind of the more nuanced shading I have to blend three or four or five different colors and different proportions to create one color. And then I will change that proportion by one increment as I go through. If I’m doing a face there might be fifteen different shades between the nose and the ear.
So, I’m changing one of those proportions by one unit, and that’s what’s taken forever to learn. But now I’m at the point where, after all of the creative is done, and I’ve coded everything, I have assistants to help. I usually have one to three assistants that help me just apply the crystal onto the die bond, which is the substrate that I draw everything on. But that allows me to finish a piece in two or three weeks, instead of the two or three months it takes by myself."
MB: Are you blending the crystals on the painting or on the side separately?
AY: "I do the blending separately and then I will figure out basically the entire color palette of what I’m going to do. Most paintings have between 20 and 40 different colors. I’ll have them all laid out with the proportions that need to go into creating each individual color written out. So as I need more of that, I just blend it and that’s a formula for every color, but with crystal."
MB: I remember when you first mentioned this, years and years ago. It was glitter at the time, was it not? Did you ever actually use straight up Michaels store glitter?
AY: "Yeah, I did. That was in that experimenting phase. The challenge that I was having for years, and which is why I use the materials I do now, it all comes down to the archival quality of the materials - keeping the integrity of the vibrancy of the color over time. And that has to do with both the crystal and the adhesives. And so I’ve been through maybe seven different adhesives to finally find a self-leveling glue that is archival in nature and won’t change over time or affect the crystal or simian. A lot of the cheaper glitters aren't archival quality, so if they have any UV exposure they’ll change color. And that also has to do with the shape of the shards, of whether it’s a glitter or if you’re doing it with the crystal - literally a little 3D rock the size of a large grain of sand. So now what I do is blend the two, and the 2D simian plus the 3D crystal makes for the biggest reflective pop that I can get. And it’s been great. I’ve been using the current materials for the last three years."
MB: From what I’ve seen of your work there are a lot of animals and humans, why is that? What’s the inspiration?
AY: "I have a lot of different passions. I’m into traveling, I’m into nightlife, I’m into beautiful women, I’m into traditional African scenes as well. And I’ve always appreciated imagery from all of these vast arrays of interests that I have. Which has actually been a challenge as I’ve approached different galleries over the years. They so often want to pigeonhole an artist - “Oh, so you’re the African art guy, right? Everything you do is African and I can sell you to our clientele as the guy who does Africa work.” Or you're the animal guy. And that just kills me because I'd much rather have the medium and the style be my signature vs. any particular type of imagery. And that's been tough. But I really do love animals as a subject, because they're conducive to the large format. And animals are something that I love, and so do a lot of other people.
But there are other things, for example I did a triple skull piece, which I really loved. But before I did that piece, I was like, you know, I'm just doing this for myself, I don't care if anybody else loves it. But as it turns out, there are a lot of people who love skulls, too.
So as an artist, it's always a balance of, “Alright, I want to do exactly what I want to do. But I don't want to do something that nobody likes whatsoever, I want to be able to have something that resonates with a good amount of people as well, something that I'm also passionate about.” So that's why I've been bouncing all over - airplanes, women, a whole African series, a pop start series, and static objects like trees. If I find it stimulating, I go for it. And I'm really into backgrounds as well - try to have the most bold, stark backgrounds, that contrast the central image as much as possible."
MB: So would you say there is an even split between buyers and commissions, people looking for their private residence and for businesses?
AY: "Most of the buyers have been private residences. Maybe 20% of the pieces are commissioned for businesses, I’ve been doing some big commissions for a yoga studio chain. They have a new chain in the East Coast called Apex, and they wanted a big apex predator. So I did a lion for them, and they're opening like fifteen or so more studios, so I may be doing big pieces for them. And these are ten feet by six feet wide - a huge presence in there. So yeah, I tend to do a lot of commissions, and the way that I do commissions is either you come to me with an idea and add an image that I can do in my process, or you just give me a concept. And then I have 100% artistic free rein, and I do my interpretation of the concept. And I don't go back and forth. I used to do that. And I don't do that anymore."
MB: How would you say your other pursuits, whether that's music or the outdoors or other things that have influenced you - I know there are certain things that you absolutely love - things that are a big part of you, how have those impacted your art?
AY: "Well a big part of my life for a long time was traveling and. For more than 12 years I averaged three or four months a year of travel. And so a lot of the African imagery was inspired from my traveling in Africa. And a lot of the animals as well. I was really drawn to these various adventures across the globe.
And music, yeah, I've a huge passion for electronic music. But it's actually interesting in that electronic music was such a big part of my life for so long. Then when I got married and had a family, I couldn’t spend all night every night out like I used to, and so actually transferred a lot of that creative energy into starting this art career, so that I could be home at night with my family.
And the other thing that's funny is that, for the first time, I got really into hip hop as I was making art. I never really explored the hip hop genres until I started making art. I’d be doing hundreds of hours on these different paintings, and would pick one new artist and listen to everything that they've done, start to finish, and then I'd go to the next artist and then the next. So that's where I developed a love for hip hop. I listen to all different types of music, but yeah, as far as inspiration goes, you know, it's really mostly visual, like if I visualize a way to translate the idea into a popping combination of background and foreground, I'm all in."
MB: What are you working on right now?
AY: "A gigantic 10-foot crocodile walking in a 3D background. It's for a gallery in Denver called Honey, and I do a new piece for them about every two months or so. I'm also working on a 10-foot tall pink flamingo in a color box, but the color box is set in a desert - heavily influenced by Burning Man, which is a big part of my life. I've been out there 14 times and make it a priority. It's kind of where I get a lot of my creative mojo re-inspired every year. And then yeah, I've got a couple of commissions that I'm working on, still figuring out exactly what those are going to be."
MB: You mentioned Honey - where else can people find your work?
AY: "There are a couple pieces at Deviant Spirits in Boulder [Colorado] but basically every other piece is sold - they're in private homes. The triple skull piece is at Coffeebar in Redwood City. There are a couple pieces out in California - San Francisco, Menlo Park, Redwood City, Truckee. But yeah, as I make them, they pretty much go into houses right away.
I mean, I would love to be in more galleries. But as I said, it's just been challenging because I don't want to really be put into a content box. You know, many of them want 10 pieces of the same idea but just a little bit different, which bores me to death, especially when each piece takes so long to finish."
MB: And then you can see all the work on your website, right?
AY: "Yep. On website and on Instagram. I always forget to update the website, but all of the current work is on Instagram."