Interview by Jana Letonja
Devon DeJardin is a self-taught, multimedia artist from Portland, Oregon. Devon uses art and art history to understand the world and his place in it. With a sense of geometry that is both architectural and organic, and a refined palette that highlights the life of the mind, he muses on strength, fragility, control, and surrender. His work, for now, focuses on guardians, on entities and forces that protect us, guide us, and challenge us to grow. His new solo exhibition at UTA Artist Space opens in June.
Devon, what inspired your passion and love for painting?
It’s actually a pretty strange story. As a kid growing up, my mother exposed me to all sorts of forms of art. Theater, painting, drawing, watercolors, whatever it may be. My grandmother was a watercolorist, so I kind of grew up seeing her paintings on my mom’s wall. And they would take me to exhibitions and museums as a child, but I never really connected with it. I went through my early adolescent years not painting. I was always fascinated with creativity, with graphic design, with fashion. I was in menswear for a while, trying to come up with my own way to create clothing to tell a story, but ultimately I got to a point where I just didn’t feel connected to anything that I was doing and nothing really seemed to kind of be cementing in.
I just moved to Los Angeles and I was on Instagram when a man DMed me. He was like “Hey, I’d love to talk to you for a second”. I was kind of creeped out by the story, I thought this is weird. It was a completely random message and the guy gave me some money to talk to him on the phone. I was like “What am I getting myself into? ” And he’s like “I’ve been following you for a while on Instagram and I just think that I’m supposed to kind of relay a message to you to tell you to start painting. I think it’s something that’s really gonna work for you”. That was four and a half years ago and ever since that moment with the phone call, I just fell down this rabbit hole of creativity and wanting to push to new levels through painting, to move into sculpture, to start creating immersive worlds around my work. A lot of it stemmed from my study of world religion and spiritual traditions in college and just being exposed to so many different cultures.
Why does painting present such healing for you? How does it make you feel when you get lost in your creation process?
There are days where I come in to create whatever it may be and it’s a struggle and it’s a process of you don’t feel rested, you don’t feel like you’re connecting with what’s going on, but all of those moments just fall away when you have that complete connectedness to what’s going on in the studio and what’s going on with your paintings. I always say I feel like time flies when you’re having fun, but there are moments when you can be 10 hours into a painting and it feels like you just started.
For me, I guess the healing process is when you start painting and what’s in front of you is the only thing that’s interacting. It’s this kind of conversation back and forth and it’s this point where you have full control from start to finish. I think in a world that’s very chaotic, when you start a painting, you have the ability to take it whatever way you want. You have just your hands on it, just your time, just your experience and there’s no other outside influence in that moment when you’re fully connected. For me, getting into that mindset and getting into that point of really being able to connect with it, is something that creates layers and layers of healing within.
People explain it as a free flow or a flow state and there are all these kinds of scientific terms people have tried to coin with it, but it’s truly a form of meditation. You can go 10 hours of just being lost in an immersed in something. And I think that’s when your body and mind are fully reconnecting all the wires and recharging. Although it is tiring to be sitting down, hunched over, and painting, there is this process where your soul revives itself.
When you start working on a new painting, do you ever sketch it first or have it visualized in your mind already?
I guess my creative process of moving into a painting is a two to three-part process, but originally I like to come up with either a narrative or a storyline or a subject matter that really intrigues me. Most of the work that I’ve studied or I’ve been working on for the past five years has dealt with my experience in spiritual traditions and what I’ve learned from traveling and immersing myself in different cultures. Right now, the process is finding some sort of literature, some sort of text, which could be from a biblical passage, mythology, or a random story, and then finding something within that context that sparks an idea. This exhibition, this body of work I’ve been working on right now was talking about this idea of the fall of man and the consequences of our actions. That was a biblical passage in Genesis talking about Adam.
I start creating these pictures and these rough, loose outlines of what would look like under the context of the figures in my work. From there it goes into sketching. There are these really rough images of sketches, and paperwork that then get brought from the paper onto the computer to find ways to make it more three-dimensional, to make it more real. And then taking it from the computer back to the paper and creating a final draft of what I want the work to look like. Once I have that three-step outline, then it moves into the painting. So there is more process than just starting. I originally used to just walk up to the canvas and see where it goes, but because of some of the technicalities of where I want to take my consumer and my viewer now, it’s a little bit more of a process for sure.
You muse on strength, fragility, control, and surrender in your work. But what would you describe as the biggest inspiration for your work?
I keep going back to what I’ve studied, and where I’ve been, but it really is this idea of understanding a spiritual protector. For now, the biggest inspiration in my work is this idea of a ‘Guardian’ or a spiritual protector that you see amongst all major worldviews and religions. One of the core beliefs that are common across most religions is the idea of spiritual protection. Whether it is through prayer, ritual, or other forms of spiritual practice, people in different religions seek protection from the unseen forces that may harm them.
I think there’s this shared belief among humans that there’s a desire for safety and security and peace of mind. And it serves as kind of a testament. There needs to be spiritual guidance or a spiritual force that helps us. And regardless if people have a belief system or not, you have these moments where you see people that are devout atheists, but then they’re on their deathbed and they’re crying out “God help me or someone helps me”. So much of my work now is trying to find a way to create this figure that kind of ties everything together without being specific to one and ultimately starts conversations amongst people about why is it that that’s happening. I don’t like to move on from subjects too fast, I don’t like to just spend one season working on something. For me, this is such a giant comprehensive matter that’s been standing the test of time for thousands of years. I need to make sure I can really push it as far as I can before I move on.
For now, your work focuses a lot on guardians and forces that protect us, guide us, and challenge us to grow.Why is growth such an important aspect of one’s life?
Growth, both emotional and spiritual, is important because it helps individuals to develop a deeper understanding and connection with their values, beliefs, and purpose. It allows humans to gain a greater sense of meaning and fulfillment in life and can lead to increased inner peace, compassion, and empathy toward others. Spiritual growth can also bring a greater appreciation for the world and the interconnectedness of all things, leading to a more mindful and intentional approach to life. It provides a source of comfort, guidance, and support during difficult times. By fostering human growth, individuals can become more self-aware, kind, and conscious members of society, which ultimately bleeds into the work and passions they develop.
But I think that if humans stay stagnant and we allow this technological world around us to keep developing and developing without ever tapping into what’s actually inside of us and relying on these resources, you’re gonna see such a giant gap with people that are struggling with mental illnesses and withdraw from society because we focus so much on technological advancements, society advancements, but we don’t spend a lot of time on our personal and physical advancements.
Even in my life, I wanna be a conscious member of society. I wanna be fully able to be someone’s rock when they need to talk or I wanna be able to go out and use my work and be able to talk about my work. And without growth, it’s impossible. You become kind of a silent artist where you’re like, here’s my work, now tell me about it. And I don’t want that.
How would you describe your own growth throughout your career?
Being a product of the millennial generation and being a product of the most rapid rise of society growth, my growth has become so much more about tying exactly what we just talked about into developing my own mind and trying to find myself and my place in this world that’s changing so rapidly. As I moved into this full-time painting career that I never thought was actually gonna be a thing, it’s allowed me time to really slow down. Painting isn’t a fast process and regardless of how much turnover you need to have pieces going out, there is such a stillness in the practice I have in my studio. And that’s created an understanding that I don’t need to rush through this world and I don’t need to spend every single moment of my life trying to climb. There is this kind of sick and sadistic mindset that we need to constantly be climbing up this ladder of whatever we’ve created in our heads. But in reality, painting is that one thing that you can’t do with. If you’re not creating work that’s connected to your innermost beliefs and it’s not connected to what you’re trying to say from the past, touching on the present and presenting itself in the future, then you’re really just regurgitating something for a dollar sign.
You have a background in studying spiritual traditions from around the world. What made you interested in studying this? And what did you learn from studying this?
I think there’s this innate human desire to want to know more about the world that we inhabit and ultimately where we come from as humans. There is also this pull to want to know what is next and what else is out there. There’s so much that science and mathematics can tell us, but there ultimately becomes a point where there are still questions left unknown. For thousands of years people have been trying to answer these questions and I want to know as much as I can and I want to have the most well-rounded understanding of what other people think so that the moment I encounter these different people and encounter these different cultures, I don’t come off as one-sided bigoted person.
Growing up, I always told my parents I want to be able to sit down at any dinner table and have a two-hour conversation. If it’s a tribe in the middle of Africa, I wanna understand what’s going on there. If it’s a homeless encampment downtown, I wanna be able to have that perspective. And I think trying to understand as much as possible ultimately puts us in a position of a student. When you’re a student, you constantly have the ability to learn. I think there’s too much of this ego of wanting to be like ‘I know all’ and no one ever wants to learn anymore. Diving into studying spiritual traditions was a fascination of wanting to understand my place in this world and gain an overall understanding of why humans are the way they are.
You have an appreciation for the emotional, muscular abstraction of Picasso, Nevelson, Duchamp and Krasner. What makes you connect with those artists’ work so much?
The emotional and muscular abstraction of artists like Picasso, Nevelson, Duchamp, and Krasner has had a lasting impact on modern art and myself by breaking away from traditional representational art and exploring new forms of expression. Their focus on the use of color, form, and texture to evoke emotions and ideas rather than solely depict physical reality has inspired numerous artists, including myself, to push the boundaries of what is considered art and challenge established norms. The impact of their work continues to be felt in contemporary art years beyond their time, with many artists still looking to their predecessors for inspiration and a sense of freedom to experiment and express themselves in new and innovative ways. It is fascinating and inspiring to comprehend.
Picasso was in this time when everyone had nice portraits commissioned and he’d come over and be squiggly and make them look ugly. And they were so offended, but creating something that’s not necessarily right before the eye was something that hadn’t been done yet, especially in portraiture. For me, that was so fascinating because it might have been a reflection of what was happening in society, but at the same time, he might have been seeing it differently. I don’t paint things you can walk around down the street and see. You’re not interacting with these in real life, these are things that have kind of come as a merge of fantasy and mystical and beyond. Now it’s coming into this reality of what’s right in front of us. And I think all these artists did that really well.
This June, we’ll be able to see your new solo exhibition at UTA artist Space. Tell us more about what we’ll be able to see from your newest work and what’s the story and inspiration behind this upcoming exhibition?
The theme or motif is talking about the fall of a man and the choices that we make that ultimately impact our lives and our decisions. It’s going back into the genesis story of creation and that first kind of a tale of Adam and Eve and eating the apple and what happened after that. If you believe in the story or not, I think a lot of it shows that it’s more of a poem and a symbolic story. There are six paintings in the exhibition that walk the viewer through this story more literally, but ultimately each painting poses a question about the step of the story. In the garden, the original state of perfection, why would you ever wanna leave that over something so simple as an apple. As you go through the exhibition, it will start posing questions to the viewer.
It says in the story that once they ate the apple, they realized that they were naked and frayed because shame and guilt entered. And they were able to see what’s going on, so I painted them in this nude with big eyes kind of realizing what’s going on. There’s a literal story to all the pieces. I don’t necessarily share that, but for me, that’s how I prefer the work and be able to build from it.
Do you have any other upcoming exhibitions for this year or are already working on new masterpieces?
A lot of my interest right now is I’ve been building large format sculptures and starting to place them into the real world. I’ve had two or three of them out already and a lot of this year and next will be spent creating full series of works that just include sculpture. I’m pushing myself to create sculptures to ultimately lead to an experience that’s more immersive within my exhibitions. I love going to Whitewall Gallery shows, but there becomes a point where it’s like, how do I actively tell a story even more in-depth, how do I walk my viewer and my audience through something that’s much more exciting. I love my paintings. I think they can stand alone, but being able to take someone into a world I think is something that the world is pushing for. With technology and all that, people are getting so excited about what’s digital and what’s immersive, so I think adapting some of that aspect into these Whitewall Gallery shows is what I wanna work on. This is a big year of vision planning and finding ways to further develop what’s happening in the studio.