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The Evolution of an Artist

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Justin Vining doesn't like the word "whimsical."

It's often used to describe his work, but he prefers the more precise description of "if Tim Burton and Dr. Seuss decided to paint the Midwest."

"I know I have a painting style that emerged and I've developed," he says. "But one of my biggest goals in 2015, after the mural, was really forcing myself out of my comfort zone into new styles and new aesthetics."

The Broad Ripple-based Vining, is referring to the massive mural in Urschel Laboratories' new corporate headquarters up in Chesterton, Indiana, that he recently finished. And he goes on to explain how his style has evolved over the past six to eight months beyond his distinctive, dream-like depictions of houses, barns and rural Midwestern landscapes. He wants to grow out of the familiar.

In a departure from his well-known colorful whimsey, his recent works have been black and white and more technical in execution. He's now preparing 50 to 75 pieces for a major solo show at the Harrison Center for the Arts in March, and he intends to keep growing as an artist and evolving his style.

"I want to always be pushing the limits," he says. "I think the improvement is evident. I've taken a very different tack with my work, and that is very conscious. Artists can feel it's OK to hit cruise control, but I'd be doing a disservice to myself. I want to push the envelope."

Now Vining only works in oil, eschewing acrylics. He's being more painterly, more crisp and clearer on the focal point. He's added more atmosphere, more mood and better use of light. He's gone from painting surrealist pieces to bringing his work back to reality by using realistic proportions.

"The biggest difference is I'm doing familiar work in a more technically sound manner," he says. "I'm chasing a way to create a similar image in a more complex manner."

Vining says he doesn't want to fall into a comfort zone and keep cranking out the same paintings like an automaton.

Vining describes his artistic style as a cross between Tim Burton and Dr. Seuss, with abstract shapes and dark colors. -  - COURTESY OF JUSTIN VINING
  • Courtesy of Justin Vining
  • Vining describes his artistic style as a cross between Tim Burton and Dr. Seuss, with abstract shapes and dark colors.

"It's a lot easier to get behind work that I wholly believe in," he says. "I want to be pushing myself and trying everything. I think I've improved a lot."

He recently met up with a collector who asked him what he thought of an early piece he did in 2009. He thought it had an amateurish look, though he admits it was the best he could do at the time.

Though he knows not everything he paints is going to be his best work, he wants to create the best he's capable of at any given moment and keep moving toward his singular vision.

A major challenge was painting the historical mural that spans 10 feet by 40 feet for the lobby of Urschel Laboratories' new corporate headquarters. Vining considers the monthslong endeavor, which was all-consuming, a once-in-a-lifetime dream project.

The 105-year-old company makes food-cutting machines that slice everything from McDonald's French Fries to Lay's potato chips to most of the bagged salad you'll find at the supermarket. Urschel made the first Eskimo Pie machine and revolutionized the way green beans are canned.

Chief Executive Officer Rick Urschel has collected Vining's work for years, since Vining was a law student at the nearby Valparaiso University. They talked about the commissioned piece a year in advance, and Urschel gave him total access to the company’s historic records back to the early 1900s and complete freedom to do what he wanted.

Vining spent five to six months on the project, covering an entire wall of his Indianapolis studio with old Urschel photos so he could soak up the company’s visual history.

When it came time to paint, he moved north to Porter County so he could focus on it fully.

Vinging is well-known for his previous style of colorful "whimsy" -- a descriptor he's not so wild about. -  - COURTESY OF JUSTIN VINING
  • Courtesy of Justin Vining
  • Vinging is well-known for his previous style of colorful "whimsy" -- a descriptor he's not so wild about.

"At first I thought I may have severely underestimated how much time it would take," he says. "If I had been here in Indianapolis, it easily could have stretched another three to six months. There are too many distractions [here]: all my friends, my wife, my family, my dog. [But there] I had the singular purpose of finishing that painting."

Construction was underway when Vining worked on the wall-sized mural, so he came in every day between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. and stayed until 5 p.m. He ate a peanut butter sandwich nearly every day and listened to more than 100 episodes of NPR's This American Life. At the end of his long, often 11-hour days, he would crash and watch Sports Center to decompress.

"It was unreal to wake up every single day to work on the same project," he recalls. "It was cool, man -- to do something that big."

Vining has painted a smaller mural of the Chicago city skyline in the University of Valparaiso Law School library and one that was comparable in size on a wall at the Valparaiso International Center. But that was a big painting of the world that was already within his wheelhouse, and didn't require as much detail, accuracy and planning.

After settling on which machines and moments in Urschel’s century-long history to highlight, Vining did a lot of the early sketching on Photoshop. He knew his traditional style wouldn't be true to the subject matter.

“I couldn’t get too crazy with perspectives,” he explains. “I felt distortion or abstraction would do the company a disservice. The machinery is extremely precise, which is why I couldn’t represent it in a skewed manner."

Vining placed elements across the mural to give it visual balance and symmetry. The forms on the right mimicked the forms on the left.

Vining recently completed a 10-by-40 feet mural in Urschel Laboratories' new corporate headquarters in Chesterton. -  - COURTESY OF JUSTIN VINING
  • Courtesy of Justin Vining
  • Vining recently completed a 10-by-40 feet mural in Urschel Laboratories' new corporate headquarters in Chesterton.

Though the mural depicts machinery such as a “Translicer 2000” and a “CCXD,” Vining still gave it personal touches like saturated coloration and perspectives that would be recognizable to anyone familiar with his work.

"I still sort of put my stamp on it, showing 'hey, this was painted by me,'" he says. “"As a full-time painter, you don't get to fully dedicate yourself to a singular piece for months. It doesn't pay the bills. But I really got to use my full creative range on this mural. It was a dream project."

Vining knew he didn't want to have a traditional landscape with a foreground and a sky in the background, but the mural needed some type of unifying layer. He ultimately settled on a blue gradient that went from a deep Prussian blue to the lighter blue of the Urschel company logo. He painted the whole thing with a four-inch brush over the course of eight hours.

"My right hand was dying by the end of the day," he says. "I had to finish it with my left hand."

The blue gradient left little room for error, since any attempt to patch up a mistake would be glaringly conspicuous. Vining overlaid it with blueprints and technical drawings to represent the company's role in investing machinery, such as the “gooseberry snipper” that was used to help to make the sugar-laden gooseberry pie that has long since fallen out of favor.

He used a straight edge to render the first blueprint in the upper left-hand corner, but came out thinking it wasn't perfectly parallel, so he ran out and grabbed a 48-inch ruler to ensure "beautiful, perfect lines."

One of the coolest moments was unveiling the finished product to Rick Urschel, who hadn't seen it. Vining was so nervous that he initially misspelled his own name when signing the piece.

Urschel of course loved the mural, which dominates the lobby and anchors a museum that charts the company’s history and showcases the many supermarket staples its cutting equipment makes, including pickles, relish and shredded cheese.

"When it was done, I was tearing up," Vining says. "To spend months working toward one goal, to see an idea come to life over months, is spectacular. I remember being so excited when I was driving home, being so in the moment. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I don't take for granted. I'm getting ready for a solo show in March where I'm building 50 to 75 pieces, but it's not the same. It doesn't lessen these works."

Justin Vining spent months working on a commissioned mural in Chesterton, Indiana. -  - COURTESY OF JUSTIN VINING
  • Courtesy of Justin Vining
  • Justin Vining spent months working on a commissioned mural in Chesterton, Indiana.

In fact, Vining believes the spring solo show will mark a hugely important transition in his aesthetic as part of his ongoing evolution as a painter. This past year he has forsaken his unique style--a colorful, surrealistic take on bucolic Midwestern scenes--in favor of starkly black and white and more technically rigorous depictions of the houses, barns and landscapes that have long preoccupied his work.

But after months of experimentation and pushing his limits, he's lately started to interject his old signature style into his new, more formal aesthetic.

"Over the last few pieces, I've sort of returned to my old style where it has a different aesthetic but a similar voice to what I had been doing, which is what had been lacking over the last six to eight months," Vining explains. "These new pieces better blend from a style perspective. I'm not going to go back to my comfort zone."

There's been a learning curve of course.

"I had been making stuff up for so long it was a good exercise to render back in reality with realistic perspectives," he says. "When you're playing a little bit with surrealism and making everything up, it's a lot faster to draw a house. But when you're measuring stuff and using realistic proportions, it slows down big time. It just goes back to wanting to improve."

Vining knows he's had success as an artist because he has a different voice and aesthetic and he doesn’t want to lose that. But he said he can't be complacent.

"I don't want my work to look the same way in five years as it does now," he said. "I want to continually evolve. I want to keep moving forward. I want to keep getting into better galleries and show my work in other cities. I want to keep gaining traction."

After having been raised on a small third-generation family farm in Northern Indiana, Vining is known for his hard work and productivity. He's always been a prolific painter, but says you have to be if you want to be a full-time artist.

"If you come to the Harrison Center, you'll find us in our studios," he says. "We work all day. It's not a coincidence you find the most successful artists are the ones who live and work in their studios."


Watch this time-lapse video of Justin creating the Urschel Laboratories Mural.

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