December 31, 2013 10:58:45 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Don't make the mistake of trying to pigeonhole Alex Warble's art. He'll surprise you. Just when you think he's best known for his "people party" paintings of repeating "Elvi," pimps or quirky everyday characters, one discovers his surrealistic pet portraits. Or maybe you peg him as the creator of edgy, out-there drawings, only to learn he also illustrates children's books, paints religious-themed murals and portraits of folks like Davy Crockett, Hank Williams Sr. and Minnie Pearl for huge commercial projects, too. But wherever the Columbus-based artist's creativity takes him, he goes there with imagination and an intense work ethic.
Alex Harrison -- who paints under the name Alex Warble -- learned about hard work on his granddad's farm growing up in Fulton. He relates his diligence to those days helping out with cows, pigs and other chores. "I feel like a lot of painting is like that work, like digging ditches ... you just have to keep at it; there are no shortcuts," he said.
The 33-year-old also remembers being impressed with the fine lettering his grandfather, an engineer, rendered at the drafting table. He was influenced, too, by his artistic parents and was always drawing as a child. So perhaps it was inevitable that somewhere around the age of 16, Warble was "bitten by some kind of art bug" and decided to get serious.
Warble moved to Memphis, Tenn., to study at the Memphis College of Art. He graduated in 2006 with concentrations in illustration and painting. Active in the Memphis art community and that city's UrbanArt Commission, his work is in collections at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, the Brooks Museum of Art and at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and Le Bonheur Children's Hospital. He's painted murals in private homes and churches, in schools like the Southern Avenue Charter Schools, and businesses including the Hi-Tone Cafe and Shangri-La Records.
Warble has been in exhibitions at The Orpheum Theatre and was featured in the 2009 Memphis Flyer's "Best of Memphis Showcase." His colorful work is found in books including "Tales of Woe," by John Reed (MTV Press) and "Graphic USA: An Alternative Guide to 25 U.S. Cities" (Cicada Books). Some may remember him from the IFC network's show "Young, Broke and Beautiful."
Award-winning Irish novelist Joseph O'Connor, who bought a Warble painting at Memphis' Otherlands Coffee Bar, described his paintings as "childlike and grown-up at the same time, sophisticated and simple."
Julie Pierotti organized the "10 Under 30" exhibit at Memphis' Dixon Gallery and Gardens in 2010 that featured Warble as one of the city's emerging artists. "It's imaginative, colorful, smart and ... a combination of high-brow and low-brow," she has been quoted as saying.
For Warble, art is akin breathing, a constant process. He draws inspiration from everything around him -- a flower, a movie, interactions and, since September, his new baby daughter, Ella.
Creating a canvas or drawing is a revelatory process, almost like watching a television program unfold.
"It always does something that I don't expect," he said. "You're always going to get something new and surprising out of it ... it gets powerful."
He's often drawn to patterning, to the symmetrical. That is evident in his popular "people party" paintings, with repeating characters. He recalls art instructor Hamlett Dobbins' words: Art is like a rodeo. If you can get somebody to look at your piece for more than eight seconds, then you've got them.
"There's a way I think you can do that by sheer content alone," said Warble, "but arrange it in a way that it's like a puzzle, so the visual effect actually moves you to stare at it for a while."
It may come as no surprise to learn Warble is a musician as well, as singularly creative in songwriting as he is visually on canvas. He adopted his art signature from the name of his previous band, The Warble, which shared the stage with groups like Wilco and Dr. Dog.
A new home
Warble is still active in the Memphis art world, but is eager to expand artistically in his new home, Columbus.
"I'm still a Memphian, but this is where I would really like to put my energy; there's this vibe here," said the painter, who is fascinated by plants, trees and scenic backdrops indigenous to the area. The copious notes and drawings he makes of them will be incorporated into portraits and murals he hopes to do more of here.
The signature style he has developed, whimsically rich and often dreamlike, continues to build a following -- and plenty of people are looking for longer than eight seconds these days.
Warble, with modesty, said, "The paintings seem to bring joy to people, like they're happy," And that must be the best inspiration of all.
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Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.