Ryan Travis Christian
JUXTAPOZ|Spring 2021
Naughty by Nature
Joey Garfield
Just beyond the skyscrapers of the greater Chicagoland area is an archipelago of residential communities known as the suburbs, a sprawl of townships that offer a sweet spot between urban and rural culture. While some may dismiss these enclaves as bland, those quick to judge just don’t appreciate the nuance. A suburban lifer by choice, Ryan Travis Christian spends his days drawing and viewing the world from the comfort of his hometown of Warrenville, Illinois. At first glance, there is a cozy, pleasant familiarity enveloping his work that recalls old-timey comics and cartoons. But don’t take Ryan’s rubber hose content strictly at face value. Study his drawings long enough, peel back the initial layer of his scenarios, and behold their provocative core. Since we’ve both been sequestered in the Midwest during this pandemic, I had the geographical advantage of being able to venture out, meet Ryan on his home turf and witness his eye-bulging imagery first hand.

Joey Garfield: So, has Illinois always been your home state?

Ryan Travis Christian: Yeah. All my formative years from seven or eight years old till now have been spent in the suburbs.

Were you an artsy kid or into sports?

In middle school, my half-brother introduced me to a handful of different things, from hip hop to hippy shit, so I started to get into those counter cultures pretty fast. I took up skateboarding shortly after and got into everything that surrounds that too, like what I considered underground “not pop” music. I got big into raves later in high school, which was kind of the end days of the Chicago scene.

Wait, so your half brother was older?

Yeah. All my half siblings were considerably older than me. I grew up as a single child but they exposed me to things on our annual trip to California where my father was from. We’d go see them, and to me, it all seemed really cutting edge.

You mentioned Guru earlier. The first time I heard Gang Starr was from my brother. The song “Above The Clouds” blew my mind. I’d come back home, like, “listen to this”.

Okay, you’d go visit, get a dose and return?

I’d share with the two dudes I hung out with closely. I didn’t come back presenting new styles and ideas to the masses. It was just for me and a few buddies. The first time I smoked weed was out there, and it was really great weed. The first time I smoked weed here, it was like a black Frosted Flake on a stick out of a pop can.

Ha, sometimes the Midwest is slow to catch up. It’s contradictory because Chicago has always had this amazing culture and contemporary art scene. Yet, for some reason, there is this idea that you need to go somewhere else for that.

I’ve always rejected that notion. Clearly, with me being here now, right? When I graduated, I watched a lot of people go to the Art Institute Of Chicago and instantly go to New York or whatever and just suffer. I mean they'd have fun and party but they were suffering.

Where did you go to school??

I went to Northern Illinois in De Kalb, Home of the Huskies, Cindy Crawford and where they invented barbed wire. Like, nine out of ten students would go to New York or LA, and all of them were broke as shit. I was too, but I could be less broke as shit here. I’ve stayed in my comfort zone, that’s for sure. I always say to people, “Why be some nobody in New York when I can be the fuckin’ King of Warrenville?”

So, what makes you feel especially comfortable here?

Well, I’ve been here my whole life. It’s cheap, and slow, and safe and it’s not so rural that I’m surrounded by extremely antiquated ideas. The ’burbs are super mixed now with massive Middle Eastern, Hispanic and Black populations. We don’t have to just eat hamburgers and hot dogs. It's ideal for me. Nowadays, with Instagram and an occasional flight here and there, you can sustain a creative career anyplace.

Whether you met your half brothers or not, would you have been into art?

Regardless of them, I’ve always drawn and think my parents would agree that I took it, at the very least, slightly more seriously than most other kids. I always gravitated towards artistic things. Drawing for a kid is the most accessible. It’s paper and crayon, so way easier to draw than make a film.

Back then, yeah, for sure. Were you an art student at Northern Illinois?

Admittedly, after high school, I had no idea what I wanted to be at eighteen. My parents encouraged me to pursue something artistic. I got it into my head that I should do graphic design because it seemed more of a financially stable future or path than trying to become a rockstar. I enrolled in graphic design and quickly realized I did not like it. I’m not great with computers and was super frustrated with software. Spending a year just studying typography and fonts alone was so fucking boring. All the fine art kids were sexier and seemed to be having more fun. After two years in design, a review came around, and they were like, “Why don’t you just go to fine arts?” They could see me gazing over there, and half the assignments I’d turn in were hand drawn. So I switched my degree over to focus on painting. Four years later, even being a painting student, I maybe made like three paintings. I did make loads of intimate, small scale works on paper because it was cheap and easy. I’d sign up for painting class and spend, like, $300 on all these paints and waste all this material to make one stinking painting. I couldn’t afford to be failing that much. I came from a blue collar family and that factored into where I went to school, so I just went close to home because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was aware I could not go to college and still pursue what I wanted to pursue, so I settled on an affordable middle ground. My whole early twenties, my philosophy was “Keep It Affordable” in my artwork and living.

At this point, you are drawing more than painting but still not knowing what you want to do?

I started going to gallery shows in Chicago in the West Loop or Western Exhibitions, which is my current gallery. One group show at Bucket Rider Gallery had these little Eddie Martinez paintings, and Cody Hudson had some text pieces there that said “Fuck Christopher Columbus” which was very appealing to me. There was a Maya Hayuk painting of people packed into hot tubs having a casual, sexy adult evening. It got me excited and got the ball rolling in my head that I wanted to contribute to that world. Going to see those shows toward the end of college got me super into making studio art.

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