I meet Randy Akers in his newly remodeled, spacious and tidy studio in his home on Skidaway Island. While he has enjoyed a prestigious career directing and designing international TV commercials, film titles, music videos and print for Fortune 500 companies, he shares, “I always wanted to be a painter. Still.”
Akers took fine art classes while earning his BFA at Chouinard/Cal Arts, but eventually majored in film because “it cost a lot of money and I was on a full scholarship living on a tight budget, and I needed to earn a living.”
After a three-decade film career, Akers came to SCAD in 1997 to teach in the Computer Arts department (later renamed Digital Media). And this was an opportunity to return to his first love. The college required him to have a master’s degree; he chose painting, obtaining his Master of Fine Arts in 2000.
But again, painting was relegated to the background because “I’m not an amateur. I needed to be immersed in it. »
Luckily for the art world, Aker’s immersion came in 2004, by which time he had been granted a sabbatical, vacationed in Mexico, and created a series of small paintings titled “The Dogs of Todos Santos”.
They sold out quickly and the proceeds were donated to an animal rescue sanctuary in Mexico. The dog series brought him the attention of art galleries, but two more years of teaching followed in upstate New York while his wife worked on her doctorate.
Back in Savannah, Akers finally made the decision to pursue painting full time.
He was happy to create, buy supplies and enter contests, when his supporting wife, a lecturer at Georgia Southern University, said, “You just lost ten thousand dollars. It’s good but it’s time to think about bailing out the coffers… As soon as she put that on my shoulders, I started to manage it like a business. Spending part of my week – 12-20 hours – trying to find new contests, new galleries, new possibilities. Make a career out of it. I used to rock the film industry. If you want to play, you have to figure it out.
The excitement paid off. Akers was accepted into Jane’s Art Center in New Smyrna Beach, FL; L/Ross Gallery in Memphis; the J Costello Gallery on Hilton Head Island; and the Reinike Gallery in Atlanta.
In addition, he has benefited from three prestigious residences. The first was with the Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts of Wyoming in 2015, after which he was invited back two years later to serve as a juror.
“It brought me to the OBRAS Foundation in Portugal. The beauty of a residency is being able to spend three or four weeks with people from all over Europe and talk about all kinds of things with other artists, musicians and writers. Our process for creating a body of work is the same.
Then in 2019 he was accepted for residency in a pre-famine stone house at the Cill Rialaig Arts Center in County Kerry, Ireland.
The pandemic has delayed this last opportunity.
Akers recalls: “The minute Ireland opened up, I had my flights booked! That night, I couldn’t sleep, so I scoured the Internet for past residents. I discovered Kari Cahill in Sligo who makes natural pigments and saw that she was giving a workshop just before my residency.
He changed flights, registered, and rented a small cottage in Ballinskelligs which he used as a laboratory to make the pigments he learned in Cahill’s workshop. “I don’t do it as much anymore. It works on paper, but not so well on canvas. However, he shows me a canvas where the background color is derived from turmeric, and he used blueberries, oak charcoal, peat and yellow oxide before adding acrylic.
In Ireland, as in other places, Akers was drawn to forgotten places, lonely places and derelict abandoned houses.
We are looking at a painting of an Irish cottage, derived from a combination of four or five views. Almost scientific in his approach, Akers constantly makes small studies and sketches as the work begins to emerge. There may be several paintings under the finished work – each painting becoming less and less realistic.
“I don’t want them to be difficult.” He shows me two paintings taken from the original rendering of the cottage: Each iteration has become more abstract. Ultimately, he wants to be as loose as possible, not to be representative.
“But more representative is what sells.”
There is a very textural quality to Akers’ work, surprising for an acrylic painter. He explains that he uses ceramic tile adhesive for his floor, bitumen – a water-based asphalt – and grout. Then he carves and gouges the surface with chisels and pneumatic sanders and grinders and draws lines with a Dremel.
Surprisingly, he doesn’t start with a concept of what he’s going to paint on top. He begins with compositional sketches, “which for me are the bible”, then, “halfway through the painting, inevitably, there is a struggle. And, ideally, this is where the painting takes over. And when painting takes over, the work is simplified and there it is magic.
For Akers, houses are a metaphor for shelter, social conflict, economic oppression or racism.
“It’s the narrative and the story that stuns me. Savannah is FULL of it. The best things I’ve done have been buildings in Savannah. I took a three-week trip through the Mississippi Delta last year and took 1,500 photos, but Savannah has more to offer. I love driving through Cuyler-Brownsville and seeing the houses on Anderson Street. The Historic Savannah Foundation may save houses because of their architectural integrity, but MY perfect house is like a monopoly house – the most basic simplistic elements.
Akers tells me, “My family comes from extreme poverty in Illinois. Great-grandfather’s farm was destroyed by the 1925 Tri-State Tornado. My father left home at 13 and jumped on trains. His father, he continues, “could do anything. He could build things. I inherited this ability to understand, the ability to be disjointed and independent. It’s the quality I see in these hand-built homes that appeal to me so much. It’s the story that grabs me. Why is it abandoned? Why is it here? Who lived here? What is the story and stories?
As an example, he shows me a painting of a turpentine farm in Adabelle, about 20 miles north of Statesboro.
“It was macabre and unpleasant work. It was impossible to get labor after the end of slavery, so in 1870 they migrated a tribe of Croatian Indians from their homes in the Robeson County, North Carolina They lived in communal houses, and this is the only one left standing.
For the galleries that represent Akers, it was the houses that took off. “I think people see the emotion and the nostalgia. They don’t like to talk about the social aspect, which is what excites me.
The words of his artist statement ring true: “I drive down the road and see a place or a name that triggers an immediate response. These pitches are always in bad shape: messy, dirty, rusty and in disrepair. These sites have either been a source of conflict, social unrest, economic desperation or oppression… I always have to look at the underside of these places and convey that in my work.
Next up for the ever-hurried Akers is a solo exhibition at his Memphis gallery, a long-awaited vacation to Sicily with his wife Tricia, and a multidisciplinary residency for contemporary international artists and writers at JOYA in southern Spain.
And, of course, his next painting… He recently parked near the old Sherwin-William store on MLK and got a view of the Georgia Railroad Museum he had never seen before. It springs from the perfect view of the perfect fence, the perfect yellow stripe on the road, and the perfect lines of the buildings with the giant phallic chimney sticking out of them. Stay tuned.
Randy Akers (American, b.1946) is represented by Jane’s Art Center, New Smyrna Beach; L/Ross Gallery, Memphis; J Costello Gallery, Hilton Head; and the Reinike Gallery, Atlanta. See his work on randyakers.com and on Instagram @akerswork.