The Art of Storytelling: Richard Negri's Alluring Portraits

The Art of Storytelling: Richard Negri's Alluring Portraits

Introducing Richard Negri, a storyteller at heart from New York City and now a California transplant living in Ojai. We get an intimate behind-the-scenes view into the life of a visual artist, writer, and musician who is currently exhibiting a series of expressionist portraits with S7CAG. These portraits are a testament to the creative force that channels through Negri; where storytelling and impressionistic style painting come to life.

Get to know the artist behind the portraits, the story of Richard Negri

Richard Negri was born and raised in New York City. After one year of traditional high school in Flushing, Queens, where he lived with his mother and two brothers, he was accepted into City-As-School in the West Village, an independent alternative high school which has the primary objective of offering students a multitude of learning experiences that encompass the depth and breadth of New York City’s businesses and resources. During his time at CAS, Negri interned at an Off-Broadway theater, worked at a music industry publication, assisted a grade school art teacher, and, finally, interned with a nonpartisan citizen lobby focusing on various social justice and Civil Rights issues. These experiences not only exposed him to the various arts, it is what he says solidified for him his passion for all of the arts, and most notoriously, music, writing, and visual art.



On his own, even before middle school and high school, Negri realized the power of imagination. Pomonok Houses, the projects he lived in, had a neighborhood newsletter called “The Buzzer” that ran a poetry contest, in which he entered a poem about a fictitious twin brother, and ended up winning the contest – it was his first ever publication credit. By age 14, music, too, began to permeate his life and Negri began playing the electric bass. He continues to bass play today as a semi-professional jazz musician in his transplanted Southern California.



As a young adult going through high school and living in New York City, Negri became fascinated by the graffiti that “seemed to be everywhere.” He began to explore and photograph it throughout the City. In a way, Negri explains, “New York City had become almost like an art gallery for me. I was blown away by street art, I still am.” It can be said that this initial contact with street art, and specifically the graffiti found within the city, planted yet another artistic seed that would later bloom and present itself in his current work through his expressive portraits. 

In expressing what the various forms of art meant to him during those early years, Negri recalls, “the poetry, the music, the art, all of that became very much a safe space for me because whatever was going on in the streets, no matter how hard or intense things may have been, the arts were always a very comfortable, if not a very safe, space, for me. He goes on to share, “and so instead of doing a lot of things that a lot of people were doing around me, I would go spend time with poetry, music, and art, which at the time was mostly graffiti and murals around the City." 

His educational career continued after high school, and he pursued a double major in English and Interdisciplinary Arts, initially through the CUNY Baccalaureate Degree Program at The City University of New York. He eventually completed his degree at Florida Atlantic University after relocating to Florida for work. He would then later complete certification programs at Cornell University.

In 2015, while attending a print show in Los Angeles, California, Negri met an artist who was creating woodblock cut prints, which both amazed and influenced him. This chance encounter inspired Negri to experiment with woodblock carving and printing.



While developing his own techniques in woodblock carving and printing, he began to research other artists who were using similar media. This led him to artwork by German expressionists and eventually to Fauvism, as well.



During the interview with S7CAG, Negri shares his initial reaction to German expressionism: “I was fascinated by the lines and the movement of these pieces, and it instilled in me enough interest to actually try to emulate it. [German expressionism] remains one of my biggest influences, not only [the] woodblock carvings but also the paintings."



As he began to experiment with woodcarving and creating prints, he also started to incorporate additional media such as watercolor, gouache, and acrylic paints into his paintings. 



Currently, Negri creates expressive portraiture, depicting imagined faces using either acrylic, ink, watercolor, or charcoal on canvas board or framed canvases. While creating a portrait, an imagined backstory of the subject develops. Just as the portrait evolves spontaneously, akin to improvisation in jazz, so does the narrative and the final figure. Negri further explains, “I think that in the portraits, each one has its own rhythm, its own sense of space and time. I'm looking to carry that out, just as a bass player would by laying out the bottom. That bottom, that foundation, for music or art, is simply the vehicle to let [the artistic expression] travel through me and onto a canvas or whatever medium I'm working with.”



By approaching each expressive portraiture in an improvisational way, Negri becomes the conduit for the artistic expression to travel through and onto the canvas. Negri then notes, “it is less about me and more about the art piece, the art piece becoming this living thing.” 

As a dedicated meditation practitioner, Negri has cultivated a way of living within the pause that occurs before thinking, speaking, and doing. Prolonging this pause and becoming comfortable with it through meditation has, in a sense, broadened his perspective on life, establishing a firm grasp on the present moment. This meditative practice has seamlessly integrated into his creative process, where Negri takes a moment to pause before beginning an art piece.



This pause, or stillness of the mind, is utilized throughout the art making process. As Negri notes, “I let [the mental stillness] stay with me as I'm creating. Again, it's less about me and more about the subject and being comfortable with that subject. I’m not looking to insert who I am and whatever my perception of who I am into these [portraits], I'm really just trying to create, be a vehicle.”



In the portrait creation process, Negri seeks out the emotion of the subject being portrayed, regardless of how abstract or realistic it may be. Intuitively creating, there are no preconceived plans or outlines; the artwork develops freely and without boundaries or borders. 



At his home in Ojai, California, Negri has turned a carport into a covered outdoor creative studio. Typically, with jazz or old rock music playing in the background and a fresh cup of coffee nearby, Negri begins his creative process: “I don't go into any painting session with a plan other than to create and be in the moment. That's where that pause comes from, that’s what fuels [the creative process]. I tend to use whatever materials I have available.”

While Negri attests that he is a conduit for the creative process, his influence in the art making  process is subtle. “For one reason or another I'm grabbing shades of blue or gray or whatever the colors may be. I just grab what is speaking to me at that moment. Once my materials are ready and in reach, I tend to make marks on the canvas.” During the interview, a pause comes into the conversation and then Negri begins again, “I don't want this to sound kooky, but it's almost like a free dance, or movement.” He describes the creative moment further, “I'm just marking up what I’m feeling – and then what I’m feeling from the subject. And from there, I generally build out, grab color, mix it on the canvas and avoid following rules. In fact, there are no real rules being followed in my creative process whatsoever.” 



Negri's goal is to share his artwork as widely as possible, allowing those who resonate with it to engage with it over an extended period. Exhibiting the artwork, whether in public spaces, online through S7CAG, or via his Instagram account, provides the opportunity for engagement with the artwork. In describing this Negri states, “I feel as though once I'm done with a piece, it is instantly meant for others; it's like working in service of others, and that just feels right for me.” 



As people have begun to collect Negri’s artwork, the response from this engagement has been broad and, frequently, as Negri describes it, “really funny stuff.” Some express feeling a presence emanating from the artwork, while others claim to have had conversations with the portraits they’ve collected, interacting with the art daily. Engagement through Negri's Instagram channel, where he marries the art with flash fiction he writes, has also been active, with some followers addressing the artwork directly as if it were a human being, and you can hear as he talks how rewarding this is for the artist: he absolutely loves it.



Negri works as a labor organizer, and explains that the portraits began, in part, due to the necessity of endless Zoom calls during the Covid-19 pandemic, when he interacted virtually with others face-to-face during the entirety of the lock-downs. However, it can also be said that the current artistic venture of portraits is the fruit of artistic seeds planted within his mind  as a young adult while growing up in New York City, where he witnessed graffiti depicting faces on walls. Whether on Zoom calls or witnessing New York City's street art, there seemed  to be a backstory associated with the faces that stood out to Negri. These backstories eventually became a part of the foundation for the subject matter of his current series of expressive portraits as well as the writing that coincides with the artwork. 



In his current body of expressionist portraits, we can observe a three-dimensional fusion of Negri's lifelong artistic practices: writing, visual art, and music. This amalgamation reflects his developed skill of improvisation acquired as a blues and jazz bass player intertwined with the inner workings found in meditation — being present or channeling, if you will, a creative force beyond himself. The depictions of the portraits, through the titles and the narrative-like expressions of the paintings, reflect the initial, yet still fundamentally entwined, interaction with writing as an expression of the imagination. 

When evaluating the writings that coincide with the portraits, Negri says, ”I believe I’ve always been a storyteller. I love stories — hearing them, sharing them, and, of course, reading them. I bring that up because I find a million stories lining every single face that I paint; the hard part is picking out the one story that will be shared with the painting.”  



Although the painting and the title or write-up that coincides with the title are intertwined, the creation of the actual piece and the written words are actually two different creative processes merging together for the artist. The painting is initially created, and a day or two later, the backstory emerges, and from the story a title is extracted. It may be a rare occurrence where the painting and writing happen at the same time or in one sitting. The title or narrative is a creative aspect that Negri enjoys controlling and why, at times, an enormous amount of humor and irony is introduced.  

The face itself may convey one feeling, but the accompanying title and narrative may direct one’s response to the portraiture in a whole new direction. Negri explains, “if you're looking at [a portrait] and you think, ‘that's sad,’ but then you read the title or you read the story and you're like, ‘hmm, this isn't sad at all,’ and I like to play with these conflicts of what you initially see [versus] what you're actually seeing. And that's where I find that the most engagement is coming from.”



Negri further elaborates, “you know, it could be a painting of somebody who looks miserable and terrible and then it's a story about [their inability to] get enough chocolate because they really are craving chocolate. And so, this is what I'm talking about. You know, they don't have to be sad because it's the end of the world or because someone died. It can be because they simply didn't get enough chocolate.” 

Within the irony between the painted portrait and written word, there is an element of playfulness, psychology, and at times, philosophical exploration, while still maintaining a sense of seriousness and respect for the individual depicted in the artwork. Negri’s playful approach to life is evident throughout his artistic endeavors, particularly in the expressive portraits, where the visual and written exploration of an art piece can portray intense emotions brought forth through an almost comical situation. Through art, Negri’s intention is to share some levity while we journey through life, and his artwork serves as a vehicle to engage with others and in the creative process as a means for being in the moment as a conduit of the creative force. As he puts it, “I'm just trying to bring some light to our shared experience of being alive.” 



The portraits themselves become encapsulated windows into the multitude of human  experiences that stem from countless conditions within life, expressions of life that people deal  with every day in their own way. “Whether [the character]  seems jumpy and sugared up or they’re remorseful because, you know, they missed their bus or whatever the case may be, how do you have fun with that? How do you have fun with everyday life?” Through the artwork, Negri shares insight into his deep understanding of the present  moment and being a part of it. He states, “And so I think that that's what I'm trying to accomplish more than anything else: to have a little fun with the way life is and as it is. To be aware of it – all of it – and to accept it and enjoy it.”



Owning an art piece by Richard Negri is owning a piece of the gigantic love this artist has in him.