Welcome to the Dark Side
Travis Wade is in touch with his dark side. His paintings portray houses on fire, Nazis, planes dropping bombs and other unsettling subjects. After selling his art on the street for a few years, Travis recently had his first gallery show at the Launch Pad Gallery. While his works were inspired by French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, “I didn’t know what it was about till show time,” Travis said. “I was still trying to find a common thread. One of my friends said the paintings looked like they were the end of everything.” That about sums it up.
In and Out of the Underbelly
Southeast 88th and Duke wasn’t exactly the center of Portland culture when Travis was growing up there. “I was on the outside of things, in a dirty, weird underbelly of Portland,” he said. “We had no money.” Travis showed an affinity for creativity at a young age. “I liked to add to coloring books,” he said. “They weren’t complex enough.” He enhanced pictures of women by giving them pearls, fishnets and big eyelashes. While he always enjoyed art, describing himself as “the art class darling” that teachers loved, he didn’t take it seriously.
In his late teen years he broadened his horizons, exploring other parts of the city and noticing art and culture. He even thought about living elsewhere. “But I’m totally a Pacific Northwest guy,” Travis said. “I’m into the environment, trees, cool temperatures, cold winter, brief bits of summer, a little snow, and lots and lots and lots of rain.”
Travis eventually became more serious about painting. He was experimenting with a flat, Pop Art style when he met painter Shannon Lewis. Shannon encouraged him, bringing him along to the First Thursday Street Gallery.
Then Travis took classes at PCC with painter Ben Rosenberg, and his style changed. “Ben introduced me to black and whites, then introduced the old masters’ palettes into the black and whites,” Travis said. He moved away from bold, vivid colors and embraced those that were more “rotting and earthy.” His current work is mostly black and white with judicious touches of color.
Rosenberg also understood Travis’ need to paint subject matter many people find unpalatable. “Ben kind of pushed me into uncomfortable territory,” Travis recalled. “He said if you want to, just go ahead and paint a portrait of Adolf Hitler. Here was this little Jewish man pushing me to embrace this World War Two imagery!”
Travis is drawn to the visual intensity of Nazi Germany, the Warsaw Ghetto and Russia during World War Two. “History has punch to it,” he said. He relishes the extremes of the human condition: broken down, busted, struggling in the face of adversity. While fascinated by the group dynamics of dictatorships, Travis is also particular about fashion. This explains why he paints Stalin and Hitler, but not Pol Pot in his ratty black pajamas.
Portland Art Scene
In addition to the First Thursday Street Gallery, Travis has also shown at Alberta Street’s Last Thursday. “Portland’s art scene is growing,” he said. “There are more opportunities for people who want to take alternative routes, rather than sign up with a gallery.” The UAN First Thursday Street Gallery has been a fruitful place for Travis, who has met both locals and bar owners from different states who wanted to show his work. “Seeing people down there has helped me find an audience for my work, which is not always so easy,” he said.
His controversial subject matter both attracts and repels people, and starts many conversations. Once at Last Thursday his painting of a dead prostitute attracted a crowd. “Two cops were staring at it for too long, one said it was disgusting and gross,” Travis remembered. “Then a woman came by and said it wasn’t right, more to the cops than to me. Then a young hippie chipped in defending my first amendment rights. It was crazy.” While some people object to Travis’ subjects, he gets even more negative comments because his paintings are predominantly black. “It’s not always the subject matter,” he said, “but it still has a strong feel.”
Current and Future Work
The winter in Portland is a good time to hole up and try out new art techniques. Travis usually paints in acrylic, but is beginning to experiment more with oils. He’s also making collages. “I’m mutilating beautiful people,” he said of his collage approach. “Making them look like burn victims, bandaging them.” He’s also become interested in vintage clowns, and the connections between clowns and dictators. “I may combine the two into fascist clowns,” he said. “And I’m doing some non-figurative work, predominantly white foggy landscapes where no presence of people can be found.” So by the time the First Thursday Street Gallery opens again, Travis plans to have a body of this work ready for public consumption. In the meantime, you can visit his Etsy store. “I may be too dark for the world of Etsy,” Travis mused. You can also read his blog, where you’ll find pictures of his recent paintings and suggestions for inspiring music to paint by.
While Travis “thinks about death all the time, about confronting death in a godless world,” he doesn’t consider himself an especially negative person. “I don't think a lot of people let themselves fully feel or see the type of subject matter I’m drawn to,” he said. “For me, painting can be an outlet for that kind of negativity.”
—by Teresa Bergen