During a visit to the Wilmington Public Library Ken Mabrey discovered N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations for “Robinson Crusoe,” that ‘wow’ moment changed his life.
“I picked up drawing as a kid,” artist Ken Mabrey said. His mother was an architect, so drawings and pencils were always available.
While in kindergarten, Mabrey visited the Wilmington Public Library, “I went looking for ‘Harold and the Purple Crayon’.” He made his way down to the children’s library, and that is where he saw the work of N.C. Wyeth for the first time. “I saw these paintings of Robinson Crusoe, they just absolutely opened a whole new world for me.”
Those paintings perhaps changed the course of his life. “It was like wow, it was one of those wow things.”
Art was the one thing Mabrey found he could do as early as first and second grade that made people ask him for things. “I’m the kid that everybody went to ‘Can you draw me a tank?’ I could draw them a Sherman M4 tank really good.”
He eventually put down the pencils and picked up paints. “I traded up from crayons to pencils to watercolors to oil paint.”
In high school Mabrey was in art class with Mr. Shaw at Mt. Pleasant High School. “Mr. Shaw really let me go and just run with it.” At his 9th grade graduation Mr. Shaw gave him a set paints. “I’ve been painting ever since.”
His paintings are more than just an artistic or creative outlet. “Its just been part of my life. It was my means of communicating, it was my literature.”
The paintings themselves are a cavalcade of images and color, its nearly impossible to take them in in just one viewing. There are many images, words, emotions and thoughts living in each painting.
At its core his work takes the events of the everyday, like waiting to pay in line at the grocery store and infuses that event with a story, a fantasy, or a statement on life or politics. “It’s life in motion, it’s my way of getting things to come to life,” Mabrey said.
“Sometimes I latch on to a storyline like Shakespeare and then play it through. Taking everyday events and evolving them.”
He likens his work to pictures you may have seen in those ‘Highlights for Children’ magazines we looked at as kids, those find the image in the picture pictures. “There’s always more to see, it will reveal itself over time and you can keep coming back and see something new to the work,” Mabrey said.
Sometimes he’ll sneak in a word or phrase, as a way of getting the viewer to go deeper into the work. “Hopefully there is something worth seeing.”
The famous artist John Sloan was known for his depictions of life in New York. Mabrey grew up in Wilmington but would travel to see Sloan’s work in museums. Sloan is one of his heroes. “The elevated trains at night and the people walking in the bowery, he was able to build compositions out of figures and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
The human figure is the compositional element that Mabrey builds around in his paintings. “I see where it goes from there,” he said.
He likes to get multiple takes on things within each painting. I obscure to reveal and hopefully the people become the counterpoint or the touchstone which ties it together.”
He describes the human form as, “just this great five appendage thing.” Getting that “thing” to move or dance within the painting is Mabrey’s mission. “I’m trying to get the colors in my paintings to dance. Get the viewers eyes to dance to the paintings and see something new.”
As with many artists his favorite part is that empty canvas, the possibilities yet to be uncovered. “It’s the finding of the image, it’s the first scribbling, finding the figure, finding a composition and finding a locale and just building out from it.”
Mabrey continues to come into his studio everyday to paint, “Because it’s something I can do, it’s my way of creating and sometimes touching other people and communicating with them.”
He the viewer will “get some sort of joy it, of viewing the work.”
“If I can get people to look and see something different and give them something to come back to, maybe make them smile.”
Ken spends his days painting in his studio inside the Delaware Contemporary, located at the Wilmington, Delaware riverfront. You can see his work there or during monthly studio tours. Visit them on the web for more information.