Colorado native Tony Achilles and his awesome fascination with human skin
You can find art all over town -- not just on gallery walls. In this series, we'll be looking at some of the local artists who serve up their work in coffeehouses and other non-gallery businesses around town.
After spending much of his early career doing commercial art, Tony Achilles realized he was ready to dive into studio art headfirst. Right now, he's focusing his efforts primarily on the human form -- and despite his awesome fascination with a certain medium, his work is much more than skin-deep.
Mural at Swing Thai.
Boulder-born, Denver-bred Achilles has been doing studio art for "at least fifteen years, to one degree or another," he says. But to pay the bills, he's spent the bulk of his career making murals (like the one above), doing signage and creating all sorts of "commercial decorative things." And he's very modest when describing his work, because his commercial pieces are all over this town -- at Jonesy's EatBar, Inside Scoop Creamery, Tea Bar... you get the idea. Even when creating corporate art, though, Achilles has always tried to make the pieces as artistic as possible -- and when he found the work uninspiring, he took a break.
"Whenever I would start feeling unfulfilled in the decorative arts, I'd go to studio art and would get a job waiting tables to cover living costs," he explains, and then he'd return to the security of commercial gigs. He's always "had eyes for elsewhere," he says. "I've often thought I wanted to be in a more metropolitan city, but I've always had something keeping me here."
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In the '90s, that something was Achilles's acoustic rock band, Sweet Water Well, an Americana endeavor that was well-received at the time and "so much fun," he recalls. As the band waned, Achilles moved to New Orleans for a handful of months, then returned to do a gig with Sweet Water Well and, he says, "got absorbed back into life in Denver."
Adds Achilles, "I've always wanted to get away, but I ended up staying and now, at this point, I'm just really glad to be here because Denver's such a great place."
Soon after his return to Colorado, Achilles made the decision to return to art, too. "One of the big reasons I left that media of music was that my heart was longing for art, and I couldn't seem to do both at the same time because art takes so much of my creative energy," he explains.
In the early 2000s, back when studio art was still a side endeavor relegated to spare moments stolen from nights and weekends, Achilles focused on a "tethered" theme. He relied heavily on nature symbolism -- birds, fish, etc. (shown above) -- which isn't hard to come by in Colorado. "But," says Achilles, "I stopped working with this once I moved away from commercial and into studio." He speculates that his first major theme symbolized a desire to "let go of something and stop working for other people."
When the artist resolved to give his studio work the attention it deserved, he "went back to people and relationships," which is what he's working with now. "Beauty inspires me," says Achilles. "Beauty in everything, even dark and scary places." Except in apathy, he clarifies. There's nothing inspiring about apathy.
Achilles's style, best characterized as post-impressionist, is also inspired by "early masters using ancient techniques" -- Caravaggio and da Vinci, mainly. He's also been enamored with the work of graphic artists such as Walt Clinton and impressionists including John Sargent, who, like Achilles, was known for his oil portraits.
Locally, Achilles says, he admires artists he's met through the Art Student's League of Denver: Ron Hicks, Mark Daily, Margaretta Gilboy and Michelle Torrez, to name a few.
Originally a draftsman, Achilles has worked in graphite, pastel and acrylic. But since discovering oil paint in the mid-'90s, he's ditched those other mediiums. "The great thing about oil," he says, "is the workability. It stays wet so long while acrylic, especially in this climate, dries so quickly that it's almost dry on the palette." Achilles also appreciates how wet and dry oil are nearly identical. "I don't think acrylic artists realize the degree to which colors change when they dry," he says.
Also, oil just feels really damn good, offering a great tactile experience for those who manipulate it. "The way it moves around," Achilles notes, "it's soothing." What's more, the technique allows the artist to fully communicate his passion to viewers.
Faces, which Achilles terms an "academic challenge," are the artist's latest obsession. "Faces are just so expressive," he says, calling the human face "a great amplifier and projector of those things we are trying to say without words."
But Achilles is also interested in the whole body -- "a conduit by which the spirit experiences the human world," he says. Achilles appreciates "the way human skin reflects light," calling skin "the most incredible surface. It's all about communication" -- and communication is one of the main reasons he loves hanging in coffeehouses and restaurants.
Achilles thinks non-traditional venues are "a little more accessible," he explains. "This is one of the reasons I love hanging in nontraditional public spaces -- because it is social and your work reaches lots of people."
Also, he usually sells a couple of piecs -- which, of course, is another tangible measure of success. But for Achilles, it's more about people and hearing some buzz.
From the Andrew Clark Photography opening.
Right now, you can catch Achilles's work at twelve. He's also working on a mosaic for Lucky Pie Pizza & Taphouse in Louisville (he'll be putting mosaic over the face of its brick, wood-fire pizza oven). In the past, Achilles has hung at Laughing Latte and Rooster & Moon Coffee Pub. And, a couple of weeks back, he was part of a private opening at Andrew Clark Photography. The artist says he dug the positive feedback he got on some of his newer work.
When Achilles isn't making art, he's teaching it. Most third Thursdays (but not every third Thursday), Achilles does a pop-up thing at Black Eye Coffee Shop. It's sort of like Canvas and Cocktails, but mobile and, well, a little sporadic (hence: pop-up). Achilles brings everything budding artists need in order to make a painting, and sometimes he even brings wine. "We all take three hours out of life to make art in a social setting," he says. If you're game, simply drop in (after checking Achilles's website, to make sure it's popping off the week you'd like to attend). The class is $40 per person. Achilles also does private parties and occasionally pops up at other coffee shops and bars. Check his website for details.
Taken at Andrew Clark Photography opening.
Achilles doesn't have gallery representation, but he says he is in the process of putting together a solid body of work and has begun considering this more traditional route. If you are interested in commissioning him or just want to learn more, you can contact Achilles through his website and see more of his work on Facebook.
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