From the end of 2017 into the beginning of 2018, 35-year-old Nathan Verwey—who recently graduated from UNCW in studio art—was put to a life challenge that spurred the creation of some of his most prolific work to date. The local artist, well-known for his geometric and colorful faces, traveled to Wisconsin for the holidays to spend time with his ailing father who had been put on a liver-transplant list. Before arrival, his stepmom informed Verwey of the gravity of what he would be seeing.
“My dad is so stoic,” Verwey tells. “He kept saying, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to beat me!’ But two days before I left, my stepmom said his eyes and skin were yellow—he had jaundice. He had been moved to the top of the donor list because he was dying, and he was super weak. Dad has a genetic disorder that causes cirrhosis of the liver.”
On Christmas Day Verwey’s father received the phone call: Doctors had a liver and would perform surgery on him on December 26. With the Verweys in tow, they picked up and drove to a Minnesota hospital, wherein extended family stayed for two days; however Verwey and his stepmom took turns caring for his father in the hospital thereafter.
“My life on the outside had fallen apart,” Verwey admits. “I lost my job. My relationship was on the rocks—so I didn’t really have anything tying me to Wilmington immediately. It was kind of the perfect time; though, there is no perfect time for something like this.”
Verwey’s father underwent numerous surgeries. The most dire came when part of his father’s liver was dying and the blood count was low. Doctors called in the family and asked they express anything they thought they needed to say; they worried Verwey’s father would bleed out. Verwey headed to the chapel in the hospital immediately. Though it was closed, he sat outside on the steps.
“I am not a very religious person; I am spiritual, though,” he says. “That night I sat, meditated and wrote a letter to my dad for the future. I tried to manifest all the positivity I could and not let anything else in—used any small amount of power I have over this place to the advantage of the situation.”
Verwey also had packed a palette of watercolors and drawing pad, small enough to fit in his luggage. From there on, he focused all emotions and inner dialogue onto paper. What transpired was more than two dozen new pieces, all done in a medium he had only dabbled with in college.
“I began learning watercolors through those two months of caring for Dad,” Verwey tells, whose father has recovered. “In my other works, I’m very meticulous and end up going over it with a lot of detail and layers. I wanted to work on being loose and allowing the watercolors to dictate where we were going. This was a relationship we were building together, so I let it lead the way.”
The only respite Verwey took from caretaking and painting came with a visit or two to the movies or to meditate in the chapel daily. He also would go to the library to study classical art, as well as Native American and African tribes, including their intricate ceremonial masks. The faces he was privy to painting in acrylics made a resurgence in his watercolors. At first they appeared half-complete—a blue splotch running down the right side of a face, masking an eye and cheekbone, while the left side appeared somewhat formed. “There was a vacancy in my life at the time,” Verwey explains, “and these faces were just forming in my brain.” Slowly, as his hand with the medium became more assured—and his father began healing—the work moved into completed faces: purple lackadaisical eyes or red pursed lips, with light greens, blues and yellows dripping from the forehead to the chin.
“I was learning and discovering and falling in love with watercolor,” Verwey tells. “Vacant faces came first but then went back into my style of fully formed faces. It could be representative of a healing process, I don’t know. A lot of times I just work because my brain runs and runs and runs. Art shuts it down. . . . To keep my mind stable, art always has been what helps me escape time and keeps me in the teardrop of now.”
Verwey’s faces look pensive and introspective. Their gazes, even those that are incomplete, seem somehow completely aware. “The slightest change of an eyebrow or shift of the mouth tells a story,” he says, “and makes the viewer wonder: What’s behind that façade or mask—what’s going on inside of them to make them do that? Where have they come from and where are they now? What’s the path that has led them here to this?”
Verwey’s work is marked by the moniker “The Revolution Awaits,” something he picked up around seven or eight years ago. He was disheartened by the political climate of the second Obama administration and the failings of government looking after its people. “Looking back, I naively pinned it on a top-tier king person,” he admits, “like many folks pin the world’s woes on, so my frustration bred the poem of breaking shackles we’ve lived in for so long, to get away from what’s broken and a system that keeps perpetuating it.”
As he has aged and changed his own world views, Verwey also dropped negative phrases of the poem. He kept others like “seek dreams, unleash the racing heart, awaken curiosity” as a surge of positivity, which helped him reframe its meaning. He also dropped the word “machine,” which originally appeared as “The Revolution Machine Awaits.”
“I didn’t know at the time why I removed ‘machine,’ but looking back at it, The Revolution Awaits isn’t about some grandiose movement or plot to overthrow government or a system with a puppet master,” he notes. “For me it’s about the self and looking in the mirror—a revolution that starts with one and echoes outward in your perception, and the world reflects back in.”
Such an idea feeds his faces. Verwey says they’re indicative of how we interact with society, whether family, friends, work colleagues, strangers—we all act differently. In some form, he says we wear masks, we seek truth, and we await our own revolution for betterment.
“I question who I am and what I want to be,” Verwey explains of a recent self-portrait inspired by Native American culture. “Am I putting on a mask, too? Feelings and thoughts I have: Are they mine or have they been programmed into me? Have I adopted them as myself? You have to churn up pieces of yourself and find out who you want to be.”
Verwey’s self-portrait didn’t start out as one at the onset. He painted long arms, blueish as if dying—“like my dad’s arms that were withering,” he explains. The shirt on the figure is inside out and shows the outline of a rib cage. “I thought it was representative of me, as I put my heart on my sleeve,” he tells. “The eyes drooped like mine.” The mask on the figure is large, with a crocodile-like mouth and bright colors inspired from tribal wear. “We put on a lot of faces to be able to exist and dance through society, and not be noticed as an outlier,” Verwey says. “The end goal is to try to find truth.”
Besides original faces, Verwey also was compelled by iconic ones, like Paul Newman, Lauren Bacall and David Bowie. They represent something bold and inspiring. “We praise these people because they step out of the marching order,” he notes. “Bowie stood as a complete alien. He was unequivocally himself, so true and honest.”
Over 30 pieces of Verwey’s watercolors can be seen Friday at the opening of “The Weight of Walls” at Coworx in The Cargo District, as presented by encore. Verwey has made masks for art-show attendees to try on and have photographed in The Little Green Booth. All original pieces, as well as handmade and digital prints, plus screenprinted tees will be for sale. A raffle will take place to benefit DREAMS of Wilmington, and the community is welcome to paint a shipping container, i.e. “artainer,” which will continue to be displayed in The Cargo District at Queen and 16 streets.
“I put a lot of thought and emotion in my faces and why I choose them and where I was,” Verwey continues. “So all that weight and thought is sitting on a wall—and, face it, introspection can weigh you down, as can a mental wall or a wall between what you want to accomplish. Somehow, though, we overcome them . . . with a mission to reach potential, high potential. It’s what I want out of my life and other people’s lives, and what I strive to do.”