Nathan Ryan Verwey walks me through his craftsman-style home in downtown Wilmington, which he also uses as his art studio. He explains his current volume of work centered on the American flag and faces representing people in the U.S. who are often overlooked. Layers upon layers of materials bubble and shift over and under denim, canvas and paper: till receipts from a 1933 clay company, Western Union notices, books, and newspaper articles from the ‘50s all stack and bend among natural colored stains made from vanilla and coffee. He even includes runoff paper from his art classmates at UNCW, who used it to remove excess paint from printmaking class. He claims its inherent chaos adds to his current show, “American Graffiti,” which opens at Flytrap Brewing this week.
“I believe everything stores energy,” Verwey tells. “And in attempt to be an artist, I believe I store my energy in my work, and kinetically it goes to someone else who owns or views the work. That transfer is the true love of art. Yes, there’s aesthetic-ness, a message you’re attaching to, but there’s an underlying layer that is a metaphysical connection that you’re not able to put to anything.”
Verwey very much follows his gut, which, from our varied exchanges, seems centered on peace and internal awareness. With every “namaste” text he sends before our interview, the air of gratitude surrounding him punctuates all his life. He isn’t one for conflict, which is why “American Graffiti” is captivating. Put simply: We are at a moment and time in America where every citizen is affected by the top 1 percent’s choices in Congress and Senate that dictate policy and essentially quality of life. Wherein Verwey wouldn’t discuss such topics openly before, he says today it’s unavoidable. Yet, he opts for paint and collage to do the talking. He has hung American flags vertically for his series, which at first glance seem backward if positioned horizontally.
“That was the original point,” he explains. “But they’re actually not backward; it’s just what we’re traditionally used to seeing. If you look at and walk toward a flag, you can see it multiple ways, but I did start doing it originally because of it being backward. And everything that’s going on is backward in our world currently.”
His flags aren’t perfectly replicated with 13 stripes and 50 stars. They’re tattered, uneven, and manipulated. It’s symbolic of the strong undercurrent felt around the world and between its people, but particularly in America.
“These colors do run; they’re blurred,” he notes. “Politics and religion: Start talking about it, and open a can of worms because a lot of people don’t talk about it properly—or don’t want a discussion—so it turns argumentative instead of open. I started thinking about these things when I began doing the flags again after my Caprice Bistro show a few years ago.”
What seemed a mindless exploration into abstract art shifts for Verwey. He asks himself why he chose the subject matter. “What’s going on here? What’s happening deeper? What does this mean to you, for real?” he questions. “All this stuff started coming out.”
He also approaches his signature portraits differently. Lines and curves of eyes, noses and lips, ensconced by blue lines and red dots, are illuminated by a single white strip. It represents that which we cannot unsee or unsay.
“I don’t like confrontation; I will back down to my own fault,” Verwey admits when faced with political debate. “I know where it will go and I don’t want it to go to that place. I’m scared one of us is going to rise to a level I don’t want to see . . . But now it’s gotten to a point where it’s unavoidable. The prints: Their eyes and mouths are white. You can’t be blinded; you can’t close your mouth any more. It’s time.”
Just as Verwey explains freeing himself from his own shackles of silence, he steps back from one of his flags. His shoe lands on a print-out of Lady Liberty, with her arm extended, torch in hand.
“Oh…” he says, as he reaches down to straighten the paper.
“It’s OK. She’s been stepped on a lot this year,” I respond.
“Yeah, I mean, immigration is such a big thing for people,” Verwey says. “We are all immigrants. So, yeah, everyone’s up in arms about it. On this flag, I’ll be doing a bunch of tags, including Lady Liberty. I attempted before but didn’t like it, so I painted over it again. Which is great because that just means more layers. I’m going to tag it like a graffiti wall.”
His fascination with graffiti always has been part of his artistic makeup. Anyone who has driven by The Wherehouse on Market Street near Kerr Avenue will notice the sides of the building are covered in tags from Verwey: 3D graphic art and eyes and faces made of abstract forms and shattered shapes. The faces continue in his current series; however, their bright colors have become muted. Sepia, cream, white, grey, and black primarily showcase a solemn tone over previous enlivened, almost neon palettes.
“I always do these faces and they all look sad,” Verwey says. “At least that’s what people tell me. But they don’t really look sad to me. They look pensive. There’s a dissonance and yet openness inside of them. These portraits are about America: the grit and streets and layers, and the people there—whether they’re counted or not.”
The faces also represent many: from the fella who takes Prozac just to get through the day, to the lady who sleeps on the streets because she has no friends or family to turn to for help or because she was forgotten. The faces are stripped of ethnicity, gender, race, religion, or any other characteristics that divide more than unite. However, their attributes manage to reel in the viewer’s eye according to his or her own perceptions. For instance, upon studying one of Verwey’s portraits, I see a Native American in one face, a female in another.
“Really, you see a female?” he asks. “Thank you. I feel like I can never draw a woman. Androgyny is something I try to work with. It’s a current of ‘it’ rather than ‘he-she’ level—the consciousness current.”
To Verwey he is simply creating people who are deep within his psyche on some level. They’re coming from somewhere or something else completely, a place he cannot pinpoint.
“A lot of people see a sadness,” he says.
“Maybe it’s the laze of their eyes,” I offer.
“Yeah, they sag,” he denotes. “A weathered thing, but there’s more of a story there, it seems, etched into their faces.”
He draws them over chapters of books he finds abandoned on the side of the road. Since Verwey bike-rides everywhere, he often passes by tossed belongings on curbs.
“I’ll pass by things multiple times, and if two weeks go by, and books are still sitting there or anything calling to me, I infer in my weird brain that it’s for me,” he tells. “So I’ll pick them up.”
He purposely chose one book in particular for “American Graffiti” it’s on the French Revolution. Chapter names—like “The Come Apart,” “The Popular Revolution” or “The Peasant Revolution”—headline some of the faces in his show. The timing feels uncanny in hindsight, since a week after our interview independent progressive Emmanuel Macron beat extremist Marine Le Pen in France’s election. It’s an eerie mirror to what America could be, had the tables turned last November.
“The show is about the dissonance between the old-school American dream—working really hard and believing anything is possible—to the underlying new American dream—making money however you can and your life will work out,” Verwey says. “That dissonance is creating turmoil, and people don’t understand it in our society because it’s so ingrained in everything. This is a wake-up call—a rise to arms.”
Verwey knows the call well. His journey into becoming an art major has taken a decade-long nontraditional route. The 34-year-old just earned his bachelor’s degree in studio art last weekend. He knew in his early 20s he wanted to be an artist, but he had practical-minded parents who wanted him to choose a path that would make him a sustainable and predictable living. They agreed on computer engineering. “My parents were like, ‘See, you can still draw on the computer,’” he remembers. But Verwey did not like it and ended up dropping out of school.
He worked odd jobs here and there, and eventually began acting classes in Virginia at the encouragement of his friend, James Wise. Once onstage, tapping into various outlets of personality, he felt a high like no other in creating. “Theatre is where it all started and I became who I am,” he tells. “Being onstage was like a drug.”
Verwey moved to Wilmington in 2007 to pursue acting, when the film industry was on an upswing. He had headshots made, went on auditions and took roles in multiple theatre productions across town. He appeared in Shakespeare on the Green’s “Taming of the Shrew,” as well as City Stage’s “Romeo and Juliet,” “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Reefer Madness.” He also began teaching children’s theatre with Journey Productions and grew to love working with kids. “I am a giant kid,” he tells. “If you do theatre or painting, you’re a giant kid.”
Though he always drew, even in youth, Verwey began creating posters for each show he performed. His dad even bought him a travel easel, canvases and paint. After churning out more work beyond the posters, he approached Sarah Peacock at Artfuel Inc. to get feedback on his art.
“She was like, ‘Oh, OK. Do you have any more? This looks like when you doodle in the margins of your notebook.’ I had one other picture; it was of my roommate. I put it in Photoshop and added all these filters, then separated colors, drew it and emulated the colors. She was like, ‘What about this? Did you do this? You need to head more in this direction.’ And I did. The first part of her critique sucked for me because I loved those abstract drawings. But it really pushed and encouraged me to go where I am now. Though, it’s interesting because all the new Vans feature skateboard/notebook artwork, which is what I was doing.”
Being a shoe designer isn’t currently in the cards for Verwey. Aside from homing his fascination with African-American sculpture—both in metal and concrete/resin molds—he is looking toward grad school for his masters. He also will get certified as a teacher in order to oversee an elementary school art class.
“It took me a while to figure out who I was,” Verwey says, “which was great because it challenged me. I want to be able to affect people who are told they can’t do anything, let alone, what they see in their mind—what makes them tick and itch. I want to be the person who can say, ‘Hey, they’ll be a bunch of naysayers, a bunch of people who will question you. And I get it: I get why my parents wanted a more practical career for me. I get why other people choose that: for security. But security doesn’t get you a life. It only gives you security for things—monetary things. There is more out there.”
“American Graffiti” will open at Flytrap Brewing on Thursday night, May 11, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.