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Alumni Spotlight: TYLONN SAWYER

Originally published May 3, 2021 through the Academy Bulletin, the AANYAA is delighted to re-publish this spotlight on the AANYAA's website. Tim Buckley (MFA 2014) chats with Tylonn Sawyer (MFA 2003).

Tim Buckley: What have you been up to since the Academy?

Tylonn Sawyer: After graduation, I spent 8 years working in corporate America until circumstance allowed me to commit my life to being a full-time creative.

TB: Could you tell us about your current studio practice?

TS: I live and work in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan. While I primarily work on paintings and drawing for exhibitions, I have managed to expand my practice outside the studio. Through chance, I ended up becoming a mural artist and painting a number of walls around Detroit, Ann Arbor and Ohio. I’ve done special projects for the Detroit Institute of Arts. In 2014, I started the first teen arts council in Michigan at The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. The program pays local teens to produce programs for other teens in a museum setting. Council members get to meet all exhibiting artists and design programs around the shows. They also serve as docents, receive workshops from professional artists and more. While my tenure at the museum has concluded, I am proud to say that the program is still going strong. In 2019, I made a movie titled “American Gods: N/A”, which won best short film at the FREEP Film Festival. I also teach full-time at Oakland Community College and I teach drawing at the College for Creative Studies. I just had a solo show open at N’Namdi Contemporary in Detroit on February 27, 2021 titled “Year of the Flood: White History month Vol I & II.” TB: Has the process of creating a mural changed how you think of or physically make your work? TS: I’ve always painted at a slightly larger scale, so I would say mural panting has made me more confident in tackling a large canvas. Additionally, mural painting really forces me to consider how images tell stories. Gallery work can sometimes by cryptic and challenges the viewer to do some research to grasp the concept of a piece. Murals require you to communicate a concept clearly, while still challenging you to create a design that is dynamic and original.

TB: There is a clear separation between figure and ground in your work, both in content and material. Many paintings feature the figure in front of the American flag. Other works have the painted or drawn figure surrounded by glitter. Could you talk about this separation?

TS: The compositions in many of my paintings are influenced by late 19th century portrait photography, class photos, and Americana images. So usually there is a posed figure in front of some artificial background. I work from references and depending on the composition, I set up the exact scene I am painting in the studio. The figures are integrated into their environment, which is purposely made to look artificial. Glitter, gold leaf and other mixed media are used to give surfaces variety and play around with materials. My education was pretty traditional, so I look for ways to break with that tradition in some of my work.

TB: When I visit a museum, I often revisit the same paintings over and over again. Are there any artists that you continually return to?

TS: It all depends on what museum I visit. When I am at the Met in NYC, I always visit Velázquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja. At the Detroit Institute of Arts, I always visit Donald Sultan’s Oranges on a Branch. When I am on the West Coast, I visit everything by Mark Bradford and Jenny Saville at the Broad.


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