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Don Emrick transforms paint splatters, decaying urban surfaces into compositions



The layers of spilled paint dripped from brushes and canvases, hardened over surfaces into dry veils of pigment, are usually stripped or scraped away. In the randomness, serendipitous areas of beauty are found and captured by photographer Don Emrick.


"What initially happened is when I was teaching a photography class at Rogers State University, I noticed these little splatters of paint that looked like abstract art," he said. "At RSU, they didn't sand down or paint any of the desks, so these paint splatters had been building up for years."

Emrick now teaches at Tulsa Community College after years as an RSU instructor, and is involved and on the boards of many nonprofit state arts organizations, including the Tulsa Artists' Coalition, Local Art Matters and the Blue Dome Arts Festival. Additionally, he's worked for more than 20 years as a professional and fine art photographer, including a stint in the 1980s for Oklahoma Gazette.

In his exhibit "Found in Abstraction," currently showing in the North Gallery of the Oklahoma State Capital, 27 pieces give an overview of his abstract photography. While his older works feature coatings of art school paint, Emrick's newer imagery focuses on revealing urban surfaces.

"You can still follow the progression and see where it's a continuation of what I was doing with the paint splatters, with the paint peeling from wood or brick," he said. "I photographed things like decaying paint on walls, generally with a macro lens or up close."

Besides the wear of city paint, the act of documenting the remains of artistic media also evolved into photographing stained sheets of photo paper.

"I teach a black-and-white photography class, and the paper often gets thrown in the trash," he said. "It has a lot of interesting random patterns, so I've gone through trash cans, scanning those and using them for backdrops for other works where I'll take photographs or pieces of string and put them against that abstract background. Then I sometimes re-color and do some digital manipulation."

While the involvement of photo paper and urban decay is a progression, it was also brought about by the destruction of the old art building at RSU and the disappearance of the paint stains with it. No matter the subject, his pieces are very much a visual work, with the colors and shapes conveying the mood, rather than any concrete figures. Like artists Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, whom Emrick names as influences, the visual impact rests on the interaction of colors.

However, unlike Kandinsky and Klee, Emrick does not paint the colors himself, leaving the choice of hues to clumsy artists or the fading of the sun. Therefore, the cropping in his camera frame must play the same role as their use of color theory.

"In one sense, unless you're doing a whole lot of manipulation, all photography is what they call selective composition," he said. "Unlike a painting, in a photograph, you're limited to what you can see in the viewfinder. In a painting, you have complete control over composition, and in photography, you have to be selective about composition."

Despite the chance of their creation, the results are as cohesive as if he had painted them himself.

"Sometimes, it's almost like I'm not sure what I'm drawn to until I start looking at the photographs. I just know there's something there that captures my attention and is compelling," he said.

Found in Abstraction displays through Oct. 18 at Oklahoma State Capitol, North Gallery, 2300 N. Lincoln.

"?Allison Meier


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