donna fishcer | the artist next door | may 2016
If Brent Crabb's artwork came furnished with a soundtrack, I imagine the song list would include a heady mix of blues and classic rock. Using pencil to sketch everything from historical landmarks to uncanny likenesses of pop icons, and even more lurid subjects like clowns-gone-bad, Crabb's works are soulful and dramatic. His technique of layering in the pencil work costs him hours per drawing, but it's a touch that sets his work apart with rich visual dimension.
We settle into what's referred to as The Drawing Room, not a room furnished with formal furniture for entertaining guests, but a modest-sized room featuring a professional drawing table along with framed drawings and works in progress. It is a sunny space where Crabb works every day on his commissioned drawings and personal works.
As accomplished as he is with detailed sketches of buildings, Crabb seems to switch over to softer subjects with ease. His work entitled, “Brother and Sister" features two dogs relaxing on a porch. Their fur drawn so softly it almost moves in the breeze and their eyes smile a bit, the drawing is an example of the artist's skill at capturing the essence of any subject. In this case, the magic begins with the eyes.
“I think the eyes are important," Crabb states. “Whenever I do a drawing that is a person or a pet I always try to get the eyes right before I go on. I block in the drawing — sketch it out, get the values (find where light and shadows fall), but then I try to get the eyes right first because if you don't get that, you're going to be crumpling it up and throwing it away. I try to concentrate on that first. Then it's a matter of getting that softness by layering it over and over to build that dimension. That's a technique that I got into so much because you could get more dimension out of it, a more realistic feel and look."
It's a time-consuming approach to art that can test one's patience. “One thing that's helped me with that is working on multiple projects at one time, in different stages. So, if you get bogged down or impatient with it, you can set it aside and go to another project, and I think that helps."
When it comes to drawing some of the area's more recognizable buildings, Crabb says he likes preserving the image of a landmark for future reference. “I think when you draw buildings, it's a capture in time. You capture it for that moment and things change. Since I drew that (he motions to his drawing of the Meyer Theatre) the marquee has changed. So it's captured for that moment." Crabb was influenced by an artist named Bernie Moran, a local print shop owner. “I just loved his artwork because I loved to draw buildings." A recent exhibition of Moran's work at the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum in Two Rivers displayed his renderings of streets and buildings. “It was just the coolest thing. Some of those old buildings don't even exist anymore."
Crabb and his wife, Peggy, are long-time residents of Green Bay, so when city leaders attempted to bring a Walmart store to the Broadway district in 2013 and 2014, he felt he couldn't just sit back and throw up his hands. Being an artist, he used his skills to illustrate his opposition to the big box invasion. “I wondered, 'What can I do to be heard in this battle?' I can't write, I don't want to get up and publicly speak, although I did do that at City Hall a couple of times, and it killed me to do that," he says with a nervous chuckle. “The way I found that I could really make a difference and be heard was to do some cartoons and put them out on the Internet. Growing up as a kid I loved Mad magazine. So I did pull out the old Mad magazines for reference. I did a whole series of them and it developed into the drawing that you saw," he explains, referencing the piece called “Death by Box."
Now, years after the controversy, Crabb feels optimistic about the direction in which his community is headed. “For one thing, they're saving the old industrial buildings and developing them. Anything with restoration work takes a long time. I think nowadays people can be very impatient. It is something where you have to be patient when you're going to the extreme of rehabilitating old buildings. I'm not worried about it. There are a lot of good things happening and it's moving north on Broadway. I'm very happy about that. I never really dabbled in social commentary before. So it was interesting to see how effective it can be." Crabb has also become a member of the board for Mosaic Arts, Inc., a Green Bay organization supporting the arts community through advocacy.
Some of Crabb's strongest drawings include portraits of pop icons. A drawing of Alice Cooper is currently in the works. “I love stuff that translates to pop culture. You can get so dramatic with pencil, so it's fun to do that stuff. Pencil is great for contrast between dark and light. This drawing for me is ideal because there's a lot going on," he notes, pointing out a snake in one corner and the make-up mirror behind Cooper. “I'm doing it for me, just because I love Alice Cooper. The pop culture stuff resonates with people. It's interesting because it resonates with younger people, too."
Having the freedom to sit and draw pictures from his own imagination, rather than primarily taking on commissioned work is something Crabb enjoys immensely. “The last couple of years I've been able to do some things that I've had on my mind forever." Crabb draws my attention to a framed work on the wall showing people staring down into an old-fashioned stone well. It gives off a sense of dread since the perspective is clearly of one who has been trapped down in the well. “There's a song by the New Riders of the Purple Sage, an old country-rock band," Crabb explains. “The song is about Parson Brown and it's about throwing somebody in the well. I've always had this imagery of the scene out on the prairie in the 1800s. And then I imagined it was me in the well," he adds with a laugh.
In recent years, Crabb has created works with some colored pencil or full-color paintings. Along with Peggy, he's generally at Artstreet and Arti Gras, though he admits the extensive “meet and greet" is exhausting for him. Clearly, he'd rather be drawing than almost anything else. “I'm more particular in what I do. I just love to draw. My favorite days are when I can just sit here and draw. But I have been breaking it up and finding the balance in it."
Learn more about Brent Crabb's artwork at BrentCrabbArt.com.
Donna Fischer is an avid fan of music, film and art. When she's not writing on these subjects you'll find her gardening or snowshoeing around Green Bay.