Story by Christina Heintzelman
“Art is everything and sometimes simply an essence. It is a tool that I use and that uses me in return. It is my best and most critical friend — but these words mean nothing by themselves … the work – the active process – is what matters most,” says self-trained painter Eric Anfinson, who works from Mockingbird Studio, his home-based studio in Key West, Florida. He is the son of former Harrisburg Magazine co-owner Jerry Anfinson.
Anfinson’s journey to Key West from his native home in Minnesota was a long and sometimes arduous journey. At the age of sixteen, during his junior year of high school in Minnesota, he suffered a severe cervical vertebrae injury while playing in a football game. His injury put him in the hospital/rehab for seven months and left him a high functioning quadriplegic. After graduating high school with his class and attending university, he began a yearlong intensive physical rehab stint in Los Angeles. On the drive back from Los Angeles to Minnesota, he found Boulder, Colorado, which would be his home for 12 years.
During this time, Anfinson did creative writing and the occasional motivational speaking gig, but laughingly describes himself as “cringing at the idea that I may come across like Chris Farley doing his “Matt Foley Motivational Speaker” routine on SNL.
“It was time well spent, but it wasn’t enough to speak about surviving. I knew there was more I was meant to do,” he said.
Serendipitously, he found a figure drawing class in Boulder that he thought he would enjoy. “I couldn’t draw to save my life. But I did realize that the studio was a sacred space and I understood it was something significant. I knew I wanted more; I just didn’t understand what it was yet.”
Anfinson was not exposed to art in his early years, saying he grew up in an artistic vacuum. A trip to France in his early 30s and a visit to the Louvre was inspirational, but so overwhelming because he did not understand who the artistic players were or how it could be integrated into his life. It was one step closer to his dive into artistic life.
Ojo Caliente, New Mexico: Another vital life experience occurred when a powerful shaman told him, “You and I are the same. We do not get to do what the others do. We do not get to go to the dance. We have a role, a purpose. Once you release the idea of being like them, embrace your role. You will find your path.’’
Anfinson took his words to heart.“This experience in the desert was a shedding of old skin, release of my old self, beliefs, expectations and permission to leave the tribe, stripping away everything familiar. Why is this important to creativity? To art? Because one must be free to observe, act, manifest, expand, explore one’s creative self.”
In 2001 Anfinson left Colorado for Key West, Florida, a well-established creative community, and his life changed dramatically.
“One day I went to the local art supply store, bought painting supplies, and never felt the need to return to my writing. As soon as the brush touched the canvas I was hooked. I was surprised I could paint because I couldn’t draw.”
Later, he would come to understand the difference between drawing and painting from an interview with Chuck Close who described his limitations of drawing ability based on low finger dexterity and how with painting, one uses the entire arm for motion. “It was a relief to me, to understand you paint from your shoulder rather than fingers. The paint brush is an extension to your arm. You connect brain, hand, and heart through the brushstroke,” Anfinson said.
After two years of painting in his bedroom-turned-studio in Key West, he was asked to join a professional studio/gallery. He joined, but maintained that “I wanted to remain unduly influenced by another painters’ style. I knew I wanted my art to be of the archetypal and narrative style, and I wanted to work on developing this style in my own way and time.”
After he became confident in his own style and ability, he studied other artists like Modigliani, Matisse, and Clemente. “It is important to understand the artistic shoulders we are standing on; it’s important to me to fall in love with great works,” Anfinson said.
Anfinson works daily in a beautiful freestanding studio in his garden, affectionately named Mockingbird Studio. Anfinson’s studio is named for the experience he had with a mockingbird that appeared constantly while he was making his decision to be part of his first public group show. In Native symbolism a mockingbird signifies a search for self-expression, finding one’s muse — finding one’s voice while showing one what ignites and inspires the soul.
As soon as he reached the decision to show his painting in public, the mockingbird moved on.
“When I ascend the ramp to my studio, I enter my own space and it is a sacred space. Think about going into a sacred space and how your voice immediately goes quiet – this is what happens for me. I am surrounded by beautiful native trees, a little piece of paradise. I am incredibly blessed to be in a totally different reality while painting,” he said.
Anfinson says that his role in art is to put his thoughts, feelings, and soul on canvas and get it out in front of the public. The public’s job is to then look at it and take away their own thoughts and feelings. “A piece can become universal in its appeal because it is authentic. Sometimes through archetypes and sometimes because it’s relatable in some way,” he adds.
Anfinson works in a stylized study of people. Rather than being strictly portraiture, the figures — although based on many actual people he has met and seen — retain a dreamlike presence. Earlier works were either faceless or had eyes that were vague. This allowed viewers to move into that painting, becoming one with it and understanding another part of their internal being often through the position of the character in the painting or other symbolic parts of the painting.
“My paintings are observational,” Anfinson said, explaining that “I feel that too many times artists use people as a prop rather than projecting them as true spiritually alive people. I desire to project the innermost self because I am intrigued by what they have to say. I want to portray the story and the meaning behind it.”
Currently Anfinson is working in studies of people who have clear, definite eyes that would almost seem to investigate the very soul of the viewer. It is as if the painting is asking the viewer to look inward to understand his or her own story. These paintings are either in brilliant, contrasting colors that are alive and vibrant or in softer hues that tend toward a meditative quality. It is about the story you can take away from each one that you view.
On the question of inspiration, Anfinson has a very definite opinion. “As others have said, ‘Inspiration is for amateurs,’ ” adding “inspiration is perhaps only 10 percent of the artistic process, a very important aspect of course, however, the rest is what occurs while working. The longer you do it this way, the more your work is genuine and authentic. Inspiration will appear as you work.”
“I don’t trust a painting that is too realistic,” he continued. “I respect the ability to render such images, but find it impossible to truly love something that is perfect – all the oxygen leaves. For me, great art is vulnerable. My favorite artists allow their so-called flaws to provide a path to your heart.”
Anfinson’s work is in collections throughout the United States and Europe. His commissioned pieces are in private homes and many public buildings. His art has been in solo shows and group exhibits since 2005.
Anfinson can be reached through his website ericanfinson.com and his Facebook page Eric Anfinson. He is also represented by Gingerbread Square Gallery in Key West.