I've taught The Art History of Graffiti and Street Art class every other semester or so since 2011 at City College. Every semester we meet with a section of amazing artists. On Monday July 1 we met in the studio of the Canadian-American environmental muralist currently based out of Brooklyn, Aaron Li-Hill. When we all crammed into his studio - made small by our class of 18 - and taxed his air conditioner - but there we were among his sketches and models, inspirations and even a diagram of his purpose and manifesto - amazing. This is what my students had to say about the visit.
Amy L. Young
Graff 101: Aaron Li-Hill
Reph: I was impressed by the amount of legwork he puts in before he starts painting. Building models of the subjects, doing research, talking to people…and thinking about the relevancy of his work to the community he is painting in. This is a lot, especially when compared to artists that just a drop in and do their thing. …Not only did he adjust his work to accommodate the environment it was in, he actually took it to another level. At one point he compared his work to a Trojan horse, a nice painting that brings people in with its beauty and then makes them think about why it’s there and what it represents.
Imogen: I gained a lot of respect for this artist after hearing how much thought goes into each of his pieces, from creating his own reference photos to spending hours in an unfamiliar place working tirelessly on a mural…and I had never thought much about the risks and determination required to complete such a task…As opposed to in-the-moment tagging for fame, Li-Hill spends a lot of time figuring out what message he wants his piece to convey, and imparting knowledge on others, which in my opinion is a noble cause.
Ruben: This artist has grown up with nothing short of a mixed background - Austrian, Chinese, Jewish and so many other influences…and different combinations of those things are where he is the happiest. As an international artist who cares about the environment and focuses on man vs. nature, Li-Hill is sensitive and researches the people’s culture and situation extensively as he begins his work. He tries to depict the struggles behind the people and the nature that surrounds them.
Badiallo: It was intriguing to learn about his concepts that are deeply rooted in his identity. His works usually display a human and an animal being interactive. I would have never known that he chose to display the concept of hybridity and fusion because of his own mixed background of being Austrian and Chinese. This resonates me as it proves that artists and their art cannot be separated and that I can bring my identity into my art in a subtle or blunt way. He stated that works of art should be “a play between what you’ve decided and how it’s going to go.” What the artist decides to do while they have already planned everything becomes a part of the creative process and the artwork.
Sean: Experiences like visiting an artist’s studio are really rare and I loved getting to see Aaron’s and taking in his process and materials and vision. Li-Hill’s attention to detail, and historical research involved in each one of his pieces was really impressive, and inspiring. One of the most important aspects of street art and murals is that they respect and pay homage in some way or another to the location in which they are painted. Li-Hill’s works demonstrate that important aspect, creating a piece for historians and neighborhood advocates as well as being visually and aesthetically pleasing to the general public who might not be so concerned with the background and history of a specific place.
Elias: Li-Hill lived up to who I was hoping for, someone with nuanced opinions and developed ideas, both in art and ideology. My favorite quote was, “Anything will feed into the nature of capitalism,” in context of murals leading to gentrification. I was curious about any attempt to subvert the effect street art can have on a lower class neighborhood, and he proposed a route I hadn’t thought of before: schools. Every aspect of muraling and street art is tied to development projects, and those want and encourage the art, but then it snowballs and undermines the message.
Faolan: One thing that always remains true in his work is his concept of the way things move. Being a big fan of both science and art he tries to show things from both in his work. Hearing about how he needed to have a polar bear police officer by his side while painting this giant polar bear was hysterical. I didn’t even know that polar bear cops were a thing.
Natalie: “Artists arrest motion to signal the time.” Aaron Li Hill’s work is all about solidifying a moment since technology now annihilates space and time. His work forces the public to stop and meditate on the subject he brings to light with his artwork as well as the identity of the community his work resides in.
Mariah: Li-Hill’s murals are all about “solidifying the moment and amplifying the scientific gaze” by painting multiple actions of the same scene. He uses real people in his murals to give it a more realistic energy. He starts with a photo, creates a mock-up, begins with the bones and then pulls out a brush, working in grids and movement that become anchor points. He’s always created art around climate change but likes to please the community in order to get the message out.
Daisy: In class we talked about how artists should to go to a place and create art that relates to the community. I find this to be a very important point a street artist should do. When we look up the history of the location, we tend to understand what is it that they like and don’t like. He gave the example of when he created a mural that had sides to it, and the people who saw it told him how amazing the piece is and how it tells the community history, when he created this piece it was unintentionally but, the community was able to relate to it.
Alexis: My first impression was seeing all of this thought boards posted up around his studio… a type of mind mapping with written concepts, problems and scientific data on issues like climate change. He said was that “all technologies are alienating space and time” which was a very deep point to make…the thoughts behind his pieces are extremely mapped out, and thought through on a scientific level.
Jack: After meeting Li-Hill at his studio I have now become even more inspired to pursue a life of studio art as well as in the streets. Li-Hill opened me up to so many new views about street art such as the ability to travel and interact with different communities. Through his environmental and link to animals, Li-Hill depicts current events but projects these ideas in a way that doesn’t seem as an attack on anyone, but rather a metaphorical message that is easily caught by the eye through his rhythm and motion in each piece.
Seth: Seeing the studio where he considers things was very inspiring. It was also interesting to see that he had a concept map on the wall, something I suspect all muralists/street artists have, as that seems to be the most important part of a lot of their work.
Ricky: The artist carves out a bit of imagined utopia for the world to peer into. Understanding and exploring the psyche of the individual the artist takes notes and creates a story for the viewer using moments, animals, light and shadows. Graffiti can be a very coded system, meant for a very specific group, mainly the participants. Noticing this Li-Hill devised his ideal aesthetic in which would engage the public, where they can feel connected to and not be afraid of not understanding the language.
Robert: I had a problem when Aaron Li-Hill compared his art to a Trojan horse. “I try to cover a blunt message about the environment or habitat loss in something pretty,” the muralist said. My gripe is: why do we need a message at all? His pieces are beautiful and so thoughtfully crafted that it seems a disservice to encumber them with a “message.”