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Soul Painter

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Houston artist Ryan Fugate paints from the soul.
by Megan Smith

Houston artist Ryan Fugate is perfectly at ease with his surroundings as he sits in his studio on Winter Street. Getting to this point of comfort, however, has hardly been easy.

Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, Fugate says he never quite fit in with his religion, town, or family. He found his place of belonging and escape, though, as early as kindergarten.

His teacher noticed the young artist’s skill and took Fugate under her wing, allowing him to follow his passion during class time. “She just really nurtured that,” he says. “It was almost like an instant calling.”

From there, he explains, he latched on to the identity of “the artist,” continuing to take classes and win awards for his art throughout middle school and high school. “Art became kind of a security blanket for me,” he says. “It was like my only safe place that I could escape to or take myself away from reality and my disconnect. I was always kind of different. I never fit in at school. I never quite fit in the church. I just never knew my place. I just tended to cling onto that identity as an artist because it kind of gave me a label to identify myself as okay to be different.”

Fugate soon discovered another key difference between himself and those around him—he was growing up gay. He believes that  his sexuality was one of the main reasons he had different interests and felt differently about life than the people close to him who practiced a religion “where that’s just not allowed.”

Many of Fugate’s earlier works are much darker than his current pieces and reflect his struggle to find balance between his religion and his sexuality. “They were a lot to do with dealing with growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness and knowing I was gay and the repercussions of that guilt and shame,” he says.

Despite this struggle and the occasional block, Fugate never let go of his dream to become an artist. He credits his success to his perseverance. “I have to do it,” he says. “[Art] is a way for me to make sense in a moment, to get away from the insanity and chaos of the world and kind of try to be present with something else.”

Ryan Fugate with his piece "Breaking the Wave (48 x 60)," recently acquired by Chevron Corp.
Ryan Fugate with his piece “Breaking the Wave (48 x 60),” recently acquired by Chevron Corp.

At nineteen, Fugate realized that his idea of “moving to Santa Fe and surviving as a starving artist” was not financially  feasible. He needed an occupation to support himself while he worked toward his goal of making art his full-time profession. During his years as a licensed massage therapist, he discovered his kinesthetic talent. “That was also very natural for me, to help other people,” he says. While Fugate mainly focuses his energy toward creating his artwork, he still enjoys seeing a few massage clients on the side.

Fugate was in his mid-twenties when things seemed to take a turn for the worse. He began experiencing chronic pain and fatigue that the doctors could not seem to diagnose. The pain became so great that he could hardly stand for ten minutes, his short-term memory started to fail him, and he began slurring his speech. “Here all my friends were going out and having a good time, and all I could do was barely get through the day,” Fugate says.

Out of desperation, he sought the advice of a doctor he had once  worked with in the treatment of a patient requiring  rehabilitative massage. The diagnosis? Multiple sclerosis (MS).

Fugate describes feeling like he just “couldn’t function,” and, although he could do some massage on the side when he felt well enough, he questioned how he was going to survive.

Fugate turned back to art for comfort. He enrolled in classes at the Glassell School of Art to nurture his artistic self. “The MS really brought me back to my art, to focus, and as a form of healing for myself,” he says. “That’s where I really started to paint again.”

After some encouragement from the late Tim Brookover, Fugate, although HIV-negative, also started teaching the Positive Art workshop at the Houston GLBT Community Center to help those dealing with HIV-related illness, as well as to be an inspiration for himself and others, he says.

Soon after, he heard about Houston artist John Palmer, who was doing exactly what Fugate wanted to—supporting himself by solely following his passion and creating art. He made an appointment with Palmer and the two became immediate friends. Palmer continues to play an instrumental role in his career today. “He became a support system and a mentor to me and has been invaluable to me ever since that point, to really build me up as an artist and to believe in myself,”
he says.

Palmer introduced Fugate to one of his own early teachers, Phillip Rubinov Jacobson. Fugate describes his meeting with Jacobson as like “meeting someone of your own tribe.” Jacobson encouraged Fugate to come and train with him in a six-week program in Austria.

Fugate knew he had to make this trip happen. “He really shook something up and put a fire in me,” he says. “I had no idea how I was going to afford to go there, how I was going to do it, but I put his information on my fridge instead of in a stack of papers like I normally do, and I said ‘this has just got to happen.’” Nine months later, his “surrogate lesbian mothers,” as he calls two of his closest friends, used their frequent flier miles to make Fugate’s dream
a reality.

His first stop along the way was in Amsterdam, home to the Van Gogh Museum. At fifteen, Fugate had read Irving Stone’s Lust for Life, a fictional account of the life of the brilliant but tortured Van Gogh. “For me, he was the biggest connection, intimately, that I felt to probably any person just through reading this book,” he says.“I could just identify with this man so much. After all those years, going to that museum was such a sacred and powerful experience. It was almost like coming home.”

After checking into his hotel in Vienna, Fugate went for a walk. He began to hear beautiful music and followed the sound, which led him to  a trio of accomplished street musicians exquisitely playing classical music—and the cellist looked exactly like Van Gogh himself. “It was as though all the pain I had felt physically with the MS and with the struggles of coming out was for this moment of perfect beauty,” Fugate says.

Fugate still tries to relay that same “spiritual high” in his works, which he calls “Soulscapes.” Instead of painting traditional landscapes, each work is a piece of his soul depicted in a visual way, he says. “Everything I try to do is more abstract,” Fugate explains. “Because people, I think, tend to get lost in realism and trying to identify that this is this, and this is that, and they don’t get to feel or experience as much. I want to take away from the analytical mind and just try to feel what the painting is giving off.”

Ten years after his trip to Vienna, Fugate is now a world traveler, having visited many of the Greek islands, Turkey, and Egypt. Looking through the photographs of his travels, the influence of these trips on his works is very clear. “Everything for me is about soaking in for inspiration to translate some way in my art,” Fugate says. “These [trips] were all just mystical, mind-boggling experiences.”

But Fugate’s inspiration doesn’t just come from his travels—it can come from the most mundane things and experiences. “I love trash,” he says excitedly as he picks up discarded papers splattered with paint that has dripped from his works in the making. “I love fragments. I love seeing all the pieces of things torn up. Some things I’ve used in mixed media pieces—the beautiful colors, shapes, and waves—they’re just something you’d never think about.”

From his hard work has come major recognition. In addition to having been featured at the Los Angeles Contemporary Arts Show and Art Chicago, Fugate has quite a few private and commercial collectors, including Chevron. Most recently, the company commissioned him to create two pieces for a new building’s waiting room that welcomes its diplomats, dignitaries, and big oil power players. “It was just a major honor that they would have picked my work to be represented for them,” he says.

“I’ve now been able to place things coast to coast, which is great,” Fugate says. He also posts all of his works online for the general public to view. If a particular piece sparks your interest, you can make an appointment with Fugate to see it at his studio.

If my art triggers something in you that you feel and connect with, that’s all that matters,” Fugate says. “It is what it is. Just be in the moment.”

Fugate’s art is currently represented at Mecox Gardens stores across the nation, including the Highland Village location in Houston. For more information on Fugate’s work, visit ryanfugatefineart.com.

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Megan Smith

Megan Smith is the Assistant Editor for OutSmart Magazine.

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