The Art Outdoor Project, this year held in partnership with the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, encourages artists to submit work that represents Grand Rapids in a way that’s meaningful to them. More than 20 artists with ties to Grand Rapids submitted entries in the second annual Art Outdoor Project and, in June, five of them were selected to have their work displayed on billboards throughout the state from August-September.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be profiling each of the artists so you can get to know a little bit about the person behind the art.

Ryan Crawley enjoyed drawing comics as a kid, even creating a 10-page comic book at the age of 12. He points to two moments early on that encouraged him to continue to develop his interest. The first was when he drew a realistic looking picture of a tree frog in middle school. “I really felt the picture I was drawing looked like the real thing. That was a big deal,” he recalls. The game changer was the first time his high school art teachers allowed him to use the ‘good’ paint. "The ones," he says, "you can draw good lines with. I thought, ‘This is so much fun. I’d like to do this for the rest of my life!”

Ryan Crawley

Ryan Crawley

He considered a career as a fighter pilot, and then as an art teacher, but a college professor challenged him to consider why he wanted to teach. “I didn’t have a good answer,” says Crawley. “That professor helped me focus more on art itself.”

These days, Crawley favors using acrylic paint with a sharpie on canvas as a medium, but he diverged for the Art Outdoor Project. “This one was more of an exploration because I used computer paper to print out my photos, I used primer to hold the prints down, and after that I used spray paint over the top,” he explains. “It was more of an expression, of trying something new, and of going outside of my comfort zone.”

I like the cityscapes because they’re urban pieces that aren’t of a specific place per se, but they have a feeling or an emotion that emulates the environment of a city.
- Ryan Crawley Selected Artist for 2016 Art Outdoor Project

A friend in the local art community alerted Crawley to the Art Outdoor Project. He drew inspiration from the urban cityscape, one of his preferred muses. “I like the cityscapes because they’re urban pieces that aren’t of a specific place per se, but they have a feeling or an emotion that emulates the environment of a city. I like the idea of art being alive, of using color and different strokes to evoke emotions like dizziness and excitability. I feel like my paintings make you want to move and be doing something other than just standing in front of them, analyzing them, and then moving on. There’s something more to them.”

For Crawley, art isn’t a choice. “I absolutely have to create things,” he says. “It feels like an obsession.” He especially likes when people appreciate his art and find meaning in it. “Sometimes they see things in the painting that I don’t see or I didn’t attempt and it’s so interesting. It’s an entirely different perspective and so my art turns from being a conversation piece into a conversation about what someone’s thinking or feeling.”

Look for Crawley’s billboard on 131 just north of Grand Rapids near the intersection with 96.

Later this month, will have merchandise for sale that features the selected billboard art.

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