Josh Drews caught our attention with a pair of morose, menacing and intensely crimson colored monotypes – Isum and Erra from the Zombies, Cowboys & Zombie Cowboy series he entered into the Contemporaries of the Columbia Museum of Art’s Artist of the Year competition last year. Despite his absence on the night the winners were announced, (Drews was convinced he hadn’t a chance), the despondent zombie-cowboy depictions sent in his place consequently won him the new title.
“You know what they say: those who can are artists and those who can’t teach art,” Drews argues with characteristic self-mocking in the Spring Valley classroom where he teaches. “I don’t really feel like an artist, but sometimes I do kind of feel like I’m playing an artist on TV,” he says.
Standing under the fluorescent lights of his freshly cleaned schoolroom, he is the exact opposite of the artist his gloomy, blood-red-paint-splattered artwork led me to imagine I would meet. In person he is not moody or depressing, but friendly, animated, playful and energetic. He spells his name “Josh Drews!” (with an emphasis on the exclamation point.) His conversations are punctuated with words like “s-s-i-c-k,” “cool” and “awesome!” Hyperactive and excitable, he makes seemingly uncontrollable sound effects and robot noises while he creates art, yet was recently named Spring Valley High School Teacher of the Year.
“Basically it’s just a big popularity contest,” he says unassumingly. “But it’s neat to win.”
And so this cheery, humble (and clearly popular) teacher continues to obliterate my pre-conceived expectations of him until I realize his “art” flawlessly displays his tendency to reveal as much as he conceals.
Artist and Art Educator Josh Drews has deep roots at Spring Valley High School. The former Spring Valley student returned to Richland School District II with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Winthrop University where he specialized in drawing and printmaking and worked part-time as a “Pokemon Master” at the local Toys ‘R Us. He unexpectedly came back to accept an art teaching position and teaching certification at the school. “At first I thought: I can’t teach,” he explains. “But the longer I teach, the more I realize I’m good at it, and the more I enjoy doing it…,” he trails off, “now I love my job!”
Drews ascribes much of his artistic ambition and inspiration to his “second mom”- veteran visual arts teacher Mrs. Jackie Chalfant. This South Carolina Art Education Association Lifetime Achievement Award winning teacher worked at Spring Valley for nearly three decades inspiring her students with art. “She had compassion for every student” he says, “and was willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that every student got art. This set an example for me about what it means to be a good teacher.”
The fact that Drews now occupies Mrs. Chalfant’s former classroom seems profoundly poetic. He recollects an endearing fourth grade memory of waiting for his mom to finish work after-school, (he was bused to Spring Valley each afternoon while still in elementary school so the two could ride home together), drawing, while seated at the periphery of his future schoolroom. Clearly both room and teacher made huge impacts in his life.
Drews talks openly while “bragging about the kids.” He freely inundates me with thoughts and anecdotes relating to the school, his students, their work, successes and scholarships, various art techniques and technology, our surroundings, steamrollers, even a western replica village. He repeatedly (and successfully) distracts and deflects all attention away from his art and himself and back to topics he obviously deems more worthy of interest. Fortunately his strange art gladly speaks for itself. With one sideways glance at a zombie cowboy I find my concentration redirected.
The harrowing and tormented zombie-cowboys are just a couple of examples of his fascinating monotype/mixed media artwork. They make up a tiny fraction of his tremendous body of work kept in a heaping pile in the corner of his home studio. Monotype is the best word to use to describe the techniques he chiefly employs in his process. However, it takes much more than just the usual methods to achieve his final, finished pieces. “My goal is to make things that look such a way that you couldn’t ever figure out how the hell they were created,” he says.
If it is true that Drews’ one artistic goal is to confuse people about his creative and technical processes then meeting me must have made him one satisfied artist. I, unlike his students, had no remote concept of what a monotype was before meeting him. But I watched, listened and learned.
First, Drews starts with a simple contour line drawing of a posed model, (usually a student), and whatever surrounds that model at that given moment. The illustration is rapidly drawn directly onto a piece of clear plexi-glass that will serve as his printing plate. The transparency of the plate allows the image to be recorded quickly so he can essentially trace whatever he sees in front of him directly onto the plastic. Next he chooses an acrylic-based monotype ink and a tiny paint roller to spread the pigment over the plate covering the illustration. A process of splattering, smearing, scratching and wiping follows to manipulate the image and add texture before running the wet plate on top of a damp sheet of paper through his press. The impression the plate leaves on the paper is the monotype. This imprinting can also be altered and cultivated until the paper and ink have dried. The whole process takes about twenty minutes. “If the monotype looks sick! I’ll take it home and keep working into it,” Drews explains. He takes his favorite prints created at school back to his private studio and continues working on them with pens, pencils, paint, watercolors and other materials until he achieves the look he desires.
What he never explains is the origin of the unique and menacing undercurrent that runs through most of his work or how he creates art that is so successfully provocative or, indeed, why all of his pieces are so damn disturbing despite the fact that he is such a visibly up-beat person and so easy to be around.
The Optimist, a particularly dismal and pessimistic monotype, portrays a dejected and forlorn figure sitting alone surrounded by a sense of melancholy and emptiness. The piece is stained the color of diluted blood. Although The Optimist shares the look and feel of many of his monotypes, Drews says it is unique from all the others because he created it to express a set of specific emotions and he had the piece’s end result strongly in mind from the start. “This is my only piece that was 100% intentional. I was in a dark place after a three year relationship ended,” he explains pointing to the figure where his face is blurred and his mouth has been wiped away: “I felt like I couldn’t communicate how I was feeling at the time so I erased his mouth. This piece came out exactly how I wanted it to… Then I felt better – like it was done and I could move on.”
Another piece that reveals another facet of Drews’ personality is Chew and Swallow, a diptych he created for a food themed art show that showcased artwork by Richland School District II art teachers earlier this year. It consists of two intense and vibrant orange stained panels featuring a spiky-haired, vaguely cannibalistic-looking student. His face and ears are scattered with piercings and he wears a tangle of tribal-looking necklaces around his neck. The subject is ferociously postured in two different poses, (one snarling and one screaming), while holding a knife and a fork in each hand. “A food themed art show and I send in a picture of an angry boy eating himself,” Drews snickers with amusement at his own candid rebellion.
Whether he uses models, students or himself as subject matter, the end result cannot be described as realistic. Although he may portray people, he does not create portraits – although his depictions are undeniably alive. On the flipside he does not create imagined illustrations either. Unlike traditional portraits, self-portraits or life-drawings, his pieces take on more than the look of whoever or whatever they are, irrespective of context. Models become so transfigured that their original appearance is immaterial. His art takes on portions of his life and his reality as well as taking on a life of its own.
Sigmund Freud wrote in 1939, “A work grows as it will and sometimes confronts its author as an independent, even alien creature.” While standing in Josh Drews’ home studio, staring into a heaping pile of monotype/mixed-media pieces that represent a lifetime of work, these insightful words reverberate in my head and have never sounded so true. I gape at the pile with disbelief and ask what he eventually plans to do with all of this amazing artwork that just keeps building up. “I have thought about putting together an exhibition to show my work…but it doesn’t really seem to have a theme. There are Luchadores here, zombies there, guys punching each other over there…” he shakes his head.
What he doesn’t seem to realize is exactly what Freud said. There is an undeniable, all-encompassing theme that runs through his art and ties it all together – it is him. His art doesn’t need to exist for any specific reason or to follow any particular themes – it can just be. It stands for itself. Josh Drews – the person and his passions in both art and in life echo through each piece of his unique, provocative, intense, interesting, fear inducing and curious artwork. This alone leaves us with something wonderful to see.