Looking at Manchester artist Ryan John LeFebvre’s artwork is like piecing together a puzzle. When he shows his art in museum exhibitions — as he is currently at the No. 27 Gallery, 10 N. Main St., Rochester, until July 6 — he loves seeing the reaction ? people “cracking the code” and appreciating his work.
He and his wife, Rachel, used to sit by his paintings in the Currier Museum in Manchester to see people interact with his art ? to see them back up to get the full 4’ by 4’ picture, to move closer to read the tiny sentences and messages scratched within the piece.
“It’s interesting for me to see them all make the connections. When you’re trying to say something, you need to do it in a distinct way to make people pay attention. Human beings will try to solve puzzles and find patterns in everything,” LeFebvre said.
So he puts them in his work. Each of his paintings features words, symbols, messages and pictures revolving around one thought.
“I work from an abstract idea. You start with that in mind, and then you collect things that go with that, selecting parts and putting them together. You really have to think about it, and the more you think about it, the better it’s going to be,” he said. Each painting is more like a collection of paintings in one.
His trademark move seems to be pushing together a singular phrase into one word, and then splitting it up. For instance: In one of his paintings, he writes “we ought to butcher the seats” as “we ough ttob utc her thes eats.” This move, as he says, forces the viewer to look extra closely at the work, to pay attention to the message.
“It’s the most ridiculous way of explaining yourself ? it’d be easier just to talk about it, but it’s worth doing,” he said.
It’s worth doing because, as is true with most art, the process is therapeutic. LeFebvre is self-taught and has no formal training. The only art classes he took were in high school in Manchester. He works full time as a cook, but painting is his passion.
“I drew in private when I was a kid, and I drew and painted when I was a teen. I didn’t really get to painting in earnest until I was in my late 20s.... You neglect it sometimes, but you always go back to it. I really, really wanted to make paintings, to explore all of the ideas I was having,” he said.
Throughout his painting career, he’s developed a few trademarks and a few rules.
He typically uses a 4’ by 4’ piece of wood in paintings. He takes a sheet of plywood and cuts it in half into this square, wooden canvas (smaller than what he used to paint ? 8’ by ‘8). He’s no snob when it comes to choosing materials; he uses everything from acrylic to wall paint in telling his story.
Looking closely at his work, viewers will see that though the piece looks like a collage, the detailed looseleaf paper, the fabricated letters and velvet fuzzy poster are all actually painted on. They just appear so realistic. It’s a lot of extra work, and it’s something you can’t really appreciate until you’re right next to it.
Painting is an ongoing process for him. Sometimes he’ll work on a piece for a while, until he’s sick of it. When that happens, he paints over it (as his wife gasps in mock horror).
“This part can be a pain,” he says, pointing to the textured paint marks from the last piece, underneath the new and improved piece of art ? he has to sand it all down now.
His apartment portrays an artist at work, too. He doesn’t keep sketchbooks; his notes lay scattered around, most of which don’t even make sense, he laughs. He and his wife don’t watch TV, but they do listen to old-school records in their living room, where a few of his paintings hang. Sometimes he’ll wake up in the middle of the night with an idea that he has to record, said his wife, Rachel LeFebvre.
It was through this ongoing effort and these puzzles that he attracted the co-curator at the No. 27 Gallery, Amy Marie Regan, to his work.
“He lets each piece flow through him and live on, and they are like puzzles that have no real answer; just a feeling that tells him when a work is done. In a lot of ways, that shows me that Ryan is a pure artist,” she said.
“A lot of what we see from artists, especially from New England, are landscapes, seascapes or generally pretty pictures. Here, we’re trying to show more conceptual, thought-provoking works.... Every time I enter the gallery, I see something or notice a connection [in LeFebvre’s work] that I had not seen before,” Regan said.
One person who must be credited, however, in his work being shown at the No. 27 Gallery (and in all the shows his work has been in, for that matter) is his wife, Rachel. The organization, the press releases, the website and the networking are all thanks to his behind-the-scenes partner. She’s the one who pushed him into joining the New Hampshire Art Association years ago, which helped him get word out about his work, providing him with an outlet.
“If you have some place to deposit these things when you’re done, it makes making them all the more enjoyable,” Lefebvre said.