Barber and artist Aaron Ingle’s creative focus has shifted from realism to the abstract and surreal

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Photo by Will Crooks / Greenville Journal

When Aaron Ingle speaks, it’s sometimes difficult to hear him. He has a quiet, reserved demeanor, but there’s a subtle determination in his voice.

He’s completely self-taught, working at first with charcoal and graphite, and then moving into colored pencils and oils. He’s developed a talent both for hyper-realistic portraiture (of everything from a crawling spider to the great director Alfred Hitchcock) and surrealist landscapes.

And he’s done so while also working as a barber.

“I’ve been creating art pretty much my whole life, but I have no formal training at all,” he says. “A lot of my techniques are from trial and error. I’d do it for a while, then back away from it because I’d get caught up in other stuff. Then I started going through some changes in my life, and creating art helped me get through some hard times.”

Perhaps the biggest boon to Ingle’s career came recently when one of his works was selected by VisitGreenvilleSC and the Greenville Metropolitan Arts Council to be the cover of the 2018 Visitor’s Guide, “Yeah, THAT.”

Sweet Inspirations

Surprisingly, his decision to enter the competition to be on the cover came at the last minute, and it took him about two days to create his entry using a palette knife on canvas.

“I knew about the contest, but I was working on another painting,” he says. “The deadline for submission was on a Friday, and that Wednesday afternoon, I had a canvas propped up in the corner against a wall. And I looked at it and thought, ‘I’m going to give this a shot. I’ll at least try.’ So I took down the painting I was working on, took a look at the small easel, and started working.”

Aaron Ingle’s painting adorns the “Yeah, THAT,” guide, not just because it’s a striking, evocative image but also because the creative impetus behind the guide has evolved in recent years.

Traditionally, the guide cover has been a photograph of an easily recognizable Greenville landmark, like the Liberty Bridge or the Reedy River waterfalls. But Jennifer Stillwell, the executive vice president and chief strategic officer of VisitGreenvilleSC, says that the guide, published in cooperation with the Community Journals Group (owner of the Greenville Journal), has renewed purpose.

“We completely reinvented it, envisioning it as one-part magazine with lifestyle content and one-part utilitarian tool,” she says.

That new concept included a rethink of their cover, and, Stillwell says, VisitGreenvilleSC knew just where to look for it. “We had this untapped opportunity sitting in our backyard: the growing community of artists who call Greenville home,” she says. “We wondered what Greenville looked like to them, in essence.”

Working with Alan Ethridge, executive director of the Metropolitan Arts Council, VisitGreenvilleSC created the competition that Ingle eventually won, being chosen over other 45 other entrants.

“The guidelines were you had to be a resident of Greenville County, and you had to submit your interpretation of ‘Yeah THAT Greenville,’” Stillwell says. “We asked for the subject matter to be reflective of the city and county, individually or collectively. And It’s really interesting that we chose an artist who decided to move to Greenville three or four years ago to explore his art career.”

It was a difficult selection process, but Stillwell says that Ingle’s painting resonated with the judges.

“The cover art speaks to the entire destination of Greenville,” she says. “It’s not just about downtown. There are hints of our history in the mills with the tower. You see indications of skyscrapers; you see indications of cranes, communicating development, suggestions of the mountain lines and the cityscape, which are both integral to who we are. It’s really a terrific expression of where Greenville is today, and it compels people to turn the page. We couldn’t have picked a more appropriate artist to appear on the cover.”

Fresh Eyes

Ingle moved from North Carolina to the Upstate four years ago and essentially discovered a whole new artistic world.

“I’ve met so many other artists here, and I get to converse with them and mix in their ideas, and it’s given me a lot of inspiration,” he says. “Where I’m from, we didn’t have any kind of arts scene. So just being involved in the galleries and meeting other artists has given me the drive to show my work. Then I’d see people’s reaction to my work and thought maybe I should give it more serious effort.”

But even if his main love is art, Ingle sees some parallels between his day job as a barber and his pursuit of art: “They’re both detail oriented,” he says. “They both require a lot of attention. I’m a detail-oriented person, so they both go hand-in-hand to me.”

What is perhaps most interesting about this emphasis on attention to detail is that Ingle has begun moving away from strict realism toward more abstract, and more personal, work. From the precise and intricate portraits he created using colored pencils, Ingle’s journey has taken him into surrealist oil paintings that reflect his own imagination.

“I thought if I could learn to use oil painting the way I used colored pencils, then that’s where I wanted to be,” he says. “The portraits were easier for me, but I have a very big imagination. With the portraits, you’re just looking at something and replicating the details. I like to do a lot of surrealism now. My approach now is from my creative mind. I try to tap into that. As I’ve concentrated more on oil paint, a lot of my ideas come from my dreams.”

In fact, the idea was so last minute that Ingle didn’t do any real preparation for the cover contest: “I didn’t sketch anything out,” he says. “I just started working, and it developed into what it became. But the funny thing about it was that when I finished it, I just had a good feeling about it, and it never went away. That’s the first time that had ever happened, and I don’t know why.”

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