lawrence magazine / fall 2020
‘BUILDING UP LAYERS’ From celebrity portraits to football cleats, John Sebelius opens the next stage in his artistic career with bold projects layering art and design Story by Darin M. White
ohn Sebelius began his art career with a flourish. His Topeka High School portfolio day show, including a self-portrait with toothpaste, eventually led to a spot at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Art and Design (RISD) and summer student residencies at both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Kansas City Art Institute. After graduating with honors at RISD in 2006, he returned to Kansas and earned his MFA at the University of Kansas in 2012. Now with numerous residencies, shows, teaching engagements and awards to his credit, Sebelius is resident artist at KU’s Cofrin Logan Center for Addiction Research and Treatment and continues to create original work that often focuses on nostalgia, pop culture and social issues. These themes are represented in one of his recent projects, a series of customized football cleats through the National Football League’s official project “My Cause My Cleats.” This program pairs NFL stars with artists to paint designs on a pair of game cleats (intended as collectors’ items, not for play) to draw attention to and raise funds for a group or charitable cause championed by the athlete. One of Sebelius’ projects was creating cleats for Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The shoes benefited Team Luke Hope for Minds, a charity assisting families whose children have suffered severe brain injury. To date, Sebelius has customized 35 pairs of cleats— including 10 oversized mascot cleats. He says the series has allowed him to explore one of his favorite approaches as an artist, the chance to “combine traditional and alternative materials with a colorful palette.” A good example of this approach is the pair of cleats he created for Allen Bailey. Because Bailey is known by his nickname “The Hulk,” the former KC player requested one shoe be painted Hulkish green and the other painted to represent his home town, Sapelo Island, Georgia, with a boat, ocean waves and other details. KC wide receiver Gehrig Dieter gave Sebelius another favorite request: one shoe pictured his three French
bulldogs and another shoe honored his brother, who was serving in the military. “I like doing the military and patriotic themes,” says Sebelius, who headed up an art program for the Veterans Affairs in Topeka from 2016–2018. “And one of the most gratifying parts of the ‘My Cause My Cleats,’ project is learning about all of the organizations and foundations that are doing incredible things locally and nationally. Finding different ways to physically represent these charities on the players’ cleats—each one of which are a different design—is a fantastic design challenge.” Sebelius frequently shows his work in Lawrence. Recent showings include a benefit to raise funds for the stained glass restoration at the historic St. Luke AME Church and a Cider Gallery showing of “Born to Kill,” a collaboration with fellow artist Chris King that explored celebrity culture and “how comedy and what we perceive as ‘funny’ changes over time.” Sebelius’ portraits in this show, precise drawings layered with paint splatter (also a technique used in his “We the Women” series) reflect his process of tailoring his methods for each creations—the project will dictate the procedure. For example, on large abstract paintings, Sebelius won’t start with a sketch or final concept in mind. Instead, “the physicality of my paintings is created through a constant reworking process,” he says. “Building up layers of ground and physically removing them allow me to connect with my subjects and materials on a physical and individual basis.” You can see that connection in portraits such as Sebelius’ Harriet Tubman. Though the central portrait image is precise and deliberate, the peripheral blue and red paint reacts in small explosions both from being thrown at and blown around the canvas. These colors—distinct and blending into shades of purple— look like a physics experiment. As much as they draw the viewer’s attention, they do not overshadow the raw sketch of the famous Underground conductor and her solid, weighty gaze that seems to look across the generations between her life and the present.
OPPOSITE (Clockwise from upper left) Sebelius painted these cleats as part of the National Football League’s “My Cause My Cleats” charity program. The silver and green pair at the top of the picture was created for Patrick Mahomes. Harriet Tubman, part of the “We the Women” series. A layered painting commissioned by the Heeb family of Lawrence. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, part of the “We the Women” series.