Wednesday, April 24, 2024

<p>Brian Whitfield stops for a portrait backdropped by his vibrant Allen Neighborhood Center mural on Feb. 23, 2024.</p>

From giant fruit on the wall of Capital City Market to license plates driven throughout the state, local artist Brian Whitfield has made a lasting mark on the Lansing area. His artistic journey is far from over, he says. 

Whitfield has been an artist for as long as he can remember. As a child, he used to shape pieces of food into animals. Today, he creates 30 foot murals, 3D collage pieces and a variety of graphic art.

He said his current style has taken his entire career to create. One of his biggest inspirations was Picasso’s later abstract work

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One of the many paintings and art projects done by himself that Brian has decorated his house with on Feb. 23, 2024.

Music is another place Whitfield gets much of his inspiration, primarily jazz and gospel

“Music has a big influence on me,” Whitfield said. “How they played with sound and bend sound, it’s kind of like when you do a swish in a painting. That's kind of like trumpeters making an all of a sudden loud noise. So I kind of listen to music and see, they’re not just singing … they’re bending sounds, so I could do that with paint.”

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Brian Whitfield explains the process of one of his mural projects using a scaled down replica in his home studio on Feb. 23, 2024.

Although he has covered a variety of walls throughout the Lansing area, painting murals was something Whitfield never expected to be doing

“When I was in grad school, I told them I'm never gonna go draw big,” Whitfield said. “And of course, I come out here, come back home, and there you go, I’m painting gigantic murals all over the place.”

Whitfield’s first solo mural covers the underside of the US-127 and Michigan Avenue overpass located between Homer and Howard Streets. Since then, he has expanded to take on several other larger-scale projects throughout the Greater Lansing area.

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Brian Whitfield reminisces on his work while walking by his Allen Neighborhood Center mural on Feb. 23, 2024.

Currently, he is working on the second half of a mural near Lansing Community College. When creating a mural, Whitfield starts with a pencil sketch to lay out the composition and decide what elements he will include.

Then, he creates a final drawing on grid paper to scale and includes his iconic vibrant colors. He said his favorite part of mural work is the designing process.

“It always changes as I'm painting,” Whitfield said. “I enjoy the sketching process, but when it just comes down to the big painting process, then I start to change things. It's fun to just manipulate paint and think about how I can, you know, change things.”

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Brian Whitfield sits down at the desk of his home studio searching fore a stroke of inspiration on Feb. 23, 2024.

Whitfield said that he is still uncomfortable with painting murals, and that’s part of the reason he continues pushing himself to do it. 

“There’s a kind of freedom in doing it,” Whitfield said. “I’m outside, I don’t necessarily want to work with a group of people. And I’m challenging myself, I like that challenge.”

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Brian Whitfield adds some details to a mostly-completed sketch in his home studio on Feb. 23, 2024.

Along with a sense of freedom, Whitfield describes working on the murals outdoors as peaceful. However, working in nature brings its own unique set of challenges, including having to plan around rain and other types of weather

“The bugs that live under (the bridge), they were just all over the place,” Whitfield said. “The sun, when I’m doing a south-facing wall, the sun hits me all day long. When I’m painting a mural during the summertime, if I do two or three murals, I’m probably going to lose about 20 pounds.”

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Whitfield has also started a project to paint collages of community memories on the pillars across Interstate 496. The goal is to bring back icons of the Lansing community that was displaced by the creation of the freeway

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Two of the many characters that fill Brian Whitfield's murals on Feb. 23, 2024.

There are 58 pillars in total, and Whitfield’s dream is to cover as many as possible

“Just to kind of recognize that this space had some vibrant living things happening,” Whitfield said. “And a real strong community that was thriving ... (the freeway) kind of ran right through it and dispersed everybody.”

Most of the work Whitfield has done on the project so far has consisted of collages of the faces of people who lived in the area. He said he would like to add references to houses, buildings, businesses, as well as the Native American trails that existed before the freeway was built. 

In the future, Whitfield said he hopes to start returning to smaller work. He said he would like to create more pieces that make people think

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A vast array of drawing and painting supplies await their use on Brian Whitfield's desk at his home studio on Feb. 23, 2024.

A recent piece of his, which won second place at Art Prize, focused on the topic of gun violence. 

“It was bright colors, lots of bright colors that attracted people,” Whitfield said. “But then, when they looked at it and saw the pieces, they, the teachers especially, teared up. They were kind of speechless with that.”

He said he plans to make a piece focused on gender identity and accepting how others present and see themselves, though he isn’t sure exactly what he wants to create. His inspiration for the idea came from personal experience with transgender and nonbinary youth in his life. 

“We can all be whoever we want,” Whitfield said. “ Whether you are a man and want to wear more feminine clothes, it's okay. If you're a woman and want to be more masculine, that's okay. We just accept everybody for their space.”

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Everyday items mix with those used for his creations in Brian Whitfield's home studio on Feb. 23, 2024.

Although he has opened up and experimented with his art much more than when he began, Whitfield said he hopes that the future will bring more comfortability and more progress.

“What's funny is, I'm still kind of conservative,” Whitfield said. “I don't go all the way and I just feel like I'm waiting just to kind of go further, further and further. As I do a little bit more, I loosen up a little bit more. I loosen up a little and keep progressing.”

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Brian Whitfield's signature graces the bottom of one of his paintings in his home studio on Feb. 23, 2024.