9 Midwestern Artists Who Capture the Region’s Eclectic Zeitgeist cover

9 Midwestern Artists Who Capture the Region’s Eclectic Zeitgeist

The Midwest is a large, flat, strange patch of land that sits, somewhat uncomfortably, between L.A.’s expansive shores and NYC’s DIY, too-cool-for-you aesthetic. Encompassing every state from Nebraska to Ohio, the nation’s heartland contains a nuanced mosaic of competing ideas that coalesce to create tension, resilience, warmth, and, above all, authentic weirdness.

While NOT REAL ART is based in L.A., our roots are firmly planted in the Midwest. Publisher Scott “Sourdough” Power hails from the mean streets of Chicago, while Editor in Chief Morgan Laurens grew up in Ohio’s Rust Belt. Below, you’ll discover nine Midwestern artists who capture something indefinable about the region’s multi-faceted subtleties.

Tim Rickett and Epiphany Knedler (Midwest Nice)

Epiphany Knedler (left) and Tim Rickett of Midwest Nice

“I think there is a lot of resilience in the [Midwest],” says Tim Rickett, who heads one half of South Dakota-based art collective MidwestNice Art. “In the Midwest, you can get larger studio spaces, create your own galleries, and pursue larger-scale activities because there is room to grow,” chimes in cofounder Epiphany Knedler, who met Tim at East Carolina University during graduate school. The two artists quickly bonded over their shared Midwestern background, similar aesthetic, and an overarching mission to support creatives in their professional success.

Read more about Midwest Nice here.

Steven Shik

‘Untethering From a Closed Loop’ by Steven Shik

A Korean American adoptee, Steven Shik explores complex narratives surrounding the self through his figurative works. Rendered in mossy greens, mustard yellows, and dusty pinks, his illustrations provide a soft landing place for subtle magic to unfold. Layered among hidden faces, metronomes, and vultures, pink flowers alchemize across Steven’s work, blooming in surprising places. “The mugunghwa, or as most Americans refer to as the Rose of Sharon, is the national flower of South Korea,” Steven explains. “This symbol of South Korea contrasts with the narrative of Korean adoptees alienated from status and nationality. Does this symbol still apply to people who were stripped of being ‘Korean’? By re-contextualizing this symbol, the use of the mugunghwa in my art is used to illustrate and process the loss and redefinition of identity.”

Read more about Steven Shik here.

Lacey Eidem

‘The Poor Bastards Will See Them Soon Enough’ by Lacey Eidem

Based in Minnesota, painter Lacey Eidem lives and works in a famously weird region: The Midwest. Her characters, with their bulging eyes, dilated pupils, and dazed expressions, wouldn’t look out of place in a go-nowhere town where the residents are never as friendly as they seem. Mixing the macabre with bright colors and playful brushstrokes, Lacey explores the complexities of human nature “through the fresh eyes of a child.” Rainbow colors and a slap-dash style guide viewers through chaotic compositions filled with too-wide smiles, rotted noses, and droopy eyelids. “I aim to bring the viewer in with what seems to be a light and fun painting,” she says. “I want them to realize it’s not always what it seems.”

Read more about Lacey Eidem here.

Kaitlyn Jo Smith

‘Lights Out’ (video still) by Kaitlyn Jo Smith

Growing up in Ohio’s Rust Belt, Kaitlyn Jo Smith directs our attention to modern labor practices in America with her recent video “Lights Out,” a term used to describe fully automated factories with little or no human presence. These sites operate “without heating, air conditioning, lunch breaks, or unions,” Kaitlyn tells NOT REAL ART. Similarly, the portraits of workers appearing in “Lights Out” aren’t real people; they’re deep fakes fabricated by a neural network. “This neural network was trained using a dataset of 50,000 pictures of factory workers that I sourced through Facebook,” says Kaitlyn, explaining how her series of algorithms recognize underlying relationships through deep learning, a type of artificial intelligence that mimics the operating patterns of the human brain.

Read more about Kaitlyn Jo Smith here.

Andrew Steinbrecher

Andrew Steinbrecher’s work book

Though Andrew Steinbrecher considers himself an introvert, the multidisciplinary artist adores the hustle and bustle of city life. Based in Cincinnati—the capital city of Southwest Ohio—Andrew uses the “controlled chaos of and dichotomy of urban environments” to create graphic prints, quilts, and fabric collages.

Andrew’s stomping ground is a prime example of controlled city chaos. Cincinnati is essentially a city of small towns, made distinct by topography and in-between spaces. To boot, the lower Midwestern city is one county away from Appalachian Ohio, the most mountainous region in the state. Cincinnati’s odd corners, sudden turns, and steep, rolling hills simultaneously hide and accentuate pockets of overgrowth, and give the city a spirited unpredictability.

Read more about Andrew Steinbrecher here.

Whitney Sage

‘Recession’ (from the Homesickness Series) by Whitney Sage

Like most Midwesterners, Whitney Sage’s hometown holds a special place in her heart. Born in the suburbs of Detroit, the multidisciplinary artist has since relocated to another Midwestern locale, but her work continues to mine the Motor City for inspiration.

In her Homesickness Series, Whitney creates melancholy portraits of suburban Detroit. Her inky works evoke the uneven exposure and low tonal range of an old-timey tintype, a photographic process made popular during the Civil War. In choosing a vintage aesthetic, Sage captures a subdued nostalgia that echoes a universal longing for home and familiarity in an unstable world. Simultaneously, her work zeros in on the geographic particularities of her own upbringing, casting light on the vestiges of a once-booming industrial powerhouse. Unlike similar work that fixates on Detroit’s gutted urban areas, Whitney nurses the city’s residential wounds with painfully intimate architectural portraits. Her isolated structures, obscured by overgrowth, convey the eerie emptiness of the city’s sparse and scattered population. Each individual work “serves to memorialize threatened histories or serve as stark reminders of the absence left behind by the physical erasure of markers of history in the name of blight removal or gentrification,” Whitney writes in her artist statement.

Read more about Whitney Sage here.

Dre McLeod

‘Cherish’ by Dre McLeod

“My aim is to change the perception of how women-led craft and Appalachian folk art is viewed,” says maker Dre McLeod. “Why can't it serve as a valuable means of art and expression the same way painting and sculpture has for centuries? Or as when men experiment with the same traditional craft-as-art?”

The Ohio-based artist, who grew up in the Appalachian region of West Virginia, where craft is a prominent part of the culture, makes abstract textiles in the vein of Hilma af Klint. Craft and folk art have long been separated from fine art, but Dre has a mission to change the stereotypes surrounding her chosen mediums. “Attempting to make craft into fine art is always alienating! Especially as a woman,” she tells NOT REAL ART. “I often see men working with quilting and fiber receiving exhibitions and accolades, but it seems harder for women to receive recognition for the same.”

Read more about Dre McLeod here.

Andrew Au

‘FOL’ by Andrew Au

Like your favorite horror movie, Andrew Au’s work pulls double duty, serving up scares that also illuminate deep-seated cultural anxieties. Working with a variety of digital and analog printmaking techniques, the Cincinnati-based artist illustrates a dark, wild ride through the terrifying corridors of his own mind.

Horror films have long acted as a vehicle of expression for underlying personal and social fears: paranoia bred out of religious frenzy (The Witch), panic over women’s bodily autonomy (Rosemary’s Baby), and the nonsensical brutality of war (Night of the Living Dead). Andrew picks up where surrealist filmmakers David Lynch and David Cronenberg leave off, creating an insular world for his fearsome creatures to frolic. “Mostly driven by my fears and anxieties, these spaces are a way to put those fears into a safer space of reflection and expression,” he says of his work.

Read more about Andrew Au here.

Morgan  Laurens 

Morgan Laurens (she/her/hers) is NOT REAL ART’s editor in chief. Morgan is an arts writer from the Midwest who enjoys saying “excuse me” when no actual pardon is needed. She specializes in grant writing and narrative-based storytelling for mission-driven artists and arts organizations. With a background in printmaking, pop culture, and classic literature, Morgan believes a girl’s best friend is the pile of books on her bedside table.