On a Friday afternoon at Viacom’s Times Square Headquarters, I took a break from work to join 20 of my coworkers for a drawing workshop with Jim Houser, a mixed-media artist from Philadelphia. Houser is Art at Viacom’s latest artist-in-residence, a title which grants him free reign to transform our lobby walls with his bespoke creative design.
Each artist-in-residence typically hosts an hour-long workshop for employees looking to learn their technique. Houser set up his exhibit HERE, RIGHT HERE in the days leading up to his workshop, so I was able to catch a preview of what I’d learn from the session. He had hung canvas collages, quilted with bright squares and rectangles, bringing to mind Dabs Myla’s whimsical world of graphic pop-art from a previous Art at Viacom installation.
Houser’s website describes his work as “visual poetry,” which is an apt description for the canvas he brought to the workshop as an example. It consisted of geometric patterns, typography, doodles and lyrical musings like this one: “the number we see, or the number there actually are.” Combined, these non sequiturs became one fluid verse; a capsule of Houser’s psyche.
And then, we had to replicate this.
Art at Viacom provided us with a selection of Houser’s preferred materials—acrylic, water-based paint-pens, tiny vials of paint, Prismacolor pencils and nearly 100 pieces of rectangular paper, each small enough to fit in the palm of my hand.
Houser briefly explained his technique, which involves drawing or painting each individual scrap of paper with words, symbols or other types of imagery. For the purpose of our workshop, we’d replicate his method—choosing from the heaps of paint, paper, pencils and markers (in his customary color palette of blue and red hues) – to create our own piece of a collaborative mural.
Then, he let us paint.
I chose two pieces of paper—one burgundy, one teal, along with white, dark blue and teal paint pens, blue paint, and a red colored pencil. I honed in on the burgundy paper first, and decided to draw the MTV logo in the upper right-hand corner. After methodically tracing the outline in pencil, I realized the logo was (unintentionally) in the perfect place to make this painting replicate an American flag. I began swiping bold, indiscriminate brushstrokes across the paper to resemble stripes.
While the first layer of paint dried, I turned to the teal scrap, and began sketching a face in the center. I added cryptic imagery—crimson lips covered with the words “don’t speak.”
I let my mind wander until it reached a place where there were no thoughts. I was, for the first time in a very long time, focused only on one thing—this sketch of a mouthless face. I felt serene and meditative, yet productive.
Upon taking a break and looking around the room at my fellow coworkers, I could tell they were in the same zone. As a writer, I’m often hyper-focused on syntax, structure and storytelling. Any Viacom employee, regardless of their particular role, is usually working on many projects at once. To release our inherent compulsion to multitask through painting was invaluable. The energy in the room changed as we crafted complex, intricate designs on tiny pieces of paper. We were present. Most people even ignored their phones save to capture photos of their artwork.
After we finished, we placed our masterpieces on a table, and Houser (who had been prepping a canvas as we pained) began taking each scrap and dipping it into a matte gel, slathering it in the translucent adhesive and using a paint roller to apply paper to canvas.
Watch a time-lapse clip of Houser’s artistic process:
We all watched, periodically asking questions. The workshop was over, but instead of rushing to get back to our jobs, we lingered. Most of us wanted to stay and see where Houser would place our work on the collage, but it’s possible that we just didn’t want to leave the calm, peaceful atmosphere.
I walked out feeling rejuvenated, as if I had just gotten a massage. Back at my desk, I resumed my regular work—but it didn’t feel cumbersome. I was stress-free, and remained so until I left for the day.
During the installation of “HERE, RIGHT HERE,” Jim Houser (@misterhouser) led a drawing workshop with Viacom employees. He then collaged together their drawings for this piece that now hangs in the exhibit at 1515 Broadway. “I saw this as a chance to open up about my art-making process and to show others how I choose to make a painting,” says Houser. “Perhaps by showing others how I do what I do, I can learn a bit about it by watching them do the same.”