Richard Cleaver

An artist residency changes the lens for Richard Cleaver.

Predellaoil on birch panel, 4” x 12”, 2018
March Dreamoil on birch panel, 8” x 8”, 2018
Peaceable Kingdom (After Edward Hicks)oil on birch panel, 20”w x 16”h x 1.5”d, 2020-21
Peaceble Kingdom, Edward Hicks, ca. 1830-1832, gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1970, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Swim Teamoil on birch panel, 16” x 12”, 2018
Centaur (detail)hand-built ceramic, wood, freshwater pearls, glass beads, metal, and gold leaf, painted in oil; 25.5”h x 10”w x 10”d; 2016-2019
While in residency for a month at The Studios of Key West in 2018, Richard Cleaver suffered serial ocular migraines triggered by the sun. Though not debilitating, they affect visual sensation, causing what are known as “auras” that can change one’s perception of color.
And so Richard painted what he saw. “Everything seemed so bright at Key West—so vivid,” he says.
He completed Predella while there.
“Because of the migraines, I wasn’t conscious of the colors when I first did them,” he says. “But once I could see them properly, I could see how different they were from anything I had done. I liked that.”
Three other works followed in quick succession.
Two blocks away from Richard’s studio in Key West lay a cemetery he visited each day at noon for lunch (”I would go to see the iguanas sunning themselves in the crypts”).
Captivated by a family plot that included a pet deer among the buried, Richard made this painting, March Dream: a winged deer aloft in a tree with a stylized sunset in the background, flanked by two orange orbs (“that’s the aura from the migraines”).
Though his art is informed by experience, Richard leans heavily on imagination. He creates works more fantastical than real.
“Most of the work I do is from an emotional place—not so much the intellect,” he says. “I have a lot of symbolism in my work, usually from personal dream imagery.”
Completed after Richard’s residency in Florida, Peaceable Kingdom (After Edward Hicks) shows exactly that: a peaceable kingdom with lion front and center, the subject of many works by Philadelphia folk artist Edward Hicks.
“Stylistically, it’s not like Hicks,” says Richard. “For that, I was looking more at Renaissance tapestry; the symmetry helps to center me emotionally.”
The artist also includes imagery from March Dream.
Winged deer aloft in a forest of vascular trees.
Pairs of orbs arced along the top.
The influence of Key West is clear—especially in the color.
Richard began Swim Team before he left his Baltimore home for Key West and completed it while there (after finishing Predella).
The upper section, based on class photos from his husband’s high school yearbook, features muted color: Richard painted it pre-Florida.
Contrasted with the scene beneath it—saturated with Caribbean-blue, electric by compare—the difference is obvious.
In its before-and-after quality, Swim Team tells the full story of Richard’s transformed palette.
A transformation affecting older work as much as work to come.
Richard had begun the ceramic piece Centaur years before Key West, but it had not worked out, and he ended up putting the piece away unfinished.
Until the influence of Florida.
The figure’s face itself is without affect: expressionless and almost monochromatic.
Its plainness is a striking contrast to the vibrancy of the figure’s clothing—turquoise and hot-pink lines snaking across tropical hues. Like neon; like aura.
Richard needed his Florida colors to achieve the expression he had been seeking the whole time: a hybrid of tame and wild—a centaur.
Richard’s work changed with Florida, but change did not stop there.
In 2019, taking part in an art exhibition in Baltimore, he decided to display Swim Team alongside Centaur like a single piece.
Though the effect wasn’t quite what he wanted (“I probably wouldn’t pair these two again; I don’t think the colors worked so well together”), something about pairing a painting with a ceramic piece speaks to Richard; it is an idea he may re-visit.
And just as Predella was the catalyst of a line of tropically hued works, so might this early experiment prove seminal in Richard’s quest for personally meaningful art.
His ongoing formation.