While many struggled with forced isolation during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, John Hrehov instead embraced the solitude to create some of his career's best paintings.
And now he's been rewarded for it.
The New York Foundation for the Arts recently announced the Purdue University Fort Wayne professor of painting and drawing as the Recharge New Surrealist Prize winner, which includes a $7,000 award. More than 450 artists entered the contest.
Organizers defined surrealism as “an extension of the Surrealist movement, where artists combine relatable imagery in uncanny and unexpected situations within their work.”
In other words, the artists use creative symbolism to ask observers to see more, or as Hrehov said, “There are elements of surprise and of poetry, combining imagery in situations together that maybe fit something you are trying to communicate as a narrative. You try to give it something that has more meaning and a broader appeal. There has to be something more mysterious as a painting. The viewer should ask questions. You like to try to raise questions the viewer has to ponder or research on their own.”
The 63-year-old's efforts are striking and encourage observers to take time and wonder what he's trying to say.
“He's got an incredible eye for storytelling,” said Ann Shive, owner of Roanoke's Crestwoods Frame Shop and Gallery. “I always think he's telling a story, but it's the observer who sees it in a totally different way. He's leaving it up to interpretation for his collectors.”
But as much as observers spend looking and deciphering Hrehov's depictions, he devotes countless hours to developing each painting or drawing in his home studio. Because his PFW classes were conducted remotely last year, Hrelov had more time to concentrate on his own creative process.
He'd play music, tune in to a podcast or listen to a baseball game to keep his mind busy and allow his subconscious to create. During a normal good year, Hrehov will produce six or seven pieces. Last year, he created nine.
“It's more a very gradual process of being consistent and trying to work almost every day,” Hrehov said. “It's a marathon. We tell this to our students. It's a long game. You face a lot of disappointment and frustrations, but it's something you have to be committed to do. It's not for everybody.
“Each one is different. Everybody has a different way of seeing the world or reality and prioritizing what they want to put into a painting. That's what makes art interesting, that personal take on life and the world.
“It's always the what-if ... scenario. What if I do it differently? There's always the creative process that you are going through mentally, even if you are just seeing the world around you. A lot of my work is inspired by what you see every day, and I get inspiration from that.”
Growing up in Cleveland, Hrehov was the son of a steel mill worker and a homemaker and was surrounded by Roman Catholic imagery. He started his artistic interests by copying comic strip characters and cartoons.
“Your work stands out, and you realize you have something your classmates don't have,” he said. “Hey, I have an ability. It's like the guy who can run faster or someone who can sing prettiest, it's something that stands out. I feel what I have is a gift from God. It's tied to a calling or vocation. I must do something with this and not squander it.”
After earning a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Cleveland Institute of Art, Hrehov earned a master of fine arts at Illinois before starting his teaching career at a small Chicago college. He moved to Fort Wayne in 1989.
“I've always enjoyed teaching,” Hrehov said. “Teaching is a two-way street, and you learn a lot in the process of giving out. You learn a lot about yourself and the craft over time. Teaching is very inspiring. It can be frustrating but usually more inspiring than anything else. The whole creative thing gets you out of bed in the morning.”
Hrehov's art has been shown in New York since 1998 and for the last 22 years in Chicago. Shive began presenting his art in her gallery five years ago.
“He's so observant and very quiet until you start talking about the things that are John, his knowledge and his curiosity,” Shive said. “He researches, reads and observes a lot before he starts painting. There's a bit of whimsy, mystery and lessons to be learned. He's extremely thoughtful.”