Best known of late for large-scale, masterfully rendered paintings (it’s tempting to say portraits) of stuffed toy bears, Brent Estabrook’s work speaks directly to the power of perseverance in the pursuit of happiness. With these bears, it’s a fine line between world-weary and well-loved, and the toys’ nuanced humanity and hyper-realism powerfully underscore the metaphor. His unique blend of classical style and pop surrealism is on view now through March 21 at downtown’s James Wright Gallery in WILD, across three floors connecting the storefront gallery with the artist’s upstairs studio.

L.A. WEEKLY: When did you first know you were an artist?

BRENT ESTABROOK: Without sounding too cliche, I always knew I was an artist; however, in my youth, I didn’t see it as a life/career path or way to make a living. My earliest/first memories were of drawing and playing with Legos and luckily my parents recognized and fostered this by enrolling me in extracurricular art classes when I was young. I continued to create art my entire life but a very pivotal turning point in my life/art career was when I went to undergrad at the University of Arizona. That is when I first started oil painting and, with slight hyperbole, I can count on my hands and feet the number of days since that I have not painted!

Brent Estabrook (Courtesy of James Wright Gallery)

What is your short answer to people who ask what your work is about?

Short answer… follow your childhood dreams and passions; do what you really love in life.

Long answer… I have a very, very strong belief that pursuing your true passion will not only lead to a financially successful/stable life but also, and more importantly, lead to a truly happy life. It seems as we get older we forget about the passions we once pursued as kids that made us truly happy. My hope is that my artwork brings people back to a sense of childhood and reinvigorates playfulness into one’s life…a time when anything was possible and no dreams were out of reach or irrational.

With that said, I also create art for a very simple reason — it is endlessly fascinating to me! I get to spend my days making beautiful “art discoveries” and constantly learning new ways to make art more and more beautiful and more and more interesting. I don’t always know why I create the work that I do, however I believe art, in general, touches that deep, magical, mysterious aspect that makes us so uniquely human…and that alone is motivation enough for me to continue my pursuit.

What would you be doing if you weren’t an artist?

If I wasn’t an artist I would be a chef — art for the tongue. I am a massive fan of a good meal and have found a love for seeking and cooking good food. The more I learn about cooking, the more I see the parallels with art/painting. Each can cause immensely pleasurable and unique experiences and in regards to the creator/chef, can provide an endless opportunity to explore and learn.

Brent Estabrook, Flap, oil on panel, 8×10 inches (Courtesy of James Wright Gallery. Photo by Trixie Textor/Guest of a Guest)

Did you go to art school? Why/Why not?

I do have a Bachelor of Studio Arts from the University of Arizona, however I have done 99 percent of my learning from just painting. I often have debates with my friends whether or not art school is a valuable experience, especially for children, and have not yet come up with a satisfying conclusion. My first impulse is that art school can be too directional and give the impression that there is a right and wrong way to create art — go tell that to Urs Fischer or Basquiat!

Why do you live and work in L.A., and not elsewhere?

When people ask me why I live in L.A. I give them two reasons: 1, the sunshine, and 2, the people. The former is pretty self-explanatory but the latter is usually responded to with something along the lines of, “isn’t L.A. full of fake people!?” Every city has people you do or do not want to associate with, but L.A. is full of amazing people, and especially amazing people following their creative dreams and passions. This is such a great city to meet and mingle with the top in any of the creative fields: art, music, food, film, etc. I cannot express enough how charging it is to be around so many other creatives.

When was your first show?

My first solo show was in 2013 in Louisville, Kentucky while I was still in dental school!… Yes, I am a licensed California dentist, however I have proudly never worked a day of dentistry in my life!

When is/was your current/most recent/next show?

My most recent show, WILD, opened this year, February 8th at James Wright Gallery in DTLA. The show contains 21 paintings and two sculptures, the largest of which is a 4-foot bronze sculpture weighing approximately 600 lbs. My current studio is above the gallery so the exhibition flows through three floors, beginning in the white box gallery and rising into a more intimate display in my private studio. It’s quite unique!

What artist living or dead would you most like to show with?

If i could show with any artist, living or dead, I would show with Philip Guston. I am paraphrasing Guston when he once said, “when “I” leave the studio, that is when I really start painting.” I cannot express how powerful that notion is to me and how much I admire that mindset. I have a personal belief that mastery of art is not mastery of the technical/traditional skills of art, but rather it is mastery of the mind. The artists I admire most are the ones who learned the “traditional” art rules but spent most of their career breaking those rules. Any artist that has been down this path will understand the immense difficulty in mastering and maintaining a flow state of mind throughout not just a piece but an entire career as an artist and creator.

Brent Estabrook, Spiffy, oil on linen, 84×60 inches (courtesy of James Wright Gallery. Photo by Trixie Textor/Guest of a Guest)

Do you listen to music while you work? If so what?

When I am painting I am either listening to audio books, mainly history, or listening to some of the greatest bands of all time!!! I know art is subjective, however I will objectively say that Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Bob Seger, The Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival are some of the greatest bands of all time. They just don’t make music like they used to!

Website and social media handles, please!


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