CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Artist Ian Bode is a bit uncomfortable having the spotlight on him as an artist — “It’s my work, not me,” he is quick to point out.
But the affable 38-year-old is not shy in talking about his colorful art or about placing his artwork in the public eye.
In fact, Charleston residents will soon see a taxicab wrapped in one of his vibrant paintings — something very fitting for an artist known for the “Passenger” in his art.
“The keyhole-shaped figure you see in almost all of my work is called the Passenger. The faceless cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness can be filled in. They are very much a part of their world, but with the viewer in the emotive driver’s seat, much like a passenger,” Bode said.
“C&H Taxi contacted me about doing a wrap for one of the cabs so it would be a cab that looks like one of my paintings. It will be like a big moving mural,” he said.
Murals are something the artist knows a lot about. He’s a three-time participant in Charleston’s Peer-to-Pier public art mural project.
“Ian Bode, Jeff Pierson and Charly Hamilton are the only three artists who have participated every year of the Peer-to-Pier project,” said Lori Brannon, a neighborhood planner with the city of Charleston; Brannon was instrumental in bringing the pier mural project to Charleston.
“He’s a gem to the city. We are big fans of Ian Bode’s work because he has such a sense of place and is so much about Charleston. We are so lucky to have him here.”
“The town’s just popping up with things,” Bode said of the city’s growing art scene. “The city’s been really great for trying to work with people instead of trying to shut them down. They seem to be pretty receptive to people who approach them.
“A lot of the things I’ve done, I just throw out there a big wide net, and some of it sticks. But they’ve been really receptive. No one’s ever said, ‘Hey, get off the city property with your canvas and your paint brushes.’ It’s a very receiving place. It’s got to be open on both ends for it to really click and it seems to be doing that right now. There are probably four times more artists than when I started plugging away doing my thing. I think it’s great. It’s come a long way.”
The art of Bode is often described as “Celebrating Charleston.”
“It’s where I live. A lot of my art is like my diary. It’s what I see. It’s how I feel about it. When I first came back to Charleston, I walked around and listened to music and just kind of painted my own kind of scenescape with a soundtrack of Charleston. Music influences my work so much. It just kind of fused together. I think a lot of Charleston is in my art. I get a lot of expatriates now that contact me for commissions,” Bode said.
With his use of vibrant colors and his famously tilted-head “Passenger,” the artist has developed a large following of people excited about his art.
“I want to be accessible, and I want the art to be accessible. That’s one of the reasons why the Passenger doesn’t have a face. The viewer can put their face and their emotions on it. If it had a smile, you’d be like, why are they happy? If they had a frown, why are they sad? Without putting any kind of face in there, and just tilting the head, you can have people just be inquisitive or thoughtful.
“One of my favorite things is when people will tell me what they get from one, and then another person will come and tell me what they get from the same one, and it will be completely different. I love that. That’s what makes my day as an artist,” Bode said.
The artist grew up in Pinch and went to Capital High School for its art and soccer programs.
“When I got out of high school, I really just couldn’t wait to get out of here. And then, once you go out and once you travel, if you are even halfway educated or intelligent, you feel like you’re a de facto ambassador for West Virginia, because we just constantly get slammed so much. You start hearing people saying negative things about it and you disagree and stand up for West Virginia.
“Then I moved back here and I see a lot of things to be proud of, and there are great things going on. It feels like maybe Charleston is in a shift. It feels good to be a part of it,” Bode said.
The artist attended West Virginia University and studied art.
“After college, I lived in the Keys for a while. I lived in Raleigh, then Charlottesville. I was just taking it all in, trying to be in the art scene. I was even drawing caricatures down in the Keys. I’m really lucky that it ended up the way it did. I’ve always tried to have a good spirit and take care of myself.
“I don’t even know if moving back to Charleston was a conscious decision, but it ended up being that way. Here we were on the cusp of an art scene and really it was just timing and a lot of late-night conversations and being with like-minded people,” Bode said of his decision to return to Charleston when he was 30.
Concentrating on creating art can be a challenge with all the distractions of modern life and the need to conduct the business side of his artistic life.
“I still do everything by hand, pretty much. I set aside two days a week for emails and messages. I get so stressed out about replying and sending back and talking about money and deals and stuff like that. It takes me out of the zone, so I just try to deal with it when I have to,” he said.
He considers himself to be a cartoonist more than an artist.
“The Passenger started as simple little cartoons, and then it kind of grew to the paintings. I say all the time that I’m more of a cartoonist than an artist. Then I just paint. I’m not big on technique. I’m really enjoying being an artist. It keeps changing and growing and I feel like I’m finding my voice. I just want to be open to it,” Bode said.
“The thing about my stuff is, it all has a narrative. I can just have an idea and run with it. I’ve already got the design and the composition and the context there. All I need is the idea. That’s kind of fun sometimes to have my own little characters even though they all look the same. If you’ve noticed with my work, there are certain ones that pop up all over. Different people around town.
“I have the mayor. I have a lot of the creative people like Jim Lange, Adam Harris is in there. That comes from learning to do caricatures. You learn that without the face, that everyone has props or accessories. Like the mayor, because of his rib houses, I make him with a grill. Jim Lange is in a UFO with headphones because he does that show called ‘Eclectopia,’” Bode said, referring to Mayor Danny Jones and West Virginia Public Radio’s popular classical and eclectic music host.
“All of these start out as ideas. They are title-driven. The title comes first and then I use the title and my art and a kind of emotive juxtaposition to let the person take in whatever they want from it without me trying to beat them over the head,” he said.
“It’s all borrowed, and I admit that. It’s just all this stuff is in my head ever since I was a kid. We all have it; I just somehow have the ability to pick it out. Everybody does it in their own way.
I like to think it’s a bit Bill Watterson — ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’” Bode said.
The creative process for this artist is not always a solitary process. In fact, it can be very social.
“I love ideas. I always want to hear people’s ideas. I love to collaborate. I wish there was more of it going on. It’s a lot less insular here than when I first started. Or maybe I’m just more aware of it now.
“I get inspired and influenced by other artists. When I was working near Jeff Pierson on the Peer-to-Pier project, I realized that when I did caricatures, I enjoyed that. I had really forgotten about how fun it was to do faces. So I did Paula Clendenin as the Mona Lisa. I’ve done a few other people around town. I want to do a whole series. But luckily I haven’t had the time, with the commissions going on. Champagne problems, I guess,” Bode said with a laugh.
He is obviously enjoying re-creating the city and the people he loves on canvas.
“I used to be such an angry young guy, but now I just follow my art and I’m not angry anymore. In my youth, I was way wilder. But this is way cooler. I don’t miss it at all. I don’t know if you’d call it serendipity, but you should always be on the lookout for good things to happen,” Bode said with a smile.
Reach Judy E. Hamilton at email@example.com, 304-348-1230 or follow @JudyEHamilton on Twitter.