20 Questions with Ryan Rado

Published June 29th 2023
By Kathleen Boyle

I met artist and curator Ryan Rado during May’s Art Crawl when he stopped by Red 225.  Little did I know what an accomplished individual he is in Nashville’s creative community.  Having worked in the music industry for years prior to picking up a paint brush, Rado’s take on action painting is imbued with retrospection. His current exhibition titled Detroit was Always a Mystery to Me hints at this via an assembly of paintings that reference memories of Rado’s childhood lived in Michigan, albeit through forms of pure abstraction, most of which are explored using dark palettes atop large planes of red velvet.  These paintings are incredibly visceral and haunting.  While I was visiting the exhibition, I kept thinking about connections between psychology and art because it is quite clear that Rado’s work is emotionally uninhibited.  It views like a raw, exposed nerve, and is thus quite brave and beautiful.  Detroit was Always a Mystery to Me can be seen at the Rock Wall Gallery in Houston Station, a space where Rado also curates.  The following interview with Rado unpacks motivations behind this exhibition, as well as other facets in life that keep him inspired and grateful.

What is your earliest memory of your burgeoning interest in art?

I used to draw my Air-Jordans on notebook paper around age 11/12.  I wish I still had those drawings, but they’re long gone.

How have you witnessed this early interest reveal itself in your current work?

I experienced a lot of violence and familial abuse as a child, I realize now that drawing for hours in my room was a way to escape that heaviness and an intuitive effort to stay intact with myself in massive amount of chaos.  It’s a similar experience now, but one of the previously unconscious aspects to the solitude is now isolation.  I suppose I was creating both back then, but repressed how isolated I felt being stuck inside a house filled with so much unrest.  It seems a little cliche, but painting is a way to process those feelings and thoughts of loneliness and solitude as an adult.  The two blur together a lot of the time, for me at least.

What motivated and/or inspired you to pursue painting?

I went toward music for a few decades, and was heavily involved in that industry and the local scenes in Michigan and here in Nashville.  In 2014 I started painting “out of nowhere,” or what seemed like it.  It was more of a feeling that was brought forth from the earlier time in my life.  Familiar, solitary, exciting.  Painting and the act of painting provided me complete jurisdiction over a space. I made all the decisions, felt in control of parts of my life when I felt purposeless.  Now, the words “complete control” feel so far away from my current practice, even down to the handling of the materials. They have their own consciousness and can be influenced, but not completely controlled, thank God.

The texture and perception of depth that you’re able to create on your velvet paintings is particularly alluring. Why did you select velvet as a foundation for your artwork?

Thank you.  I chose velvet more or less because of my previous understanding that it was “frowned upon” by the more clinical, institutional types.  I wanted to see what it felt like to make work with materials that were considered to be cheap garbage by academics.  I’m realizing now that my previous understanding was informed by one person’s view of how velvet paintings are received by critics.  I didn’t do my own research, and am now seeing that it was more of a compulsion to say NO to this particular person.  I could’ve just said I disagree, but put it into a passive action which has been unconscious until now answering your question.

Many of your paintings’ color palettes and forms express a somber tone. Is this intentional?

Somber.. I like that word.  I love how I feel when I say it, even more when I pay attention to the WAY I say it.  The quality of it.  Somber, for me, is filled with compassion, sadness and meaning.  The most meaningful aspects of life are found in our tears, even more, in our recognition of our own sadness. And that could be a big reason most of us tend to avoid tears and sadness; it’s overwhelming. And that’s why I think it’s so crucial to spend time exploring those internal spaces.  I’m also a romantic and romantic painter, at least, that’s what I believe about myself right now, subject to change.

“Somber, for me, is filled with compassion, sadness and meaning. The most meaningful aspects of life are found in our tears, even more, in our recognition of our own sadness. And that could be a big reason most of us tend to avoid tears and sadness; it’s overwhelming.”

Do you find that there is a particular voice or point of view that you are only able to activate visually, that does not translate as well through other forms of communication? If so, why do you think this is?

I think the point of view is that of The Observer, the metacognition of my own story and the stories I tend to create about my history coupled with my current feelings.  This way I can document more of the narrative I’ve helped create for myself along the way. I hope it’s an effort to change that narrative over time the more I observe it.  This process is more felt than known. I liken it to when we make attempts to describe God with words.  We feel God, we don’t intellectually know God.

The work in your current exhibition Detroit Was Always a Mystery to Me at the Rockwall Gallery is said to be inspired by your relationship with your hometown and your father. What was it like growing up in Detroit?

I didn’t grow up in Detroit.  I grew up mainly in Howell and some in Farmington Hills.  I was always listening to Detroit radio stations, and would hear talk of landmarks, events and personalities in Detroit. I made up stories about all of them existing together, but separate. I did the same with my Father. I didn’t see him much and made up a lot about who he was.  These stories were heavily influenced by what my Mother thought of him overall, most of which wasn’t favorable.  Parents, don’t do that shit to your kids at one hundred percent.. Leave some wiggle room for everyone to change, even you.

Now that you are a father, has your attitude towards your relationship with your dad changed? If so, how?

Yeah, I have a lot more grace and understanding for the efforts he did make.  He did what he could with the consciousness he had at the trime.  Now that he’s gone, the contempt for him and his lack of effort has vanished,

Why did you decide to move to Nashville?

The circumstantial answer is, I had to get away from a crazy girl.

This exhibition was also co-presented by The Forge and the Risology Club. How are these two organizations involved in the show?

The Forge’s Alyssa Beach is co-curator of this show and has helped me with several different art-related events I’ve hosted in the past at The Forge.  Grateful for her help and vision. Josh Shearon at Risology Club and I are producing a booklet associated with the story and works in this current exhibition.

What method would you prefer one take when making a critique of your art: a formal, contextual, or expressive approach? Why?

I’d love to hear a critique from all of these approaches.  I’m mostly always curious about anyone’s projections related to my work.  Speaking or writing about a piece of art is rarely about the artwork itself.  It seems to be more related to the conditioning of mind and sub-conscious material showing up for the critic. There’s really no way around that. I also respect the hierarchy of the art world as an institution, and despise it.  There has to be structures and lenses through which art is processed and judged for the continuance of its worth and purpose, even more how we relate to it all (which could be the greatest worth and purpose).  Otherwise, like anything else, art and its value will dissolve.  Do we really want that just to feel like our art is acceptable?  Who are we looking to be accepted by?  Speaking for myself, I want my art to be accepted by what or who I've put in a position of authority over myself.  A quote comes to mind : “We don’t know how things really are, we only know how they are for us.”

“Speaking or writing about a piece of art is rarely about the artwork itself. It seems to be more related to the conditioning of mind and sub-conscious material showing up for the critic. There’s really no way around that.”

Who and/or what are some of your biggest artistic influences? How? Why?

That word somber comes back up for me. Peter Paul Reubens, Goya, Bacon, Renoir, Richter, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Michigan Winters, family strife and reconciliation.  How?  I gravitate toward the content of any artistic work.  I like darkness with glints of light. It could be the heaviness of my upbringing and how sensitive I was/am to the feelings or reconciliation and vulnerable communication.  Why? Not sure I ever want to define that.

How does your work demonstrate departure from the above influences?

As far as some of these influences go, at this point, I don’t possess the technical skills they did.  If I attempt to emulate and aspects of their work, it’s from feeling. I work mostly from feeling.  I relate, again, to the somber, dark night of the soul present in their work, or what I interpret in their work.  I have a hard time connecting with puppy dogs and ice cream pop-art, or overtly political art.

You are also a curator for Rockwall Gallery. How did you come to curate, and in this space specifically?

Yep, I am.  I had a solo show early on in my career at Abrasive Media upstairs inside Houston Station.  The building owner liked the work I was doing and asked me to curate the building. I agreed to curate the space downstairs that is now Rock Wall Gallery. I don’t know for how long I’ll be doing it, but for now it’s a good opportunity.

What upcoming projects and/or exhibitions do you have planned within the next 12 months?

Hard to admit, but not much.  I’m day by day right now.

What are your goals for your art within the next 12 months?

It’s hard to think about the next 12 months especially while taking care of a two-and-a-half year old.  But, I’d like to get this collection of work out of Nashville.  I’d like to see it primarily in Detroit, Chicago, Philly and DC, who knows.  I’m going to keep working as much as possible and find more consistency in my work.  I’ve been all over the place for too long
“I’m going to keep working as much as possible and find more consistency in my work. I’ve been all over the place for too long.”

Non-art question time: What’s your favorite food and drink?

Starbucks, basically.

Band(s) and/or record(s)?

Older Smashing Pumpkins, Quicksand, 1975, Nine Inch Nails, Souls Of Mischief, Tool, Sarah Mclachlan, Velour 100, anything with heart


Currently watched Shawshank Redemption, The Equalizer, Brokeback Mountain, Interstellar, Sausage Party, BEEF.

Money’s not a factor, you will burn no social bridges, and you’re guaranteed a comfortable lifestyle no matter what—where would you live, and what would you do?

Probably live in NYC, Detroit making my work, doing some residencies, building and maintaining a butterfly house, curating shows, doing Ontological work with celebrities and artists in general.  Not worrying for the sake of needing something to gain control over, continuing group therapy, and being Harrison’s dad.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Everything I’ve written here as answers is subject to change at any time without notice.  Thank you for your time.

To learn more about Ryan Rado and his work, please visit him online at www.ryanrado.com and on his Instagram page @ryanrado. The Rock Wall Gallery is located within Houston Station at 434 Houston Street, Nashville, TN 37203, as well as on Instagram @rock_wall_gallery.

For further information on Kathleen Boyle, visit her blog at www.red225.com