With the wind of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant at his back, Jason Needham is ready to explore new frontiers.

For Jason Needham, creating art nowadays is all about the journey. What began as a self-imposed challenge for the Kansas City artist during his time as a stay-at-home parent has become the mainstay of his creative output.

Needham’s early career focused on comic-style Pop Art paintings, a process he describes as “just having an idea and executing it. There were no real surprises.” Although this body of work became a popular component of his shows and exhibits, Needham cites the arrival of his daughter in 2011 as a turning point. It was then that he embarked on a quest to complete 10 plein air pieces inspired by his environment.

And while he continued to produce Pop Art in the ensuing years, he explained that it became a struggle to keep making more of this work, “almost like a physical resistance.”

In 2015, Needham first applied for a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, an organization that exists “for the sole purpose of providing financial assistance to individual working artists.” Although his application was unsuccessful, Needham was undeterred, and he devoted his full artistic attention to making forays in nature and translating his experiences into visual interpretations of these treks.

Trading the confines of a traditional studio for a stretch of brambly woodlands outside his parents’ home in Lawrence, Kansas, Needham embraced the process of his work rather than the products.

The artist’s reverence for the natural world is manifest in the densely verdant landscape paintings he creates and the humility with which he describes his expeditions. “I just liked the adventure of it. There’s something exciting about being outdoors.”

But Needham’s time in the woods isn’t merely a lark, and reflecting on the deeper purpose behind his work, one might be reminded of Henry David Thoreau and his own mission of self-discovery at Walden Pond. For Needham, sharing the grandeur and complexity of nature with his viewers is paramount. Rather than revealing a specific, pre-determined subject, each painting is a window into the machinations of a primal, untamed world.

As Marissa Starke, executive director of the Kansas City Artists Coalition explains, “Jason captures time on his canvas that anyone could observe, giving us a snapshot of what is happening all about us. His works give the audience a meditative and contemplative experience that is necessary in our non-stop world.”

It is this very unpredictability and dynamism of studying nature that motivates Needham. The rich foliage, seemingly so at home on his canvas, is the product of an overwhelming visual complexity. But rather than becoming lost within the chaos, he reveals a window into its inner workings. With his characteristic modesty, he related the challenges inherent in the process, noting, “the degree of transformation over three to four hours is tremendous.” Even small changes in light and in clouds can completely transmute what he sees. For Needham, though, this is all part of the beauty of what he does. “I like that sense of discovery, [of] seeing the universe in a pebble.”

This talent for encapsulating nature’s whims into the visual realm has gained the attention of the Kansas City art community. Reflecting on a previous exhibition of Needham’s work at the Bunker Center for the Arts, gallery director TJ Templeton opined, “The thing that originally attracted me to Jason’s work was the way he balances decorative and representational elements to create a finished product that brings the best of both approaches to the eye of the viewer . . . His large-scale plein air pieces create an environment that absorbs the viewer and transports them to that very moment of the artist’s experience.”

With Needham’s new body of work has come new professional success. In 2017, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College purchased “Heat Vision,” one of his recent landscapes.

Perhaps even more significant was the news in late 2018 that his second application to the Pollock-Krasner Foundation’s grant program had been accepted. A prestigious honor that places Needham among luminaries from around the world, the grant’s monetary award will enable him to pursue his landscape projects more ambitiously.

His plans include renting a vehicle large enough to allow him to transport bigger canvases with him into the woods so he can continue creating work in situ but on a grander scale. He also aspires to expand his territory beyond the outskirts of Lawrence and into central Kansas. Places like Kanopolis and Wilson State Parks “have a lot of romance for me,” he remarked.

And while the honor and its windfall were a welcome boon to the artist, Needham does not envision them changing his fundamental approach. Looking through some old sketchbooks in which he’d drawn versions of a nondescript bush in his front yard — a genesis for his current work — he reiterated his belief that even something seemingly small and mundane can catalyze a person’s imagination “and make you feel like you’re anywhere.”

It will be a treat to see where Mother Nature inspires him to take us in the years to come.

Upcoming exhibitions of Jason Needham’s work include an October showing at the Bunker Center for the Arts and a March 2020 exhibit at the Kansas City Artists Coalition.

Matthew Thompson

Matthew Thompson is an educator, historian, and writer who has lived in Kansas since 2005. His research interests include Progressivism and the Socialist Party of America, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War. He enjoys studying visual arts to help make the world and its history accessible and exciting to others.

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