The Fourth River

From There He Began Making: A Profile of Pittsburgh Artist Ryder Henry

By on December 5, 2014


— by Taylor Smith, for The Fourth River


maxresdefaultI am standing in the middle of an exhibit at the Mattress Factory in downtown Pittsburgh—the room is fully carpeted, and I am surrounded by nearly thirty brick-brown model towers. Foot-tall apartment buildings stand up on black lamp rods that suspend them in the air just at eye-level, lit from the inside like floating ghosts. The room is silent, empty, apart from the models and me. This is my second experience with the work of artist Ryder Henry, resident of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His piece, “Panopticon,” would be featured in a few weeks as the cover art for our first online issue of The Fourth River.

Two hours before, I spoke with Henry in person about his life as a painter and craftsman. There, in his home, where he offered me a cup of tea, we spoke for forty-five minutes or so, moving from room to room, looking through scrapbooks, looking at futuristic landscape paintings and portraits hanging on various walls, looking at his model spaceships—like something straight out of a Frank Herbert novel—cattycornered throughout the house, along with his son’s toys and stuffed animals, and pulling out finished and unfinished canvases hidden inside of closets. When I asked him how it all started, he pulled out an old book by Steven Eisler and Chriss Foss, Space Wars: Worlds & Weapons, a book full of airbrushed pictures of fantastical, Space Odyssey-like spaceships and Lost in Space-type characters. “I got a copy of this when I was seven years old,” he said as I thumbed through the pages, looking at amoeba-like pods rolling into gothic buttresses shooting out into deep space. “I loved all of these pictures. The aesthetics of it.”

Ryder Henry’s history as an artist brewed amidst these fantastical worlds, and began to develop more seriously back in high school, where he dabbled with science fiction pencil drawings, paintings, and models. “In sophomore and junior high school I started making acrylic paintings, and I did a lot of these morbid things. That was what I was really the most excited about, surrealist paintings,” he said as he pulled a painting out of his closet depicting a man being bitten by some demon looking cat, with a young woman playing a violin in the background.

“I did that kind of easy light painting for a long time. And I was frustrated by figurative painting, because the landscapes are just…I just couldn’t be happy doing landscapes. And portraits, I did some of my family, back in ‘98 or so. And some other portraits, but I don’t like to ask people to sit because I can’t guarantee that the outcome will be successful.”

But despite that frustration, Henry has taken those very imaginative worlds and landscapes that he had dreamed about as a kid and has made something out of them that is his own. His work, which emulates various techniques found in those old science fiction books—Space Wars, and work by Alastair Reynolds—is developed nowadays predominantly on oil and canvas, or pieced together with discarded cardboard boxes and paint. They depict colorful, futuristic worlds that evoke both wonder and fear—they are surreal and psychedelic, and yet, exceptionally precise. I asked him if he had any experience working in architecture or doing architectural rendering, seeing as the majority of his paintings depict Jetsons-like cities, or even his own home, in a very technical manner:

“I just like it,” he said. “I did a summer program at Rhode Island School of Design back in high school, but it turned me off of architecture because it was too conceptual. I didn’t like all the chatter; same reason I left school too. But I love architectural rendering.”

It was at the Rhode Island School of Design that Henry first took painting to a more professional level.

“I thought, oh, I should make paintings. People will take you more seriously. And that’s what I was interested in, too. Got more into painting for years and years. I did more figurative painting, started using oils, and then I moved out to Portland Oregon, and I kind of got more into acrylics.”

But model-making, which he saw as childish for a period of time, soon resurfaced after he was offered to create a cityscape for a B science fiction movie out in Austin, Texas.

“And it kind of got me, and I read Cities in Flight [a series of science fiction stories by author James Blish] around the same time, and that inspired me a lot.”

From there he began making, what some might consider his signature pieces, the elaborate model spaceships, some three feet long, all out of cardboard, and the large model-city, which sits in its own corner in the Mattress Factory exhibit.

“It’s everywhere, it’s free, easy to work with, you just glue it together,” he said in reference to using cardboard as a medium.

In 2005 and 2006, he started making spaceships big enough to have lights placed inside of them, making them glow elegantly in the dark, which must have been part of the inspiration for the field of brown-brick towers that surrounded me.

He was hesitant to interpret his work throughout the interview. But he humored me for a moment when I asked him about his piece, “Panopticon,” which would be featured on the front cover of The Fourth River, and other paintings depicting the same city that is now a model at the Mattress Factory. He said there were elements in it of a science fiction movie called Divergent, similar to Brave New World, or something apocalyptic.

In almost all of these paintings, a technological hub sits in the center, an advanced, architectural structure. And in the distance, surrounding this hub–simple, stark, brick apartment buildings, the same brick buildings presented in the exhibit.

“It’s a movie about high school, pretty much,” he said in reference to the futuristic city and the film Divergent. “All the kids have to choose what they’re going to do, and they’re just stuck doing that for the rest of their lives. So, if you just don’t have any ambition, you would just be a farmer. And they just joke around and weed the fields and harvest, and they seem to be pretty happy about that. The science learned people do the research, and whatever they need to do. And there’s the police force. So this is kind of like that.

“In the center of town there’s this techno thing going on and they have the science and rocket ships, and there’s a particle accelerator that loops around, and you can see a little bit of that behind this, this whatever geothermal-vent-tower-something, but then, if you’re not engaged in sort of scientific or administrative activity, then maybe you’re just a farmer, and you live out in the fields in the brick towers and you tend to your plot.”

When I asked him if there were something he had hoped to convey to an audience, something he had hoped to accomplish with his art, or whether or not it were just personal exploration, he laughed and said, “Yeah, I don’t have a social agenda. I mean, you could say something about this kind of like neo-bolshevism or whatever technocracy, but that’s not—I’m not trying to forward that agenda. I don’t want to see our society necessarily move that direction…where would I be there? I mean this,” he picks up a model plane made out of cardboard, “this is for my little two year old, and he asked me, he wanted a plane that has wheels that turn, and he keeps asking me when he comes home…about the airplane. I get a lot of pleasure making that, and it’s going to be cool because I’m going to make it strong enough to withstand a toddler, with its rounded wingtips…” He picks up a flattened Yuengling box and proceeds to show me how he has managed to paint it white, which strengthens it, and then cut it into pieces in order to create the outer layer of the airplane, and shows me how the wheels spin. He is reserved, but enthusiastic. He is still living through those books that he had as a kid, airbrushed spaceships, Gothic buttresses shooting out into deep space. Now he is creating that very world for his son.


You can see Ryder Henry’s exhibit, titled Diaspora, 2014, at the Mattress Factory Art Museum, out past the Liberty Tunnels in Millvale, Pittsburgh, at 500 Sampsonia Way. The exhibit will be open from September 13, 2014 to May 31, 2015.

For more information about Ryder Henry, visit his website.