Mixing old art with the new
When artist Buffalo Bonker needed to focus on his artwork, he moved from California to Iowa. No, it’s not a typo. He moved from Orange County because Iowa provided fewer distractions and a more reasonable cost of living.
“It was a town of insurance agents,” he says. “I felt unique when I moved here.”
His name is unique as well. He received the nickname in college and kept it for his professional career.
“People don’t forget my name,” he says. “You Google my name, and it’s the only one that comes up.”
Bonker is a portrait artist located at Mainframe Studios. He showed a talent for drawing at age 4 and sold his first painting, a John Wayne portrait, in eighth grade. He received a degree in graphic design and fine arts, but a “corporate sidetrack” found him as creative director at The Des Moines Register, until he was laid off.
Most of his paintings are portraits, with a familiarity of the faces. He explains, “Everything has a face. What I do is play with people’s recognition and distort the faces in some way.”
For example, his George Washington portrait is elongated, and a Rembrandt is layered with blue hues.
“Part of my work is to take old art and mix it with the new — resample it into something more modern,” he says. “People might recognize a face, but it’s been stretched or changed.”
He credits his new art ideas to his short attention span. While working as an art docent at the Des Moines Art Center, he will view an exhibit on Impressionism. The next week, he’ll incorporate ideas from the exhibit in his paintings.
He’s painted commissioned portraits of people, both dead and alive.
“I’ve done people’s portraits for their funerals,” he says. “I don’t want to be known as the funeral artist.”
One piece of work he commissioned was for actress Mary McCormack’s birthday. It garnered nearly 3,000 likes on Instagram. He painted her portrait in three days in a streamlined and quick effort — which he credits to his newspaper background.
“Working with a deadline motivates me. If I know I have a show coming up, then I try focusing on the end result,” he says. “I want to create a physical object to look at.”
The most challenging aspect is selling and marketing his work.
“Very few painters sell on a regular basis,” he says. “People may look and think, ‘Wow, $2,000 for a painting.’ But even if I worked at McDonald’s, you’d still make more than that. You look at it as income.”
Bonker says being an artist is a real job, not just a hobby.
“There’s a false belief that artists sit around, waiting to be struck by inspiration,” he says. “A quote from artist Chuck Close says, ‘Inspiration is for amateurs. Real artists go to work.’ ” ♦