A Painting a Day: Group Delphi Scenic Artist’s Creative Challenge

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Group Delphi is less a “9-to-5” and more a collection of artists that work together. With painters, wood and metal workers, sculptors, experience designers, graphic artists and a digital media team all under one roof, our West Coast studio (one of two talent-rich locations) houses one of the most robust creative cohorts in the Bay Area.

Take Jon Altemus. As Group Delphi’s Scenic Exhibits Manager, Jon leads a team that creates stunningly realistic models, replicas, and dioramas for museum and trade show exhibits. From historically accurate log cabins at the Indiana State Museum to lifelike octopi at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Jon and his team bring world-class artistry and painstaking detail to all manner of flora and fauna.

Creative Roots

When the 2016 presidential election left Jon feeling frustrated and eager to do something to evoke change, he thought of a Maya Angelou quote: “We need to remember that we are created creative and can invent new scenarios as frequently as they are needed.” Jon graduated the San Francisco Art Institute with an MFA in Fine Arts Painting, and his reaction to the election presented an opportunity to return to his roots.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to do a painting every day,’” he said.

So he did. Every day. For 365 days.

Something to Work With

“I have a friend who uses what she calls “happy mistakes,” Jon said. “‘She’ll close her eyes and spill some paint on the canvas, open her eyes, and say, ‘Now I have something to work with.’”

Jon took a similar approach to get started. He found paintings he’d created 20 or more years ago on large sheets of masonite, put them face-down on a table saw, and cut them into 7×7-inch sections — without looking at the artwork on the front. He flipped them over and sanded off some of the paint to reveal new layers beneath, and the small artistic fragments he found became canvases for his new work. The randomness of the cuts offered fresh surprises to build upon, staving off creative blocks.

Whence Inspiration?

Though the project began as political expression, Jon says its themes quickly took off in new directions.

“Inspiration morphed pretty much right away. A protest painting every day is not what I am, and I was letting images find themselves. That lent to the spontaneity of the images, and it made it a lot easier for me to get the paintings done. I had the challenge to do a painting every day, and I tried to finish them in an hour each. The content wasn’t as important as the process.”

That’s not to say the content wasn’t compelling; a wide array of ideas and images emerged as the year went on, particularly ones he had worked with extensively before. The tardigrade, the fascinating microscopic “water bear,” was a frequent subject because he’d drawn hundreds of them for an exhibit in Chicago’s Field Museum. So too were octopi a popular theme, thanks to his work on the Perot Museum.

A Culture of Creativity

Jon said the melding of skills and ideas between professional and personal projects isn’t just common at Group Delphi; it’s key to the culture.

“Justin [Hersh, Group Delphi Founder and CEO] has been super generous and supportive, and he will be the first to say that he encourages that type of creativity. He knows he has sculptors, fine cabinet makers, media people, filmmakers, and others on his staff that aren’t necessarily doing those things [at work]. To give us the opportunity to express those artistic outlets on our own time, and to give us part of the facility to use for it — it’s super valuable, and it makes for better employees.”

To that end, Jon’s 365-piece collection of one-a-day paintings was displayed in Group Delphi’s Alameda hangar through January. A special reception was held January 7, but those who missed it can soon view selections from the collection at The Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland. A special opening will be held February 2.

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