Austin-based painter and muralist Ryan Runcie has a thing for partitive color theory; that is, colors in relation to other colors.
“You can never see just one color on its own,” he tells me over the phone. “Even when you’re in a room that’s painted one color, you will see many shades.”
Look close enough, he explains, and you start to see lightness and darkness, the way different colors affect each other.
Runcie, who grew up in a quiet suburb of Houston, is a first-generation American of Jamaican heritage. His mother, who came to the U.S. at 17, pursued her education in New York City; his father settled in Florida sometime in his 20s. They met, got married, and moved to Texas — supposedly on their wedding day.
“I’m from a family of wide cultural understandings,” says Runcie.
The West Indies are a richly diverse commingling of cultures and ethnicities, and Ryan’s own family is no exception: they are of African, Hispanic, Caucasian, and Arawak (indigenous) descent.
His father, who is considered Black in his native Jamaica, passes for white in America. And his mother, Runcie tells me, who is of darker complexion, has experienced bias here, but not there. Race has played out differently for each of them, depending on the context. Ryan himself has experienced this.
“Growing up there were white groups that called me Black Ryan and Black groups that called me White Ryan,” he recalls. “It’s a way for them to protect their personal beliefs about how things should be structured — but it’s a waste of time to get bogged down in other people’s labels.”
Runcie says he tries to sidestep such labels in order to get at the bigger humanistic picture. His murals and paintings often incorporate radiant color precisely to eliminate color; high realist portraits which allow the individual to be seen without social constructs.
“No matter who you are, you’re forced to deal with the psyche and beauty of a person. I use my own background to read the philosophical and psychological derivatives of the figure in my paintings.”
Runcie recently worked on the Masontown Mural in East Austin, an urban beautification project coordinated by the non-profit Raasin in the Sun in conjunction with Six Square. Masontown was one of four Freedman Towns established in Austin after the Civil War. Brothers Sam and Raiford Mason purchased the land in 1867. It became a small but vibrant African-American community built from the ground up by its 200 residents, former slaves from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia.
Just before completing the large-scale mural (it’s 20’ x 25’), Runcie was asked to be the lead artist for the Black Lives Matters street installations in Austin. As a board member of Capitol View Arts, the 28-year old was proud to stand with the city at such a pivotal moment.
“I wouldn’t say that my focus is just on marginalized people, but bringing light to the beauty and humanity of all people.”
I ask Ryan about his personal experience as a Black American, rather than an African-American, growing up in Texas. And what that’s been like when confronting complex social and racial issues in his work.
“It allows me to be a fly on the wall, a third party looking in. I don’t claim to have ancestry here, but I experience similar things to African Americans in this country, so I still have a full understanding.”
This perspective clearly informs Runcie’s art, what he describes as a blending of styles and aesthetic fluidity. His use of colors, especially in portraits, speaks to the E Pluribus Unum which defines us, even during this difficult time: “Out of many, one.”
“For any movement, there has to be a wide range of voices working together toward the same goal,” says Runcie. He points to May 2020 as being a moment of huge transition, a real opportunity to get people to listen and to “change hearts.” His personal form of activism is less about pointing fingers, and more about the art — though he believes it takes all kinds to make real and lasting strides.
“It’s a very ‘you post it, I share it’ moment, and it’s hard to see if we’re doing this right or wrong. Hindsight is 20/20.”
But even in 2020, Ryan is baffled by our unwillingness as a country to get beyond our past. It’s a plight he continually explores in his paintings and murals — particularly his commissioned pieces — when giving voice to those who have been forgotten, or who are unable to tell the story themselves.
He recognizes the impact a mural can have on a community—as opposed to a painting that exists solely on someone’s wall. Public artwork often requires a “third-person view” to anticipate what others might interpret, he explains. There can be physiological and psychological forces at play, symbols and colors which might not always read the same way.
“I try to be aware of any hidden messages I might slip in there, and which might deter from the actual message,” Runcie says. “But overall the subconscious guides what the intent of the work is and how it will come across.”
I ask him who has most influenced his work. He mentions the American painter and color master Wayne Thiebaud (who incidentally turns 100 later this year) as well as Barkley Hendricks, a pioneer of Black oil portraits. Runcie points to the Hudson River School, the way those mid-19th century landscape painters — who were themselves influenced by European Romanticism — incorporated realism, color, and light.
Much like his wide range of art influences, Runcie also enjoys a broad interest in books: philosophy, history, and religious texts — “the major world religions,” he elucidates. It helps him better understand how we all perceive similar, often universal concepts.
Recently he picked up “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” A book which examines the various policies which have been put in place to systematically keep African Americans from moving forward in society.
It’s a complicated history which is not unlike partitive color theory. As Ryan expressed earlier, you can never see just one color on its own. Yet our reaction skews our perception.