Images are Also Musical: Interview with Ethan Moll

Written by Sam Riedman

This first appeared in the December 2020 Issue of The Asian American Arts Zine

Ethan and his artwork got on our radar, when he submitted a series of portraits for our October issue. At first glance I could see the depth and complexity of his art was palpable, and wanted to learn about his process. Ethan was gracious enough to squeeze in some time to chat in between work, school, and his painting; which he makes possible with detailed organization and keeping structured schedule. Over the course of our discussion, we got into how he developed his process of creating art; the portrait series he submitted; and the dialectic between art and science and emotion that cannot be divorced from one another.

Ethan is currently a student at Cal Poly Pomona, where he’s majoring in visual communications design (VCD)— what we all been referring to as graphic design. He explains that visual communication design goes beyond graphic design because “we take a lot of information, data, statistics, facts, ands articles and we use that to create the visual. Focusing on what is the message or what is the purpose of the product? Instead of what is this going to look like. Aesthetics and overall presentation should come second to the purpose. Sort of like form follows function, so, if the design works, then everything else will follow.” As a self-identified traditionalist when it comes to his artistic methodology, the thought of using a digital format for creating art felt frightening. To his relief, his teachers took a more taxonomical approach to teaching VCD, “beginning with traditional media, and how they incorporate to the computer.” Which he preferred because “it showed me the value of working with your hands with materials that felt more tangible.” As our society has evolved to view technology is a solution to the majority of pertinent crises— whether it be our food system, prison system, or climate. Ethan realized in his VCD studies, “there are a lot of things the computer really can’t do. The computer is just a medium.”

Ethan’s portrait series came to fruition when the mother of his best friend in high school asked him to paint family portraits for her. The description that accompanied his submission explained that his work “is inspired by instrumental music. I create the forms and color palette based off what I hear. Each genre or style of music creates different forms and different levels of saturation of color.” In our interview he elaborated on this process explaining: “I had a music teacher who taught me about visualizing sound; to play a piece as if there was a large man playing it by a river, and to talk about the process of what I was hearing. I imagined the man was an opera singer, so, I made the sound roundish and bold, it had depth to it. And then I told him I told him I did the lower notes with more crusty sound because I thought this river was more crashing and dirtier waterway. That was the first time I really thought about how musicians don’t just play music, they really think about what they are trying communicate with the sound.” This led him to start experimenting in his sketchbooks whenever he was listening to music, thinking about what shapes the different sounds looked like. Ethan realized he was “trying to give the music an identity, and portraiture is the art of identity” Ethan discussed how lots of times people like to attribute his creation of a visual language for sound as synesthesia. However, Ethan rejects this notion that he was somehow born with this ability. Instead, he asserts that “I did the exercises my music teacher taught me, focusing on ‘what do you hear?’ I’ve research and played a lot of music privately that I’ve leaned how to think beyond what is in front of me, and more about how I perceive things. It’s a lot of exploration.” Encouraging others that we are all capable of developing similar ways of seeing, we just need to practice in order to develop the skill. 

Ethan rejects notions of prescriptive design, the mindset that there is a set technique or standard to be enforced of how portraits are supposed to look. Instead, he takes a descriptive approach to creating portraits that gives an appreciation for the complexities and messiness that encompasses the multiplicity of ways to express emotion and identities. This is evident throughout his work, as the achieves vibrance and personality while using grey as a flesh-tone, as well as cavernous depth within the eyes that he describes as flat, explaining: “I like black eyes. I like the flatness, the depth and mystery that goes into flat things— a type of minimalist beauty that has a tendency to be downed out by the eccentricity of white beauty.  Which is so overvalued that it was refreshing to see Ethan’s portraits and see beauty represented in a way that wasn’t telling me that what I am is not what is considered beautiful.

Ethan refutes western notions of art through the small complexities that make up a piece, encompassing how multifaceted emotions are— that we don’t feel emotions neatly and in an orderly fashion. Focusing on “how do creative people apply emotion into their process? It’s not something that holds you back. It’s something that enforces your work.”  He consistently comes back to the notion that “you have to be open and willing to learn, get out of your comfort zone and start exploring and experiencing what people perceive as art.” Urging people to forget the notion of siloing things into simple boxes of this is art, and this is science, etc. That we take an interdisciplinary approach to creating, there is greater potential for something interesting and new.

Ethan Moll is a name that we should all get acquainted with, because once you see his work you will not be able to get it out of your head. His artistic process is heavily rooted in finding creative ways to express feelings he perceives, and leaning into complexities rather than comfort. The advice he gives art students from his former high school is a message that would serve us all to internalize: “try to remember that you should do your artwork for yourself first, before trying to please the crowds. Because people will enjoy your work more if they learn about how you perceive the world and your mindset.” Ethan’s work is so powerful not just because of the techniques or mediums he uses; but because he is creating it for himself, and continuously evolving how he practices and perceives art with an open mind.

Check out more of Ethan Moll’s art on Instagram

And view the full portrait series in Volume 2 of The Asian American Arts Zine (pages 75-78).

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