Eerie Artists for Spooky Season (Ep. 341)

The day after Halloween, AOEU writer Josh Chrosniak makes his first appearance on the podcast to talk about his article on his favorite eerie artists. He and Tim discuss a plethora of artists, including Lee Krasner, Ivan Albright, Goya, and van Gogh. Listen as they chat about why eerie artwork appeals to us, how it can inspire us, and how to appropriately share those artworks with our students.   Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show’s produced by the Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Yesterday was Halloween. I hope you survived what is always a crazy day in the classroom. And a lot of times, the day after Halloween isn’t much better. I used to tell kids, the ones that were obnoxious the day after, “Hey, if I have to deal with you being this obnoxious, the least you can do is give me a couple of pieces of your Halloween candy.” Most of the time, it worked. So even though I had to deal with a few behavior headaches, it was nothing a couple of mini Twix bars couldn’t fix. But my daughter is actually right now pushing hard for the idea that we need to get rid of Halloween on the 31st and just make it the last Saturday of October. Same concept as Thanksgiving, but instead of the last Thursday, the last Saturday for Halloween. Different date every year, but just the last Saturday of October for Halloween. Honestly, I really like the idea. It seems like it would be so much better for everyone involved.

Anyway, we have a podcast to get to. I would’ve loved to have done this before Halloween, but I think it’s still worthwhile the day after, or honestly, a couple of weeks after. I want to talk about eerie artworks that you might be interested in showing your students. I think you still have a little bit of time after Halloween when kids are still in the mood and still interested in seeing eerie artworks or creepy artworks. So we’re going to talk about those today.

Yesterday, AOEU writer Josh Chrosniak published an article called Don’t Miss These Five Eerie Artists and Their Unnerving Art. It’s a great article, super fun, shows a couple of my favorite artists. It introduced me to a new artist and I really enjoyed just everything that he showed and discussed. So I want to talk about that article with him as well as why we love eerie art as teachers and as viewers, and why it’s so intriguing to our students as well. So let’s bring on Josh now.
Josh Chrosniak is joining me now. Josh, how are you?

Josh: I’m doing well today, Tim. How are you?

Tim: I am doing well also. I am excited to bring you on the show, have you on for the first time. Yeah, I always love having new guests on. I’ve been enjoying your articles for a little while now, but I know not everybody knows you. You haven’t been on a podcast yet. So can we just start with an introduction? Like, anything you want to share about you, your teaching, your interests, just anything at all that you want to tell us about yourself?

Josh: Yeah, sounds great. Yeah, excited to be doing this podcast. Been an art teacher for 12 years now. I really enjoy interdisciplinary art education, STEAM, really love art history, and I do try really hard to create a choice-based classroom. I also try to provide framework for my kids during the art learning experience. Maybe that’s teaching them some techniques and kind of saying, “Hey, use these techniques how you want.” And giving them the independent choice-based experience with that.
Outside of art teaching, I’m a professional artist. I focus on drawing, painting, printmaking, and woodworking. My subjects from a personal standpoint, they kind of take a deeper look into the human condition. I really love sociopolitical subjects, exploring human emotions. And I really try to let the subject drive the media choice.
Outside of the art realm, I’m married to my beautiful wife. We have three young children together, so I spend a lot of time with my family and we do all sorts of things together. One of our favorite things is getting out in nature, playing outside. And I’m also an avid outdoorsman, so I spend a lot of time outside. And so if I can’t be found doing any of those things, I could be found fishing, usually try to fish.

Tim: Okay. Very nice, very nice. Now, I hate to transition from great family, beautiful outdoors life straight into really creepy artworks, but that’s why we’re here today. So I would love for you to just tell us a little bit about your article about eerie artists, and then I guess the question for me is, what is it about creepy artworks that appeals to us as teachers, but also kind of appeals to our kids?

Josh: Yeah. So to start, the eerie artworks article is a special article, so it’s just in time for Halloween. So I think that that’s perfect in and of itself. It really showcases artists and artworks that are surrounded by maybe things that are scary, the macabre, things that are maybe a little frightening. And that could be maybe the life of the artist or the artworks themselves. And I know a lot of people, adults, teachers, kids, students, they just seem to enjoy scary things. Like I said, a lot of adults and kids are open about discussing that darker subject matter. I think what appeals to people about it is it causes us to confront certain subjects that maybe we don’t confront on a daily basis. But things like spirituality, good versus evil, worlds beyond our own physical world, things that transcend ourselves, creatures, nightmares, science fiction, the future, our own mortality. I mean, the list really goes on and on. But I do think that, that definitely appeals to people for those reasons.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. And I think, I don’t know, just showing different works to different kids and you listed off so many different things. And those works don’t necessarily contain all of those ideas for all of the people, but certain people will attach those ideas to different artworks. And like you said, that whole realm is stuff that we don’t confront every day. So I think that’s a great point, and that does make things really interesting. It opens up some new doors to things we don’t necessarily talk about all the time.
The first artist that you write about in your article is Ivan Albright. So I guess, can you introduce him for everyone? What can you tell us about Ivan Albright and Magic Realism?

Josh: Yeah, so I just have to start by saying, as an artist and an art teacher, I just kind of consider myself a generalist in the art history realm. I don’t have a PhD in art history, but I definitely know a little bit about a lot of different artists and genres. Magic Realism, definitely not my specialty, and it’s kind of a small genre, but it’s basically, it’s a work of art that has a realistic style or quality of realism, naturalism, but it expresses an idea that’s surreal or dreamlike. So artists in that category, like Ivan Albright, but also Frida Kahlo is in that Magic Realism realm. Christian Schad and Paul Cadmus are some other artists you can find there.
I first discovered Magic Realism and Ivan Albright when I went to the Chicago Institute of Art. So my wife and I were actually there for her family member’s wedding, and we had a day where we could explore, and I said, “Well, I got to go to the Chicago Institute of Art.” Right?

Tim: Right. Have to.

Josh: Right? So walking around the museum and I saw Albright’s work and I was blown away. So did a little more digging and found out he’s a Chicago native. So they had quite a few of his works there, of course. But yeah, his subject matter and his style, looking at it online or in a book really doesn’t do it justice. Because when you look at them in person, they almost glow, literally look like they’re glowing because of the high contrast of his work. It’s a very surreal experience when looking at them in person and with all the texture, all the detail, everything that’s going on in there, you just can’t stop staring at them. So I was gawking at them for a long time.

Tim: Okay, so I need to actually share a very similar story because I was just there. End of July, we hosted the NOW Conference from Chicago. And after that was over, my family had actually come along with me and we went to the Art Institute and my daughter was just, she’s 14. She was just stuck staring at the picture or portrait of Dorian Gray that Ivan Albright… I mean, it’s huge. It hangs a little bit above your head, so you’re looking up at it. She was just staring at it forever.
I came over to her, I was like, “Isn’t this guy wild?” Because like you said, his stuff was great. And she’s like, “Why is the painting glowing?” She’s like, “It looks like it’s glowing.” And it does. Just like you said, the contrast, but then his surface treatment and the texture is like… Seeing it in person is a whole different ballgame. And yeah, it was really intriguing to her. It was fascinating to me to see it in person for the first time. And then she ended up actually reading Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. So that was a pretty interesting connection. But his stuff is crazy when you see it in person.

Josh: Yeah, and I think it definitely elevates his work to that supernatural status.

Tim: Yes, for sure.

Josh: I don’t know that he has given away his secret. I’ve never read anything about it or anything like that, but I don’t think I would want to know anyways. It would ruin it for me.

Tim: Yeah, that’s fair. That’s fair. Okay. I’m always excited to talk about Lee Krasner too, which you mentioned her in the article. And she’s not necessarily someone I associate with darkness or eeriness or Halloween even, but you make a pretty interesting case for that. So can you talk about the Umber Paintings, the story behind them, and I guess just why you think they showcase so much emotion?

Josh: Yeah, so I love abstract expressionism and I thoroughly enjoy Lee Krasner’s work. When I stumbled on the Umber Paintings, I was blown away by them. It was unlike anything she’s really ever created.

Tim: Mm-hmm.

Josh: But just to backtrack a little bit, I think that Lee Krasner, I don’t think she gets enough notoriety.

Tim: True.

Josh: I think that she gets overshadowed a lot by her husband Jackson Pollock. I think he gets all the credit. I’ll go on record saying that I respect Jackson Pollock for stretching the boundaries of art history. I can definitely appreciate what he did. But I truly believe the real talent in that relationship was definitely Lee Krasner.

Tim: Mm-hmm.

Josh: Everything that I’ve read, she really pushed him to be everything he could be. But obviously, we know even the tragic end of Jackson Pollock, his personality traits and vices just got the better of him.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. If I can just interrupt real quick, I’ll just say that you and I can be best friends now because I’ve been on the Lee Krasner bandwagon for a long time. I first really started researching her when I was doing a bunch of art history stuff in undergrad, and I was just in love with her work. I feel like she’s brilliant. I feel like she’s amazing. And like you said, nobody knows about her because she was married to Jackson Pollock. So I appreciate you bringing her up, and I appreciate you saying that she was the real talent in the relationship.

Josh: Absolutely.

Tim: That’s good. But anyway, I apologize for interrupting. I just feel like that’s a point that we needed to make. But go on about the paintings.

Josh: So I added her work in because I really think the Umber Painting series she did is a hidden gem of the art world. In my opinion, it’s really some of her best work. And she does it all with a limited color palette, which is more amazing. So the motivation behind the series is really what makes it tragic and dark, which is why I added it in to the eerie artist article.
So she created those artworks after both her mother and Pollock had passed away. So it was in kind of the wake of their deaths. And to just add to the mix, she was also dealing with chronic insomnia during that time. So I think that when you understand that backstory and you’re reading all of what’s going on with her at that time, and then you view those paintings, it can really be viewed as maybe this cathartic experience for her.
So when I look at them, to me, it’s like she wants to break free of those emotional chains, everything that’s burdening her during that time. And I think that she really lets that show in the works. Those are definitely pushed by those deep tones, those umbers, those blacks, and those creams. And so I think really there’s three works in particular that when you really literally look at them, you can really see that shining through in the work Seated, Assault On the Solar Plexus, and Uncaged. I mean, even when you hear those titles, it’s got-

Tim: I was just going to say, when you hear those names, yeah, those emotions going forward.

Josh: Assault On the Solar Plexus, you know?

Tim: Yeah.

Josh: And again, the whole grit of those paintings, it matches the title and the despair that was going on in her life.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. And yeah, like you said, I would just encourage everybody who’s listening to this, go look those up, see what Josh was talking about. And I think it is pretty easy to make the connection when you know those things.
All right. Also, there is an artist that I was not familiar with in your article named Alfred Kubin. Maybe I should know him, but I did not. This was my introduction to Alfred Kubin, and my first impression was just like, “Whoa! This is really dark stuff.” So yeah, the question I guess that comes from that is like, why do you want to show that to your students? Not judging here, just asking. And what reaction do you usually get from his works and I guess his story that you told too?

Josh: So yeah, Alfred Kubin is not for the faint of heart. He’s definitely got a lot of wild pieces. I don’t talk about Kubin a lot in my classroom. So right now, I teach grades one, two, and three.

Tim: Oh yeah, we’re definitely not showing that.

Josh: Right. Definitely not showing that to little kids. But I do think Alfred Kubin, especially some of his more milder work, could have a place in the high school level.

But his imagery is some of the scariest and creepiest artwork I’ve ever seen, and it’s just seared into my brain. And I think I like it especially for a few different reasons. So when I was a kid in elementary school, I love scary things. I really enjoyed those Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books.

Tim: Oh, yeah.

Josh: They’re so popular and the imagery in those books, and I can’t remember that artist’s name for the life of me right now, that illustrated those books, Stephen Gamble maybe, or something like that. But you could tell that they’re made out of ink, right? But I just remember looking at those images and being terrified of those images going along with the stories. When I discovered Alfred Kubin’s work, it reminded me instantly of the scary stories books I used to read when I was a kid. So it really took me back. So I just ate it up. So I think for me, his work almost has a nostalgic kind of a feel.

So I feel like maybe anyone who’s interested in that sort of imagery would feel the same way. But going back to what you originally said there, again, I haven’t personally shown this to my students, but I do think, again, if you’re at the high school level, you could present Alfred Kubin with Francisco de Goya, his Los Caprichos, or The Disasters of War, and you could do a nice compare and contrast with those works, and I think that would work really well. Yeah, definitely want to choose some of his more milder images though, if you’re going to go that route.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. So let me ask you this, because I’m just considering this. I’m thinking of people who are listening who are thinking about this, is there a point that things get too dark, like maybe an artist or work that you don’t want to show to students? Like you said, Kubin definitely sort of crosses that line, especially for younger kids. But as a teacher, how do you know what your class is ready for and how do you handle some of those sensitive topics or sensitive artworks that you’re showing to kids?

Josh: Yeah, so that’s a fantastic question and as art teachers and anyone that works with kids, the first thing is obviously to know your students, know your kids, right?

Tim: Mm-hmm.

Josh: So take that time just to understand their likes and dislikes and also their backgrounds, what they’re going through, even from personal standpoint. Some kids, they do deal with some heavy stuff. Maybe they’re dealing with an abuse situation or maybe they’ve contemplated harming themself or something like that. And you definitely have to know those things before bringing in some artwork that kind of speaks to those tragedies.

Tim: Right. Right.

Josh: It could really go both ways. So it’s like you could be talking about this and it could really affect your student a negative way, but I also think that maybe there are certain times where maybe mentioning things, it could be cathartic or it could be used as an example like, “Hey, you can rise above this situation because here’s an artist who did that and here’s how they… ” Like Lee Krasner, going back to that perfect example, she didn’t let that drag her down, she made art about it, she dealt with that in a positive way. And I think that could be an important lesson to draw from when showing this to students.
So getting to know your students, making sure that whatever you’re showing them is always developmentally appropriate, because not everything is developmentally appropriate. I kind of really equate it to any media that’s out there. So art is just like music, movies, and TV shows, you know?

Tim: Yeah.

Josh: There are ratings for all of those things for a reason. And just like if you’re a parent and your kid is young, if they’re five years old, you’re not going to let them watch a rated-R movie, right?

Tim: Mm-hmm.

Josh: Because it’s not for your five-year-old.

Tim: Exactly.

Josh: And art really is the same way, but unfortunately art doesn’t have a rating. It’s not going to be like, “Oh yeah, the Mona Lisa’s rated G.” As the art teachers, we have to determine what’s safe and how to talk about that. I also think that just being sensitive about if you are going to talk about a piece like we’ve discussed in the articles, that being very sensitive about your approach and being very tactful is very important. So choosing words carefully, maybe softening things a bit, depending on the age of the kids.

Tim: Do you have an example of that? I’m just thinking about people trying to take this advice and put it into practice. Can you give us an example of being tactful with your words, being careful about how you would tell certain stories?

Josh: Totally. So here’s a perfect example. So while I don’t currently teach fourth grade, I taught fourth grade for many years, and I like to do a van Gogh portrait project in fourth grade. And I show a lot of his portraiture and mention some details about him. But I, personally, at the fourth grade level, don’t mention that van Gogh cuts off his ear. I don’t mention that part. It’s a little grotesque to me. And again, for me as an art teacher, it doesn’t seem age appropriate for fourth grade, to me. So I leave that part out. However, over the years, I’ve had a lot of kids who know that van Gogh has cut off his ear.

Tim: Yeah, they know that story already, yeah.

Josh: So I’ve inevitably, whenever I talk about van Gogh, I always have a kid raises their hand and was like, “Mr. C isn’t van Gogh the guy that cut off his own ear?”

Tim: Yeah.

Josh: So as the teacher then, I have two options. I can ignore it or say, “Hey, we’re not going to talk about this.” Or I can try to talk about it and guide them through that in a sensitive way, which is what I try to do typically, and make that a teachable moment. So my softer words for van Gogh cutting off his ear would be something like you know, “van Gogh, he had a mental illness, you know, he was sick. And during that time, you know, he didn’t get a lot of the help that he needed. But, you know, in 2022, we have a lot of help for that now. And unfortunately, he made a bad choice, right? And so then you talk to the kids like, cutting off your ear, harming yourself, that’s a bad choice, right?

Tim: Mm-hmm.

Josh: And they see, they understand that, yeah, that’s a bad choice. Why would somebody do that?

Tim: Right. Yeah, and I think it’s good because something that you had brought up before was just the idea that kids are always going to be interested in this stuff. Like they love what’s scary, they love the tragic details, but we just need to guide them through that appropriately. And just hearing you say that was sort of an aha moment for me and I think that’s a really good approach.

Josh: Thank you.

Tim: So I think that’s worthwhile. Okay, just one last question to close with. I always love to give people advice. We always love to give people suggestions to kind of research further. So if you can share with us just any other artists that you think kind of fit into this conversation that you want to mention or people that you think teachers should look up.

Josh: Yeah, so there’s definitely plenty of artists that fit this category. Some of the biggies, we’ve kind of mentioned Francisco de Goya, big one, we’ve talked about him already. Frida Kahlo is a big one. But going back, abstract expressionism, I think that Mark Rothko is a great one. He did have some tragedies there surrounding his life, but I think that his chapel paintings are a great conversation piece, using all those black tones, and it’s amazing how many variations of the black tones there are.

Tim: Yeah.

Josh: Henry Fuseli’s paintings, any of his work would be a perfect fit. And I always like to throw in non-Western references. I know a lot of this article and conversation was Western heavy, but non-Western references I would check out would be Nkisi N’Kondi figures from Congo. Those are very, very interesting, very spiritual connections there with the people of Congo, Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Specter, I think is a wonderful woodcut example. And Kuniyoshi’s work, there’s also more stuff that you can pick from, from him. Again, just kind of that fantastical, spiritual man defeating beast sort of stuff. So otherworldly kinds of things there.

Tim: All right. Nice. I will have to check those out. So Josh, thank you. I appreciate the conversation. I appreciate you talking us through the article, and then hopefully everybody can be introduced to a few new eerie artists and maybe share them in their classroom. So thank you for all this.

Josh: Yeah, thank you so much. It was my pleasure.

Tim: I appreciate Josh and that entire conversation. We will link to his article as well as to a couple of the additional artists he mentioned, in case you want to explore things further. Hope you enjoy finding some good artists and some artworks that can capture your students’ attention and lead to some good discussions in your classroom. And as Josh said, you know best what types of artwork your kids will be interested in, what they’ll be ready for, what you may or may not want to explore in your discussion. So keep all of that in mind as you are planning, as you are researching artworks. But no matter what level you teach, you should be able to find some artworks that are a little bit creepy, a little bit intriguing, and definitely worth looking at.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you as always for listening. I would love to hear if you have any more ideas for eerie artists that weren’t mentioned today. And also, if you like the idea of moving Halloween to the last Saturday every October, hit me up on Twitter or send me an email if you want to chat. All right, thanks.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.