Over the past 20 years, Gregg Billman has taken part in the evolution of the Oklahoma City Festival of the Arts.
The area of change that Billman embraced, as he stood among dozens of his own brightly colored creations Sunday, cuts to the very definition of why thousands flock downtown each year for the festival — what is art?
“Here we are, recycling the master’s techniques, but we live in a digital era,” Billman said. “It’s funny how times change, isn’t it?”
Billman and his wife, Jane, are the curators of technology-inspired paintings of man’s best friend. The paintings are made on a tablet computer program. Using a stylus pen as a paintbrush, they create highly realistic works that incorporate wacky pop art.
A Labrador in a martini glass? You bet.
“People in their 20s like the new stuff,” Billman said. “We’re getting a lot more of that.”
In 1979, the Billmans, of Gainesville, Fla., were vendors at their first art festival — where they sold handmade paper made of grasses. That transitioned into embossed children’s artwork, and for more than 20 years, was the couple’s selected genre. Their work has been sold at the festival on and off since the 1980s.
But Billman said throughout that time, he had closely followed tablet computer technology. He bought his first tablet in 1988 and maintained some of the newest versions to date since. He said the one he uses currently enables touchscreen technology paired with an advanced painting program.
When the Billmans felt they had reached their creative and economic peak making children’s artwork, they shifted their focus toward technology and their sales demographic to a different kind of parent.
“This new generation, for a lot of them, their dogs are like their kids,” Billman said. “We thought we’d do something with dogs.”
Billman said there was some initial backlash from traditional art minds because of their new-age approach. But as the couple explained their process and as technology became more accessible to everyone, the art was better received.
He said each work takes months to make and sells for hundreds of dollars.
And the concept of a custom professional dog portrait is something pet owners such as Damon and Sheila Bybee, of Apache, can appreciate. They stopped by Billman’s booth Sunday and considered getting paintings made of their 15-year-old dog nearing the end of a good life and their young dog in the family.
At first, they didn’t know the process of how the paintings were created. They were just impressed by the work.
“It’s really a picture, right?” Bybee said.
It’s a reaction Billman hears across the nation. He travels to about 40 shows annually. He said Oklahoma City is one of his favorite stops. Sunday was the final day of the Oklahoma City Festival of the Arts.