A life of making, teaching, and talking art

Illustration of Brian Alfred by Joel Kimmel

As an artist, educator, and alum, Brian Alfred plays a unique role in bringing together the past, present, and future of Penn State’s School of Visual Arts.

When he was first learning to paint as a Penn State undergrad, Alfred ’97 A&A produced “these big abstract paintings based on numeric systems,” artwork that emphasized the work he’d put into it. He says that changed one night during his postgraduate summer residency at the Skowhegan School in Maine in 1999. “There was a big storm, and I saw a bolt of lightning hit a tree, the tree fell into a power line, and all the lights went out. And I was like, that’s kind of what I want to paint,” he says. “I just wanted to paint the world around me. That’s where my work has been ever since.”

In the time since, Alfred’s work has been seen all over the place, from solo exhibitions in New York, Tokyo, Berlin, London, and Tel Aviv to public art projects in Times Square and elsewhere around the city. But in his roles as a podcast host, writer, and educator, Alfred’s reach in the art world goes even further.

The Pittsburgh native splits his time between Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lives and paints, and back at University Park, where he’s an assistant professor in Penn State’s School of Visual Arts. It was during that weekly commute in 2015 that he conceived of a podcast, Sound & Vision, featuring Alfred in conversation with fellow artists. He’s since recorded nearly 350 episodes, and a companion book, Why I Make Art, was released earlier this year. “I love that art students listen to it,” he says. “Making a podcast is kind of like showing your art—you do it, and then you throw it out into space—but I want it to inspire people, too.”

Alfred admits that his biggest motivation in launching and maintaining the podcast is “totally self-serving—it makes me feel great. It’s such a fun thing to talk to other artists.” He seems to thrive as much on discussing the creative process as he does the process of creation. He thrives as well on connection, something his various roles have put him in a unique position to facilitate.

The art of connecting parallel lines

In fact, it was Alfred who helped us connect with the other alumni featured in this issue—including his undergraduate peers Joelle Dietrick ’96 A&A and Barbara Campbell Thomas ’98 A&A—artists he knows as former classmates, past podcast guests, or simply by the quality of their work (links to all featured artists included below). They share a pride in their connection to a SoVA program that Alfred sees as an underrated gem. “I don’t think people know how good this program is,” he says. “It’s difficult being an art program outside of a major metropolitan area, but there’s just a really good energy here.”

Alfred first experienced SoVA as a freshman transfer from Pitt, where he’d started college as a pre-med major. He hadn’t declared a major when he arrived at University Park, but an art history class piqued his interest; once he took Intro to Painting with Professor Helen O’Leary, he says, “it was over for me. I wasn’t that good, but she really championed me and what I was doing.” O’Leary’s influence looms large with a couple of generations of SoVA students; today, Alfred’s office in the Visual Arts Building is next door to his former professor’s.

Looking back on his undergraduate days, Alfred says, “It was a wild scene up here back in the day—we worked all the time, but there was a lot of energy and fun. Penn State is a university, but it became an art school to me.” Those memories still inspire him to make that weekly commute on Interstate 80, and to help a new generation of SoVA students discover their talent.

“This is where I grew up; this is where I caught fire as an artist,” he says. “I have a sentimental connection to being here, and a certain feeling for this place and these students.”

 

Rodeo 2021 by Brian Alfred
Rodeo (2021) 

 

Empty Airport 2021 by Brian Alfred
Empty Airport (2021)

 

Red Ridge 2021 by Brian Alfred
Red Ridge (2021)

 

Fire Sky 2021 by Brian Alfred
Fire Sky (2021)

 

For more on SoVA alumni succeeding in the art world, see below.

SoVA, So Good: Devan Shimoyama

What it lacks in big-city buzz, Penn State’s School of Visual Arts more than makes up for with engaged faculty, talented students, a supportive culture, and a track record of producing acclaimed, innovative artists—like Devan Shimoyama ’11 A&A, whose bold, colorful paintings lave landed him repeat coverage in The New York Times.
Ryan Jones '95 Com

SoVA, So Good: Lauren Luloff

What it lacks in big-city buzz, Penn State’s School of Visual Arts more than makes up for with engaged faculty, talented students, a supportive culture, and a track record of producing acclaimed, innovative artists—like Lauren Luloff ’01 A&A, whose work features geometric patterns of dyed silk merging with shapes that hint at natural landscapes.
Ryan Jones '95 Com

SoVA, So Good: Joelle Dietrick

What it lacks in big-city buzz, Penn State’s School of Visual Arts more than makes up for with engaged faculty, talented students, a supportive culture, and a track record of producing acclaimed, innovative artists—like Joelle Dietrick ’96 A&A, whose art lives at the intersection of creation and technology and is scheduled for a solo exhibition in Brooklyn next year.
Ryan Jones '95 Com

SoVA, So Good: Barbara Campbell Thomas

What it lacks in big-city buzz, Penn State’s School of Visual Arts more than makes up for with engaged faculty, talented students, a supportive culture, and a track record of producing acclaimed, innovative artists—like Barbara Campbell Thomas ’98 A&A, who is brimming with ideas for integrating facets of quilting in her abstract painting.
Ryan Jones '95 Com

SoVA, So Good: Brian Alfred

What it lacks in big-city buzz, Penn State’s School of Visual Arts more than makes up for with engaged faculty, talented students, a supportive culture, and a track record of producing acclaimed, innovative artists. We asked five SoVA alums to share their work, and the inspiration behind it.
Ryan Jones '95 Com