Off the Record: A Textured Music Experience at River East Gallery

A Q&A with local painter Ashley Simmons

Led Zepplin Album Cover Painting
Abstract rendition of Led Zeppelins “Houses of the Holy” album cover.

Local artist Ashley Simmons has combined her love of art and music to create Off The Record: A Textured Music Experience. The exhibition, which will be on display at River East Gallery, contains a collection of pieces that feature abstract renditions of her favorite album covers and other artists’ inspired themes. Using palette knives and acrylic paint on canvas she has created a medley of colorful abstractions and portraits of musicians ranging from Led Zeppelin to Tyler the Creator. 

Born and raised in the 419, her love of the arts was first discovered at the University of Toledo. Initially pursuing a business degree she decided to transfer to a visual arts major. Ashley credits this as the moment that ignited her passion for painting. “There were a lot of talented individuals I was surrounded with at UT, both students and professors, and I would definitely say they served as really big inspirations and motivators for me in the art space.” 

It was during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic this collection was formed around artists who shifted culture on topics like mental health, women’s voices, and black culture. It was through a deep appreciation for those artists that she saw the true impact art can have on people’s individual lives. “Singers like SZA and Rihanna give women a voice in a space that oftentimes is seen as needy or toxic, but very much real and human. Artists like these have music that leaves such an impression I get inspired to recreate their albums through paint.”

River East Gallery on Main St., near downtown Toledo, will feature a solo exhibition of her work. The night will be hosted by spoken word artist, Yxsterday, who will be performing a number of poems and songs. For the rest of the night the music will be provided by the artists favorite vinyls, featuring many of the records that served as inspirational muses for the collection. 

Who are your biggest artistic influences?

Music of all kinds has been my biggest influence for some time now. Even for my college thesis I did a piece on the correlation between drug use and the music world. It’s been over 5 years since then and I still find myself being inspired most when I hear a catchy beat or when an artist spit lyrics that speak to my heart. This generation of music, too, includes some of the most innovative and culturally shifting artists. Rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Tyler the Creator have completely changed the identity of what is considered to be rap/hip-hop when it comes to themes like mental health and the transparency of emotions. Singers like SZA and Rihanna give women a voice in a space that oftentimes is seen as needy or toxic, but very much real and human. Artists like these have music that leaves such an impression I get inspired to recreate their albums through paint. It’s always been an interesting concept to me how cover art can become such a symbolic piece to a project of music- but I love that it does and how it brings people together. 

How has your art changed over time? 

When I first started experimenting with art, it was more so for therapeutic purposes. I practiced different drawing styles like zen tangle and I enjoyed drawing different patterns involving line work like mandalas. Eventually I started practicing more realistic figures like trees, people, etc. It wasn’t until I took an intro to painting course with Dan Hernandez at UT when I realized painting was my calling. In this class I learned how to paint with oils doing still lifes, landscapes, and even self portraits. It takes a great deal of patience and material to paint with oil, and although it’s a beautiful medium, after school I started experimenting more with acrylic paint. I always loved the way paintings looked when they were full of texture and layers, which is why I eventually started using palette knives for paint application. A painting to me looks more interesting when it has the elements of detail and abstraction. I now only use palette knives and acrylic paint for application and I do so in a way that looks unique to my personal style. 

Describe the vibe of your studio or workspace.

It’s funny because it feels like my art space is always changing. I travel a lot and I’ve also moved a lot over the last few years but that’s never stopped me from creating. As long as I have my paints, palette knives, a canvas, and some natural light, I’m good to go just about anywhere. Ideally, one day I will have my own studio in my house- a giant one with big white walls, high ceilings, and lots of windows. I, of course, always have music playing whether that be through my headphones or echoing throughout the room. 

How do you overcome creative blocks?

I get this question a lot but if I’m being honest, there isn’t a solid answer. My best advice for blocks would be to let the block come and go. I don’t think anyone should force themselves to create because it’s something that should move you. Being an artist looks different on everyone, and whether that means creating every day, every other month, or once a year, it’s something you define for yourself. When I’m feeling stuck, I like to surround myself with other types of art. I’ll go to concerts, a museum, or simply take a walk outside. Beauty is all around us, sometimes you have to take a step back to really see it and be inspired. 

The exhibition opens with a reception on Saturday, June 10 from 5-10pm. Spoken word artist Yxsterday will perform. 601 Main St., Toledo. 419-279-0162.