If someone were to hike deep into the places he paints, says Kansas City artist Jason Needham, "it would be rough going, for sure."
As the sun rose one recent morning, he was concentrating on a tangle of overgrown vines surrounding a stand of cottonwood trees at Kessler Park in the the city's Historic Northeast neighborhood.
"In some ways they invite you in and in other ways though they’re this wild, unkept barrier," he says.
Needham finds inspiration in the wild, overgrown spaces of the Midwest. This year, he's been able to spend a lot more time painting outside, thanks to a prestigious grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Named for abstract expressionist painters Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, the foundation funds working artists so they can spend more time creating.
Eight years ago, Needham was a busy dad, staying at home with his daughter Jocelyn. His painting style was influenced by cartoons and comic books. It was hard to find time to paint in the studio between naps and feedings, so he started to step outside his back door to paint quick, outdoor scenes.
It changed both the way he painted and how he saw the world around him.
"The freshness, the spontaneity, the challenge of being out there — all of those things just reinvigorated, I felt like, just my whole practice."
And as his daughter's world grew, so did his. After she started school, Needham began looking for scenes farther afield.
"It is such a deep, focused practice — so meditative," Needham says. "It's so challenging to keep your attention on something and try to observe complexity of even just two to three hours."
One painting led to another, and by 2017 he had enough work for a show at Bunker Center for the Arts, where Needham's paintings caught the eye of one influential viewer.
"I was immediately drawn to those paintings. And the longer I spent with them, the more enamored I became," says Bruce Hartman, executive director and chief curator of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College.
"You are just enveloped," says Hartman. "You're immersed in all of the vegetation that's there, vines and trees and the undergrowth and everything, and I think he does such a brilliant job of capturing that."
Hartman says Needham's landscapes are unconventional in a good way.
"It's not a classic vista. It’s not the Grand Canyon — it's not even the Flint Hills, in that regard, which are so picturesque," Hartman adds. "But it's right here in the neighborhood, essentially, and he's able to transform that."
"I think that's part of what artists do. They make us pay attention to things that we take for granted," says Larry Thomas, a retired fine arts professor at Johnson County Community College who has been following Needham's career since they met in an Artist Inc. workshop in 2009. Thomas says Needham infuses his canvases with the color he sees.
"There's green and then there's so many varieties of green," Thomas says. "When you are really observant and you start looking, you'll begin to see all those varieties of tone lightness and darkness, saturation. And so he's pushing that."
Needham has been pushing himself this year, too.
"I try not to get too excited or too down because I’ve had that experience where like 'Oh, this is terrible,'" he says as the mid-morning sun begins to blaze at Kessler Park. "Then three days later I come across it unexpectedly in the studio and I’m like, 'Wait a minute. What did I think was so wrong with that?' And other times you're like, 'I'm the greatest painter ever!' And then three days later, you're like, 'What the heck?'"
In any case, he'll be back at it again the next morning.
"Later the Same Sun—New Paintings by Jason Needham" opens with a reception from 5-9 p.m. (with an artist talk at 7:30 p.m.) on Friday, Oct. 4, and runs through Sunday, Oct. 27, at Bunker Center for the Arts, 1014 E 19th St, Kansas City, Missouri 64108.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter @juliedenesha.