Last week, during my routine mindless scroll through an infinite loop of Instagram stories, one slide in particular gave me pause. The artist Edward Granger had called out his 80,000 followers for rarely challenging themselves to engage with his paintings—dazzling abstract canvases that feel like vivid color-rich universes rendered into two dimensions, and which have captured the attention of brands like Hermès, Ralph Lauren, and Piaget. The previous night, Granger, an architect by training, had posted a snapshot of an in-progress work at his studio and asked his followers to respond to a simple question: What do you see? (I recalled a psilocybin-soaked highway into the unknown rushing past me at warp speed.)
To his dismay, only a few people responded. “Very interesting observation that only a handful of my followers even attempted to exercise their imagination and give some feedback on what they thought of my work,” he wrote. “It leads me to think if most of my followers have fallen asleep.” When I pressed Granger for more insight, he told me that his selfies often receive more than two or three times the engagement than images of his art. (Granger, a former model, often posts pictures of him at work in the studio.) “I love when you all comment on my selfies,” he writes, “but I get even more joy when you like-share-comment on the work I put my heart into. It helps me build a more authentic engagement with you all and shows you’re being present.”
While it may seem like a superficial complaint at first, and perhaps a product of insidious algorithms, Granger’s dismay speaks to a widespread disillusionment with how we interact with one another and our openness to embrace new ideas in the age of social distancing. With human interaction being largely confined to digital platforms like Zoom, such remote, surface-level exchanges often leave both parties feeling unfulfilled, underwhelmed, and yearning for something more. “I’m curious if it’s because people are having a lack of imagination in recent times so they see a body and that’s the wall they hit,” Granger tells me over DM. “I don’t understand the statistics or numbers—how someone sees a selfie and it’s very easy for them to like and comment, but my work, which I know is very pleasing to the eyes, doesn’t receive the same engagement.” It’s a particularly disheartening reality for the lifelong artist, who often pours his innermost feelings into his canvases.
Doubling down on his art became somewhat of a saving grace for Granger, who embarked on a personal recovery after struggles with his own identity landed him in rehab. He hopes that his work opens up the viewer’s imagination so they feel empowered to address their own inner demons and vulnerabilities—and to recognize the infinite beauty that lives inside all of us. “The reason I do this work is not merely to see it as an aesthetically pleasing product, or to come from an esoteric place, but it’s to help my followers see the beauty in everything,” he says, “even how much beauty is present in abstract or confusing thoughts. We live in constant fear and worry of what others think of us, but being vulnerable and open is where the key to greatness is.” I chatted with Granger to learn more about where he was coming from.
You recently asked your Instagram followers to share what they saw in a certain painting. Have you always opened up your platform like that? What expectations did you have?
Yes and no. I’ve asked my followers “What do you think of XYZ?” or “What symbolism do you find in this painting?” It’s easy to like something—a repetitive, robotic motion. Actually getting people to open their hearts, however, makes them nervous. Even people who’ve bought my work rarely share their opinions. That’s a really interesting takeaway. I don’t expect anyone to say anything, but it’d be nice for others to pay attention beyond visuals of myself.
More people are speaking up after I called them out. Posting my work like this is so vulnerable, but my paintings are optimistic, joyful, and playful. I really want to spark something in your imagination, and challenge you to create your own fantasy with your emotions. On the other hand, is the phone our bionic eye, where you don’t know where you are if you’re not connected? Am I also doing this because I need validation from others?
Once you spoke out that only a few of your followers were engaging with your work, did you notice an uptick in engagement? Any pushback?
I received a few messages from people who said they started following me when I was modeling, and that they want to see more of me. I don’t post that stuff anymore. My work is a reflection of me. They’re not looking deeper, you know? It makes me think if this is a case for me to study—how am I connecting with my followers? Obviously I can’t connect with 80,000 and expect them to all come in the same direction, but doing so has become therapeutic for me on Instagram.
I notice that my followers usually come from a one-sided place where they’re either really interested in my work or only care about me as a physical entity. My question is: How do we heal modern mental health that stems from this one-sided conscious framework?
Do you think the lack of engagement with art has to do with pandemic-era fatigue, or is it endemic to society at large?
It has to do with our current climate. People are stressed about the state of their lives and the world, and thus paying attention to the wrong types of media. I can’t direct them to the right types, so that’s where I step up and say “Okay, I feel very playful and connected to my inner youthful monologue. How can I communicate that so others feel better?” Even my most reductive works achieve that. They enable people to feel freer and more liberated. I like to connect with people in that way.
People are also deadened to knowledge. Right now, we don’t know which direction to go in. We still don’t know how to use the internet or social media properly. When people see me post something they think is great, it makes them feel self-conscious. Like many artists, my Instagram comes from a positive place about rising up with one another collectively. That’s what I’m trying to achieve with my polls. I’m shifting the focus onto the paintings so we can talk about our dreams and what’s within us.
How do you think Instagram has changed how we interact with artists?
It’s made communication much more intimate and connected. Artists love to retreat into their own heads and create. We’re very internal. Some people feel like they know me even though they’ve never met me. I like that, though it gets creepy. I never know if they’re talking about me or my work, but it goes hand in hand. They’re excited to witness my growth, which really gets me going.
What do you hope your followers gain from your work?
Seeing something totally out of the realm of this world. How can I remove them from depression, anxiety, and negative emotions, and show them the “other side?” There’s a whole other aspect of life that I genuinely want to create for people to live in because we’re not taught how to think differently. We need to let go of that as we get older. I want to empower people to feel better about themselves, their imagination, and being alive.
Do your followers regularly share how your work has empowered them?
They mention that my work has made them want to create, and many say it’s therapeutic. A few years ago, I was posting about my own personal recovery, and that made others want to pursue the same treatment. If I can lead them in that direction, it’s positive overall.
What were you going through during your recovery? Has your work evolved to improve your mental/emotional health?
Coming to terms with my sexuality was really hard to deal with. I started partying a lot—excessive drinking, drugs, stuff like that. I took a step back because I was losing a sense of my self-worth. My parents also noticed something wasn’t right, so I told them the truth and they gave me the help I needed. I ended up going to rehab and fully reset my inner framework. Doing so has saved me time and time again. As a kid, I’d get bullied because I was skinny, effeminate, artsy, and didn’t want to play sports. Kids would literally beat me up. My escape was going to my room and making art. Now, going to my studio feels like returning to my childhood bedroom and making art in order to heal.
Would you say that you’re still recovering?
It took a year to see the other side, but I’ve exited. There’s something in astrology called the Saturn Return where, at age 29 or 30, we let go of what’s holding us back. Many things were restraining me—family resentment, my past, being bullied at school. I don’t come from that place anymore. There’s so much ahead of me—so many pockets in which we can build a better world for ourselves.
So are you envisioning these better worlds within each canvas?
I think about creating awkwardly beautiful fantasy worlds by projecting onto the canvas a certain beauty that others may have never seen or touched upon. I often work in a vertical dimension, and sometimes it feels like I’m projecting an idea of what’s inside me onto a full-length mirror.
What’s inside of you right now?
After my recovery, I got super into alchemy and herbalism. Even now, during the pandemic, I took a pause and started learning about healing from mushrooms. I’ve become somewhat of an herbalist. I’ve also been reading Carl Jung and understanding human psychology. So now, when I look at people, I come from a very humanist perspective. Nature is very involved with it, but I’m also envisioning faces, which informs what I create now. That’s coming out in a lot of my pieces.
Does your pivot toward naturalism and futurism reflect your disillusionments with reality?
When I turned 30, I realized that I was duped. The world I was sold isn’t right, and my millennial counterparts agree! None of this is working out. I had to let go of all these restraints—the cages I was born into—so I can move forward into the future. I’m also trying to stay true to human nature because I need to take care of my physical vessel. Those factors all inform my current work.
I also don’t watch TV anymore. It’s so draining to me. It’s all about numbers and manipulating people into thinking a certain way. We also don’t know what to do with this 24-hour news cycle.
Do you think we can ever move away from the influence of the media on our self-worth?
That would take a lot of work! People go to yoga because they want to make their body stronger, right? The media is a primary source of self-destructive behavior, so we need to figure out how to make our mental health stronger and rise above its influence. I almost wonder if it’s here to test how strong we are. What we’re seeing in the media is everything within the universe flying by at warp speed to lower our self-esteem. I envision a better future ahead. It’s hard, but we can get there.
Speaking of self-esteem, the current generation has long been deriving their own worth from validation via Instagram likes. Where do you derive your own self-worth?
I haven’t completely moved past Instagram. I was so caught up in being verified and having followers, but I recognized it as an addiction and took a step back. Now that I’ve done that, I notice that all the profiles with likes and followers represent such a low bar. It’s not interesting to me.
I’m gonna continue being a free thinker because I believe my work presents so much beauty to the world. Other Instagrams that present beauty don’t get the attention they deserve. Our minds are very mushy right now, and it’s incumbent on us, as artists and designers, to be pioneers of the future. It’s tiring and I feel somewhat alone in the process, but I refuse to be a prisoner of the past.
As a former model, what’s your take on that industry?
I don’t have too much to say about it. I always made sure they placed my art in my images so that connection was there, you know? I never got into the darker side of modeling, though I worked with some sleazy agents. They projected themselves as gentlemen but had ulterior motives behind the scenes. Every industry—including art and design—has snakes and hyenas.
The art and design industries can feel very superficial and ego-fueled at times. Few power players actually care about producing interesting work.
Right? What does that mean for younger artists who are genuinely interested in storytelling and who meet these types of people? Do they fall prey to it and think they have to conform? That’s where the demise comes. You become one and the same, and don’t hang on to your personal identity. The art industry has so much of that. Artists who produce great work rarely let people in.
My problem is that I let too many people in. I trusted everyone, and that resulted in having work stolen and people refusing to pay. Now, I’ve reached a pivotal point where I ask myself: Do I continue trusting and being my authentic self, or build walls and say no?
Even in the worst of times, what inspires you to keep creating?
As a life force, I don’t want to do anything else. I look at the world and see so many people giving up, and I don’t want to be like that. We all have so much potential, but when we stop worrying about the external world, we realize that we have this universe inside of us that contains so much beauty. Being able to connect with that keeps me going. I want to know what’s happening in my soul that’s constantly telling me to create.
So what’s going on in your soul and how is that currently manifesting in your work?
There’s a lot of really interesting creative energy inside of me. Having a thirst for something I never knew before—wanting to learn about herbology and being an alchemist, for example—is pushing me further into the unknown. After retreating from modeling and selfies, I notice that my hand and my mind are creating something ten times more interesting. I just want to keep making, keep evolving, and keep giving something back that we didn’t have before.
It comes so natural to me because I feel like I’ve been quarantining since I was eight years old! I love sitting with myself because I produce interesting thoughts, even if they’re dark sometimes. The best part is putting the paintbrush to the canvas and simply getting it out. There’s so much beauty in abstract thought and we need to use that to our advantage. I don’t know what I’m making half the time, but I’ve turned it into something beautiful.