Jan 18, 2018
BATAVIA — For decades, people around the world have been able to view Sean Madden’s art. He has exhibited throughout the country, including shows in Buffalo, Philadelphia and Santa Ana, Calif., and as far away as Frankfurt, Germany. His work has been included in publications around the world and featured in two films (“My First Mister” and “Scream 4”).
But aside from one inclusion in a 2016 Batavia Society of Artists members show, he had not exhibited in Genesee County, where he has worked for much of his career. That changed last week.
Madden’s exhibit, “Light Over Dark,” opened Jan. 11 in the main gallery at the Genesee-Orleans Regional Arts Council. It’s a bit of a homecoming for Madden, who grew up in Buffalo and now lives in Hilton, since he worked as a counselor in a local school district for more than 25 years. He currently works at the Western New York Tech Academy in Bergen.
“I’m really excited, and I’m honored that we are the first to show his work,” said Gregory Hallock, GO-Art’s executive director. “We’re also talking about having him come back in two years and show again. He’s pretty amazing.”
Madden’s art, which relies heavily on bright, vibrant colors, has been called trippy and psychedelic. It often blends imagery in a bizarre fashion, such as adding fins and gills to a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. But what he is doing now is a departure from the work that composed much of his career.
“I was a horror and science fiction illustrator,” Madden said while sitting cross-legged in the gallery. “I was well-known for that. I did illustrations for punk rock CD covers and interior illustrations for magazines.”
So what changed? Actually, it was two-year legal battle that shifted Madden’s perspective.
A parent of a student in his school district complained about Madden’s art, which led to a First Amendment case. The court eventually ruled in Madden’s favor.
“I had always tried to keep my work life separate from my art, but some conservative parents in the district went to my website and went nuts. They started complaining to the superintendent, and I had to be put on leave for two years. ... I had done nothing illegal, immoral or wrong. This was a very traumatic thing to go through, and I won.”
After returning to work, Madden noticed that his work had started to change, shifting in tone from dark to something softer.
“A colleague told me it was probably because of winning this case,” he said. “She said ‘Your work started to fill with more light and became more positive.’”
Starting at a young age
Madden’s aptitude for art emerged at a young age. Teachers and students at his elementary school in Buffalo noticed his ability.
“They kind of stopped what they were doing, walked over and said ‘Look what weird stuff this kid is drawing,’” Madden said. “That was the first way as a kid that I got attention and stood out from the crowd.”
It was during adolescence that art became much more than a hobby. He was given a fine arts apprenticeship at City Honors High School with renowned teacher Victor Shanchuk Jr. It was a turnaround for Madden who had been attending Buffalo Alternative High School after years of “being a troublemaker.”
“I got very lucky,” Madden said. “I was able to study Renaissance-era painting techniques with this older art teacher, and it changed my life for the better. It was a tremendous experience. Here I am, this kid, 16 years old, and I’m learning about da Vinci and Rembrandt built up their paintings in layers and how to use lighting as an expressive tool.”
Finding a career in counseling
While art had been his passion for most of his life, Madden relaxed his pens and brushes during college. He earned a master’s degree in counselor’s education from Brockport State College and began working in education.
“I wanted to make sure I could support myself, so I got this beautiful day job,” he said. “And art has always been my other job.”
By working with troubled youths, he was able to merge the two. He found that he could use art to help children, just as it had helped him earlier in his life.
“It wasn’t just something that helped me in my life,” he said. “These kids would come in and be mad and wanting to trash things. They would come into my office and sit and draw then calm down, and I would send them back to class.
“Art is the best form of therapy there is.”
A opening reception for “Light Over Dark” will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at GO-Art, 201 East Main St. Madden, also a jazz guitarist, will perform music during the reception.