When he’s working on one of his paintings, Stephen Maxam’s studio looks like a scene from Breaking Bad.
Unlike the show, however, the full face respirator, gloves and tarps are only used to protect him from the fumes of his art materials.
Maxam, who is known in the art community by his Instagram handle @staxamart, creates mesmerizing multimedia paintings. Working with epoxy — a medium commonly used as a protective coating — his paintings look like a colorful cross between galactic photographs and granite countertops.
How does he create his art? For now, the self-titled “abstract naturalist painter” said he’s keeping the tricks of his trade secret.
With little helpful information available about the relatively uncommon medium, he said he’s had to figure it out for himself.
"I discover new things every time I use it, and anytime I try something new I usually find a new effect,” Maxam said. “A lot of things are accidental.”
When working on projects, he’ll spend from 20 to 50 hours a week in his self-ventilated studio, which takes the toxic air outside and brings fresh air indoors. In the winter months, he wears around seven layers so he can keep working in the cold.
It’s from this practice and experimentation that he’s honed the ability to create his art.
"You can pour things into [epoxy], you can pour it on top of things, you can mix it with things and pour it, pretty much anything,” he explained. “You can add random things that aren't paint and see what happens.
"You, as the creator, have a certain amount of power over the composition, but only a certain amount,” Maxam said. “You're guiding it, but also being influenced by the path it takes.”
Previously working with predominately ink and pen, Maxam stumbled across epoxy after a friend showed him an epoxy-covered leaf. From that simple introduction, he started looking into how he could use it artistically.
The 21-year-old said he draws inspiration from nature, his own emotions and the events that are happening in the world around him.
After Philando Castile was killed last July, he created his first black-and-white piece.
"I was trying to make sense of this divide, which is more abstract and a gray area,” he said. “You're trying to internally make yourself sane. I was here receiving all this energy, trying to interpret it."
No matter the color scheme or inspiration, Maxam’s style isn’t common, and his experimentation is something that Verra Blough, who works at the St. Paul art supply store Wet Paint, said she loves about his art.
“I’m a believer in experimentation,” Blough said. Impressed with Maxam’s work, she said that sometimes art like his can only be created by “jumping in.”
Those in the art world aren’t the only ones who enjoy Maxam’s paintings. His work is currently on display at Urban Growler Brewing Company, where the colorful swirls and layers provide a nice contrast to the building’s interior brick walls.
Alex Mongin, a friend of Maxam who works at the brewery, said his art is perfect for the space, especially since he’s from the area.
“We’re super engrained in the community, and we want locals to be represented,” Mongin said.
Maxam’s pieces, including “Pink Matter,” “Intangible Perfection” and “Ultraviolet Icebergs” were installed in the beginning of April.
Looking forward, Maxam is hoping to continue featuring his work in galleries, experiment with creating furniture and host his own solo showing. But for now, he’s still enjoying creating and learning from his own art.
“Any different kind of idea that you have can yield a different result,” Maxam said. “There's an evolution occurring as you're creating because you have to just go with the flow.”