Alex Paulus was 13 when he won his first art competition. He entered a Van Gogh-esque painting in a fair.
"I won the 14- to 18-year-old category, Paulus says. "I got first place. There were all these other older kids who had done really good stuff. They were kind of standing around, looking at me. I was just, 'Oh, Jesus.' It came with like a $25 prize, and I was like, 'Oh, God. They'll take it away from me.' So, I didn't say anything."
Since then, Paulus, 36, now an assistant professor of fine arts at Southwest Tennessee Community College, has included his work in numerous shows. He will exhibit his works along with Natalie Hoffmann and Nick Peña in "Better Homes and Gardens," which will open October 20th at Crosstown Arts.
A native of Perryville, Missouri, Paulus and his friend drew pictures of singer Rob Zombie and his White Zombie metal band — "devil everything" — because they thought the music was cool. But Paulus, who went to a Catholic grade school, says, "Our teachers were afraid we were worshiping the devil."
He majored in graphic design at Southeastern Missouri State University, but he hated it. Except for a project in which he had to design and make a survival kit for a particular place. "I made a Catholic survival kit for hell. It was like a golden tabernacle. And I had a swinging door open on it and a bottle of water that was supposed to be holy water that you could throw on demons."
He also included a wooden devil mask "to mask yourself from other devils so they wouldn't find out that you're not supposed to be there." And a fan with images of the saints on it "to flip it out and fan evil."
After changing his major to painting, Paulus began making "mostly figurative stuff. But it was more brightly colored abstract, which kind of stuck with me. It is exactly what I am doing now."
In 2007, Paulus moved to Memphis to attend Memphis College of Art, where his early work dealt with his "questioning of evolution and creationism. It tied back to my Catholic background."
His thesis paintings were white-on-white minimalist images based on "all these different instances when God was punishing humans."
He showed how — using advanced technology — man is able to "counteract all God's punishments" in Old Testament stories. A painting showed the Noah's Ark flood, but one man has on scuba gear. Another depicts a locust plague but includes "the big truck that drives around and kills mosquitos or whatever bugs."
Paulus liked the idea of making funny art. "After I got out of grad school, that's when I started doing way more colorful things and incorporating funny, weird situations."
One group was a "series of all these little dead people in weird situations."
Look at Them Weird Birds shows a nude man standing in a Walmart parking lot near a body of a woman in a pool of blood. He's pointing at some birds flying in a V formation as if to divert the viewer's attention from the corpse.
Another shows dead people in a bowling alley. "It's called Mass Suicide-o-rama. They're all wearing little Nike shoes, and there's little cups of Kool-Aid that spilled next to each one of them."
In "Stopping in Memphis" at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis, a work is entitled Living the Dream. It shows a man with a distorted-looking face wearing virtual reality glasses. "He's got these beautiful braces. He's got an awesome Coca-Cola tank top. He's got a good hairdo. He's living the dream. He's trying to live the dream."
The work in the new show "kind of piggybacks off of the show at U of M."
The theme of the upcoming Crosstown Arts show will be "more about the American Dream and homes and owning things."
Paulus says his works will be about people "trying to make their lives better. But it's not working."