Tradition Meets Technology

Longtime El Segundo resident, artist, art instructor, and Arts & Culture Advisory Committee Chair Neal Von Flue speaks of his background, his interest in the intersection of art and technology, and his influences.

Q&A by Maureen Kingsley

Artist Neal Von Flue at home
Neal Von Flue

1. TESS: Neal, could you share a bit about your roots here in El Segundo and your upbringing?

NVF: My great-grandfather moved here to work at Standard Oil in the 1920s. My kids are the fourth generation in our family to graduate from El Segundo High. We’ve almost always worked or owned a business in town; my father was an engraver and machinist who ran his shop in Smoky Hollow all my life. And, when I was married, my wife and I ran our art studio here for more than 15 years.

2. When and how did your interest in creating, making art, and writing start?

To continue on the family thread, most everyone in my family has been a builder or maker of some kind. I may be the first to be labeled “artsy” or “creative,” but I live with the effect that the generations before me have had on my world. From building houses and engineering to working on cars and bikes, making and fixing things has been a constant part of my family’s life and impacted me from an early age. I learned that any idea that you might have is possible. My family inspired a sense of craft, and, more importantly perhaps, a sense that there isn’t really a gatekeeper when it comes to making your ideas a reality.

From a more linear standpoint regarding art, I always loved drawing, but my experience in high school was more technically oriented. I took animation, photography, and drafting (when that was still a thing) but no formal drawing or painting instruction until I started at El Camino College. That was a profound art experience and cemented my half-baked and youthful ideas for a career. From there, I went into the arts.

These works by Neal, listed clockwise from top left, are: "Tantalus," "Her Father Arrested," "It'll Get So Quiet," "Abhayasta Hand," and "Sweeping Up."

3. Could you summarize for readers your interest in the intersection of art and technology, and provide a few examples of your work in this area?

I think I’m lucky in that I had just enough experience in art-making prior to the ubiquity of computers and digital life. I learned to admire craft and tradition, and approached the sea change that digital art brought with that perspective in mind. In the early days, I wanted to find paths to make digital art look technically real—to find where the aesthetics overlapped—and eventually that evolved into finding paths to merge these ways of being creative and finding the ways that they complement each other and grow. Now, I think that the long history of traditional art has formed a bedrock of strengths, good design, and aesthetics. These qualities can sometimes seem boring, but they also temper the frenetic explosion of digital art and help it mature and solidify.

Neal Von Flue's artwork: "The Jerk"
"The Jerk" by Neal Von Flue

I had been interested in comics and visual language in college. As the internet became widespread, my first steps were in making comics online. I wanted to explore the new potentials for narrative. For example, almost all of storytelling in history—whether spoken or written—has been linear. We are meant to consume a book from beginning to end at the direction of the author, et cetera. But with the foundational invention of the hyperlink, stories could take any shape; or, better yet, the shape could be decided by the viewer. Instead of showing the reader chapters 1 through 10 in chronology, you can provide random links to every chapter. Or you can provide visual icons for each chapter that have no explicit context or order, and that moving framework will ensure that the story is new every time. This excited me as a young artist, and inspired a 20-year obsession with blending technology and tradition. I worked to make narrative models that weren’t linear—they had depth, or pockets in them. Pieces of the story were there if you wanted them, and tangents could shoot off in any direction or be a part of the whole. There were also the formal properties of visual storytelling that became possible on the early internet: a near-infinite canvas, multimedia interaction through embedded animation or audio. And to top it off, it brought an unprecedented amount of direct contact with readers and fellow creators—no publishers or distribution models were in the way. You had to learn to be a content creator, programmer, and marketing team all in one, but it was a very exciting place to be making work.

I later learned about QR codes and figured out how they worked. They are a sort of visual hyperlink, and so I looked for ways to integrate them into tradition by painting large-scale codes that pointed to multimedia and text. I could make those same multipath stories from before, but now they could only be accessed by using your phone to scan a code embedded in a painting. [See two of Neal's paintings that incorporate QR codes below. Try pointing your QR code reader at them, too!]

One of the great things about this is that we’ve only reached a portion of the possibilities that technology might provide creators. The internet now is almost unrecognizable as the place I started. In something like oil painting, we’re still using essentially the same tools and technology that they had in the Renaissance. But in the digital world, advances in the medium create new possibilities—and sometimes new mediums altogether.