Axel Livingston is 18 years old, the recipient of some of Colorado’s most prestigious art awards, and can sketch a crazy-looking dog on the fly. A rising artistic talent with a range of career possibilities for his growing skill set, he also easily slips into the role of mentor.
When I met Livingston, an Aspen High School senior, at the Pitkin County Library to discuss his art, his first words were for my tagalong 6-year-old son, whom I introduced as also having artistic tendencies.
“You just gotta keep doing it,” he said to my son, wide-eyed at meeting a real artist.
The advice was perhaps reflective of Livingston’s own mantra. The product of a creative family, including a seamstress grandmother and his “momager” mother, local writer Jillian Livingston, he attended Aspen Community School, known for its emphasis on creativity. Growing up, he was constantly drawing or being creative with his hands.
“Starting off, my art was not very good at all,” he said. “I just kept doing it and doing it. My math sheets, all my books were covered. I just drew whatever I had in my mind.”
In high school, Livingston began researching art and art history on his own. Once he honed in on artists who inspired him — including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Ralph Steadman, the illustrator known for his work with Hunter S. Thompson — he said, “The whole world blew up for me; I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
Attracted by the irreverent style and social commentary of those two artists (and of Hunter Thompson culture in general), Livingston further developed his own technical style, and started using it to bring attention to issues he cares about. Favorite topics include the meat industry, medical ethics and the pharmaceutical drug crisis, which he said affects a lot of his local peers.
“I want to provide more insight, a visual aspect to the problems we’re facing,” he said.
Livingston gives a lot of credit to two art teachers at Aspen High. Stephanie Nixon, the school’s lead art teacher whom he’s studied with all four years, has been supportive and encouraging of whatever he wants to work on, even if it’s in what Livingston calls his signature “creepy” style. In Diane Heath, who taught ceramics last semester and specializes in portfolio development and scholastic competition, he found someone who pushed him outside his comfort zone. Heath convinced him enter the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards contest for Colorado.
“The greatest thing about Axel is he’s not afraid to try all kinds of media — you don’t see that in most high school kids,” said Nixon, who added that she’s also seen his confidence as an artist blossom in the past year. “He’s ahead of his time. He’s not afraid to tackle subjects that may not be pretty, that make you uncomfortable, but somehow he welcomes you in — makes the viewer look a few times at his work.”
In the state Scholastic contest, Livingston won four Gold Key awards for four separate works, one of which also was an American Vision Award nominee. (For the latter, two of the five Colorado nominees for the national award are from Aspen High, whose students won a total of 18 awards in the state contest.) As a result, his works will be judged as part of the national Scholastic competition in March.
These are some of the highest artistic honors teens in the region can achieve, noted Heath, who equated the Scholastic Colorado contest to a state championship in a sport.
“The judges want to see not just skill but what you have to say about your art, and can you say it in a way that hasn’t been seen over and over?” she said. “When I saw his work, I said, ‘My god, this kid has to enter.’ His skill set lies in creating images where each piece has something to say — a social justice or political idea — and he’s not imitating another style. It’s all his.”
Livingston is also a product of his environment. Growing up an artist in Aspen has been both a blessing and a unique perspective on the value of work and relationships. There’s plenty of artistic support in multiple arts-focused nonprofits in the valley; Livingston won a scholarship to an Anderson Ranch program two summer ago. Among peers who’ve been given everything, he’s appreciative of having had to work to pay his own expenses, and this past summer spent six weeks at California College of the Arts in Oakland among a group of like-minded peers.
Back in Aspen, Livingston developed a relationship with the team at Aspen Hatter, which hosted his first art show in September 2019. He was thrilled to sell some pieces, but perhaps more importantly learned to talk about himself and his work in front of potential customers and art patrons.
“All we can do as humans is connect,” said the teen who considered himself anti-social up until recently. “It’s good to push yourself; you never grow if you do stuff you’re comfortable with all the time.”
Aside from deciding where (or if) to go to college next fall, Livingston is developing practical skills to serve him if his career path doesn’t lead straight into the fine arts: graphic design, sewing and filmmaking. Meanwhile, burgeoning PR and social media skills are serving him as he promotes his next event, a one-day show with fellow Aspen High artist Jake Bozza on Saturday at The Collective in Snowmass Village.
No matter what, though, Livingston is committed to his artistic message.
“All I can do is try,” he said. “So I’m trying to bring light to stuff, get people intrigued, provoke thought. I want people to look at my art and have really stimulated conversations.”
That’s even happening with the crazy dog sketch Livingston gave my 6-year-old son, who’s been carrying it around in his backpack showing everyone he knows.