Explore the ‘in-between’ with digital painter Ahmed Aldoori

The artist’s new exhibit, ‘How Peculiar,’ opens at Side Hustle Gallery in the Idea Foundry on Friday, Nov. 12

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
One of the works by digital painter Ahmed Aldoori now on display at Side Hustle Gallery

When Ahmed Aldoori was a child growing up in Strongsville, Ohio, he would play “The Legend of Zelda” on Super Nintendo, imagining the worlds within the game that existed far beyond the images displayed on the family’s television.

“It was like, OK, here’s the game. Now what else is in that world?” Aldoori said during an interview at the Side Hustle Gallery in the Idea Foundry, where the artist’s new exhibit, “How Peculiar,” will open as part of Franklinton Friday on Nov. 12. “I would definitely just sit there and daydream of other places.”

Aldoori said he started drawing as a child, not long after he emigrated with his family from Iraq to Ohio at age 2. (The artist said his only memories from his time in the Middle East are brief flashes from living in a Gulf War-era refugee camp, including flicking rocks at tanks with plastic spoons and U.S. soldiers passing out candy to children.) 

These earliest drawings were often steeped in cartoons and video games, influenced by everything from “Batman: The Animated Series” to Nintendo games such as “Mega Man.” Later, in adolescence, the “dark circus” surrounding rap duo the Insane Clown Posse started to bleed into the work, aspects of which exist within the DNA of some of the pieces on display in the gallery, including one painting where doll-like clowns are overseen by a shadowy ringmaster.

“There’s something about that dark, otherworldly, circus kind of dream world,” Aldoori said. “It’s tough to describe it, but it’s like that moment when you wake up from a nap but you’re not fully awake. There’s an in-between there where there’s a lot to be explored.”

This “in-between” now exists within Side Hustle Gallery, contained in Aldoori’s digitally created images of colorful mermaids, elfin creatures that appear plucked from Dungeons & Dragons lore and shadowy circus dwellers one could picture marching alongside My Chemical Romance’s Black Parade.

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The work also serves as an extension of Aldoori’s career creating concept art for movies and video games, which has included, among other things, working as part of the team that designed the plants and animals that filled the enchanted forest in the 2012 film “Snow White and the Huntsman.”

Aldoori said he was first attracted to the field when he discovered the work of digital painter Craig Mullins, later following in Mullins’ footsteps by attending ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, where Aldoori studied Entertainment Design. “They kind of described our role as this: You’re going to a place that doesn’t exist. And you’re the photographer taking pictures of stuff and bringing them back for the real world to see,” said Aldoori, who later returned to ArtCenter as a teacher and more recently created and launched his own digital painting course.

In recent years, Aldoori said his motivations for making art have started to shift, with his current work existing more as a means to satisfy his own creative desires, which is a marked change from childhood and adolescence, when drawing existed in large part as a way to gain acceptance.

“As an outsider, my token to offer up for acceptance was art. What do you like? Isn’t this [drawing] cool? OK, now I feel safe. I feel welcome,” Aldoori said. 

Over time, though, the transactional nature of the art started to curdle within Aldoori, who described it developing into “a dependency” that left him open to feeling a sense of rejection when someone didn’t respond favorably to his drawings. For this reason, part of Aldoori’s evolution as an artist has involved embracing “a willingness to be disliked,” he said.

“A lot of us artists are introverted, and we have this golden egg that we’re polishing for a long time, and maybe we don’t want to show it because maybe the world has been cruel in the early days of childhood,” said Aldoori, who will be displaying his art publicly for the first time in a decade with “How Peculiar.” “That’s what it kind of was for me. Now it's like, OK, so it’s not perfect. It’s not the golden egg. But here it is. … Even just having this [exhibit] up is a therapeutic thing.”