Self-taught Artist Traces Love of Painting to Orono High School Art Class

by | Aug 2015

Justin Hammer, a self-taught artist based in the Twin Cities.

Photos: Justin Hammer

Justin Hammer discovered he had a gift for drawing in an art class senior year at Orono High. He’s been painting ever since.

Draped over the walls and ceiling in the corner of artist Justin Hammer’s studio are sheets paint-splattered with a clamor of quotes, handprints, drawings and brush strokes.

It looks like graffiti from afar, but up close details emerge. A quote scrawled at the top of the most prominent stretch (once a bedsheet; the rest are dropcloths), simply says, “Rising.” Hammer wrote it just before he began his first painting, called Rising I.

“I look at this whole thing as an art piece, and it’s my favorite,” says Hammer, 24. “It’s literally from the very beginning of when I started.”

From this perch, located in the Maple Plain home of his parents, Blane and Michelle, Hammer prefers to paint at night, sometimes all night. He does so either by himself or in collaboration with other artists or friends (who are asked to contribute a handprint or quote on the sheets).

Nearby, a few of his paintings line two long walls in the narrow room, which Blane refers to as his son’s art cave. Hammer and his two younger brothers—Ellis and Dane—previously used it as a playroom.

Hammer, who now lives in St. Paul and showcases his work at, uses mostly acrylic paints, and sometimes spray paints, to create the abstract spurts of color that twist and meander over large canvases. A staple of his work is using iridescent metallic pens that glow in different lights.

Grande Gallery at Edina’s Galleria, which has shown some of Hammer’s work, described his style as “large-scale mixed media paintings that feature bright colors, bold brush strokes, symbolism, hidden words, and, on occasion, mirror.”

“I’m usually working on two or three things at a time,” he says. “Some of them I really marinate on for a while. I get to a certain point where I need to step away before doing something impulsive that doesn’t feel natural to me.”

Hammer says his art intends to inspire people to reach higher, by depicting the human experience in an uplifting, relatable and visually pleasing manner.

Change in plans

Hammer’s foray into art started when he decided to take a drawing class during his senior year at Orono High School. He figured it would be an easy A. What he discovered was the artistic talent that he says had been hiding from him for 18 years.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t even draw in coloring books,” says Hammer, who graduated from Orono High in 2013. “Everything for me was focused on basketball. But when I stumbled upon this, my life and my priorities of what I thought or wanted my future to be before really did a 180. I fell in love with art.”

He scratched plans to play basketball at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. He still went there, but graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship.

It was during college that he honed his art skills. Not in school, since St. Thomas didn’t offer any drawing classes other than an art history class (which he did take). “So, other than the art class in high school, I’m completely self-taught,” he says.

The idea of getting an entrepreneurship degree tied directly to his art business. When he’s not painting, Hammer’s out drumming up showings of his work, which might lead to sales of an existing painting or a request for a commissioned piece. He has exhibited his work in galleries, shows, hotels, homes featured in the Parade of Homes, and even at the Mall of America.

“It was learning how to start my own business, be my own boss,” says Hammer, who refers to himself as an artist, designer and entrepreneur.
He had his first art show attended by 200 people at Martin Patrick 3, the luxury menswear and home furnishings retailer in Minneapolis. He worked there while in college.

That was affirming for Hammer. He says his parents are supportive now, but they were a little skeptical at first of his untraditional path.

“I made enough money to be like, ‘Okay, this could actually be a thing and work out for me,’” he says. “At that point, I didn’t know if this was a hobby or if it was something I could make work.”

Most of Hammer’s high school friends have gone into the corporate world. He thought about that, too, but he wants to keep on running with his art as long as he can.

“The consistency aspect of making money gives me a little anxiety,” he says. “But when it’s good, it’s good, and when it’s not, I’m pushing on the gas hustling to get my work out there.”

His goal? National recognition as an artist, and a steady income. “Just getting to a point where there’s a lot of consistency and where I feel safe financially,” he says. “But never compromising. Following what I want to do.”

Hammer also has a business idea he wants to pursue: an app that aims to bring artists together. “There is a huge community as well as a collaborative aspect to that for creatives,” he says. “I’m determined to make that work.”

Despite the challenges, Hammer is living his dream, thankful he enrolled in that high school art class.

“As idealistic as that might sound,” he says. “It can get corny real quick, but deep down it’s true. I would never regret this no matter what. There are way too many good memories. I love creating.”

The Beginning of Orono High School

Jayne Hudgins, the Orono High School art teacher who taught Justin Hammer’s Drawing 1 class his senior year, is proud of her former pupil for following his dreams and sharing his vision with others.

Hammer’s painting ability seems to come quickly to him, Hudgins says. But, she says, it’s a product of “God’s gifting, his passion and a lot of hard work.”

She remembers Hammer, a 2013 graduate, making rapid progress in the class and showing “astonishing leaps” in both his drawing ability and developing his own personal narrative.

“When he told me how much he was drawing at home, I knew why he was making such fast progress,” Hudgins says. “The combination of interest and practice combined with his passion was so inspirational that I asked him to be my teaching assistant in drawing the next semester. I recall him saying his only regret was that he waited until he was a senior to take my drawing class.”

Hudgins shares Hammer’s work with students in her drawing classes today as a “shining example” of an artist who is true to himself and willing to put in the time.

“His paintings are so energetic, honest, and colorful that they just make you feel better looking at them,” she says. “It’s my hope that he keeps painting his feelings, beliefs, and interpretations so that many others will surround themselves with his artwork.”

“Sometimes I want to send a strong message, and sometimes it’s just based on raw emotion, too, and translated through colors,” Hammer says of his process. “If there’s a certain situation going on in my life or I feel a certain way that day—good or bad. It’s just a really intuitive feeling process that somehow translates pretty well.”

His dad says Hammer leads with his heart, in both his life and his art.

His parents are proud of him, especially his desire to help viewers of his art to think outside the box. Blane, a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley in Wayzata, says neither he nor Michelle are artistic, but his own mother was.

“For anyone not an artist, like myself, they’re not going to understand it,” Blane says. “It’s not mechanical what he’s doing. He’s being taken over by his heart and his spirit, and it’s exploding on the canvas.”

Justin Hammer Art
5700 Providence Curve, Maple Plain
Facebook: Justin Hammer Art
Instagram: @justinhammerart


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