Cosmic Shield, the work by Justin Bean now hanging at the U.S. embassy in Cameroon.
Cosmic Shield, the work by Justin Bean now hanging at the U.S. embassy in Cameroon.

Local artist’s work chosen to hang in the U.S. embassy in Cameroon.

In an Oak Park home, there are two art studios. One belongs to Justin Bean, an abstract painter, and the other belongs to his wife, Emily Bean, a fabric sculptor. While his day job is with a nonprofit and hers is in advertising, their after-dinner activities take them into separate studios to work on current projects.

Justin Bean
“I want to make visual work that is compelling, draws people in and gets them to do their own analysis about what the work says to them.”
— Justin Bean

To his surprise, Justin recently was contacted by the Art in Embassies program, established by the U.S. Department of State in 1963. He was asked to show one of his works in the U.S. embassy in Cameroon, and it already has been placed there.

The piece, titled Cosmic Shield, has bright acrylic colors and was completed on canvas.

“The request to show this painting was really unexpected,” Justin Bean said. “I got an email very much out of the blue from a woman who works for the Arts in Embassies program. She asked if I was interested in participating and, at first, I was a little skeptical because there’s so much spam email out there.

“Then I noticed she had a government address, and I had heard about the program. I said I’d certainly be interested, so we set up a phone call and I got to speak with her.”

Apparently, the woman had been looking online to gather resources, and she came across Bean’s website and reached out.

“This is the first time my work has been exhibited by an agency such as this,” he said. “I’ve shown paintings in galleries and businesses. Other than appearing with a friend living in Toronto, it is the first time my work has been hanging out of the country.

“I like that abstract work is not telling you to feel a certain way or interpret the work in a certain way. It very much becomes about the material itself and what you’re seeing in front of you. You step back and look for things that are referenced.

“It will still draw comparisons with things you see about you in everyday life. That is part of the process, but it doesn’t mean there is something represented there. It becomes a way of getting at ideas that are abstract — the way your mind works with things like identity and topics like science, technology and culture. These are big abstract ideas but not necessarily a way to address those ideas without using an abstract visual language.”

Lifelong artist

Bean, 38, who defines abstract art as liberating, started out as a youngster with artistry that was more representational. As he gained experience through schooling and displaying, the focus moved into abstractions.

“My first interest is to create paintings that are interesting to look at,” he said. “A certain visual beauty is part of making any sort of visual art. I want to make visual work that is compelling, draws people in and gets them to do their own analysis about what the work says to them.”

Bean grew up in Huntington Woods with attention to Judaism expressed through experiences at Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park and Tamarack camping. He enjoyed taking a blank piece of paper and putting something on it, creating something from nothing.

Throughout his school years, Bean attended art classes. He was briefly in art school at the University of Michigan but moved into a degree in anthropology, eventually using some of the symbols in his work. Although he didn’t stop making art, he quickly realized he wanted to learn more about the world while making art on his own.

After graduating, Bean started to work on paintings more and more. With time, he decided to pursue a graduate degree in art and did that at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he met his wife.

“It was a very circuitous route realizing how important making art was for me,” he explained. “But that brought me to where I am now.”

While living in Philadelphia and working in the areas of memberships and admissions in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he showed his work in galleries and hotels. He affiliated with groups of artists that established ways for members to exhibit their projects.

More recently, his work can be seen on his website ( and has been shown at the Detroit Artists Market, Hatch Art Gallery in Hamtramck and the Ann Arbor Art Center. It is in the collections of the Philadelphia Insurance Co. and the Prince Media Co. in New York.

“When I moved back to Michigan five years ago, I saw that the Zekelman Holocaust Center was hiring and put in my application for a membership development job, which built off of what I was doing in Philadelphia,” said Bean, who has again affiliated with Temple Emanu-El. “It was lucky timing they were hiring for something I had experience in, and it all just came together.

“I think it’s great that my painting was just picked to be shown in a government building serving an admirable purpose. It’s a cross-cultural exchange.

“Even though it’s governmental, it gives government the opportunity to show something on a much deeper level.”

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