James Croak is a great sculptor who often works with dirt or earth. You can clearly see the material in his work https://www.jamescroak.com/ which is dark, poignant and inventive. I wanted to find out what inspired him to create and he told me that and much more. Here’s our cool chat …

“…  Leonardo and Michelangelo were both part of the dominant Roman Catholic culture that was their subject and the ultimate judge of quality for their time. We don’t have that anymore …”

MICHAEL: Hello James, Your sculptural work is very intriguing. I love the textural, rustic quality of it. Let's start with the finished product. How does it feel when you've finished a sculpture - particularly a large human figure? Do you ever feel like you've made versions of Adam and Eve?

JAMES: Michael, Adam and Eve, yes funny and I’ve been asked that before. As the work is often made entirely of cast dirt - dirt with binder - the overtones of dust to dust in our religious-legacy language are inevitable. Also, there is a seminal personhood at play here, something about dirt activates sculpted “flesh” more than any other material. When I finish, I feel that I’ve built a being, a golem.    

A finished piece has a presence that some like, but many are scared of. Dirt is the common conclusion of the thousand natural shocks flesh is heir to, we all sense it.   

MICHAEL: Most people view dirt as having zero value. What do you make of this? You clearly believe dirt has value. No?

JAMES: The great line that “dirt is earth in the wrong place” really says so much about the perception and uses of dirt in art. Of course, there is a vast culture of earth artists. Everyone from James Turrell to Michael Heizer works directly in dirt, which they prefer to call earth. But often artists will use dirt directly on canvas as paint. James Long and Antoni Tàpies come to mind. Yes I see dirt differently as a result of working in it so long.

MICHAEL: When you're sculpting, do you always start out with a clear idea of what you're going to create? Do you ever just start working and then see what develops?

JAMES: Uh, great question, a question for the ages for all artists in all media.

Ideally, I have a distinct idea and I complete it as if I’m an artisan who is working for someone else using my accumulated skill to render it.  But this is unfortunately somewhat rare, usually I am making maquettes and models hoping something art-like appears.   

If one works abstractly, which I did earlier in my career, one is assembling objects and looking for a relationship of forms, this is different than figurative sculpture where one proceeds from a concept to a figure to an aesthetic of the figure. Often one simply has no idea, but in going to work every day and sitting in the studio or wherever one works, will eventually cause a germ of an idea to build on. 

MICHAEL: What purpose does sculpture serve in the world today? Do we need it? Things have changed greatly since the days of Leonardo and Michelangelo when people truly appreciated art and didn't have television or hand held devices or shopping malls or video games. No?

JAMES: Leonardo and Michelangelo were both part of the dominant Roman Catholic culture that was their subject and the ultimate judge of quality for their time. We don’t have that anymore. If one sculpted David, as Michelangelo did, from the Book of Samuel or painted the Last Supper, as Leonardo did, that appears and reappears in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, I doubt there would be much interest, unless portrayed as irony. 

Sculpting in the Renaissance was a portrayal of eternal verities, not many believe in them anymore. Sculpting during the Modernist period was similar, but vaguely a neo-Platonism, again a belief in an essentialism. Not only does this not exist among the literati, it’s hard to imagine that there will be a new one as the hermeneutic tools we have simply shred any attempts to produce a new one. In a post-modern world, perception and conclusion is a form of imagination.  

For reasons unclear, every culture identifiable back into prehistory has produced sculpture, sometimes vast claims were made for it and other times they were simply decorated, agricultural tools. There can still be a resonance and specialness to a physical object. Can we claim this to be true across all cultures? Who knows?  We see that other times produced objects that we have no idea what they were about, but they contain an amazing form and craft that sucks us in and holds our attention. This is the case for millennia across dissimilar cultures that come and go.

MICHAEL: Your photography and drawings are quite dramatic. Is the inspiration for that work different than from your sculptural works? I would imagine it is.

JAMES: The drawings are subject-driven and the photographs are more instinctive and presence-driven. These are the two modes of working in contemporary art and each falls out of favor from time to time.  

Oddly, the photographs are closer to the sculpture than the drawings are. I actually think it might have been a mistake to do “The Disasters of War” drawings in mud, which I did because of their affinity to war. Lead pencil might have sufficed.  

The photography show that is currently up and in which I am included is called “Photography of Place.” That pretty much nails it for my photography and sculpture.  

MICHAEL: Your photography and drawings seem to take on more of a dark, profound tone rather than a light, airy tone. What's that all about?

JAMES: Night photography was largely unexplored until recently. I found the limited, forward vision an apt metaphor for living in general. Also, there is a dark beauty there. We don’t photograph objects, we record the light being reflected by the object, and stars and moonlight have a different color than sunlight, hence familiar objects appear strange and unexamined. It’s a way to startle our consciousness to see things anew.  

The drawings are about war, which is awful and to be avoided.  What more is there to say?

MICHAEL: Do you recall when you decided to become an artist? You could have done something else. No?

JAMES: My first artistic venture was as a musician, a classical guitarist, which I began at 13. I knew then that I was an artist as I was unusually fascinated with aesthetics, whereas those around me were indifferent. I probably could have done something else and thought about it many times over the years, but I’m glad I didn’t. I see people now in their sixties who spent their life doing something more certain and now they’re wondering why they didn’t become artists. Something that might last.

MICHAEL: Interesting. Finally James, when you're gone and your work is still here, what do you want people to know about it? Does your body of work thus far have a message? What's the takeaway?

JAMES: Life is bewildering, but the sublime, the continuum, and the mysterious is our balm.

MICHAEL: Thanks for chatting James. Your work is very cool.

Check out James Croak at https://www.jamescroak.com/.