James (Neil) Hollingsworth is an Atlanta-based artist whose work is simply spectacular. I absolutely love his aesthetic and focus on realism http://www.neilhollingsworth.com/. I had a fantastic chat with him about his process and how he gets to the matter of the things in art and life. Do yourself a favor and check out his website first and then read our chat.
MICHAEL: Hello James. Your work is incredible. One can't help but notice your obvious love affair with objects. How did this come about?
JAMES: Hey Michael. Thanks, I appreciate it. In the days before I painted for a living, I drew and painted animals almost exclusively. I'd throw in a portrait on occasion, but for the most part it was animals in watercolor. Then, in 2001, our friends Jeff and Leslie Cohen mentioned to Karen (James' artist wife) and I how they had begun to sell their paintings via online auction. This was very exciting news to say the least, and both of us immediately got on board. Originally I decided to stick with tradition, and try to sell watercolor paintings of animals. Sales of those proved to be a modest success, but they weren't going to get me out of my day job, so I talked with friends, asked some questions, and did a little research. Eventually I came to the conclusion that in order to increase my final auction prices I'd need to work in oil, and leave wildlife art behind. I bought some oil paints, figured out how to use them and moved into the realm of the still life.
MICHAEL: Fantastic. I love still lifes and figurative realism.
JAMES: I'd still throw in a cow or bird now and then, and tried my hand at urban landscapes as well, but the bulk of my work centered on objects. Over time, I came to really love painting "stuff". The beauty of painting things is that potential subject matter is everywhere. A lot of my compositions were created with items we already had around the house. I do have a soft spot for items made in the recent past, especially old kitchen items from the Art Deco days. Old coffee percolators are one of my favorite subjects. I love the highly reflective surface revealing the interior space of the room within the object.
MICHAEL: I love the way you present objects. The approach looks so contemporary and fresh. You black backgrounds are stunning and seem counter to the traditional white backdrop. Why black?
JAMES: I have done a lot of paintings that included entire scenes, but what I enjoy most is to concentrate on the "thing" itself; to eliminate most, if not all, of the extraneous matter from a composition. When I was doing my watercolor wildlife paintings, I would remove everything but the animal. My intent was to concentrate solely on the animal alone. That was what interested me, and not necessarily its environment. With birds, I might include a single branch, but the space surrounding the subject was simply white Arches watercolor paper. My still life paintings evolved in much the same way. The early paintings included a lot of the room in which the scene was composed, but over time I began to feel that those items detracted from the subject. In the end, I removed everything I felt didn't contribute to the composition and eventually the backgrounds evolved to white. Then one day my friend Karin Jurick, who paints on black-toned panels, suggested that I try it. She loved it and thought I would too. I found that it didn't work that well for me, but as I was painting on those first black canvases, I discovered that I did like how the subject looked with a black background. The objects seemed more focused and their colors more intense. So I stuck with it. The backgrounds aren't actually black, the color is a combination of Paynes Grey, Van Dyck Brown and Olive Green. It produces a warmer and much "deeper" color than straight black.
MICHAEL: Your work is so sharp and clear. How do you achieve that? It's almost like photorealism ... everything is so vibrant and technicolor-ish.
JAMES: I don't know quite how to answer that question. Being self-taught, those, "How do you" questions always leave me perplexed. Each new painting always begins with the same question in my mind, "How am I going to do this"? I suppose the best way I can answer your question, would be to quote the advice my wife Karen gave to me when I was first learning how to use oil paints. She told me to, "Just paint what you see."
MICHAEL: Writing is the same way for me. I never know "How" I'm going to do something, I just have to get over myself and "Do it."
JAMES: I had always painted what, "I thought I saw," but wasn't actually painting what I was seeing. When I was painting a bird, I was "painting that bird" and I could fake my way through it most of the time, but on many occasions, I missed the mark. I was so hung up on painting the bird that I wasn't actually "seeing" what my eyes were seeing. I know this sounds wacky, but when Karen said, "Paint what you see" and described that it meant the shapes, colors and tonal values of the subject, it suddenly clicked. I stopped seeing a percolator and started seeing the squiggles and blobs of color that made up the percolator. Over the years, I've gotten better at seeing this way and as a result, my paintings have become more refined. I keep breaking down those large squiggles and blobs into smaller and smaller ones. I don't really want to go entirely into the realm of true photorealism. I'd like to keep a somewhat "painterly" look to what I do. In fact, my goal is to take this refinement a little farther, then start pulling back, and combine my realistic technique with the addition of some lost edges. If I could find a way to combine both, I think the results would be really cool.
MICHAEL: I think the results are already cool. You've provoked something that I think is one of the most important questions I can ask any artist. Does it matter to you whether or not observers understand your vision and technique? I ask because ... as you know ... there's almost an entire industry built on explaining Picasso and unleashing Monet and describing what Mary Cassatt was thinking while painting this or that ...
JAMES: I don't infuse a narrative into my work. They are, literally, just paintings of things. By saying that, I don't mean to belittle my intent or subject matter. I believe I'm actually elevating it. Selecting a common everyday object as the theme for a painting compels the observer to look a little closer at something that has, essentially, become invisible to them. This is nothing new. It has been done by countless numbers of artists for hundreds of years. I'm just following in their footsteps and since my intent is entirely literal, there is very little room left for interpretation. It is simply what it is and nothing more. For me, that's enough. I love common objects, especially things designed and built by humans between the 1930's and the 1960's. It's very exciting to think about someone sitting at a drafting table at some point in the past, designing this machine to brew coffee, then going beyond basic engineering and function to create something with esthetic beauty as well. Reproducing their efforts on canvas gives me a lot of pleasure.
MICHAEL: Ironically, I think it's our very desire for things, objects and gadgets that cause people to ignore art. Why buy a painting when you can buy an iPhone? That's assuming the painting is even a consideration for everyday people, which most of the time it isn't. What role do you think contemporary art plays in our society?
JAMES: I'm not sure what role art plays in society. It probably plays the same role it always has. To delight us, frighten us, entertain us, inspire us, to decorate our dwellings and inform us. Art still fulfills those roles. I think it's just harder to see these days with all of the visual noise out there. In the pre-internet, pre-iPhone, iPod, iPad days, when we weren't inundated with constant visual stimuli, people may have been more interested in art. These days, we're saturated with pictures 24 hours a day, and I think we've become numbed by this onslaught of visual imagery. When it's everywhere, it's nowhere. I'm not saying people are no longer interested in art, I just think it has a lot more competition for our attention.
MICHAEL: Have you ever felt like an outcast when you tell people you're an artist? So many stereotypes can come up.
JAMES: No, I never have. I think many people think it's kind of cool. To be sure, a lot of folks don't get it at all. The idea of spending their money on art escapes them completely, so why would anyone want to be an artist? Others, I think, are intrigued by it. There's definitely a mystique surrounding people who make their living as artists. That stereotypical image of who an artist is, and this includes musicians and writers as well. You know, we're starving, alcoholic and maybe a little crazy. We're basically all Vincent Van Gogh. I think for many people, meeting someone who makes their living outside of the conventional business world, is fascinating. More often than not, an encounter evokes a sense of curiosity rather than inviting ridicule. I've had a lot of jobs in my life and honestly, I've never felt more "included" than I have working as an artist. When you total up my friends who are artists, with art enthusiasts and collectors who enjoy my work, and add in the galleries that vigorously support me, I've never felt less like an outcast.
MICHAEL: Very cool. I think that I respond to your work so much because I love figurative realism and still life painting. Your work really pushes the still life genre forward. I'm sure you don't say to yourself, "I'm pushing still life forward!" But do you ever think in terms of how your work fits into art history? I don't think it's pompous to consider this.
JAMES: I admit that the idea of my work someday achieving some type of critical acclaim has crossed my mind, but the reality is I won't be seeing my paintings in a retrospective at the Whitney. I have some drafting skills and I can move the paint around a little, but I don't have that, "it" factor. "It" comes from a combination of elements; a highly creative imagination, total mastery of one's painting skills, a unique vision and a strong work ethic. Currently my favorite artist is Jeremy Geddes, and for me, he has all of those qualities. Jeremy could end up with a page or two in the annals of art history. I got a late start in my career as a professional artist so I'm just happy to have had the chance to participate. Karen and I liken our careers to those of studio musicians. We're not the frontmen, but we have talent, are constantly honing our craft, have steady work in a field we love and frankly, that's pretty great. Maybe, if I'm lucky, I'll earn a footnote in art history. Wouldn't that would be amazing.
MICHAEL: I spoke with an artist recently who thinks that the old masters can not only be matched in terms of technical skill and talent, but can be surpassed. What do you think? They were men like you and me.
JAMES: I never understood this competitiveness that seems to run through the art community. It's like asking, "What type of music is best?" or "What type of literature is 'best'?" Do the novels of Chuck Palahniuk surpass those of Herman Melville simply because he arrived a hundred years later? Is it so hard to appreciate the talent of each on their own merit? I honestly believe you could pluck any of the artists responsible for the cave paintings at Lascaux, magically transport them to the present and with a little familiarization with current painting materials, they could produce work equal to any being done today. It's all so subjective anyway. What does "surpass" even mean when speaking of art and who gets to make that decision? I appreciate a lot of different types of art. I honestly like the paintings of Jackson Pollock, I have since I was a kid. I also like John Waterhouse, Jasper Johns, Willem DeKooning, and Frank Frazetta. To me, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel doesn't "surpass" those cave paintings at Lascaux. I'm equally moved by both. If you're talking strictly about technical skill, does the realism of Richard Estes surpass that of Jan Van Eyck? They're both mind blowing and show incredible skill. Where does one surpass the other? I don't mean to be rude, we all have our own opinions about everything and none of us are right. For me, the statement that contemporary artists can surpass the work of artists from the past, means absolutely nothing.
MICHAEL: Bravo. It's very interesting that with all of the technology and digital this or that out there, you seem to be a traditional, straight-shooting painter.
JAMES: When you get to the application of paint to canvas, I suppose I could be called a "straight shooter," but when creating my compositions, I embrace the benefits of digital technology. I use a wonderful Canon digital camera for all of my photography. I'll shoot hundreds of photos of a scene, animal or still life set up, then I download, cull, color correct and crop those images in Photoshop on my iMac. When I've got the composition and the color just how I like it, I'll transfer that image to a second iMac parked next to my easel and then paint from the display. The image is big, bright and crystal clear. I can zoom out on the image for tonal value, overall composition and color, then zoom in on a specific area for a close up detail. It sure beats the days when I had to shoot on film, have it processed by an outside vendor, pick the most promising images, scan them and edit them in Photoshop. When all that was done, I would have to paint from a pretty sad print produced on my desktop inkjet printer. I worked that way for years, and I'll never go back. Another digital benefit is having all my music, audiobooks and streaming video from YouTube and Netflix on my Mac as well. There's a lot about "digital" that I really appreciate.
MICHAEL: Wow. That's interesting. I bet William Harnett probably would have done what you're doing. I find it amazing that you're self-taught. Do you feel that going to "art school" would help or hurt you? I'm asking because as a writer, I've never really taken any creative writing classes. After writing for 20 years, I really feel that classes might screw up my process.
JAMES: I wasn't completely honest when I said I'd never gone to art school. I did take one college art class, but it was so ... I don't know how to describe it. The word I used at the time I was there was, "Stupid".
MICHAEL: You're cracking me up.
JAMES: I just wanted to learn to draw and paint and I don't even know what that class was trying to achieve. I tried to get through it, but dropped out a couple of weeks before the class ended and I got an incomplete. I also took a life drawing class at a community college near the Air Force base where I was stationed in California back in 1973. That was wonderful. A few years later, I was working as a janitor at the Fernbank Science Center here in Atlanta. It is a satellite facility of the DeKalb County school system. Robert Connell, an amazing wildlife artist, was in charge of all art related aspects of the center. After I had been there about a year, I finally summoned up the courage to bring him some of my watercolors. I thought he'd be a good judge of whether I should follow this path or not. I was really nervous the day I approached him. It was a huge relief when he said enthusiastically, that they were, "Very good." We talked for a long time. It was a great afternoon. When I told him that I was thinking of going to art school, his reaction was one of sadness. "Don't go to art school" he said, "They'll bleed away your talent and send you out painting like all the other students at the school." I continued to think about art school, but eventually used the GI Bill to pay for aircraft mechanics school instead. I had taken up flying sailplanes and at that point, my interest in aviation superseded art. I don't know how art school would have influenced my work. I do kind of regret not going and find myself envious of others who did. I think it would have been really fun and I'm sure I'd have learned a lot. I struggle with my paintings, because I honestly don't know what I'm doing. Every painting, every single one, is a huge challenge. I'll often hear this voice in the back of my mind chastising me: "If you'd taken some classes maybe you'd know about 'fat over lean', and mixing colors, and glazing, and lost edges and etc." For me, it's a moot point. Perhaps what I really miss is being young and the idea of heading off to art school.
MICHAEL: Believe me, I talk with artists who've graduated from art school and everyone still has their struggles regardless. I think that every day is a new challenge for most people no matter what they do. I never believe people who say things come easily. Life just doesn't work that way. Anyway, to wrap things up, do you have any final words or thoughts about art, your work, life?
JAMES: I suppose I've said enough. If I had one more thing to say, it would be that I'm very grateful to have had the chance to make my living doing something I love. I think that is a rare thing. I'd also like to thank you Michael for the opportunity to talk about this subject. I can't remember the last time I spent so much conscious effort actually thinking about art. I'm usually so wrapped up in my own little world that I rarely give much thought to how/what I do fits into the larger art world. It has been fun.
MICHAEL: Thanks James. This has been great. Oh ... and should you ever decide to go to art school, I suggest you teach class.
To find out more about James Hollingsworth, check out his website at http://www.neilhollingsworth.com/.