James M. Bonner is an Arkansas-based artist whose work is strongly influenced by Andrew Wyeth. His work www.jamesmbonner.com is simple and serene, but complexity lurks beneath the surface of his placid scenes. What inspires him? Here’s our cool chat.
“Inspiration for me comes from a passion within to record the scenes that often times are bypassed by a hectic society. These scenes fade into the background of everyday life … My art, like these scenes, would not stand out in a big show. It's not flashy or ephemeral. It's enduring.”
MICHAEL: Hello James, Your work is clearly influenced by Andrew Wyeth. Anyone can see that, but what I love is that your paintings also have this sense of mystery. I'm flipping through images on your website right now and I'm wondering about the narrative and circumstances behind the images and what you're not showing in addition to what we actually see. There's this sense of quietness that seems to imply that something horrible or fantastic has happened or will happen. Am I making sense?
JAMES: Hello Michael, great question and yes that makes perfect sense. You know, I think the ones who really "get" my work will feel what you're describing. Typically, someone will be drawn in by the realism and perhaps the surface nicety of the scene, but if they sit and really look long enough, the uneasiness will start to emerge. I mean, there's good and bad in everything. For example, I'm finishing up a painting right now called "Monhegan Lifeline," which is a scene from an island off the coast of Maine that shows a life buoy tethered by worn rope to a post shaped like a cross or crucifix with a seemingly calm sea in the background. Now, to many it will just be a nice painting of Maine, but there is some real horror and tragedy that lurks under the surface. The buoy is there because occasionally a rogue wave will rise up unannounced and sweep people out to sea. In reality, what actually drew me in and "made the hair on the back of my neck stand up" were the frayed ends of the rope or lifeline blowing in the wind as they became the grasping frantic hands of the people that went into the water fighting for their lives. The more I worked and daydreamed about this painting, those same frayed ends also became my hands and fingers grasping, groping, feeling my way through my life as an artist. In addition, the cross formed by the post imbues the spirit of those that perished there. I could have dramatized this scene with big crashing waves and dark ominous sky, as I've seen others do, but the real horror lies in the ability of this to happen on a beautiful day. Now, not all paintings have the hidden horror of this, but usually there are some ambiguities hidden within my work.
The other thing that consumes my work and perhaps contributes to the uneasiness felt is loneliness, which isn't so much loneliness as just being alone. I think I've always felt a bit like a loner or an outsider. So there's no doubt, by the way I edit my compositions, the feeling of isolation comes through. I guess if people are drawn in initially by the realism, that's okay, and I get a lot of that, but if a deeper emotion is stimulated or coaxed out, then I've really succeeded. I guess for a few it's immediate and others it comes in through the back door.
MICHAEL: It sounds as if painting is a meditative process for you. Is it equal parts spiritual, emotional and intellectual or what? Do you have to paint in solitude to reflect the aloneness in your work? I can't imagine you paint while listening to ACDC.
JAMES: I have to laugh at that because, although I do like ACDC, I could never listen to them while I paint. It's more like Classical or Progressive Bluegrass while I work. I would say that it's more emotional and spiritual than intellectual and yes, I absolutely must paint in solitude. Although not only for the reasons you've stated, but also because I'm painfully shy and don't like the self conscious feeling I get when trying to make art while others are around or even worse, looking over my shoulder. You know...I think the late Andrew Wyeth, who felt similar, summed it up best when he said something like, "It feels like you don't have any clothes on." Probably not a direct quote by him, but close and hopefully you get the gist of what I'm saying. Let's go back to the meditative process or what I've likened to day dreaming, because you see, a lot of that takes place away from the easel and not actually in the physical process of painting. This is what happens a lot in the initial stages of a painting as I'm simplifying the image in my mind and trying to capture the essence of the subject. I love simplicity in art and I don't necessarily mean the subject matter, but shapes and therefore compositions.
MICHAEL: Most observers would only likely know this subconsciously, but light is really the star of your work - or what I've seen of it. Light and shadow are everywhere in your work, No?
JAMES: Ah yes, very important. That is another thing that excites me when I come upon something. I guess that's one of the first things that attracted me to Wyeth was his use of light and shadow (dark) in laying out the compositional elements of his paintings. I love the hard edge shadow line where light meets dark and the "air" or atmosphere within the shadow itself. I think that's why I like egg tempera and now acrylic so much because I feel that I can capture those qualities better than with oils. I also think watercolor/drybrush watercolor or a mixed media painting of watercolor, gouache and thinned down acrylic works well for me when I'm trying to catch this delineation between extremes. Light and shadow are an amazing thing to really observe and can be maddening to duplicate. You can't just rely on the well demarcated line, but you must know how to feather and blend as the shadow is not only lengthening, but is enveloping other objects. So yes, very important on several levels, probably the most important would be compositionally because light and dark dictates the balance of the painting or drawing.
MICHAEL: Did you say on your website that you're self-taught? No art school at all? What's the deal? Nature or nurture?
JAMES: Actually, I said that I did have formal art training at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock primarily under the late painter Al Allen. I also countered that statement by saying that I still considered myself to be self-taught. It's kind of funny now, but one of the reasons for this goes back to the difficulties I have trying to make art in public. I guess Al Allen and a few others recognized that I had some talent and was committed to being a representational painter so they allowed me to work in private. Left to my own devices, trial and error became a way of life and that served me well as I moved on past college and began to study the art of egg tempera painting. I went to as many Wyeth exhibitions that I could and studied his paintings so closely that it made the museum security staff more than a little nervous. Then I would go back to the studio and try to decipher his process. The more I experimented, the more I understood the properties and characteristics of the medium. This was and is still all done, not to paint just like him, but to develop my own recognizable style...which I think I've done. So, nature or nurture? Perhaps a little of both, but probably a little more nature.
MICHAEL: This constant painting and creating of one painting after another and then another ... What's the point of all of this? What's the goal? Is it to create a perfect painting or masterpiece? Is it to paint everything there is to paint? Is it mainly to work out your creative muscles?
JAMES: Well now, if you're simply referring to making one painting after another regardless of subject matter or different subject matter, then I would say it's more about flexing creative muscles. Of course, there's a deeper level to this which feels very much like a compelling force that drives me to express the emotion I feel for a given thing through my art. This is actually quite hard to put into words, but I, and would imagine other artists feel the same when it comes to this innate drive that moves or compels them to soak up and then pour out what stimulates them emotionally. On the other hand, if you're referring to the multiple paintings or drawings that I might produce of the same subject, then that also has something to do with the emotion I feel for something. If I finish a painting or drawing and feel like I've "poured out" enough emotion and succeeded expressing this through my art, I'll stop, if not, then I might explore the subject further with a different medium, angle or perhaps under different lighting situations. This process doesn't necessarily have to take place exactly in that order. Sometimes I might revisit it later after having completed paintings of completely different subject matter. One other thing, and this is about perfection and creating a masterpiece, first perfection bores me, at least technical perfection, and thinking everything you do might be a masterpiece is dangerous. I like seeing the hand of the artist in art, even areas that have been worked and reworked. Setting out to create a masterpiece can be stifling, I mean just do something you feel strongly about and amazing things are possible and just might happen.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. Simple nature and natural landscapes are a big part of your work. Do you paint plein air? Do you create scenes from your imagination? Which comes more naturally for you?
JAMES: Very seldom will I paint plein air, especially when using tempera. Mainly because mixing the powdered pigments and egg yolk, for me, is better suited to a controlled environment. Occasionally plein air with watercolor, but mostly all the finished paintings (in all mediums) are done in the studio. Usually, I will do some onsite sketches of detail areas of the painting in pencil or perhaps watercolor and also take photos for reference. Now, even though this is all done onsite, doesn't mean the finished piece will look exactly like the natural landscape. What you said about simple nature is really the key for me. I edit most scenes by removing, what I perceive as, extraneous detail to get down to the "bare bones" of the subject and exactly what I'm trying to express. Like we talked about before a lot of this will take place during the meditative or daydreaming process. So, in effect, I would also say that the scenes I paint are a combination of my imagination and reality. Look...you could go to a scene that I've painted and not recognize it because I've simplified it so much or even changed the spatial relationships of objects to one another along with their actual color. I really don't see myself as a purely landscape painter. I don't think I'll ever paint the sweeping majestic vista. Not interested. I'm much more interested in taking a smaller intimate section of the landscape and creating a narrative with it. Being an artist, to me, is not just about possessing the ability to copy something exactly as it is in nature, although admirable, but using your creativity to impart your own vision. Lastly, I would say that what comes naturally for me is a bit convoluted, in that my paintings are based in reality, but with a heavy dose of my own creativity/imagination added.
MICHAEL: Art is highly meditative for me. Especially work like yours. When you are actually painting, is the process itself spiritual, emotional, intellectual or just physical and tedious hard work? How does inspiration manifest through you?
JAMES: I would have to say that it's a little of everything you mentioned, but each one comes and goes during the painting process. You see Michael, there are tremendous highs and lows that I experience during the course of a painting. I mean, some days it is tedious hard work and other days, it's emotionally and spiritually uplifting. Depending on what phase of the painting I'm in dictates some of this emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical roller coaster. Because I do realism and I do a lot of layering of thin translucent colors, the early stages of a painting can be a bit laborious. This is the foundation stage of the painting where modulating the layers of warm and cool colors over one another gives the painting it's rich depth of color. I must hold myself back from adding opacity to the paint before this crucial phase is complete. Once I start shaping, detailing, and bringing objects into focus by increasing the opacity and thickness of the paint, that's when it becomes more mental and soulful than physical. Although, even in this phase, there are days that you question just about everything you've done and are second-guessing the direction of the painting. Sometimes corrections must be made and other times you realize you're on the right path.
Inspiration for me comes from a passion within to record the scenes that often times are bypassed by a hectic society. These scenes fade into the background of everyday life, but many have a story to tell - be it good or bad. Inspiration triggered by knowing the "back story" of a scene or by someone's spirit. My art, like these scenes, would not stand out in a big show. It's not flashy or ephemeral. It's enduring.
MICHAEL: Do you come from an artistic family? What's your first memory of art and when did you become aware of yourself as an artist?
JAMES: Artistic family? No, not really. I guess my grandfather on my father's side had some artistic talent, although he never really pursued it. Growing up I did draw a lot, but I would say that it wasn't until high school that I started to see myself as an artist. My high school art teacher Brenda Turner had a lot to do with that. She was a very good influence on me - sparking my interest in art as a way of life through encouragement and constructive criticism.
The struggle I've had with art really has to do with my father. He passed away right before 2000 after battling cancer. It wasn't until he was sick that I finally started to really get to know him. He was a good and decent man, but didn't show his emotions or express his love freely. I'm still, to this day, not sure how he truly felt about me as an artist. Isn't it strange how, even when older, you still seek your parent's approval, praise and acceptance.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world/ art market and how it functions? Dead, famous artists are still raking in big money while living artists are struggling.
JAMES: Great question! I have mixed feelings about that. On one hand, I understand the reason for an artist’s work escalating after death. I mean that's it, finality, no more work available and all that, but on the other hand, the chasm between living and dead artists is so expansive that it's staggering. Look, I think as an artist you must be realistic about setting your prices especially when first starting out, don't under price yourself, but don't over price either. Keep working, build a consistent sales history and gradually raise your prices as your work becomes in more demand. At some point, if you've lasted, you can over price yourself. Hopefully, you're still alive. The system of gallery/art fair/museum and auction that perpetuates all of this does seem a bit antiquated, but this is what has become the measure of success for most. The general public and artists themselves have been conditioned to believe this is the only way to be considered legitimate. I wish artists had more control over their own destiny and weren't beholden to the status quo in the art world. Unfortunately, we are locked into this continuum. Although I do see other sales avenues for artists opening up via the internet, which could help revolutionize the way the art market functions. Only if collectors would start trusting themselves, not the status quo, to simply buy what they love and not look at art solely as an investment.
I know this is going to be a "I don't believe this for a minute" statement, but what I truly think about more than money is immortality. I want my work to be remembered and if I could leave a mark on or in the world of art, so be it. I oftentimes imagine where some of my paintings will be hundreds of years from now...I hope not in obscurity. Regrettably, as of now, the odds of this are not in my favor based on the current system.
MICHAEL: Finally James, what's the point of art? Shouldn't we have been chatting about a cure for cancer or a way to end worldwide economic turmoil? So many people think contemporary art is silly.
JAMES: Now, I see art as a diversion for many people; a way to escape, if only for a few moments, emotionally, spiritually, and even intellectually. It can be practically hypnotic for someone experiencing a piece of art that they love. This, I believe, can be very cathartic for many. Besides, don't we need a way to leave behind the turmoil that swirls around us day to day? Of course, there are also those artists who thrive on the turmoil and thus use their art as a way to comment or make a statement on current affairs. Some believe this is what makes contemporary art relevant today. I see their point, but respectfully disagree, for the reasons stated above. Right now, in the world of representational art, there's a subtle shift away, by gallery owners, from classically-trained painters whose work is deemed (by them) static and without imagination. Old fashioned is the label given to these artists. Personally, I think the wonderful thing about art is that it's so subjective. Different aspects of art will always appeal to different people. I mean, look at Andrew Wyeth, he fought the battle of relevancy his entire life. There's room for all...and for those who simply view art as silly, I could only hope that they get in touch with their soul rather than their intellect.
MICHAEL: Nicely said Thanks James, this has been great.
Check out James Bonner and his work at www.jamesmbonner.com.