James Xavier Barbour is an artist-friend who is truly inspired and inspiring. He's a real artist from the "old school" who also has a "new school" mentality. In short, like the Old Masters, he respects tradition and seeks out innovation. His website www.jamesxavierbarbour.com, which beautifully spotlights his work, is a work of art itself. Check out my chat with James and see why I call this, "James Xavier Barbour: da Vinci Modern."
MICHAEL: Hey James. Dude, I don't even know where to start with you. To me, you're a modern day Leonardo. You paint, sculpt, do murals, etc. How does it feel to be a prodigy?
JAMES: Well thank you for the honor and compliment, but I do not think of myself as a prodigy. I am an artist who deeply loves to create art, spends a lot of time thinking, curious, and who highly respects the enduring quality of the old masters and the classical atelier training tradition. This comes from a place within me that desires to create epic and monumental works of art like that of those masters. Each day, I have so many new ideas and curiosities that flood my mind and motivate me. Those closest to me know that I become overwhelmingly anxious and frustrated if I fail to satisfy that passion weekly and to successfully evolve those ideas from my mind. I am very careful and selective about the whole process of establishing the strongest concept and in developing it. No artist has the time to create everything that they imagine. Not every idea is always a great one. Nor could I ever be completely content with the creation of a work that was solely an exercise in realistic depiction or illusion simply for the purpose of proving that I could achieve that result. It is not enough. I need the work to contain additional substance. It has to feel alive.
MICHAEL: It has to feel alive? How do you achieve that?
JAMES: Trying to come up with an eclectic combination of classical techniques of the past with strong contemporary narrative expressed through the human figure is part of what fuels my passion for creativity. But I also enjoy the possible discovery of new artistic techniques, new truths, and have a sincere desire to make new discoveries in terms of what we understand about the figure and in our knowledge of the human anatomy.
Over the years, I have become increasingly more concerned with what I release into the world. Quality and satisfying my intellectual curiosity matter to me. I need my work to be dynamic, powerful and the strongest technical quality that I can achieve. I like my work to reflect aspects about the human condition and life that really resonate to my viewers as eternal or universal in nature. If my finished work will not reflect those qualities, then I do not wish to create it. What I personally do, discover or create in my lifetime is always a reflection of everything I have learned so far, what I felt interesting to explore or important to understand.
MICHAEL: Art is also my passion, but I express it through writing, collecting and communicating with artists like you. When did you first become aware of yourself as an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?
JAMES: My artistic development began spontaneously and then it proceeded to evolve into a series of one need or curiosity naturally leading me to another. My parents are not very artistic, but have a deep appreciation for the arts. They have always been incredibly encouraging, but with a healthy dose of keeping grounded in reality and the importance of a strong education. My sister and I have always been very artistic however. My younger sister and I were both around the same age of 4-5 years old when we each discovered our respective art forms. She discovered that she loved ballet and dance and I discovered that I had a love for the visual arts. She is equally as passionate about her art and she eventually went on to great success as a dancer with several ballet companies and for her dance choreography. She and I would create our art together when we were growing up. She would create her next dance choreography in the kitchen, and danced around and I would be sitting nearby drawing her dancing and creating my latest paintings. I have been endlessly fascinated with dynamic movement, metaphor, and the human body ever since.
MICHAEL: Well, it certainly sounds like your sister was an early influence.
JAMES: The constant exposure to my sister's interest in dance helped me to quickly realize my artistic interest in the human figure. It inspired me. A dancer can say a tremendous amount with only the subtlety in their pose or movement. They can speak volumes of life, emotion and the human condition with absolutely no words or sound. All of this happens with subtle movements and awareness of the body. It is a dancers heightened awareness, or understanding of the body and the personal control of it that gives their art form such power. That is the power for expression of the human body. That is why I focus my attention primarily on the figure or people. I believe that it is just as critical as a dedicated figurative artist to be as controlled, focused and aware of the human body. That is why I have also become endlessly fascinated with understanding the human anatomy.
MICHAEL: Well, it certainly sounds like you were meant to be an artist. It doesn't sound like you were pushed into it.
JAMES: No one pushed me into becoming an artist. According to my parents, I just spontaneously started to draw and to create. I always loved creating and knew that I wanted to make art my profession and lifelong dedication. I saw a need to study psychology, philosophy and symbolism. Eventually my artistic curiosity to deconstruct and reconstruct the figure began to extend into mechanical objects as well. Much to my parents' dismay, I proceeded to take apart virtually everything around the house in order to analyze how they worked. This would occasionally get me into a bit of trouble. I wanted to see if I could use those mechanical parts to construct something much more interesting. From there, I eventually found myself branching out into several additional interests that I felt made sense to investigate like philosophy, history, symbolism, psychology, chemistry and engineering. I never knew I would need to understand these things as well when I first started my journey. I just discovered those needs along the way. It became more necessary in order to continue to evolve or advance my work.
MICHAEL: Wow, literally like the old masters. They had so much knowledge of things outside of art.
JAMES: When it comes to creating artwork, a basic understanding of simple chemistry is used to construct the pigments and painting mediums that I use in my creative process. If I do not care about the materials I use then I cannot guarantee the archival quality of the end result to anyone. I have found that a lack of knowledge in regards to the abilities or limitations of artistic materials used to create can contribute towards additional struggle or frustration for an artist during the creative process. I just want to save myself from having to make time wasting mistakes. This will ultimately strengthen my artistic methodology, help me to perfect my materials and to raise the quality of my finished work or personal artistic vision.
MICHAEL: You're an artist in the old masters tradition in that you do everything ... paint, sculpt and you have knowledge in other disciplines. Art is really an all-consuming thing for you. Do you ever feel that maybe you belong in another time? How do you reconcile what you do with the present?
JAMES: I have thought about this question a few times in the past. I suppose it is tempting to have a very romanticized, idealized view of going back in time, exploring around and taking advantage of important moments of history. I tend to view it as a matter of which side of the fence you are mostly on; more romantic and ideal, or more practical and realistic. I think it is important to have a mixture of both.
MICHAEL: Well, it's certainly best to have a mixture of both, especially if you want to eat and keep a roof over your head.
JAMES: For a while until something comes along to burst that bubble of idealization, we go on believing or fantasizing that anything is possible. We believe that life would be greener and much more appropriate to our own ideals if we were able to choose the life we were born into. My devotion to the methodology of the old masters has always tempted me to contemplate how wonderful it would have been to have born in the High Renaissance period. It would be amazing to have the opportunity to study with these masters, to learn their secrets and to be there when they were experimenting in oil or with the latest discoveries of technique like chiaroscuro, or sfumato. How great would it be to have been friends with my heroes Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo and to hang out painting and sculpting in their studios? I love that thought, but ultimately I can only live in the fantasy for a short time because I have learned it had its disadvantages as well. There was a general lack of freedom in terms of subject matter, style, materials, the occasional plague, lack of certain contemporary medical advances or knowledge that could save your life, missing basic modern conveniences that we take for granted. To study or dissect human cadavers for the purpose of anatomical study had to be done in secret. Women did not have the same freedom as men to study and pursue a life in art as well. There were severe limitations that I believe would very upsetting to a great deal of artists of today. I am sure I would have been thrown into a grungy Renaissance era jail cell for any number of things that I would want to say, do, create, or naturally rebel against.
MICHAEL: You're sounding a little like Caravaggio. He's my favorite. But you're definitely right about the barriers of the past.
JAMES: In contrast, artists of today enjoy greater freedom to express themselves, an enormous amount of knowledge and resources at their disposal. Any subject matter or style can be explored, and the art world is wide open and ready for more. But I believe that freedom as an artist comes at a price and that price is being more considerate about what you are creating and to keep past and current artistic knowledge alive by passing it on to others. There is more artwork in the world than there are people. This is why I spend a great deal of time thinking about each piece that I want to create next and on their actual creation. I will always relate more with the masters of the past and prefer to create work in that classical tradition, but I am also still a contemporary artist of today living in a modern world full of many new artistic advances; one who seeks to add knowledge of hundreds of years of artistic exploration from that classical past to my work.
MICHAEL: You lived and studied for awhile in Florence, Italy. That's practically the home of art ... sort of like a petri-dish of creativity today. During your time in Italy, did you feel any kinship with the great masters? How did being there affect you?
JAMES: I believe that the time I spent living in Italy changed me in multiple ways. There were some changes that happened rather quickly during the time I was living there and others seemed to have occurred over time. An artist will spend quite a bit of time exploring and trying to find their unique style and voice. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to study in Italy and to absorb a lot of the important lessons of the great masters that I found there because it helped to solidify what I already knew was of most importance to me regarding technique and stylistic direction. I had always just looked at small pictures of works such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling or "The Last Supper," but never had I been able to view them directly until then and to feel their awe-inspiring monumentality and epic power of their narrative compositions. I also found myself constantly surprised by the discovery of lesser known masters of the past located in slightly less popular locations and perhaps not as frequently published who were equally as inspiring to me. I learned that to create a beautiful and memorable work of art, I would have to develop more patience as an artist with my work. I had to learn to take my time developing it and building up the final product in order to achieve the same results. I learned that some of the greatest teachers you will ever learn from are already dead yet still speaking to us through their work. A great work of art should not need a sign or the artist to explain it, instead it should be clear, eternal and profoundly felt through the eyes of the viewer experiencing it.
MICHAEL: Cool. You know, there seems to be this belief that true contemporary art resembles the time period in which it's created.
Shouldn't you be painting still lifes with iPads in them and landscapes of super highways and bridges?
JAMES: It is difficult to resist the appeal of the latest trends or technology. I personally love anything that can make my life easier or more efficient. As humans, we always want more, we wish to continuously advance and to achieve more. It is part of our pride or ego. We once prided ourselves on the art of the handmade object. We did not always have the industrialization and mass production abilities to crank out a hundred thousand identical whatever it is in a day. We had to hand-carve each object or build everything one at a time through incredible amounts of time and labor. In those days, each object was more original, more unique and there was a greater appreciation for the craftsmanship behind that. The birth of industrialization changed all of that. Now we can walk into a store and buy the exact same identical thing that Joe Smith has next door and it will be exactly the same, nothing personalized. Trends emerge every day, become popular for a while, then unpopular, then someone paints it a different color or adds two new things to it and it re emerges and becomes popular all over again. But at some point or another, I began to see what I am sure many of us eventually notice. I began to see how dated some objects had become. It was sad to be honest. People have always told me that artists should reflect the world they live in and time period, but the more I noticed what was going on in all of mankind's other achievements, the more I became worried that artwork was beginning to demonstrate the same thing. As beautiful as many famous works appeared, many had lost some of their initial awe and power in terms of their meaning because they had become too attached to their time period or era. I wanted my work to be more eternal, timeless and to stay fresh a bit longer in terms of the meaning. I try to create artwork that can carry its concept and power far into the future. Anyone can learn to create technically or aesthetically beautiful works of art, but it's much harder to convey a message or meaning across centuries, or to come up with something original and forever relevant.
MICHAEL: That's for sure. This is especially true today when duplication for the sake of profit is simply the normal way of doing things.
JAMES: I want my work to remain universal or eternal. I want it to talk about the things that make us uniquely human or that we experience. Certain aspects about how we live our lives, the decisions we make or don't make, what it means to be human and to survive as humans seem to me much more universal or eternal. Not everyone can own the latest ipad, car, or the fashion trends. But nearly anyone, of any time period, will experience life and death, confusion, exhilaration, heartbreak, loss, sexuality, a fight for survival, war, the rise or collapse of human achievement, destruction, conflicts within themselves or with others and the unimaginable beauty and power of Mother Nature. But I am still a contemporary artist and unlike some artists of the past, I live in a world with more creative freedom and endless possibilities. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have the freedom to create what I wish. If I feel that I really need to include something more related to the unique time period I live in to better express a greater universal or eternal truth, then that is what I will do. You never know what will happen or how your needs will change especially when it comes to humans and creativity.
MICHAEL: What inspires you to create? Are there things in everyday life that have nothing to do with art that inspire you? Where does the inspiration come from?
JAMES: I think I follow a pretty normal routine when it comes to coming up with my inspiration. I do not try to force ideas or inspiration to come to me because they seem to be natural by-products of being a participant in the world around us. Life will bring the ideas to you. I look at it as being in a sort of mental state of constant "high alert" and ready for anything. I listen to the world around me and try to pay attention to the subtle things that are more at work than we often realize. I absorb as much as I can about what is going on in the world around me. I enjoy reading about new discoveries in science, local, and world events and in history. I search for a variety of information, and attempt to analyze it all with an open mind. I have a hunger to learn something new each day and to fully understand it. I then combine my thoughts or feelings about it through the work that I create.
MICHAEL: Absolutely, this works for me as a writer as well.
JAMES: I believe that artists should be able to tolerate long periods of time by themselves in order to create their work and to formulate their best ideas. You need some alone time in order to blend your feelings and thoughts together with your existing knowledge. During this time an artist must be rather selfish and self disciplined about their personal time for creativity. This can be difficult for any artist to protect when there are so many other responsibilities or distractions. But an artist needs time to create studies, to explore and to execute their experiments. I probably spend more time thinking about each idea than on the actual creation of the work. I believe that a more concrete and fully explored idea allows for a more successful final result and for less mistakes. I also feel it wise to occasionally leave the studio and enjoy the world around you, to socialize and having other pursuits. I find that the best ideas or inspiration often come from a combination of life experiences mixing together with new and old knowledge. I draw quite a bit daily from imagination or through exercises in automatic drawing. My ideas are always made from these same basic ingredients as well as dozens of studies done from direct observation of a model.
MICHAEL: Well, thanks James. This has been great. Now I'm even more convinced that you're a contemporary Leonardo da Vinci or is it Michelangelo?
For more information about James and his work, check out his website at www.jamesxavierbarbour.com.