Friday, January 25, 2013

Feat or Famine

I am nearing the finish line of this last year's worth of work for my next picture book. (Soccer Fence, by Phil Bildner, Putnam. I am stoked!)

-halfway finished glimpse at one of the new images from Soccer Fence

It has been a very good book to work on. Subject matter right out of my own life's passions and a process that is different from any book I've done before. I have some work to do still, for sure. But I am happy. Happy with the direction this body of work has taken. Happy looking back and seeing that I did not stop at good enough, but filled plenty of sketch books end to end with different takes until the elements were solid. And then again for good measure.

Happy also that once again I get to illustrate a book that matters to me. It is not just work, it is art. My life as an artist is based on passion and my desire to materialize beauty and truth and justice and so far, artwork has been my outlet. And if it is my only outlet, I am happy.

I am going to be speaking at the UW for a conference on diversity next month and as I reflect on my route to here and now, I go back and look at the beginning.

I had been rejected by an art director in San Diego who told me, while he loved some of the work I showed him, I needed to go back home and paint for five years and then, maybe, my stuff would be ready to go. And so I did. I painted hundreds of paintings and ended up selling most of those during that span of time. Some were good, others ended up underneath new paintings. That happened so often that my first few years' work is five times heavier than anything I do now.

I began painting images of Rastafari and of the music and culture that I loved but did not see around me. I did not choose Jamaica as a focal point of my subject matter because I thought it would make me rich. I painted every one of those paintings because that is where I had visited and that is what I wanted to see when I looked into that blank canvas. I painted those reggae artists because I was the house artist at The Bohemian during an amazing four year run of reggae in Seattle and I got to hang out with all of the artists who came through. I got to shoot photos as reference for the paintings and then hang the piece in the club where often it would be purchased before the nail was even in the wall, by some fan that had seen the artist perform the week before. It was a wicked run. Just a dream connection, while it lasted. 

Trodding Jah Road, 10'x4' acrylic on canvas (original is long gone, but prints are available)


When I dove in headfirst to my five year stretch of painting, I decided that if I kept going like I had, with no clear focal point or common subject matter, my work might not progress like it could. I intended to have a singular focus for that duration so that I could see myself evolve over time, since the subject would be similar and therefore the artistic changes would be more evident. It definitely worked. There were so many images, and sure enough, I can see that growth over time very clearly in that body of work.



When I realized it had been a little more than five years since I embarked, I didn't stop painting what I still loved, but I did make room for other groups of artwork. I had just been to Brazil with my lovely wifey and so I did a big show centered around Bahia, Brazil. As I painted for the show, I decided that since my subject matter was changing, I was ok to try out new styles and see if there was a pitch perfect voice to sing this song of Brazil in. And I found one that was distinctly different from my work centered on Jamaica.



And from there it was one passion, and then another. Surfing in the northwest is one of my deep loves and I have painted and sold many pieces from that collection, both originals, and giclée prints. It has been one of my most successful collections, financially.





With my illustration, it is a little trickier to pick and choose the subject matter since you get called from the publisher and are offered projects they think your style would work for. And, while the frequent famine seasons might yearn for some cheap book to illustrate for a quick buck, regardless of the content, I have been somehow kept "pure." So to speak. Every book I have been blessed with the duty of illustrating has been very meaningful to me, as an artist and an activist. I guess I've lucked out.


And while it may be a feat to work until 3 or 4 in the morning, get up to take the boys to school, fumble for coffee, and start the process over again, what is the alternative? Riding the tides of this feast or famine vocation can be so stressful and can surely take years off the clock. But, it can also be met with thankfulness and hope. Sometimes looking back helps. Even if I can't see the road ahead of me, I see the road behind me and I may as well keep on keepin on. After all, I love doing this.

2 comments:

Kjersten said...

The painting you've posted for your new book is stunning Jesse. Can't wait to see the book. Thanks for sharing this story too.

jesse joshua watson said...

Thank you, Kjersten. Cheers.