This is the second in a series of interviews of people that make up the patchwork quilt of personalities that is San Francisco.
James is a talented artist with an intriguing background and deep roots in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has been exhibited in San Francisco, Napa, and other locations across the U.S. I’ve known James for a few years and enjoy his unique approach to art, painting and life. For more on James’ work, see the links at the bottom of the article.
James Jarrett: Well actually I started painting before I went to New York to study acting. My mother was an art major and so i was exposed to a lot of art, books, and museums. By the time I was 4, I was able to draw realistic images. I was obsessed with drawing witches on flying brooms. But I was also fascinated by abstract art, especially the work of Jackson Pollack. In Kindergarden I remember an art assignment where we had to depict Holiday images for each season. While other kids were drawing Santa Claus and Christmas trees, I splattered and dripped multiple colors of paint and dabbed bits of glitter here and there. When my horrified teacher asked me what it was that I painted I replied, “Jingle, Jingle”! The teacher recommended holding me back a year and because of her reaction I knew right then and there I wanted to be an artist.
I continued to study art and graphic design, but I also had the theater bug and was accepted into the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. When I finished school, we were in the middle of a bad recession and I decided that life as a starving artist would be much more glamorous in California, so I returned to the West Coast. I must say, New York remains my favorite city on Earth!
When I returned to California the first wave of the high tech boom was in full swing with the rollout of the newly invented PC. When they came out with the 5MB hard drive, there was a huge demand, and I somehow landed a job as a computer technician, and project manager. I was making tons of money in a time when minimum wage was only $3 an hour, if that. I never acted again, except for an occasional voice over, but I did continue to paint, and I was selling through word of mouth. That lasted for about 16 years and then in 2000 I gave my 2 week notice one day to Corporate life and took my project management skills and hard earned money and launched my business making and selling my art.
JJ: I’m not so sure how one learns how to paint. I was handed tubes of water colors paint, paper, and several brushes. I observed adults painting and if they painted something I liked, I would ask them to show me the technique.
I have to say, I had some amazing art teachers in school. I went to 8 different schools and moved 18 times before I turned 18. Each new school exposed me to different teachings. i not only learned about different genres and movements, but some amazing techniques and skills, like silk screening, sculpture, oil painting, construction, deconstruction, murals, tagging.
You know, the first thing a child is given in school is a big fat pencil and a box of crayons. I loved that about school. By junior high, art becomes an elective with very little serious attention. By high school you are lucky if they even offer an art class or program. Often art is cut from school budgets. When it was time to meet with a counselor to discuss career path and college education I told my counselor I wanted to be an artist. I was asked “Why?There is no money with that career choice.” I thought what a big mind fuck! They tease you for years by shoving a crayon in your hand, and then take it away years later and tell you that you can’t have it!
Fuck You, Bitches….I paint…and I make a living doing it now!!
I always have exhibited, so I was used to showing my art. I’ve had a lot of art stolen from display cases in school. I don’t know if it was because they hated it or loved it. Nor do I care. I used to get nervous exhibiting my work, but I have to say it is similar to stage fright from my theater days- I’m more nervous pre-show wondering what people are going to think and how it will be received. I think it’s healthy to still experience those nerves, but it is important no matter what to have a lot of fun in the process, and I do.
MH: Is there an overall theme to your work? How has your style evolved over time?
JJ: Yes, I have always kept my current body of work “theme” oriented.
I tend to paint people, places, or things. So when I pick a subject or topic that I want to create, I suppose I approach it the way a musician/song writer approaches creating a new CD.
I go with and follow My passion. Iask myself what message do I want to convey, but more importantly, what conversation do I want to spark? That is certainly the objective and it is a challenge.In the mid 90’s I was painting a lot if portraits and impressionistic landscapes. Until recently I created a large body of bold blocks of color inspired by a sail boat cruise through the Mediterranean. Although that work is non representational I can’t help but believe that my experiences and senses are blueprinted onto canvasIn the mid 90’s I was painting a lot if portraits and impressionistic landscapes. Until recently I created a large body of bold blocks of color inspired by a sail boat cruise through the Mediterranean. Although that work is non representational I can’t help but believe that my experiences and senses are blueprinted onto canvasI’ve always been intrigued with pop culture. Much of it I despise, but some of it I find myself loving. I suppose it is morbid curiosity. Who doesn’t like watching a train wreck, especially if there is beauty involved. I am currently working on a series based on my observation of social media. In particular I am journaling things that stand out in Adult “dating” aps and websites. It amazes me what people put in their profiles that will lead them to either getting laid, married, or staying at home waiting for nothing.So my work is moving in a direction of incorporating text, fonts, collages images, stencil, spray paints, and silk screening.
So my work is moving in a direction of incorporating text, fonts, collages images, stencil, spray paints, and silk screening.
MH: You’ve had some big receptions over the last few years: at Robert Mondavi, and a couple of art galleries. Tell me about those.
JJ: Yes, I indeed have had a few large receptions over the years. My first solo exhibit was back in 2001. It was in an alternative space and very similar to the popularity of pop-up galleries that are happening now. It was during the California Energy Crisis when we were having constant rolling blackouts across the state and within the power grid. All my work was done in black and white stripes, and black on black textures, some of it inspired by the popularity of the Op Art movement in the 1960’s.
I titled the show, “Rolling Black…Out”.
It was a huge success and a large crowd turned out for the opening reception. I sold nearly every piece, and my fan base quickly grew. I then placed my work in a furniture store that showcased on Union Street and Market just across from Zuni Cafe.
It was while exhibiting in these two locations that my work was seen and purchased by many, including author Danielle Steel. Danielle is one of my biggest collectors. She opened a gallery on Sacramento Street in 2003 where she represented my work for 3 years in San Francisco. Steel’s receptions were over the top, and she was gracious and generous with promoting, marketing and advertising the gallery and artists. That I must say was an amazing run.
One of my recent exhibitions was 3 years in the making after being invited by Margrit Mondavi to solo exhibit my work at Robert Mondavi winery in Oakville, CA.
Architecturally the space is quite spacious and divided in sections so it was an exciting challenge to bring my work to what felt like a museum space. All in all I think we curated 34 paintings in that show, even though I initially had slated only 15. Margrit was mesmerized with my bold color glazes inspired by my Mediterranean travels, so that is mostly what I created. I was really pleased with how it turned out, and I was grateful for the reception. Napa always has an interesting and eclectic crowd. Some of the paintings sold are now hanging next to a Picasso, a Frankenhaler, and a Diebenkorn. That makes me smile.
In 2012 I was invited to participate in a 6 month visiting artist program with 12G Gallery in SOMA art district, in San Francisco. The space was absolutely spectacular, once an old gymnasium that supposedly had a Keith Harring mural from the 1980’s. The space has since been converted to a grand salon that to me felt Parisian, with its red walls, Chrystal chandeliers, and antique grand piano. Essentially it was an event space that showcased art. The opening reception for my event was well received with record attendance.
Because I was simultaneously launching a solo exhibit at Mondavi I had to quickly produce 15 new works for the 12G introduction show. I returned to working with black and whites, black on black textured works, and dark browns inspired by fashion belts, and dark chocolate.
MH: What else is new for you? Any big plans in the upcoming years?
JJ: I am currently splitting my time between San Francisco and Los Angeles. San Francisco is home for me, but I do have a love affair with Southern California.
I continue to work on my social media project and hope to launch my next show exhibiting those works this coming summer.
I love to keep dialogue open and welcome feedback, discussion, interaction or collaboration on my projects. I can be followed on: