Thinkspace Gallery is proud to present James Bullough’s solo exhibition Breaking Point, in the gallery’s project room. In anticipation for the show, we have an exclusive interview with James Bullough sharing with us his process of moving through creative blocks, moving to Berlin, and a dream dinner party.
SH: Artists explore many different styles before finding their voice, what inspired you to explore altered reality and what about it clicked as this was your voice?
JB: When I first started painting back in my early 20s and for probably the first 5 years or so I was painting entirely abstract works with no real direction or voice. These early paintings in retrospect were basically just studies and experimentations in composition and graphic layout. I soon realized that none of them ever felt like finished paintings and they were all missing a vital element. With some guidance from a local painter in Baltimore Matt Zoll, I basically taught myself how to use oils so I could add some elements of realism into my abstract paintings. Almost immediately I realized that the realism was the star of the show and became the main focus of the work but the abstraction never left. as my oil skills increased, I began concentrating on portraiture and that’s when it all started clicking for me. The mixture of realism and abstraction has been my thing ever since.
SH: What does a day in the studio look like, from morning to night?
JB: My work day is very different depending what stage of the process I’m in. Some days are spent with models and photographers doing photo shoots, others spent on the computer day after day manipulating photos and sketching out potential paintings. In the summers, I spend a lot of time outside painting walls, but in the studio with a brush in hand is where I like to focus most of my attention.
A typical studio day starts with a strong coffee and an hour or so at home on the computer getting any administrative stuff out of the way. I don’t have the internet at my studio which really helps with focus and attention; so once I get to the studio around noon it’s all business from then on. I’m a very slow painter and some days I might only paint a few square inches in an entire 8 hour work day… the hair, a face, a leg, exc.. It can be frustrating but it’s the only way I know how. I normally paint my backgrounds first and then sketch out my figures on top of that. Once the sketch is set in place, I do a quick and somewhat loose underpainting that normally takes a couple days. From there I meticulously paint the final image on top of the underpainting. For the most part, once I’ve put the second layer on any given spot, that section is finished and I move on to the next section. At 8 o’clock I go home and cook with my wife, have a late dinner and then up early the next morning to do it all over again.
SH: You really explore the human form in your work with your models showing extensions or collapse of form, do you take reference photos yourself or find the form elsewhere? Are your models’ dancers?
JB: With this current body of work I had a very clear idea for about a year that I wanted to create an entire series of figures floating in the air. I’ve worked with a few dancers in Berlin before on different projects and through them I met a few more and everyone was super keen to come work on the project with me so I assembled a team. I found a photographer in Hamburg named Florian Gobetz (www.graphic-to-go.de) who had done a series of photos with dancers jumping in the air and asked him to come to Berlin to work with me on the project. I am horrible with a camera but good with directing, so together with Flo’s photography skills and the incredible dancers who gave everything they had to get me the images I wanted we were able to get some amazing photos.
SH: How do you battle self-doubt or creative blocks?
JB: This is a great question and one of the most difficult parts of being an artist, especially one that works alone. It is not uncommon for me to go weeks in the studio without anyone seeing anything I’ve done. This can be jarring and the self-doubt can really start to fester. I normally get to a point with almost every painting where all I can see are the problems and mistakes, a point where another artist might move on to a different piece and come back later with fresh eyes after some time has passed. I on the other hand approach painting more like sport and each new piece as a battle, once I’ve started, there’s no turning back. Through years of painting this way I’ve learned that if I just plow through, eventually I’ll figure it out.
SH: What made you decide to move to Berlin? How do you think that has shaped you as an artist?
JB: In 2001 I was living in Australia and met a girl from Berlin (now my wife). In the five years that followed my visit to Berlin often to see her and it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the city. It’s always been hard for me to put my finger on exactly what it was that I fell in love with but there is a sense of freedom and creativity in Berlin that I had never experienced anywhere else. At that time in my life, I needed a change and I knew that Berlin, because of it’s cheap living and creative vibe could provide me with what I needed to make the leap from being a gainfully employed middle school teacher to a basically unemployed full-time painter… and I was right.
In Berlin, I was able to live cheaply and get a studio and just experiment without the pressure of making money and getting a “real job” At the time I still hadn’t found my voice as a painter and I needed a couple of years of trying different things in order to find it. I spent a lot of time in the studio figuring things out and I began painting in the many abandoned spaces in and around Berlin and experimenting with painting on walls for the first time. Those first two or three years in Berlin were extremely important for me and In the end, I think the greatest gift Berlin ever gave to me was time.
SH: What’s been a WOW moment for you thus far in your career?
JB: In 2015 I was invited to paint a wall inside the Long Beach Museum of Art in California as part of the Vitality and Verve show put on by the LBMA, Thinkspace Gallery, and POW! WOW! Long Beach. The other participating artists were some of my biggest influences in the art world and people I had been admiring for years and years… legends like Craola, Audry Kawasaki, Tristan Eaton, Nychos, Jeff Soto and basically everyone involved. I felt like it was a mistake that I was even invited, that I didn’t belong in such a group, but I also saw it as an opportunity to show people what I could really do. I made it my mission to paint my best mural to that point and really go for broke. As I worked there throughout the week and built friendships with these people who meant so much to me, I also banged out a great painting that I was really proud of. There is no greater accomplishment in my opinion than gaining the respect of the people you so greatly admire, and that week I felt like I had done exactly that.
SH: What motivated you to do a podcast? What’s been your most favorite and least favorites part of that process?
JB: VantagePoint Radio was an idea I had after living in Berlin for a few years and meeting so many different and interesting artists. I found myself time and time again sitting in a bar or at a party with someone and because of my curious and chatty nature we often fell into deep conversations about their practices and how and why they do what they do. I found it really inspirational and informative. It just seemed logical that other people would be interested to hear these conversations so I set out to start a radio show. A friend of mine named Tom Phillipson (www.Auto64.com) had worked in radio before in Australia so I asked him to be my co-host and produce the show and it was that simple. Because Berlin is such a magnet for street artists and muralists, we were able to get some of the biggest names in the game and once the ball started rolling it never really stopped. I’m supra proud of what we’ve accomplished with VantagePoint. At this point, we’ve done over 60 interviews and thoroughly documented the scene in a way nobody else has done.
Visit www.VantagePointRadio.com to check out all of the past shows and videos.
SH: Where was your first mural? What was the prep and execution like?
JB: Oh man… my first mural was in Washington DC on the side of a bar back in 2004 or so. I painted it together with an artist named Andrea Wlodarczyk and we really didn’t know what we were doing. It was a super fun process but took us almost the entire summer, mostly because we painted during open hours and the drinks and food were free so we really didn’t try to rush things. Today I think I’d probably do that wall in an afternoon. It was kind of a cheesy beach scene with a crashing wave and all that but it wasn’t too bad. This was years before I would ever pick up a spray can so we did the whole thing with brushes and latex paint and it was kind of a nightmare. I recently passed by that wall for the first time in years and it’s still there and in pretty good condition. It wasn’t my best work, but I’m still proud of that wall
SH: If you through a dinner party for 5 people dead or alive, who would be on the guest list? What would be served? And what music is playing in the background?
JB: WOW! this is basically an impossible question but here goes…
Guest List: Moss Def, Adam Carolla, Conor Harrington, Erika Badu, and the 25-year-old version of my baby girl who will be born in September
Food: Maryland Blue crabs with tons of Old Bay seasoning and unlimited Natty Boh beer in a can on ice.
Music: The entire album ‘Circles’ by Adam F and a selection of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bob James.
SH: What do you think is the biggest misconception about being an artist and about your work in general?
JB: The work ethic! I think people have an impression of artists as relaxed maybe even somewhat lazy creatives. The fact is almost every successful artists I know is an extreme workaholic and a master of the hustle. Learning to paint and create an image from absolutely nothing is a skill and takes a lot of hard work, time, and focus, but the business side of the job is just as demanding. I don’t have an assistant or a manager or anything so every aspect of my business is done by me. Deciding what projects to take and which to turn down, who to work with or not, and knowing how many different projects you can handle at any given time is extremely important and can have massive consequences on your career now and in the future. I don’t think artists get enough credit for what they truly are, extremely driven, self-employed entrepreneurs who both produce and manage the product that their company and family live off of.
Please join us Saturday, May 28th for the opening reception of Breaking Point from 6-9pm. For additional information on Thinkspace Gallery and our upcoming exhibitions please visit the Thinkspace Gallery website.