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Interviewing James Michael Starr, Part II
Part One and Part
Some people have said your work shows only your lighter side. Are you aware of your darker side? How do you express it?
ee, that's funny that someone has said my work "shows only (my) lighter side." (I guess I need to get back to dismembering dolls!) I suppose what they're saying is that the meaning behind most of my stuff is pretty hopeful and optimistic. I'm pleased that they've taken the time to really look at it, instead of jumping to the more negative conclusion that a cursory examination usually elicits.
I just finished a piece, though, that might express that darker side. It might be a while til I can afford to have Harrison shoot it, but if you were able to drop by and digitize it, I'd be happy to write about that.
(When I first asked
James Michael the question, he responded ( above ) —
quickly and with some humor. Weeks later, I got the following,
more serious reply in more depth from the same question)
Some people have said your work shows only your lighter side. Are you aware of your darker side? How do you express it?
While my first solo show was up at Stone By Stone Gallery back in '99, I dropped by during the day once and, while I was there, a young family came in. I was in the back; they didn't notice me and even if they had I'm sure they didn't realize I was the artist. They weren't there more than thirty seconds before the mother hustled the kids back out the door saying, "Let's go. This man has real problems."
So it surprises me to hear that anyone would use the words "lighter side" in referring to my work. I'm sure I do have a darker side like everybody. My early work was all about that. But I chose at one point to leave that theme behind, partly because it seemed very self — absorbed and partly because it no longer reflected what I believe about myself.
For instance, my first serious collage, "When She Got Her Wings" (1994) and first serious assemblage, Iron Girl (1996) were both about the affect of my childhood separation from my mother.
In Iron Girl the female figure is part of a letter written by my mother after we'd been separated for eleven years. The inscription around the front glass reads "I have just recently discovered this ancient figure standing in the garden, almost obscured from what has overgrown it after many years. Now that I recognize this image and the power with which it has bound me, I will no longer worship at its feet.")
I guess I thought that was what art was supposed to be like, at least the kind of meaningful art I wanted to do. But after doing a few pieces and wallowing in the mire of self — pity, I realized I was doing work that wasn't really honest or constructive and decided to start addressing the present instead of the past.
Since then my work has been pretty hopeful. So I guess those people who said it shows my lighter side were right. (I guess I'm not as obscure as I thought I was.) The pieces that are autobiographical may tell a story with some low points, but there's almost always a happy ending.
I just finished an assemblage called, Pale Horse. It's a box that's closed on most of the front, with an opening at the top that creates something like a little stage. Inside that opening, on the "stage," I mounted a cast metal horse I found in an antique mall in Gainesville. (This piece was happening like most of them do: I just start drilling and nailing and gluing without really knowing what the end result will be.)
Anyhow, I had thought from the beginning that there would probably be a rider on the horse. So I tore a torso with arms from a reproduction of a renaissance painting and added a Victorian photographic portrait for the head.
As I looked at the near — completed piece, I realized that this proud, conquering "hero" captured the overbearing nature I'd presented the previous weekend on a trip out of town with two of my very closest friends. I had verbally steam — rolled my way through a disagreement, crushing feelings in the process.
The title is a reference to an image in the Book of Revelation, one of a rider that wreaks havoc on everything. I'm not trying to overly dramatize my actions, but it pretty accurately reflects how I felt when I realized how insensitive I'd been.
So there's my darker side coming out — in work that is not necessarily dark — looking, but which allowed me to acknowledge and articulate parts of myself that lay hidden out in the shadows.
Who are the artists — especially Dallas — area artists — whose work affects yours?
There are many. Chase Yarbrough makes me wonder if I'm too fussy, fastidious and anal retentive. Anita Horton makes me wonder if I take myself too seriously. Norman Kary makes me wonder if I'd know a metaphor if it came up and bit me. Lance Letscher makes me wonder if I'm an artist at all.
I'm not saying they make me doubt myself. Just that they make me wonder about what I do, and I think wondering about what we do is always a good thing.
This afternoon I ran into Tracy Hicks at Elliott's. He was buying a pulley for his drill press. I was looking for luan plywood, which I just learned some artists use as an inexpensive but strong and smooth panel. Tracy told me that luan has become so popular and over — used that environmentalists are pressuring retailers to stop selling so much. He suggested birch plywood. After I got home I visited Tracy's web site and read about what he's doing in the neighborhood of the Project Row Houses in Houston's Third Ward. Tracy makes me wonder if I care about anyone but myself.
Other artists affected me before I began doing art at all. Back around '90 or '91, the DMA had an exhibit of Frida Kahlo and Mexican Surrealists. I had something like a mild emotional breakdown looking at those paintings. I happened to be seeing a counselor at that time, dealing with my divorce, and she told me she didn't know exactly what it meant, but that it was a safe bet I should try getting back to doing art.
I said yeah, right and went on my way. About four years later it happened again, this time at an exhibition of Austin artist Julie Speed's assemblage work at that gallery in the old church on Fairmount, the name of which I can't remember. I could no longer ignore the warning signs and fought my way back into doing artwork.
I no longer have the images of Julie's work brained into my cortex, but I know that if I ever approach the beauty and mystery of her three dimensional stuff, I'll be a happy man.
When I visited your studio, I shot a little parrot box that I liked, but you said you didn't, even though it has many of your hallmarks — a revealed man, a box, magazine pictures, and illegible handwriting. The big difference I see isthat it's simpler and smaller; it's more colorful, and there's no real three — dimensional central figure. Why don't you like it?
Purely because I don't feel it accomplished what I usually want my stuff to accomplish. At the very least, I feel it's weak compositionally.
These things happen. Almost every piece I begin feels like a gamble. I'll often catch myself wanting to carefully study the elements in the arrangement I'm considering before committing them permanently by cutting them or tearing them or gluing them down. But I found out a while back that I can't proceed cautiously and expect the best results from my work. Picasso said, "Risk everything." Thinking things out too much can be a tar pit; in the meantime both spontaneity and serendipity make their escape.
So I liked this little wood box for German water color paints. And its small size ( only about 9 x 8 inches opened up this way, and just 1/4 inch deep ) seemed to affirm that I should not take it too seriously. Again, trying not to think about it too much, I felt the elements would play well off of each other as I laid them out on the work table.
The sunburst label on the left seemed like a nice halo, which is a kind of recurring element in my work. There was not only contrast but incongruity between the black and white anatomical figure and the rich, rotogravure illustration of the parrots. Many of the little guidelines I set for myself appeared to be in place. But as it turned out, something just doesn't look right.
I think maybe it needs some sort of three — dimensional element added. It definitely has a very flat look.
I love doing what I do, but I think it's analogous to what some women must feel about pregnancy in the context of raising children. I may have nothing but positive feelings for something once it's completed, but by then I will have often forgotten the difficult time I had getting there. I actually delude myself into thinking the process of working out the problems was all
a very pleasant experience. "Make some more art? I'd love to!" Only when I'm in the middle of the next piece do I remember that there is almost always that point where it doesn't seem to be flowing as smoothly as I thought it would.
What did you do on your last paying job?
I was a graphic designer and writer for RBMM, the design arm of The Richards Group. It was my last position in a graphic design career that covered almost thirty years.
Even though I think I may be burned out on graphic design as a career, I have no regrets about being in that business for so long. I had no real formal training as an artist, either as a graphic artist or as a fine artist. So I learned virtually everything I know about composition, color and all that other stuff by messing up on the various assignments of paying clients.
And I think that career as a graphic designer and art director may be what led me to the particular art form that I've chosen. If you'll look closely at my work, you'll have a hard time finding any real evidence of my hand, other than the handwriting I might add. It's more like I'm art directing the elements, making choices between one item and another, and moving them around in the composition.
By saying that, I'm not just trying to be self effacing.I've often referred to it in my artist's statements as one evidence of God's grace in my life. I have the sense that, like my life, my artwork will always be a process of finding the vestigial beauty in broken things and reclaiming them, not for any practical use, but just for a value that some of us can recognize in that redeemed state. In other words, I believe that God is using my art to tell me that at the same time I'm reassembling these things, he's reassembling me. And I am so grateful for that.
Are you beginning to actually support yourself by making art?
Not yet. Things are selling here and there, but not at the level I need them to. The good news, though, is that I have almost no artwork left here in my own gallery. Besides the work I took up to MainSite in Norman recently, I've also just shipped things to my galleries in Philadelphia and San Antonio, so my walls and shelves are nearly bare. I keep telling myself that's good news, because if I'm going to sell like I'd like to, it has to start with getting a lot of work into those galleries.
And the only reason it feels like NOT good news is because I feel a little vulnerable not having any work ready to send out to new galleries. But I think I set myself up this way, like I have this split personality: as quickly as the artist side of me gets some new work done, the businessman side of me sends it out to some gallery, fully knowing that the artist is going to feel anxious and get to work producing more. I guess if I'm going to be a little schizoid, this particular type works to my advantage.
So the fire is really lit under me to get new work done. I've committed to doing a show of work here in the gallery part of my space on Saturday, September 14, which coincides with the Dallas Art Dealers Fall Gallery Walk. I'm supposed to have some work in the annual Outsider Art Fair in New York in January (that's odd, isn't it — me, an Outsider?), and MainSite wants to do a one — man show soon after that.
All this is really making me look closely at how I produce my work. I feel I need to find ways to have more things working at the same time, so I don't have so much down time between pieces. And I've also been trying to find a way to do more collage, which can be produced in less time and with less
invested in materials. ( Some of the boxes I've used in my work have cost over $100, not to mention the other objects that I put inside. But I can produce dozens of collages from a few books that totaled $75. )
For instance, I'm working at the moment on a new series of collages that will mount on wood panels, which is a very popular mode of presentation these days for all kinds of two dimensional art, because it eliminates the need for expensive framing but still provides the gallery with something substantial to hang on the wall. Visualize it as you would paintings done on stretched canvases but without frames. They look good, hang well, and the collector can still take them and frame them if they choose to.
Because they don't require a frame, I can sell the collages on panel at a lower price than I might otherwise. Frames can make up 1/3 to 1/2 of the price of my simpler collages. I can also present sleeves of unmounted collages, which are even cheaper because they eliminate the need even for the construction of the panel.
Also, these new pieces are completely flat. In other words, there are none of the little 3 — D objects I sometimes add to my other collages. So they leave the door open for me to investigate the option of doing Giclee prints, because very little of what makes the work special would be lost in the translation to a print.
Admittedly, the idea of finding new ways to make money from my work interests me. But I also like the idea of making it more affordable for people. Few things hurt worse than having to price your work so that people who truly like it can't buy it.
How are you surviving otherwise?
Almost entirely on my savings, which won't last forever. I'm also doing some freelance writing, which uses a totally different sector of my right brain, and which I really love.
I've done some freelance illustration, which I think I could do a little more of without draining the sap out of my visual cortex. But I'll really have to be backed into a corner before I'll be able to do any graphic design.
In general, though, this is a total walk of faith right now. I feel I have no choice but to move forward, making as much art as possible and placing it in as many places as I can. I believe that's the assignment I've been given, and doing other things to make money or to give myself more of a sense of
security seems to get me off track from that assignment. We'll see.
All the images
on this page are
Copyright 1999, 200, 2001 and 2002
by James Michael Starr.
No reproduction in any form
without written permission from
James Michael Starr and JR Compton.
Additional James Michael
images are on these DARts pages:
DARts' Online Self — Portrait Show
Short Critiques of Dallas Artists
Critic's Choice 2001
Eat Art II
James Michael Starr's Web page