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Interviewing James Michael Starr, Part I

Part Two and Part Three

James Michael Starr - Waiting
8-3/4 x 8-3/4 x 3-1/4 inches

At Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art in Sarasota, Florida

Photo by Harrison Evans

For several years, and especially this last year before being launched out to do art full time, I felt I was simply in a holding pattern, watching for the signal to move forward. This piece was done at the height of that stagnation.

Inscription: "Even though I tire of standing in this place, my Father has been faithful to his promise ­ to get me through, if I wait."

How are you doing? Did your ad in Art Whatever help or was it just expensive? Hope you're selling well enough to survive?

T  hings are going great. My work isn't supporting me yet, but like you said in the interview [with Quin Mathews on WRR ], I KNOW this is what I'm supposed to be doing. I just have to find out if I'm doing it like God WANTS me to be doing it.

For now, the plan seems to be to get into as many good galleries as I can supply work for, ratchet up the production (as I'm now doing) and then hope things start to sell.

The ads in ARTnews seem to always make something happen. About a month ago, my December ad triggered a call from a gallery in Philadelphia, asking for slides and such. They called a few weeks later and I just finished sending them five pieces for their next monthly (!) gallery walk, which is Friday, May 3 (2002).

And it's a small world. Just before that I got into a surprisingly active gallery in Knoxville, Tennessee, and within a few weeks I received an e-mail from a woman living in Dallas who'd seen my work while visiting that gallery. She came by with a friend last week and wants to bring another by soon.


I was recently pursuing new representation in Dallas, and was down to discussions with [ two local galleries ] when I decided to experiment with something else for the time being.

I thought it couldn't hurt to first make sure it wouldn't work better to try selling out of my gallery here [ in the Continental Gin Building in Deep Elm ]. So I'm planning on doing an opening on the same date as the DADA Fall Gallery Walk, complete with post cards and as much PR as I can generate, to see if it could really work.

I just got my piece for the Bath House's La Lotteria show photographed by Harrison Evans. I'm pretty happy with how it turned out — it's one of my favorite collages so far still a vertical though!).


James Michael Starr - El Valiente
26-3/4 x 24 x 2-1/2 inches

Photo by Harrison Evans

My piece for the La Lotteria invitational show at the Bath House Cultural Center, opening Saturday, May 4.

The inscription along the right edge of the frame reads in part, "Not that his heart was without flaw, or without having been scarred, but he offered it just the same. ... And yet it had something of the gesture about it, and perhaps even a quid pro quo, as if to say, "Here is my own heart. Would you give me yours in turn?" He might make the same offer to God or to another person alike."


Every time I see honest outpourings — like your letter, I wish I could use it somewhere on DARts to hearten or inform other artists who struggle with much the same issues, if not quite the same talent.

Could I use your replies as a sort of online interview? It's all stuff a lot of other people want and probably need to know.

Thanks for your e-valuation of my thoughts. I agree that more people need to be encouraged about this stuff. And, as a typical Christian, I once thought these blessings of finding rewards in a life's calling were held back from non-believers. I now know that this is not true.

I truly believe that Everyone longs to do what is a personal, sometimes hidden, passion. My experience is that such a passion is always a loving, constructive and often creative contribution that will benefit not only that individual but others as well.

I don't believe anyone has ever felt a true, passionate calling to get rich as a stock broker — but I do believe some people are gifted to turn their, and others, resources into wealth that will change many lives for the better.


Cruciforms on James Michael's wall

I think these true passions (and not the way we usually use that word) are in our DNA, planted there by God. And even though we tend to postpone acting on the longings because we fear we can't survive on them, we're cutting ourselves off from really being alive.

Some obscure Jewish carpenter said that if God feeds little, insignificant birds without their having to resort to heavy agricultural operations, shouldn't we expect the same? Although I still don't know for sure if I'm doing this exactly like God wants me to, or if it's going to turn out the way I expect it to, I've been amazed at the way things are falling into place.

Below I've pasted another message I sent just yesterday to an out-of-state artist who'd also asked about the value of the ARTnews ads. I thought it might give you more to work with.

* * *

So far my experience with the ARTnews artists' directory ad has been pretty good. I think I've bought space every time for the past year — four insertions — and I believe every time it has either paid for itself in the sale of a piece of art or led to an inquiry from a gallery ( which in some cases has also led to the sale of a piece of art ).

One collector in Pennsylvania saw one of my first ads and eventually bought two different pieces. A couple from Houston came up around Christmas and bought one of my least expensive works — a $300 collage — which didn't truly pay back the $400 ad, but you may have found, as I have found, that people who buy your work will often buy more.

I'd have to go back through my records to be sure, but I can think of four gallery relationships that likely began from the ad:

I also believe, however, that ads like this can sometimes plant seeds that lead to future sales and other benefits. It's hard to say who else might have seen the ad, noticed my work and made a mental note to contact me in the future. For instance, the Philadelphia gallery e-mailed me in March, which I assumed was triggered by my ad in the March issue of ARTnews. But they had actually seen the ad I ran in the December issue.

My only misgiving is the inconsistent quality of their color separations. But all in all, I think the ad is a good investment.

I was just fired from my graphic design job in January, finally launching me into the full-time art career I'd been longing to jump into. So I may not be able to afford to run in the next Artists Directory, although if there's any way, I will!


James Michael Starr - Prayer Box No. 5: Vain Repetitions
8 x 7 x 5 inches (closed)

At Horton Gallery, Philadelphia.

Photo by Harrison Evans

I realize that some of the images I use (for instance, the anatomical illustrations or medical photographs) may appear to have been selected for shock value. That's not at all my desire. I am merely wanting to imply humanity, all of us, and such illustrations are by their very nature exemplary — their original intent was most often to represent the human body in general, not to portray one individual.

Where do you get all the wonderful boxes?

I wish I had some great stories to tell about how I accumulated these things. Chase Yarbrough has a real knack for finding cool old stuff. He told me once somebody called him and asked if he might be interested in a bunch of dolls that had been damaged after a flood or fire or something while in storage. Instant patina.

Instead I have to admit that I buy my boxes and other things. I scour antique malls and things like Buchanan's Antique Flea Market, which comes to town every month. That idea of just buying stuff bothered me at first — it seems more appropriate to actually "find" something if you're going to use it in what's called "found-object" sculpture.

But I know I'd never be able to just happen upon the kinds of things I like best, like the boxes that have such beautiful aging and staining and even damage - or some weird hardware that provides the starting point for the idea.

For instance, I have this one mysterious, lidded box that's waiting to be used. It has the usual lid with a latch. But then it also has another lid on the opposite side — it's like a room with a door at each end. And the other lid has these three little shiny metal disks. Once you read the ancient label glued inside the front, you realize these are electrodes or terminals. It says:

"Directions for using the New No. 4 D.D. Home Medical Apparatus. WITH STANDARD DRY CELL BATTERY."

Parts of the text are torn away, but you only have to see the words, "Moisten the sponges" to realize that home remedies are not nearly as painful as they used to be.

Friends do give me things sometimes, though. One friend gave me an old pendulum wall clock. The face of that clock is the background of the assemblage entitled Waiting ( at the top of this page ). You might be able to make out the roman numerals above the male figure. And the cabinet is sitting on my shelf of old junk, waiting it's place in line. Turned upside down, the bottom becomes a rooftop or a cathedral ceiling. We need to change the subject or I'll have to go over there and start trying to figure out what to make out of it.


Do you ever run out of ideas?

No, but that's not because I'm such a creative person. The ideas are triggered by the objects I use. So as long as I have plenty of junk, I'll be fine.

spare parts on a peg board in James Michael Starr's studio

Yet-unused circles on James Michael Starr's
studio wall. From DARts' Eat Art II page.

Photo by JR Compton

And this is why I admire painters and other artists so much, and sometimes feel like I'm cheating. Most other artists seem to create "out of whole cloth." In other words, they appear to come up with an idea, and then execute it in paint or by shaping materials of some kind. They almost make something out of nothing.

But in my case, I don't usually start with an idea. Typically, I'll take an object off my shelf, something that's been sitting there for months, screaming at me to be used. I start holding it up to boxes or other objects, trying to find a good match.

Eventually ( and not necessarily that day ) something will click, and I'll start holding other elements up to that combination — illustrations from old books, maps, other objects, whatever. When the synergies between all these random elements reach critical mass, I get sucked completely into a new piece, sometimes interrupting progress on something I'd already been working on.

My point is, these works seem to take on a life of their own, and I just get to go along for the ride, like trying to steer an out-of-control wagon downhill. Towards the very end of this trip as it's starting to coast to a stop, I'll try to figure out what I think God would want to say through the piece. And that's where I park it. Often I'll write some stream-of-consciousness message on it with pencil or brown fountain pen ink, and only then do I understand what the "idea" was all along.

Another Voice,, a mixed media collage by James Michael Starr

Michael Starr - Another Voice
assemblage and collage

From DARts' Short Critiques of Dallas Artists.

Photo by Steve Beasley


Actually, if you look closely, you can see that much of my work is, in a way, rather formulaic. Not that the ideas are canned, and I certainly hope they're not too repetitive. But in the vast majority of my pieces, once you look past the primary construction, you'll find fairly consistent imagery: there's almost always a figure standing in a landscape, with the ground below and the sky above. That's me — and you — trying to find our way from this world we're stuck in to where we picture God being, in the clouds above our heads. Ultimately, that's what my life is all about, and so that's what my art is all about.

I recently realized that the art I do, even the process with which I do it, is very much a metaphor to my own life. Like these battered objects I'm willing to pay good money for, there is a redeemable quality to my errant life. God has found value in me and is finally turning me into something he can use.

And when I finish a piece and realize that other than gluing some stuff together, all I really did was to write my comments all over it, I see that what my life is about is simply allowing him to reassemble broken pieces into something that might encourage someone else. 

Do you keep note or idea books?

That's another element of the "artists mystique" that I had to give up on. The diaries and sketchbooks of Frida Kahlo, Dan Elder and Peter Beard made me start a sketchbook seven years ago. But I found that I was forcing it, getting bogged down in drawing instead of creating — my mind doesn't work that way.

I don't know if this is an asset or a hindrance, but I can never sketch a concept as well as I can picture it in my mind. It's not that I can't draw, I think I can draw pretty well. But what I end up with is just a drawing and something nowhere near as complete and real as the series of photo-like images I see in my head. I see color and details and I can view it from any angle. For me, it's so much easier and so much faster than sketching something on paper.

This shouldn't have come as any surprise to me. I worked the same way when I was a graphic designer, which I did for thirty years before going full-time with my art. My good friend and former business partner, Les Kerr, still jokes about the differences in how we'd work together when coming up with ideas: he'd be sketching on a pad and I'd be sitting there, slack-jawed, staring off into space — watching the little slide show in my head.

I sometimes wonder what people think when I'm looking for boxes and working materials in the antique stores, because I may come across something that catches my eye and stand there staring at it for maybe minutes on end. I'm simply imagining how I might incorporate it in a collage or assemblage, but I probably look like a middle-aged guy having a flash-back to Mrs.
Hunstable's sixth-grade science class.

So far, I've even been able to get along without notes or sketches as a way of storing the ideas once they're conceived. This may change as I get older, but it seems once I've had my little catatonic session watching mind-videos and settled upon a valid idea, it gets stored away somewhere, ready to be called up when I'm ready to begin work.

The human mind is an incredible thing, especially considering the rusting sieve I'm working with.


What kind of music do you listen to while making art?

It depends on where I am in the process. If I'm in the middle of mindless handwork, like using power tools or doing something else rather routine, I may not listen to music at all. But when I need to block out distractions or to allow my mind to be led wherever it needs to go, there are just a handful of things I can listen to and remain productive.

My favorite is contemporary classical music by an Estonian composer named Arvo Part. It's very austere music, you might even say somber. He has composed both choral and symphonic works, but the latter are my favorites - when I'm really trying to focus on what I'm doing, even the human voice can be a distraction. "Tabula Rasa," "Sanctuary," "Te Deum" and "Alina" are some of his albums I listen to most. You can go to and hear 60-second segments of most of the cuts on these albums.

Another is the Polish composer, Henryk Gorecki. But Symphony No. 3 is about his only piece that really works for me when I'm in the studio.

I don't know if it comes across this way, but I think my themes are rather serious, even heavy. It's not that I want it to be a downer to people - quite the contrary, I want my work to be encouraging. But I believe the spiritual issues I deal with cannot be honestly explored in a light-hearted mood. It's really life and death stuff, and I've found that people who truly want to be alive, to be aware that they're living at this moment, understand that and are ready to enter into such a state of mind. The music of composers like Part and Gorecki allow me to create in that same frame of mind.

Writing about it like this can seem such an intellectual, detached way of exploring this subject. The fact is, there's a very emotional atmosphere in the studio when I'm listening to music and working. I usually have to be alone at that time, not only because I want to be able to concentrate, but more because there's something a little transcendent going on. It may be a dialogue with God, I'm not sure.

James Michael Starr
El Valiente (detail)

Photo by Harrison Evans

Elements: Picture frame, leather book bindings, metal screen, photographic prints,
book illustrations, brass ornament, marbles, wood bead, iron and plastic balls, ink

How do you choose a gallery?

You mean how do I choose a gallery to approach? Some artists are in such demand that they can choose the galleries they'll be in, rather than having to solicit galleries like the rest of us. That point is some time off for me.

But to answer your question — first of all, I want to be in as many good galleries around the country as I can supply with work. So whenever I have the opportunity to make a trip to a large city, I'll do a little research on the galleries that I might approach there.

I usually start doing that research in the Gallery Guide, an annual publication of Art In America. It lists galleries by city, and includes all the contact information, the name of the director, a list of represented artists (you can tell a lot from the artists they represent), and what the gallery's focus is, such as, "established and emerging artists with an emphasis on self-taught." If they seem to be a gallery that might be compatible with my work, I'll mail them slides.

As I think about it, the gallery relationships I have now all came about after a process of mutual evaluation. In other words, I put my work in front of a gallery in one way or another - if they liked it, they expressed interest and asked to see more. We dialogued just a little, and then they decided they wanted to show my work.

For instance, the first commercial gallery I ever got a response from was Allene LaPides Gallery in Santa Fe. What a shock that was. It was almost four years ago and Larry Felty at Mountain View College was giving me my very first solo show there. On a whim I mailed some of the post cards to galleries in different cities.

The director at Allene LaPides saw one, called the school and left a message for me to call them back. I sent them slides, we talked back and forth, and about a year later, I made a trip out there, hoping only to meet them and plant the seeds for future discussion. I ended up leaving three pieces with them. They sold two within a month.

And that first foray into Santa Fe taught me something valuable about getting my foot in the door. As I was planning the trip, I decided to make the most of it by contacting some other galleries, in case Allene LaPides really wasn't interested.

I wanted to send packets to several, but I knew Santa Fe galleries were probably bombarded by slides on a daily basis, so I'd have to do something to pique their interest and get them to pay attention to my submission. I decided to turn the whole envelope into a collage. It worked very well, and taught me that there are ways to open doors we might otherwise assume to be shut.

I went on using that collaged envelope trick for three more years, until the anthrax scares last fall. Weird-looking envelopes were suddenly getting rerouted to the FBI.

There is a contention among some artists that you can't approach galleries directly, that they have to be won over with a slow process of relationship building. Like all generalities, I think this one is suspect.

Of course, some markets, New York for instance, are targets for such a steady barrage of solicitations from artists that it's understandable they would be hard to get into. First, they have everybody knocking at their door - it's definitely a buyer's market there - so they can pick and choose from the best in the world. THE WORLD. Secondly, they have everybody knocking at their door, so they're very busy.

 Self-Portrait At Forty-Five, a mixed media collage by James Michael Starr
James Michael Starr - Self-Portrait At Forty-Five
assemblage and collage

Assemblage 12-1/2 x 15 x 4-1/4 inches
Metal cash box, clockwork, bisque doll head,
fine art reproductions, milagro, epoxy, pencil

From DARts' Online Self-Portrait Show.

Photo by Tracy Hicks

I was just talking to Otis Jones, the Dallas artist represented by Pillsbury Peters here and William Campbell Contemporary in Fort Worth, and he added this: New York galleries have so many artists local to them, why would they want to have to pay shipping to bring in something they already have at hand? That makes sense.

There are other ways I've found to break the ice with galleries. Some have contacted me in response to the ads I've run in ARTnews, as we already discussed. In those cases, they'll usually e-mail me and ask for a portfolio — which typically includes a bio or resume, an artist's statement and slides. I put everything in a three-ring binder and do all I can to make it look as professional as possible.

Although 35mm slides are the coin of the realm (with 4"x5" transparencies also being used by the big guys), galleries really seem to appreciate it when you include print images, either photographic prints or inkjet prints — anything clear and accurate that they can view more quickly and conveniently than transparencies.

There's another unwritten law of dealing with galleries at this stage. Anytime you send them anything like slides or anything else you might want back, it's expected that you include a self- addressed-stamped envelope — or SASE. It's really just a common courtesy . They shouldn't have to incur any expense or inconvenience when they're taking the time to give your work consideration.

Continued in Part Two >>


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.

Additional James Michael Starr
images are on these DARts pages:

Sculptural Syncretism
DARts' Online Self-Portrait Show
Short Critiques of Dallas Artists
Critic's Choice 2001
Eat Art II

James Michael Starr's Web page

E-mail DARts for information.

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