Oktober 2012 / James Bullough / Painter/Streetartist / Berlin-Mitte
Is there an artistic gene in your family you have inherited?
My mother is an artist. She studied fine art in college and by the time I was born she had moved on from painting to become a graphic designer. This was in the days before computers so she did everything by hand. I remember going to her work studio and seeing the huge tables with different images and tools spread all around. To me as a kid, it looked like so much fun. It just looked like a bunch of toys that adults get to play with. In college I decided to follow her lead and studied to be a graphic designer as well but by this time everything had shifted to computers and for me that took all of the fun out of it. Eventually I switched to painting and have never looked back.
You grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. Was politics ever an ambitious aim to you?
I was the kind of kid who was more into playing sports and chasing girls than what was happening in the world around me. Although we only lived about 40 minutes from the White House, my parents were not hugely interested in politics so it was not a major topic in our house. When I got to be a teenager the only thing that changed was that I was a little less interested in sports, and a lot more interested in girls. I never gave politics a thought.
In 2001 after your study you spent a year traveling the globe. How did traveling change you? What was becoming important to you? What kind of things lost their importance after that year? Which people impressed you?
The first and maybe most important thing that traveling did for me was allow me to meet people that didn't come from where I came from. In America it can be very easy to sit still and stay in one place for your whole life. My parents were both born less than 20 minutes from where they now live and have spent their entire lives in this place. I learned that the place you are born and where you grow up shapes you in many ways and if that's all you know then that's what you will be. But the more you travel and the more you experience, those places and those experiences also shape you. It became important for me to get out and try things and meet people. Only through these experiences and meetings could I expand myself and figure out how I wanted to live my life and what I wanted to do. I haven't got it all figured out yet but I feel like I'm moving in the right direction.
How did you start your artistic career?
I started out ironically enough, as a schoolteacher. After deciding that graphic design wasn't going to be my future, I switched my focus to education. I graduated with a degree in Art Education and after my year of traveling I worked for 8 years as a middle school art teacher in Baltimore. I spent the first few years of my career inspiring teenagers to make art and become artists without actually making any art of my own. Eventually I started painting in my free time in a small studio I built myself in my basement. A few years later I quit my job as a teacher and moved to Berlin to be a full time painter.
In your work you correlate a lot of things. How well do you know your subconscious?
I don't think I paint from my subconscious. As I go through my daily life I take mental notes of things that I find visually interesting. I mostly forget everything I see but I think that when I sit down to paint or when an idea comes to me for something to paint, it comes from all of those collected images floating around my head.
How much of your subconscious sees the light of day on your canvas or wood?
Not much actually. I wouldn't say that many of my paintings have any deep meaning to them or that the viewer will learn much about my personality from looking at them. I have always been more interested in the aesthetics of a piece of art than the meaning behind it. I put a lot of effort into the action of painting, making very specific decisions about where things should go and how things should look on a canvas. I'm sure many people would disagree but to me these decisions are what painting is all about. I don't put much thought into what the painting is saying or how someone might feel when they look at it. I just want to make a piece of art that is interesting and technically strong, it is up to the viewers to pull out the meaning for themselves.
Many works you finish over a long term. You say that you find that through this slow process (sometimes months or even years) you can develop very interesting compositions. Does that mean you never know when starting with a new work what you will have as a result?
In my studio work I mostly never start a painting with a clear vision of how it will end up. My paintings are built up with layers on top of layers over long periods of time. I also work on many different paintings at the same time adding small pieces here and there as they come to my mind. I often come into the studio with an idea of something to paint and then have to search around the room to decide which painting that idea would work best on. Because there is no clear vision of where I am going with the paintings it leaves me the freedom to experiment. I can try out something on one painting then move to another painting and do something totally different. I usually don't know when a painting is finished until one day I look at it and think "yeah, that looks cool".
Are you surprised sometimes by the results?
Because I'm constantly experimenting and trying new things I'm always surprised by the result. Many of these experiments don't work out the way I planned and they end up getting painted over later with something new but this is what's great about my process. I just keep moving things around the canvas until they start to work. Eventually I end up with something interesting.
Your street art and mural paintings show portraits of people in a photorealistic style. They are interacting with the space that they are in. e.g. a large person peaking around a corner to see who is coming, or a Giant sitting on top of a wall looking down at you. The interaction between the figure and the space around grabs peoples attention. They look longer. I think, it calls for introducing the next step: Could you imagine to paint 3D portraits? Imagine people walking by with 3D glasses... interacting as well with your portraits...
I think it would be extremely complicated to paint something that would work with 3D glasses so I don't think that will be the direction for me in the future. When I paint on walls I mostly paint portraits and each one is better than the last. My hope and goal with these paintings is that in the future they look so real, so lifelike that people won't need 3D glasses, it will already be 3D enough and they will just think it's real. What i also hope to be doing with my street art murals in the next year is to get bigger walls and do some traveling. A lot of the work I do in the streets I do with a partner under the name JBAK. We have been working together for a little over a year now and have a lot of paintings around Berlin and Germany. Together we have been invited to travel to the US next summer to participate in a few mural projects in different cities. We both find it very interesting to be able to take our paintings to different cities and cultures around the globe and expose our style to many different people. Of course we are also looking for the biggest and most interesting walls we can find which obviously helps us create a more detailed and impressive painting in the end.
You revealed to me that you take great joy in order and organization. You can spend hours reorganizing the music folder on your computer or rearranging all of the spray cans in your studio based on their color, the company that made them, and how much paint they still have in them. A perfectly folded shirt can bring tears of joy to your eyes. Have you ever thought of a career in the hotel business?
HA! Maybe not cleaning hotel rooms exactly but I've often thought about doing things like building furniture or cutting peoples hair or hand painting signs for a living. Actually these kinds of jobs are very appealing to me. I do like working with my hands and enjoy having everything in it's exact correct place and all lined up perfectly. I also love to do little tasks where I can put on some music turn off my brain and just get to work. In many ways that is also how I paint.
Can you use this joy as an energy source?
I guess I do draw energy from it because a task that might take someone else 5 or 10 minutes can easily take me all day to make sure that everything is exactly how it should be. I think that anyone who looks at my painting can tell that I like to have things be perfect. Attention to the small details like a perfectly clean straight line is an important characteristic to my artwork and is often the first thing that people notice. In the end I think it's worth it.
2 years ago you moved to Berlin. One thing you are fascinated by in Berlin are the sidewalks? What makes them so special for you?
Everything. I love the patterns of the stones and the fact that they are all laid by hand. Every stone on the sidewalk was tapped into place by a man with his hammer. It's fascinating to me. I've actually stopped and watched these guys work numerous times and I just love it. The sound of the metal hammer hitting the stones into place, The perfect curve of one line leading into another line, It's everything that I love: order, craftsmanship, and thoughtless attention to detail.
The interview was conducted by Katja Mollenhauer. Photos by Nadja Wehling
James Bullough grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC. Since 2005 he has been painting in his studio on wood and canvas developing a style and finding his technique. In 2010, when he moved to Berlin, he found himself concentrating more and more on large scale murals and street art. He now find himself trying to create a balance between these two different aspects of his career and trying to find a way to maintain and develop both without losing ground in either one. James is part of the project "Tor 111" - an artspace for various artists at Torstraße 111. "JBAK" is a side project of James Bullough together with another American painter Addison Karl. You find the larger-than-life portraits in Kreuzberg, Mitte, Wedding (Turiner Str. 19) and in Neukölln (Boddinstr. 60). www.jamesbullough.com