Monday, July 21, 2008

Artist Interview: James McKissic

Tell us about your educational background. Do you have formal training in art? If so, who were your instructors and how did they influence you?

I always wanted to be an artist and loved painting and drawing as a child. I studied art in high school and college and did very well in my classes, especially drawing in college. Jere Chumley and Martha Kidwell are two former teachers who encouraged me as a student and as a painter. When i graduated from college, I had enough art credits to have a minor in painting. Later on, while in graduate school, I stopped painting because I just didn't have time. But I always felt like something was missing from my life. If you are an artist you can't go too long without pursuing some creative projects. But I felt stumped. I guess I was in the visual art version of writer's block. On a whim, I signed up for an abstract painting class at the Creative Arts Workshop while living in New Haven, CT. This class broke the block and I've been painting regularly ever since. The most important lesson I've learned came from local artist Charlie Newton. His advice to me was, "Paint every day." I don't paint every day, but I make it a priority to paint as often as possible and to constantly work out ideas in my idea/sketch book. This keeps me going.

Tell us about your early artistic influences and experiences. When did you decide to pursue art?

The family I grew up in did not encourage art as a career option. It was more of something to do on the side, for fun, as a release . . . a hobby. My family, though, exposed me to a great deal of art while growing up. There was a print of Henry O'Tanner's, The Banjo Lesson, in our living room and reproductions of Hughie Lee Smith, Romare Bearden and Cezanne paintings throughout our home. I remember keenly my mother discussing these artworks with me. She took my sister and me to museums throughout the region often and exposed us to visual and performing arts regularly. I did not have a moment where I decided to pursue art, but in my early thirties, I decided to begin showing my art publicly. I made public exhibition a goal and I've been working at it ever since.

The influences and experiences that have fed into my artistic vision are numerous.

The first time I saw Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This is my favorite painting in the entire world, one I cannot stand before without acknowledging the genius of Picasso and the magnitude of his place in art history. Anytime I'm in New York, I visit MOMA and spend some time with this amazing work of art.

I love movies, and many movies and music videos have had a deep impact on my artistic vision: Young Soul Rebels, a 1991 movie by Isaac Julien, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, Kasi Lemmons' Eve's Bayou and Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood are some of my favorites. These films changed how I looked at the world and also changed the way that I painted.

Then there is the music that can always pull me out of a slump, anything by Chaka Khan, Erykah Badu, Coltrane's A Love Supreme and old Aretha.

A few years ago I visited the show, Beauford Delaney: From New York to Paris, at the Knoxville Museum of Art. This show helped me to see the work I was doing in the larger context of African American abstractionists, and gave me the courage to keep going, painting for myself. An entire new world was opened up to me and I began to research and read the life stories of highly respected African American abstract and nonobjective painters like Norman Lewis, Frank Bowling and Sam Gilliam. I am so glad to be alive in this time, because the Internet is such a vast source of biographical and visual information about African American artists.

How would you say that your work has advanced over time?

I have definitely moved from attempting to paint realistically to pulling themes, forms, shapes and colors from deep within my soul.

Can you go into detail about your artistic process? How do you begin a piece? When do you know that a piece is finished?

I will "sit on" and idea for weeks and weeks, allowing it to change and coalesce in my mind. During this time, I'm asking myself questions about what colors represent the idea I'm drawn to? What shapes? What forms? I always work to music, from Talib Kwali, and Meshell Ndegeocello, to Cecil Taylor, Ella Fitzgerald and Andy Bey. Music seems to loosen me and allow me to move deeper and deeper into any painting that I'm working on. Is a painting ever finished? At some point, I just stop. Though I have gone back to a painting a couple of years later and added to it.

How do current world events influence your work? In other words, how does contemporary life impact your creative practice?

My work is always a response to contemporary life . . . my life. Everything I do is in response to me being who I am and navigating a world that often seems out of control. For example I have been exploring three themes recently in my work lately what it is to be a post-civil rights movement Black man in America, living in a world of information overload, the shame of homophobic violence against lesbian and gay youth of color.

Painting is the way that I work out the major questions in my life and try to gain understanding. It's like meditation or prayer.

Tell us more about the philosophy behind your art. What motivates you to create?
I am always motivated to create by questions. Not long ago I read a news story about Ronnie Paris, 3 years old, who was “boxed” to death by his father because he was afraid that the boy was going to grow up to be a sissy or be gay. My response was how can something like this happen? What type of world do we live in? Why aren't more people outraged by this? What was going through the child's head as this horrible thing was happening to him? These questions just get inside of me and the only way I can make peace with them, and put them to rest is to paint them out.

My art is always created in response to questions and the search for understanding.

Why did you choose to work in the medium(s) that you use?

Acrylics, oils, crayons, collage, etc. are the way that I've always done things. They work for me.

What is your studio like? Can you go into detail about your studio routine? Do you work in silence-- listen to music?

I paint outdoors on my deck and I always listen to music.

What are you working on at this time?

I am spending a lot of time getting ready for an upcoming show at the Chattanooga African American Museum. They are hosting a one-man show which opens on August 22, 2008.

In your opinion, what are some of the problems facing artists today?

For emerging artists, I think a major problem is finding places to show your work. Also funding the processes that go along with building an art career can be a challenge: for example, slides, quality jpgs, promotional materials, application fees, framing, etc. Just getting information can also be a challenge, a local organization, AVA (Association for Visual Artists) has been a great resource for me in getting to participate in shows and professional development as an artist.

The Internet is changing how we discover and view art. What sites have empowered you as an artist?

Of course my favorite sites are my own, and I also love Modern Art Obsession and Code Z: Black Visual Culture Now

What are your goals as an artist? What do you hope to accomplish with your work?

My goal is to keep pursuing the big questions about life through my artwork . . . and to leave a creative legacy after I’m gone.

You can learn more about James McKissic by visiting his website-- He also blogs at

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