James Jean on the Artistic Process and the Unforgiving Sun

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Photos by Asia Morris.

In celebration of all things POW! WOW! Long Beach, from the outdoor muralists—who began transforming blank walls throughout the city this week—to the artists currently installing their work inside the Long Beach Museum of Art's (LBMA) upcoming exhibit Vitality and Verve: Transforming the Urban Landscape, the Post reached out to several of these world-class creatives who are gearing up to change and inspire the landscape of Long Beach’s art scene as a whole, indoors and out.

Today we feature James Jean, who has made a great deal of progress on his “tiny sliver” of wall at The Dolly Varden hotel in downtown Long Beach. He mentioned during the press event on Tuesday that this will be his fourth mural, yet, when approaching the piece to gaze up at the sun-hatted artist working high above the street, it becomes difficult to fathom his work in any other format. His fluid linework and fantastical subject matter place the viewer in another world, where they might stop to wonder if they’ve stepped into an urban fairy tale.

POW! WOW! Long Beach enthusiasts can watch Jean and Tristan Eaton transform the north wall of the Varden this week, but hurry over because these pros tend to work quite quickly.

Post: You have been creating a great deal of work in Long Beach, notably the LBMA's Masterworks exhibition, the Psychic Temple library and now Pow! Wow! Long Beach. What is it about this city that has you coming back time and time again?

James Jean: At the risk of sounding trite, it's because of the people. Julia Huang has been a great supporter of mine over the years and she's been involved in some way or another in all the projects I've done in Long Beach of late.

From what I've gathered, you transitioned from the commercial world of illustration to the institutional sphere of fine art. When did you start painting outdoor murals and are you finding this genre of "street art" or "urban art" fairly easy to tackle? How so or why not?

I painted my first mural at Pow! Wow! Hawaii in 2014. I was actually not expecting to paint a wall at all, but I decided at the last minute to try it. I had never painted anything that large before...what surprised me was how quickly everyone was able to get the paint down and bring their compositions to life.

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What themes will your work entail for this upcoming mural?

Since the mural will be painted on the Varden hotel, the imagery in my piece is inspired by the Dolly Varden. This could refer to an actual person named Dolly Varden, a circus performer who lived in the hotel, the Dolly Varden dress that was popular in the late 19th century, or a spotted trout.

Though in my composition, the trout has evolved into a spotted lady bug, which seemed more appropriate. Thus, the imagery is quite light-hearted and decorative - it's an escape, a throwback to a more innocent and superficial time.

What is your mural-making process like? I would like to assume that you must interact with other artists, as well as passerby much more often than if you were in the studio. Is this a distraction or a blessing? Does it fuel your work? Why or why not?

For me, painting is usually a private and personal activity. Witnesses make me self-conscious and self-aware. I don't like to perform. The very reason why I like making art is to get away from people. So painting this mural is a treason against my true nature. It's a challenge that must be overcome, and perhaps I need that kind of resistance and friction to stay interested in whatever it is I'm doing.

What are you working on now outside of painting and drawing? What do you do when you need to take a break from your artwork? How do you blow off steam? Keep things interesting?

I don't really ever stop... I'm constantly interested in making paintings, drawings, and photographs. I blow off steam by posting on Instagram and watching the people eat each other alive.

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Most recently, what has had you especially inspired to create? Or even, uninspired to create…

I have a long list of private commissions to get through, so there really is no time to be uninspired. There's always something in the horizon, a flickering mirage of an idea that I hope to uncover in time. But lately, I have been looking a lot at ethnographic art, gypsies of India, West African masquerade costumes, mummies . . .

Are you experimenting with any new medium right now?

I've been taking a lot more photos the past few years. I enjoy transferring the photos to my phone from my camera and editing them using a variety of apps. The speed of the workflow is extremely gratifying. It's drugs.

What type of music or musical artist are you really loving currently? Do you listen to a certain genre/artist while you work?

Lately, I've been enjoying this LA group, Made in Heights. But usually I listen to podcasts like Radiolab and WTF. Started listening to Hardcore History recently. Also, audiobooks.

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What are you especially looking forward to about POW! WOW! Long Beach?

Excited to get Thai food and pizza after long, hard days of painting in the unforgiving sun.

To learn more about the artist, visit his official website by clicking here and follow him on Instagram @jamesjeanart.



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