INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD T. JAMES, NOVEMBER 2, 2002, STARBUCK'S, DAVIS, CALIFORNIA
EPG: Can you give me a little history of the 750 Gallery?
RTJ: Well I joined after meeting Jim Leitzell; he was one of the founders, I believe. We were in an art show in Sacramento, and this has been at least about ten years ago. It was founded by he and Dave Wetzel and Linda Lobella, I think those three founded it. And when I joined, it was on 18th and I Streets in Sacramento. And then of course, later we moved to 7th and J, and now we're sort of in limbo. But it's been a good experience, you know a collective gallery and met a lot of nice people, and I hope we continue on. We'll have to see about that.
EPG: Where's your new location? Do you have a show in November and who's in the show?
RTJ: No, but maybe next month. And our location that we're working on is at 25th and R, which is a little square of buildings, there's a parking lot in the center, and that's been used for artists' studios for years and years. In fact, I've got several friends in there with their artist studios. I hope it's gonna happen. It's a matter of financing, right now, but we'll have to wait and see. 25th and R will be the new location, I think.
EPG: And so the 750 is a "collective" group of artists? Can you tell me how that works?
RTJ: Well, all the members are dues paying, and new members are chosen by the group. They vote on membership after looking at slides of an applicant, and we call ourselves a "cooperative" gallery. And we all pay dues, and everybody gets a show now and then, and we all have input as to the philosophy of the group and so on and so forth. And I suppose, you know, we do this because we've been frustrated by commercial galleries, you know, applying for shows and things like that which is sometimes frustrating and I think a lot of artists are kind of shy and can't take the rejection. But I guess they have to get used to it, and you have to . . . it's just like being in love with a woman and being rejected. To be rejected by a gallery owner--it's terrible! [laughter]
EPG: Do you guys have a mission statement, or something that's particular to your gallery?
RTJ: Yeah, we do. It's quite short. I don't remember how it's worded, really, but something to the effect . . . you know, the group consists of people who are fairly cutting edge or unorthodox or avant garde or however you want to say it, experimental.
EPG: Can you tell me something about your own history and your education and how you came to be doing art?
RTJ: Yeah, I started private art lessons in Savannah, Georgia, in '65 I guess, I was 14. I think my mother had met this woman, Kay Moore, she turned out to be quite a good art teacher. And I studied with her for a year, and I just continued on after that in high school, took art classes. And when I got to college, I was taking English and Music and Art classes, and I was gonna major in Music, but I finally decided on Art, and minored in Music. And when I got my B.A. at the University of Alaska, I had my first one-person art show at the gallery there. I had a couple of other shows in Fairbanks, Alaska, and then I came to Sacramento to get my Master's degree, and got my Master's degree in Art Education. And continued to show my work somewhat, but not much. I was in a couple of competitions and then when I joined the 750, I had a venue to show my work as often as I wanted, or a once-a-year show or so, anyway. But in the '80s I started doing all text work whereas when I had been in Alaska, I had used text with images and with assemblage-type works, but I had never just done text I think until '86 and then I started doing the works that were all words or all text.
EPG: Why did you start using a lot of text in your paintings? What prompted you to go in that direction?
RTJ: Well, like I say, I had used text with images and with assemblage stuff. I suppose, you know, just after doing this for years and years, for some reason the text became more important than the images. And you know, "every picture tells a thousand words," but maybe some words can tell a thousand pictures. So the text became more important, you know, maybe because I'm sort of a frustrated writer anyway. So I can combine the two arts of painting and writing. It feels satisfying to me to do that.
EPG: A lot of your paintings are humorous. You have one that says, "If it looks like art, stay away from it," or something like that. But I think a lot of people are kind of surprised or maybe put off by that. What have been some of the reactions to some of your paintings?
RTJ: I got a review, I think it was about '92, I had a piece in the Center for Contemporary Art, and Victoria Dalkey [art critic for the Sacramento Bee] saw that painting and it said, "If it looks like art, keep away from it," and she had the line, "And this is a good idea when it comes to Richard James' art." So I think that's the most memorable reaction I got to that line. And you know, other people have talked to it in a more rational way and have, I think, Jim Lightsall said he knew what I meant, that art shouldn't look "packaged" like art because then it becomes too pat or too predictable maybe.
EPG: You had a piece that was chosen for the Crocker Art Museum, like a juried show, and I think that might have bothered some people too, some more traditional artists. What was that particular painting? Do you remember what it said on there?
RTJ: I'm trying to remember. It was a short message. I really can't remember it right now. It'll probably come to me later. That's been five or six years, and it's a small piece. I was happy to get in to the Crocker-Kingsley. That's definitely the only time [my art has] ever been in. And I think I've been rejected five or six times. That's funny, I can't remember the message on that painting.
EPG: Are you influenced by a lot of literature? I know you're very well read, and in the 750 Gallery you guys have a little library there. And I know you always encourage poets to come there and read.
RTJ: Oh yeah, for instance, one of my heroes is William Blake--poet, painter, prophet. You know, he did a little bit of everything. I've done several paintings based on his work. One of them, the message was, "Ratio of 5." That had to do with Blake's idea about the ratio of the five senses, and he wrote about that a lot, how the five senses work in ratio, but the ratio changes as those senses are stimulated by different things like words or images or sounds or whatever. Yeah, a lot of my messages are based on thinkers or poets or artists that I admire. So there are allusions in those messages.
EPG: I was over at Galleria Posada last night, and they were talking about how Jose Guadalupe Posada did illustrations and they would make broadsides with his illustrations and poems and songs written on the illustrations. And then troubadors would go around singing these, and so it was a combination of poetry, art and music. It seems like those things go together. You're a person who's a poet, an artist, and a musician. Can you talk about how those things influence each other, and maybe how the music influences things for you?
RTJ: Well that kind of gets back to Blake's idea of the five senses, and music is supposed to appeal to the ears, and visual art for the eyes, and maybe poetry for both. But I think they all appeal to other senses than the main one that they are expressed in maybe. I like the work of Posada, the skeletons, and that reminded me, today's the Day of the Dead. I suppose one of the underlying aspects of all of the arts is rhythm. And music, visual art, poetry, all express rhythm [which] might be the most fundamental part of all those arts, you know, the basic rhythm of an artwork.
EPG: So what do you mean by rhythm in a painting?
RTJ: Well, the rhythm of a visual artwork, painting or collage, has to do with the way the space is broken up. And some artists do really staccato type rhythm in their work. One very rhythmic artist was Kurt Switters, a collage artist who always sort of broke his space up in a rhythmic way. But I think his work always seemed musical to me also. You know, somebody like Jackson Pollock, dripping paint. Of course, he sort of incorporated dance, you know, with his body movements, and the paint was laid down in a rhythmic way. I think he was even listening to music while he painted . . . maybe not, but rhythm is an important part of visual art also.
EPG: I often listen to music while I'm writing poetry. Do you listen to music while you're painting?
RTJ: Yeah, I like to listen to Gregorian Chant while I'm painting which puts me into sort of a trance state maybe, if it's working right. And of course, chant isn't really hard rhythmic music. Although it is rhythmic, it's not like a bongo drum or a rock-and-roll rhythm or anything like that. I mainly listen to Gregorian Chant when I work.
EPG: It seems like you have a lot of religion and philosophy in your work. Can you tell me where that influence comes from?
RTJ: I was raised in sort of a Baptist church, Protestant, Fundamentalism type of atmosphere. We'd go to church on Sunday, you know, like a lot of people. I rebelled against all of that. I found that it was sort of narrow-minded. But I had a mystical experience on LSD back in '68 when I was hitchhiking through Nevada. And a woman who gave me a ride said her husband worked for the Grateful Dead and she was heading to San Francisco. I was going to Sacramento. And this was in Carlin Nevada, she gave me a hit of LSD. And I had a real mystical magical experience, and I remember feeling or thinking at the time that I was "with God" and there was a reality to this concept, "God." And you know, I think that really turned me toward religion, made me interested in religions. But getting back to Blake, he had a saying which I've also used in one of my paintings, "All religions are one." And I like the idea that every religion has this sort of mystical foundation, and they are similar, or like Blake said, "They are one."
EPG: You just took a road trip this summer. Did you get any inspiration, or did any paintings come from that?
RTJ: Well I think so. I've always been attracted to the desert, and this summer I went down to Zion Canyon and Bryce Canyon. I went to the Valley of Fire in Southern Nevada. And for instance, in the Valley of Fire, I did some hiking there and I saw about fifteen different petroglyph sites that were done by the ancient Native Americans there. Some people call it, "rock art," but there were pictures on the rocks of mountain goats and sometimes people, sometimes footprints, and sometimes abstract images like spirals and sun shapes, things like that. That was probably the main art experience I had down there. It was exciting to hike in those canyons and to see the rock art and the Valley of Fire.
EPG: So on this Day of the Dead, you were over in the cemetary here in Davis this morning?
RTJ: Yeah, actually in Esparto, it's about 20 miles. I walked around the cemetary, and I could have written an essay on the things I saw there. The first grave that I noticed was a girl that was 18, had her picture on the stone. I thinked she was born in '58. You know, that's sort of touching, sort of sad. There was a grave, it was all in German. The guy was from Germany, "geborhn" in 1858 or something like that. And there some of these old graves with poems on 'em, sort of flowery, religious poems, and a couple of them had the phrase, "Gone, but not forgotten," which you used to see a lot on graves. And then you know there was one that was a sculpted angel, but somebody had knocked the head off, got some vandalism. And there was another one with a guy's picture, and it looked like people have been throwing rocks at his picture for some reason. It's an interesting cemetary, and plus it's such a beautiful day, and the birds were singing and it's a quiet spot. So I took a few pictures with my camera, and like I say, I thought when I was leaving, I could write an essay about this, just some of the things I had seen and the thoughts that were provoked. I think that walking around the cemetary is a great way to forget the vanity of life because apparently we're all gonna arrive at a place like that some day.
Copyright Richard T. James and EPG