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Home FEATURES Jim Houser Interview

Jim Houser Interview

Written by Adam Wallacavage   
Monday, 01 October 2007 05:03
Advice: give away the first 100 paintings you make, and get a job that you can steal from... Inspiration: sea water, dog fur, and dried blood.

Be sure to visit Jim's current show along with Jeff Soto's show, at the Jonathan Levine gallery in NYC if you are in town, it is on it's last week there closing October 6th... For more info check out www.jonathanlevinegallery.com

All photography and interview by: Adam Wallacavage

I remember the zine you did when you were in high school called "look zine". What were you trying to achieve with that? Whose photocopier did you use, and how much are old copies going for on ebay?

Dude, you are totally big -upping your self with this question ... Admit it. Yes everybody, Adam Wallacavage made awesome, awesome, zines, way back when he still bothered to draw things. Wonder rolling news (copies of which probably should be worth money) was the first zine I ever saw that wasn't about some shitty hardcore show I didn't go to. It was equal parts skate photos and illustrations and comics. I found it really inspiring. It was like you xeroxed your diary or your sketchbook, and gave it to people. Anyway, it was my first exposure to that concept. I was around 15 or 16. So, hey, I copied you. So what. What're you going to do about it?

You went through a really crazy time at an Ivy League school. How much do you want to talk about it and how much has that experience had on what you do now?

Well, I didn't like college in the least. When I arrived, it was like everyone else already knew each other, and had all this stuff in common already and I was left out or something. It took me a bit to realize what they all had in common was money. In that they had a lot of it, and I didn't. I went to Penn on a faculty/staff scholarship, and because my father worked there, it was free. I was miserable there. I hadn't really wanted to go to college. I just went because I was supposed to. And I felt really lonely there, and guilty too, for wasting this insane opportunity for an education I didn't really want, but that others would give anything for. So I did what I guess at least a third of depressed, isolated, college kids do. I did a ton of drugs and got myself kicked out.

If you finished at Penn, where do you think you would be?

Shit I have no idea. Not what I do now. That's for sure. Where I ended up now required a very specific and tweaked path. I don't know where a college degree would've led.

How many drawings of the coffee cups did you make of the ones you drank at Denny's?

Ok, what Adam means by this is: he is making fun of me. After I got kicked out of college, I used to sit in a Denny's that was about a 15 minute walk from my house. I'd go there at 8 or 9 at night, and sit at the counter and listen to my walkman and draw and write in sketchbooks. I did this every night, for 2 or 3 years maybe. I'd draw stuff for the waitresses and they'd give me free pie or French fries. And coffee was a dollar with unlimited re-fills. So, it was someplace to go, out of my house, when I only had a dollar. These sketchbooks I used to keep, there's a bit of obsessive compulsive disorder to them, when I look back at them. Little things I would do that maybe were a bit odd. Like, every time they would refill my coffee cup, whatever I was doing, I'd draw a little coffee-cup at the top of the page. So, it would always crack Adam up to look at my sketchbook and there'd be just pages of nonsensical rantings with like 15 coffee-cups drawn across the top of it.

You moved to Providence R.I. after about 20,000 cigarettes working in a tiny parking lot guard shack and hung out at RISD, that school is a really expensive... We had a number of friends who hung out there instead of actually being students there who did really well with the experience. How much do you attribute your "hanging out" there... do you credit it to the formation of what you do now?

Yeah, the parking lot job was around the same time as Denny's. That was the greatest job ever. I sat in a little glass box and watched cars. I didn't have to take money, or let people in or out. I just sat. It was a joke. I worked 4 hours a day, sat and drew or read science fiction books, and made twenty dollars. I think I did that for 3 years. About RISD.. Yeah, I always tell people that having friends that go to art school and don't mind stealing is way more important than going to art school yourself is... Maybe I was more receptive to the environment at RISD, which is equally as affluent to the atmosphere at any Ivy League school, was that I wasn't required to be there. I could just sort of float through the campus, steal this, use that, get let into this building, learn that, etc... Plus I met so many rad people, doing rad stuff. It kind of frees you up to do your own thing, when the people around you are fully going for it. It's not the teachers at an art school you need. It's the access to the materials and equipment. That's what the tuition is really for. We edited a shitty skateboard video in a full-on avid editing suite, for free. Like weeks on the avid, for "free". Who gives a bunch of twenty years that kind of equipment? Art schools do.

How much did Becky affect your art back then?

I wouldn't have started painting if it wasn't for her. I always drew and wrote, but it never occurred to me to stretch a canvas and paint. But I saw how much she cared about it, how happy it made her to paint. And I cared about her so much, and was trying so hard to figure her out, to learn how she ticked. So, I was like, "let's just see what the big deal about this is... ", and started trying to paint, just to feel a bit closer to her. And what it felt like was this huge chunk that'd been missing in my life went "clunk" and fell into place. It made me feel calm, it made racing thoughts go away, and it must be what other people get from meditating or something. Or even what people get from booting heroin. "Oh... This is what I been missing. I'll just do this now forever and everything will be ok..."

[Part 2]

I think of you bringing Becky to Philadelphia, more than I think of you coming home. Becky was the most amazing girl ever from the north east if not the world... and you managed to convince her to move to Philly somehow. How did you survive back then?

Well, when, Beck graduated from RISD, the guys had already started 1026 at home. She and Ben (Woodward) graduated in the same class. We knew Ben was moaning back, of course. And I wanted to go home too. Beck knew she didn't want to move to NY. That's what a lot of her friends did. We had come down a few times to visit, while still living up north. And she had never lived in a city before. So, she was excited to move down, actually. We survived in the beginning by living at Ben's parent's house in Swarthmore, for free, that first summer. She had won a cash prize for her art before graduation, so we lived off of that. In the fall we found an apartment in west Philly, and I got my job at the parking lot back. That lasted few months, then she found a job teaching art at an after school program, and I started working at a camera shop, printing people's photos. I'm sure we didn't have any money, ever, but I don't remember it being an issue.

What was your first show?

My first real solo show was at 1026, in 1998 maybe?

When did you realize you could make a living from doing art?

At that show, really. People bought a lot of art at that show. And nobody at the space really knew how to handle "art sales". It was all cash. People were just handing me cash for paintings and putting their own red dots on the walls. The whole thing was hysterical. I bet a lot of those paintings were the first paintings people ever bought. I remember having to explain to people that they couldn't take stuff home with them. That they had to wait until the end of the month. People were trying to just take stuff right off the walls. Andy (Wright) was the closest thing to "in charge" at the show. He was taking money too, and just handing me handfuls of cash, being like, "don't forget, the space gets 30 percent". I basically ran to my car that night, because I had more money in my pockets than I ever had in my life before. I remember driving home, laughing with Beck, about how crazy it had been at the opening. It was a relief really. I don't think I had a plan for what I would have done if the show hadn't gone well. And luckily it did.

Your art is loaded with information, both personal and public. Is it a thrill to send out crazy personal information about your deepest thoughts? Do you think about how people will interpret your paintings when you are long gone? I mean, what if you become super famous some day and people study everything about your works, could they ever figure out the meanings without you telling them?

I don't really think about that, other than the stuff that's about Becky. It's not like it's a thrill, but it's the feeling of pride of standing up and saying, "I think about you every day." I prefer not to explain the elements of my paintings anymore. I did for a while, and occasionally now I will, if the person asking strikes a certain chord in me. But the way I see it is like when I go see a band, and the singer rants on before the song starts about what the song is about, and I stand there like, "whoooo cares... Just play the song. " People will figure out on their own if they like a painting or not. Me telling them what something means isn't going to make them like it.

Did you ever think of saving a fortune and hiding the money somewhere and leaving the treasure map openly in a series of paintings? Or, did you do this already? (Just say, yes, no one will know)

I would spend the fortune.

[Part 3]

You were the first of our Philly friends to actually make a living as an artist. Living off one's art is a goal for most artists yet it can be a very insecure means of making a living. You were very careful still and turned down many opportunities early on, really at a time when one would normally want to be putting themselves out there to get the attention and a secure place in the art market. I thought you were being a snob for a long time but you always seem to make good decisions in the end. Did you calculate these decisions?

At first it was hard, like if the money that entity "a" wanted to pay me for a certain thing was good, but the arrangement didn't seem fair ... I'd struggle with it. But I have always been in it for the long haul. I guess I have always been stupidly optimistic or overly confident that some other offer would come along. I have never wanted to settle for any business arrangement that is less than ideal. I'm not perfect, though and I have gotten burned. But also, I don't look back on anything I have turned down with regret. Now, I always approach the business side of things the same way, with any kind of job that occurs outside of making paintings: I don't take any art direction. I don't pretend to be a graphic designer; I know how to do things one way. So pay me to do what I do, and then use it or don't use it. Sometimes a company will back off, and go in a different direction, no hard feelings. Sometimes they bite.

You have been labeled a "self-taught" artist. Is this the reason why your art looks a bit like cartoons? Do you think if you went to a proper art school your paintings would be more realist looking? I'm imagining robots that could be on the cover of popular mechanics and cowboy hats with rendered felt.

How I draw and paint is just how I do it. My shit isn't very painterly. My attention span is too short to try and make things look "actual"... They have cameras now days. Just take a picture.

Your color schemes are wonderful and work amazing with interior design. What are your inspirations for color schemes? Are you a fan of Martha Stewart?

I like red and blue and variations of red and blue. That's the direction it seems to be going. Browns and tans. No more pink. No more orange. No more green. Even my black is just super dark blue or brown. My white has blue or brown in it. Sea water, dog fur, and dried blood. That's my inspiration.

Do you have any simple advise for artists out there trying to make a living from art?

Give away the first 100 paintings you make. And get a job that you can steal from.

[Part 4]

Your installations in gallery shows are getting more and more involved. How does this affect the way you paint at home? Do you paint things with the idea that they will fill a space a certain way? Does it ever bother you that your works inevitably gets broken apart?

It doesn't really affect the way I work at home, but it does have an effect. In the last 2 or 3 years, I have had more stuff fabricated by others, rather than doing everything myself. My friend Jake Henry is guy who can built anything, so I can draw something up, and he'll make it happen. Also I've learned to work with an assistant for gallery stuff, first Ben Woodward helped, and lately it's been Brian Lynch. They know enough about what I am shooting for to help fill in the big stuff on the walls, so I can concentrate on the small stuff. Basically, if a gallery would give me a month to install, I could probably do it all myself. But it is a function of the system for doing art shows. 2 weeks is the most time I get to install, and it's more often like 10 days. So I couldn't do it all with out some help. The other problem is storage. The more stuff I refuse to sell (and there's a lot if it) I re- use for other shows. It piles up. So I can't store stuff in my house anymore. So, the more stuff I choose to keep to travel with me, the more stuff I have to find a home for when the show is over. And no, I don't mind when shows get broken down, as long as I have super good photos of it. I like that on a certain level this thing lives for a month and then gets destroyed, and comes together in a different way in a different place all over again.

Music is such a big part of your life. How different do you find making music from painting? How similar?

I am a lot less confident with my music making. First because I don't think I am as good at it. And second, I don't really expose it to people as much, so I have never received the feedback from people that I have about painting. There are similarities. I am self taught at both. I am narrowly proficient at both. Both are an exceptional escape or form of meditation. Also, I don't think I possess the "performance" gene. I have no problem letting people listen to my music, but I have no compulsion to be on a stage in a bar playing in front of a crowd. Similarly, I don't like people that I don't know around when I am painting. Even when I am working in a gallery, when strangers come in, I have to stop. It's too distracting, to feel watched and judged, and it makes me angry sometimes. So with both, I guess I am down with sharing the end result but not the act of making it.

You started using a computer to work on some of the graphics you do for Toy Machine, is this around the same time you started making music with it as well?

I been playing guitar for more than 10 years, and using a 4 track to record stuff almost as long. The computer design stuff started maybe 5 years ago. I didn't have a computer until around 2001. I have only been using the computer to make music for about a year and half. I was playing a lot with my friend Craig, and he was laughing about me still using a 4-track when I had Garage Band on my computer. I had never even opened the program. So, he showed me the basics of how to use it. The reason I got the computer in the first place was for the Toy Machine work. I was doing a lot of boards for them, by hand, and mailing them. I think it drove Ed nuts. So I broke down, bought a computer and learned enough of illustrator to do my thing.

What music and painting related things do you have going on and planned in the near future?

I think I am doing something at Art Basel, maybe 2 things. I don't know yet. My next actual show isn't until the spring, at Merry Karnowsky's in Los Angeles. I just finished a show at Jonathan Levine's in NY, which is still up now. Right now I am taking a break from painting to finish up a record I have been working on for about a year. Free News Projects will eventually release it, probably as an ep. That's it.

Any "shout outs"

Brian Lynch!

Jim and Nadine Wescott

American Sneakers

Portrait of Jim by Rebecca Wescott

If you're in NYC, be sure and see Jim's show before it comes down Oct 6 @Jonathan Levine. {moscomment}

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