Orilla Verde at Rio Grande, triptych; 48" x 78", 2011, walnut oils (impasto) on linen ©Jivan Lee
I was born in Woodstock, NY, in 1984 when the festival was a memory and Woodstock was just a quiet little artist colony again. After a country-boy childhood I attended Bard College and studied painting with Joseph Santore and Laura Battle. I had a full-tuition scholarship in science, though, so I ended up with two degrees - a BA in biology and an MS in environmental policy. After graduate school focused again on art and started painting full time in New York. I've been painting pretty much ever since (except for a break when I moved to New Mexico). I owe a lot especially to the people and land of Taos, NM -- Taos is where I rediscovered my passion for painting and started finding a voice that feels like my own.
At this point, I've won awards for my environmental work as well as my artwork, and received a grant for a thematic art project combining the two by focusing Northern New Mexico agriculture. Plein Air Magazine has called me a "terrific plein air painter" and my work has been in museums and galleries around the country. Three galleries represent my paintings: Joe Wade Fine Art in Santa Fe, NM; Galerie Kornye West in Fort Worth, TX; and JLI imaging in Arroyo Seco/Taos, NM.
When did you first know you were an artist?
It wasn't really an "ah ha!" moment. I had some dreams about painting again and started in on it -- and then after a while I had a lot of work and got into a gallery. I sold a big piece shortly thereafter... and from a "artist as a career choice" standpoint, that was that I suppose.
But all my life art has been important. The form it took shifted around for a while but my desire to make art has been strong ever since I can remember.
Please tell us about your art... style, themes, mediums, and process.
My style: Good question! I suppose it's a something that builds off of impressionism and expressionism and occasionally disassembles into something else.
My medium: I use a lot of paint -- walnut oil paint -- and lay it on with pallet knives and big brushes. I love paint. It's such a great medium. For the last few years I've been compelled by the feeling of sculpting paint and color at the same time.
Standing Tree, 36" x 48", 2012, walnut oils (impasto) on canvas ©Jivan Lee
My themes: My love of the abstract in our everyday is central to all my work -- how if you look at anything close enough it becomes a constellation of color with nothing else discernable. I guess I just love big abstract slabs of color that unify when viewed at distance, and this ends up developing in my paintings. But from online viewing most people don't really know that my main focus isn't really accurate representation of reality -- that I'm most interested in the close/far & abstract/recognizable interplay. As far as subject matter themes -- light and color on the same subject over time really interests me (a shout out to Monet among many others). I also enjoy really matter of fact still life paintings of flowers... and then in Taos the land has gotten me into landscapes for the first time. People in their places, too; in bedrooms, in bathrooms, at work, resting on a favorite couch, and so on.
Process: My paintings take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks or more. Each one is different. But they all stem from an almost devotional state of being; I do my best to empty my head of any thoughts and then just allow a spontaneous response to the impact and sentiment of a moment. Often times I see something that strikes me physically -- I'll feel excitement in my belly, chest, and my throat and then I know that it's a composition worth starting on. If I don't get the exciting feeling - if I am thinking that I "should" paint rather then letting the information rise up of its own volition -- pieces are a lot more likely to fail.
Once I've decided to go for it, though, I start with quick sketches and blocking in of darks and lights and then move into laying on slabs of paint. Then I stitch everything together bit by bit. It can be very quiet and relaxing, or if the light is changing quickly the process can be very frantic. I talk to myself (almost unconsciously, really) a lot and walk back and forth like I wild man, just letting whatever happens happen and trusting that it'll move things along in a good direction. Sometimes I sing to the painting and place. I'll occasionally hear myself and register just how crazy it all must look and sound, but I kind of have to be alright with it because if I stifle anything the process falls flat. Mind you, I often am painting out of the trunk of my car on the sides of roads in the Taos area, so it is all the more surprising no one has called the police on me.
Lately I've slowly been remembering to let my first color impression be the one I follow rather than the one that happens a split-second afterward. I find the first is usually the boldest and best impression, but also is the one easiest for my mind to want to "fix". This "fixing" of things I believe is a problem for a lot of endeavours, especially painting; I think if we are "fixing" something, we're likely bringing the artwork back to a familiar state and that this is the opposite of what keeps a piece rich in feeling. So I try to catch myself on this one and let that bold, lightening fast impression be the one that drives a piece forward. Then later I'll slowly and gently look a work over and make sure each passage really does fit in the painting and really is complete -- but this is different because the whole work is pretty much complete already and it's clear what works and doesn't relative to the rest of the piece.
What kind of music do you listen to while painting?
I generally don't listen to any music. I like the sounds of wherever or whatever I'm painting. I find that my painting style and rhythm varies when I listen to music.
Texture sample (from "The Gorge", picture not included) ©Jivan Lee
Since my goal is to relay the feeling of a moment or place, and I try to do it in person, I keep music to a minimum. Now, that said, when I was in Ghana music was everywhere always -- it was a part of the place -- and that adds another dimension. But I'm talking about the music that I listen to on my iPod - it just doesn't really work for me.
How do you get inspired when uninspired?
I find I feel uninspired either when I'm tired or when I'm disappointed or worried or whatever else. So if I'm tired, I try to sleep. And if it's something else, I try to almost jump on whatever it is that I'm feeling down about. It's like a sneak attack or something. I'll paint a painting *because* I lost a contest or because somebody said I shouldn't be an artist (which really did happen). I find that it helps me just move on from any disappointment and get to the state of mind where I remember that life is pretty big.
What do you do in your spare time besides paint?
Work on community & ecological sustainability. Spend time with my partner. Cook and eat good food. Teach for the University of New Mexico. Write down my dreams. Occasionally stress out. Play with my dog.
What are you currently working on?
I'm developing an idea for a series of very large paintings (like 60" x 90") with a lot of paint. I haven't quite defined the theme yet but something is coming together about the impact of life-size (or larger) imagery almost sculpted out of paint.
Bella Lucia, 40" x 40", 2011, walnut oils (impasto) on linen ©Jivan Lee
The idea is an outgrowth of a daffodil still life I did this spring -- I ended up wanting to add another four or five canvases worth of painting to the 24 x 36" piece. The area around the finished painting was also so compelling but I just didn't have the time.
What is the best artwork you ever created?
The best, huh? I'll do this from my perspective, as its the only perspective I can really speak to. My audience almost assuredly will choose (and does choose) other pieces.
Firstly, I see a group as being the best more than just one piece. But if I had to choose one at this moment, I'd choose "revisionist roses." It isn't my favorite painting, nor the most technically adept. And it started off as a complete failure. But I think it is the best (at least, from my point of view as the artist) because of the process behind it and what it led me to realize.
The piece started off with me spending quite a while painting some roses. After I was finished I slowly realized (with the help of my partner who can hit the nail on the head), that it pretty much looked like I vomited on the canvas. I was all upset and moody because I really didn't know it was terrible as I was painting it and then was shocked when I realized the truth. It took me several hours to accept it -- first disappointment, then frustration, then bargaining with myself (e.g., "it could be edgy, especially if when I tilt my head this way..."), and then finally acceptance. But I still wasn't ready to scrape it down and really concede my failure. Eventually I realized that if I didn't scrape it down I was effectively letting my fears (of what failing that horribly "meant" about me, of whether I would ever paint well again, etc.) dictate the art I was creating. So I immediately went downstairs and scraped it down... and then, wouldn't you know it, the piece was done.
I think it's one of my best because it showed me, helped me feel, something very important. I was forgetting a service of art in our lives -- it can be a container and vessel with which we remind ourselves and each other of the important things. In this case, I was reminded about what fear does to me and my ability to take risks that are worth taking.
What role does the artist play in society?
I think it varies. Some are commentators; some are boundary pushers; some are conduits through which others see the world anew. Perhaps any artist is the latter. For me a central element to what I believe is "good" art is authenticity -- and I don't really know how to define authenticity other than I feel it in a piece or I don't.
The Philosopher, 11" x 14", 2011, walnut oils (impasto) on gessoed board ©Jivan Lee
Have you sold many artworks?
I've sold a good amount I suppose. Galleries have been very helpful, as have the few museums my work has been in. Getting to speak directly with collectors has also been helpful for me -- I love the chance to relate with people who love art enough to spend good money on it.
What are your favorite methods of promoting art online?
I'd say my website (www.jivanlee.com) really is my favorite. It's simple, clean. The social networks are alright but can be a bit scatter-brained and all over the map. Of them, Pinterest is probably my favorite b/c it's so visual.
What are your main art influences?
My mom, dad, and sister. My partner. The impressionists, especially Van Gogh, Monet, Sisley. Russian painters of all periods - lately a lot of Fedor Zakharov. Matisse, Max Beckman, Kandinsky, Roerich. Lucian Freud really impacted me when I was in school, as did the work of my teacher Joseph Santore. Some contemporary painters include Louisa McElwain, Lynn Boggess, Quang Ho, Dan Mccaw, and others. A few sculptors I really like, too, including Javier Marin and David Simon.
Please recommend a great contemporary artist.
Joseph Santore is a contemporary artist I quite like. He's based in NYC and has pieces in the collections of some well known museums. His work is incredibly detailed and almost always done in-person .... be it huge rooms filled with every imaginable item or figurative pieces (such as "Titorelli's Studio" in the Phoenix Art Museum). He finds some amazing colors in his work and is a real painter's painter.
Please tell us something interesting in your life.
I was once told - in all seriousness - that a Sasquatch was in a field I was painting. Another time a local guy offered me a donkey in exchange for a painting (I ended up declining the offer, wishing I had the land for a donkey). My partner and I were invited to the 2010 Slow Food International "Terra Madre" conference in Torino as a northern New Mexico delegates. I spent a bit of time living in a thatched hut on a Ghanaian beach -- one of my favorite places on earth. I have abnormally large feet for my height and look awkward in hiking boots because of it.
Where do you see yourself as an artist 10 years from now?
Keeping it real, having pieces that continue to find good homes, helping those who want to learn do so, still exploring the aspects of painting that push my comfort zone.
Do you have any parting advice you would like to give to aspiring and emerging artists?
Far be it of me, but I guess I'd say: stay in it; stay with the moment; listen to the quiet voice that suggests something unexpected; my best pieces seem to come right after some of my worst; and, good luck!
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