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Five Questions with Artist James Jankowiak

I initially came across the work of James Jankowiak when it was being displayed in The Post Family booth at Art Chicago/Next in spring of 2011. In December of 2011, I got to work with James at What’s Your Art? and I finally had the chance to ask him the following five questions. Here are his five really insightful answers about his life-long passion as a creative and maker of art.

If you had to tell us about yourself in a non-artist biography what would it say?

I don’t have much of a non-artist biography; I’ve been one my whole life. There’s a segment of the creative population that’s aware of my community and educational work, which I try to keep separate from my personal work. I don’t make a living from my artwork at a sustainable level yet, so I’m glad I took teaching seriously about a dozen years ago. I come from a modest upbringing and grew up in a very poor neighborhood, the southern tip of the back of the yards, and went through a lot of the trials and tribulations common in that environment.

In 1985 at age 15 I discovered graffiti, which absolutely saved my life. Graffiti inspired me to get up everywhere, so I started jumping on trains and busses to explore Chicago. I made new like-minded friends and stayed motivated to survive. There were a couple of spots in Pilsen where community activists [who saw our potential] gave us places to paint on canvases on the weekends. I loved these adults and wanted to grow up to be like them, so when I’m not in my studio, I’m still very much fulfilled with my work in our public schools, which are a mess. Kids need art now more than any other time. It’s a pleasure to get them engaged and they truly love it. Another thing, I’m a natural history geek. I’d rather spend a day at the Field Museum than any other museum.

Many of us initiated our art endeavors from attending college but when you get that piece of paper [as we all quickly realize] that does not necessarily mean you automatically become a working professional. So I am curious to know when and how your art career began? Was there a significant moment when you were like, “okay, now I consider myself an artist?”

“Out of the Blue” Acrylic on wood 16” x 16” 2010, @ Johalla Projects booth, Next Art Fair, Chicago Il., 2011 (Photograph courtesy of James Jankowiak)

I don’t have any piece of paper that proclaims who I am. Like I mentioned in the last question, I’ve always been an artist. I started drawing at two and never took a break. I always knew what I was. I won all the grade school contests and whenever art was needed in the classroom, I was the kid the whole class pointed at. I’m very fortunate that I received this recognition at an early age. I am especially lucky that my parents and my grandfather pushed me along. My grandfather was convinced I’d be famous one day  [he was a hell of an artist himself] so the belief was always strong of what I was. My mom was overjoyed I wrote graffiti, she saw all the kids I hung out with growing up wrong [smoking dust and gangbanging] so her only worry was that I didn’t get caught writing. One time, when I was 16, I had to accompany her to the doctor on the CTA and she asked if I had any markers on me… I gave her my Pilot and she wrote her name, “Phyllis”, on the back of the seat we were facing. Now that my friends, is love.

I only went to college for two years; one year at Columbia where I tried advertising art [hated it] and then I tried film and sucked at that too. Then I transferred to SAIC for a year where I took drawing and performance and really loved it. Next thing you know I’ve got a baby on the way, so I had to quit school and work full time. It was the best and worst thing for me at the time. The worst is because I enjoyed school but the best because it motivated me to step up my practice to compensate for the lack of a formal education. This is where I learned about a work ethic, and that is all you need, really.

I do a lot of cool things without a degree – it’s not the end all be all. If I went back to school I’d study something else besides art. An art degree is a “major” waste of money – twenty-five thousand a year for school, or 250 for round trip tickets to NYC… no contest. Take your art school money and buy some airplane tickets and go see the world. Read some books. Visit galleries on a regular basis. Prioritize time to make things. That’s an authentic education to most folks, and a good portion of the art world recognizes this. Avoid those people that think everything you do is good [unless it’s your wife, then it’s ok.] Make friends with people who will criticize your work. Most of the art world cares more about whether your work is good or bad, not what academic philosophy you had jammed down your throat when you were an impressionable kid.

Untitled, James Jankowiak. Acrylic on panel, 10” x 10” 2011. (Photograph courtesy of James Jankowiak)

Regarding your creative process, how did your signature style originate? You regularly incorporate circles and repetitive patterns in your work and I am curious about the evolution of that process too – was there a certain inspiration that it derived from?

It took about 16 years to get to where I’m at now. When I was about 23 years old I concluded I had nothing left to give to graffiti. I didn’t feel clever enough to contribute anything that would stand out and felt stifled. I made hundreds of horrible paintings in my 20s. Every once in awhile I made a gem and kept building on that experience.

Over the last five years I’ve been invested in drawing stripes with a paintbrush on a daily basis. I had been searching for a way to break my practice down into the simplest gesture. When you draw one line and you see it by itself it can appear to be the start of a miserable daunting task, or it can be that jumping off point to something that can turn into a visual adventure. There’s always that uneasy feeling of doubt but I’ve learned to stay faithful to my practice even if it doesn’t always pan out. I feel like I’ve been working on one gigantic painting when taking the entire body into consideration.

I told you I loved natural history, so if my art career were in the tank I’d probably be a paleontologist. The physical process parallels my studio process in reverse; while I add lines to the surface, they scratch away lines of the surface of matrix to expose something meaningful. My circle paintings are an extension from the rest of the work, its all the same process but borrowing an iconic shape as a trellis. Circles contain multiple layers of meaning, too many to list here. The circle is the first shape we learn to draw… to me, that’s what makes them so important and it’s what we use when our visual intellect is sparked as a baby – it’s the beginning of it all. And circles have no end. Whatever the case, I do feel I’ve created my own visual language – although it’s in a constant state of flux. I’ll continue to investigate it until it’s done.

Pink Microdot, James Jankowiak. Acrylic on wood, 6” x 6” 2012. (Photograph courtesy of James Jankowiak)

Having spent your life in this city, what is it that makes Chicago so special to you?

The neighborhoods in this town are what make it so special… it’s the DNA of the city. This is the city where the Labor movement took off and the atom was split within 5 miles from each other. The home of the Electric Blues, of Bill Veeck, Studs Terkel, Saul Alinsky, of House music. We have the White Sox World Series Monument on 35th street. And where else on earth would one of the shittiest teams of all time, the Cubs, be adored and beloved if it weren’t that the most patient and optimistic people on earth live here…? Only here. One of the reasons I love being a teaching artist is the opportunity to travel throughout the entire city, from Avondale to Roseland, the historic Pullman houses, the stockyards arch, the mansions in Bronzeville, the residential architecture in Pilsen. This city is so alive in so many different ways; I can go on forever. As a food lover, I love that we can get the best cuisine from just about any corner of the globe within an hour. And don’t forget we have a gigantic lake and a coastline with fantastic museums.

You have a show coming up this spring with Johalla Projects. Could you fill us in briefly about what this show will entail? What your plans are for the body of work you are planning to produce?

Nice try SIFC, you’ll have to wait for the opening.


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