The Role Of The Artist Right Now

James sullivan artist portrait


Art and commercial interests intersect in our conversation with James Sullivan, a Southern California based visual artist. His vibrant style, described as “contemporary modern art remixed with street imagery,” has been exhibited in galleries across the country, as well as highly visible public works projects. We took a moment to talk about the responsibility modern artists face in today’s society, and how to pull off a successful brand / artist collaboration, among other topics of interest. Here is the conversation:

DZ: James, what is the role of the artist right now?

JS: Art is playing a bigger role in society than it ever has. It is a primary connection to entertainment, enjoyment and intrigue. Alvin Apetz explained that during the Great Depression, “entertainment was one of the ways to leave behind worries about crops, weather and money.” In the same way, art plays a critical role in being able to get lost in interpretation, momentarily setting aside the weight of the current reality.

the american dream
The American Dream

DZ: Where does creative inspiration come from during uncertain times?

JS: Just like the great athletes, musicians and writers of our time, creating is something that you get better at, the more you do it. You have to trust the process and celebrate past successes to stay consistent and create. Often, this means ignoring the capricious range of emotions in our daily life and finding inspiration in other ways.

For example, I’m always seeking unexpected beauty. In my travels through Africa, Asia, Europe and South America and the US, I’ve gained appreciation for different cultures and grown in my aesthetic understanding. The experience of traveling worldwide, just like my time living in East LA, challenged and enriched my awareness to see art everywhere.

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DZ: Should art be a reaction to the world around or an escape from it?

JS: I believe it can be either. As an example, art has always been tied to politics: as commentary, critique, or in solidarity. In the past, I’ve taken an overt political stance in my art, as others have. But I’ve become more centrist in my work, and have tried to make my art an escape, instead of a direct reaction to the world around.

I’ve noticed that art-as-reaction can be a forced attempt to bring the viewer to a preordained conclusion. Instead of intrigue, you have the artist provoking a desired reaction, and it can get heavy handed. What’s more interesting to me is intrigue and subjectivity. Art that comes from a truthful place that is open to interpretation. Everything I work on now I feel is an escape from the from the world at hand, not a reflexive commentary on it.

Cryptic Gaiety art canvas
Cryptic Gaiety

DZ: Big brands are teaming up with artists like you to tell their stories in new and visually engaging ways. Thoughts?

JS: We’re in an amazing time, with artists gaining more traction and getting louder voices than ever before. I think the key to this type of partnership is in the alignment of values, so that final product is authentic and translatable. When done right, this can be very powerful and positive for all involved.

DZ: You’re involved in several public arts programs and initiatives. Why is it important that art be available and accessible to the public?

JS: Having work showcased in public settings promotes introspection. It encourages the pursuit of beauty: writing, reading, going to museums. Traveling. Rehabilitating neighborhoods that need restoration. Creating harmony within the community, even to some small degree.

As an example, I’ve been given an opportunity to work with a long-time friend and developer on a downtown mural, extending 75 feet. If all goes as planned, it’s going to capture and represent “A Day In Downtown San Diego.” The project is expected to be completed the first quarter of 2021, and I want to make the piece relatable. Get people to stop what they are doing and take notice of their environment. Create a meaningful experience out of everyday life.

Night shift art canvas
Night Shift

DZ: You’ve also done permanent works in unusual places, such as the iconic Cardiff Seaside Market. Do you enjoy when art is integrated into unexpected environments?

JS: Seeing my permanent art in public places, hanging in clients’ homes or being worn via my clothing line is almost as satisfying as creating the piece itself. It brings great joy to me to have the public enjoying and talking about my art.

DZ: There is a nostalgic quality to your work, yet it also feels fresh, with a modern aesthetic. How does an artist strike this balance?

JS: Nostalgia is a key emotion in gaining awareness because it’s universal. Everyone comes from different places. But when you represent eras through colors or emotions, the work becomes more personal and less esoteric.

Despotic Propensity canvas
Despotic Propensity

DZ: What else can companies & communities do to support the arts during these times?

JS: With so much of arts funding being taken away from programs in schools and elsewhere, there is a great need to support after-school programs centered around the arts. These programs don’t have to exist in a vacuum – they have real value. In a best case scenario, kids will use their newfound skill sets for beautification projects, concerts, and plays. They will bring art into the community while also building discipline and confidence int themselves.

More than anything, kids need a creative outlet, and arts programs need benefactors to step up and make it happen. Corporate entity or otherwise, anyone that comes forward with pure intentions and helps kids express themselves through art, you have my full support and appreciation.

Check out more of James’ work at his official website.

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