The painter discusses how her need for constant change fuels her growth – as both an artist and a person.
Never wishing to get too comfortable, February James likes to switch things up. And it’s something the artist does often. James spoke with Platform about why she doesn’t like doing things the easy way, how cleaning became a ritual and what makes having a song on repeat so important as she works.
What motivates you?
I’m motivated by everyday life – the fabric of the family, the things that shape our identity and then how we use that when we go out into the world; these things that we have to unlearn as we become adults, as we become parents, generational things that we don't want to carry with us. For me, it's also about oral history. I’m always interested in the stories that we pass down as well as the stories that we tell ourselves. I think that in doing that, there's this duality that happens because we're a certain way in our private spaces, and then we put on another face to go out into the world.
How do you begin to unpack those things in your work?
I don't know. I unpack them, but I’m also working through things myself, and there are times that I don't come to any resolution. I think that just helps frame the body of work and I stop, let it go and turn it over when it's no longer mine. Whatever seed is planted in the viewer with the imagery and title – maybe there's a shift in agency to the viewer at some point – it's almost like a relay race passing off the baton and the next person takes it. I don't have all the answers, but maybe when I give this story to someone else, they can bring it back to me with a different perspective that'll help me put things together a little bit more.
Is that a nerve-wracking process? Do you ever worry that people will misinterpret, or misuse what you put out there?
If I worry, I won't make the work, so I have to let it go at some point. There are times right before a show opens where there is that little fear of, “Oh, what if this is taken completely the wrong way?” But the end goal of the work is to create dialogue around the things that people aren't really saying, so if a misunderstanding happens, I am forced to reinterpret or see something from someone else’s perspective. If there's a dialogue happening, I’m happy.
How do you see your work’s role in facilitating that?
It doesn't happen unless somebody asks me to talk about a body of work. I do get emails from people who have collected the work and they want to know the story behind it. I try to bury the meaning in the title, but I know that once it’s out of my hands, it’s up to anyone’s interpretation. It’s just like watching a movie – people can watch the same movie and walk away with different perspectives. Over time, I've gotten better with letting go of not having to control everything in how the work is presented when it reaches a new mind. Also, working in watercolor and the materials I use helps me to surrender a lot, too, because I do need to contend with the work. I choose materials that I can't easily control and it forces me to submit and let what's happening happen.
You use a lot of materials like oil pastels and watercolor. Did you intentionally choose those materials because they can be hard to control or did that just sort of happen over time?
I've always used those materials, but I didn't know why I wanted to use those materials until later on. Every day is a new day where I'm learning why I’ve made decisions. In my life, I just don't like to do things that are easy. I don't like to be very comfortable. I like comforts, but I need to be learning, I need some challenge, I need to have these new things happening all the time. I've never mastered a medium, but even when I feel like I know a medium well, I'll switch to something else I don't know at all or something I have to learn because it causes me to wake up a different part of my brain, it causes me to think differently, it causes me to problem solve. When I go back to a medium later, things seem different.
How do you normally unwind from your art making?
Funny movies. Talking to friends. I have a nine-year-old and we go out biking and doing new things. And then I am forced to see the world through his eyes, things that I will walk past and find so much amazement in. I'm getting that from him.
Once things become more “normal” post-pandemic, what's something you're really looking forward to doing that you haven't been able to do during lockdown?
Hands down, live music. I really do miss the energy of that.
Do you like do you listen to music while you work?
I do listen while I work. It’s almost like I’m dating myself, the lights are low. It may start off with a podcast as I'm starting work. Then, once I get going, there’s normally music and I’ll listen to a song on repeat.
Do you do that because a song on repeat becomes like background noise?
It's two parts. It becomes background noise but also, I'm using that emotional space that song creates to stay within that emotional space I'm trying to tap into so I can translate it to the work.
What do you do when you're feeling stuck?
Switch to a new medium.
Do you switch to a new medium when you're about to embark on new work? Or do you do that when you're feeling stuck in general?
Definitely feeling stuck. When I’m about to embark on a new body of work, I clean everything like crazy, even the baseboards. I clean because I’m procrastinating and there's this kind of fear approaching and there's a whole influx of feelings around that I’m trying to sort out before I go into the work. Cleaning is this kind of ritualistic thing that helps me compartmentalize what’s happening in my head before I go into the studio.
How do you arrange your own spaces to cultivate the energy you like?
I like a lot of open space, in my home. I don't like a lot of stuff. A cluttered space is a cluttered mind to me. For my studio, there’s some order in the chaos, but the whole space, I need the volume low so that I have space for the ideas.
When do you feel most confident?
I feel confident with my child when he's happy. I feel confident when I’m done with a body of work and I’ve articulated what I needed to, when my house is clean and all the laundry’s folded up. There are little slivers of confidence. I think to do what I do, there has to be some level of confidence, but you’re also met with fear at different moments. I feel like if I’m a confident mom and I'm excelling and hitting everything with motherhood, then I’m not confident in my art. If I’m confident doing art, then I don’t feel like I’m exceeding at household things. It’s like a seesaw.
On the inverse, when do you feel most exposed?
Definitely when I’m showing a new body of work. Even when I try to let it go, there's a moment where it's this newborn little baby that I'm handing over and I'm hoping that you take care of it.
What's something used to care about that you've grown out of?
People pleasing. I'm not in that space to people please anymore, and that used to be something I did so easily.
What made that change for you?
It’s too much work! I better be pleasing myself. As we became older and understand ourselves and work through things, we understand the value of relationships and how we each add value. People pleasing is an empty thing that leaves my tank low, and I need my tank full for the things I do. I’d rather do the things that build me up and be around people and things that build me up.