JIM HILLEGASS: EXPLORATORY LANDSCAPES
Jim Hillegass is a very intriguing painter who lives in Minneapolis. His work really has an experimental vibe http://www.jimhillegass.com/ and you can literally see how he plays with color. I love this interview because Jim is very down to earth and no nonsense about his work and what it means to appreciate art. This following quote sets the tone …
“…I think a viewer often has a subconscious need to find an image or meaning in a painting, but for me, it's just playing with color, texture, and structure …”
MICHAEL: Hello Jim, Your work is obviously abstract, but it's so disciplined and elegant. It has sort of a watercolorish, experimental vibe. It sort of looks like you're trying to see what happens when you put paint to canvas. How do you see your work?
JIM: Hi Michael, It is watercolorish, and it is experimental. I'm glad you see that. I started painting a few years ago, just for fun, and it's a great adventure just to find out what will happen when you put colors on the canvas. I started to teach myself by learning about primary colors, and what happens when you mix them. That sounds childlike, I know, but it turned out to be a great starting point. I also discovered that you can really create a mess if you mix three primaries without being careful.
JIM: Then, I experimented with adding white, and more white. Then black, and more black. This, and the accidents along the way, gave me a nice palette of colors I liked. Even now, after hundreds of experiments, I start with a couple of primary colors, mixing them a little or a lot, then adding white and shades of grey.
But to answer your question, I see my work as exploration, often exploring a variation on a real or imaginary landscape. There is great pleasure in seeing something emerge that you didn't intend to do, then following it to see where it goes. I think paintings have some kind of will of their own. I often start in one direction, but the paint takes me somewhere else. When this happens, I usually try to follow it.
MICHAEL: During your painting process, does a narrative ever develop for you or is it really all about exploration? Is there every a story involved in what you're painting? Do you ever have some deep, allegorical message that you're imparting?
JIM: Yes, sometimes I see something emerging and I usually follow it, but I try not to think much about it. Just follow the paint. Occasionally, I'll see something and overthink it, creating something symbolic. But this doesn't usually go well. I try not to care too much about the outcome and I push myself to make mistakes. Sometimes the accidents are the most interesting part of a painting. So there’s usually no “story,” though there is often a “place.”
MICHAEL: Aren't you in Minneapolis? What's the art scene like there? Are you part of it? Does the city inspire you? Minneapolis seems like a cool city, but I always equate it with huge snow and bitterly cold winters. Am I wrong?
JIM: Minneapolis can be cold and snowy, but it also has the best summers of anyplace I've lived. It's a great place to be. It has a very strong art community. My connection to the art community is mainly through the Veronique Wantz Gallery which represents my work.
MICHAEL: Your work is very informed and mature, but I also get a sense of lightness from it. It's not heavy or self-important. I think it's due to your use of color and space. I don't know. What do you think about this?
JIM: I've been thinking for a couple of days how to answer this. I love quietly beautiful natural settings. Lakes, fields, dark forests, and so on. I live on a marsh. I grew up on the plains. But that's only part of it. In my life, I seek serenity. It's not easily found, but I think I must also do that when I paint. I like the philosophy we call Zen. It is humble and simple and I find it immensely appealing.
A known painter once studied a grey and white painting I had done and concluded, “It's almost nothing.” He meant it positively. I gave him the painting.
Painting, for me, is about emotion and I think it is most powerful when the painter is clearly not trying to impress anyone. Both Mark Rothko and Gerhard Richter spent significant time experimenting with black. It isn't what I do, but I can understand why they might do that. Painting is a journey. It takes you somewhere. If it's honest, it can take others somewhere, too. Maybe not the same place, but it is a journey for both the painter and the viewer.
MICHAEL: I find it very interesting that your journey and my journey when viewing your work can be quite different. Again, doesn't this sort of mess with the old, art critic/art history model of assessing and quantifying art? Especially contemporary art? It's totally fascinating to me. Maybe it's just me.
JIM: People like to put things in categories, but painting isn't so intentional, at least for me. I start with a color or two and then just follow it where it wants to go. I usually don't have much intent. What I paint and what you see may be very different. I think a viewer often has a subconscious need to find an image or meaning in a painting, but for me it's just playing with color, texture, and structure. I didn't mean to paint the lake you may see.
MICHAEL: Wow. Very interesting.
JIM: Art critics and art historians are important for introducing people to art, but they usually don't paint. They're applying their own logic to something that may have none. It would probably be tough for them to earn a living if they didn't.
MICHAEL: Exactly. Aren't you also a tech business guy or something? I can't imagine there's a connection between that and your art? How did art happen for you?
JIM: I own JRiver, the publisher of JRiver Media Center software. It manages and plays audio, video, images, and television. I work with digital media, but I don't think there's a connection to my painting.
I've always drawn a little and done a few watercolors each year, but I began to do it seriously three years ago. I started by doing bigger watercolors on paper, playing with color and abstractions. I did acrylics on paper for a month or two, then began to paint in oil on canvas. I can't explain why it happened suddenly or why I became so focused on it, but I've painted several times each week since 2012. It's extremely pleasant and rewarding to do. Sometimes it's just simply thrilling.
I know I could benefit by studying painting with someone, but I don't want to alter the process. I don't want to be technical in my approach and I don't want to paint like someone thinks I should. I just want to paint.
MICHAEL: Jim, I feel the exact same way about writing. If I take any sort of writing classes at this point, I’m sure they would ruin my process.
JIM: I've been very lucky to have a great relationship with Veronique Wantz Gallery. She likes my work and sells it well. It's fun to see someone write a nice check for a painting.
MICHAEL: You seem to be saying what many artists tell me; You're painting because you're “following your bliss.” Yet so many people like to deconstruct art. Is there a point in deconstructing your work if you're “playing with color and abstractions”? Does it make sense to try to deconstruct joy and enjoyment?
JIM: I wouldn't say, “follow your bliss.” I'd say, “follow the paint.” It leads somewhere. There is certainly some left brain work involved. You need to understand what color is and how to make it. You need to have a point of view on composition. And probably a few more things I don't know yet, but the main thing is to paint, to put it down, look at it, enjoy it, and then move on. Push yourself to explore, take a chance and be willing to destroy the painting.
MICHAEL: When you say the painting is leading somewhere, does that mean someplace concrete that can be measured and defined? Again, we always want to nail things down and define them. Does this make sense when it comes to art? Should we just look, smile (or frown) and simply move on after seeing the work?
JIM: By “follow the paint,” I mean that the paint always encourages something in me. I can run from it or follow it. I don't know where it will lead and once I've quit painting, whether it will please you or make you want to run. Some of my mistakes have led to places that were very interesting to me.
MICHAEL: And so, what I'm (not) hearing you say is that because the creative process is so mysterious and intangible, the process of looking and perceiving art is as well. So what's the point in writing a big thesis about art when some guy who is looking at your work might think that one of your paintings reminds him of a childhood camping trip in Maine?
JIM: It’s pointless. I agree.
MICHAEL: What's your routine? Do you painting everyday? When? In the morning? Do you listen to music while you paint? What kind? What's the actual painting process like? Is it emotional? Intellectual? Meditative? What does painting DO for you?
JIM: I almost always paint in the late afternoon, after the things that have to be done are done. I always listen to music, usually jazz, sometimes opera. It's an important element of the atmosphere needed for painting. Maybe it puts the calculating side of the brain to rest.
I start with the idea of a color or sometimes two. I put it down with a stroke or two. That's the framework and I paint around it. Sometimes it's more complicated, but not usually. It can be emotional, but it's not always obvious. It's more of a state of mind. One that is a bit freer of earthly cares. What it does is very powerful. The fact that you can make something more beautiful than yourself is very humbling.
MICHAEL: You said earlier that you started painting just a few years ago. Did you have any connection at all to art while you were a kid? You must have. No? And how are you different now since you took up painting? What exactly has changed?
JIM: I had no involvement with art when I was a kid. It came later, maybe starting with an interest in architecture, then art history in college. I kept looking at some of the paintings, thinking, “I could do that.” But I never tried. I had a girl friend when I was young who got me to keep a notebook and draw. I did a lot of line drawings of plants and small buildings, nothing major. For many years, I've done two or three watercolors a year, but again, they were very simple, nothing ambitious. I'm the same person, but I have more of a need to put paint somewhere and move it around, just for the thrill of watching what happens.
MICHAEL: What role do you think art plays in the world today? So many artists are struggling and so many people don't really appreciate art. Plus, if they do appreciate art, it's usually someone like Picasso. What's the point?
JIM: What's it all mean? Who knows? It is what you make of it. If you love a piece, it's sublime. If you hate it, who cares? It's life. What is the role of a beautiful woman? She may be loving or not. She may care about you or not. You might care about her and then not.
Art is a moment of pleasure. That's all. If paying $80 million for a dead artist's work pleases you, and you didn't steal the money somewhere, then good for you. Enjoy the moment. It has no more meaning than the life of a butterfly.
The struggles of artists are no different from the struggles of billions of others. Maybe the struggles produce something fine or maybe they end in bitter disappointment. They are just moments in time like any other.
MICHAEL: Thanks Jim. Cool chat. Love your work!