As You Can See, 90% Thorns

Interview and Photography by Britt Goh

James Gayles is primarily a watercolor painter based out of the bay. He says he’s terrible in the morning, but the morning I met him he was great.

James suggested we meet where a large portion of his art was hanging. Not in his studio, but in NextSpace Berkeley, a quirky open floor office, located in the annex of Wells Fargo, built to foster creative ideas and house young startups. The sweat of innovation and the radiating warmth from Macbook pros seemed to heat the place.

The boardroom was in a converted vault, and the decorations looked like molecular yarn pieces bought off Etsy. Part of me felt charmed, part of me felt like I just walked into an episode of Portlandia, interesting all around.

What did you do today?

“Woke up had some Cherrios with plums cut up in it. Got ready to go. I’m a night owl…I’m terrible in the morning, it takes me a while to get started up.”

Tell me a little about your technical history?

“Well, when I was young, I taught myself. I have been painting all my life, as far back as I can remember, predating kindergarten. I was encouraged by my mother, I watched Saturday morning drawing/painting programs like Jon Gnagy.

My mother bought me a lot of paint by numbers sets, but my strongest training was this really thick bible. The book was illustrated by Renaissance masters like Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Raphael, those guys…In early school, while other kids would hang out, I would come home, close my door, and copy those drawings.

“I picked up anatomy, light and dark [from that bible].”

Are you exclusively interested in portraiture?

“My love is for the human element in it, I’m interested in what lies beneath, that’s why I like to concentrate on the eyes.”

Would you consider your art pop art?

“I wouldn’t call it pop art. A lot of pop art to me is devoid of feeling. It’s more about the popularity of the item being done. The technique isn’t as important as the figure or subject in pop art…like that Campbell’s soup can.”

Do you see the work you produce as political in any way?

“If I get a strong feeling about something, I might do an art piece. I have a piece called How to Make a Slave, it’s based on Willie Lynch; he’s from a writing by Frederick Douglass.”

“He was supposed to be an expert on slavery, how to make slaves and keep them slaves. Southern plantation owners hired him as a consultant. His proposal was…when slaves come off the ship, get the biggest, strongest male slave and kill him in front of everyone, women and children…then you take the next strongest male slave and you beat him within an inch of his life…in doing that you get them to witness that their males cannot protect them, they have to fend for themselves. They broke down the whole family system.”

“Even today, black women are so strong because they have to be. Often they take care of the kids, get jobs, and support everyone. Males frequently take off, get drunk, use drugs. I relate to it. It made me angry, so I did a piece.”

“In it, I had an old slave, central piece of the picture. Worn face, bloodied hands. All around it I had different icons dealing with slavery and civil rights: the Western societial concept of beauty, the African concept of beauty, the KKK, blackface, etc.”

“It’s rare for me to do a political piece like that.”


and as I scrolled down my word doc to the next question and adjusted the input sensitivity of my field recorder, James asked, Can I tell you a little bit about my background? 

For that brief moment, I wasn’t the one asking questions. I answered with an emphatic, yes.

“So, as you can see I’m a black male. I am 65. I was a kid in the 1950’s, before the civil rights act, before the black panthers, black power, black nationalism, black is beautiful, before all that. I attended an all white school. I was at a public school before, but I was always getting into trouble. All the people that I went to public school with ended up in jail or got murdered, so my parents took me out of there and put me into catholic all white, Italian catholic school."

“This was in the second grade.”

“My first day, a big fat Italian kid came up to me and said, “I know you think you’re tough because you’re black, but I’m the toughest kid in school.” And then he jumped on me and we got into a fight…that same kid, later on, became a professor at a college back east and he invited me to give a lecture to his class. It was a funny situation.”

“I grew up with an identity crisis and that’s reflected in some of my work. I have a work called, “Transplanted Man,” which is…I don’t know how to categorize it. I took a departure from my usual watercolor, and took prints from previous paintings of faces and cut them up and put them back together to combine one face. It’s collage and acrylic paint.”

Pause again

I wanted to react to his story, his history. There weren’t any prewritten questions that I had prepped for this moment, so I started telling a story of my own. “When I was growing up,” I said, “we would play this game…it was called Rose and Thorn, rose being something saturated, dense, compact with beauty, and a thorn being the worst of it...

What were your rose and thorn of catholic school?

“The rose…I was isolated, okay, so the rose was that I learned how to focus on my art work and depend on that. As far as the thorn, it was 90% thorns. You constantly feel like you’re inferior, people commented on your features, your hair, I really didn’t get reinforcement at home, like some African Americans did. I took solace in the fact that there was one thing I could do better, draw and paint.”

“When it was time to graduate elementary school, I had a choice to go to an arts high school or to go to Essex catholic school. I chose Essex catholic, went there four years, excelled in football, I made all state, state champions, etc. My football coach, Greg Rei, was my mentor, he bought my first painting.”

“He got me scholarship to Colombia University for football, but he also got me a scholarship to Pratt Institute. He encouraged me to go to art school. So, I left north New Jersey for good and became a New Yorker. Audrey Flack was one of my teachers. Robert Mapplethorpe was one of my classmates, Patti Smith [too]. It was a good environment.”

Your statement on your site is under construction, if you had to make a statement that would define you and your art at this exact moment, what would that be?

“My site is seven years old, I haven’t updated because I don’t know how. The statement would be…I like taking things that are obscure and bringing them out into the open, the public. I’m interested in music and history. Cultures, how things comes together, make what we have today, what elements were involved in it.”

Have you ever had a sublime epiphany?

“In terms of style…after [Pratt] I departed from fine arts a little bit. My friends and I got together and we tried to start a graphic design business. We were all artists and no salesmen, so that fell through quickly.”

“I started doing layout stuff. I got into music more. My painting fell to the side. I wasn’t creating that much. I had no direction. I did a lot of freelance. But, one day, I was playing around, and I did a self portrait…the face, the organic shapes inside the face, watercolor. I said “wow, that’s cool.”

“The style you see today started with that self-portrait.”

“I landed a job in television. An old girlfriend I used to go to Pratt with was working at WPIX in New York, a local news station, she was going to Europe and leaving her job, so she said her job was open. I interviewed for it, got it, worked for about a year and a half, and the art director for NBC called me and said she’d be noticing my work on TV.”

“I worked my way up to assistant graphic news director for NBC and we won an Emmy for news graphics, a lot of it was my style, which was kind of revolutionary for the time.”

It was strange for me to talk to James about Black history and liberation movements, Zap Mama, his own mother's Jazz record collection, how he would sit in his father's easychair and listen to Duke Ellington, how he rubbed elbows and attended critiques with "Rob" Mapplethorpe and Patti such a new space. 

NextSpace is an amazing praire for small business minds to roam, but something about the astroturf and the quiet murmur of social media pitches created a harsh contrast with the old days that I wanted to sink into.

But maybe that friction was good.

Maybe, like James, I should be more interested in how things come together, seeing the current formation and being present for the slow reverse engineering of it. Perhaps I shouldn't just sink into the old days, because in that lies a danger of fiction-mentality and marginalizing plight and suffering. Because history is not a story that remains stagnant and kept, collecting dust and moth holes. History is alive and influential and every day.