February James is the sort of name you’d give a bad ass girl band, who rivals Betty Davis, or a misunderstood leading lady, of the Nola Darling variety. She’s not quite the nasty gal, but she’s gotta have a penchant for wandering, and attracting women who are seemingly lost on their journeys of self-exploration. An ex-makeup artist, she has traded her skills of precisely covering up the flaws of women, while enhancing their features, for a chance to unearth truth through self-portraiture. Quasi-philosophical, mostly self-reflective, James explores mistakes, lays her fears and hopes on the table to be analyzed, and chats with Saint Heron on the contemporary cultural performance of curating lives online.
Saint Heron: Self-Portraiture is self-reflective; it is often depicted as a physical representation versus a mental one, why have you chosen to create the latter?
February James: Great question; to me, the physical is easy. It’s flesh. It’s weak. It’s without a mind. The physical can’t do a thing, which the mind doesn’t command it to do. That said, so is the mind, it’s weak, however both can be conditioned to be stronger BUT you can push the mind a lot further than you can push the body. I like a challenge. I love endurance. I’m all about growth and change; I need that. There is a certain shelf life, for the physical, it can be a bit one-dimensional. That’s why you never take a lover because of his or her beauty—beauty fades. There is always a constant battle, I believe, between the mind, the heart, the gut – these things control the body. The physical. There are no limits to what the mind can do. The mind is powerful and 97% of us don’t even use half of its true potential. Imagine that.
In a previous chapter of your life, you practiced as a professional makeup artist for fashion, print, entertainment, cinema and television. Whereas makeup artistry is often very precise, your artwork is loose. Has the familiarity of pigments and masking the flaws of individuals, while enhancing their notable features, shaped the way you navigate surfaces with oil pastels and mask the figures within your artwork?
You nailed it. My earlier work was very dark; I don’t even want to look at it. I was very rebellious in my art. I ran around saying, “I don’t like pretty,” LIES. I love me some pretty, I love decadent. I love opulence. I didn’t like what “Pretty” did to me and I didn’t know how to verbally express that at the time. I was afraid of what my truth would look like once I shared it with another. So I hid behind these dark pictures. Words hurt; words have all the power I give them. At the time, my relationship with words was immature, because I had relationships with people whose words were immature. Throwing words like daggers is easy, but I prefer a challenge. My earlier work involved a lot of realism, and it drove me crazy, perfection kept creeping in and it started to feel like work, and I don’t like to work, I like to create. I would sit down with a reference photo and try to draw it. It was very religious. I was nowhere in that process. After stumbling thru and becoming aware, I became more spiritual in my process. I begin to create. I worked from my intuition, and not my head. When I felt myself begin to ‘paint,’ I would stop immediately. I became patient with the time spent not creating. My most recent body of work, there is no myriad of things to collect before I start, no picking out colors ahead of time, no religion, no ritual. There is a pleasure in smudging the lips, distorting the nose, elongating the neck. I find solace in erasing my idea of perfection as it pertains to my art, and because of that I respect the discipline it takes to be an artist who works in realism.
The women in your oil pastel pieces are mirrors of the “things you’re running away from and all the things you’re hoping to become,” while lost, what unexpected journey did your artwork lead you to and what have you gained since being found [or hope to gain once found]?
Oh, I hope I’m never found, that’s the only way to endure the journey. To remain lost, to remain new, to embrace change rather than comforts. I’m running from being comfortable, complacent, sure of myself. I’m running from knowing too much, yet I aim to stay grounded in the truth. Like Forrest, I am RUN NING to love, to hope, to possibilities.
You are a very private person, curating exactly how much the public gets to see of you, just a glimpse of your hands if they’re lucky, but you share the fact that you’re a mother and have photographed your son. Why?
It’s not so much that I’m very private, I think people now a days are fooled by what’s been made public. The audience has become the author. If I get into how people design lives online, we get pulled in another direction. But I get it; apart from branding, I get it. But I’m ole school; I still own a record player. I’m open, very open, and at times too open. If you’re open too, and my work is self reflective, then you can see me out there naked for all to look at. I like mystery and wonder. I like surprises and I like to make surprises. Every now and then I’ll throw up a self-disguised selfie, if it lasts an entire day and you catch it, you’re a lucky one. I share my son because he’s been the best teacher I’ve ever had. Without words, he shows me how to have compassion, how to love, how to give, how to forgive, how to accept and acknowledge, how to slow down, how to be present and aware. What you learn you share, so I share him, he’s kind of cute too.
James Baldwin believed, “The role of the artist is the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” As an autodidactic artist, focusing on self-representation, self plays a huge role in your artistry. How do you remain cognitive and open to the world around you?
Awareness and Intuition. I work at this constantly. If I’m aware, and when I’m aware, I’m the best lover I can I ever have. At the end of the day, any interruption that I’ve had, if I didn’t walk away knowing myself a little better, then I’ve done myself a great disservice. I rewind moments of my day—constantly. Argh, I loathe clichés but here goes, if it’s been said the ones closet to us hurt us the most, what does that say about our relationship with ourselves? It starts with us. Some might interject here the role of a parent and child. My response would then be, conditioning. The child at some point becomes an adult. We’ve been conditioned to respect, honor and obey that relationship. With those three words you (have the ability to) shrink, each time you aim to defend who you are.
So the relationship becomes one of obedience and social niceties, rather than protecting yourself and walking away from what doesn’t serve you. Our intuitive voice is always there, but we don’t trust it. How can I go into a relationship with another if I’m afraid of my own voice? How can I walk out into the world confident and sure of myself, if I’m clothed in lies and disbeliefs about myself? If I’m honest with myself, then I can remain open to world around me. We ALL have both light and dark within us—there is no way around that—what we feed we grow. If I know that I can be a B-tch sometimes, you can’t take my power away by pointing that out to me. I’m human. Now, if I try to hide that fact, when the clock strikes 12 all goes to hell, and you point that out to me—I’m going to run from that. I make my own self a prisoner and I’ve got too many pairs of cute shoes to be locked up. I like to show up and show out sometimes.
If it is true that “we feed one another’s needs,” who are a few of your artistic influences, whose collected energy has seeped into your process or work? How has their connection fed your needs?
I have a relationship with words, but I’m impatient. I’d rather become pregnant with words, then give birth to them. That’s a process. There was a time where I was less successful at attracting the people who can raise the life, which I birthed with words. I was afraid of my words. I’m chronically misunderstood, looking to be understood. So simple, I’m complex. If I could make you understand, I’d be a poet. So I use color the way a linguist uses language. I paint faces because I’m small and needy, and looking to be understood. I need to connect; I need to release. So I guess, all of the vacant and absence I’ve attracted help speed up the process, it fed me and I found great artists along the way.
I love Gerhard Richter’s body of work; his ability to constantly transform his art and still keep (and grow) his audience, I’m into that. If I look up 20 years from now and all my life’s work resembles that same picture, over and over again, only changing in scale and dimension—I’m going to have a problem with that. Change is very important to me. I need to change. I need to grow as an individual. As an artist, I also need to see that I’ve grown. To me, that is the difference between approaching my work from a religious place verses a spiritual place. It’s a feeling, rather than a routine. It comes from a confident place (even though, when sharing creations I’m the most vulnerable) a place, maybe just on the boarder of fear, a place that says, “You may not get it,” “You may not understand it,” “I may lose you in the process,” but I have to do it anyway.
I get a euphoric feeling every time I see Retna’s work, I’m always trying to crack the code and I am extremely impressed by his brand. I admire Gregory Siff’s freedom and his ability to be loose. I love the air of light that surrounds Friends With You work. I’m fascinated by Banksy’s ability to remain invisible, because invisibility is a super power. I’m always equally impressed and intrigued by Toyin Odutola’s process. I adore the way Kenturah uses her relationship with words to design an image, then continues to develop the idea around the words. There is nothing that I wont love as it pertains to creation and creating. I love art: I love the process, I love the courage it takes to create and then share, I love to see one idea transform multiple times through new minds.