PASTICHE, HYBRIDS, AMALGAMS: Interview with Artist James Baxter
(Interviewer: Austin Eichelberger, Editor for SPACES)
Native artist James Baxter has exhibited his traditional art in galleries across the U.S. and in Europe, though besides a showcase of him and his art in Native Digest Magazine last year, he has never had an exhibition of his cyber art. In the first part of the 21stcentury, James pulled away from gallery showings and expanded his work in the cyber realm to the point that he rarely works in the traditional mediums anymore. Since then, he has created over 600 works of cyber art, using digital means to create unique compositions.
Austin: Do you remember the first photograph you ever took?
Jim: Actually, I do not. I started taking images somewhere around 1965 at the age of 16. More than likely, it would have been a scene from the Great Smoky Mountains, as I spent a lot of time traveling that region. I only have a few of those images from that time period that have survived. I really did not become seriously interested in photography till the early 1990s.
Austin: When did you first start altering photos?
Jim: I first became interested in computer-generated art, or cyber art as I call it, around 1992 and this was not photographic-induced cyber art, but actually using computers and the associated programs available at the time to produce art that was based in similarity to my traditional art of that time period. The technology was still in its infancy and the items that I produced in that time were quite primitive and not worth showing, but it did plant the seeds for my eventual complete immersion into cyber art. I think it was shortly before the turn of the century when I first start using photography to produce cyber art. Unfortunately, I did not keep any of the earliest stuff, so it is hard for me to date this precisely.
Austin: Why were you drawn into this medium?
Jim: Three reasons, really: 1. Extreme fascination with computers; 2. The introduction of digital photography, which eliminated the cost factor of film and film development and allowed me to play without reservation with this instrument, and lastly; 3. the fact that my wife became seriously and chronically ill in 2000 and the time I need to work in the traditional manner of painting and sculpting evaporated as I became the total caretaker of both her needs and the home’s needs. Working traditionally required me to block off time in increments of a couple of hours minimum, which I no longer had available. It was then that I discovered that by moving to cyber art, that limitation was removed. I could work in increments as short as five minutes and hit the save button, and thus a new world was opened to me.
Austin: Is this the first medium you worked in as an artist?
Jim: No, I’ve been making art my whole life and come from a long line of artists. A childhood friend whom I had not seen since those days told me that it did not surprise him that I was an artist, as he remembers me composing art in the dirt when I was three. I actually do not have a recollection of that, but I found it to be interesting.
My evolution in professional art started in the early 1970s when I apprenticed with Michael and Blackie Collins to learn the art of custom cutlery manufacturing. From there, I evolved into traditional sculpture, where I worked in wood, metal, stone, bone and other materials. In the early 1980s, I made the move into painting as well and I worked in every medium except oil. Acrylics were one of my favorite mediums, as were watercolor markers. I never dabbled in oil due to the fumes and I was concerned with the effects of it on my young children, as at that time my painting studio was inside of my home. From there I moved into cyber art and later began using digital photography as a base for my cyber art.
Austin: Your work has such energy and playfulness. Where do you think that playfulness is rooted?
Jim: I believe that it emanates from my extreme curiosity in everything. I’ve been studying modern and ancient cultures all of my life, as well as contemporary and ancient philosophy and religion. A lot of my work evolves from those influences; in addition, I am fascinated by the roots of my heritage, which is Lenni-Lena’pe and Scot/Irish, so a lot of my stuff contains influences from my delving into those cultures. It also helps that my wife, Jane Timm Baxter, who is a Horror/Fantasy novelist as well as a fabulous visual artist herself, loves to be photographed and she also loves to do fantasy dress-up shoots. So a lot of the playfulness in my work is a result of all the fantastic ideas Jane comes up with for the various shoots that we do. It also helps that she is an incredible model, so the shoots always give me lot of material to work with.
Austin: As a budding artist, did you have any mentors?
Jim: I was very fortunate to have had access to a number of incredible mentors. First, it was both Michael and Blackie Collins. Each of these brothers heavily influenced my work, however, it was Michael, in particular, who made the greatest direct impact upon me. Michael not only was an incredible custom knife maker but was also an awesome engraver as well as painter. He is quite renowned today in all of these fields. He always opened the doors of his studio to me and always encouraged me to continue, to grow and evolve. Second, came Richard Hill who is a well- known Georgia artist and Sculptor. He also is equally known for his work on the computer. Richard is one of my best friends and his mind travels along similar paths as mine. We first met in the early 1970s when I was in the archeological art business and he was one of my ongoing customers. He has been teaching me and pushing my evolution in art ever since that day. His influence in my work cannot be measured, so great is it. Thirdly, Dr. Joseph Perrin, who founded the Georgia State University School of Art and Design back in the 1950s. I was introduced to Joe by my sister Colley, who got her Master’s degree in Fine Arts working with Joe. Once we met, Joe took me under his wing and I studied intensively with him for over five years. Not only was Joe an incredible administrator, he was also a famous painter as well. It was Joe who got me heavily into the gallery scene and pushed me to the point that I became a known artist. As with Richard, Joseph’s influence upon me was quite profound.
Austin: Did anyone spur on your artistic growth in other ways?
Jim: Quite a number of the people from my tribe push me to continue my artistic development. William Sauts Bock, in particular, does this. He has a worldwide following of his own work and is also well known for his work in book illustrating. Though my tribe is located in Pennsylvania and I in Georgia, we do have ongoing communication and periodic visits together. I have done quite a number of works that are portraits of various Len’ape Sakimas as well as a number of pieces that are spawned from Lena’pe culture and religion.
Austin: When you sit down to begin altering a photograph, do you usually have a plan or outline for what effects to use?
Jim: Most of the time I do not. I may have a specific image that I want to play with but that is generally the limit of my planning. There are two things that I believe help me achieve the results I am looking for: One of those is my thought that all new ideas and creations are really a gift to us from the ‘Great Unknown’ out there, or as most folks would say: ‘God.’ My job as an artist is to prepare my skills to the point of being capable of receiving and executing the gift and also to prepare my mind so that I am able to jump into the creative ‘zone’ of my talent. The second thing is that I am willing to play and have fun with what I am working on. It is this playing around that is the catalyst that allows me to jump into that zone where the ideas from the great unknown can flow into me.
Austin: What programs do you use to alter photos?
Jim: Photoshop CS 5.1 is the base program that I work with. I have quite a number of add-on filters from various companies that I use in conjunction with Photoshop. I also have one or two stand-alone programs which give me access to changing images into traditional painterly qualities that I find to be useful from time to time.
Austin: How did you become familiar with this/these practices?
Jim: Photoshop is not particularly a user-friendly program, so it took me many years to learn how to fully use the material properly. It was my middle son, Joshua, who is a graphic designer as well as an excellent visual artist, that taught me how to use the program. He works with Photoshop like Beethoven worked with music, so when I made the move to cyber art, he was the one who came over countless numbers of times to instruct me in the program. To this day, I still call him for advice all the time as there is always something I don’t know about cropping up.
Austin: Is there anything you wish you had known before taking this medium on?
Jim: Oh, yes! First that it was going to involve an ongoing and ever more expensive array of programs and computer equipment, not even mentioning the photographic end of the deal. I cannot begin to tell you how much money I have tied up in the products I use to make this type of art. Secondly, that I would just about need my own computer and IT expert on staff. Thankfully, I do have that very person in the form of Isaac Lu, owner of Discount Computer in Lilburn, Georgia. Isaac has been taking care of and building all of my computer systems since we first met in 2001. As a matter of fact, he has my production system right now as it began to fritz out last Thursday. Anyone who wants to work with computers needs to know that they are machines that are looking to go bad at any moment in time and there is nothing more frustrating that trying to fix an errant machine.
Austin: What is the most challenging part about combining traditional photographs with digital alterations?
Jim: For me it is probably the composition of the painting I am working on. A lot of the time, I am taking many different images and combining various aspects of each image into a final composition of one piece. What helps me the most is that I do not consider myself a photographer, even though I use the photographic medium as the building block of my work. It helps me that I think as a traditional artist in formulating my compositions and I only think of the photographic imagery as a medium from which I begin my journey much in the same way as I consider acrylic paint as I apply it to canvas.
Austin: Who and what inspire you?
Jim: My greatest on-going inspiration without a doubt would be my wife, Jane. This woman has an enormously creative mind and she constantly “wow’s” me with what issues forth from her brain. She is one of the most versatile and creative artists I have ever met in my lifetime. The only comparison I have with her is my friend, Richard Hill, who also flows in the same kind of creative river that Jane swims in. Without her in my life, I have no doubt that my art would suffer immensely. The “what” that inspires me changes on a daily basis as to what my mind is exposed to in the moment.
Austin: What’s your favorite part of working with both traditional photography and photo-altering technology?
Jim: The part I like best is that the latter technology gives me the ability to travel far away from traditional photography. As I mentioned earlier, I do not consider myself to be a photographer.
Austin: How has your work changed since you first began producing art?
Jim: As an artist, being able to bring into being the idea that is placed into your mind has always been a very difficult thing. When I finish a work of art, I would have to say that it pales in comparison to what I have seen in my mind. I believe that over the decades, I have evolved to the place where what I see in my mind is a little closer to what I see in my head. There is so much to learn here and there is no way for one to get there in one lifetime. What is important is that one continues the willingness to learn and grow all the way ’til the end.
Austin: What do you think are the key aspects of quality composition?
Jim: For me, placement of form and color are integral to whether a piece will work or not. For myself, I want the work to function as a whole unit without one area of the work dominating the scene. Have you ever been to an exhibition and seen a work where there is one area that grabs you instantly to the point of not allowing you to enjoy the work as a whole? That work was executed in piecemeal and more than likely the artist was not able to see what the problem was concerning the composition of the painting. I was in the same boat until I met Joe Perrin and he taught me how to recognize this problem and how to deal with it. For that I am most fortunate!
Austin: Do you try to capture these aspects when taking the photo or later on in your process?
Jim: Joseph taught me so well on this aspect of composition that it is integral throughout the whole process of evolution. It is a part of my subconscious mind now thus is always prevalent throughout the whole process. I approach each component of what I am working on as though it will be the final part of the process and often with me, it become just that. I can’t tell you how many times I have created a work of art that never made it to the idea I originally had in mind so having the elements of composition in mind at all times is important.
Austin: How do you know that a piece is done?
Jim: I am not sure that it is ever truly done or if there just comes a time when you just decide to move on. Every once in a while, as my ability grows and as the equipment evolves, I will go back and play around with things I have done in the past. That is true with the digital stuff, but also with my traditional pieces, where I bring the image of a finished traditional piece into the computer and produce a whole new creation from the ending point of an old piece. Sometimes when my creative juices take a dive into the tank, I will rev them back up by playing with something I have already done.
Austin: Is there anything in particular you look for in pieces you display for public consumption?
Jim: Other than subject matter, no. My work runs the whole gamut from light and cheerful, to inspiring, to extremely dark works of art. With the very dark pieces, there are not a lot of places that one can exhibit those without repelling a lot of people so one has to be careful to know the audience and the gallery people involved. I have a whole series of storyboarding images that I did for Jane in the ongoing production of an independent horror film she is working on titled “DollBreaker.” My friend Richard Hill, who has many contacts with photographic magazines, thought this series were some of the most powerful images that he had ever seen so he asked if he could present them to his contacts for publication. Of course, I said yes. Later on he called me and said his friends thought that they were fabulous but would be too offensive for their audience. The same thing happened to me when I was asked to show a piece in the county courthouse where I lived in the early ‘90s, the piece concerned people who fell through the cracks of society: homeless folks, etc.. I was told to remove the painting because it disturbed too many people. So the whole point is to know your intended audience and be flexible enough to serve their needs as well as you own. I know a number of artists do not have a venue to show because of being inflexible in this particular area.
Austin: I see that your subjects are often times dressed in fantasy or period costumes. What about those styles attract you?
Jim: You can thank my sweetie for all of those shoots, it is she who has that fascination and I simply take advantage of her creativeness, and, of course, she mine. She has been like that our whole relationship. As a matter of fact when we first met in 1994, I was going to an NDN powwow in Lawrenceville, Georgia to see if I had any relations there. I came upon this young lady all decked out in pagan attire handing out pagan literature. As I passed by this young witch, something prodded me to turn, look at her, and ask the question: “Pagan?” And that was the very beginning of our relationship. Costumes have always been a part of Jane!
Austin: Who/what are your favorite fantasy/mythological/sci-fi figures?
Jim: Actually, I like them all; however, what is reflected in my art concerning any of this comes from the predilection of Jane at that particularly moment in time and space. I never know what it will be or when it will happen. I’ve come home from a long day at work and there is Jane all decked out in some costume that she has created. “Time for a photoshoot,” says she, and off we go. Most of the time the costuming is not the problem, but the proper location for the shoot is.
Austin: Going off of that, who do you think would win in a swimsuit competition: Galadriel from “Lord of the Rings” or Lady Stark from “Games of Thrones”?
Jim: It would definitely be Galadriel!
James Baxter was born in Durham, North Carolina in August of 1949, but lived as a youth in rural southwestern Georgia, and relocated to Atlanta, Georgia as a young man in the ‘60’s. He attended the University of Georgia with studies in Anthropology. He is a third generation artist from an extensive family, both personal and tribal, of artists, photographers, and sculptors, all of whom had profound influence. The spirit of his art is influenced in manifold ways by the close ties he maintains with his Lenni-Lena’pe and Scots/Irish heritage. That spirit is also accentuated by a lifelong study of modern and ancient civilizations, their religions and philosophies, as well as their arts and crafts.