Creative Identity: An Artist Interview with Art87JR

The first time I saw Art87JR’s artwork, it was at Art Car Bonanza inside Avant Garden District. He had his stencil work displayed proudly on the hood of Jason Kiefer’s ’91 Camry. The image of two skeletons, rid of gender and sex holding each other stood out in an apocalyptic and glamorous scene caught my attention. I bought a few prints. I rarely buy prints.

Months later, I met up with a humbled and down to earth Jason Rodriguez one evening at Zot’z. We talked about his past, present, and future as a New Orleanian artist. After we ordered our teas and I packed my cigarettes, we sat outside. Rodriguez recently shared a painting of Carrie Fisher. I asked about it.

My new series is called Creative Identity. I’m basically painting different outfits. No faces. I originally didn’t want to do skin tone but decided that it’d take away from it. So, I’m painting the bodies of different people and eliminating the face with abstract colors. Surprisingly enough, I’m getting more commission portraits after eliminating the face than I did ever painting the face.

The series features a twist of texture throughout the painting. How was this effect accomplished?

The first ones were acrylic and spray paint. Now, I use different mediums, salts, and stuff like that to get different effects. Like, if I drop alcohol on spray paint or acrylic, it’ll separate in certain areas and creates these sort of color bubbles. But, if I drop salt on it, it’ll suck up the color in those areas. They’re evolving too. I know eventually that they’ll become something different. I think that this is the series I was meant to paint if that makes any sense. [Laughs] They’re definitely going to turn into something different, I just don’t know what it is yet.

To master Pop is a skill many try but few accomplish. The latest series by Rodriguez features a figure bursting into an energetic explosion of color and shape. The body is usually a recognizable uniform or a cultural icon, satisfying any art collector as well as any fanboy or nerd. He had picked Carrie Fisher as tribute. He was a fan. No stranger to the world of nerd myself, I asked what some of his earliest inspirations were.

My dad gave me a sketch book when I was about six years old and insisted that I stopped watching cartoons. He wanted me to make my own. I started sketching up different cartoon characters. A lot Disney characters, a lot of Looney Tunes, and anime later. I was drawing Dragon Ball Z characters, Fist of the North Star, and stuff like that. Growing up, I wanted to be a cartoonist. I pretty much lived in the projects when I lived in New York. Watching all of those movies was my escape from a reality that was going on outside of my building. Gangs, drug dealers, all of kinds of crime, a corrupt neighborhood.

But what happened to his illustrating dream? When did Jason Rodriguez the cartoonist become Jason Rodriguez the painter?

As the years went on, I got into technology and architecture. I went to school for architecture. In the second semester, I took Art Appreciation as an elective. The first assignment was to go to the school’s museum, find a painting or a sculpture that we liked, and sketch it. We’re there sketching in our sketch books, the professor sits next to me, and asks what my major is. She couldn’t believe it. She insisted that I was a painter. I wondered how the hell she could tell that I was painter from a drawing. Later, I realized that the way you make marks can indicate if you’re more of a draftsman or leaning more towards working with a brush. It depends on how expressive you are when you’re sketching. Some people are very precise, erasing here and there to refine it. They’re more of a draftsman. Others go in there and pretty much paint with a pencil, making expressive marks.

So, the road to becoming a painter had been paved. But what transportation had led him to spotlights?

A little social media, a lot of footwork, going to different galleries, and talking to different people. Surprisingly, doing the events that nobody wants to do too; like the ten dollar events here and there, like pop-ups. You know, trying to be a little bit of everywhere.

There was a puzzle corner I had overlooked: Art87JR. Why?

I always pushed to make an online presence for myself. ArtJR87 is a name I came up with in high school and a MySpace page with that handle, Photobucket, sites like that. I was always trying to get my name out there when I was starting out and Jason Rodriguez… [Chuckles] There’s just so many Jason Rodríguezes out there that my Google searches would be all the way at the bottom. So, I figured I had to come up with an alias. I thought back and searched ‘ArtJR87’ and all of my artwork popped up, everything that I’ve ever done online had still been attached.

From social media, we floated off into the wave of DIY artists using merchandising to spread their crafts. Afterall, it was the print I purchased that kept me thinking of his stuff.

When I first starting into my art career, I was pushing my original work more. I didn’t make prints, I strictly made originals. Small pieces, large pieces, they were always hand painted originals. A lot of people kept asking me to do prints. But I was kind of opposed to it for some reason without any reason to. I wanted to sell all originals, I was going to be that guy. I had started messing around with stencil work and I figured that making a print of the stencil piece would be cheating the costumer in a way. I started making prints when I started doing more traditional work because the pieces take a lot longer to make. I like the fact that prints allow me to focus more on each individual piece. It’s more likely that my pieces will be striking or even stunning, more refined. Doing prints and t-shirts have opened so many other options. My girlfriend and I recently got into five different shops and we’re going onto setting up a sixth. We’re even looking into setting up shops out of state and branching out in a different direction.

JR’s artwork can be found at Second Line Market on Decatur and Zele, sometimes selling out as often as three times. Quick sales have been working for him but quantity never sells that much. There’s clearly quality behind his fingers as well, a sense of skill and magic. I asked if he ever gave advice to up and comings.

I’m always telling my friends which shops are looking for new artists. Sometimes you can get into the shop for free and get a 50/50 kinda deal for whatever sells like a gallery would. My advice is to get out there, walk around, check out some stores, see if your stuff fits with what’s going on in the store, and talk to the owner. Nine times out of ten the owner will be there and will want to talk right then. This city is family friendly in a sense that it’s a big small town, a lot of people know each other. If you make a good impression with one place, that’s going to spread and another place will hear about you. It’s all about getting your foot in the door with one place. It’s not about sales, it’s about personality.

His personality gives his content a sense of effortlessness.

Every painting is a new problem to solve. I’m critical of myself, big time.

I asked if he was from New Orleans and, if not, where he was from. He explained that he had been born in New York but quickly moved to Florida.

I moved from the Bronx to Miami because I have asthma and have to be in a tropical climate. I was basically raised in Miami, went to school, and got my AA at Miami Dade College. Then, I transferred to Memphis, and received my Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts Painting and Art History. I came down to New Orleans for a weekend and fell in love with the place. Since I’ve moved around so much, I’ve never really felt at home. But something happened when I first entered New Orleans like an instant welcoming. Maybe it’s because there’s so much diversity. It didn’t matter who I was, what I was wearing, what color I am, how my voice sounded, everything is so widespread here. Just in a weekend, I fell in love with this place.

But once he had moved down here, Rodriguez had to not only adapt his lifestyle but his art style too. The pressure of sales and humidity dampened and changed his process.

Primarily, I’ve always been an oil painter. My stencil work came about once I started doing art markets, festivals, and more events outside. I had to switch to acrylics, spray paints, stuff that’d work well in the humidity down here. I also had to adapt to the rate my art was selling. Between using my stuff for different shows and different galleries, it became hard to produce a lot of the same stuff multiple times and quickly.

We spoke of crime, comparing incidents in New Orleans to other places he’s seen. A calm and gentle man, it was hard to believe that JR was surrounded by hard times. I immediately became thankful for his gift, that childhood sketch book.

It’s weird because crime is really bad in Memphis too but, the crime’s really widespread. Here, there are certain areas where the crime is constantly happening. You know ‘don’t go to this area this time of night.’ Whereas, in Memphis, you could be going to grocery store and there could be a shootout in the parking lot anywhere. It’s a little different in that sense.

It became obvious that those themes still leak through his fingers and find their way on canvas like some sort of bond between disaster and the beauty within it. A truly talented man, I asked what his plans were.

I’m riding the wave and waiting to see what’ll happen with all of these new shops. We’ve been accepted to some festivals I’ve always applied to. The next big event is Ferret Festival in April. After that, I’m doing an art competition in South Carolina called ArtFields. I’ve got put on Bayou Boogaloo recently. I’ve applied to that four years in a row and got accepted this year so, I’m pretty stoked about that. I always say that I’m going to nest in New Orleans. The people motivate me here. I’m a big people watcher.

Follow Art87JR: FaceBook // Twitter // Instagram

Author/Writer: G. Manson