A conversation with artist Justin L'Amie
"I was fortunate to sit down with artist Justin L'Amie at his studio in Southeast Portland following the opening of his fourth solo show "Midnight Florist" at PDX Contemporary Art. We discussed his background in art, choices in mediums, materials as well as his creative practice and what inspires him." —Ashley Gifford
Midnight Florist is on view at PDX Contemporary Art from January 31 through February 24th, 2018. PDX's hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 11 AM—6 PM.
Ashley Gifford: What is your background in art and how did art making first find its way into your life?
Justin L'Amie: I’ve always been surrounded by art on one level or another. My grandma is a self-taught artist—she did a lot of folk art inspired things, like working for the Scandinavian Festival in Astoria, Oregon where I grew up. She used to make all my family's Christmas ornaments and would sell them at the festival. She was a big inspiration for me growing up but I didn’t really realize that until later in life, after I started painting, which was brought on by my friend Jake.
My friend Jake Lewis, he lives in the Bay Area now, and has been a good friend of mine since the first grade. In high school, he started painting with watercolors. We would be hanging out with a group of friends and he would just be painting randomly and I took notice and started to do it myself. He gave me my first set of watercolors and a couple pieces of paper and I just started painting.
I never took art seriously like that—it was always a sort of nervous habit of mine, I always kept a sketchbook, it was just an exercise or something to do with my time.
I didn’t know or realize there was a path in the arts and that people did that seriously. It was him that definitely really made it click for me, and I followed him to art school.
AG: Would you say that first set of watercolors Jake gave you is what lead you to primarily work in watercolors in your artistic practice?
JL: Not exactly. I definitely started with watercolors and it was all abstract—I didn’t know what I was doing with it, it was an exercise at that point, it was fun. I kept doing it until I got kind of bored painting with watercolors. I kept painting and didn't have any idea of what I was doing when I sat down, I would just start painting. I started to feel frustrated with that so I moved on to working in acrylic and oil paints. Once again, my friend Jake had moved on to doing that as well and he had a studio in his house—his mom was a bit more supportive than my family. We could make a mess, he had tarps down and dedicated space to create work. I started going to his parent's house out in the county in Helvetia, outside of Hillsboro, Oregon. I would spend the weekend out there usually and I would use his paints, sometimes we would collaborate, sometimes not. We would do these really messy abstract assemblages and things like that.
At some point in art school, I made a transition to painting more realistic things and when I graduated I no longer had a studio or a place to make a make a mess because I was in an apartment or a bedroom I was renting out. I had to find a way to keep making art, so it seemed the most reasonable to start painting with watercolors again. You’re dealing with pieces of paper, rather than sculptures and stacks of canvases, or volatile oil paints, it’s cleaner and more efficient.
AG: You need less space essentially…
JL: Yeah, I could paint with watercolors in my bedroom and put it away at the end of the night. They don’t take a month to dry...I was working with the means that I had, continuing to make work and not giving up my practice. So many people I know, once they graduated, since they no longer had a deadline or a space to work, they stopped making art. It's hard sometimes for people to keep going if they don’t have a deadline, that seems to be the most common reason some people stop making work, because someone isn’t telling them they need to do so anymore.
AG: After leaving school it can be difficult to incorporate a creative practice into one's everyday life, some artists don’t find a way to continue it without the pressures and deadlines of school...
JL: Exactly. The atmosphere and demands of school kind of creates a certain vibe where you make work and it helps you make work. But once that all fades away it’s all up to you. I’m not going to lie—I’m not always the most productive when I don’t have a show coming up.
It's important to continue painting, even when I have nothing going on, it’s best to keep it going. Keep it going, keep it going, keep it going. Watercolors allow me to do that on a certain level.
AG: It sounds like you found a medium that you were able to use to continue your artistic with, not just that you were particularly interested in watercolors.
JL: Yeah I mean watercolors aren't necessarily the only medium for me. I would like to expand into every medium. In art school, I majored in printmaking. But I haven’t had access to a print press since graduating. Partly because it can sometimes be costly to get involved with a press. I didn’t want my situation to dictate whether or not I was going to make art so I had to find a way that my situation would work for me and had to find a medium to make work in, and watercolors allowed me to do that.
AG: In the Midnight Florist at PDX Contemporary Art I noticed there's a small ceramic piece, so you're currently experimenting with different mediums...
JL: Yes. I went to Astoria Community College for art, and once I decided to study art instead of biology I took a ceramics class. That’s when I met a very inspiring ceramics teacher. So I kind of have a background in ceramics, however I never really had a chance to keep going with it. The school I went to, Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, didn’t have a ceramics program. But now it’s all started to come back. I’ve been collaborating with Jeffry Mitchell out of Seattle a little bit over the past couple of years and he’s been bringing that idea back in my head. So I’m excited about using ceramics more moving forward.
AG: So it’s natural...
JL: Yeah...I’ve been incorporating ceramics very sneakily into my work, it’s obviously there. Different vessels of sorts. I’m painting ceramics rather than making ceramics. But it’s still very fun to use ceramics in my work.
AG: I was going to ask about your interest in vessels...you’ve always incorporated vessels to some extent in your work. But in Midnight Florist, they seem even more in play. They take up a lot more space, there’s a lot of detail and juxtaposition between the flowers and vessels. Are some of the vessels inspired by real vessels or are they all completely made up? Are these ceramic pieces that you would like to create?
JL: I don’t know if I would ever go back and look at my work and make a vessel in real life exactly as I've painted it. It’s more of an aesthetic I enjoy. I enjoy ceramics, I love them. I feel like painting them is incorporating that love without making them directly. Referencing different things that are inspiring me in my paintings is a way that I’ve worked for a while. I enjoy tackling subjects, like flowers and vases, something that can feel a little trite, or old fashion or be boring to some people is fun for me.
AG: Flowers and vases are very common subjects in still life paintings…
JL: It's been in art history for a very long time, and I don’t feel like people think it’s a contemporary subject matter necessarily. It seems to be more associated with old paintings and things that have gone by. I do see it creeping in contemporary art more recently, a lot more flower still life's.
I feel like when you tell someone that you’re painting flower still life's sometimes you can see a vacant and non-expressive reaction. And they’re like “oh ok” but then I feel like there’s always things like that, in any subject. I feel like there are endless ways to tackle a subject and I don't feel like that subject should be dead or bygone.
I like the idea of tackling something that sounds boring when you hear it and then when you see it somebody can have their mind changed a little bit.
AG: Could you discuss your choice to include shadows in the paintings—what was the aesthetic choice to including them? Are these imaginary creations?
JL: A little bit of depth and a little bit of context. These are supposed to be sitting somewhere, supposedly, maybe. And I play with this slightly surreal aspect that the shadows don’t necessarily match up to the flowers and the flowers aren't real. It’s a contrived situation that's very fake but references real things.
AG: Speaking of that—the flowers you paint have components of real flowers, but there’s something a little off about them that I think makes the viewer question their authenticity.
JL: They are all vaguely referential to real things. I don’t look at an image of flowers and paint them or paint from an arrangement I’ve made, they are all completely made up and mostly improvised. Maybe I’ll have an idea of a color I want to use or a certain theme. Maybe it’s a flower I’ve come across. But I always leave it completely open to what develops when I’m there.
I feel like it gives the painting a sense of liveliness and playfulness.
The few times that I’ve drawn everything out and planned it and painted it, they feel sort of static and disjointed. I feel that allowing them to develop and play off of everything in real time allows a lyrical sense and a sort of more immediate feeling of experiencing something rather than looking at something.
AG: Would you say that the improvised nature of your work crosses over to the materials you’ve used? I know you’ve used wood ink, minerals and unusual materials in your paintings. In Midnight Florist, there's a few pieces that have a hematite dust in them that creates a subtle shimmer within the paint.
JL: It’s all different watercolors, but they're like ground minerals and different things, garnet, hematite, lapis lazuli, a lot of different minerals, some are very earthy. I have something that looks like ground up mica, it shimmers a little bit. I tend to use very textured cold press watercolor paper that's sometimes handmade. So that all leads to a sort of textural and very high-intensity pigment luster really. It’s all about good quality materials. It's hard to pull off something like that with using student quality materials. I invest a lot of money into my practice because I’m looking for a certain kind of quality.
AG: Would you say the investment pays off?
JL: Yes, I would say it pays off, one hundred percent.
Materials are important to me and always have been. That doesn’t mean they have to be expensive materials, it depends on what my intentions are and what I'm going for.
For the most part, I would say the materials are just as important for what I'm going for. I have to know what I want to do and vaguely what I want the outcome to be.
AG: I know we've touched on this a bit earlier, but could you describe a moment, experience or situation that profoundly changed or influenced your work?
JL: Going to Astoria Community College and meeting my friend Bill Ittmann, who’s an art historian, he completely changed my art and my experience with art and what I thought was possible. We used to go on weekly trips from Astoria, Oregon to Portland or Seattle and see museums, and galleries. We’d experience art and really breathed art for a whole year and a half. Once or twice or maybe three times a week go and see work at shows or private collections. If there was an opportunity to go see art we would go and do it.
He really exposed me to painters and movements that I thought were boring, especially to a 17-year-old kid, and made them really come to life by explaining things in a historical context and showing great examples of what they did. That can really open up artists work. Like for instance, you thought an artist that only painted cityscapes didn't always. And then you see what painters influenced them how they changed art—it definitely opened things up for me and gave me a level of respect for art and painting, sculpture and ceramics and other things that before, I wouldn't have ever considered even worth my time.
AG: Would you consider him a sort of mentor?
JL: Yes absolutely. To this day I would. We always talk about art together when I talk on the phone with him. His brother, John Ittmann, who's a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has been very helpful to me over the years. It’s been surprising to know Bill and his partner Andy Kerr, who are two people that have more respect for and understand art more than anyone I’ve ever met. Without people like them, I’m not sure the art world would continue to thrive the way that it does.
It takes people that appreciate art, even more to some extent than the artists that create it, to have art to continue to go on. I’ve never met anybody like them, but because of them, I’m hopeful that there are more people like them.
AG: What advice would you provide to people interested in pursuing a career in the arts?
JL: I would say, you got to make sure that this is something you really want because going to it with only half of your heart isn't going to do much for you. If you have the idea that you like art and want to be an artist, that’s all well and good, but after awhile you’re going to realize it’s a lot of hard work. Both in your free time, in your relationships and in your day to day. It’s a tough road to go through. You don't get to come home from work and it’s done—at least for me, I have a job, so when I’m done with work I head to the studio after. It’s taxing on my relationships, my energy. You really got to want it, and you have to go for it, you really can’t let anything stand in your way. And if you let something stand in your way you have to question whether that is something you need at that moment.
AG: With that being said, what then keeps you motivated and engaged in your practice and how do you maintain it? I’m sure there’s sometimes you’d rather go do something then going to your studio—so what drives you to get to make getting to your studio a priority?
JL: That’s difficult questions to answer and the answer is probably multifaceted. I guess I grew up in a pretty working-class family, so there’s a strong work ethic that's there.
I don’t shy away from something that seems undoable. I kind of double down on that.
That's just the way that I was taught and grew up. I have a real fear of failure. That's a great motivator. I spent a lot of money going to art school, I had very little help from my family, so I still have bills that I’m paying off. A lot of it is, I can’t let myself down. I set myself on this path and I don’t want to ever feel like I let myself down. Or let anyone else down around me. And now I have a lot of people that are very supportive of me, I feel this is a good thing, caught up in a world that's going on for awhile.
I set myself on a path, and I'm going to make sure that I do it. I’m not going to let anything stop me.
AG: Would you say being represented at PDX Contemporary Art, as well as now having your own studio are motivating factors outside of your own will?
JL: Yes, one hundred percent yes. If I’m working 7 days a week in the studio that usually means I have a show coming up. Instead I'll usually work 4-5 days a week.
The pressure of wanting to do well for Jane Beebe, Caitlin Moore, and the rest of the staff at PDX Contemporary Art is another great motivating factor because they work hard for me—I’m going to work hard for them. Being at such a highly respected gallery like that fills me with a sort of accomplishment to do well on the next project. It's definitely another huge inspiration. Being a part of a great gallery and having a cool studio to come to are great motivating factors.
AG: Speaking of your studio, could you explain how you got your studio space?
JL: I graduated in 2007, and I didn't have a studio until 2016. I went 9 years working without a studio...and I complained about that a few times to Jane Beebe. Then one day she got an email from Keenan Jay, who was starting this program called Neighbors inside Yale Union. He was asking for recommendations of artists that needed a studio and would use it. So I got in this space, and that was really inspiring.
I no longer had to worry about cleaning up before going to bed, waiting for work to dry...I can work on multiple projects at once. So it’s been extremely useful for my sense of comfort in my own living space, it’s nice not to have a studio and living space two in the same. I like to pretend that I’m a clean person, so it gets a little overwhelming sometimes and it’s nice to have the separation. That being said—there was a time in my life that I used to wake up in the middle of the night obsessively thinking about my paintings, I would look at them and think about them. And now I can’t do that. It’s a bit of a challenge for me sometimes because in the middle of the night sometimes I get my best ideas.
AG: Do you know ever sketch those ideas that come to you in the middle of the night?
JL: Yes, but sometimes it’s less about making work and more about reviewing it. There’s just something that can happen in the middle of the night. It’s very isolated and quiet and focused, so sometimes that's helpful.
AG: How does sharing a space with other artists influence you?
JL: There's a community here. Although, we all carry different hours, so when I’m here there’s not always other people here, maybe one person. What's nice is to be apart of a community where everyone is working within the same world that you are, apart from the same community that you are. It’s nice to be able to bounce ideas or frustrations or talk about art with people here. Art is a very niche subject, so not a lot of people have a lot of knowledge about it, so it’s nice to be surrounded by other artists, that have some idea of what you’re going through because most people don’t understand the life of an artist. It can be hard to explain and convey that to people not connected to it.
AG: I've noticed that moths often appear in your work to different extents. Could you discuss why you revisit illustrating this particular insect in your paintings? Is there any significance?
JL: Yeah I mean there’s a couple of reasons for that too. I used to be kind of a night owl. I would stay up very late and mostly work in the middle of the night & they were usually around then. Creatures of the night inspire me on some level because we're fellow travelers.
Then there’s also the idea that I’ve always played with in my art, which is repetition without repeating yourself.
I started painting them as little designs and then I started painting the backs of moths, which then became little paintings themselves. The form itself repeats over and over, but on the backs of these moths was another small painting. So it became a fun way to explore these different kinds of themes. Have it be still representational. And when it’s a form that repeated like that people can see other things. Once somebody told me that they looked like a row of little dresses, so it crosses over to fashion design. I love nature, it’s always been a huge part of my work. But it’s nice to see where it goes in other people’s minds.
AG: Do you have a favorite artist(s), in general, and/or right now? Or artists that have influenced you?
JL: I have a big interest in art history in general so the list could be really long. Every year I find someone I like a lot. Some of my favorites are...well Morris Graves is going to be up there high on the list. He's a Northwest artist, so he gives me a sense of place and to continue on with a tradition of sorts, which is useful to be excited about possibilities. James Ensor, Odilon Redon, James Castle, and Charles Burchfield to name a few.
AG: Any projects that you’re currently working on upcoming projects outside your current solo show Midnight Florist?
JL: I’m working on two different things right now; work for a solo show at the Morris Graves Museum, which I'm really excited about. The show theme is the night, the show is called a "Beautiful Night" as is opening in April. It will have about 15-16 pieces in it, some new work in it, as well as pieces that are in the show right now. It will be my first institutional show that’s my own. I’ve been in some group shows at institutions and colleges, but this will be my first solo show outside of a gallery.
The Society of Goldsmiths is coming to Portland in May, and I’m going to do a little bronze sculpture for that. Which the gallery I’m represented by, PDX Contemporary Art is going to help me with the casting and all that. So that’s a very exciting project. Casting is always something I’ve wanted to do but never had the means or reason to do it. Bronze isn't something I think of when I think of my own artwork, but I’m excited try.
Justin L’Amie received a BFA from the Cornish College of the Arts, and was selected for the Morris Graves Foundation Retreat in 2016. He has exhibited throughout the Pacific Northwest and in New York, Houston, and Miami in a number of solo and group exhibitions including a forthcoming solo exhibition at the Morris Graves Museum of Art.
L’Amie’s work is held in the collections of the Oregon Health and Science University, Portland Community College, and the City of Portland Portable Works. In addition, he is also a part of numerous private collections, including those of Blake Byrne, Jordan Schnitzer, and Deborah Green.
In 2016 L'Amie was awarded a highly selective residency at the Morris Graves Foundation and will have a solo exhibition at the prestigious Morris Graves Museum of Art this spring from April 21 - June 10, 2018.
Ashley Gifford is an interdisciplinary artist, organizer, and digitalist from Honolulu, Hawaii, currently based in Portland, Oregon. Gifford has BA's in Studio Art & Art History from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Professionally, she's worked at art based non-profits, galleries, museums, and creative agencies.