James Kirkpatrick is a multimedia artist whose imagery may simply appear as a fun and playful narrative. However, Kirkpatrick's work is a manifestation of his current world perspective. Constructed through reclaiming and reprocessing otherwise neglected materials, his pieces are an invitation to the viewer. We asked James to reflect on growing up in London, his discovery of the underground graffiti scene, and the strands of inspiration that weave together his audio explorations and visual oeuvre.
YOUR WORK IS ABSTRACT BUT ALSO VERY TECHNICAL. HOW DO YOU BALANCE BEING BOTH IMPULSIVE AND CREATIVE?
It's something I have become more aware of and have focused on in the last few years. Learning a balance of composition with loose guidelines but leaving room for spontaneity and exciting things to happen. If I know exactly what I am doing the painting is not fun and I can tell that the energy is not there. A lot of pieces can change drastically. For these (sound sculptures) I had to force myself, because I know what I want to achieve in the end is going to take extreme dedication and patience. I start with researching and learning software or a bunch of circuit building or bending. Usually when I'm traveling — when I’m on the plane — that's when I get a lot of work done. I love being trapped in an airplane, it cuts me off from so many distractions and I can focus on just what I have in front of me.
FOR SOMEONE WHO DABBLES WITH MUSIC, SCULPTURE & PAINTING, DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE MEDIUM?
When I get into it, I like it all. I would say though,I like drawing the best. I don't show drawings, but I draw everyday and the drawings end up forming paintings. It's where it all starts. I go through these periods when the drawing is not working, then I know I shouldn't be painting at that point. It’s my check in. If I’m drawing and it’s not working, I leave it. But when it starts to work, I know it’s ok for me to paint.
WHAT ASPECTS OF YOUR WORK ARE MOST MEANINGFUL TO YOU?
I do like seeing different reactions or when people interact with my work. The interactive (sound) pieces I never imagined including in my work. It just happened when I began circuit bending to make instruments for my performances so I didn't have to have a DJ. Then I realized that it could go into my shows (in a performative way). Things got more advanced and technical. For me, the most meaningful work is the crossover of the visual with the audio, and then getting people to immerse themselves into it. I also feel like this work [sound sculptures] are an opening point for people who wouldn't necessarily dig a painting, but then they play around with this medium and find it enjoyable. I came from a background of not liking academic art and thinking abstract or conceptual art was a con and feeling like “high art” is not good. Over time, I realized that some of the things I didn’t like were historically important, and actually really great — it just takes a while to get into it. It’s like when you're a kid and you hear older music and go, “That's weird! Why would I want to listen to that?” and then as you experience it more, you begin to understand it and enjoy it. Time, knowledge and life experiences have really changed the way I interpret information. The more I learn, the more I see how vast things really are and I realize how much I don’t know.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE HISTORIC CREATIVE PERIODS?
I am a big fan of Dadaism. It was psychedelic, innovative, intelligent, and political all at the same time. It was punk! They were doing abstract poetry and using makeshift tools and art materials. They were using what they had — not store bought materials. I’m vibing off of that method and I'm also seeing how it relates to hip-hop. When you look at hip-hop, there's so much academic writing that tries to reduce it to “four elements”: break-dancing, DJ’ing, graffiti, and rap. And it is — sort of — and it isn't. I like that every element of hip hop is created through using things you're not supposed to use. Instead of using a turntable to play music you're using it to make music, or using spray paint to make art instead of an industrial purpose. I like that idea: using what you have.
HOW DID LIVING IN LONDON AFFECT YOUR CREATIVE JOURNEY?
To be honest, I grew up feeling like an outcast. I didn't fit in at all, which is good, I think. I went to South (London South Collegiate Institute), My parents were determined for me not to be an artist. I got to go to Beal (H. B. Beal Secondary School) which was an important thing for me. Greg Curnoe had just died a couple of years before. I went to Beal around 1997 and he died in 1991. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was this period where it seemed like not allot of art was happening in London. I didn’t know any better (historically). Before that, Western (Western University), Fanshawe (Fanshawe College), and Beal were all connected. Everyone was going to each other’s shows. It was a really cool community and I was catching the tail end of it. Downtown London was worse than it is now, there was a lot of stores going out of business. But it made a great space to spray paint, because people didn't even know what graffiti was. You’d be painting on something and people would say, “Oh, weird,’’ it was kinda funny. It created this space where we could explore graffiti. We’d always go to every corner of the city and visit the train yard and look at graffiti there, so I was always walking back and forth. When I was 17 I would go to these art meetings where people would say “We’re going to rebuild the art scene in London, we're going to start an Arts Project.’’ I remember going to visit different buildings with forty other people to find out where the Arts Project was going to be. I didn't know how to do anything related to galleries or how to connect with anybody. I did an internship with Michael Gibson to learn how to frame art as a trade, and that got me a couple of jobs. I went to NSCAD in Halifax, and I loved the school because it looked like a large version of Beal. It was kinda weird, because people (at NSCAD) were the ones telling me about London’s history! We have a lot of things that came from London that are so important nationwide.
WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO THE SUBCULTURE GRAFFITI AND HIP-HOP SCENE IN THE SUBURBS OF LONDON?
I grew up in the punk scene, skateboarding, listening to hip hop. I was attracted to a lot of the DIY ideas in the underground hardcore scene. I started painting because I wanted to see it in the areas I hung out with my friends. All of a sudden there were 10 other kids in my neighbourhood doing it and a small community occurred with no real outside influence. We developed a pretty unique way of painting and communicating. Things got competitive between different skate, graffiti, and hip hop crews. The competitive, dramatic nature of it forced a lot of creative things to happen.
Around the time that things were just starting to heat up, this family from California opened a store that was essentially a hip hop library, an underground vinyl source, and spray cap supplier. A perfect example of how commercial businesses can actually bring inspiration and education to a city. They were hosting shows and getting really involved in the community. Making young kids excited to do stuff and be creative. That’s why I am excited about the things going on at Life of Leisure with the events they're hosting and the safe graffiti wall. Growing up in the Old South, on the edge of downtown, I was able to walk or skateboard to any neighbourhood an hour. It was a fun thing, travelling around and exploring all these different places to paint or seeing underground shows, house shows. We could crash for months in different houses, and doing so unintentionally created networks of people involved in making this kind of stuff. It kept me tied to that world. What I do now is just an evolved, slightly more mature, continuation of what we were doing back then.
WHAT WAS THE REGIONALIST MOVEMENT, WHY WAS IT IMPORTANT AND WHERE CAN WE SEE ITS PRESENCE TODAY?
What I personally take from the early regionalist movement is making something happen in London. Shifting from the idea that only important art or cool things can happen in big cities — what we do here is also super important in all aspects of art and activism. Those ideas have inspired many around London, and I feel that a newer version of Regionalism has taken a collaborative shift and is more widespread. It has allowed people to see that they are doing “real” things here. I have so much respect and thanks to give to the people who paved the way for it to be acceptable to be an artist here.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT THE LOCAL FLAVOUR HERE?
I like that I can hide out a little bit and then come out and do stuff. There seems to be something going on all the time for such a small city. I really think there are a lot of creative people here that I’m excited about. Some people outside of the art world even getting involved, events like Grickle Grass and or the ones at Life of Leisure. I’m excited about people doing things outside of commercial or even artist run centers and museums, where you sometimes have to prepare years in advance for an event. I work within those worlds and I love it, but I’m always excited to see alternative spontaneous ideas taking place. People like Mitch from Life of Leisure are in the position to make really great things happen! He’s thinking environmentally and socially, having parties and events to raise funds to make things happen. To me, that's the way to do it; have fun, make friends, and make good shit happen. I find that is where my work is going. I always draw and I always paint and I always make stuff, but I’m finding that I’m doing a lot more work with people or working more with kids. For that graffiti wall (“Free Wall” located at Life of Leisure) we got kids from detention centers to come out to a safe space to paint for years to come.
WHAT HAS ANCHORED YOU TO STAY HERE IN LONDON?
As a young person, London was a good place to come home to between traveling for shows and performances and stay with friends or family. I was really into the music and art scene with so many collaborators and it has just grown stronger and bigger over the years. I come home and get a ton of work done. I get to participate in and see a community grow in some pretty great ways. I really like it here.
WHAT'S ONE QUESTION YOU WISHED PEOPLE ASKED YOU MORE OFTEN?
“ ''Hey James… what email do I send the (huge) money transfer to ?”