February James : Unanswered questions in Portraiture

Los – Angeles based artist, February James describes her body of work as possessing an evasiveness, coupled with the uncertain nature of unanswered questions and the acceptance of the unknown, without any compromise on the narrative in each.

February James
You look pretty but you feel broken, 2020
Courtesy of Luce Gallery and the artist

Palesa. S. Motsumi : You studied at the Pasadena Art Centre, having had that experience, how do you navigate your own journey as a relatively young artist in the U. S.?

February James : I don’t believe that going to school makes you an artist.  School can’t teach you how to be an artist, we’re all born creators of something.  For me school is a personal goal – that’s why for the most part I’ve held it close to my chest.  My younger brother is a mathematician.  He’s  currently pursuing a PHD and is the only other person in my family who has graduated from a four year program and beyond.  I say this to point out to the fact that I don’t come from a family of scholars.  Getting a job after receiving your high-school diploma was the bar.  So, school and furthering my education has always been a personal goal whether I was painter or a plumber.  I live in perpetual state of curiosity and I’m always looking for ways to challenge myself.  

February James
Not yet titled, 2020
Courtesy of Luce Gallery and the artist

The figures in your works are quiet complex in the way you have articulated them and have a real sense of familiarity of people we may encounter in our daily lives, anywhere. What comes to mind when creating work of such significance in your studio?

I’m not the type of artist who has a notion and then seeks materials to carry it out.  There is a motif and then I lose it.  It’s almost as if I’m constantly in pursuit of the portrait.  I don’t sketch out ideas first, I’m horrible at that. The essentiality of my paintings is the evasiveness and that there are questions unanswered.  I find out what’s happening through the work.  To some extent trying to write about the work is quite arduous at times,  as what I make can happen before the meaning springs up and out.  It’s like hearing a joke and getting the punchline later.  It’s a process that I respect and I’ve come to love and honor about my practice.  This is why experimentation is very important to me.  I’m challenged to learn through failing, to move through it, too discover and to be play.     

What has been your biggest challenge as an artist in the times we are experiencing, right now?  

I would have to say the grief that knowledge carries with it.  Hearing about all the front-line workers; families that are facing the threat of losing their home ; families who’ve lost loved ones.  The devastating weight that this pandemic carries. 

February James
It’s okay to feel what you feel, 2020
Courtesy of Luce Gallery and the artist

You work within the company of mixed media. Was this a choice that you initially felt drawn to while studying in Pasadena? Or was it a decision taken later?  

My studies at the Art Center are as recent as 2018.  I’ve always worked simultaneously with water color and oil pastels and traversed through other mediums.  With the oil pastels, I’m really drawn to these swells of color and gesture.  With watercolor and ink, I feel nurtured and seen as the faces emerge from the page.  Working with clay is my most recent endeavor and that did pick up at the Art Center.  The manipulation of clay involves a lot of manners of tactile and gestural experiences that can be considered primal, relational ways to make contact with others and the world.  What I’m unable to say with paint I can say with clay.  

The subject of family and connections is quite personal and political in many ways – what can the regular or new online visitor to 1 : 54 Art Fair expect from you, this year?   

I think we’ll all be surprised; me included.  I am more focused however on breathing more life into the characters.  Who are they?  Where are they?  What do they have to say?

February James Roux, 2020 Oil pastel on magazine paper Sheet size: 33 x 24.1 cm Courtesy of Luce Gallery and the artist
February James
Not yet titled, 2020
Courtesy of Luce Gallery and the artist

Now, when I learn about artists in other parts of the world, I always wonder what kind of artist they are. What kind of artist are you?

I’m still figuring out what type of artist I am everyday.  I am grounded in who I am and my craft, yet with each new body of work I find out new things about myself, as an artist – what I want to say and why I want to say it.  Then, there are times when I’m left searching through movement.

This article is part of the Interview Series 1-54 in partnership with Artskop3437.
The works of February James will be presented by  Luce Gallery  as part of of the 1-54 online edition on Artsy, available to all on 6 May 2020. February James can be followed on Instagram @februaryjames

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About the author

Palesa Segomotso Motsumi

Palesa Motsumi is the Founder of Sematsatsa Library, a creative consultancy. She is a writer, communications practitioner by training and has worked as Art consultant for various artists in the past.
Her writing has mostly been featured in independent publications and is currently working on her first non-fiction book, titled, Mantsho. She based between Bloemfontein (South Africa) and Copenhagen (Denmark).

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