The Art of Ideas

A screenprint of a street scene in the Town of San Augustine, Texas, in 1939

The work of S. Christopher James

“I believe that if it were left to artists to choose their own labels, most would choose none” – Ben Shahn

When describing art, we tend to revert to what we learned in art history. Western categorizations are satisfactory to me. I wish to refrain from arguing about what style or category to label my work. However, we all need a baseline to begin the conversation. I like to use icons from the twentieth century to generate concepts pertinent to events of the moment. Those icons include movies, music, art, technology, toys, etc. I utilize the modern-day tools and resources that enable the work to take shape. Using traditional painting mediums like printmaking and watercolor gives me the satisfaction of creating art by hand. Digital tools are also used as a medium to complete the work when necessary. This hybrid way of creating by scanning traditional mediums into a digital format gives me true flexibility in creating concepts.

If there are labels to be had, my work is conceptual, but it isn’t conceptual art in the sense of protest of what art is. It is the art of the idea. The medium is not as important as the idea or concept. It is representational. It uses formal standards in the art of shape, line, color, and composition. Some might even classify my compositions as illustration. However, I do not create art commercially, nor is the work done on commission. I would even go as far as Social Realism, sometimes with a satirical message.

The serigraph above was derived from a photo taken by photographer and photojournalist Lee Russell, 1903-1986 (Library of Congress). It shows a street scene in the small Texas town of San Augustine. The image was black and white, but you could tell that the street scene had black and white Americans mingling at what appeared to be a feed store. So we can assume most were farmers. The image was taken in 1939. We have our icon in red to show a general connection in time and place. Being in the south during Jim Crow, we can also make assumptions about what we can’t see. Items such as colored-only restrooms and water fountains. The scene may not tell all the stories, so we move to create the narrative based on our history. That is the elephant in the room.

Creating artwork that has a message is nothing new. However, art can mean something different for all of us. If we empathize with what the artist is trying to convey, we root for them and appreciate the emotions it brings out of us. For the artist, there is always meaning and personal attributes that motivate and inspire them to keep working, rarely achieving perfection in their minds. Knowing there are other works to be created, they move on.

I am rarely in a position for lack of ideas. My subject matter is the United States of America. Seeing everything in real time now is not only a joy but a curse. It all seems overwhelming until we realize it was always part of us. We’ve always had divisions, a pandemic, wars, climate issues, corporate greed, immigration issues, nasty politics, etc. I could drum up some really awful periods in our nation’s history. And yet, our ability to endure has always been humanity’s strength. This is my so-called canvas.

It doesn’t always require the viewer to be a super sleuth to enjoy the work. The creative journey for me, which involves pencil to paper, mixing colors for printmaking, or firing up the iPad, is more fun than anyone should be allowed.

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