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Jimmy Wright - Interview

By Robert Amos October 27, 2003

} Jimmy Wright - Interview Jimmy Wright is blunt. 'This is my art factory,' he says by way of introduction to his studio. 'I’m an artist, but I’m more than that. My job is to paint stuff that people are gonna buy.' But isn’t an artist supposed to be some sort of divinely inspired genius, in touch with the cosmos? 'We are not different from any other worker,' Wright insists. The man who builds boats probably feels the same spiritual connection to what he is doing as the artist. But we don’t criticize him because he also builds the boats people want. We may talk about artistic integrity and the sufferings of the creative individual, but we live in a market-driven economy. Earlier in his life, Wright was an economist and learned to relate to the world in a pragmatic way. Later, he became a fishing guide in northern British Columbia, and developed his vision working as a photographer. When I met him in about 1986, he had just arrived in Victoria, penniless, with no artistic training and ready to make his living by creative expression. At that time I was dubious, but since then he has done very well with his art. 'I don’t have any inventory,' Wright mentioned, looking around his spacious countryside studio. Very few artists can make that boast. On easels in front of him, a half dozen large canvases awaited shipment. These canvases are basically abstract, but each carries an 'icon' - a polar bear motif, for instance. Wright’s favourite painter is Mark Rothko, an American painter whose veils of colour are studiously devoid of any representational intent. One of Wright’s own paintings, the one which hangs over the mantle in his home, is as simple as a Rothko. In fact, each of his paintings begins this way. 'The Cave Wall' is how he refers to the lightly inflected texture, a scrim of colour he loves to create with acrylic paint on canvas or linen. Wright showed me his photos from a recent trip to Mexico, and each of them was a close-up of a crumbling wall. The surface of weathered cement is enough for him. But that’s not enough for the buying public. And Wright is making art for them, not for himself. So Wright introduced a little bit of imagery. First he tried a dog, and then he hit it right with a profile of a standing buffalo. Surprised and delighted by the success of this little introduction, he developed further icons, including his signature image, the polar bear. 'When I designed that fucking thing,' he told me, 'I no longer had to cope with anguish.' What anguish was that? 'The anguish when you are looking at an empty canvas and saying ‘what am I going to paint?’. Once I painted that bear I never really had that issue any more.' Wright continued: 'A lot of people who start with abstract, they just keep pushing paint around, and finally the process becomes the product. I’m tired of the chasing the process.' So Wright resolved to give his audience the icon they wanted. 'What do you lose by that addition?', he asked rhetorically. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Many of his icons are tiny. 'I want to tell the minimum story,' he notes, 'and let them figure it out.' Any horizontal line can read as a horizon, turning the paintings into landscapes. A tiny person, in silhouette, walking, immediately implies a story. Over the years, Wright has painted many little figures on the horizon line: a naked fishermen, a parade of nuns, and the black birds with red beaks which are called oystercatchers. To hear him talk, it’s easy to think of this as a sell-out, putting these details onto his abstracts just to lure the public. But the artist respects his public - his employers. And, in fact, his involvement with his subject matter is more profound that one might expect. You’ll recognize it in his inscriptions. Inscribed onto the 'cave walls', like anonymous graffiti, are Wright’s discrete little messages. Near a buffalo icon are tally marks. You just know that the painter/economist has considered the value of these 'kills' and is telling us these marks will never add up to what was lost when the buffalo were decimated. Abstruse mathematical formulae written nearby are actually the code by which our exploitation of natural resources is driving us into well-upholstered poverty. The nuns are another story. Wright and his brothers were brought up in a Catholic orphanage. He still bears some psychic scars from that experience and they show up in his art. A little poem written on one of the canvases puts it succinctly, if sarcastically: 'Don’t do this/ don’t do that/ I ain’t shit/ God is everything/ Amen.' Wright has no formal art training. 'It might be a gift,' he mused. To add human interest to his paintings, a few years back he began introducing studies of people, large silhouettes which he admittedly borrowed from a Victoria artist, the late Richard Ciccimarra. The isolation of these figures, and their inability to engage with their environment, led Wright to consider the wider implications. At the moment, his silent figures are constricted, tied in bondage. There is a social conscience at work here, and those who know Jimmy Wright will not be surprised. A few years back, the Greater Victoria School Board cancelled the string music program in all its schools as a budget cutting measure. Appalled by this, Wright took action. With his contribution of art and money, he personally made up the shortfall and, by himself, funded the program for a year. Art can make a difference. Wright’s creations continue to move forward. After a trip to Tuscany he introduced tall Lombardy poplars as a motif. Simple to draw, easy to consider as merely an abstract mark, these thin trees also call up pleasant associations for many people. Wright is concerned to create items which will enhance the mood of any room. At the outset of his career as a painter, he was in love with vibrant primary colours. Market research later indicated that people actually prefer to buy paintings with warm earth tones, yellow ochre and red oxide. So that’s what he gives them. Is that a bad thing? Happy in his studio, Wright finds painting a delightful way to spend time. 'The more time you scratch at ‘em, the more you build up the surface, you’re just enhancing it,' he insisted. 'You’re creating that wonderful textured wall that you’re gonna drop your icon on.' 'Art is just a product,' Wright reflected. In this case, it’s a product that is well-made, and made with consideration for those who will love it and buy it and live with it. If that allows Jimmy Wright to continue to enjoy his life and to help others, that’s a good thing too. Jimmry Wright can be contacted through his e-mail: jimmywright@shaw.ca ___________________________________________ Copyright © 2003 Robert Amos Robert Amos is an artist and art writer who lives in Victoria, B. C.. He can be contacted by e-mail and you can view his paintings at www.robertamos.com