The Canadian artist that is James Simon has been painting official portraits and portrait art since 1984. However, over the course of his long-spanning 55-year-career the hard-thinking creative has turned his hand to a number of painting formats, each tackled with careful thought and extraordinary skill.
Consequently, Simon’s works have developed a deep nature that not only please the eyes but looks to ponder on metaphysical and philosophical questions. This, unsurprisingly, lead to an array of work making its way to Simon, from being a film set artist, interior design consultant and restorer of historic properties, to conducting events and exchanges at the university of McGill, delivering talks to Harvard Medical School and founding a number of businesses and projects.
We had the opportunity to discuss his work, the process behind it and his views on life, this is what he had to say…
when did you realise you wanted to pursue a career in the arts, and what were the signs?
I started my “professional artist” career in high school. I was very traumatized by school as I was between a year and two younger than my classmates, so I was physically smaller and less capable of mental abstraction.
My parents must have bought oil colours for me and they were encouraging but I did not take anything seriously. I sold everything I did, not because the art was any good but because even as a little boy, I was very good at selling things.
I failed my last year of high school out of complete lack of interest but my older sister thought I should study Fine Arts in university. I didn’t even know what that was. I just dropped in at the Fine Arts department office and asked if I could enroll. They allowed me to test out in order to get in as I did not have the qualifications. I don’t know if people can do that anymore but this was the wild 1960s. I had no intention of making a career.
I started convincing people to commission paintings because it was so much fun to sell the idea. Then embarrassment and pride took over and I would work like crazy to produce what I promised, terrified I would fail. That is how I really taught myself to paint.
I have never taken my career seriously, never had gallery representation, just filling little niches that came along over the last 55 years. I have come to believe an artist is not defined by what they produce but by how they live their lives. The art is an indirect product of that. That is one way to remain independent and authentic.
you mention that language may have overwritten our primal artistic abilities, why do you think we would have evolved artistic expression before language, and what would the benefit of this be?
Written language is a huge abstraction, especially when using an alphabet. Humans had to evolve into that over a very long timeframe. I am sure there was an early stage where language did not have the modern finesse to convey abstract ideas. The Age of Reason was still thousands of years in the future.
It could very well be that early people did not identify as distinct individuals yet, so their verbal relationships were not so much with each other but more like declaring themselves to the gods. If they talked to each other it would be as similar emotional declarations, not to actually reason or negotiate anything.
So painting an animal on a cave wall was a way to declare something or describe a situation where words so far failed. It would have been so direct and easy. Maybe it was preceded by making little clay figures. Those could have been lost to time.
Language is a left brain dominent operation whereas drawing is a right brain one. The left brain seems to be responsible to modelling artificial ideas of the world whereas the right brain is the primary receiver of new information. So, seen as separate conscious entities, the right brain has the power to constantly subvert the left with radically new and different information that must be controlled or suppressed by the left brain at all costs. So the left brain is like a totalitarian state and the right one is like a subversive. The left is the language dominent side, hence it tends to override the right along with its natural ability to draw.
why is it more effective for artists to develop the negative spaces and allow the positives to be formed by default, than the opposite?
The ideas of positive and negative spaces evolve out of language and how we name things, thereby seeing the world through that construct. Our perception of objects in our environment tends to gravitate to things that are already named so we can put those aside in a convenient concept and reserve our brain power for unnamed possible threats. It is an exercise in efficiency. We lock onto positive space out of pure existential terror.
In fact there are no positive or negative spaces in the real world but only in our minds. If an artist draws only things that appear as positive spaces or named things, they are basically reiterating a cartoonish version of a cultural idea of the world as provided to them since birth. If they concentrate on negative space or unnamed holes in this cultural model, they will see a vital new world.
you mention in your talks that language and morality are comparable to the positive spaces within art. furthermore, you state that the development of these frameworks are often prioritised by societies. what would you then recommend to someone who is looking to develop their actions – or negative spaces so to speak?
I recommend that everyone, artists and non artists, can chip away are this ponderous moral straightjacket we all inhabit but monitoring our language and interactions at every moment. We are all making unnecessary moral pronouncements about others. This is very true with political, social and religious conflicts. But we do it to as a way to keep our options open. So if someone asks us to dinner, rather than say “I will like that” we instead say “I WOULD like that” as if their invitation were contingent on them continuing to reside in an acceptable moral framework. If you dispense with as many such pointless equivocations as possible, you will arrive at greater purity of intention and action.
Of course, people can also teach themselves to draw. It is very therapeutic. We can also flop down on the ground and look at shapes of clouds or roll over and peer at insects.
the concept that ideas battle one another using generations as their host is an interesting one, however, could you speak on where or how these ideas could have first come to be?
The concept that ideas can be considered free existing entities comes from the field of psychology I believe though I know little about the actual science of it. I have come to it in another way.
I am curious what we are as beings and what consciousness is. My current understanding is the following and it may be totally faulted: I believe are defined as Spirit, Mind, and Body. I believe the Spirit to be a divine principle that is not individual but pan universal. I believe Mind to exist outside ourselves as a separate force, constantly evolving. Everything then taps into Mind from rocks and trees to insects, birds and animals and all of these subsets of Minds interact and feed into each other. I believe we do not own our physical Body. I believe our physical form to be a projection upon the world of atoms and light by a combination willing by Spirit and Mind.
Seeing the world in that way makes me see the world of Mind as a separate entity made of competing sub entities in an evolutionary struggle whereby dominent better ideas displace ideas that have lost relevance.
in your eyes, what would the optimal integration of the rational mind and spirit look like?
I think there will always be a struggle between the rational mind and spirit. The main thing is we have to listen to ourselves. If we are uncompromising in our attempts to retain some sort of socially driven rational perspective, we will end up lying to ourselves and that such dishonesty will subdue the Spirit. Our core’s urges will then manifest as self-destructive behaviour and the Spirit must have its ultimate say. If we can pay attention to our inner voices, we will find our actions to be much more powerful and meaningful to others and at the same time we will feel a sense of confidence and peace.
what’s your advice to anyone looking to pursue a creative career?
I think there will always be a struggle between the rational mind and spirit. The main thing is we have to listen to ourselves. If we are uncompromising in our attempts to retain some sort of socially driven rational perspective, we will end up lying to ourselves and that such dishonesty will subdue the Spirit. Our core’s urges will then manifest as self-destructive behaviour and the Spirit must have its ultimate say.
If we can pay attention to our inner voices, we will find our actions to be much more powerful and meaningful to others and at the same time we will feel a sense of confidence and peace.
What piece of work are you most proud of and why?
I have lived in a house for 36 years that has many rooms. I started painting murals in these rooms about twenty years ago. Most are quite recent. Seven rooms or hallways are totally dedicated to a mural, walls, ceiling and even floors in some. They are walk-in paintings. I have a lot of fun sharing them with visitors. It requires about seven weeks of intense work for each. I love painting in large scale like that with big brushes, getting covered in paint. I have painted similar murals for clients too. This previous fall, an extension ladder I was on, quite high up, collapsed and I fell down through two windows and broke three ribs. What can I say, it is superbly physical and involving.
who or what is your biggest source of inspiration?
I don’t have any heroes in the arts but I do love the painter Chaim Soutine.
what are your plans for 2020 and onwards?
My plans for 2020? I am currently in the midst of cataract surgeries for my eyes. I did the first two weeks ago. It is changing my vision so much I am not sure what I will do once my eyesight stabilizes at the end of May. I always have too many ambitions and plans.
It will also be my 70th birthday in November so I might have a big extravaganza. It is winter here in Montreal with lots of snow. My immediate next project is a commissioned portrait so I have to focus and restrain my ambitions a little bit and be responsible.