Thursday, December 14, 2006

Art Space Talk: James Zar

I recently interviewed artist James Zar. Mr. Zar, also referred to as the 'Still Life Magician', has been an established artist for decades. He has befriended celebrities and star athletes... a far cry from his humble roots in a hard-working fishing community. However, James still embraces his roots with honor and respect. He shares the same integrity for his work that those who influenced him had shown when he was young. This strong work ethic can be observed in his images, artistic practice, and interactions with people who are interested in his work.

Mr. Zar creates paintings that allow the viewer to travel to another world. A place full of vibrant color and lively beings. His work is marked by a bold use of color, mastery of composition, and playful spirituality. They offer the viewer the perfect visual escape from a long day at work.

Zar has been involved with major movie studios where he worked professionally and became friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. He also befriended Frank Sinatra, Jack Palance, Don Rickles and Hal Holbrook. His paintings have been displayed in their private collections. Mr. Zar has remained humble even though he has had great success with his art.

Brian Sherwin: James, When did you first discover that art would be an important part of your adult life?

James Zar: Early childhood. I would draw constantly; it was how I digested my life experiences.

BS: James, how has society influenced your art? Are there any social implications in your art?

JZ: In my opinion our society does not inspire high levels of art; it promotes trendy intellectual or decorative tricks for selling purposes. It seems to me that the art with enormous energy, passion and insight stands outside the agenda of our modern society which is to make money, be famous, be exclusive, and to dominate and exploit the masses…the masses being you and I.

A sane society would support the natural gifts of each individual, build an exchange value system for the development of those gifts, and enjoy a rich abundance based upon man’s innermost desire to fulfill his/her greatest potential. My artwork has only social implications if it points to this kind of society, not the one where we are now forced to live."

BS: James, tell me a little about your background? Are your past experiences reflected in the work you do today? If so how?

JZ: I was born in San Pedro: a fishing, longshoring, harbor area of California which produced strong men and women of predominantly middle class income who had great work ethics. I have fashioned my work ethic after theirs.

BS: James, care to talk about your early career?

JZ: I went to Pasadena Playhouse to study acting where I was introduced, by my acting director, to the great artist, Keith Finch, who became my primary teacher and mentor. I also attended the San Francisco Art Institute.

After leaving the San Francisco Art Institute, where they were into more abstract work and I was more interested in classical art, I ended it up as a commercial sports illustrator – go figure. Some of my work was featured on the covers of NFL game day programs and my portrait of Al Davis (owner of the Oakland Raiders) hangs in the Canton Ohio Hall of Fame museum."

BS: James, you've met some very famous people during your career. What has that been like?

JZ: It was always interesting. Most of the celebrities I met were actors, singers, writers or athletes - in other words creative people like myself. Since I was an All-City football player in 1959, studied acting in the early 60’s, (wished I could sing but can’t carry a tune) I had a few things in common with the celebrities I met. We were just people excited about what we were engaged in. Artists and athletes are my species; we speak the same language, and have the same inner drives and aspirations."

BS: James, I've read that you did art for movies. What movies did you work on?

JZ: I worked on Jim Buck (a movie written by Yabo Yablonski, starring Jack Palance, Rod Steiger, Ann Turkell and Bo Swensen). The main character (Mr. Palance) was supposed to be an artist and my paintings were used as his work. I also did promotional work for Sylvester Stallone. I took my wife and kids to meet him; he was very gracious and wonderful with the kids. He loves art. I did preliminary work for Arnold Schwarzenneger’s Conan the Barbarian. Arnold and I go way back; my wife and I have had a lot of fun with him. A large painting of mine hangs in Governor Schwarzenneger’s office in Sacramento.

BS: How long have you been a working artist?

JZ: I’ve been a working artist for forty years, or more.

BS: Do you have any studio rituals? Do you listen to certain types of music while working? What helps you get in the mood for working?

JZ: I wake up at 4 a.m., and then I meditate for about forty minutes. My wife and I walk for another forty minutes, then return home for that second cup of coffee. I lift weights, then have breakfast during which I end up thinking about my art and what I hope to accomplish that day.

After about twenty minutes of journaling I’m ready for work (it’s usually around 8:30). I used to listen to music, mellow jazz for the most part, but now, in my later years I seek silence so that I might better listen to my inner senses while working.

BS: James, if you could pinpoint the characteristics of people who collect your art what would they be?

JZ: The classical still life paintings that I love to do, really appeals to people of all walks of life. The dream, or meditation art that I do, usually appeals to other creative people such as psychologists, actors, musicians, architects, writers, or professional people with a strong spiritual inclination.

BS: Discuss one of your pieces...

JZ: "Title of painting "OUT ON A LIMB" 24"X48" – oil on panel.

Out on a Limb (image above) relates to the farthest branches of conscious awareness. To me these meditation paintings of mine are not some silly flights of fancy, but actual signposts pointing to those multidimensional realities that escape our everyday root assumptions about what is really happening in the universe.

For example the dancing relationship of atoms and molecules that organize complex organisms are represented by the figures caught in inspiration and dancing postures.

The ancient architecture of past civilizations represents a mind based upon the marriage of intellect and intuition. All of my meditation paintings point to that vast pure identity that underlies all realities.

BS: James, can you go into detail about your artistic process?

JZ: I get an idea, draw each element out separately and work on each one. I move the elements around until the composition pleases me; it must have a flow and elicit an emotional response in me. I then draw my subject matter as a whole onto a masonite panel (treated with gesso and sanded to a smooth surface). I fix the drawing onto the board with an adhesive spray, give the panel a brown or blue half tone finish mixed with Liquin or boiled linseed oil. After that I start painting into the piece. This process took me years to develop, according to my vision of what a great painting should look and feel like. The deeper one goes into one’s art the more power and energy the art gives back to the artist.

At this point, I should say that I never inflicted my process or vision upon my son, Chet Zar, as he was growing up and developing his own artistic vision; I believe each person is a natural genius because life itself is a genius. I only answered his questions about technique when he asked me. I love his paintings and I am thrilled by his unique insight. I’m so proud of him; he is a great artist and a great human being.

BS: Why did you choose the mediums that you use?

JZ: Oil paint best suits my form of expression because of the way it flows. Plus, I love the way it smells.

BS: James, do you have a degree? If so how has it helped your art career?

JZ: I have a lifetime teaching certificate for adult education, but I am consumed with the development of my own art, so I avoid teaching. I don’t hold art schools in high esteem. Usually serious artists must wash their brains out from what someone in school has imposed on him/her. Other artists can help you enormously along the way. But generally it is a long, drawn-out process of self discovery. Trial and error, trial and error.

BS: James, where can we see more of your art?

JZ: If anyone wants to see the full scope of my work and the different aspects, they can go to my website

BS: James, what trends do you see in the art world?

JZ: Besides the buying and selling of autographs of dead masters which began in the 60’s there seems to be a new-art-trend-a-week going on. But I feel a slow growing movement toward realism or representational art, exploring universal religious experiences.

You must understand that trends are a social marketing tool, and I feel that the serious dynamic art that radiates the soul of life itself will always be marginal, until the world becomes more enlightened and the world’s primary purpose is the expression of the celebration of peace, power and the sacredness of the individual soul. The highest form of art is still the meditative mind that finds itself with everything it see and feels; this is pure identity, creative joy forever.

BS: James, do you have any advice for emerging artists?

JZ: You’d better have a sense of humor; it can get pretty hairy out there. Besides, it’s seldom that one becomes rich and famous in this vocation – although it is possible. It is most important to be true to your vision, your passion about the subject matter that you’re drawn to. And remember most art critics and gallery owners do not necessarily appreciate good art. Also, just because the other guy is selling doesn’t mean that your work isn’t as important and vital to this planet. You must have faith in yourself and love for your art; after all you are involved in a noble occupation.

BS: James, what was the toughest point in your career as an artist? Have you ever hit rock bottom?

JZ: The toughest point in my career? Last week - just kidding. Actually it was an ongoing period of almost two decades. I felt I wasn’t good enough; there was something that lacked mastery, or the power, that I thirsted for. It was a very painful time. But I did pick myself up.

I worked on what I felt was lacking and today I can say I’m pleased with what my art represents…which I feel is power, beauty and a mystical wonder. I can say without equivocation that I really love my work!

The other rock bottom is common to most artists: lack of money. Well, this is an up and down thing that will drive you crazy. Flush today, frantic tomorrow.

BS: Finally, in one sentence, why do you create art?

JZ: No choice, I was born to do this.

You can learn more about James Zar by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page-- I'd like to thank Chet Zar for introducing me to his father. A big thanks also goes to James wife for her help during the interview process. Thanks Judy!

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin


Anonymous said...

Thank you everyone involved with this interview. I enjoyed reading all of it. I am currently a student who hopes to someday be more.

Anonymous said...

Thank-You!! This was very aw inspiring, there are many times when I feel that the road seems long, and never ending when it comes to being an artist, but like James says we artist were born to do this!!!
Thanks again
Julie Boehm

Anonymous said...

It's great to read about the man behind the man.

Anonymous said...

Jim Zar's work has always been about his pure love for his craft. What was shown in this interview is what his talents have brought over many years of work, but his appreciation for doing things right is shown just as well in the work from his early years. Thanks for showing him off! Dorothy Reed

Fran Friel said...

Brian and James - Thank you so very much for this brilliant interview. So much kind wisdom was shared, and the artwork is breathtaking even in such a small format.

James said:
A sane society would support the natural gifts of each individual, build an exchange value system for the development of those gifts, and enjoy a rich abundance based upon man’s innermost desire to fulfill his/her greatest potential.

This speaks so clearly for what I feel in my heart, as well. What a world it will be when we find this within us. Thank you for sharing this thought, it's so good to know these feelings are shared. And thank you for the work and inspiration.

Very Kind Regards,
Fran Friel

Anonymous said...

This is an amazing flowing of great ideas, and I really feel touched.
I'm starting the journey of the artist next week, and i really appreciate all the tips and advices, I'll need them a lot.