What’s at the end of one of Jim Houser’s maze-like paintings? The self-taught Philly artist tells Dirty Laundry he eventually comes face-to-face with his Zen. Take a peek to see how Houser is wired and learn how his art-making helps him quiet his mind and appreciate the now.
Hits to the Body
Acrylic/Collage on Canvas
How did you start painting? When did you first get into art?
I always liked to draw and make things when I was growing up. By my early 20s I was writing more, mostly poetry and short stories, and still drawing. I found myself living in an incredibly creative and supportive environment where it just seemed like the logical step forward. I was dating my late wife, Rebecca Westcott who was a painter, and I wanted to have more of an understanding of what she loved about it. I was working for Shepard Fairey and meeting a lot of inspiring people through him and gaining a lot of inspiration from him. This was all in Providence, RI, around 1994-96. The combination of painting, writing and drawing from back then is the basis for all the stuff I still make now, I’d say.
What’s the best and worst thing about being an artist in Philly?
The best part is the value. I’ve owned my house for over a decade, and my studio is the whole top floor. It would be impossible for me to have that setup in a lot of other cities. As far as the worst goes, Philadelphia is a home-base for me, but I don’t actually do anything here art-wise. I am kind of removed from it all. I haven’t had a show in Philadelphia since 2007, and I don’t have a gallery here. It’s kind of odd, I guess. I just make everything here and show it everywhere else.
At what point did you realize you could make a living as an artist?
I had my first solo show at Space 1026 here in Philly in (I think) 1998. I made enough at the show to quit my job developing photos and haven’t had a straight job since then – just selling paintings and commercial stuff. I think it was easier for me because I’ve always made a lot of work, quickly. I was able to support myself by selling a large amount of work, but for really cheap.
Acrylic/Collage on Panel
It’s an edited stream of consciousness, for sure. I don’t just shit out whatever, there’s a hand on the tiller.
On top of art-making, you also make music. What’s the relationship between art and music for you?
I love playing music. I usually turn to it when I need a break from painting. As far as a relationship goes, I think it scratches a similar itch. I’ve never felt as comfortable making music though, my vocabulary is definitely more limited, it gets more frustrating more quickly.
Your work always seems like a puzzle or a maze. Do you see that as an exploration of one topic, or more of a stream of consciousness?
It’s an edited stream of consciousness, for sure. I don’t just shit out whatever, there’s a hand on the tiller. It’s therapy for me: I’m working things out. Things that worry me or weaknesses I’d like to strengthen. But also the beautiful things, I owe it to myself to pause and celebrate. It’s very easy for me to fall into a pit of negative thinking. Making artwork helps me manage that.
Subliminal Projects, Los Angeles, 2010
Galleria Patricia Armocida, Milan, 2009
With such poetic and personal work, how do you attack commercial projects?
It was really difficult for me until I came to the realization that generally speaking, the client is not paying me to make what I normally would make, but is paying me to make their understanding of what I make. There are rare jobs where I’m hired to make whatever I feel like, but usually, I’m going to get notes, there’s going to be revisions, etc. so, it’s a different animal. It seems like a pretty obvious concept, but it took me years to figure out, because I’m an idiot.
What projects do you say no to?
Any job where the payoff is “exposure” is probably a good sign to pass. There are products or companies I haven’t wanted to align myself with, for whatever reason, and some jobs can seem very much unenjoyable and pay very little money.
You’ve described your art-making as a release and a way to cope through some rough times. Now that you’ve become more established and secure, has the drive behind your work changed?
The thing I struggle with is when you have something taken from you, some great loss, each new and wonderful thing that happens can be viewed as just another thing that can be taken away. I work to avoid feeling that way, daily. It hollows you out. It makes you unable to appreciate the now in expectation of some vague impending disaster. That part of my mind is only totally quiet under specific circumstances, and the easiest way to quiet it is by making things. I’ve accepted that this is just how I have become wired.
What is your proudest creative moment to date?
I had a show in LA just a few weeks after our son Seamus was born. My wife Jessica flew out from Philly with him for the opening. The afternoon of the show we had a chance to walk through the installation. While I was holding him I realized I had never been as excited to show someone my work. The feeling was very immediate for me. It was the first time he was seeing what his father did. I felt very present in the moment, which is rare for me, and felt very proud.
Merry Karnowsky Gallery
…when you have something taken from you, some great loss, each new and wonderful thing that happens can be viewed as just another thing that can be taken away. I work to avoid feeling that way, daily.
Space 1026, Philadelphia, 2011
Are you ever satisfied with your work?
Yes, I like my work a lot. I make things I am disappointed in sometimes, of course, but it’s usually just a sense of “Oh, it would have been cool to do this instead…” So the next time I just do that thing.
Whose art do you own?
A zillion people’s. I have a small art wall (that’s a big wall of small art) filled with 20 years of trades and purchases. I like small paintings.
What is something that everyone needs to experience at least once in their lifetime?
What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?
1. Take your time, in all aspects. It’s not a race. You’ll lose friendships thinking that way.
2. Work every day, even if it’s for 10 minutes.
3. Give away your art. It makes no one happy sitting on the floor of your bedroom. Let it go live somewhere else.
Animals That Mate for Life, Assemblage Duo, Acrylic/Collage on Canvas The Roll of a Drum, Assemblage