Interview with Painter and Muralist, Jason Brammer

How did you get started doing what you do?
My world of art began very early on because my mom is an artist and encouraged my creative endeavors from the beginning. I’ve been drawing since I was old enough to hold a pencil or a crayon. When I was in sixth grade, I remember drawing boom boxes, MTV logos, and tons of Powell & Peralta skateboard graphics. In high school, my art teacher, Glenn Litts, introduced me to airbrushing and I set up a little area in my bedroom where I could practice. My dad drilled a hole in the wall and ran a cable to the garage that hooked into the compressor because it was this giant loud Sears machine. As I was honing my skills with the airbrush, I also began assisting my mother on mural projects and even got my own paying gig painting a dragon and ninja mural in high school. I was very fortunate that my family was so supportive of my artistic ambitions.

How would you describe your creative style?
I like to have several distinct, ongoing series that sometimes overlap and inform each other. I work in all different types of media and formats, ranging from painting and drawing to mixed media assemblage and large-scale murals and installations.

In my Remembering The Future series, I developed a style I would describe as “photo-surrealism”. I use an airbrush to achieve a soft, out-of-focus effect that creates depth and photographic realism in my paintings of landscapes and seascapes and meld that with surrealistic imagery like hovering octopuses, eyeballs, and alien machinery. I wanted the works to feel like antique photographs of the future, as if a time traveler living in the 1890’s journeyed to the distant future, took photographs and returned to his own time. Now I am discovering these lost sepia photographs that have weathered with age.

The Remembering The Future paintings morphed into my Time Machine series, where I began taking the imagery outside the canvas by incorporating real pipes, tubes, antique parts from salvage yards, and reclaimed materials I’d find in the alleys around my studio (thank you to the benevolent alley gods in Chicago!) With the Time Machines, a new chapter was added to my time traveler narrative, wherein he one day mysteriously disappeared and I acquired the antique time machines he left behind through an inheritance. I’ve been repairing his contraptions, bringing them back to life with machine parts and glowing gauges. The “machines” typically all have some type of window that opens into another time or world. Sometimes the view is of the future and sometimes it is the past.


What’s your inspiration?
My Remembering The Future series of paintings was initially inspired by the cameras I’d see everywhere in Chicago, at traffic stops, and in neighborhoods, keeping an eye on us all. In the urban environment around my studio, I was also surrounded by networks of cables and tubes and those had a futuristic and mysterious vibe to me. I took this in the direction of science fiction and started imagining these alien contraptions that were part living creature and part machine.

Later on, some more esoteric and cosmic notions grabbed my attention and sparked the idea behind my Axis Mundi series of graphite drawings. I was reading Joseph Campbell at the time and the term Axis Mundi surfaced a few times and I looked into it. Axis Mundi means “axis of the world” and is the still point around which all of the universe is rotating. It’s also been thought of as a portal between the earthly and heavenly realms in various religious and mythological traditions, which appealed to me. The idea of a central axis that everything revolves around is a very visual and compelling concept that drew me in.

This series also tapped into my fascination with images that early alchemists and philosophers used to show a visual representation of the cosmos. In my drawings, I began using circular and mandalic shapes to symbolize a timeless state of no beginning and no end, as well as the “all-seeing eye” which alludes to a consciousness observing our material world. Although in this series, the eyeball was more of a benign presence rather than an alien invader. I’ve also included alchemical symbols in many of the drawings that suggest the merging of dualities, such as sun & moon, fire & water, or male & female.

What does your typical day look like?
I don’t really have a “typical day” because it varies, depending on whether I am working in my studio or on-site doing an installation or mural. At the present time (May 2016), I am painting a series of murals for Dark Matter Coffee’s new cafe in downtown Chicago, which is my home away from home lately. I go down there every day and crawl around on a scaffold, interspersed with some yoga breaks. Before this project, I created a site-specific mural for Equator Design, a graphic design firm located in the magnificent Civic Opera Building in downtown Chicago. I enjoy transforming plain office walls into visually stimulating works of art that inspire creativity. Whether it’s a busy retail location or office space, these types of projects tend to get a lot of views from people all over. In fact, I just found out that the Equator Design murals are going to be featured in the upcoming May issue of Interior Design Magazine, which is super exciting.

How do you keep motivated?
I’m generally pretty motivated because I love making art and have been getting exciting commissioned projects where I have a lot of creative control. However, having an impending deadline for a project or a solo exhibition helps. Practicing yoga and meditation consistently also helps keep me focused and limber. It’s difficult to spend a day on a scaffold if you’re body is not cooperating and your mind is scattered.


How would you say your surroundings have influenced your work?
I’m quite sure I’d be a very different artist if I didn’t live in Chicago. Being immersed in an urban area that has world class architecture and massive amounts of rusting metal (such as the Chicago “El” train) has had a huge impact on my work. This influence is seen more so in my mixed media work, where I create wall-hung painted objects with patinas that replicate the look of rusting, weathered metal.

Once I moved to Chicago in 2001, I also became obsessed with Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), who was an architect in Chicago at the turn of the century. He brought a renewed sense of life to how a building could be constructed. He believed that through his “organic architecture” he could pay tribute to nature and ultimately elevate the human spirit. This fusion of natural and manmade elements has found its way into a lot of my work.

The beautiful view of Lake Michigan here in Chicago has also been a major influence. You’ll see a lot of vast open waterscapes in my work, which lends an enduring quality that transcends past, present, and future. This sense of timelessness fits right in with my aesthetic.

What, if anything, would you tell your younger self?
When I was younger, I put too much emphasis on the psychological content of a painting without actually having the skill set to pull it off. I felt like my work had to have some grandiose concept that would blow peoples’ minds, but I didn’t really know how to paint yet, so I was let down when a painting failed. If I could go back, I would tell my younger self to focus on learning the fundamentals first and to not worry so much about developing my own style. I would assure myself that if I invest the time to master the craft and refine my skills, my own unique creative voice would emerge.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
The best advice I’ve come across is from an interview with Chuck Close I read:

“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.”

The War of Art, a no-nonsense, tough-love book by Steven Pressfield, also had a huge impact on my work ethic. It’s basically a manual for how to cultivate discipline and creativity and I highly recommend it.


Any words of wisdom to aspiring artists who want to pursue a similar career?
I feel very fortunate to be a full-time professional artist and make my living 100% from my art. I owe a lot to my wife Erin, who is also my business partner and manager. We are a team and she handles a lot my marketing, event promotion, bookkeeping, writing proposals, and much more. I think many artists first embarking on a career are (unpleasantly) surprised at how much time needs to be spent on the business and marketing side of things, especially if they are doing it on their own. Whether it’s you, a partner, an agent, or a gallery taking care of business, it’s important to realize just how vital this is if you want your art to support you financially.

Make a lot of work, but include only your best work in your portfolio/website, and in this area, having great photos is crucial. My advice is to either learn how to take sharp, well-lit photos yourself and develop some photo-editing skills or hire a professional. No matter how amazing the art is, you probably won’t get very far if your photos are crooked, distorted, poorly lit, or blurry. I learned this the hard way.

Once you have a body of work, there are many ways to get your art in the public eye. I started out showing my art in restaurants and coffee shops and then juried exhibitions. Those types of shows gave me tons of exposure and momentum, resulting in my first fine art sales and making connections that led to my first gallery exhibitions.

Finally, it’s super important to get out of your studio and network. Make a habit of going to art shows and familiarize yourself with the arts landscape around you. As tempting as it is, you can’t stay holed up in your art cave and expect to be discovered. While sending emails and having a strong social media presence is a key part of the equation, there’s no replacement for face-to-face relationship building.


What are your thoughts on art school?
I would start by saying that the Art World is huge and there are many different approaches to becoming an artist. Getting a higher formal art education is one path. An art degree is vital for many artists, and I think one big advantage of art school is that you can make invaluable connections in the art world that open a lot of doors for your career. That said, I would think long and hard about going to art school if money is an issue and you need student loans. Do you want to start out your professional career as an artist with $50,000 or more in debt? Will you develop the skills and business acumen that will generate that kind of money?

I did take some art classes in college but dropped out of school so I could go on tour with the rock band Old Pike. We were signed to Sony 550 records in the late 90’s and I had a blast traveling and playing live music all over the United States with my best friends. At age 23, it was simply more fun playing rock shows in NYC than going to a figure drawing class. Looking back, I have no regrets about this. After Old Pike disbanded, I found my way back into the arts by doing custom murals for clients as my livelihood and ended up learning valuable skills by having to paint a wide variety of imagery dictated by the clients. On the side, I was working on my own art and using the skills I developed on the job. I am mainly self-taught and got to where I am today through years of independent practice and experimentation. I do wonder though what type of artist I would be today if I had gotten my BFA. I could be an ultra-academic, conceptual artist in a parallel universe, haha.

Have any future aspirations that you’d like to share?
One of my main goals is to exhibit my work outside of Chicago more regularly. Six of my Time Machine works were recently acquired by 751-D Park in Beijing for their permanent collection and I’d like to continue venturing into that type of international direction. I would also love to travel and create large-scale murals all over the world (and be well-compensated for that work, of course). I love Chicago, but it would be a dream to get mural gigs or commercial projects in Los Angeles (or other warm places) during the cold months to get a break from the Chicago winters.

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