The Site of Big Shoulders Events Director Malcolm Taylor ran across Austin transplant James Ferraro's work at a Silver Room exhibit in the summer of 2009. He and Publisher Justin Kerr sat down with Ferraro one night this winter to discuss Ferraro's background, influences, and technique.
JUSTIN: You mention street art in your bio, and the illustrated parts of these pieces contain strong elements of that, both in terms of the subject matter and the style … it’s not really comic because it’s, you know, too finely drawn - those are ink drawings, right? Sort of layered on top?
FERRARO: Yeah, everything’s either an acrylic background and then it’s graphite and then I just use Micron pens, just regular graphic pens.
MALCOLM: Any specific type of paper you use, or canvas?
F: I’ve just gotten down a formula. The boxes [and] the actual framework are select pine and they’re all four inches deep. Then I’ll put in these exterior background pieces that hold these shells, and then I’ll lay down hard board on top of it, and then do multiple coats of gesso, and then I do all these washes. Some of the washes are just dirt ... I did that for a while ... and some are raw umber, which is my favorite color ... it’s on just about all these pieces that kind of have this -
M: Sepia tone?
F: Yeah. And then I just install the objects, which are then illustrated into the pieces.
J: So pretty much in every one of these pieces the objects are also represented. I noticed that with the gas mask.
F: Yeah, that was, that was my angle. Whatever is built into the piece is again illustrated so the viewer is reacting to the graphics of it, and then they can actually view this object found.
J: So do you do mock-ups before you actually build the final piece?
F: Yeah, everything’s drawn out, there’s really nothing organic about what I do. Well, the backgrounds kind of just do their own thing, you know? I’m just in there smearing on paint, but as far as what object, how it’s going to be built, how the figure’s going to be put in there, I’ll photograph the girls.
J: What’s interesting is that’s a very technical approach, and you have a BFA, right? So do you think that education has polluted you with technique? [Or] I don’t mean polluted, I’m not disparaging -
F: No, no, that’s a question. I think my brother and I both have always worked like that, we have a project, we know what we’re going to do, kind of have a vague color palette in our heads, and school might have solidified that, you know, just because you've got to have mockups for the professor or whatever. [But] I think that’s just kind of how I am.
M: [So] when people see your work, do you want them to have a certain feeling or is there a [certain] point you’re trying to make?
F: Uh, depends on the series, really. Some people … like our my parents ... ask what I’m trying to convey. And sometimes I’m fine with going ahead and breaking the whole piece down for them and then a lot of times when people see the work I kind of say the same thing to them. [But] whatever you take from the piece is what you take … how often do you see a piece of art and have the artist right there?
M: Right. Now, you mentioned your brother a second ago. What is the difference between James and Charles? Because that’s a little confusing at first.
F: Charles is my older brother, he’s just an amazing, mind-blowing oil painter. We worked as a team for a long time; in certain circles in Austin, we built up a reputation of always working together.
J: On the same pieces?
F: Occasionally … we’re always bouncing ideas off of each other, but typically our work, although very similar, was independent. I'm an illustrator, he's a painter … but we both do a lot of mixed media, if you look at some of the graphic stuff on the Web site. Like the coupons and stuff like that. He’s still in Austin holding the Gat5 down.
M: Your parents support y'all? Are they artists themselves?
F: Nooo, they're no artists. These acorns rolled pretty far from the tree. But my dad was a carpenter for a long time, and so I grew up in his woodshop, playing with the power tools and a stack of lumber when he wasn't looking. I think that’s why I give this carpentry-sculpture background to all the pieces.
M: Right. [Describe] your love for Banksy.
F: Oh, he’s my absolute hero. Can’t say enough about the man. The fact that he’s quote unquote anonymous and … just his wit alone, aside from his aesthetics and composition ... the intelligence of what he’s putting out there, the text pieces, [and] the sheer balls to put his pieces where they are, sneaking work into the Louvre … Just amazing. The second I found out who this man was I just consumed everything I could possibly get, you know?
M: You mentioned that you’re amused by petty vandalism.
F: That’s just a humorous way to put it, I love street art in general, down to a miniscule level, when people just put some extremely witty text on a street corner. Or a wheat paste that has nice penmanship. Not necessarily like worthless vandalism, but if it’s got a point, if it’s eloquent, I’ll appreciate it for sure. Or you know, placement, obviously. If it’s quick and sloppy, but they took their time to get a crazy odd spot, you know, that’s for sure.
M: Some crews have been out here for years, Just for Fun - that's J4F – you ever seen that around?
J: It’d be neat if someone actually did - I know it’s always a really hastily scrawled thing, [but] I wonder if you could get like a sponge or something that cut to a pattern. It just seems like a lot of tagging is just quick, quick, quick.
M: [That's] 'cause it’s not like you can stand up there and erase and all that.
J: Without etching fluid, anyway. (laughter)
M: Now, you exhibited with Shepard Fairey, the Obey Giant creator, didn't you?
F: Yeah, we were lucky enough to work with Hope, for the Darfur genocide, and we did an art show, top floor of Los Angeles city hall with Shepard, James Ganzer from JimmyZ, Larry Bell, and some other really talented guys. That was great, because like most young artists, we all ding on Shepard.
M: You've also obviously studied your anatomy. What are some other influences?
F: As far as the human anatomy, yeah, that’s definitely starting from a comic book background. Like most illustrators as a kid, I wanted to do that professionally. I still very much enjoy certain authors: Warren Ellis, the great Warren Ellis, I still love everything he does. Juan Jose Ryp, that man blows me away. Black Summer hands down is one that just blew me away.
J: You do any commercial illustration yourself?
F: Yeah, I do commercial stuff. I worked for an organizationon the west side called the Odd Machine, which is an effects house and a production house, doing fine art design.
J: Odd Machine?
F: [It’s] commercial, kind of hip advertising type of stuff, it’s an entity as well as kind of a start-up. I think they started last November or something. [And] there’s some stuff on the Web site … this is a T-shirt I did for a Meals On Wheels event.
M: What kind of response did it get?
F: They loved it. I was able to work with a not-for-profit company called Common Threads, who have the T-shirt up on their Web site.
J: Are you working on any new pieces?
F: Yeah. I took a commission from an assistant district attorney in Houston. Her name is Leah Shapiro, a fantastic old friend of mine, and I’ve been trying to get her painting out of my system for months. It’s one of those things that I wanted to make specific to her, and I can’t force it. So I stumbled upon these old brass scales, and asked myself how I can use this object. [And then] she’s like, “When I come home, I don’t want to think about work.” And I’m like, “Oh, well, maybe.” It’s very interesting, people, immediately your eye goes to it. So that’s happening right, it’s a triptych, each piece is two feet by two feet, typically all my work is about two feet by four feet, that’s like my standard size.
J: All right ... So is there anything else you'd like to throw out there before we finish up?
F: Not really ... I'd like to thank you for the opportunity.
M: Our pleasure.