Written by Suzy Krause
Images by James Andre
James Andre can still recall the first time someone noticed and affirmed his artistic ability—he was in preschool.
“A teacher called another teacher over to check out what I was drawing,” he says. It’s a testament to the impact an adult’s words can have at such an early age. Andre went on to become a successful artist, living in the RiNo district of Denver and practicing his art full-time, which is no small feat.
I recently had the chance to sit down and chat with him about his past, his present, and his process: a combination of hard work, artistic genetics, and some pretty interesting methods.
Tell me a bit of your backstory, where you came from, and how you became an artist.
I'm from a very small town in South Carolina. My family is filled with visual artists. In high school, my art teacher told me to apply for the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities. It was a tough application process but I was one of the lucky ones that got accepted. That was the rigorous start of my art career: art classes six hours a day, five days a week, by professional artists and teachers.
After high school, I tried out college. It didn't work for me so I started traveling. It had been brought to my attention in the Governor’s School that there is a road to being a successful artist, but that it wouldn’t be an easy one. The system we’re in makes it difficult.
You’re in Denver now; would you say it’s a better environment for freelancers? (Is there such a thing as a better environment for freelancers in today’s climate?)
Denver is great! I moved here two and a half years ago and sold my first piece of art for $3500...so I stayed. I’d say it’s easier to be a freelance artist here because there's lots of money, lots of young people with money who support local arts.
Does your involvement in the RiNo community play a part in that?
I am an artist member of the RiNo Art District, and they are wonderful to work with. A buddy of mine convinced me to move to Denver because he thought my art would do great here, and he lived in the RiNo district, so that's what introduced me to the area. I get emails on what's going on in the neighborhood and opportunities to be involved. There are also monthly community meetings about the Art District specifically, where we as artists stand, and where our voice is. I've never felt more involved with a community before, and I know it's just the beginning.
Tell me about one of the opportunities you’ve had through RiNo.
I'd say my favorite opportunity was the Midi Festival. I sold every piece of art except one!
On top of the local community you have in Denver, I’ve noticed you’ve built yourself an active and conversational social media community as well. You’ll often post works in progress on Instagram and ask your followers for opinions/suggestions/advice. It seems like a very vulnerable way to create art. Is that ever a struggle?
Not at all. I've moved around the country so much I have many people who follow me that know me personally, so it's not like a random person telling me what to do. They are all people whose minds I respect. I sometimes feel that my mind is in its own world so it's lovely to hear what others think. Other opinions open my limits
I guess I'll add, too, that I lucid dream a lot for ideas in my paintings
Tell me more about that.
Maybe by viewing my work you can sense a dreamlike sensation?
I started lucid dreaming ten years ago and have been practicing and exploring it very often. If I'm stuck on ideas in a painting I'll usually sit the work in progress somewhere in my room where I know I'll look at it when I open my eyes. I sit up in the middle of the night and watch what my mind creates in its lucid state. Then I wake up and try to paint it. I can close my eyes right now and make myself go into a lucid dream within five minutes and create whatever situation I want.
I've noticed another thing you often say when you're talking about your work on Instagram is something along the lines of, "This piece took a turn I wasn't expecting." Would you say you try not to control what's coming out of you as much as to translate it to canvas?
Yes, that's completely true! I usually have a general idea of what I want to paint, like an elephant or a landscape; then I just start painting. There’s no planning at all. I just go with the music and zone out and my mind creates the painting in the moment.
What do you listen to while you’re painting?
My dream is to create visually what Thom Yorke creates musically. I listen to his music with headphones in to drown out the world while I'm painting. His music is so surreal and the notes literally move my brush strokes faster, slower, whatever.
What you’ve described is such a complex mix of natural artistic talent, hard work, practice, and education. How much of your ability would you say is "gift," and how much would you say has been cultivated?
Visual art runs through my family, but I make myself practice all the time. I'm dealing with a carpal tunnel situation because I won't stop practicing. My education technically showed me what is possible; my mind drives me to create whatever is impossible. That's what I'm always chasing for. I'm often mad at myself for not creating the impossible, visually.
Something people probably can’t tell by looking at your work—which is very rich in color—is that you’re colorblind. Do you think that contributes to the dream-like feel of the paintings? Could it actually be considered an advantage?
People are usually surprised by that. And yes, it’s a huge advantage. I'm listening to Thom Yorke, no other sounds or worries in the world and his vocals moves the brush strokes and his pitch creates the colors.
So the work has a mind of its own, but tell us about the hard work side too.
I do work in a coffee shop in downtown Denver once or twice a week and I use that as part of my art career. My art is hung in there, and when I am scheduled I go in with a stack of business cards and tell myself that I'm not doing my job if I don't hand out at least one. It's my social marketing side. If someone's looking at my art I walk up and talk to them about how they feel about the piece, then let them know I'm the artist, and they end up buying it most times.
All in all, what would you say it means to be a Denver artist?
It blows my mind daily how big my art world has become. I’ve sold ten pieces in the last 14 days. To have five people contact me in one day to ask to buy a piece is crazy to me. Someone just sent me money this morning and said, "Here's the money, paint me whatever you want to.”