May 25th, 2021
Splashes of dynamic color and strokes of expressive texture grounded in strong compositions: this is the style that collectors have come to know and love from Minnesota artist James Penfield. This new body of work from Penfield maintains all of the same brilliant color and loose, abstracted subject matter, but is applied with an even more expressive, painterly style. Looking back through our last six years with the artist, we can see how his work continues to pick up tempo, pulsating with fresh energy and power with each new piece. We can’t wait to see where this momentum takes our ever-evolving artist.
Excited by this latest body of work, we sat down for a conversation with the artist, talking in depth about his diverse background in various media, the art movements that most inspire him, his deep affinity for nature, and more.
Gallery MAR: How and when did you first know you wanted to make art your profession?
James Penfield: Like most people, I grew up making art. In elementary school, I started to enter art contests. That was my first real catalyst, and I’ve stuck with it ever since.
Gallery MAR: I understand that you come from a family of artists. What was it like to be raised in such a creative environment?
James Penfield: I grew up in a Midwestern craftsman household. My grandfather was a carver with Scandinavian roots, so he introduced me to a lot of Scandinavian decorative arts. I remember him always carving these pieces using different Scandinavian techniques. It was a really great environment to be brought up in.
Gallery MAR: Do you feel like that background encouraged your pursuit of art as a profession?
James Penfield: All that support along the way definitely molded me and pushed me to make art into a profession as I got older. That’s something that’s never left me, that bulletproof confidence they helped instill.
Gallery MAR: You’ve been doing art your whole life, but what a lot of people might not know, is you’ve also been studying it. You have a degree in Art History and in Graphic Design. How do you feel that those two backgrounds have informed your work?
James Penfield: I went to Hamline University in Minnesota and pursued Fine Arts there. When I was applying for the Fine Arts degree, the chair of the department at the time, Leonardo Lasansky, asked me, “are you sure you want to do this?” Instead, he encouraged me to study Art History instead of Fine Art. In the end, he knew that I would pursue art regardless, so he knew that studying art history would present another universe to me than the one I was already in.
He was right. I ate up the information like crazy. Put a book of Monet in front of me, or a piece about Charles Sheeler, and I eat it up. I truly just love art history. I can’t get enough of it, especially all of the different aesthetics that art history introduces to me.
Gallery MAR: If you had to choose, what would be your favorite aesthetic that art history introduced you to?
James Penfield: Aesthetically speaking, Russian Constructivism really stuck out to me. I’ve never let that go. It was less of an aesthetic and more of a political movement, but it’s absolutely fascinating to me. When I was 20, I was strolling through the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and I wandered into this room with prints on the wall. They just clicked with me. It honestly kind of changed me. They were extremely graphic, simple, red, black, and white prints by El Lissitzky. I think the thing that drew me to Russian Constructivism is that I related it to graffiti and the graphic art movement that felt popular at the time. A lot of the work around me in the early 2000s, like screen printing, was very graphic. It was like everything was informing everything.
Gallery MAR: Were you a graffiti artist or graphic designer at the time or just interested in that graphic art movement?
James Penfield: I’m not going to claim that I was a graffiti artist, but I definitely rolled around with people who were. Graffiti art was very popular when I was growing up. There was a real culture around it.
Gallery MAR: So what kind of art were you making?
James Penfield: Well, I was exploring different media when I was at school, and I saw this one printmaking class, and I thought, “oh I’ll just take this ‘in-tag-lio printmaking.” So I did that and I met this professor, the head of the department who encouraged me to take Art History, Leonardo Lasansky. Lasansky is the son of Mauricio Lasansky, a famous intaglio printmaker. Leonardo Lasansky was also a master printmaker, like his father. I knew I would get a great education from him. I really took to him and developed a great artistic relationship with him when I was in school. He became a very influential person in my life.
So now I love intaglio printmaking. It completely took me off guard as a medium. I really love the process, the sequence of it. It reminds me of the photographic arts, working in sequence with film in a darkroom. I love that flow.
Gallery MAR: Between intaglio printmaking, graphic design, and graffiti, you have quite a diverse background in artistic media. How did you then discover mixed media painting, your primary media now?
James Penfield: Honestly, I don’t quite know where that started. For me, I look at painting as an almost “pure,” form of creating art. It’s not as step-by-step technique-driven. Instead, painting is an action.
Gallery MAR: Do you miss that step-by-step technique or do you prefer the spontaneity that painting allows?
James Penfield: I look at it as the two sides of my mind: order and chaos, left and right brain. So I’m definitely interested in both.
Gallery MAR: Could you talk a little about your current process of creation?
James Penfield: My work begins outside. For instance, with an elk painting I’m working on called “Sundown,” I was driving home from the park to our cabin when some elk crossed our path. The light was hitting it just right, so I snapped a shot. Taking the photograph first allows me to target in on the subject matter as a starting point. You can find the composition through the lens, but even before then, you first grab an impression with your eye and your mind. Then I run with that idea and translate it into composition. So photography for me is an initial compositional action whereas painting is then more of an internal reflective process.
Gallery MAR: Based on your body of work, it seems you find much of your inspiration out of doors. Could you talk a little about your relationship with nature and the role it plays in your work?
James Penfield: I’ve always loved the outdoors. I was a free-range kid, growing up collecting frogs and toads. I grew up in the Midwest fishing and hunting. Being outdoors is a big part of Midwest culture, so I tend to fill as much time as I can traveling around and experiencing what I can of nature. There truly is some kind of connection in nature, an input that’s very real. On this last trip out to Rocky Mountain National Park, I saw this pristine lake that just blew my mind. The mountains carry so much energy and power. They’re worth preserving and supporting.
I’m also obsessed with snowboarding, so a lot of my relationship with nature is based on snowboarding. I grew up watching snowboard videos of people that I looked up to flying down mountains. I’d say that that energy, or that “hype,” single-handedly inspired me the most.
Gallery MAR: A perfect obsession for a Park City gallery artist! My last question is something I like to ask all of our artists, which is: what are you currently most excited about in the studio?
James Penfield: I’m most excited about my next trip for inspiration. I’m not sure where I’ll go next, but I’m looking forward to going to another location and coming back to the studio to paint it. It’s amazing to be able to do what I do. I’m very grateful.
We would like to extend our gratitude to artist James Penfield for the interview.
Written by Veronica Vale