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In the Studio: Jules Arthur

by Allison Malafronte

Jules Arthur in his New York City apartment and studio

New York City-based artist Jules Arthur does more than paint people’s portraits. He creates visual testimonies to the lives and legacies of those who have had significant cultural impact, shedding light on individuals who may have otherwise been overlooked or finding additional ways to honor the forgotten. Reaching into the past to research these individuals’ strides and struggles and bringing them into the present through large-scale paint and assemblage works, Arthur is both artist and biographer, transforming each person’s story into a compelling conversation piece that piques viewers’ curiosity—and raises the kind of questions only history can answer. 

The wood-working area of the artist’s studio is where he completes the carpentry and building for his large-scale works<br/><i>Photo: Jules Arthur</i>

Created in a style the artist describes as “social realism meets assemblage,” Arthur’s work features a range of distinguished figures—athletes, activists, abolitionists, musicians, tradesmen, blue-collar workers—and each one is illuminated through his detailed artistry and hours of devoted labor. In addition to investigating the subjects’ backgrounds, Arthur also collects antique or vintage treasures from his travels around the world to incorporate into the portraits, further authenticating specific moments or memories from their lives. His love of sculpture, training in illustration and fine art—Arthur graduated from the School of Visual Arts and studied with Max Ginsburg, Steven Assael and Garin Baker—and abilities as a carpenter and craftsman all coalesce when constructing these portraits, which are made using a variety of materials and media, including wood panels, metals, paper, leather, fabrics, paint, charcoal, and other found objects.

Over the years, Arthur’s art has taken him on many interesting adventures and allowed him to rub elbows with entertainment, music, and political elite: Collectors of his work include Jay Z and Cory Booker, to name a few; his artwork was featured by and raised funds for major charities, including those of Muhammad Ali and Alicia Keys; he has illustrated album covers for such Grammy-award-winning artists as Ben Harper and the Carolina Chocolate Drops; and he has created paintings for major films and cultural groups. Despite these accomplishments and accolades, Arthur remains the same gentle, gracious soul of his downhome Midwestern upbringing. Most days you’ll find him quietly working alone in his studio, satisfied with the simple act of building and creating, and humbly confessing that, contrary to what it may look like on social media, his is a low-key life of modest simplicity. Early in the new year, I arranged a visit with Arthur in his Upper West Side apartment and studio, and we spent the day discussing his unique works of art and the observations and experiences that inspired them. 

Arthur explaining the antique items he incorporated into his portrait of Harriet Tubman

AM: You seem to go to great effort to research the lives and times of the figures you paint. What is your process for putting these visual stories together? 

JA: A lot of my work is historical, so when I begin researching and delving into the life of a certain individual and his or her contributions, I learn about another person or time period of interest and it keeps growing from there. While I’m learning and researching, all of these gorgeous stories unfold that I can grab on to and either come back to later or juxtapose against what I’m currently working on. There is an enormous amount of research that precedes each piece and probably only about 30% of it makes it into the final work. I pull out the elements that speak the strongest to that individual. For instance, for the portrait of Harriet Tubman (“Mama Moses”), we know that she was known for rescuing families from slavery and bringing them into free states via secret trips on the Underground Railroad at night. She traveled light, only carrying a few small items with her. I kept thinking, of all the elements that describe her, what could I place in the work that would really make it explosive, that would draw the viewer into the narrative? So I chose a small, antique revolver and a vintage Bible, which I displayed beneath her portrait through the built-out wooden frame. It’s a very powerful juxtaposition: she was known for her faith and courage, but she was also doing very dangerous work, and these two items that she carried with her communicate that. I think it surprises viewers and makes them want to learn more about her. 

<i>Liberté</i>, from the Culture & Commerce series, 2015, portrait painted in oil on wood panel, wood and metal constructed box frame, brass hardware, gold-leaf frame, cloth fabric, antique tailor scissors, paper, stained wood,  23.5" x 40" x 4."<br/>Private collection

AM: Are there any particular issues—whether it’s equality or inequality—that you are addressing with some of these tributes, or any type of statement you want to make?

JA: There are definitely different ways of approaching an issue. What I’m doing is simply presenting greatness. These people have accomplished incredible things, just as many Americans have, but so many of them are unsung heroes. In presenting inherent greatness as a method to speak about equality and/or inequality, I align myself with the freedom fighters on the front line. At times the battle on the front line becomes so tribally confrontational that the intended message gets drowned out. Unfortunately, people can get so turned off by opposing views that they hunker down in their respective corner, and as a result nothing gets resolved. I don’t need to convince anyone about individual greatness—my work simply presents the facts of the subject’s life, and truth speaks for itself.

AM: Let’s discuss the current series you’ve been working on for the last year: Culture & Commerce. Where did the idea for this series come from, and who are some of the people pictured?

JA: The idea started forming about three years ago. I read an article about a fashion designer who had derived the designs for one of her collections from the patterns in a South American tribe’s clothing. It was worn during fashion week, and the tribes people saw it and questioned why these original designs were not attributed to them or why they weren’t asked permission to use them. There is history of that in the design and textile industry, where patterns are copied or borrowed without knowing or acknowledging the source. So this was the root of the idea, and then it started to grow in other directions through observing and researching other similar stories. Culture & Commerce is about giving honor and credit to the artistry and inventiveness of indigenous people who cultivated some of the cultural trends we now see throughout society. 

AM: I’m curious about where these works go after you finish them?

JA: They usually go right into private or public collections. I’ve been fortunate to be able to bypass the whole gallery circuit for most of my career. (I have shown at multiple galleries, but I am not tied to any one gallery.) Some of the current works on the wall right now are in design plans for major museums. I am grateful to have the freedom to paint what I want and not have to worry about selling, but it hasn’t always been this way. I have made many works that have sat in the studio, and I have done numerous commissions in order to have the freedom to explore ideas that take a lot of time and effort, and that might not have a home after they’re completed. 

Muhammad Ali standing in front of Arthur’s painting of him, which was featured in Ali’s 2006 Celebrity Fight Night auction for Parkinson’s Disease, and which raised $30,000 for the charity

AM: In addition to major institutions being interested in your work, you also have had some celebrities and influential people collect your portraits. How did you develop these connections and get your art in front of these people?

JA: Like a lot of things in life, it’s who you know. I’m fortunate to know people who have far reaches in industries like music, sports, and entertainment, and gratefully my work has resonated with them. Because of their influence, when they get excited about my work, others take notice too, and it creates a domino effect. I have to also say that a lot of the major works that connected me to the greats—like the painting for Muhammad Ali’s Celebrity Fight Night charity or the painting for Alicia Keys’ Keep a Child Alive charity—were donations. I felt strongly about the cause, and when the people contacted me I decided to create a tribute and offer it for free. When your art is in an arena like that, other connections and opportunities arise. I also have a friend I’ve known for years who was a writer in the music industry. She’s cultivated a lot of relationships with high-level entertainers, and she’s been a dear friend and fan of my work from day one. She helped me many years ago with placing work with Jay Z, which led to other opportunities. 

AM: Of all the unique experiences you’ve had, which were the most memorable or special?

JA: I think the two high water marks of my career so far have probably been Muhammad Ali’s charity event and Alicia Keys’ charity event. Having Muhammad Ali autograph my Celebrity Fight Night painting and knowing it raised $30,000 for a great cause was very humbling. The painting that was involved with Alicia Keys’ charity raised money for medical care and awareness about HIV and AIDS in South Africa, another great cause. Meeting her was incredible, she was so genuine and truly appreciative of the painting. She invited me to the annunciation of the auction, and I joined her on Good Morning America, where she presented the items. Again, an unbelievably humbling moment. 

Arthur’s painting of Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite appeared in Rolling Stone magazine

AM: I remember picking up an issue of Rolling Stone a few years ago and seeing that you had illustrated the album cover of Ben Harper’s collaboration with the great bluesman Charlie Musselwhite. Another pretty humbling moment I’m sure. How did that opportunity come about?

JA: I had a friend who was an associate art director for Rolling Stone magazine, and after she introduced me to the art director, they called me for a few jobs. Being in Rolling Stone was definitely another high point in my career. When I was a kid I was such a huge fan of the magazine for not only music reasons but also because of the tremendous artwork. I remember looking through my father’s vinyl album covers or flipping through Rolling Stone magazine and thinking if I ever had artwork on an album cover or in Rolling Stone I will have made it. But I also want to be honest about the perception and the reality of things. People see pictures of me on Facebook with Jay Z or Cory Booker or my artwork in Rolling Stone, and they too probably think, how about that, he’s “made it.” And it’s definitely an honor to have these accolades and get the opportunities to meet these amazing people. But there’s another side too that people don’t see: I had created several illustrations on assignment for Rolling Stone, and the one that you saw was the only one that was actually published. The other ones were cut at the last minute or plans changed. I mean, that’s just the business and I understand, but I have had several experiences like that, even with people in the music industry who commissioned something and then I never heard from them again. That’s why I say it’s not always roses and champagne. 

AM: Speaking of your father and music, how much has music influenced your art and life?

JA: Immensely. I can’t even separate music and art, in my mind and life they are one. There is always music playing in the studio; I literally can’t live without it. I grew up around music—my grandfather was a jazz musician—so music and art have always been a big part of life. As far as what I listen to, music for me is broken down into only two categories: good and bad. I listen to everything from Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Smiths to Led Zepplin and Black Sabbath to Miles Davis and reggae. I find Meshell Ndegeocello’s music extremely inspiring and important. I recently attended a production she created based on James Baldwin’s essay The Fire Next Time. It was incredibly touching. I also play music occasionally. Every Sunday I play hand percussion and the clarion in Central Park with a Haitian Rara group. It’s a style that dates back to the Haitian Revolution of the early 1800s.  

AM: I know that learning about and being immersed in different cultures through traveling is also very important to you as an artist. You recently returned from your first trip to Cuba. What was that like?

JA: I’ve been wanting to visit Cuba for a long time, but because of the historical issues between America and Cuba, I assumed it was enemy territory and unsafe. I wondered how they were going to receive me as an American. But when I got there, all of my presumptions and trepidations melted away. The Cuban people were so warm and hospitable and inviting, their mannerisms and formalism were reminiscent of a bygone era. The backdrop of this place is so inspiring to an artist like me who loves textures and surface: all of this incredible architecture and patinas. Because of the revolution and the embargo, which prevented Cuba from trading with America and some European countries, modernity didn’t have a chance to come in and swallow up all the beauty. And then there is the Cuban culture and music: rumba, salsa, and these dances spilling out into the streets. You’re in these verandas on beautiful warm nights where outdoor space and indoor space are one, you can’t tell the difference. And you can hear a band in the distance, and then around the corner, another band. It’s just such an inspiring and beautiful culture. I’ve traveled to a lot of places—Thailand, Cambodia, Kenya, Galapagos Islands, Egypt, Domincan Republic, Puerto Rico—and I thought they were nice places to visit, but I couldn’t see myself living there. But Cuba is the first place where I feel I could actually live.  

The artist with some of his assemblage materials, including cigars from his recent trip to Cuba

AM: Any particular person or group you encountered there who might inspire future portraits?

JA: I’m already working on some ideas, which would be a continuation of the Culture & Commerce series. Cuban culture is so rich with the industry of the 1800s and 1900s, such as rum, sugar, and tobacco. These are highly regarded commodities throughout the world. I want to investigate how African and Latin traditions were cultivated, who was responsible, and how it came to be a part of culture. I find it interesting that slave labor produced a lot of those industries, and under that harshness and brutality these customs and traditions still arose. I’m curious about those people: how did they keep their spirits high under such oppression? What were their songs? What were their dances? How did they celebrate their culture and identity? That’s what I want to look into and bring to light: how these people prevailed and how their culture lives on. 

AM: Let’s talk a little bit about your work area and materials. This is an interesting device you have, with a portable computer attached to a TV screen. Did you build this?

JA: I did. When I’m in the preliminary research stages for a piece, I sit down at the computer and design. I compile all the imagery—design elements, research, colors—in digital format, put them in folders based on subject, and then I design a picture from all of that information and inspiration. Then I gather the needed materials to build the work. So, I needed a stand that would allow me to go from the seated design phase to standing and looking at both the monitor and my art simultaneously when creating the piece. It had to be on wheels so I could roll it around the studio, have adjustable arms, and a donut that would allow me to attach the TV monitor and slide it up and down. After researching all the components and buying all the parts, this is what I came up with. I built this stand years ago when there was nothing on the market that offered all of this functionality. 

The artist built this apparatus to accommodate all phases of his creative process: design, paint, and assemblage Arthur at work preparing panels for his portraits  Photo: Jules Arthur

AM: I love all these antique and vintage items, fabrics, other materials around your studio. How are all these materials incorporated into your pieces?

JA: The area with my carpenter’s table and tools is where I build out the wooden frames and displays that hold the portraits. Then I usually carve out a section to display the antique or vintage items that speak to the subjects’ stories. After I draw or paint the portrait, I will then assemblage or collage. Through trial and error over the years I have figured out what materials to use to get certain effects. I create texture and patinas in the works through laying down fabric, adding ModPodge, distressing the surfaces of the wood, etc. I also sometimes will hand-paint or stencil sign-lettering across the top of the piece to describe the trade that the person belonged to. There’s usually fabric involved as well. I collect fabrics from many places around the world, although a lot of them come from Mood in New York City. I try to find fabrics from the actual time periods of the individual. Every portrait is different, and that’s my favorite part: building, adding, removing, layering until I get the effect I envision. 

This pile of fabrics in the artist’s studio contains textiles from all over the world, which he incorporates into his portraits

AM: What personal goals do you set for yourself in your work, and what is your benchmark for feeling satisfied with what you are producing?

Arthur will often hand-paint or stencil lettering and signs onto his piecesJA: They say you should always appreciate what you have and where you are now, but I’m always looking ahead or judging myself by what my contemporaries have accomplished and therefore where I feel I should be by now. So when my accolades do occur, I celebrate, but it’s only a short celebration. My mind is always moving on to what I’m going to do next. I’m extremely critical of my own work, but the moments I am satisfied are when I have achieved or superseded what I set out to achieve when I began the work or series. Although it’s incredible when a famous person collects my work, if I don’t feel like I have met or surpassed my intention, in my mind that is not success. 

AM: Have there been any recent works that met that criteria?

JC: I feel I achieved this with the Culture & Commerce series. Sometimes it can be difficult to find a direction you want to take your art or a voice to communicate what you want to say. With Culture & Commerce I locked onto an idea that gave me a range of depth to investigate these stories and they became seeds that kept growing and leading to other stories and ideas. To be able to put that in a pictorial sense really quenched my creative thirst. I felt the technical ability was balanced by the intention and content, and that is not easy to do. Everything came together very cohesively, and it’s something I feel I can be proud of. 

The artist at work on his <i>American Roots</i> painting for the Culture & Commerce series<br/><i>Photo: Jules Arthur</i>

All photography this article courtesy Allison Malafronte unless otherwise indicated.