About American Painter James Jarvaise

James  Jarvaise
James Jarvaise

Interview with James Jarvaise

The following represents portions of an interview by Gerald Nordland (GN) with painter James Jarvaise (JJ) over a three day period in May 2012, at Jarvaise's home in the foothills of Santa Barbara, California. The interview weaves together biographical details, ruminations by the interviewer on the nature of Jarvaise's career, and Jarvaise revealing sources of inspiration  during his lengthy and productive painting career. 

Jarvaise Early Life

JJ: “I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on February 16, 1924, to James Alexis Jarvaise and my mother, Suzanne Conlin Jarvaise. My father was born in Turkey of French parentage. He was a scholar of Greek studies and spoke five languages. Before I was born they had lived in New York and then Chicago.”

“I always found the educational program at the Henry Clay Frick Elementary School in Indianapolis to be exceptional; there I was given an early introduction to the decorative designs of nature with a special focus on wild flowers, wild birds and butterflies. During those Frick School years I was somehow selected to be part of a “gifted art student” program which was not clearly explained to me. I was told that I would be going to Carnegie Tech for a series of classes on Thursdays from 1:00 to 4:00 o’clock. The classes were led by Mr. Sam Rosenberg, who was said to be a well-known professional artist. I was only eight or nine during this experiment. When I was delivered to Rosenberg’s classroom I was astonished to see such tall students; they may have been fifteen to eighteen years old. Sam Rosenberg welcomed me and introduced me to the group. There were no smaller children in the group that day, but later two did appear. I was given paper and a drawing board. I pretty much followed the example of the older boys. The assignment to Carnegie Tech was the high point of that period of my schooling. At 4:00 I would be picked up and delivered back to the Frick School.”

“Although Sam Rosenberg didn’t give me any special attention, he always made sure I was engaged. He expected me to keep busy. He explained that a model would take poses for a period. It certainly led to a stronger interest in drawing and painting and respect for the practice of the profession. New problems constantly presented themselves and the atmosphere was always positive. One accepted the business-like behavior of one’s classmates and I learned from their work and behavior. I was an admirer of Mr. Rosenberg, and I was always disappointed to know that he was not as celebrated or honored as I felt he deserved to be.”
“I graduated from the Henry Clay Frick Elementary School and in 1937 I entered the Taylor Allderdice High School. In 1940 my family moved to Los Angeles where I enrolled at John Marshall High School. I played football and ran the 100 and 200-yard sprints. There was an art program at Marshall, but it was nothing like the Frick School. I would draw when I had a chance, which I enjoyed, but I did most of my artwork at home. I didn’t have a specific place to work so I would just sit down at a table anywhere and just draw or paint. I graduated from John Marshall in 1942.”

“The next year, in April, I joined the United States Army. Basic training was held at Camp Roberts, California. I was selected for the Army Air Corps, and was relocated three times, finally to the University of Nebraska. It was school again; we were taking classes in math and science. Even before we qualified as pilots we were hurried to Europe because an emergency had been declared. Our troops and planes were trapped in the Ardennes, with constant clouds, overcast for months, while the Battle of the Bulge was imminent; we were the replacement flyers. While the war was finishing up, I was able to spend time in Caen, Nice and Antibes. I briefly visited the Picasso Museum in Antibes, but missed the opening, because I had to return to my post. Suddenly the war was over!”

“In the remainder of 1945 and for a few months in 1946 I traveled through France and a bit of Germany. I met a number of artists in Paris, including Mike Kanemitsu, and we often got together and did things together. Mike and I worked for a time with Fernand Leger, first in Paris and later in a class in Biarritz. Leger would show up once in a while and would go by and say something about everyone’s painting. We saw a show with a big Picasso, a fine Braque and a couple of Leger paintings. This was the first time I saw such things up close and there was a simpleness (sic) about the way Leger put it together. He used every old idea in the book about how to create the image. Mike and I were both blown away by those paintings.”

Jarvaise Collegiate Years

“By September 1946 I had returned to Los Angeles and was eager for college. I registered at the University of Southern California. I played freshman football the first year and intended to continue with the 100 and 200-yard dashes in the spring. But I suffered a knee injury in a football game and a medical consultation convinced me to refuse to have the recommended surgery. That ended my athletic career.”

“I had been waiting for a place in the architecture program, but it was slow to emerge so I elected to pursue a Fine Arts Degree in drawing and painting. I had always enjoyed those pursuits and felt it was right for me. I had many talented and able instructors at U.S.C. but the two I most greatly admired were Francis De Erdely, a draftsman, and Edgar Ewing, a painter. They were both wonderful artists, great teachers, and finally real friends.”

“In 1950, while at USC, I married Lorraine Weber, a fellow student whom I had met several years before. I got my BFA in 1952, and immediately plunged into my MFA. The next year Lorraine got a contract from the U.S. Army Air Corps to teach in France and I didn’t want her to do that alone. We spent a year abroad together, primarily in France. We both loved it! Whenever and wherever I am in Europe, even though I was born in the U.S., I always feel I was at home, where I belong.”

Later Work of James Jarvaise

“We came back to USC and I took up my MFA again and finished it. I began teaching there in 1956. Lorraine and I had seen an architectural design by Vic Sease with a dramatic cantilever that impressed us greatly. We bought one of his houses in Tujunga, a mountainous place and fairly remote. We had our first two children while living there. I started working in the back bathroom, and stored my paintings in the second bedroom. I did most of the cooking while my wife was teaching in Los Angeles. I did the babies’ laundry in the bathroom. The children took long naps and I found time to work at my painting as well.”

GN: It should be noted here that after joining the USC faculty, Jarvaise taught there, on and off, for over thirty years. At various times, he also taught at Occidental College and at Chouinard Art Institute.

JJ: “I continued with my collage paintings, but the new environment seemed to affect my work which now shifted into a series of horizontal abstractions with subtle colors. I had done some reading on the Hudson River School of 19th century American painters and began to think of their study of nature in relation to my own hilltop sanctuary, looking up toward crags covered with trees, bushes and ground cover. The HRS group used muted colors and there was a neutrality about their work that could be boring. As I thought about their isolation deep in the forest, I contrasted it with my own flexibility. Surprisingly I began to see the need for bands of strong color as complementary elements in my new abstractions and my work became much more interesting.”

GN: The Hudson River School refers to a group of American landscape painters who, in the first half of the 19th century, took up residence in the Hudson River Valley. They were professionally trained artists who wished to celebrate the natural glories of unspoiled nature. Their members included Frederick Church, Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Thomas Kensett, among others.

JJ: “Then one day a military airplane crashed into the mountain that was the focus of my studio and work. Somehow the mountain had changed. I studied it and thought again of my Hudson River comrades. Before the crash it had just been a mountain, now it had become something more and I began to think of other and stronger colors as being necessary to my work, more of color. I thought more about color than about the HRS paintings which related to the landscape idea. My first HRS Series paintings were severe; I had a lot of white space and then just bands of blazing color, but they soon became less severe and more interesting.”

“On a day that I was rearranging my paintings as best I could in my limited space, my thoughts were scattered by a visit from my good friend, Jack Vondornem, a professor of literature at USC. We had periodic talks and I always found them fruitful. He was very smart. When he saw my new paintings around the room he asked ‘What are these?’ and before I could answer he decided ‘They are landscapes, they must be landscapes.’ I had continued to think of them as abstractions, but I found myself agreeing with Jack; clearly they were horizontal, abstract renderings of landscape space. By the way, Jack wrote a short piece for the Sixteen Americans show where I showed my Hudson River Series paintings.”

“The Hudson River painters knew their territory thoroughly. They lived there, traveled through it, making notes and doing small drawings to be expanded upon and elaborated during painting sessions in the studio. Those Hudson River artists were totally steeped in their regional environment. Nature was there, surrounding them on all sides, at all times. They enjoyed their individual personal discoveries and shared the stimulus of their group’s mutual interest in natural grandeur and the wish to preserve the region’s resources. I recalled that some of the Hudson River painters were more facile, that they laid in the paint in a smoother, more skillful fashion, while others had a more scratchy style, perhaps with the result that their work deteriorated, leaving a less enduring record. It seems that in every case these painters’ focus was on nature, as faithfully rendered as their sight, skill and materials would permit.”

GN: The above autobiographical account by James Jarvaise leaves unanswered the question of why his public career which began and remained auspicious for more than twenty-five years, with high public exposure at the Landau Gallery, many national exhibitions, many awards and purchases, went somewhat somnolent at the end of the seventies. I would offer a few plausible explanations. Jarvaise regretted his having left, for nearly fifteen years, decisions affecting his career – for exhibitions, purchase prizes, submissions to national shows - entirely in the hands of the Landau Gallery. Without his personal participation, he thinks that he was left without leverage in these areas when the Gallery moved its operations to Europe. A further complicating factor is that in the seventies – primarily for financial and administrative reasons - the large American museums discontinued their practice of organizing national, open and competitive exhibitions, events in which Jarvaise had distinguished himself. And then, along with the responsibilities of supporting and caring for a growing family, Jarvaise was teaching full time and simultaneously immersed in the realization of the family compound where he and his family live to this day.

Jarvaise's Reflection about Art

GN: I asked Jarvaise to elaborate on how he approaches his work. I knew, from past conversations that his working process is based on improvisation and that he freely admits that in most of his works he has been “surprised” by this process. As we talked, he seemed to suggest that to fail to be surprised might reflect a betrayal of his sincere commitment to creativity. Robert Motherwell expressed similar sentiments when he wrote (for Frank Perls Gallery, LA, 1951): “Every intelligent painter carries the whole history of modern painting in his head. It is his real subject, of which anything he paints is both an homage and a critique, and anything he says, a gloss. Fidelity to what occurs between oneself and the canvas, no matter how unexpected becomes central to the artist’s responsibility to himself. That includes not only what one does, but also what one refuses to do. in making honest work.”

JJ: “Painting seems to come from an unknown source, which you’ve cultivated all your life. Your mind functions unconsciously, contributing to the work, helping to find solutions to problems which we only dimly perceive. You start a work without any intuition of what is to occur. Once you have one small segment, like if I do a little drawing that I like, I can put that shape on the canvas and quickly it starts to become something. It’s not just that shape anymore. I’m going to put another shape over it and it will begin to blossom. In your head you think it is a cloud or you sense rain. I don’t know these things; they are inside of me. I don’t know this when I’m actually painting. All of a sudden the work is finished. I get it done and I say “My god, did this come from Jack in the Pulpit? From Queen Anne’s Lace? It dawns on me that it all put itself together. How much do I have to do with it? I have something to do with it, it’s part of me, and my lifelong involvement with art and its creation.”

GN: This impressive view into the workings of his intuitive creative mind given us by James Jarvaise augurs very well for the retrospectives of his life’s work to be presented at Louis Stern Fine Arts. These serial exhibitions will go a long way toward restoring this exceptional artist and his work to the eminence they deserve.