Psychologist Carl Jung theorized that humans use symbolism to more easily understand complex concepts. This seems to be the case when self-taught artist JR Slattum describes his process. The subjects he paints gravitate towards the inner realms of psychology, philosophy, and the nature of being. Through his art, Slattum invites his viewers to travel within. His artwork brings heart and soul to characters that seem to glow right off the page. And soon, they will: the artist is currently working to bring one his works, Soulstice, to life with a stop-motion animated film that touches on the importance of mental health. We had the pleasure of talking with JR about this upcoming project, what pushed him to pursue art, and the purpose within his paintings.
I was raised in and spent most of my life in the Mid-Willamette Valley here in Oregon. These days I’m in a smaller farm town, Woodburn, just south of Portland.
What kind of music do you listen to?
Anything that’s good! Although lately I’ve been favoring a lot of the older psychedelic rock, early synth stuff, and stoner doom metal. I like music that makes me lose track of time, where I’m unsure if 3 minutes or 20 minutes have passed.
What did you last dream about?
My dreams tend to be pretty boring, to the surprise of many. Lots of DMV-while-doing-my-taxes type dreams. I think I use up all my dream juice during a day of creation. My most recent memorable, however, involved a golden statue of Thoth and beautiful chromatic ocean… confirming that I do dream in color.
What are your must-have art tools to work with?
Toned paper. Pentel Graphgear 1000 Pencils with 2B lead. A white chalk pencil. Great for rocking out some tonal doodles- my favorite part of the process.
What time of day do you feel most creative?
Mostly when the sun is out here in the dreary NW. 10am to 3pm are my power hours. Although, a lot of my paint sessions go into the early morning.
How do you describe your style of art?
Philosophy and psychology, painted. Archetypes & symbols. They’re usually in figurative form, serving as an avatar for the viewer to experience the work. We all have very personal relationships with symbols, and these guide us in our subjective journey into artwork.
What have been some of the challenges and benefits to being a self-taught artist?
There’s a lot of shortcuts that I would’ve learned earlier if I had attended an atelier or college- fundamentals that I had to fail into and stumble across on my own. “Oh that’s a thing”. But I also tend to be a bit rebellious. I like the idea of discovering my own point A to point B- unorthodox innovation versus the crutch of traditional boxed-in methods. A strong style seems to favor the self-taught.
When did you begin pursuing art as a career?
When I was a child I had always dreamt of becoming an artist, but as I became a young adult the drone of pragmatism set in- I mostly abandoned art when I was 15. Without it, a decade of depression and self-medication set in. My darkest (and brightest) moment occurred at age 25 (2007). This was a brush with death which resulted in a mystical experience. The content of the experience reminded me of the childhood dream of becoming an artist that I had forgotten. A friendly nudge. And just the fact that I almost died was a wake-up call, a common yet powerful phenomenon for those who have experienced this form of rock-bottom. It was such a simple idea- If I wanted to BE happy, then I needed to DO happy. Art had always been that source… and it brought joy to others around me. It was a gift to enjoy and give. If I was willing to waste my life so easily for nothing, then I figured why not throw all that energy towards the dream. After recovery, I immediately hit up the local art store and purchased my first brushes and paint. Painting sounded romantic and it still is.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self?
I’d tell myself to shut up and start listening. There was so much struggle with that when I was younger. Unnecessary block and doubt. As I’ve matured, I’ve found that the best ideas find me when I stay out of the way and let the art flow.
What does your process usually entail, from start to completion of a piece?
There’s A LOT more planning than actual painting.
Every piece starts with many doodles- these can be in the mindset of intuitive listening or with gentle intent (for commissions or themed work). The key here being discovery and staying out of the way. Here I’m focused on an idea, and not so much a visual. What is the story? I call these ‘seeds’. Lots of music in the studio during this stage. A seed dreaming of becoming a tree.
The next step is nurturing the seed into a visual ‘sapling’. What is the vision asking for? What do I feed it? More so- what can be removed- to distill? Pruning. This step is usually many sketches on toned paper- seeking a final composition for the work to grow into.
Once I have the linework achieved, I begin color studies. I’m asking the vision about its mood and personality. Working in Photoshop or Procreate, I can quickly feel it out… although this is where I spend the most time in the process. What will this tree look like in the Spring and Autumn in 20 years? I can see it. Time to paint it.
I like to work on birch panels with oil paints. After transfering the drawing onto the board and sealing it, I’ll rough in a tonal underpainting with raw umber. As this layer dries, I’ll spend a day premixing the palette, creating color/value strings for each major element in the piece. Having the palette ready creates a very relaxed experience when I start applying the color layers next.
During the next 2 weeks, I work several sittings, applying 2-3 layers of color over each other. Lots of audiobooks during this stage. It’s a bit more analytical. Doing- becoming the tree and performing the act. It is done.
Your paintings are so detailed, how long does it typically take to finish one?
The planning stage is usually 4-6 weeks, with the actual painting taking about 2-3 weeks.
Your work depicts very contemplative, psychological, even spiritual undertones- does each one have a story attached to it?
Yes, but I encourage looseness- again that individual subjective journey of the viewer being very important. There’s a few stepping stones here or there. When I’m asked, I’ll share my journey.
Your characters seem all very organic and nature based, how did their creation come about?
Growing up in Oregon with free-range parents, I spent a lot of time in the woods, riding bikes through trials and bushcrafting. I always had a childlike philosophy of being a tree dreaming of this human experience. Maybe true nature, in its literal sense. The raw experience. We get so caught up in the outer tangible realm of existence that we ignore the inner landscapes which have such a powerful impact on our outward perspectives. Forests to explore.
You seem to have mastered a glowing effect in your paintings that creates so much warmth. How do you achieve this?
There are tricks! I love the way light radiates its temperature into the air around it, bending hue. Keen observation helps here. Counterintuitively, slightly darkening the core of a light with a complimentary color, simulates afterimage- when your eyes continue to see a negative exposure of a bright light.
One of your pieces, Soulstice, is being made into a stop motion film. How did that project come about and when can we expect it to premiere?
During the Summer of 2018, Meirav Haber visited my art booth at the Portland Saturday Market. We immediately hit it off after she mentioned that she works with stop-motion animation- an adored medium that inspired me at a young age. We stayed in contact as she encouraged a collaboration. When COV19 hit, we saw the opportunity to finally hunker down into writing and planning our film. After conducting a successful Kickstarter campaign with an amazing show of support from the community, Meirav & team began building and filming in late 2020. Using actual physical puppets, with a small independent team, is a tremendous amount of work… but we’re finally down to building & filming the final scene. I spent this last December creating 2D animated end credits, which was a special reward goal in our Kickstarter. I had a fantastic time learning this process and creating them. Considering post-production and editing (plus whatever life throws in), we’re looking at late 2023 to wrap everything up. It’s a very special film to us- touching on the importance of mental health, with tones of Jungian Shadow Work, especially for the world in these trying times. We’re aiming for the film festival circuit in 2024.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time when you aren’t painting?
I enjoy spending time with my partner, Sarah. We try to catch live shows as much as possible. Lots of cooking together, hanging out with family, and spending time with our pets. When I’m finished in the studio, I enjoy an evening long distance run to breathe and clear my mind. Sometimes, I’ll escape into an RPG where I can veg the ol’ tired brain machine. During the Summer, there’s lots of tubing the rivers with friends.