Studio Visit: Jim Banks and Leslie Zelamsky
by Marygrace Gladden
In the Studio with Jim Banks
A wall of shingle-siding, painted a medium blue, leads to a door that is cracked open. Grateful Dead plays softly, and once you enter music fills the space and sets the mood for his work. Jim Banks, a painter and sculptor, sits at his desk in his studio, which lies just east of Davis Square in Medford. He has occupied this space for over 15 years. There are various paintings set up on easels, many of them large, 40” squares, but large or small, they are highly detailed visions of weeds, some taking over 200 hours to complete. He calls his paintings “Footscapes” because they are what you see when you look at the ground in front of your feet.
At first, Jim went to college at UCLA for Mathematics and Psychology, but during his junior year he transferred to Bard College. He had the notion to pursue studies in the psychology of art, but once he took a studio class as part of that endeavor, “the lights came on,” as he says, and he basically forgot about everything else.
Flash forward several years. Jim has a family, an MBA, and is working at a large corporation. He soon learned he had no enthusiasm for that type of work, but only for his art. What led him to Boston was his current wife. He was living in Memphis and he attended a Bard reunion where he became reacquainted with a friend from the art department. They ended up having a long-distance relationship; he was still in Memphis and she lived in Boston. She eventually said, “If you want this to work, you’ll move here.” And so he did.
His fascination with weeds started in 2009, when he had this idea to dig up “urban dirt” around town, put it in planters, and see what would grow. He was astounded at the flood of weeds that filled his pots. Since then he has created a “garden installation” of several large planters of various sculptural designs.
He has also become obsessed with identifying every weed he sees. On his computer, he has thousands of photos of the different species of weeds he has grown or simply discovered in various places. He uses these photos as references to make his Footscape paintings. He prints them out to the size he wants his final piece to be and uses carbon transfer paper to trace over every detail onto a wood panel.
JIm says, “whoever influences you is touching something inside of you that is already there.” He describes his influences as “people who gave me permission to pursue things that were already there.” He recalls how Jasper Johns’ Flag Paintings, with all their squiggles, gave him “permission to incorporate his own squiggles into his work. Jim jokingly says that everything he needed to learn, he learned from Robert Rauschenberg. He describes Rauschenberg’s work as “extraordinary.” Another influence is William Kentridge, a South African artist whom Jim says has to be one of the top five living artists in the world. “You know when you’ve seen a good show is when you want to go back to your studio and work.” Jim says, of Kentridge’s work. He influences Jim in terms of wanting to up his game to the standards that Kentridge has set.
Banks says his audience is mostly his fellow artists as well as people who take art seriously. He goes on to say how in the springtime when some of the earliest and most beautiful flowers appear, they are so small, you have to get on your knees to see them. He appreciates how creative God is, how several plants have the same flowers but the leaf and stem structures are completely different. This is part of what he seeks to convey in his paintings. He confesses that he doesn’t really think about what his work means to others and that he has no political or social agenda. There are some people who come up to Jim and tell him how they can’t stop looking at weeds after looking at his work. But for the most part, he just does what he wants to do and hopes that someone gets something out of it.
“I think the Artist plays as many roles as an Author,” he says. As authors write in different genres, artists work in different mediums and with different intents. Art somewhat distills the world around us only to bring it closer to our attention. “We have this concept as to what an artist means to society but really what we have is a bunch of people who don’t know how to do anything else, but somehow have to justify what they do. I don’t know [what role I play], I just know I don’t want to do anything else.”
His favorite work of art is The Annunciation by Robert Campin. It is an altarpiece which was completed in 1432. It now resides in The Cloisters in New York City. He is fascinated with the lines and expressions along with the sheer beauty of it.
You can see Jim Banks’ ‘Footscapes’ in “Natural Habit” along with the work of Leslie Zelamsky at Fountain Street from July 3rd through 28th, 2019.
A Conversation between Leslie Zelamsky and Marygrace Gladden
About 45 minutes from downtown Boston, Leslie Zelamsky resides in her home and studio in Maynard, Massachusetts. Her studio takes up the entirety of her garage and fills it with the smell of fresh cut lumber. In about a week, her organic, wooden sculptures and abstract paintings will be hung next to Jim Bank’s Footscape paintings of weeds for Fountain Street’s show, “Natural Habit.” During the time spent in her studio, she told me she was mostly done with her work for the show. The majority of her sculptures were planted on dollies for easy transport around her studio. I sat down in her studio and asked her some questions about her work.
Marygrace Gladden: Tell me how you got started with art.
Leslie Zelamsky: (Laughs) I have been making art my whole life. As far back as I can remember, probably when I was 9 or 10 years old, I was taking classes. It all just evolved from there. I went to Cooper Union for undergrad and Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) for graduate school.
MG: What inspired you to start your current project that will be featured in “Natural Habit” next month?
LZ: I have been working for a while with building materials, wood shingles and shims, things that you might find in a lumberyard. I was interested in taking those objects that are used in common place and transforming them into something. Lately my work has become more organic, more abstract I would say, it used to be more didactic. My paintings have always been more abstract and recently the sculptures are merging more with the paintings. All the work that’s going to be in the show is from the “Point of Departure” series, with one exception. The whole idea of departing from something else excites me. I working on a piece by seeing what’s in front of me, adjusting based on what it’s is reading off to me. in the past five years I’ve had major departure points, various personal things in my life that have had a major effect on where I am at right now. My work Plays with the idea of departure, what leaving is like and all that kind of stuff. The work is not about the point of departure so much as about the process of moving on, about what affected this work at the time that it came in my life.
MG: What do you want your work to say to your audience and who do you believe your audience is?
LZ: I don’t like to say, “I want that person to feel this way about this”; I really want the viewer to feel some level of enjoyment and peace when they look at it, because it is kind of a crazy world right now. I feel as though my work has a very structural, grounded-like quality to it. It’s easy to be with because you can form a relationship to it right away What I’m hoping people will do is to enjoy the work from their own perspective and bring to it what they want to bring to it. Often times, people will look at my work and they’ll see something in it that I didn’t even think about and that gets exciting for me because it gels something.
MG: Do you have any major influences?
LZ: My all-time favorite sculptor is Martin Puryear. I’ve liked his work for many, many years. I also like Ursula von Rydingsvard. I really like Joan Mitchell’s paintings.
MG: Do you have a favorite work of art? It can be yours, it can be someone else’s...
LZ: Oh, that’s hard. I don’t! I’m gonna tell you no! I could look at a Martin Puryear book and there’s no one piece that stands out as more incredible to me.
MG: What role do you believe an artist has in society?
LZ: So in terms of my work, I feel that it can be a statement but also a place to escape the chaos. I also enjoy political art, but I find that it can sometimes be difficult to make, to be a strong visual aesthetic piece and also be political. I’ve seen some very good work that is political,and I really have a lot of appreciation for that. I think it’s extremely important at this time, especially.
MG: How would you describe Boston’s art scene?
LZ: It seems to me, compared to what I am used to, on the smaller side. The commercial aspects of it don’t really excite me. I went to graduate school in Maryland at MICA and I went to Cooper Union for undergrad in New York. I feel like it’s a bit more conservative especially when I compare it to D.C. and New York.
Both Jim and Leslie are excited to see the show come together for the opening on July the 3rd. Natural Habit is on display until the 28th of July, 2019 at Fountain Street.