AN INTERVIEW WITH J.R. HESS
Written by Kim Weeks from her interview with J.R. Hess.
An artist may never know what or who will provide inspiration and motivation, but wildlife artist J.R. Hess discovered that, though he was always creating, his true artistic spark came while living in self-imposed austerity in the Pacific Northwest. And while it may have taken him a decade more to see it come to fruition, he is grateful for the journey and the success he is having today.
Like many artists, J.R. started out by drawing pictures as a young boy. He drew anything and everything he could see, using everything and anything he could get his hands on.
“As the saying goes, ever since I could hold a pencil or hold something, I was always interested in art. I grew up as an only child, so art was it. That was my entertainment. That was what I did,” he said. “I can barely remember, but … my mom has these stories of me pulling out the funny papers and trying to duplicate the comic section. That was my introduction into drawing and being an illustrator. And from there it just stuck. I always drew.”
J.R. continued his youthful art career at Griffith High School in Northwest Indiana, where being the “guy who draws” was his identity. He became one of the go-to students to illustrate everything from yearbook covers to the mascot mural on the gymnasium wall. Once he got out of high school, though, the world became a bit less certain, and J.R. embarked on a journey to find himself.
Over the next few years, J.R. became a self-described “flaky artist,” not knowing where he wanted to go. He worked for a year as a cell animator at Disney, then headed to Albuquerque, where he worked as an animator for another company, and then earned his bachelor’s degree in advertising art and design from Albuquerque’s Art Center Design College, graduating top of his class. Even still, he didn’t feel ready. He wanted more life experience.
“I was this free floating hippie that was looking for alternative living styles. And I was just looking for life experiences. I was so young. I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t ready to go into the workforce. I never really had that dream. I mean, I knew I was a good artist and I loved what I did, but at that particular time, that was all I knew how to do. So, I went to school and got a degree, but it wasn’t necessarily to go out there and conquer the workforce and be a successful artist. It was, ‘Well, I’m a good drawer, so why not go to art school and see what I can soak up there?’” he said.
But after college J.R. still craved life adventure, so he did some searching around with the goal of finding a communal living situation, preferably in the Pacific Northwest. In 1995 there was no Internet to aid with his search, so he started making phone calls. At his mother’s suggestion, he spoke with someone at local chamber of commerce in Washington, but when nothing came of that conversation, he was about to give up. It was then that a different person in the office mentioned a “hippie-ish” place she had heard of, called Indralaya, on Orcas Island. As it turns out, that offhand recommendation from a woman he had never met, would change J.R.’s life.
“So, little does she know, this woman, whoever she was, that was working next to this lady on this particular day, completely changed the course of my life. It was the coolest thing to think. And I love things about that in life, how one small thing or one [person] can alter the course of everything,” he said.
Indralaya, derived from Sanskrit, means “a home for the spiritual forces in nature.” Indralaya community members live in harmony with nature and each other, experiencing the connectedness of all beings, while exploring individual pathways to self-fulfillment. Community residents help with basic chores, maintaining the camp and working the garden, in exchange for food, which they help grow, and a place to live. Weekends are enriched with seminars on a variety of topics relating to everything from yoga and tai chi to engaging with nature and confronting death.
“It was exactly what I was looking for,” J.R. said. “It was the most amazing experience of my young upbringing … and I tell people, this place just saved me. It changed the course of where I was going. It gave me direction. And I felt just super inspired there, and living in the woods and doing what I wanted to do. There was no money exchange. I didn’t have to pay for rent. I didn’t have to pay for food. I was just living and creating artistically.”
It was during that time that J.R. says he developed his love of animals and wildlife, and an intense inspiration to draw what he saw there.
“I was amongst it. I was living it. I tracked the bald eagles every day. There was a nest right above my cabin. And I got to listen and watch the ongoings and the pods of killer whales. I would sit on the beach and watch as they rolled past. I mean, it was experiences like that that you just can’t buy. It was just amazing.”
J.R. said that living at Indralaya for those 10 to 12 years was far from comfortable, with no heat and no running water. He lived in tents, trailers, yurts, tepees, even an old school bus. But he looks back on those days with fondness and gratitude for the experience, the inspiration, and even the artistic implements it did afford him.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Why pencil art? Why did you not become an oil painter?’ The answer is pretty simple. It was because I had no money and couldn’t afford it. I couldn't afford the brushes and paints, easels and canvases, and everything else that went along with being a painter as a young artist. I could, however, always find a piece of paper and something to draw with. From there, it evolved,” J.R. said.
While living on the island, J.R. met a Native American drum maker from the Lakota tribe. As this friendship developed, J.R. was able to glimpse the life and traditions of people that he has come to admire. He was able to live in a traditional Lakota tepee, experience a traditional drum circle, and find healing and renewal in a Lakota sweat lodge.
“To me that culture makes sense. Dealing and living with everything that’s around you and being part of everything. That’s what makes sense to me. Everything is alive. You’re part of everything. Everything is a part of you. And that culture and the tie with the animals, it really helped fuel my artistic vision,” J.R. said.
J.R. has created a number of Native American drawings since those days, but perhaps the one that is most meaningful to him is one he drew while he was living on a frigid school bus, using paper and drawing implements that he scrounged up.
“That piece would warp up in the middle of the night, it was so damp and so cold living in the bus. I’d have to get up in the middle of the night to stoke the fire just so I wouldn’t freeze to death. It’s a different type of living, but I always found time [to draw], and that piece hangs in my house today. Well, a print of it. The original didn’t last very long,” he said.
As meaningful as the drawing is, J.R. values the experiences and lessons that led him to draw it far more than the original piece.
“I have found over the years, some of my favorite work has been done when my living conditions were maybe considered less than favorable. This piece is a constant reminder to me of a time when I had no concerns about sales or deadlines or collectors, or even prospering as an artist. It was more about the process of creating art for the sheer love and passion of doing something I truly loved to do,” he said.
Once he left his beloved islands of the Pacific Northwest, J.R. found a different sort of happiness and fulfillment. He met his wife, got married, had two children, and didn’t draw for 15 years.
“My focus was more on raising my two boys and trying to be present, and to be there. To be a good dad. And they basically became my new passion,” he said. “It didn’t feel like the time for me to focus on drawing pretty pictures and what I wanted to do. I wanted to do what was right for my boys and my family.”
So during those early family years, J.R. ran a successful commercial painting business in Boulder, Colo., and that work was enough to scratch his artistic itch for a while.
“I was just consumed with work and making a living, and it sufficed, because I was using my artistic talent. I could paint really well, at least walls and buildings. I couldn’t really transfer that to canvas, strangely enough, but I could paint a building,” he said.
After about ten years, the family decided they were ready for a warmer climate, so they moved to Arizona. But because the commercial painting market was essentially saturated in the area, J.R. started a pool cleaning business, despite having little knowledge and no experience.
“So, we just bought a house with a pool, and I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know anything about pools. I know there’s chlorine in it, but other than that, I know nothing. So, I better learn something if I’m going to be taking care of my own pool,’” he said. “I’ve always followed that ideology, as far as, ‘Well, this seems interesting. Maybe I’ll go and do that and see what that’s about.’ So, that’s what I did with pools. And it was cool.”
During the four years the family spent in Arizona, J.R. decided to take his family back to Orcas Island so they could see and experience the majestic scenery that was the backdrop for the stories he would tell over the years.
“It was so neat to be able to show my family the special place that, like I say, I attribute to saving me or at least changing the course of my life. And we went up there and it was great. We stayed, we rented a cabin, we saw the eagles and saw the whales and everything was perfect,” he said. “And when we got back to Arizona, it was like a switch. It was like a light switch. I was instantaneously inspired. I can’t explain it. When we got back to Arizona, I started drawing again.”
J.R. picked up his drawing pencil, and, re-armed with the rejuvenating experience of Orcas Island, he started to build his art career. And he has not looked back since.
“I started entering shows and had positive feedback from the shows. I won some awards, and it just took off from there. I haven’t stopped. It has consumed me. It’s art,” he said. “Again the Orcas saved me. For whatever reason, the place was in sync with my life, and here it is. It has changed everything again, so it’s the coolest thing for me, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m doing what I love to do, and now I feel like I’m really starting to get some momentum.”
Because of the penury of living on the islands, J.R. had become accustomed to drawing in black and white, because pencil and ballpoint pen were the only items readily available. As he got back into drawing after his second visit, he continued to create in black and white. And while his work was selling and receiving some acclaim, he found that once he began using colored pencils, thanks in part to a nudge from his mom, his drawings began to sell in earnest.
“I was doing black and white work, and … I did something in color and people were just flipping out about it … Color, it just clicked with me. The blending and the layering, and it just made sense … [When] I made the switch to color, galleries became interested, and I started winning awards, and people wanted me in their shows, and I was invited. It was like, ‘Wait. What?’ I mean it was unreal.”
At that point J.R. was on a mission to find gallery representation, so he began sending out inquiries to galleries all over the country, including Montana Trails Gallery. From those emails he received a number of responses and sold a lot of pieces; so many that, by the time MTG responded to his initial inquiry, he had no drawings left to give them. A year later, though, J.R. reached out again and MTG ended up taking all of the pieces that he sent them and thus began representing his work.
“It’s been really cool and been such an honor to work with such a reputable gallery … It’s the coolest thing for me. I’m living a dream. I’m living a dream,” he said.
Sydney Weeks from MTG, said they are thrilled to represent J.R., because his drawings complement the other works in the gallery and offer a beautiful alternative.
“We love being able to offer colored pencil drawings, and J.R.’s work is truly incredible. We find that clients spend so much time looking at his work and are captivated, not only by the detail, but the power of the animals and the way he depicts them,” said Sydney.
J.R.’s drawings of animals are intricately detailed and can be described as photorealistic, yet they have a depth of emotion that transcends a photograph. And while one imagines each piece taking innumerable hours, J.R. says that more time does not necessarily translate into a better piece.
“Some of my favorite pieces I’ve done in a matter of a handful of hours or a half day. And some pieces I’ve spent over a week on, and I hate them when I’m done. So, I just never know,” he said. “Sometimes it seems like when I have some type of challenge that I’m working through, some of my most favorite work comes out. So, sometimes struggle helps.”
While J.R. is not necessarily comfortable quantifying the time it takes him to complete his drawings, he can confidently say that it has taken him a lifetime to get his art to where it is today. And the more success he sees, the more grateful he becomes and the more eager he is to give back. Lately, J.R. has been donating wildlife drawings to a local raptor conservation group, birds of prey being among his favorite animals.
“I’m very interested in preservation and bringing awareness to how important these animals are to everything. To the ecosystem. To life as we know it,” he said. “And not only do I love wildlife, but to give you an up close and personal relationship with these animals is what I love to do right now. Looking right at them. You can look right into their eyes … It’s not every day you can look into a fox’s eyes or right into a bharal’s eyes. And that’s what I like to try to capture. The emotion of the animal, whatever that be. So, I try to do what I can. I’d like to be more involved [in conservation].”
Although he would like to paint more types of wildlife that he has seen over the years, J.R. is keenly aware that art is also a business, and the pieces he intends to sell must fit into someone else’s personal space.
“I had so many experiences with these western diamondback [rattlesnakes] slithering through our yard in Arizona, and the gila monsters that pop up, and all of these really cool things. But now I have to think about the collector … How many people are going to want a diamondback just staring at them over the kitchen table?” he says.
At the same time, though, J.R. knows that as an artist, he must be true to his own sense of creativity, and paint what he loves in order to stay fresh.
“Not all art has to be for sale. Not all art needs to be understood. Not all art requires a reason to be made. The beauty of art is the process behind it. There isn’t a need to appease the masses. The need is to appease oneself,” he said.
Regardless of the subject matter, J.R. has been nothing less than thrilled about the success he is having now and all of the work and experiences that have led him to where he is.
“I always go back to that. [Indralaya on Orcas Island] was super special to me and it saved me twice. And here we are, and I’m doing interviews with prestigious galleries and magazines. And who would have thought [this would happen] when I had a backpack and was in a school bus without anything? It feels like a rags to riches story,” he said. “Right now I finally feel like I’m arriving. And I’m 48, but I’ve been doing this my whole life. This is it. I’ve always known this is what I do. I’ve had an ability, a knack, I guess. I don’t know if I necessarily believe in the word ‘talent’. It’s not necessarily ‘talent’. I feel like anybody can do what I do. If you practice, if you work at it, if you invest 35, 40 [years], a lifetime. Anybody, if the desire is there, if the will is there, if the intent to be good at something is there, you can be good at it.”
And while the lifelong dedication and hard work to achieve a goal is undoubtedly essential, anyone who sees J.R.’s work might tell you that the gift, the talent that it took to create it, is uniquely his, and it is enhanced by years of work, fulfilling life experience, and a true generosity of spirit.
COPYRIGHT MONTANA TRAILS GALLERY 2023