Interview with Jonathan Eckel

Jonathan Eckel is a painter in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. His more recent work has a more imaginative feeling due to his use of color, form and line.

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On your website you said that you paint intuitively; when you do your paintings do you think a lot about it first or do you just go with the flow?

I just go with the flow. Sometimes I’ll begin a work of art, taking it to a point where I am not sure what to do next. Then reflect on it, and start working on other things that are based on that one piece. Traditionally you do a sketch and you build up a drawing and then you say, “Alright, I’m gonna paint this.” I guess I learned that way in school but what always excited me most about art was the mystery of creation, more than the skill factor. The slow reveal of a painting’s meaning, the subconscious mind acted out by the chosen subject matter. More heart than mind. Maybe as a younger person I came in with an idea like, “I’m going to paint a still life, I’m going to paint a person sitting in a chair.” The subject was already understood. But as I continued to paint – ten years into it, fifteen years into it, twenty years into it, I started to realize, for me; it was not knowing the end result, not knowing exactly what I was after and instead, getting started with some kind of energy. It is both terrifying and really exciting to begin a painting. I guess it’s a thought to some extent but it’s more of a drive, like I just want to do this, I don’t know what it’s going to be. But then adding paint, subtracting paint, sometimes making a mess and being like, “Well, this didn’t go as planned.” But then again working through that and finding an image. It’s much more that now than any kind of planning.

Have you ever gone through any block where you felt like you just couldn’t paint? What would your life be like if you couldn’t paint?

There’s times where I don’t paint and I guess I’ve grown to think that that’s needed now; times when you’re not making art and you’re just thinking about it a lot but you’re not physically creating it. When I was younger, when I went through a time like that I might get either depressed or a little hard on myself because there is part of me that’s like, “You must be painting at all times!” Not to say that I’m not pushing myself now, because I still do, I’m still that person. I think even if you’re not making art you should be in the studio, even cleaning it or something you know? I don’t know – obviously I don’t keep up on that, my place is a mess but this idea that spending time with the paintings when you’re not working on them informs you and what the paintings need to become a little bit. So it’s like having a relationship with the art. If I wasn’t painting… like I said sometimes I embrace that, it’s alright. Sometimes there’s other things I do; I play a little bit of music. So there are times where I think, “You know what, my brain’s not in the visual imagery, it’s more in the sensory thing or emotional.” Sometimes music is the answer for that, it’s better than painting. I used to write, I don’t really write very much now, but sometimes in the winter it’s a nice time to write. I get inspired by either other authors or travel. I started writing short stories like 3 years ago now, which I had never done before and I only wrote a few. But it was this other thing you know? Usually my writing is poetic or something, or journaling, kind of just writing about my life. But then the idea of a fiction… for me it was influenced by magic realism, kind of like surrealism a bit or almost like Paul Bowles and William Burroughs. This idea of cutting up a sentence and throwing it back together and almost like visually writing, kind of abstractly.
It’s not like I’m always a creative person. Sometimes it’s watching stupid television or good documentary stuff and learning. I don’t read as much as I used to but obviously reading is a good thing to do when you’re not feeling it so much. I’m fascinated by art on all levels so I just love to learn about artists. At this point, it’s almost like artists I don’t really care much about, I still want to learn their story because they got to be who they are for some reason. Not like every artist is good but there’s something you could learn from almost everyone. Not just visual artists but Ernest Hemingway and other people that do really great forms of art. We can learn a lot from their life story. I’m really into biographies and reading about people and history.

What do you think makes someone an artist? I know people who won’t even call themselves artists because they say it would be like calling yourself beautiful; it’s something that someone else has to say about you.

I never call myself an artist. I say I’m a painter or something because I think it comes across as arrogant. I mean not always, but I think you worded it nicely when you said it’s something that someone else has to say about you. I always downplay it but I also think that’s a psychological behavior where creative people downplay a lot of things because there’s this love for the spotlight but then there’s intimidation or fear of being in the spotlight.
We all have seen that happen with famous musicians, artists, actors who get that fame and how that changes them and sometimes ruins them. Sometimes it ruins their art; it’s not the same anymore or it’s become something else or they start making the same old painting because it sells well. Now they have demand and they’ve never had that before, they have a list of people they could sell 20 paintings to, just waiting for them. Why would you not make the sale, you have to now. So, there’s almost like a downside to some of that.
What makes someone an artist? In a very honest and humble approach to a definition, without the attachment of what we’re thinking an artist is, I think someone who just works really hard and loves that work. It doesn’t mean that they’re always having such a good time doing it, there’s pain, there’s anger, there’s boredom, there’s a lot of unromantic things going on in the studio if you’re truly honest about it. It’s not like it’s always a fun time, but you love to do it. You prefer to do it rather than going out dancing with your friends. I think you should also do those things but the idea that you would reject something that might be entertaining to a lot of people to pursue this strange act of sitting alone at a desk scribbling on a piece of paper. I’m just trying to say that it takes a lot of hard work. Sometimes I feel weird saying that it’s hard work, when you’re talking about pushing colors around on a canvas but no, it is. It’s a mental hard work and you have to want to do it.
And I have no idea how to define art, as far as if there’s a definition. Yeah, we could all say a few things but what is art? Especially like contemporary art and really since Dechamp or these artists that really transformed things, it’s a different thing than it ever was before that. Now it’s even more different, I don’t know, I’m not really up to date with a lot of other forms of art going on now. To some extent I am but I still love a lot of the older styles and I mean here I am painting, this is an outdated form. But to me it’ll never go out of date. We’re still human, there’s a need for touch and there’s a need for hand-drawn and this emphasis on handmade will never go out of style.
There’s all these primal things that we never go far from even though we’re becoming space people. Who knows what the future holds, right, I don’t know. We’re doing all kinds of weird stuff, human ears on mice, I don’t know. As far as we’re going that way there’s still a need for art.

I think for a while the counter-culture used to be anti-yuppie or whatever, where now because everybody got to that point where they wanted to be so anti-tradition, it almost seems more quirky to have a garden or eat organically or to own a home or anything that humans just used to do naturally. So with the traditional art styles I feel like we’ll probably see them come back into the norm.

To be cynical a little bit, it’s almost like there’s a fetishization of a past culture, of raising your children at home. It is sort of a hipster thing where you go to somebody’s house and they got the chickens in the backyard and all that stuff. At the same time I love it, I embrace it. That’s what we should be doing anyway, that’s great.
I’m someone who loves Andy Warhol now and I completely think he’s great but he really did destroy a lot of what I love about art. I definitely hated him as a younger guy but now I love him. It’s interesting, since he had a lot of money, he collected a lot of art. So here’s an artist who created pop art and transformed what painting was, intentionally killing the old ideas and comparing the holy act of creation to the mundane repetition of American consumer culture. But all along, he was collecting old masters, he was collecting the best of the craft, of the skill part, of the beauty of it. But his art was kind of like this “screw you” to beauty. That says a lot about which art holds up in the long run and which art is important in the moment but has no lasting power. I work in the business now and we participate in art fairs so we see a lot of what’s selling and what’s not selling and what’s being shown. Just because you’re selling a ton of paintings doesn’t mean you’re making good art.

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Sadly, it’s often the other way around, if you’re selling a lot sometimes the work is much more commercial, it’s much more open-ended. They don’t really have anything to say. The way it fits over your couch and it blends with the furniture. It’s more of a beauty thing, not somebody’s heart, struggle, mission, declaration or some kind of clarity that came to the artist.
I want to say very clearly too; what makes someone an artist is that blue-collar idea. We all think of Van Gogh, of Frida Kahlo, these mythological people that they’ve become, so far from the reality of just being a human. For me it’s like, forget the romantic thing.

What inspires you to travel? Has it been worth it, is it something everybody should do?

Yeah, definitely. Luckily I traveled as a young person. When I was eight years old my father took us with him when he taught in Kenya for a year. So I spent from 1989-90 in Kenya, right on the hills of the Great Rift Valley. That trip alone still affects me as a person, there’s these memories or these deep rooted feelings that I had as a young little guy that I still remember today. That one trip was so meaningful and obviously at the moment I was a child so I was on to the next thing. As I became a man, 30 years later this year, it still affects me. Having the opportunity to travel at a young age inspired me to do that a lot throughout my life. We were involved in our church, so some of our trips were to help people and build things for people, usually always in impoverished countries and that had an impact on me too. Going somewhere foreign and trying to help out the best you could with a community of people that you didn’t know, that sort of humanity of the world, we’re all sisters and brothers idea. It’s cliche, I don’t really talk like that but it’s true and it’s beautiful, to have a complete stranger that doesn’t even speak the same language, cook with you where you almost feel like you’re part of the family. Experiences like that were good, that was kind of through my teens and then I lived in Rome for one year through school.
I went to Tyler School of Art, and Temple has a great program, so I lived in Rome for a year then traveled throughout Europe for about two months. I was 20 so having an experience like that where I was on my own, taking trains to other cities I’ve never been to and just really feeling alive and good. Then I didn’t travel for a while, I moved back here and finished school. I guess I traveled in America, I went to Colorado and lived some places like that but I was state-bound up until recently. I went to Paris three times recently and I went to Guatemala. Travel is also something that I’m very aware that I’m lucky enough to do, a lot of people can’t. And again, to go away for months at a time is really special, but to go away for even just a week is too. It doesn’t necessarily have to be out of this country either, there’s many places even just within a few hours. There’s small trips that kind of open your mind to where you are, the history of the place and all that. So, yeah, travel’s crucial and as far as it affects the work it’s not literal. It’s not like you go somewhere and start making art like that but it’s in the work too, definitely.

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How did you decide that this is what you wanted to do with your life? Not only painting, but living in Germantown, the people in your life, everything. How did you decide on your lifestyle?

The idea of wanting to be an artist as a younger person, like six to 12. I remember liking drawing and doing it a lot but I think every single kid in the world likes that and I wasn’t like some Picasso or anything. I wasn’t drawing amazing drawings at that age, I was scribbling like any other child. I do remember being in the third grade or so and drawing. I was really into these underwater scenes with sharks and ships and guys scuba diving with their little spears to defend themselves from the sharks. I don’t know, my grandma took me to see Jaws at too young an age and it really affected my youth. Anyway, I just remember doing it a lot and one time it was on a bigger piece of paper and a little crew of my classmates was standing behind me watching. I don’t think it was anything where I was drawing anything brilliantly, other kids were drawing too but it was kind of one little moment I remember standing out. Then I just continued with it and I would really say that I had two teachers in high school that were really great people and really great teachers. Both were artists themselves and they encouraged me at the right age to really think about it. It sounds a little bit arrogant but I just did it, I don’t know, as much as those two teachers helped me, it also was a very self-motivated thing. I liked to do it, I didn’t think I was super skilled, it was just something I liked to do. I just remember enjoying it a lot. Right before college was a time when I thought, “What am I going to do?” I didn’t have to think twice about it, I kind of knew already, I wanted to be an artist. My parents are a little more conservative-minded, as far as, if I wanted to be an artist I should have a little bit of a back-up plan.
So they encouraged me to do the education aspect, so I went to Tyler and got a BFA in Painting and Fine Art and I did the course requirements to get a teaching degree so I maybe did an extra half a year to graduate with the art education degree. I did a lot of extra work to get the teaching degree which I never really used.

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I did some substitute teaching, then I taught at a quaker school for about three years, I was kind of an assistant teacher so I sometimes would take over the class but it was something where I was always kind of working hand-in-hand with someone else on a very part-time kind of basis. I would get out early and be able to paint, so I did that for a while. I continued co-teaching for a few years but it was something where the art teacher at the school was older and she was going to retire and we were friendly and I kind of got hired with the idea that I would replace her since I was an artist and all and had my degree. It was something where I was kind of waiting around for that to happen and it kept being pushed back a little bit and I’m kind of glad it did. Because I could do that anytime, become this art teacher, you can almost always do that as long as there’s a position available but I can’t always be 25 or 26 and try to pursue an art career. I met an older artist who’s still working over in East Falls. I became kind of friendly with him and he needed an assistant, so I started working for him which was scrap pay but a whole other education. I was showing my work at a gallery in Philadelphia, I had just decided I wasn’t going to teach anymore, I was living in this little carriage house on Tulpehocken St. behind this beautiful old Germantown historic house. It had no plumbing and it had no electricity when I moved in, so I was kind of like camping out. I was teaching at this school then I would come home and not be able to use my own bathroom because there was none. After a year he did put in plumbing and electricity but it was still always this little shack. I had to keep it heated with kerosene which is not smart. But it was romantic and beautiful, it was a really special spot, and talk about cheap; I think my rent was like $400 for a sweet studio home.
So I was 26, I was living in this funny little shack and then decided to stop teaching and had met this artist. I started working with him and within like a month of my deciding that I wasn’t going to teach anymore, with the idea of doing whatever I could to make money with my art; even painting dog portraits. Although, I kind of think differently now, I’d rather be a janitor and still make the kind of paintings I want to rather than make portraits or something I don’t want to do. The gallery I was showing at worked out a really sweet deal where they started paying us a salary. So me and two other artists had an income every month, there was a certain number of paintings we would give them and we’d have exhibitions and work out a percentage idea with sales. It was one of those moments where you make this really big decision in your life and you don’t know how it’s going to work, then it’s surprising when something like that happens. Maybe it didn’t work out exactly like I’d thought, but it was still a great year of that situation. Then of course everything happens the way it does and that’s carried me on. I never really got to thank those people because things kind of ended poorly but of course I’m very grateful for someone giving me a chance like that. I think it really did kind of keep the ball rolling, not that it was easy from then on or anything like that, but there was this idea that you could be an artist, that you can have someone support you, you can sell paintings, you can also be living in this funny little shack and be cold sitting next to your kerosene heater. It was this rags to riches story without the riches. To answer your question about how do we know things, I don’t know. There’s our brains that tell us things will work out, but then there’s a heart aspect and a feeling; you know when you’re in love with someone, you know when you made the right decision, you know when you made the wrong decision. The idea that maybe if I wasn’t an artist some of these things wouldn’t of lined up the way they have. I’m not financially successful but financial success is not always the determining factor of whether you’re supposed to be doing something. On some level I feel very blessed to work with art in all aspects of my life; my own art practice but also the fact that I get to work in a gallery, it’s a gratifying way to spend your time. It adds to my life, it gives me joy, it makes my life better just to experience art and have it around and have people that want to discuss it and talk. It adds value to the normal life experience. I really think that most people have some type of art, whether it’s cooking or their love for travel; there’s something in their life that is this creative, interesting thing and they’d do anything to keep it.

Jonathan’s work can be found on his website, Jonathaneckel.com

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