Jimmy Mezei: Close Your Eyes and Dive In
People who mispronounce his last name say Mezzy, his father-in-law nicknamed him Ponyboy, and we call him Sweet Jimmy because he keeps everything fresh and light, never salty or bitter. I recently spent time with Brooklyn artist Jimmy Mezei as he installed a new two-story mural of gestural lines and wooden shapes inspired by nature’s lines, a metaphor for new opportunity, which also fits his growing foray into large-scale work. On breaks from this installation at Facebook, he was off to every local museum in San Francisco, studying up on the masters. After a treacherous day on a scissor lift, drilling art shapes into concrete, and somehow making these heavy planks look delicate on the wall, he sent me a very succinct message: “It’s mainly about process and how you can use it as a tool for discovery.” Ponyboy is on point, and he’s about to live larger than ever.
Kristin Farr: You seem very inspired by plants and nature.
Jimmy Mezei: I always come back to it in most of my work, and if I'm ever struggling with a project, spending time outside always helps. Lately, I've used studies of plants as either a contour line drawing, or as a papercut to be the foundation for some new work. The strength in the shapes and forms I keep finding in making these studies are certainly holding my interest for now.
You’re a designer, illustrator and sign painter, but the murals are something new, right? Which elements of your design background are useful with the big installations?
I've been itching to work on a larger scale for a while now, and have been excited to make that jump. Being able to use design tools and being comfortable in and out of the computer has made the transition feel pretty smooth. The works I've been doing on a larger scale are most often asymmetrical compositions that have a good amount of white space. It’s been nice to be able to tweak the composition digitally so I can create the balance I'm after while being aware of how it all looks in scale.
You make everyday things look great, like your print of pink wine in a brown bag. What kinds of overlooked items catch your eye?
I've always been attracted to everyday paintings. I think it's such an intimate peek into someone’s life, the everyday objects with which people choose to surround themselves. Those are purposeful choices we never think about, and that combination of particular and indifferent is fascinating. Really, it just has to catch my eye—the rosè in the bag was just something I thought had become semi-iconic, emblematic of what was probably a fun summer night.
Diving and water scenarios seem to recur in your work. Why is that?
Like the nature theme, it just comes down to wanting to be outside. When I'm not able to, I guess I depict that urge. The idea of diving in head first is something I think is important to remember, that feeling of putting your hesitations aside and doing it.
You made some Seinfeld-inspired pins. Is that show a major influence?
I do love that show and anything you've seen that much is bound to have an influence. I think it showed me how it's possible to take pleasure in an apt observation of literally anything, no matter how mundane.
Does text in your work come naturally or do you listen for good phrases?
Some just stick in my head and I'm not sure where I picked them up, but I do make a note of them. The best is when you overhear a great phrase that doesn't seem written or contrived—like a local or family saying. I collect them because I love to work with typography, but I never want to force it. Some examples of what’s in my notes right now: "Past pleasant," "Slipping off tied shoes," "Deliberate dilettante,” "Not even that," "Quaker in a titty bar look." (This is directly from Veep, but so funny I kept thinking about it).
You’ve recently been painting textiles and making embroidered bandanas. What do you like about working with fabric?
I love the tactility of embroidered pieces, and the idea that they can be worn and enjoyed. I've been experimenting with chain-stitching for a few years as a translation for some of my line work and have been really happy with the results. I like that they could be used as a wall hanging or be shoved in your back pocket as a handkerchief. That's how I use mine—I want to see what it will look like six years down the line, after being washed a bunch and sat on the whole time.
Are the challenges similar when it comes to creating for clients versus your solo visions?
I see the line between the work created for a client or for myself sort of disappearing more and more now. I recently took a chunk of time to do a lot of personal work and the response from design clients was to include that work for their briefs. I think the most effective design is work the designers enjoyed making.
What are some other creative things you get into besides art and design?
I'd like to think I'm open to whatever comes my way creatively. Except maybe music. I feel like I have a tin ear. I'll dance but don't ask me to make anything to dance to.
You seem to enjoy a mix of solid and painterly shapes. Do you feel like you need the balance of both?
I think they end up supporting each other in these compositions and I love finding what combinations work so well that each element makes the other better. That's the balance I'm after—where the composition exemplifies I think they end up supporting each other in these compositions and I love finding what combinations work so well that each element makes the other better. That's the balance I'm after—where the composition exemplifies the form.
Do you have a red Pendleton blanket? Is it creepy that I noticed it in the painting of your dog on a bed? Are all your interiors paintings of your own house? And tell me about your dog.
No, that's not creepy at all—that's part of what I was talking about before with the everyday items. I painted that because I love how bright that blanket looks in that white room, and my pup is so dark, it made for a cozy little scene. A lot of those paintings are of my father-in-law's place in Noyac or his loft in the city. He passed away in 2014. My wife and I, her sister and her sister's boyfriend were his primary caregivers when he got sick, so we spent a lot of time in those spaces. These interior studies have been a sort of meditation on that time and what the spaces have come to mean to me.
My dog's name is Soda (or Soda Pup). She has one blue eye and one brown and loves the beach. She's sweet and soft and has anxiety—it takes a bit to earn her trust but once you do, she's the best.
What kind of stuff did you make as a kid?
I used to draw from nature calendars often, and trace logos of my favorite sports teams. I also made janky little objects, like a dagger out of plywood to be Peter Pan.
If your work made noise, what would it sound like? And what would it smell like?