Street Art

Wall Sessions: Jonny Alexander in Detroit

January 16, 2018

Next stop on the "Wall Sessions" US tour? We are back in Detroit, this time with Jonny Alexander. As we have done with all our mural stops with Boost Mobile, we sit down with the artist to discuss their life in art, life in public art and their studio practice. Jonny gave us some insightful answers...

: What's your favorite part about working in public? Do you like the interaction with people as you are painting, do you like driving by when you are done? I feel like all these years artists always give me different answers...  
Jonny Alexander: Materials, scale and people. First is materials; in my personal studio practice I have always been fairly frugal with my paint. Mixing just the amount needed and trying to not let a big pile of acrylic dry out.  There is a certain freedom in holding a gallon bucket under your arm and slopping and as much paint as I need to get a nice blend. 

Second is scale; it is funny to be midway through a mural and be poking at a 20ft x 50ft wall with a 1 inch brush. Then finish, stand back and think it only took 6 days to paint this whole wall while in the studio I have a 20" x 20" panel that I'm 3 weeks in on and half done.

Lastly and I think most important is the people. Of course you can encounter individuals that are either uninterested or unenthusiastic but during each mural I've done I've encounter some very kind people that share a part of their life, or just a genuine happiness and appreciation for what I am contributing to their neighborhood. Especially on this Boost Mobile project in Detroit. I was painting in a pretty tough neighborhood on the Eastside of Detroit on a main avenue for a week straight. At the time I was painting, in mid-August, the white nationalist rally and counter protest happened in Charlottesville. I was a white person painting on a main avenue in a near entirely black neighborhood. In a time when race was being thrown around and tensions were high I was met with nothing but positive words, support, and a sense of unity from people of all ages.  From high school kids to 3 older woman that walk everywhere together and have been friends in that neighborhood for 50 years. It helps to known there is still humanity and kindness in the world and even in the face of our current state of the country and an apparent divide in ideology, race and outlook, you can be reminded that we the people of the country define it through our personal interactions. It was a pleasant reminder.  

Do you still remember the first mural you did? 
The first real mural I did was in San Diego on a place called M-Theory Records in about 2012. I had this urge to paint a mural and I was a month away from leaving San Diego to go to Northern California, back to college at the time. I called a friend who helped run the record store and a week later I had $500 from the record store and after a presentation to the town council we got another $500 toward it.  I asked my friend and great artist Celeste Byers to collaborate with me on it.  I stumbled my way through that piece. I learned the hard way how much you have to mix to paint an entire gradient across the length of the wall, and just learned about working and thinking larger. It was great fun but also disjointed and have mixed feelings about driving by and seeing it now, haha.

My first solo mural or murals were done in rural parts of Nothern California outside of Chico.  My friend and artist Tavar Zawacki (a.k.a. Above) asked me to assist him on a Redbull Project in San Francisco.  I left that project with a car full of left over bucket paint and drove back to Chico. I spent the next month finding random structures to paint on.  I painted a massive slab of steel at a junk yard off highway 99. The old crusty man that ran the junk yard said "Yeah you can paint, just nothing racist or derogatory." Next was a 1950's abandoned diner called Rock Bottom in the mountains off highway 70 in the Feather River Canyon. A husband and a wife bought the building and were trying to fix it up, I asked to paint the backside of the building and they were confused but let me have at it. After that was a garage in the alley behind my house. Lastly was the inside of an abandon 1920's home in an orchard outside of town along the train tracks. I painted 4 murals in 4 weeks and have been trying to keep it rolling since then.

How separate is your public art practice from your studio work? 
I was just thinking about this the other day when I was collaborating on a mural with Lauren Napolitano in Denver. She got the project offered to her and was nice enough to bring me on board. I was thinking though, I don't see my mural practice being able to catch up with my studio practice. At least not in the format that most murals I have painted come in. Most murals that I've painted have a fairly strict deadline, either they are part of a festival or I am traveling to a city with a limited time frame for accommodations/ equipment rental, etc. I think with these constraints I am pushed a bit to go with something I am more comfortable painting or I know I have to paint something in a certain way to save time.  I think my studio practice will always have a higher degree of control, time and clarity for the final piece. With murals I've worked on there are so many variables and time constraints that I see a divide between studio work and public work. I am going to start pushing my mural work further though and try to get them on par with each other, but maybe that will be on murals with a longer duration to paint.  

If you are working on a gallery show, or paintings in general, do you like to have a mural project come up to get you outside a bit? Is it a good way to stretch your legs and sort of change the pace up a bit? 
I enjoy doing murals in general so when one comes up I am pretty excited to work on it. I feel like studio work is a constant flow so I know even if I get distracted by a mural project, the studio paintings are always waiting for me. And yes it is nice to get out and stretch my legs. Studio work is a solitary matter, and you look out the window and want to go out into the world but you stay in and continue working. So that change of scenery is a welcomed alteration to the studio chair against a wall, but I also have to say that a steady and regimented studio flow day after day feels quite nice. 


What did you create for this particular mural project? 
For this particular mural I actually adapted a portion of a painting I had just finished into the mural. In my studio work I have been exploring an ongoing theme of the separation between the natural world and our human made environments. These ideas revolve around existential thoughts I've had regarding the duality that life holds and how I see most of our world being made up of opposites that balance one another. That's the thoughts you probably won't readily get from this mural, but it is what governs my imagery. In this particular mural you see a scene of a cut away section of a domestic living space.  A living room with a rug, chair, table, potted plant, etc. 

The chair is facing the left side of the image where there is a representation of a swimming pool. To the right side of the image away from the direction of the chair is the outside world at the back of whoever might sit in the chair.  This is a comment on our connection with the environment, but as with any piece of artwork, the interpretation of the piece is open ended. I thought that at a passing glance this mural could also be a pleasant scene to look at for the people living in the area.  It shows a comfortable place in a nice home that is waiting to be relaxed in maybe a place that is away from the daily grind of life. I kind of hoped people would see it and think it would be nice to be there. 

A little detail I like though is the objects on the table next to the chair. I was debating for days on what to put on the table, this is where in a studio painting I would put in a couple of symbols that lend to the concept of the piece.  Instead of continuing in the conceptual vein of the piece I took some things said by the employees and owner of the store. One day after about 10 hours of painting in the heat I was saying bye to one of the employees and said "I'm going to go drink a beer and sit the fuck down" and she laughed and said "I'm going to do the same, but I don't drink beer I like Cognac." The next day I asked the owner of the Boost Mobile store what should I put on the table and naturally he said "A cell phone, it's a cell phone store."  So on the table is a little glass of cognac and an iphone with a text message thread opened. To give a sense of scale, I didn't have a small enough brush so I used the tip of a nail that I found to write the text in the text message.

It reads...

Sender: "You alright?"  
Receiver: "Yeah Chillin" 
Sender: "Where you at?"
Receiver: "The Eastside" 

I got a few laughs from people that came by to hang out and talk with me from the neighborhood.  That was my mini homage to the Eastside Detroit neighborhood I was painting in. Shout out to the people from the 48205 area, haha!

What do you have coming up next?  
Coming up next is unknown. About 3 months ago I up and moved out of Detroit. I was living there for almost 3 years working as 1xRUN's Master Printer. I grew up in San Diego and have been gone for quite awhile so I moved back here at the end of the summer.  I am still trying to get myself settled and figure out the next move. As of now I have a couple mural projects lined up without fixed dates yet in San Diego, possibly Austin and Detroit. I have also been painting a body of work over the last year and I want to start getting in contact with galleries I have been eyeing and working toward some type of show in the next year.  Also some design work for Element skateboards is coming to fruition. I'm going to be seeing the completed decks I designed awhile ago and hopefully working on a few more.  

Lastly I've got a long term goal of getting some type of Printmaking studio set up in San Diego. I've been screen printing for over 10 years and I enjoy working with artists to translate their work into a print.  So I am plotting a way to get that moving here.

Read all our Wall Sesssions coverage here.
Video by Justin Carlson