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LUMINOUS | Illuminating Portrait of a Modern Master Portrait Artist

LUMINOUS | Illuminating Portrait of a Modern Master Portrait Artist

Aren’t artists supposed to be misunderstood and shunned by their comparably conventional family members? Aren’t they supposed to struggle and strive in anonymous, lonely squalor or work boring 9-5 jobs that allows them the financial freedom to pursue their passion during off hours? 

If so, James Seward is the exception that proves the rule. A young and (gasp) successful artist who makes his living pursuing his craft and has a family who has supported and encouraged his creative pursuits since elementary school, this unicorn seems too good to be true. Thankfully, he is not. 

Read on for this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction conversation with a young artist. 

New York Makers: Where did you grow up?

James Seward: I was born in El Paso, Texas in 1979, but my father served in the military, so we soon moved to Germany, then North Carolina, and, eventually, we ended up in Tennessee, in a little town called Tullahoma.

NYM: I’m guessing if your dad was a military man, art wasn’t necessarily encouraged.

JS: On the contrary. My dad actually wanted to be an illustrator, but decided to join the army to avoid being drafted into Vietnam. Then he ended up making a career of it, but he always loved art, and we always had a lot of art in the house. He would sketch at night and on weekends. Actually, when I made my first serious piece of art [a sketch of a print in our living room that took three days] in the third-grade and showed it to my mom, she thought he did it.

NYM: How did you convince her it was yours?

JS: I did another picture over several days, and showed her my process. She was shocked, and she and my father encouraged me to keep it up and practice. The next year, my uncle came to visit. He’s an artist, too. We actually share the same name, and he does Christian prints, so when people mix us up it’s funny. Anyway, I showed him a collection of drawings, and he had a serious talk with my parents, telling them that I was talented and that they needed to support and encourage my work. Since he was born in 1926 and had managed to make a living as an artist his whole life with no help or support from his family, my parents felt like it was an attainable career goal. I’m grateful they had that perspective because I was able to take classes and have opportunities I might not have had otherwise.

NYM: Yes. You have an incredible portfolio of honors and accolades, going back decades. It looks like it started with the National Scholarship for Portraiture from The American Society of Portrait Artists when you were at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Then you were awarded an honorable mention from the director of the Cleveland Museum, Katherine Lee Reid, and nationally selected jurors in the 2005 Cleveland Museum of Art’sNEO Show. Your painting ”My Father In The Living Room of Our 10th House” was accepted into the first Boochever Portrait Competition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. and then went on to receive the “People’s Choice Award” as voted by museum visitors from all over the world. Did you always focus on so-called  “fine art”?

JS: Yes and no. I actually enrolled at Savannah to study illustration, because I felt like it was practical to have a fallback, but I took a lot of painting classes while I was there, and it was always my passion.

NYM: Your work is exhibited at galleries around the country, and you and your wife, Erin Rachel Hudak, also an artist, manage not only to make a living as working artists, but also to raise a young child in New York City on artist salaries. To what, other than talent, do you attribute that?

JS: I’ve always sought out and gone after opportunities. I apply for commissions and grants, and I go for jobs that may seem out of reach. For example, before we moved to Brooklyn, I got a job working for Jeff Koons on his team. I worked for him from 2005 to 2013; I watched him go from being art-world famous to being a household name. He was incredibly generous with his time, and I developed amazing relationships with many of the rest of the team who worked for him. I’m still friends with many of them today. I was also able to achieve a level of photorealism in my own work from learning the techniques he used. I never would have been able to achieve that technical excellence without that experience.

NYM: So why aren’t you working there now?

JS: It was a great place. Jeff is very interesting and very kind. Plus, I had a 401K, insurance, and all kinds of benefits most artists just don’t have access to. But I wanted to live my own life and pursue my own career. I felt like I’d learned so much and that it was time to branch out on my own. 

NYM: Several of your portraits seem to have a message of some sort for the viewer. Would you say that’s intentional?

JS: Yes and no. The art I make comes from inspirations I have in my own life. A lot of inspiration comes from Brooklyn Bridge Park. I spend as much time there as I can because it’s this pure, natural place in Dumbo, a neighborhood that I’ve seen evolve since moving here in 2005 from a raw, industrial place for artists to a Disneyland full of high-end condos. But I’m also inspired by what’s going on in our country. The election of Donald Trump changed my perception of democracy. I realized how fragile it is and how we need to protect it. I’m also inspired by contemporary artists; especially Barkley Hendricks, Richard Phillips, and Gerhard Richter.

A portrait of Photographer David Levinthal recently finished by Seward

NYM: What’s next?

JS: I’m working on a series of people hugging. I’m really fired up about it. I’ve been collecting screenshots of people hugging on film. We don’t think about it, but hugging is such a vulnerable act; and it can mean different things to different people engaged in the same gesture. It’s a moment in time that tells so much.

Illuminating a moment in time can shine light on so much that we try to hide. Thankfully Seward isn’t letting the joy, the sadness or the bathos of human experience live in the shadows.