Staff Interview: James Schlavin

CC image by stevebustin

In October, we were pleased to have James Schlavin join the Embers team as our art editor. James has already offered invaluable insight on submissions, and we can’t wait to continue working with him. He isn’t only a solid editor, but also a talented artist in his own right. Below, learn about the kind of art he creates, what inspires him, and how to catch his eye when submitting your creations.

We’re thrilled to have you onboard! What made you want to join the Embers staff?
Thanks! I’m really excited to be joining the team! I really wanted to be able to use what experience I have as an artist more than I had previously. When I was asked to consider the position, it seemed like a great fit. It would let me continue honing my personal skills, but also give me a chance to pass along some of the training and advice I’ve received over the years.

Your work has been featured in past volumes of Embers—your drawing Wings was our very first cover. One can assume that birds inspire you, but is that the subject matter that inspires you most?
That’s true! Over the years I have certainly watched my work changing a lot. I think that Wings was one of the milestones for me in my development as an artist that really opened my eyes to my fascination with birds. While I can’t say it is my only inspiration, I can say that birds are a major aspect of what keeps me working.
I think that the true inspiration is deeper though, I am far more fascinated with the way that birds have been created, the complexity of their design that allows them to exist and fly in so many different and specialized ways. I think that seeking to emulate that precision and design in my work is really what drives me.


How and when did you get into art? What drives you to create?
Depends on who you ask I suppose. I think my mom would say since the day I could hold a crayon, and she’s probably right. However, that’s just part of the story. There was no moment of divine inspiration, the world has simply always made sense visually to me. I’ve practiced and studied for years, and that has brought me to where I am today, but I also know that I have a God given desire to be an artist. That is how I process the world, that is how I best relate to my Creator, and that will always be my first passion in this life.
I think that my drive to create ultimately stems from a desire to be closer to God. I absolutely love His creation. I love examining, emulating, and creating based on what I see. Whatever I look at, and no matter how often I look at it, I want to understand it in some new way. When I do that, nothing else matters. When that happens, I know that I am doing what I was created to do.

Did you study art in college? If so, what was the most valuable thing you learned there?
I received my BFA from the University of New Mexico. The most important lesson I learned was from my Painting One teacher. He came up to me, watched me working the details of a painting with a small brush, rummaged around in my painter’s box, and pulled out my ratty 2 inch gesso brush. He looked at me and said, “That looks fine the way it is, but you know how to do that. Do you know how to redo it all with this.”
That day, and that class, changed the way I approached my work and how I approached my art classes. It helped me realize two things. First, there is always a way to challenge myself as an artist, even as simply as using a different brush, and second, the most satisfying work I will ever make happens when I challenge myself.
When I think about that painting five years later, it really isn’t very good. But, I look at that painting and it feels right, because I learned to be a better painter and artist by using that two inch brush.

Do you think all artists need to study art to create it?
I’m about to become a hypocrite, because some of my least favorite classes were art history in college.
However, I think at some point in every artist’s life there must be a point when you start looking at other artists and their work. Much of my best work came out of either copying the masters, either exactly, or in style. Doing that has helped me continue to develop my own work in ways I never could have on my own.
All that said, I don’t think that there is one right way to study art. If going to museums or hearing lectures engages you, then study art that way. If browsing the internet and sketching from the masters is your cup of tea, then study art that way.
I think that it is impossible to make art without looking at it. Even if all you do is look at nature and God’s creation, you are studying the very essence of art.

What do you look for in art submissions? Is there anything you’d particularly like to see? Any pet peeves?
I want to see everything! I look for the skills and the technique more than anything. I want to see the inner workings of the artist’s mind as they make each brushstroke. I want to see the artist’s intention in everything. I want to know that everything has a purpose.
I really just want to see what everyone has to offer. Plain and simple, show me your best, and I will respect it.
As far as pet peeves, I don’t want to see work that is shocking for the sake of shock. If your art scares or disturbs or troubles me that isn’t inherently a bad thing, as long as it makes me stop and think and question myself or my beliefs and grow as a person. If you just want to shock and offend me to grab attention then I’m not interested.

If you could go anywhere and any time period in the world to see and make art, where would it be and why?
I think I have a couple of answers for when I would like to see art. I owe C.S. Lewis for his imagery in The Magician’s Nephew for wanting to see the creation of the earth. I want to visit Durer’s print studios to see him working. I think my top choice overall for both seeing and making art would be Renaissance Italy. Seeing the studios and artists’ workshops would be an incredible experience, and it would be an experience so different from making art in our own time.

CC image by Lennart Tange

CC image by Lennart Tange

What’s your favorite medium to work with?
I think that this is more of a “Flavor of the Month” question than anything else. I love experimenting with everything. I want to go out and try the weird flavors of ice cream that are out there. But I also have my favorite flavors that I get by the gallon.
For me, that would be pencil or charcoal. Charcoal gives me the rich satisfaction of black and white, where you can have the harshest contrasts of black and white, or the softest shades of gray.

Any favorite artists? What about them and/or their work inspires you?
Albrecht Durer, hands down my favorite artist. His work is so intricate, expressive, and detailed. All of his work includes so much relevant imagery, from religion, math, science, philosophy, and culture. His work helps me strive to be more careful, detailed, and intentional in my own work, even though I would say our end products look very different. I’m also a big fan of M.C. Escher, for many of the same reasons.
In contrast, I love Pablo Picasso. Typically my work is nothing like his, however, his ability to control different media, his skill with making art, and his incredible intentionality are amazing. While I may not love the product as much, I have a deep respect for Picasso because of his work ethic, the fact that he could draw with such skill, and chose to make a statement with his style and imagery.

We all have day jobs—what’s yours? Does it inspire you in your creative endeavors or does it really just pay the bills?
I work as a signed language interpreter. I think that there are aspects of my work that can be inspiring at times, but that isn’t what inspires me to be an artist. I think that it does influence my work though. The process of learning sign language has really shaped the way I think and process the world. It helps me analyze and look for root meanings and imagery, and those mental processes have really changed the way I work and see the world.

Other than creating art, what can you be found doing in your spare time?
Too many things that distract me from making my art! I love cooking, reading, riding my bike, fishing whenever I have time to get away from town, and hanging out with family and friends. Those things give me time to find inspiration and get away from directly making art so that I can recharge and really focus on my work when I come back to it.

What advice would you give new artists—those creative folks who want to start taking their craft more seriously?
Try something new! That can be done in so many ways, from using an unusual brush, to trying a whole new medium, to making something you’ve never done before. Challenge yourself each and every day in some way. Who knows! You might find out you love something you never tried or considered.

Learn more about James on our staff page, and keep an eye out for his posts on our Facebook and Twitter.


CC image by stevebustin

CC image by stevebustin

Know someone we should interview? Send us an email with the details.