Below is my interview with the amazing artist Jim Smith who is raising funds on Kickstarter to publish a book of his work entitled My Super Gay Book of Saints and Holy Days.
jdb: I stumbled upon your artwork on instagram and instantly fell in love. Do you remember the subject of your very first portrait?
JS: Thank you so much. My first illustration was a portrait of Sigourney Weaver in 2007. I had started a blog that’s now archived at jiminysnap.com. The blog started out exclusively as illustrations of my dreams, but only when I dreamt about a celebrity.
I had planned to just use photos from the internet of whoever was in my dream, but my boyfriend at the time was an animator and he kind of encouraged (insisted, really) that I create the images myself. I protested that I didn’t know anything about illustrating but he said that didn’t really matter, that I should just start doing it. Eventually I expanded the blog with essays and salutes to some of my favorite performers on their birthdays.
jdb: What kind of materials do you use primarily?
JS: I used to use art markers and watercolor pencils on watercolor paper. I love the pencils over regular watercolor because I felt I had a little more control and I could use them dry or wet or some combination of both.
I still use the pencils from time to time, but over the last year or so I’ve drifted to creating my art digitally on my iPad using an Apple pencil and a program called Paper 53. It’s a fairly simple program, but it has a “brush” that simulates watercolor where you can add layer upon layer of color. When I print my images I tend to use water color paper, and then sometimes I will add actual water color on top so they’re really like embellished prints that feel very much like paintings. This method allows me to work more quickly, but also I feel like I have more control (there’s that word again!) than I do working exclusively on paper.
I also sometimes love using a plain red accountant’s pencil—just the one color. I feel like sometimes with shading you can get as much or more feeling out of an image with this single color than you can with a whole palette full of hues.
jdb: Where do you make your paintings? Do you have a studio? Where do you store your work?
JS: I have a drafting table that I inherited from my old boyfriend when he moved to Canada. It has both sentimental and practical value for me. When I’m working on paper I absolutely use it, and when I’m working on the ipad I sometimes still sit at the drafting table, but more often I am sitting on my bed with my dog trying to distract me by dropping balls, bones, squeaky toys, and the occasional sock into my lap right on top of the iPad.
My work is stored in my iPad, of course, and the prints and paper originals are stored in a couple of large bins in my apartment, and I also have several hanging on my walls. I felt funny about that at first, like it was kind of arrogant or showing off to display my own work. But I wouldn’t have painted these subjects if I wasn’t interested in them, so I’ve mostly made peace with that. I think of a quote I once read from Carol Channing when asked what was her favorite role. She answered “whichever one I’m doing at the time because if I don’t feel that way, why should the audience?” Well, if I don’t like my work enough to display it, why would anyone else?
jdb: Tell us about your kickstarter project. What is it for?
JS: I’m running a Kickstarter project to help me self publish a book of portraits and short biographies I’ve been working on called My Super Gay Book of Saints and Holy Days. The book is not exactly a parody but it’s done in the style of the books of the saints lives that a lot of Catholic children grow up reading. They are usually illustrated with bright and kind of tacky portraits on one page and on the opposite page it will tell you things like the saint’s birthday, what they are the patron saint of, what miracles they performed (ie, how they got their sainthood) and often times the gory details of how they met their demise.
I’d been trying to figure out a theme for a book for some of portraits. I tried putting one together with my dream illustrations and some longer essays, but it was like an overstuffed burrito. It was too hard to get your hands around it and ultimately it was a mess.
As I mentioned before, I often do portraits when I know someone I admire has a birthday coming up. Well, during the last week or so of April, there are no less than 10 people I like to draw with birthdays—Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, Carol Burnett and several more. Last year I was hard at work creating all the portraits for the week and I joking told my sister I was super busy because it was Holy Week. And that’s when it sort of hit me, that pop culture had been kind of a religion to me in terms of its ability to sooth my soul and inspire me. And then I remembered the religious books of my Catholic childhood and the theme for my book revealed itself.
I’m editing the book now and hopefully with the help of Kickstarter I’ll be publishing it in the next 3 to 4 months and you’ll see full color portraits of roughly 50 “saints” ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to Susan Sarandon, Bette Midler, and Broadway divas like Jennifer Holliday and Bernadette Peters.
I’m trying not to include people just because they may be popular with the LGBT community, but rather performers, writers, politicians and even athletes whose work particularly affected me. I’ve also been lucky to meet many of the people featured, usually just briefly, but I’ve included some fun personal encounters with a few of the saints.
jdb: Who are some of your favorite icons? Is there anyone in present day pop culture you find inspiring?
JS: I think I would answer that in two ways. As far as inspiration goes, I would put Barbra Streisand at the very top because of her sheer talent and because of how deeply her work has touched me and continues to color my outlook on life. Also Gloria Steinem, whom I worked for several years ago, inspires me every single day, as does original Dreamgirl Jennifer Holliday who has this incredibly positive attitude while she lives with MS and makes her way in a business that’s not always kind. As far as my favorites to draw or paint, I never get tired of Ella Fitzgerald and Edith Piaf. I like doing simple sketches of them and also slightly more detailed fully colored pieces. Also Judy Davis, the wonderful, intense Australian actress. She has this beautiful alabaster skin, massive lips, and piercing eyes. I once did an illustration of her as Medusa because I almost think I would turn to stone if I were to meet her gaze.
When you say present day pop culture, it makes me realize that every person I named is over 50 at least, though I like to think of them as current. Certainly there are wonderful performers that are younger but I’m hard pressed to think of anyone that I feel compelled to draw. Lily Rabe, a wonderful young actress and the daughter of Jill Clayburgh, comes to mind. She is someone whose work I enjoy immensely, particularly seeing her perform "Shakespeare in The Park", and I have painted her in a scene from Much Ado About Nothing.
JS: I have a pretty extraordinary memory for Birthdays, so I generally know when one is coming up for someone I want paint. I’ve missed a few this year because of working on the book. Sometimes it’s more organic. I may have just been thinking about someone or heard a song on the radio. Or the news may influence me at times. I had never done Carrie Fisher or Debbie Reynolds before, for instance, but when Carried passed away I did a quick portrait of her and then worked on one of Debbie. I was finishing it up when I heard the news that she too had passed. Sometimes late at night if I can’t sleep and I don’t have a particular subject in mind, I have two fall back subjects: Edith Piaf and nuns. Not together, of course. I don’t know why exactly, but there is something extremely satisfying about absentmindedly drawing nuns.