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Larry Pierce in conversation with artist James Perry
This is the seventh in a weekly series presenting highlights of conversations between leading Black visual artists in New England. In this week’s podcast, Larry Pierce interviews portrait artist James Perry. The interview has been condensed and slightly edited.
A native of Boston, Perry is the founder of J. Perry Fine Art and serves as vice chair of the Boston Arts Academy Alumni Board and Network. His work is on display at the 2023 Fay Chandler Emerging Art Exhibition. He is the recipient of many honors, including the 2023 Imani Award for visual art.
Larry Pierce: James, tell us about yourself.
James Perry: I grew up here in Boston in the Mission Hill area. I attended the Nathan Hale School and the Timilty (Middle School). For high school, I went to Fenway, then attended the Boston Arts Academy and, from there, Mass College of Art.
Are there teachers you’re still in contact with or other mentors you care to mention?
You’re one of my mentors. I hang out with Paul Goodnight sometimes. I keep in contact with a lot of my teachers from the Boston Arts Academy. I also try to surround myself with artists in the community like Paul, you, Rob Stull, ProBlak, Percy (Fortini-Wright), a lot of the artists who are making a difference in the community.
You’re also a portrait painter, and your work has graced many households in and around Boston. Can you tell me how you got into portrait painting?
When I started to draw and create, I liked drawing and painting animals. Then, I found a drawing that one of my uncles did. He was a World War II veteran in the Navy and would draw portraits of people. I thought they were photographs. I went to my grandmother and asked, “Where are these photographs from?” She said, “No, your Uncle Arnold drew these pictures.” I was amazed and wanted to learn how to do that. It took some time. I still know that I need to get a lot better when it comes to capturing someone’s image. I’m getting more familiar with faces and how to draw and paint them. But I do it because it’s hard. I like to challenge myself. Portraits are tough because one little thing — it might be an eye, a nose or someone’s lips — can put the whole thing off.
You’re doing an interesting series of portraits of historical figures like Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali — even Abraham Lincoln. In creating them, you use a unique technique of mixed-media materials. Can you describe the process?
I try to make portraits so that they captivate the viewer — so that your eye is moving around the image and making you think about how the process is done. But also, I just don’t want something to be physically appealing. I want people to really think about who they’re looking at — why they’re looking at this person.
Tell me how ideas come to you.
They come to me when I walk down the street and see an interesting face. Maybe it’s hanging around different artists. Sometimes when I come to your house, I see things that you’ve done, and I’m like, man, how did Larry do that? I don’t want to copy exactly what you’ve done, but I want the spirit of Larry Pierce. When I’m hanging out with Paul and working on certain projects with him, I’ll see how he uses different techniques in his pieces, and I’ll borrow some of those. Maybe your family or friends are inspiring you.
Have you ever experienced the artist’s equivalent of writer’s block and, if so, how do you overcome it?
Yes, I do. I turn the piece around and work on something new because that piece is not giving me the energy I need.
Tell me how you feel about computer-generated imagery, especially as used by young artists today.
The only issue I have with some of the AI art that’s produced nowadays is, I’m a traditional artist, so I like to get inspired by things, people and places, and to really work out where I’m going with a sketchbook or in my mind, as opposed to typing something into a computer and having AI shoot that image out. Personally, it’s not for me.
Are there any interesting projects you’re thinking of exploring?
As a portrait painter, I don’t work on a large scale. Now, I’m starting to create larger portraits using different mediums — experimenting with different foils and techniques. I’m always looking for new fun things to do.
Can you talk about the interaction you have with emerging artists? What emphasis do you place on teaching them about the business of art?
I like to tell (new) artists: Don’t give up. Understand the market and how to value your work. There are many tools now that can help you to get out there, like Instagram and all kinds of social media platforms that help you display your art in a way that’s appealing to folks.