Exclusive Interview x Photos: The Heavyweight Painters Talk Hip-Hop, Art and Boxing. Who Said Fine Art Wasn’t Cool?

Photo by Jack Sommer/RESPECT.

Being a full-time painter in New York City is a battle. When bank accounts dwindle and clients become sparse, many painters hoist their white flags. But, the Heavyweight Painters aren’t your average painters. Embracing the impracticality of their predicament, these four artists and friends – Tim Okamura, Taha Clayton, Jerome Lagarrigue and Joseph Adolph – have joined together to put on the biggest art exhibition of their careers.

We recently caught up with the four painters to discuss the documentary, the exhibit, life as an artist, hip-hop and more. Slaughterhouse fans and aspiring artists (of all mediums) definitely should tune in. These guys are sluggers.

First off, I’d like everyone to introduce themselves and give a synopsis of their life as an artist.

Jerome Lagarrigue: Do you have a week? I’m from Paris, France. I lived there until I was 18, then moved to the U.S. in 1992. I’ve been in New York since 96. My mother is from New York, so I was raised bi-culturally. I’ve been painting since 1995, I would say. I taught at Parsons – drawing and painting – 1997 thru 2005. I did commercial art, which included several children’s books, one with Maya Angelou. I also did a couple of illustrations for the press, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. I also did Talib Kweli’s album cover for Reflections Eternal. I then won this pretty major grant and residency program in Rome at the Villa Medici. Ever since I came out of there, I’ve devoted all my time to painting. That’s since 2006.

Taha Clayton: Mine’s a lot shorter! I was born in Houston, Texas and raised in Ontario in the Toronto area. I’ve been in New York, Brooklyn, since 2007. I’m a self-taught painter and illustrator. That’s about it.

Tim Okamura: Born in Edmonton, Canada. I went to college in Calgary, where I did my undergrad. Then I moved to New York back in 1991. I’m almost coming up on my 21 year anniversary of being in the city. I also taught and did some commercial work. I really transitioned into painting full time sometime around 2004 or 2005 when I started working more in the film industry. The big turning point came when I was asked to do some paintings for a film called Prime with Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep. That definitely got my work a lot more exposure and that’s when the sales of my stuff started in a more significant way. In essence, I’ve been painting mostly full time for the past 7 years or so. That’s not really a long time, but over that time period, I’ve definitely left the commercial stuff behind and stopped teaching, so I’m definitely a full-time painter. It’s been a roller coaster ride.

Joseph Adolph: I was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. That’s where I met Tim when we went to college together. I guess I’m French Canadian [even though] we can’t speak French. I moved to New York City in ’92 to get a Masters Degree at SVA where [Tim] went. Ever since then I’ve been slugging it away doing whatever I can to sell work and keep it going. I started teaching in ’97, ’98. That kinda provided a nice little basis for a steady income – not great – but allowing me to pursue painting. It’s just been a slow process ever since of grinding and building to where I’m at now.

So you’ve been full-time since the 90’s?

Joseph: Yeah. I went full-time at St. John’s University in 2000 then I got tenured in 2006 and then I got promoted in 2006. I’m now at the top of my pay scale and it just doesn’t cut it.

Jerome: Financially or psychologically?

Joseph: There’s just no place to go and I’ve achieved everything I can do in that.  I’m a painter who teaches, not a teacher who paints, so it’s a little bit of a frustrating rub. Fortunately, I’ve got myself to a place where I teach a couple days a week and the rest is up to me to paint. I’ve been kind of fortunate in that regard.

Jerome Lagarrigue. Photo by Jack Sommer/RESPECT.

The name of the documentary is “Heavyweight Paint.” Why do you all feel that boxing is a good metaphor for your experience?

Jerome: We actually didn’t come up with that, Jeff did. It wasn’t a starting point. It sort of became that. There were already references in the title. In terms of selecting and choosing a topic, there were a couple of us who had already explored that theme in our work.

You [explored it] in Round Zero.

Jerome: Yeah, with that, but before that I’d been interested in that theme since ’95. I’ve been going to Gleeson’s Gym since that period of time. I started drawing boxers and so forth and began a more serious body of work revolving around that theme since 2007. The theme of boxing wasn’t the starting point. The starting point was actually documenting four painters.

Joseph: But also we were asked about who was influential to us and none of us had artists as our primary inspiration. They were more [often] boxers or people that fight.

Taha: And I think that’s where we found our common theme because I had mentioned Muhammad Ali and [Joseph] had mentioned Mayweather. So then it kinda blossomed from that.

Joseph: Yeah, that’s my recollection as well. And then, the filmmaker’s background is in boxing as well. I’ve always thought of it as a metaphor for living your life and I think that all that’s just started to percolate and become the culminating solution to the problem of what we are going to do.

So boxing is theme of the exhibition?

Collective: Yes.

Is it going be all new paintings and new works?

Collective: Yes.

Jerome:  And it’s going to be four different takes on the same global subject matter.

Tim: I’m dealing strictly with females as boxers as metaphors for strength and courage and transcendence and the battle of life. I think that’s actually one of the things that is really great about the boxing theme. It’s just a strong metaphor. I think that’s why these guys were initially talking about it in the discussion of the struggle of painting and art.

Tim Okamura. Photo by Jack Sommer/RESPECT.

Taha, do you ever feel that your lack of formal training in art has been an impediment?

Taha: Uhhh, no. With anything, it’s just going out there and doing it and putting the time in and learning how to think. That might have been the most difficult thing, starting to get the ideas and starting to learn how to express the ideas. At school, even if you don’t want to be there, there’s still information always being thrown at you. There’s always energies going around. At the same time, it can get to the point where you might burn out from it. But with, the hardest part was getting started.

Jerome: But also, since we’re all figurative painters, you automatically deal with issues of likeness and anatomy and being able to observe. Three of us did receive a formal training at school which I thought was extremely helpful. I’m surprised that you were able to do it on your own.

Tim: There’s pros and cons. Some of the technical training in school certainly informed me. I think that some of the art history classes were pretty important at keying in at what happened before. They always say that you need to listen to the conversation before you so that you can add your own voice and say something new. To have a context for what you’re doing is helpful. If you’re starting at ground zero, that’s when you’ve got to explore technique and figure out that side of things, and you’re also finding out what’s happening and what artists you can refer to. Joe can address this. You’re a history guy!

Joseph: I was not a good student. I was listening to him talk about art history. All I remember is spitballs in the back of class. I went to art school because I could draw. I teach students who come to art school to learn how to draw. For me, I just didn’t want to and couldn’t do anything else, but you had to move on in college and whatever, so I took the path of least resistance, which is an education of doing something that I could already do. When you’re out of it and you realize that this is all you’ve got – now I’ve got kids and all that so there’s no me quitting and just becoming a lawyer or going back to school. I’ve got to deal with the decisions or lack of decisions that I’ve made in my life and make this thing work. Situations and circumstances force you to step up and do this or buckle under. There was a couple of times I quit art school, but there was nothing else.

Joe, you just mentioned your wife and kids. Would you say that the pain and suffering that you display when dealing with the art world and not being where you want to be is comparable to a family watching a boxer in the ring?

Joseph: It’s a complicated question. I’ve never looked at it from that perspective. The whole family life and kids and progression through the painting world is really a product of how I paint. I paint in very quick spurts. Another really nice metaphor for boxing is the 3 minute rounds. You know, you have your energy up, you get in the studio, you make a few moves and you get outta there and deal with your kids and beat them (*chuckles*) or go pay a bill or whatever. Then you get back in there and have a few more minutes to make a few moves. It all fits together or at least you find a way to make it all fit together. If I didn’t have my wife and kids, if I didn’t have all this distraction, if I just had money and I could paint, I’d be in the same boat or maybe worse.

Tim: There was a speech that I think the CEO of Coca-Cola did recently. Did you guys hear that? He said you’re basically juggling five balls in your life: work, spirituality, health, family and friendships, and love. The only ball that bounces is work. The other four are made out of glass. So if you drop them, it’s over. But if you happen to drop work, it will always bounce back.

Joseph Adolphe. Photo by Jack Somme/RESPECT.

Tim, you recently made a mixtape for DJ Lady Lane. Actually, it was curated for you. She said that you requested that all the songs come from a certain era. What is the significance of that era to you? It was between the late 80’s and the early 90’s.

Tim: She does these five word mixtapes where you have to give her 5 keywords that she has to find somehow in the themes of songs. I gave her the words, which were pretty open. They were green, sun, nature, or something like that – I can’t remember what it was. Then I said ’89 – ’92, which unfortunately eliminated a lot of great records from ’93. That period was important to me musically because it was during that time that I had a hip-hop radio show in Canada. At that time, when hip-hop was still coming out, that was the only show in town. It was the beginning of touring hip-hop artists. Will Smith was on my show right at the same time that he was just about to come out with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Guys like Ice T came through to the show. Some other Canadian artists like Dream Warriors…That era in the history of hip-hop will be always very sentimental to me because of my direct involvement.

Speaking of hip-hop, have any of you heard of the rap group called Slaughterhouse? I bring them up because your experience is kind of similar to theirs – a bunch of solo artists with kind of rocky careers came together and tried to do something big. One of the milestones in that trajectory was being signed to a large record label, Shady Records. Even though they met that goal, people still doubt them. Similarly, your Kickstarter campaign was pretty successful. Now that that’s rolling, are you all still kind of weary about the future and the success of the exhibit?

Tim: I’m trying to be as positive as possible in my daily operations. With the success of Kickstarter and the number of people that responded to seeing the trailer to the film, I felt a huge boost from that. I feel like the exhibition is going to be very successful. In what form, I’m not sure. I don’t know if it will necessarily translate in terms of sales, but in terms of exposure and getting out work out there, I think it’s going to be a huge success.

Taha: At my end, I have no doubts. I’m happy with where I am right now. I believe that I can be huge in the art game. I haven’t done as many shows, I haven’t been to school – so these guys probably have a different opinion about that than me. I know those guys’ story. I wouldn’t compare myself to Slaughterhouse at all.

Photo by Jack Sommer/RESPECT.

How are you envision the exhibit affecting your solo careers afterward?

Jerome: Only in a positive way. In terms of multiplying contacts, that can only be beneficial. Even if it’s a complete flop, it won’t alter anything for us personally and I don’t see how it could…if we’re tying this to a film, thus far it seems like everyone has been pretty honest. Even in the trailer, you get to see four different experiences that for the most part are pretty genuine and have already generated a lot of interest. In that regard, it’s sort of a victory. So afterwards, I think it can only be something upwards. It can only affect our solo careers upwards.

Tim: Ask Joe this question!

Joseph: With me, I don’t really expect anything. I say that in the most positive way because I don’t think there’s any way that you can bomb and be a disaster. One thought in the back of my mind was if it brings notoriety to you, it’s like “Hey, you’re a great painter, of boxers!” Ha! Alright. It’ll only have a positive impact. I don’t really expect…I guess that’s good then. If you don’t expect anything and you get nothing, you’re not disappointed. But if something wonderful happens, I’ll be very surprised and happy with that. Can you make that sound positive?

I don’t know. I guess that’s practical.

Joseph: It’s ironic because we’re not in the business of practicality. I’ve kind of made peace with that. This is one of the themes that I think unites us. We’re doing something completely and totally impractical. I think that if you want to be practical, you have to do something else.