by Liza Roberts
photographs by Lissa Gotwals
Jason Craighead is one of Raleigh’s most prominent artists but calls what he makes “work,” not art. Painting is “making work.” Brushstrokes are “mark-making.” This member of the Raleigh Arts Commission, a former gallery owner now represented himself by galleries in New York and Atlanta, decries consumer culture and mass media, fills his unheated studio with hip-hop, and shares it with six other artists and two skateboard ramps.
When asked to describe his art – the giant canvases, the kinetic shapes that chase each other across scribbled ground, the brief and jagged appearance of color, the unexpected words that emerge in a small, faint, penciled hand – when asked what it all means, how he does it, and why, it’s not easy for him to answer.
“They’re pieces of a bigger story, a straight self-discussion…it’s all communication,” he says, standing among a number of works in various stages. “I never felt like I made anything for anyone else.” He wears ripped, splattered jeans, a fraying sweater. His hair is a mass of graying corkscrews; his fingers twirl a small beard. “I want the work to always resonate with a man who really feels something… It’s my own personal truth.”
That’s what appeals to his New York dealer, Cheryl Hazan, whose prominent gallery also sells works by the famous British guerrilla artist Banksy and Haitian-American expressionist Jean Michel Basquiat. “You feel the artist in his work,” she says of Craighead’s canvases, which she included in a 2012 show. “When he paints, he paints with who he is.” Hazan compares Craighead to giants like Robert Motherwell and Willem deKooning. “I love the work,” she says of Craighead’s abstract canvases, “and so do other artists…He does have the potential to be a star.”
It’s because people like Hazan and Atlanta dealer Thomas Deans have given Craighead, 42, their stamp of approval – and because his increasingly complex work is finding an audience among collectors around the world – that his career looks ready to take off in an even bigger way. These days his larger canvases command prices in the neighborhood of $10,000, and that number’s headed north.
Craighead himself is filled with words to describe his art, but qualifies them. Follows up a conversation with further explanation, emailed poems, with links to rap songs. “Please listen carefully and you will get it,” he says. “ ‘It’ is that thing that every single human is looking for and ‘it’ is our true ‘self’.”
It’s fair to say that his work reflects his concerns and epiphanies – renewal, honor, integrity, purpose, and love are recurrent themes – and, increasingly, they display his take on the modern world, too. It’s his “soul on the wall,” he’ll tell you, so no wonder it’s hard to put into words. Maybe if he could tell you, he wouldn’t have to paint it. “It’s all about visual solutions.”
His art may represent his soul, and it is certainly abstract, but his canvases are accessible. Thanks to the mechanics and balance of composition, the spare finesse of color, and an undeniable energy that ricochets across the surface, Craighead’s paintings have presence, and they have beauty. He’s not unaware. “This is my most successful composition,” he says, pointing at In the Wings of the Butterfly. He believes it effectively balances negative space with electric painting and drawing.
But visual pleasantry is not his goal. “I don’t like beauty,” he said in a recent documentary about his work by Patrick Shanahan, a Raleigh filmmaker who works in a studio down the hall from Craighead’s. “I think color is candy…it’s a way to make something saleable. I want my work to be known for its quality of emotion. I’m a human being with a lot of emotions. Not a product-maker.”
His integrity as an artist is increasingly evident, says Kelly McChesney, who represents Craighead and shows his work at her Flanders Gallery in Raleigh’s warehouse district. “He’s started intentionally holding back on using color, and holding back on certain things that would immediately catch people’s eye,” she says. “What I’m most intrigued about is that he’s moving from being just a painter to being an artist. From creating something that’s just visual and decorative to incorporating questions and ideas.”
One way Craighead does that is with the subtle inclusion of handwritten words, tucked, almost hidden, in his vigorous line work. Words and phrases like “particular silence,” “process of growth,” “learn,” “mysterious union,” “I am only here to have it all,” “hero,” and “believed.”
“It tells me something is felt,” Craighead says. He describes telling a story with one of his canvases, of viewers “reading” the canvas from left to right, of the “journey” he’s taking them on, leading their eyes from place to place, delivering them home.
The result is “incredible raw energy harnessed in such a restrained manner,” says Lisa Madigan, a hotel owner and interior designer who lives in Orange, Australia, and is one of his newest collectors. Madigan discovered Craighead’s work online. “I see so much friction and balance,” she says via email from her town 150 miles from Sydney. “It has resonated so intensely with me that I find it hard not to use my facial expression and hands to describe it!”
When you walk in to the place where Craighead makes his work – a chilly, 5,000-square-foot length of industrial warehouse off Boylan Bridge, across the train tracks from Central Prison – you notice several drop cloths on the floor, spattered with paint and dusty with footprints. You hear the percussive beat and rhyme of the music in the background – Tre Hardson’s low-key Liberation, on this particular day. You meet the other artists who share the space when they skateboard past his doorway, down the several-hundred-foot hallway to the thrown-up studios where they make their own art.
All of these elements are important. The drop cloths, for one, are not what they seem. As Craighead walks over them in his sneakers, he says they’re actually canvases on their way to becoming paintings, being primed with feet and accidental spills. When he primes them with actual primer later, puts them on the wall and begins to do his “mark-making,” they’ll no longer be the mythic stark white “blank canvas” an artist might rightly fear. They’ll already be on their way. Already have life and shape. In this way, he’s creating “the freedom to participate in the life of something that’s already there.” New York gallerist Hazan thinks it’s a key element: “I love it that he works on the floor, that you can see his body in the work, his footprints and handprints.”
The music he listens to is not background noise. For Craighead, it is vital. “Music, music, music,” he says, “it’s all about music.” He puts it on first thing when he arrives each day: “Good, conscious hip-hop that talks about life.” He cites the song Nuthin But a Hero by tabi Bonney, with its orchestral musicality and the lyrical imagery of an everyman making his mark on the world, as inspiration. So too Tre Hardson’s 10bit, with its upbeat, searching, “something to live for” refrain.
And the fellow artists in the warehouse he transformed into a shared studio with his and their bare hands – he relies on them, too. For feedback, friendship, and community. His partner in the studio, Dave Green, is one. The two have been friends since they were in their early teens and have made art together and worked together in various capacities for years. “You create enough energy, it helps inspire everybody,” he says. “And you get to share it with the community, which is part of an artist’s responsibility.”
They share with and help each other, too. Another artist in the shared space is Shanahan, the filmmaker; together the whole group participates in community events like the recent Boylan Heights ArtWalk.
All of this conspires to create an environment Craighead says he’s lucky to have. A place where he can “just make work. Just make work. Just make work.”
Craighead wasn’t always so well-situated. The road he took from art school to rising star here did not occur overnight. “I’ve struggled,” he says.
Not at first. The Tennessee native (who mostly grew up in Florida) was “always drawing” as a child, and had a “wonderful mother who allowed that to happen.” His grandmother fed his young imagination with adventures in the outdoors. Craighead says he “always knew art had to be part of his life.”
But after two years in community college and a year in Florida State University’s art program, he’d had enough. After digesting “the basics” of drawing, composition, and color theory, Craighead says he made a decision: Rather than be graded on art by others, “maybe one needs to pay really close attention to one’s self and find out…what matters.” Only by listening to himself and expressing his individual voice, Craighead decided, would be making real art. Not that the education wasn’t valuable. He quotes one of his heroes, the artist Jean Michel Basquiat: “Believe it or not, I can actually draw.”
After moving to Raleigh in 1997, his work was informed by the vertical growth of downtown he saw taking place around him – the cranes putting up buildings like the RBC Plaza building (now PNC Plaza), for instance. Then, in 2003, his career took a bit of a detour when he ran Glance, a downtown art gallery, with a partner, Bob Doster. An early warehouse-district success, Glance required 80-hour workweeks, leaving Craighead exhausted and with little time to make his own art. He left in 2006 to “start fresh again.”
Since then, his work has changed. Where he believes some of his earlier canvases have “a rigid quality to them,” they are now more “loose and free,” as well as being more autobiographical. They’re also immediately recognizable: “The language, my hand, my literal physical language is evident,” he says, describing one of his new works.
He muses on the different way he treats paper and canvas. On paper, he’s likely to stop working sooner. To leave well enough alone. On canvas, “I have to have the guts to stop.” His process is long. “I stand still for hours at a time. I might sip a beer. These things are very concentrated. Very thought about.” He taps his head with a finger. “They might be composed fits.”
His latest work takes on what he sees as a media-driven myth of perfection we’re all meant to attain. “We are supposed to be this, and look like that. It’s something we’re immersed in.” He says he once grew dreadlocks so people would stop telling him he was pretty. He wears the same frayed sweater in the studio that he wears to meet for coffee at Helios two weeks later. He might not have changed his sweater, but the sausage curls that cover his head are shorn – his first hair cut in a year. He believes truth lies in individuality. “It’s about putting your heart and your ass behind something that means something to you.” The works inspired by these thoughts are “by far the most cohesive, coherent thing I have done.”
Hazan thinks these new pieces – many of which incorporate a red, white, and blue banner-like ribbon (like End of the Rainbow, on pages 46-47 here) and assembled objects like televisions, mirrors, and dangling dollar signs (previous page) – are surprisingly political, and may have the power to get him noticed.
Craighead hopes so. To follow up a conversation about their intent, he sends the following words: “…in a society based on competition and ego it can be difficult to see through the static-filled, misguided ‘information’ the system insists we all know and follow, we find ourselves trapped in some fierce hurry to be better or more…always under judgment…” He wishes more people realized that “all together, we are simply human…to what reward are we racing to, fighting each other for…money is a ghost, and its value is based on how hard we will chase it…be careful…”
There’s no question the business of being a working artist confounds him, on some level: “You pour yourself into something, and then you got to sell it to pay the bills. Suddenly it has value. What is value?”
Someone like Judy Broadhurst, who owns Broadhurst Gallery in Southern Pines, isn’t confused on that score. She represents Craigheads work because she believes its value is evident. “It is bold,” she says. “It is interesting and daring and it communicates immediately.”
Craighead insists it’s the process, not the result, that drives him forward. “I discover so much in the process,” he says. “Art is meant to be a journey of discovery.”