Interview with Jaya Nicely, Compound Butter Magazine, Summer 2017


You started your career in comics by working for Marvel, and after graduating from Art Center College of Design you did some covers for Vertigo while expanding your fine art career. Do you feel that your previous work in the comics industry has been an influence on the road to your current work? Do you look back on your comic days fondly?

Very fondly.  It was very exciting to do what I had dreamed of since I was a kid.  I couldn’t see myself continuing to draw comics for the rest of my life, but for a few years it was a lot of fun.

There’s a lot from comic books in my paintings.  For one thing, it was how I learned to draw, and visualize things.  I’m still inspired by the stories that I grew up with, which are what made me want to be an artist in the first place.  I think the very first art you loved always holds a special spot.  When I’m old I’m sure I’m still going to be trying to emulate Frank Miller’s Elektra a little bit.

 Women and children are consistent characters in your paintings. They are usually pale and waiflike with long limbs, windswept hair, and haggard garments ill fit for the environment they’re in. Is there a reason why your work often focuses on women, specifically ones that appear to be in the midst of exploratory journeys? Have there been strong female influences in your own life?

It's so subjective, but for me a woman's internal struggles seem more visible. Perhaps that’s what usually makes a female protagonist best for the stories I’m interested in. Whoever the character is, I think the important thing is not what they do, but the moment before a decision, before anything happens.  The paintings are about that moment of uncertainty, in which all possibilities are still open. Maybe she decides to do nothing, but allowing oneself to experience uncertainty is very hard.

Your work is muted and solemn, but often features a bright focal point, like the glow of a greenhouse at night or the yellow of a young girl’s dress in an overcast swamp. These figures often move through dreary and haunting landscapes (your piece “Border” immediately comes to mind). Although you no longer work in comics and your paintings don’t contain words or panels of action scenes, each one still conveys a rich and thoughtfully depicted narrative. Where do these stories come from and what compels this composure and atmosphere within your work? What is the inspiration or process that you go through when developing a new piece?

I like paintings with monochromatic, subdued color, with a small amount of intense color.  Corot is a good example.

The subject matter is something that develops over time.  Occasionally an idea will spring to my head that will work as a painting, but that’s an exception. Usually it starts as just a notion- something interesting, but lacking.  It needs to be combined with something else to become an “idea”.  I usually have a dozen of those half-baked sketches around, waiting for something.  Then being able to know when it is a good idea becomes very important. I think as an artist you have to train yourself to pay attention to your own instant, emotional reaction to things. 

How long does a painting usually take to complete? Do you create each painting while thinking of how it will fit in the context of your body of work, or are they each their own story?

The underpainting part takes 1 or 2 days, and the final painting can take a month, depending on the size.  

I think of each painting as unique, not part of a series.  But then looking back at the paintings made during a year I usually see commonalities and themes that I wasn’t aware of. 

What is your favorite depiction of food or scene involving eating in a film, animated or otherwise?

That would have to be the scene of the ghost gobbling up all the food in “Spirited Away”.

How do you feel your own childhood has influenced your work? Your pieces often seem to depict youths in turbulent and mystical environments. Does this depiction align with how you view your own past, reflecting on it now that you are older and wiser?

I had a very 70’s childhood, I spent a lot of time on my own doing whatever.  I had a lot of freedom, which I really value.  Conversely I’ve always a strong desire for the structure that was missing, though it has to be structure of my own making. I've always felt absolutely suffocated by any rules imposed upon me. I think that comes through in some of my paintings.

 Beyond your own past and experience, who or what have been some of the strongest influences on your work?

I love painters from the era of the Barbizon school and Romanticism. A real list of influences from would be huge, but the artists I always seem to come back to are Millet, Constable, Chavannes, Watteau, Corot, Whistler, and Friedrich. 

 Your paintings always feel like an escape. Do you think that the current events of the world and the culture of our society nowadays will affect your work, or will it continue being an altogether different reality?

I think when an idea is cooking, anything you come across can be added to the mix, and I sometimes grab pieces from the news.  But my subject matter is generally not topical.  For me painting is very slow, and best regarded meditatively and introspectively. It’s better suited to myth and the unconscious than literal events.

The detail in some of your paintings is extraordinary...some specific pieces like “Dog” and “Forest 2” show a nature floor overgrown with tall grass, wildflowers, insects and ferns painted with meticulous detail that quite honestly might drive another painter crazy during the process. What is your mindset starting these pieces, and how do you keep your eyesight??

Those were actually made very differently than my other paintings. They were begun with very little planning. I started with a plant in the foreground, then filled in the empty spaces around it with other plants behind it.  When all the white space was filled the painting was finished.  I was able to paint about 20 square inches per day, and each one took 2 or 3 months in total.  

 What can our readers expect from your next body of work? And any other exciting plans?

I've started a story in pictures that I would like to make as a book. it's all sketched out and I’m starting the artwork for it.  Also there will be a new show of paintings in 2018.