Justin Kane Elder Artist Interview: A Carpenter’s Eye For Portraiture

“[Losing my job] was a blessing in disguise. I was really stressed out when it happened, but it motivated me to work on my art.”

Justin Kane Elder has only recently emerged onto the Seattle art scene, but he’s already commanding our attention. Trained as a finish carpenter1 and hailing from a family peppered with luthiers2 and tradesman, Elder is comfortable moving fluidly across the often contentious boundary of art and craft. Elder’s work demands a carpenter’s keen attention to angle and detail, coupled with a painter’s sense of fluid composition. Elder creates large-scale spray paint portraits by applying numerous layers of precisely stenciled abstract shapes, and his dynamic overlays create a constantly radiating sense of movement. His current portrait subjects are his friends or pop culture icons, and he manages to create crisp, defined compositions without employing any actual linework.

justin kane elder

I headed over to Justin’s house for an interview and spent the duration of our conversation kept constant company by Raleigh, his adorably hyperactive Boston Terrier. Elder’s house immediately gives the comfortable impression of being inhabited by creative people who are very good at what they do but don’t feel a need to overtly broadcast it. Elder’s girlfriend is a designer, and between the two of them, the house is full of strange, enticingly colorful objects. Elder’s studio is set up in his basement, and his workspace is indicative of his artistic priorities: his table saw is front and center, and his spray cans are arranged on a hand-built table that captures the precision of someone who is used to working in measurements of a 32nd of an inch. A large basement wall serves as scratch paper. “It’s my sketchbook!” Elder says, laughing.

He begins his work by blocking off large sections of color, and then slowly builds up stenciled shapes to provide definition and shadow. Elder’s skill as a finish carpenter allows him an almost preternatural ability to think organically about geometric constructs, and he downplays the technical demands of his medium when describing his process. “I just look at it and see what needs to be done,” he shrugs.

Elder’s work inevitably evokes comparisons to Chuck Close, and while the parallels in visual language are apparent, the deeper similarity lies in the underpinning craftsmanship that informs the finished product. Elder is a methodical worker, and his list of artistic influences is heavily weighted towards artists with “an anal-retentive attention to detail” and strongly craft-oriented processes. Elder can be hard on himself when he feels he’s not being productive enough, and he does not easily distance himself from his work.

“I’m a long time insomniac,” he explains, “so I do a lot of problem solving while I’m trying to fall asleep. Sometimes I’ll finally reach a point where I tell myself, ‘If I’m not sleeping, I might as well get up and do something!'” Elder’s work ethic is also dependent on keeping himself free of distractions, and so like many artists in the Northwest, he finds himself much more productive during the winter.

He also finds that he has to push through awkward points in most of his pieces. “I stubbornly finish what I start. In nine out of ten pieces that I make, I always hit that wall where it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s crap. I hate it, I hate it.’ But I can almost always get over it and make it work, and all of a sudden, [it’s] ‘I love it, it looks great! Why did I ever dislike this?'”

justin kane elder

Elder’s journey towards portraiture has taken a meandering path, and he only found his focus after a long period of frustration. Elder was “hell-bent on going back to school” and spent three consecutive years applying for Master’s programs in Painting, only to be discouraged by rejection and a complete lack of feedback or communication. Through a friend of a friend, Elder solicited a portfolio review from a University of Washington art professor, Curt Labitzke.

“He told me that my work was technically sound but scatterbrained, and that it didn’t look cohesive,” Elder says. Elder took Labitzke’s words to heart and began hunkering down to create a stylistically unified body of work. He decided to focus on portraits, and is currently allowing himself to develop his own visual vocabulary. He also credits much of his newfound consistency to slowing down and living in the same house for more than a short chunk of time. “My work has really benefited from staying in one place,” he explains.

In many ways, Elder is not what one might expect of an artist. Affable and easy to talk to, he eschews any manner of pretense or distance and instead comes across as the sort of well-rounded guy that was probably friends with everyone in high school. This quality serves him well in his career as an artist.

“I’ve always been really comfortable just BSing with people,” he explains, “so I don’t feel overly pressured by the schmoozing side of being an artist. Growing up as a kid, my parents just threw me into every sport imaginable, so that kind of got me in tune with adapting to different groups and learning to interact with them and be cohesive.”

justin kane elder

Elder’s art career has followed a somewhat unorthodox trajectory from art to trade, and then back to art. Elder attended Seattle’s Cornish College for the Arts, but ended up in something of a self-created niche field. He studied Illustration under the auspices of the Design department, but always felt that he was “a little out of step” and “something of a black sheep.” While he appreciates the one-on-one attention he received from attending a small arts college, Elder feels that he missed out on some aspects of his education because his work was never quite in alignment with his department.

Elder initially worked in oil paints and turned to spray paint in response to the frustrating time and space limitations of oils. He sounds like a giddy teenager when he talks about the experience of discovering spray paint. “It was a game changer,” he says, “I immediately started thinking on an entirely different scale.”

Upon graduating from Cornish, Elder made no attempts to navigate the art world. He instead moved to Hawaii to “do nothing and be a surf bum,” and then found work in construction when he returned to the Pacific Northwest. Elder’s reemergence into the Seattle art scene only came about because he was laid off from his carpentry job.

“[Losing my job] was a blessing in disguise,” Elder says. “I was really stressed out when it happened, but it motivated me to work on my art.” Elder immediately channeled his free time towards acquiring skills to help him in his artistic career; he began teaching himself web design and built his art website from the ground up.

Elder’s nascent resolve has paid off, and his plate has been ridiculously full for the last six months. He comes across as amicably bemused by the warm reception he is receiving from the Seattle art community, as he has had a show every month since August 2010. For now, Elder is riding the wave of his full schedule, but his eventual plan is to return to grad school in the hope of teaching.

“As a carpenter I often ended up in a teaching position. It always felt rewarding to know that I was contributing to someone else’s knowledge by sharing my own. It felt very natural and, after some time, I realized that teaching would be a fulfilling career, both personally and professionally.” Elder is also drawn to the idea of teaching because he sees it as a way to avoid becoming static in his own process. “When I was at Cornish, I found it common for the teacher to inspire the student and that the student can also influence the teacher… If you think about it, school is one of the ultimate artist collectives, constantly in flux and reinventing itself.” It will be exciting to see how Elder reinvents himself in the future.

1 finish carpenter: a skilled craftsperson who performs carpentry; also known as a joiner.
2 luthier: an individual who makes or repairs stringed instruments.


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11 years ago

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