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Climbing the Mountain: Justin Bua

Posted Nov 12 2010 8:34am

"I wanted this my whole life, but when I got it I realized there is so much more."

Yesterday I mentioned to a friend that I just keep doing what I feel driven to do, assuming that someday it will all make sense.  What-could-she-possibly-know Miley Cyrus tells us it's the climb that counts most.  We're all scaling some sort of mountain, at times desperately clinging to sharp stinging rocks.  Living in the moment gets tough when the pain digs in.  

Growing up many of us were told to reach for the stars, focus on the end goal, never give up.  All great advice; however, they often failed to mention that the mountain actually never ends and that those stars just keep getting higher. Perhaps they couldn't bear to slam us with that reality as we gazed up at them with shining eyes full of hope. 

My oldest daughter's boyfriend's best friend was found dead this week.  He was 28 years old.  Sorry to bring up such a sad thought, but folks are dying all around. I'm sure you can name a few.  One of my closest childhood friends died at 18.  I still dream about her several times a year.  I wonder what mountains these two young people aimed to climb.  Had they even identified their peaks yet?  Had they perhaps seen them looming in the distance? Knowing they lost their chance could make us all feel like folding up due to sadness.  We could choose to stop and simply cling to what and who we have.  It makes me want to lay down flat, close my eyes, and focus on the sound of my 11-year-old laughing, the smell of dinner, and the hum of my computer. 

It's perplexing.  I know I can't be happy on flat ground.  I need something to climb towards, yet knowing that the climb, once started, may never end, is exhausting.  My guest today, artist Justin Bua talks about how in his most recent "ah-ha" moment, he realized he was spinning in a moment he's always dream of -- he was at the mountain peak -- or so he thought momentarily.  When the dust settled, he found himself in another "ah-ha" moment.  He saw that the mountain never ends.  

Justin suggests that we be true to ourselves and just keep going.  I often wonder why Salmon swim upstream to mate.  It's so hard.  Why would they do that?  Perhaps for the same reason that I keep climbing and climbing and climbing.  At least they know what their reward is.  What is mine?  What is Justin's?  And will it be enough to justify the hard work, the sacrifice, the longing?

I think it will be.  I have to believe that.  I believe it for the 18 year old girl who lost her life in a car accident in 1984, and for the 28 year old man who was found alone in his apartment last week.  Both were extraordinary individuals.  I climb for them.  I sense that Justin climbs for those he paints, those whom he dubs the underground icons of our time, the under-appreciated souls similar to those Van Gogh painted on days that scorched his soul and hunger ate away at the belly he eventually shot.  Somehow I think all the climbing upstream has to do with love.  With respect to the creative climb, perhaps it's the way people like us express some kind of specialized, never-ending, mountainous emotion that seems to fester in standard avenues of expression.  

I don't know the answer.  I wish I did.  All I know is that today I don't care how jagged, rough, steep, or slick my mountain is.  I'm grateful to have one to call my own, and I will cling to it for as long as my arms can hold on to love, art, words, joy, and pain.  It means I'm alive.  My job is to move as high as I can until the end.  On the way, I'll breath deeply and try to smile.  I'll look to you, and I'll know I've found my true path.  As long as we can see each other, we'll be fine.

What's your story (in a nutshell)?  How long did it take to establish yourself as an artist?  Was the journey on a straight or twisted path?  Are you surprised by your success?

I’ve been surrounded by art my whole life.  My grampa was a letterer, a graphic designer, and a painter.  He did the original letterings for Felix the Cat as well as Prince Valiant and many more comics.  He was amazing!  Also, I remember back in kindergarten I had an amazing art teacher.  She made me do books on my life and that was the beginning of a whole new world!  I had characters who would make rainbows from rainbow machines and all types of insanely creative people in my books.

I studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in Cali.  That experience was amazing and it helped lead me to a successful career not only as an artist, but as a professor of drawing at the University of Southern California.  You know every day I strive to get better. I am a teacher but I am also a student and I try to grow all the time.  Michelangelo was 81 when he said that he was just beginning to learn how to draw… You never arrive and if you really feel that it’s over, it drives you to grow and explore new levels.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Perhaps a show I just had at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  It was amazing.  Everyone came out from Mr. Wiggles to Mix Master Mike to Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers.  It was an “ah-ha” moment because it was so out of body that it was as if I was looking down on myself saying both “ah-ha"-- I get it … My work is justifiable because they are hanging in a Museum -- and at the same time I felt like “ah-ha” -- that doesn’t make you great or terrible, it makes you fortunate.  I wanted this my whole life, but when I got it I realized there is so much more.

For you, is art more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be an artist and why?

Expression.  The artists that I like are mostly emotional painters.  Artists like Van Gogh, Kathe Kollwitz  , Daumier  , and Goya all paint emotionally.  They also paint the underclass and the common people.  This is what I really relate to and who I love to paint. 

Many artist focus on one particular subject or style.  How important is this for career development?  Have you ever grown tired of painting the same types of things, and if so, can you tell us about it?

I’ve never grown tired of painting the same types of things.  I’m from the hip hop era, so the characters I paint are kind of the iconographic heroes of my time. Whether it's the DJs or the MCs, they are the underground icons of our generation. The artists throughout history have always painted the heroes, painting popes and kings.  I paint DJs and b-boys, those are the people I really emulate, who I look up to.  I’m currently working on my next book entitled, "Legends of Hip Hop", which pays homage to the great heroes of our time.

I was a little burned out on painting characters playing pianos so I taking a hiatus from that but not to worry, I’ll be painting characters playing piano in the next year or ten years… or twenty. 

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

Both ...

During difficult or challenging times in your life, does painting sooth or inspire you?  Is it therapeutic in any way?

I write to soothe myself, but I also balance myself with painting!   It is my yoga.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

Yes, my high school teacher who didn’t let me enter an art contest.  I don’t want to mention any names because I don’t believe in throwing anyone under the bus—Mr. Stember!!!

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your artistic goals?  If so, can you tell us about it.  Where do most of your ideas come from?

I work very traditionally.  I do a thumbnail, develop a full and realized drawing then I do a value key and then a color key and then the painting.  This process is interesting because half way through the painting I usually want to redo the whole thing!  I’m my own worst critic!

What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers?  So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

The advice I’d give to any young artist just starting out or trying to get started is, just put your art out there to the world and you will shine.  Whether or not the world embraces you as an artist or not isn't the point.  You should paint because you have to and that's the way it is, and that’s how you’ll stand out as truly gifted.  It is a competitive world, but as long as you keep it real and don’t trick yourself into thinking that you’ve arrived then you’ll be good.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Just be true. Its like KRS-One says: what does it mean to be underground, you have to be real to be underground. I think that people can smell bullsh*t from a mile away. So don't copy, don't bullsh*t, be you, and work hard. Be blue collar about it, put in the hours. The harder you work, the luckier you get, right?

I respect people who try to create awareness for art and the art movement.  Also, just be yourself!  Respect and love because that’s real hip-hop.  Woooooord!
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