This Colorful Artist Will Inspire You To Never Stop Hustling
Artist Jason Watts discusses his work as one of Chicago's top muralists
Innovation comes in many forms. Meet the creative minds inspiring others through art.
Chicago artist Jason Watts leads a busy life as both the president of his own design company and as a working muralist. Coming from an artistic, supportive family, Jason graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a Bachelor of Science in Design and has worked in interior design for over 20 years. By combining his scale and placemaking skills with his fine art background as a studio artist, Jason has naturally transitioned into mural commissions. Most recently, he has completed 3 murals since May 2019, spending July and early August in Georgia painting a large exterior mural along Route 85 in Suwanee, GA. Join us as Jason discusses what inspires him as an artist as well as his collaboration with GREY in releasing a t-shirt line.
A lot of your work feels inspired by blues and jazz. Do you have a strong connection to music?
Yes. I am a guitar player and have been in multiple bands over the years. My skills as a musician are nowhere near what I think I can do with artwork, but I think the two creative pursuits overlap. I listen to a wide range of music, from new alternative artists to rock to Americana and alt country, but blues and late 60’s and 70’s vinyl are my jam while I paint. I have a turntable in my studio and music is a big part of my routine.
I will sometimes listen to one artist or genre especially during a painting session to complete a project. I have been on a huge Neil Young kick lately. I find the music I listen to influences my style at times, and vice versa. With the blues and jazz references in my work, I am largely working with the idea of the music of Chicago, the past era of bars and clubs and juke joints etc. that are a big part of music history.
How has your style evolved over the years?
I think my work now is a reflection of many of the styles I have explored and I tend to use elements from many of these genres. My painting began to click for me with urban landscapes, and this is somewhat my base style. If I feel like I am in a funk creatively, I tend to return to this style. The latest works are very graphic, but many of them come from street scapes and old neon and vintage signage which relate back to the urban landscapes. I consider the most recent graphic compositions to be mashups in a sense, using elements of past work, but pushing into new, almost surrealistic territory.
Your current work seems to reflect the art of Ed Paschke. Was he someone you had the chance to meet in person?
I am a big fan of his work, but was never able to meet him. I have known several people that knew him and I always remember hearing stories of what a kind person he was. For me, he is an inspiration as a Chicago artist that made a big splash in the art world. My recent work has references to his electric color, patterning and graphic compositions.
How did you transition into mural work?
I had been working for years as a studio artist and began to notice the murals popping up all over Chicago. Several years ago, I began exploring ways to market my work for larger commission opportunities. My first mural is located at 5011 N. Lincoln in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago. This mural has the jazz figure silhouette with signage and several iconic elements inside the figure. The singular silhouette with localized elements inside has become a signature element for me, with infinite opportunities to explore.
What has been your proudest moment or creation?
I feel like I am getting there! This year has been interesting as sometimes what you want to happen doesn’t come to fruition and then several other opportunities come your way instead.
I was a finalist for several big art commissions and was sure I was going to win one. Turns out I lost both, but shortly after was awarded the large mural in Georgia by Holtkamp HVAC. They’re a wonderful business that commissioned the mural along I-85 north of Atlanta, so I had the ability to spend my summer months working on several large exterior murals. July in Georgia was hot, but I am very proud of the achievement. The mural is 125’ long by 22’ in height and I had to rent several large lifts as well as bring a team with me. The logistics, planning, and process of making a mural is the most important part, and that one comes to mind as a (literally) big achievement.
How does your creative process for commission work differ from that of personal projects?
Commission work is best if you can work your style to fit the intent and themes of the project or client. I try to tell a local story in my work, but use elements and assets that are natural to my painting style and technique. For example, I had been working with a trumpeter figure for years and loved the fact that the trumpeter looked to be playing loud in celebration.
In my Des Plaines History Center mural this year, I used a similar trumpet figure, from the local marching band as a proclamation of a new era for the town. While you are in some ways starting from scratch with any new commission project, these familiar subjects have already been vetted and help to ensure continuity from one project to the next.
Personal projects are separate and usually come from an idea in my head late at night or an intent to explore a subject in a previous painting in a new way. This process has led to many of the graphic styles and references that I am utilizing in my murals. I have been exploring bridges in my work recently, literally and as a metaphor for the transitional aspect of a physical bridge—getting from here to there.
What has been the biggest challenge to overcome as a working artist?
The biggest challenge is similar to most small businesses I believe. Some months there are sales and large mural commissions, only to be looking for the next opportunity the next month. I have been working to build marketing into my routine so to be able to space out the work and ensure I have leads for new opportunities. As I am from the Gen X generation, social media and talking about myself is not always natural, but is also very important. Overall the biggest hurdle is to always stay active and continue to challenge yourself with new creative endeavors.
What made you take the leap from mural work to releasing your own t-shirt collection? Why did you choose to work with GREY?
I was excited to explore the t-shirts as a different medium. I had some ideas that weren’t necessarily paintings, that seemed to lend themselves to a shirt design. All of the designs are singular in nature, with one graphic focal element. Run Don’t Walk and Making a Splash are metaphors for the mojo we had in our youth and try to recapture a bit of that confidence. The Chicago Trumpet and Sailor Song t-shirts were just really cool graphic signage inspired designs that were an extension of my latest work. The entrepreneurial aspect of GREY really spoke to me, as I am 2 years into working on my own as a business, and I feel like there is a synergy there. For all of the successes, there is also the worry of what comes next!
What new projects are you working on? Any events coming up?
I have several new mural opportunities that are in the planning stages. One is for an after school sports program that came about as a result of my Georgia mural. For my design business, Splash10 Design, I am currently designing two restaurant projects. As for events, I am hoping to put a bus tour together that would visit many different murals in the west loop and other areas of Chicago. The idea is to have several of the muralists there to talk about their work. Lastly, I did a community mural in June in the West Loop working with parents and kids from Skinner Elementary School and I’d like to try this approach again. It was a great experience for me to meet kids that have a passion for art, and to share my work and process.
Where can people find your work?
Check out Jason’s exclusive GREY t-shirt collection below:
This article originally published on GREY Journal.