When life served up a double whammy for Kristopher James – first a divorce, then the coronavirus pandemic – the born-and-raised Spokane resident turned lemons into lemonade. Or, in his case, photographs into visual and digital art.
James has a culinary degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, but first was part of the Art Institute of Seattle’s first culinary program class, after high school graduation, before moving to the School of Visual Concepts, as the institute’s new culinary school shuttered after only two years.
“That just didn’t work out,” James laughed about his time in Seattle while being interviewed in his home-work loft space in downtown Spokane on Monday. James returned home to Spokane after Seattle, then move to New York again to complete his culinary degree at the institute in New York.
But his brief time at Seattle’s Art Institute, which included one semester at New York University and a foray into photography from culinary, circled back in his life.
“That’s where I really fell in love with art, during my time at NYU and returning to New York for culinary school – it really reinvigorated my interest,” he said. “It is such a creative scene with the Guggenheim and all the museums and so much more.”
But for a time, art moved to the background when James returned to Spokane again in 2007 after working in the restaurant industry in New York, and he focused on his work in the nonprofit sector at Union Gospel Mission for four years. Then he wed and became a stay-at-home dad. During the divorce and while moving and unpacking, James found some of his earlier artwork and photo negatives, and a new light came into focus.
James, 45, was working as the tasting room manager at Helix Wine in downtown Spokane during the divorce. Pondering what to do with his life, James had moved from the South Hill into one of the four lofts in the historic Genesee Building downtown.
Along with adjusting to his new “single dad and bachelor life,” as James puts it, he was considering his next career move when an artist canceled last minute on a First Friday reception at Helix Wine.
Pressed for time and artwork, James printed some of his images from his time at NYU – photography has been a longtime passion for him that started in his teens – and the reception for his work at the reception was positive and life-changing.
James not only sold some images, but he also landed his first client, Johnson Law Firm, as some of the company’s employees were at the Helix event. The stroke of luck served as a sign for James, and since leaving Helix in March, he has focused full time on his budding visual arts career after being advised that he could not juggle being a dad, the tasting room and art.
“I really lucked out with Johnson Law Firm because it was a big contract for me – a big win,” James said. “They saw my work at the event and said, ‘Hey, we’re opening a law firm and need artwork. Can you do the whole floor?’ Oh, my goodness!”
Six words on James’ Kopher Studios website, kristopherjames.studio, encapsulate his renewed passion: “Painted with light | works on metal.” It is apparent in James’ work that he is an avid fan of working with metal, his choice of frame for his images – yes, he works on metal for his works on metal.
“I have pretty much printed everything on metal,” James said. “I developed this fascination with rust when I was at NYU. I took all these photos of rust because I think rust almost paints itself – they’re these beautiful, abstract paintings.”
Along with his allegiance to metal, he is sticking with his vocation despite the challenges of the pandemic.
“I use photography as a way to capture pixels, colors and the way light is. I use a lot of artificial intelligence called GANS, or generative adversarial networks,” James said. “I’m not a programmer, so I don’t understand all the language. But technology has created a second mind that you can interface with as an artist.
“To me, it’s like being a landscape photographer, which is my training and my background in photography. The computer gives the opportunity to create these surreal landscapes, and my goal is to draw the story out of these images into a new digital landscape. This is what is beautiful, and I want to deliver it with meaning.”
After completing the work at Johnson Law Firm in downtown’s Paulsen Center, James’ next client would be the new Gozo Brick Oven Bistro on Sprague Avenue – next door to Helix Wine. (Incidentally, Gozo is where I stumbled upon James and his story when I wrote about Gozo for the Food section in late June.)
“On my last day at Helix, we had our wine club party at Fire Artisan Pizza, which is now the space of Gozo. I thought to myself that this would be a great place to display art,” James said. “It has great light, and it’s a good location. The street reminds me of the vibe in New York.”
James does not regret taking the risk to follow his calling.
“It has certainly been an interesting time, but COVID has spurred me a little deeper into the work and meaning. It’s a time of reflection and stillness,” James said. “It has been quite a journey being a full-time artist right now. To be honest, as a dad, it is tough to jump into this full time.
“The reality is a lot of us are in the same boat, but a lot of my inspiration is faith-based and, most recently, my focus has been on a deeply spiritual awakening and conveying a healing spirit, especially after recovering from divorce. ”
James also is an avid fan of the outdoors.
“I love fly fishing, so you’ll see a lot of scales in my work and fly-fishing themes,” he said. “I love sharing the art of fly fishing. … I create artwork around trout to be printed on metal. You’ll see trout spots combined with colors that I really love. … You’ll see images of mountains. I love nature and the outdoors from growing up camping and fishing.”
Next up for James is Blackwell Gallery on Sherman Avenue across from the Coeur d’Alene Resort. He believes his large art pieces in metal will be ideal for the high-traffic area and large spaces such as offices and restaurants. James has found a community of artists that has been supportive, as well as a community that supports art.
“I made the plunge and figured that if it didn’t work out after three months, I would go back to work doing something else,” James said. “I may or may not make it, to be quite honest. There is a lot of faith running into the next three months. But this time for me has been a real awakening and a real learning experience. Art needs to be experienced – it is part of the American spirit.”
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