It’s Easier to Outwit the Southern Sun than to Be a Brooklyn Artist

The mother of self-taught illustrator and printmaker James Flames gave him the “new mommy” journal she kept when he was a baby. It contained page after page of detailed records of his infant development: He loves apples juice. Today he had a toothache. “But about 18 months into it,” Flames recalls, “there is this entry where she wrote, He keeps drawing all day long. So with the exception of those first 18 months, I’ve been drawing my whole life.”

James Flames is on fire in the band-poster world.
Portrait by Colby Rabon

Maybe it’s genetic. 

“My uncle’s an artist, my mom, my grandfather. Everyone in my family made art and had their art on their walls. But nobody was a professional artist. My granddad was a butcher. Everyone had a regular job, and then they would come home and make art.”

Icons of the music industry have sought out the illustrator.

Flames didn’t go to college, and after high school he worked in a shop that built prosthetic legs, in a child daycare center, as a corporate travel agent, and as the manager of a coffee shop. “Then my youngest brother — I’m the oldest of five — pursued a career as an artist.” That option had never occurred to Flames, but after talking to his brother, he decided it would be a better way to make a living.

Flames was in Brooklyn, however, and realized, “I would be a starving artist because it’s crazy expensive.” So he moved to Asheville, worked as a graphic designer, and started making hand-screened posters for local bands and venues. Flames is a musician who’s retained his stage name from his band days; he once ran a small record label, so he understood how the industry works and how people within it form a close-knit network.

The illustrator’s saturated colors and rich imagery are a departure from early-’00s minimalism.

“Poster artists all start from the smallest band nobody ever heard of,” he says, “and it takes years to pay your dues. But once you’re noticed, word gets around. The turning point for me was in about 2012, when I made posters for Phish and the Black Keys. That’s when other bands started finding me.” His more-is-more style — saturated in jewel-toned psychedelic colors and reminiscent of illustrations in vintage comic books and children’s picture books — almost feels like a retort to the hand-lettered minimalism of the early ’00s.

Today his client list includes Disney and Billy Joel, plus bands like the Foo Fighters, Alabama Shakes, Dave Matthews Band, and the Avett Brothers. He also creates limited edition, hand-pulled screenprints for private release, and his work can be found in galleries and personal collections worldwide.

James Flames at work.
Photo by Colby Rabon

But studio life still presents daily creative challenges that can literally change with the weather. Screenprinting involves light-reactive coatings that must be exposed to bright light, and most commercial printers use high-tech lighting equipment to ensure consistent success. Flames prefers to step outside of his woodland studio and use good old-fashioned sunlight.

“I have to intuit what the sun is going to be doing that day. In summer it’s in the middle of the sky. In January it’s over to the side and farther away. Or it may be overcast. I have to feel the moment and be ready, and we are talking between 45 seconds and three minutes to get the proper exposure. The printing is also affected by humidity and temperature, and how the ink came out of the jar that day. I mix everything by hand, too; it’s very tactile. I will have ink all over me. My wife will be picking it out of my hair. I thrive on structure and organization. But this process forces me find the structure in this thing I can’t possibly control.”

We Opened Our Eyes And Kept On Dreaming

Flames emphasizes, though, that it’s not the tool, medium, or process that distinguishes the art. “It’s the stories I want to tell, and the feeling I have inside that I want to get across. It blows my mind sometimes that my art, this thing that once lived only inside my head, now lives in someone’s house. That’s the whole reason I made it, and it’s an amazing feeling.” 

James Flames, Fletcher. For more information, see jamesflames.com and on Instagram (@thejamesflames). The artist’s screenprinting-process videos are viewable on YouTube (www.youtube.com/JamesFlames).

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