Arts & Culture
Spotlight On: Jason Bard Yarmosky, ‘Dream of the Soft Look’ Artist
Talking to the oil painter about mortality, grandparents, and the fountain of youth Read More
“Age ain’t nothing but a number” is a credo artist Jason Bard Yarmosky lives by. The 26-year-old Poughkeepsie, NY born oil painter has been making waves this year with his series of hauntingly beautiful paintings of his aging grandparents. In Yarmosky’s first photo series, “Elder Kinder,” the artist had his grandparents dress up in various costumes (like Playboy bunny and Batman), showing them off in a youthful, playful, and contrastive light.
In his new series, “Dream of the Soft Look,” Jason takes a more intimate approach, with black and white close ups, mixed imagery, and a short film of his grandfather, slowly going about his morning routine, as you’ll see below. Yarmosky’s painting, “Sleepwalking,” was recently featured in The Huffington Post as one of the year’s most memorable oil paintings. I recently sat down with Yarmosky over cups of Earl Grey tea to chat about life, death, and his paintings.
When did you begin drawing/painting? What were your childhood influences?
I began drawing when I was four or five years old. I actually have drawings from then, which is cool. I even gave my grandparents drawing lessons for a dollar; it was like a thing we did. I was drawing pretty much my whole life, and then basketball was a huge thing as well, so I didn’t start focusing primarily on art until high school. And even then I was doing more drawing mixed media stuff. When I went to college at the School of Visual Arts, I was never oil painting. I went initially for graphic design, and then I switched to illustrations, it was interesting because I found illustration was more fitting to what I wanted to do–in terms of what I wanted to get out of school. My last semester at school I took an oil painting class, and that’s when it all started. It struck me. My entire life creating art, I was creating all different types of art and experimenting. And through out that, teachers would always say to me, “You have to find a style,” and I thought it was bullshit—like what does this mean? I could put different works of what I was doing then in a room today, and it would look like a group show. And at that point when I took the class, I was watching this oil painter. It wasn’t necessarily what he was painting—it was just a model in the room—but he was painting so well. He was just observing and doing it. And I was like man if I could paint like that, I could use it as a tool to communicate whatever idea I want.
How did the idea for “Elder Kinder” come about?
When I started oil painting, all my work was generally figurative. I remember the head of the illustration department at SVA told me, “If you’re going to be a figurative artist, you have to have content in your work.” And it totally made sense. I was looking at an artist at that time named Vincent Desiderio, who shows at the Marboro Gallery, and he is such an amazing figurative artist that has content. That’s when the whole conception of “Elder Kinder” came together with my grandparents, because I realized, I was so close with my grandparents growing up. And I personally, and I’m sure everybody is like this, feel like all of us on this earth are so similar, it’s just we choose what to share with each other. We all generally go through the same experiences and feel the same things. I of course was always kind of creeped out about death. That whole “Woody Allen thing”—like wait, this ends? And obviously being overly aware of the lack of permanence being as close as I am with my grandparents, who are significantly older than me. At this point, I’m 26, they’re 86. I just thought it would be so cool to be able to not only work with them as my subjects, but also I’ve always been interested in drawing an older person physically; their skin, their wrinkles, all of that. And then giving them such juxtaposition; not just painting an old person, or a child, but basically combing the two.
Madeline L’Engle said, “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.” I know that when I’m meeting older people, anyone for that matter, you look in the person’s eyes and their eyes are behind the façade. You feel more connected with somebody’s soul in that sense. So instead of judging a book by its cover, looking at this old person like maybe they’re not capable of this or that, I wanted to show how full and beautiful they are. They’ve already lived what I’m living. They have so much knowledge, and they’re still living.
It’s really unfortunate that people thinking “old” is something to apologize for, is all a construction of our society.
I know. I grew up watching The Marx brothers and Charlie Chaplin with my grandparents, retaining that kind of humor. That’s another thing that’s important as you age, not to lose that humor. I tried to incorporate that in my work. “Elder Kinder” had an element of humor, which was important initially, because when you first look at it you may laugh, but after that first glance, it can resonate with you, deeper. You project your own meaning to it. Essentially it’s just something I thought was important for me in the work to celebrate aging, whereas in our society, we don’t. We celebrate youth, youth, and more youth.
“Elder Kinder” has this celebratory aspect to it, whereas “Dream of the Soft” has an even more intimate, more psychological look at aging. Was this a natural progression for you?
Yes, everything was a progression. At the first show opening, everyone was so interested in talking to my grandparents. For “Elder Kinder” we did a podcast explaining the images, and people were so interested in listening to them, I thought it would be great to have some sort of film element. That’s when I actually did the first video I’ve ever done. I bought a Canon 5d and learned how to use it on Youtube tutorials, and it was really organic how it all came together. For me going into filmmaking was completely different. I’ve never studied film, I just kind of went for it.
I told my grandfather one night, “Look I’m going to be set up when you wake up next to your bed.” I was up at 6 a.m. next to him with a camera and told him to go about his day. So my grandfather is 86 and has multiple sclerosis; his mobility is very slow. I filmed him getting out of bed, walking slowly with his walker into the bathroom to shower, shave, and stare at his own reflection. This was derived from the podcast when he told me that his father told him when he was old, he would look in the mirror and no longer recognize himself. I realized for all of us– and the more people I’m friends with who are older–time really flies by. The film I did ended up being a collaboration with my grandfather, because I used 8 mm footage in color that my grandfather filmed himself in the 1950s of my grandmother, mom, and aunt. So there was his actual memories flashing back in the video. I felt that really helped in the “Soft Look” exhibition, conceptually, to support my paintings. So yes, to me, “Dream of the Soft Look” went past the physical elements of aging and further into the psychological.
The “Prelude to a Kiss” photo is a close up of your grandmother kissing your grandfather on the head in an image of three side-by-side pictures. In modern day speak it almost looks like a “Pic Stich.” Do you think our generation will be posting “selfies” with our significant others at that age?
Well that’s if you can get past societal expectations. At a young age, I feel like we’re just brainwashed. We have Disney movies that paint us this happily ever after, music videos, celebrities; a message that celebrates the fountain of youth. It’s like youth is the prime age, and when you pass that age, you’re done. We need more things to celebrate the entire lifecycle, not just one aspect of it. That’s what I think is so cool about Cindy Sherman’s work. She had a retrospective at The MoMA this past year, and her more recent work called “Society Portraits” were of these socialite women who were aging, and they get all these cosmetic alteration surgeries and were loaded with makeup, and looked freakish and scary, but almost kind of funny. It elicited and evoked all different types of emotions. So I think in a sense, we have to confront these issues. Because with technology, with the trajectory the world is going in, things are yet to be fully determined.
Obviously the way the audience responds to the pictures if very indicative of their beliefs on beauty. Have any reactions surprised you?
Yeah. I once gave a talk in the salon at the National Arts Club, and I was presenting them a painting of my grandmother dressed up as Wonder Woman. The idea, to some people’s surprise, was not supposed to be aging superheroes. The costumes were a metaphor—they were my grandparents wearing the costumes to bring out a youthful, playful aspect. This one guy said she looked pathetic and something else negative, but it was cool. I kept my cool and I said, ‘you know what? I think we just project our own meaning and issues to what we look at, next question.’ No matter what you look at, if it makes you feel alarmed, you’re going to feel uncomfortable. If it makes you feel joy, you’re going to be joyful. The one really cool thing about all of this is the connections we make with people. I’ve gotten so many emails from people whether they just wanted to say they wish they had grandparents like mine, or they have grandparents like mine, and it’s touched and moved them. I’ve gotten emails from people saying they don’t even know what they felt about it, but it made them think, and that’s the idea. For me it doesn’t matter if art work makes you feel whichever way, as long as it makes you feel. I remember in one Huffington Post piece, there were all these people arguing with each other–some people were saying my project was elder abuse! It’s ridiculous. Like listen to the podcast, you can hear my grandparents talking so joyfully about being involved in the project. The other day there was an article in L Magazine that came out and they actually said I said something that I didn’t, like “his goal is not to try to change how people perceive aging, but to paint what he knows.” That’s bullshit. I want it to be something that can create awareness.
So your grandparents were something of a celebrity. How did that make you feel?
Well at my exhibition, the gallery was 2500 square ft and it was packed with people all night. My grandparents were in one corner of the room, signing all these autographs. For them this was the coolest feeling ever. It felt like in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, where everyone’s asking you questions and you’re just like “Uhhh.” And everybody probably thought at the moment I was on top of the world, but at the opening I was kind of sad the whole time. It was like my night, and yet I felt like something was missing. I realized the next day, it was hard for me; the party was kind of like the pinnacle of this project with my grandparents. I used my grandparents as my models to create this work, and they saw as we worked on it, the impact it had on the public. And also naturally in that process–in terms of my relationship with my grandparents–we grew closer and closer in ways that I didn’t want to lose, and having had this third show for them, it all felt so final. Especially because I know what my next body of work is going to be, and it will be different. You ever have one of those moments where it’s happening and you feel it’s already over? I enjoyed it, but I think the element of the relationship I have with my grandparents and their age, it’s just something you want to hold on to. In a way I was able to do that with the paintings—on both levels to communicate my ideas, but then that naturally came along with it.
What are you working on now?
I’m conceptualizing now. In this last show I did, one painting that was very different for me, and I want to keep going in this direction, was the Sleepwalking painting, where my grandmother is on the wall. I just described this photo to John Seed, a Huffington Post art writer, for his post on memorable paintings of 2013. In the painting, the idea was my grandfather was waking up in the middle of the night to find my grandmother sleepwalking on the wall—them being on separate planes is a metaphor. Her shadow, which is behind her representing the past, is cast over her wedding picture on the wall, which really states the distance between when they first met and now. And beside that picture is an oval mirror, which is reflecting my shadow behind me opposite of them. So in a sense this painting is a self portrait, because I was there watching them in that room. I love the idea where I can apply my technical painting ability realistically, but also manipulate reality. And that surreal approach is what I want to do with my next body of work.