artist spotlight: James Roo
fields is proud to pair with Austin's Little Pink Monster Gallery to bring you the artist spotlight series, a collection of interviews conducted by the folks at Little Pink Monster, working in tandem with our editors to showcase some of the most interesting visual artists here in Austin and beyond. Some of these artists have exhibited with Little Pink Monster, and as fans of the wonderful women behind the LPM Gallery, we are excited to be able to provide a platform to introduce them to a wider audience. The first interview in this series was conducted by Elsie Greer, who spoke with local artist James Roo.
An excerpt from Roocomix, a forthcoming zine.
James Roo is a visual artist and musician here in Austin. He has played in multiple bands, most recently Mom Jeans and Oozer, and he occasionally reads at poetry readings in strange costumes. His drawings have been featured in a number of zines, and he is currently working on his first graphic novel.
So, to begin, you were born in Austin?
JR: I was born in Houston. I was there until third grade, when I moved to Austin and I grew up here.
Then you moved to New York City?
You went to the School of Visual Arts, where we met. Why did you decide to move back to Austin from New York?
JR: Well, I don’t know. It was just a hustle; you have to hustle more in New York, really. If I’m being honest, I’m a pretty lazy person… but at the time, especially when I had first moved back, it was still pretty reasonable. So, you know, you get space, which was a huge thing that I didn’t have any of in Brooklyn. You know?
Are you happy still, being here?
JR: Yeah! You know, doing music has been really easy here, which was a huge thing for me, getting up and starting to perform more. And it was a lot easier just finding people to do stuff with who were super down to try something out. I feel like, just ’cause there are so many people doing it, there are like 10 million bands in Austin, so everybody is just trying to do as much as they can. And that’s been great. I don’t know. I like Austin.
Were your parents and the environment you grew up in creative?
JR: They aren’t really creative people. My dad is a mechanic. He fixes copy machines. And my mom works at a hospital, she was doing quality management… not exactly sure what she’s doing now, but she still works in the hospital. You know, I don’t think they were necessarily creative people; I saw a lot of cool horror movies and stuff from them, so that was nice. I saw Alien and Predator when I was pretty young, but I feel that’s good, it forms my opinion. My dad really likes Stephen King, so he’s always talking about [his novels], which was very spooky as a small child.
Which you see in your work.
JR: Yeah sure, I’ve always loved horror stuff, so that’s probably a big part of it.
How’d you end up finding a creative environment, growing up? How’d you fall into art?
JR: On cartoons: super heavy cartoon watcher when I was a kid. I think that was a huge part of it. Then, when we moved to Austin, I felt really fortunate because my high school had a really big AP art space. The space was like a garage for old school buses, basically, that wasn’t full of school buses anymore. So it was just a load of studio space. And my art teacher, Dr. Austin was a super weirdo. I liked him a lot—I understand why people didn’t like him, but he was also working on his Ph.D. in postmodernism at the time, so I feel like I just talked to him a lot about stuff that I didn’t really ask about in the first place. So that was kind of interesting and really helpful.
Do you feel like, since you moved back, the art community is supportive outside of music?
JR: Yeah, there’s a lot of it going on. I honestly haven’t been as involved with that, aside from when I first moved back, actually. Me and some friends had a really small gallery space out in San Marcos, which was really fun. We just rented out the back room of what was kind of like the Yellow Bike Project.
I remember that. I went to one of the shows.
JR: Yeah, yeah... That was really fun and super easy. To have a group of creative people that met through music. They were part of this group called Thirst Fursday; they’re still doing it. They do a monthly showcase at Chain Drive, and it was always super avant-garde. [Editor’s note: Chain Drive closed, and Thirst Fursday is now held at Badlands on Chicon.] And so I met a lot of people doing that kind of stuff, and I was still doing a lot of performance-y, weird stuff. So that was cool, I mean, that was really easy to get going for a year or so. Really, really fun. Great shows. I feel like the communities out there… I don’t necessarily engage with it as much as I could.
Are there any galleries that you do like right now?
JR: I haven’t been going to shows too much… I mean, I had really liked Domy [Books] when it was around. That was a really nice spot for me to go to, and I felt it was involved in my interests, but I don’t know. I don’t make as much of an effort as I could, for sure.
Any local artists that you’re into?
JR: A lot of the people that I would’ve met through the Wreck Center in San Marcos. Ben Aqua was really great, [he does] photos and music and stuff, all kinds of projects. He’s really cool… I also like Boone Graham, Vincent Martinez, Eggtooth, Palfloat, Brendan Kiefer, Noel Kalmus. But honestly, like in the last two years since I started making comics, it’s been a really solitary process, aside from putting out a book with Rough House Comics last year. They were doing a lot of cool stuff, they’re actually about to have a release for their new zine in October. I think on the second. And those guys are really cool. I just kind of found out that I really enjoy doing comics, which makes a lot of sense at this point.
How did you come across finding comics?
JR: Well, I’ve always been into it, but when I was a kid I liked superhero comics like Spawn and stuff. I still love superheroes, but when I was going to SVA… they had files of the zines the cartoon students would make. I saw probably like Dash Shaw’s zine, one of his early ones he made during school. He kind of blew my mind, and I got into it. Yeah, I got into it through that library probably. It was a free source. But now it’s a problem for me, I just know and I can’t help it. I just buy them and buy them and I can’t stop. I enjoy it.
Can you explain your process for me, for creating comics?
JR: It’s really strange, going into them. I’ve always drawn. I could draw all day, but drawing specific action or making things readable, trying to write stories is really weird. So it comes in waves, a lot of disparate stuff that will hit me, like oh yeah, this is a thing I think about. Some of them are part dream and then part something somebody said to me. Just taking all that kind of disparate stuff and cramming it in… and that’s the fun thing about it, because you know I’ve always liked to draw real small. So it made sense for me to start sectioning off spaces where I could just draw really little pictures, and a really fun part of that is figuring out a page versus a whole painting. The aesthetics of the page.
The characters, how do you find those?
JR: That is a lot of different mythology stuff that I’m trying to squish around with pop culture and things that I really like. And a lot of that just comes from reading sci-fi or checking out different religious texts that I really like.
What specific mythology?
JR: I’m trying to do as much of it as I can. One of the first things I did was just buying as many creation myths as I could, or the archetypal creation myths, and then it ends up there is a lot of misinformation, and the way I'm trying to put them all together… a lot of false leads and stuff that comes from trying to mish-mash. A lot of them have intersecting patterns or stories, like floods, or mother-father archetype for the creation of the world. So there’s emergence, which is where you’re basically moving through realms that exist—so now we would be in the fourth world, I believe… I’m taking the mother-father thing and the emergence thing and trying to blend it with a cosmic egg scenario that’s hatching… I read an H.P. Lovecraft story about a seed that falls from the moon—just a really small part of that story, but it’s something that I liked, and I tried to put that all together. The main thing about it is that none of the characters know what’s going on. Even the gods and deities and stuff, really faulty system, and they’re all working toward things that they’re really sure will be a thing but it’s probably not.
Just like human nature, essentially?
JR: Yeah, sure. It’s like living and it’s not just like a story; it kind of just keeps going. At least that’s the way I'm trying to look at it.
Is every issue a continuation?
JR: Yeah, for this kind of specific thing that I was talking about… So I have maybe like 50 and change pages of that thing, which I want to try and put out sometime this spring, and just have that be volume one. But I’ve also been doing in-between shorts, like collections of short stories and zines and drawings and things like that, just to keep myself occupied between, because I’ve never really focused on anything that long. I’ve been working on this one thing for two years now, and it’s like… what is the actual point? It feels compulsive in that way.
Do you feel like that’s just art in general for you?
JR: That might be it. I don’t know if I could stop. Or if I did stop, I don’t know if that would be a good thing necessarily. You know? It’s probably just better for my mental health. [laughing]
Excerpt from Roo's self-published comic Alter Self 2.
Were there other art movements or styles that you became obsessed with at any point in time, or even now?
JR: Yeah, I was doing a lot more performance, even up until a year ago. My friend Trey Greer (a.k.a. No Glykon) was doing these monthly poetry readings called Aural Lit at the Austin Terrazas Branch Library, and he kind of gave me the freedom to just do weird performance that I would like to do, but it was all based off poetry that I’d been writing.
Similar to other performances, where you’ve built suits and costumes?
JR: Yeah, and a lot of that was just kind of figuring out how to pare stuff down and bring small set-ups like suitcase, amplifier, tape machine, and a loop pedal, and a bag of changes of costume. So Fluxus was huge for me to find out about. Really love Yoko Ono and all of that stuff.
Were you in Regina Schilling’s Yoko Zine?
JR: Yeah, I made a Yoko… That’s also another thing about SVA, I wouldn’t know you for instance, and I wouldn’t know Regina, and as much of the art and stuff, just being in New York, being able to experience so much of that. Which, honestly, it’s not like Austin doesn’t have museums and stuff, but they’re not… It’s different. It’s not the same at all. I remember a specific time with Jacob [Warstler] & Greg [Roth], I ate some really strong brownies and we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I found this thing that I’d never seen there before, in the Egyptian wing. I saw, it was like a mummified deer, just like falling apart a little bit. But they had it in a glass case, and it was all just falling apart. And I just like kind of got there at the right time, when the brownies were doing their thing. It’s one of those magical experiences that you can’t really get at the Blanton [Museum of Art], you know?
[laughing] It’s true, you’d just end of standing in that blue room the whole time.
JR: Right. And you can’t find parts of it that you haven’t been to. I never fully explored The Met, I’m sure of that.
Do you see a comparison to the characters you draw and the costumes you would put on for your performance?
JR: Yeah, I think so. It’s easier in drawings to distort space so that you don’t know what’s going on. And I feel like when I’m drawing caricatures a lot of the time, I’m trying to push that so you can’t tell really what their body is doing. But as far as costumes go… building ones that were functional that you could see through and sing through and just making the considerations for it…. I was doing poetry for a while, and I had this band, Everything is Melting, which is like real weird performance stuff, and building costumes for that is one of the more fun things I’ve done in a while. I don’t think they’re separate: my visual art and my music. I don’t see them that way.
Does one influence the other more?
JR: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I’m always trying to do different-sounding stuff. So my new band, Oozer, is so different than any of the other bands I’ve been in. And I feel like that influenced—especially the drawings I’ll make for the band, they have a quality of ooze and a kind of misinformation of image, like everything’s obscured of something. I feel like thinking about the way we were doing sounds and how they would appear visually. It’s different. And I have to imagine that’s the way I’ve been drawing recently, too.
The name Roo, where did it come from?
JR: That’s a very funny story. Me and my friend Cody [Carry], who I had met up with when I came back to Austin. He’s a friend I've known since eighth grade. Real close buds. And we started a band, we were playing out a lot and whatever, and we were trying to think of a name [for the band], and I remember one night specifically, we were hanging out on the back porch. We were watching the running man on a TV on the back porch, just getting good and fucked up as you do. And he went to go pee in the yard, and he came back to me kind of wild-eyed and said, “I know, I know what this band is going to be called.” He said it was “Roo. R.O.O.” And I said “Yeah, ok, I like that. It’s kind of a cool idea while you’re peeing.” He said, "Funny you mention peeing," ’cause he had spelled it with his pee in cursive, which is how he decided it was a perfect band name. So that was my first band when I came back to Austin and I just kind of stuck with that. I’d be out at shows and people took to calling me Roo, or James Roo. So I’ve just been rolling with that since then. And Roo as a band has not played in a long time, Cody got married, has a kid, and is doing all kinds of stuff. He recently started a business called 512 Metalworks… So yeah, they are off doing their own thing, and I just kind of kept Roo going. At least to friends in town—it’s a recognizable thing. It’s a good origin story.
Interview by Elsie Greer.