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A Conversation with Jason Mitcham

— Dr. Emily Stamey, Curator of Exhibitions

The Weatherspoon is excited to announce the acquisition of two drawings and stop-motion videos by New York-based artist and Greensboro native Jason Mitcham. Roadway Horizon #4 and Battlefield come from Mitcham’s poignant series Destiny Manifested. The artist describes the project as an examination of the American landscape focused on better understanding how our constructed environments “divide us, corral us, and ensure a power structure as we become a part of them and they become a part of us.”
Over the past few months, I’ve had the privilege of being in conversation with Jason about his work. The below interview has been compiled from our ongoing correspondence.
Jason Mitcham, Roadway Horizon #4, 2020. India ink on paper, 15 x 22 in. Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Museum purchase with funds from the Weatherspoon Art Museum Acquisition Endowment, 2020.14a. © Jason Mitcham Studio LLC. All rights reserved
Can you talk a bit about how growing up in Greensboro informed your work?

I grew up on the Southwest side of Greensboro on High Point Road near Sedgefield. My father ran a civil engineering/land surveying firm, Mitcham and Associates, next door to our home. I worked for him throughout high school and college, first as a runner pulling plats and deeds downtown at the courthouse, then later in the field as a land surveyor.

My artistic practice begins in the field, and I liken this to land surveying. I begin by observing and recording in the landscape: drawing and painting from observation on site, capturing photographs and videos, recording sounds, and taking notes. Research often happens beforehand, but many times curiosities within the landscape provide the opportunity to investigate, to start peeling back the layers of history, and to see how these sites came to be what they are. This raw material is brought back into the studio and reworked and reconfigured many times, often taking the form of animated paintings and drawings and/or video. Hopefully, the final works lead to larger social, political, environmental, economic, and racial conversations.
You’ve shared that these broader issues are also deeply personal. I wonder if you would be willing to elaborate.

My father's firm went under after the 2008 housing crisis, and he was unable to rent or sell the land while waiting on the state to pay for it, and so it went into bankruptcy. In 2011, the state of North Carolina took the property I grew up on in an act of eminent domain and razed both the houses (our residence and the office next door) to widen High Point Road (now Gate City Boulevard). My father passed very unexpectedly this past March, and we are now trying to sell the land. However, we were left with two slivers of commercial lots, making what can be developed on the land very limited. So it is a weird situation of mourning the place where I grew up, which is now almost unrecognizable, and needing to sell it. But I'm sure this story is not unique.
Jason Mitcham, Battlefield, 2020. India ink on paper, 22 x 30 in. Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Museum purchase with funds from the Weatherspoon
Art Museum Acquisition Endowment, 2021.1a. © Jason Mitcham
Studio LLC. All rights reserved
I’m struck by how much that sense of loss resonates within your images, especially the still drawings. When they become animated, that literal element of time seems to further underscore the notion of nostalgia, even as it calls our attention to future changes yet to come. Can you talk about why you animate the images and what that process entails?

My decision to try to animate one of my paintings came in 2009 on a beltline in Greensboro as my parents were driving me home from the airport, having just arrived from New York. I found myself completely lost in a landscape I had known so thoroughly, and I knew in that moment that I had to animate a painting. I think these two concepts you bring up, loss and nostalgia, both have a lot to do with distance. Animating an image allows me to connect a distance across time that is not connectable in reality. Entropy and time can be reversed. A place or landscape that does not exist anymore can be explored in relation to its current (or future) state. Also, in order to animate an image I have to destroy parts, or sometimes even all, of the existing imagery. The image has to be allowed to destroy itself in order to become itself. 

Many times I arrive at a point in a painting or drawing that I feel is the best aesthetic state of the image, but the narrative takes precedent and I have to continue the animating process. I think this is related to loss also. I like that the process of animating an image functions in the same manner as the landscape (or life in general). Things are constantly being wiped away, scraped, erased, painted over, and abandoned for new directions. The resulting moving image resurrects the history of the painting or drawing, allowing the viewer to witness an archive of the history that has unfolded.
The artworks we’ve acquired are part of a larger body of work, for which you traveled across the country, yes? How did you select locations, and then what were the guiding concepts for how you wove the images together?

I did a month-long cross-country trip years ago that had a huge impact on my understanding of the American landscape, but this particular body of work was pulled from an archive of reference imagery that spans across years. Locations ranged from locales near where I live currently, places I lived over my lifetime, sites I had researched and documented over many years, and historical imagery pulled from the Library of Congress. I wanted the locations and points in history depicted to span across time. I also wanted the sites to range from locales my backyard to iconic locations/images that are in our collective national conscience. While they always start from observed reality and real locations, much of my imagery gets reworked into a new form. For instance, the reference imagery from Roadway Horizon #4 derives from the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway in NYC, but the final image has been almost completely invented, reality’s parts rearranged and collaged into a new form. In general, I was seeking a tapestry of the American landscape. I find myself interested most in sites that point towards complex forces including politics, socioeconomics, race, and competing interests. I’m also fascinated by frontiers, borderlands, and sites of modern ruins.
Collectively, the animated versions of the drawings also exist as a longer video for the song We Americans, by the Avett Brothers. How did that collaboration take shape?

Scott Avett and I studied art together at East Carolina University, so our relationship extends back a long way. I previously created an animated music video for the band, Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise , so this was the second music video I created for one of their songs.

Prior to creating the music video, I made a series of 17 videos for their live concert performances, each designed for a particular song. These were displayed on a giant LED screen behind the band on stage and functioned somewhere between a moving set and a music video. The live concert video-wall project was great because I could be super experimental, and just work on songs and imagery that I felt my practice already related to.

One of these was for We Americans. Scott had sent me all of their new recordings a year or so before the album came out, and I immediately was interested in creating visuals for that song. So some of the ideas and imagery had already been developed prior to beginning work on the official music video. For instance, in the live concert version, I shot a huge grid of video portraits of family, friends, and my community college students. These became the impetus for the animated ink portraits, which were shot as they dissolved through ink dispersal, then reversed in video editing so that they appeared to be reforming.
With work on the live-concert version beginning nearly two years before completion of the official music video, there was a lot of time for the imagery and ideas to germinate, be tested, get reworked, and become translated. Also, a lot happened in the United States during that time. I was uneasy releasing a work that dealt in part with the racial inequities of America’s history during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement (being a white, male voice), but the video had been in the works for years at that point. While it touched on many aspects of America’s history, there were direct racial implications by way of the landscape, such as the scene of a specific public housing complex melting and reforming into track-house suburbia, referencing white flight in the mid-20th century, racial divisions created by highway planning, and an animated cotton bloom, with all it signifies.

The final video was a collaboration among me, the band’s photographer/videographer (Mike Beyer/Crackerfarm), and a visual FX editor who helped with seaming the animations and live-action footage of the band members together.

Huge thanks for sharing all of these thoughtful details, Jason. We are thrilled to have your work in the collection.

The stop-motion videos for Roadway Horizon #4 and Battlefield can be viewed on the Weatherspoon’s YouTube channel.

See them appear in the music video for the Avett Brothers’ We Americans here.

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