Interview: Jonathan Michael Hicks

Interview: Jonathan Michael Hicks

American Star Child Jonathan Michael Hicks
A few years ago I was introduced to visual artist Jonathan Michael Hicks through Carla Williams and after a failed attempt to interview him for another publication, I’ve finally nabbed him for this blog. 
His latest charcoal drawings on Bible pages (oh, the blasphemy!) caught my eye one day while scrolling through G+ posts. They, like so much of Hicks’ other works, are loaded and charged with historical references…

D&B: Land/place/location seems to be a recurrent theme in your work. Tell us where you are from and how this physical place of origin has influenced your work. 


JMH: I’m from Birmingham, Alabama. Born and raised in a lovely house there. It’s a rich place unique to history, not just for the Civil Rights Movement, Bus Boycott and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail”, but also for it’s connection to England and Spain and the English crown.


Birmingham’s name and location have influenced a great deal of my work as it has allowed me to address the connection between travel (for example, to The San Juan Islands, WA), slavery, segregation and the royalty around those topics. Complex topics to which many artists exploit or pander to but few actually have a claim to address by birth or name. I feel I have a claim being from Birmingham.

From the series Take Care by Jonathan Michael Hicks


Where do you reside now?


I live in an apartment in San Francisco. I’ve lived in this special city off and on, since starting graduate school and MFA training at the San Francisco Art Institute in photography in 2010. I moved away to be with my mother in Birmingham before she died in 2011. Then I moved back to S.F. in 2013 to coincide with the new pope, Pope Francis of Rome, and to restart/finish graduate training at Academy of Art University studying painting and drawing.

Your website intentionally breaks standard web interface design rules. What’s your philosophy behind displaying your work online? 

Websites are supposed to be a little fun so my philosophy to showing work online is make my website an art piece for display. At least with mine I see it as a portrait of self so I pretend I am King Richard the Lionheart. My last name Hicks is a nickname for Richard.


Is your use of iconic objects of violence (like the noose and the cross) meant to be provocative? 


The noose and cross are educational/historical. For example in my new work I’m exploring Bible pages and drawing characters on the actual pages; then I photograph them. It’s like drawing 101 educational/historical, not for sensation. 

I don’t understand why so many artists think of violence as sexy or attention grabbing. I use violent objects, like bullets, as more tools to teach than provocative objects. On my website, the bullets are actually designed penis shapes and sleeping bags turned to look like they’re bullets floating in space.

Bible drawings by Jonathan Michael Hicks (2013)


What about the markings? On chalkboard, on magazine advertisements… They range from “primitive” scratches to patterned strokes and handwritten messages. Are they another type of self portrait? 


Yes, the markings are very primitive but I see it more as Neo-Expressionism. “Mirror portraits” would be a nice name for the markings on mixed media; or “visual conversational narratives” would be a nice slogan for some of them on chalkboard. 

I’m fascinated by celebrity and with ideas of the transformation of the handmade mark. I find combinations of both to be overwhelmingly interesting… Almost like pairing a Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol painting.

The message of some artworks can sometimes fall on deaf ears. What audience(s) do you most want to be in conversation with?

I disagree. Recently, I’ve participated in a group photography show “Photography Open Salon” in Arles, France.  New audiences took well to the pieces displayed, provocative by artist standards. 

But usually audiences are so short lived when it comes to conversations… so I don’t worry about the deaf… just the artistically blind audiences. I love stirring them and I live for the feel of simply making a new piece. I feel if the work is good then it always comes around at some point. At least that’s what happen for Bill Traylor, another Alabama native.


What is the story behind your “ART” tattoo? 


Speaking of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol painting pairings, I treat my art tattoo like a copyright/patent label dedicated to my first love, my mom. The story is she always wanted to be an artist so I honor her by wearing ART on my chest to represent she made me. I’m altering her picture like Picasso and his light photography.

Four images from the series Nude Participation by Jonathan Michael Hicks


Besides Spiderman, who are your superheroes in life? 


Superman, if we’re speaking fictionally. Hank Willis Thomas, Allan Desouza, Tameka Norris, Carrie Mae Weems and Aaron Young if we’re speaking realistically. San Francisco Art Institute and Yale School of Art alum Aaron Young by far is my favorite artist (he’s like Superman) because of his large format abstract paintings and uniquely designed photographs.


MFA education/degree: worth it or not? 


Truthfully speaking, coming from the MFA training in photography and painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Maryland Institute College of Art and now the Academy of Art University, I say so worth it. Worth it because it gets you where you want to go in this profession and gets you what you want in this field. 

I love that I’ve worked with so many different artists. I mean who can argue with an artist with training from three MFA programs, two of which that are always in the top 20 art programs, and one that sums them all up cost efficiently while sacrificing nothing artistically.


Do you prefer to use photography as a tool to make images or to document your work? 


Photography, like video, is the eye of God to me, so I say I use it for both. I love creating just from seeing, but knowing (like Ansel Adams) that I can document reality around me fascinates me.


Best advice you’ve ever gotten about making art or being an artist?


That’s a tie. First would be from Gagosian artist Aaron Young: “Know yourself and then take it too far in your art work.” Second would be from Birmingham Museum of Art modern art curator Ron Platt: “I think your work is really strong now, but I think your art work will be a million times better once you get married and have children.” Working on doing both these days. The latter quote of course takes time.


Dodge & Burn is a blog dedicated to documenting a more inclusive history of photography and supporting the work of photographers of color with photographer interviews.

This blog is published by visual artist and writer, Qiana Mestrich. For regular updates on diversity in photography history, follow Qiana on Twitter @mestrich, Like the Dodge & Burn Blog page on Facebook or subscribe to Dodge & Burn by email.

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