Chatting with Psychedelic Illustrator and Mystical Enthusiast James Nielsen

James Nielsen
, a local mystical enthusiast and truth seeker, encapsulated his trans-medium psychedelic artwork as “somewhere between Walt Disney and Hieronymus Bosch…the way Black Sabbath sounds and the way Marijuana smokes.”

Indeed, his work seems to embody a cloud of smoke that transcends any given medium: a mural for the Freemasons, a T-shirt for a Gamelan Orchestra, black-and-white illustrations for a book titled Being Home, and David Bowie posters for a friend’s party. This eclectic C.V. doesn't even mention the collaborative album art, photography, visual collages, video collages, and film Nielsen dabbles in.

[jump] And much like the vast variety that is his artwork, Nielsen’s inspiration draws from an endless loop of traditions, people, hallucinogens and really “anything that is significantly inspired and imaginative”. He was drawn to the apocalyptic and hellish realms depicted by painters Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grunewald; He appreciates Alchemical symbology and the traditions of witchcraft and devil worshiping. Nielsen’s “psychedelic esoterica” continually features mythological themes, religious teachings and is “alternately dark or light.” 

“I draw a lot of things that are skulls and flowers, or ruins and plants that are over taking the ruins or, you know, I’ll draw really pretty flowery things but there will always be like skulls or some just some reference to death in it,” Nielsen said. “I keep trying to encapsulate the entirety of the human experience and that continuously brings me back to a cycle: life coming from death, coming from life.”

Nielsen's Catholic upbringing was another source of visual inspiration, which exposed him to Western art history and mystical symbolism at a young age. He became bewitched by the “transcendent quality of the art” and the Old Master painters from the Renaissance.

“I remember thinking about, like for instance, Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. He was the guy hired by the Church to sell imagery of the Church to the people,” he said. “I’ve always kind of thought of it as the artists are the people that are selling ideas to the general population one way or another, be it graphic design, doing websites or painting Cathedrals. It’s all kind of the same thing.”

Nielsen graduated from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle in 2005, where he majored in painting and printmaking. However, he says he’s “always learned much more about art and creativity and life from just the different weird people [I've] befriended over the years,” and that it’s “really satisfying to make these hybrid things with other people.” He co-founded the Seattle Occultural Music Festival with Ashley Pær Svn, showcasing hundreds of local and international multidisciplinary acts. ( “Weird shit happened” is Nielsen's handy descriptor.) And he’s collaborated on a few murals with friend Jacob Dixon and recently finished his first film, ELVIS LIVES, with filmmaker Osteo Parliament.

For Nielsen, creating art is a collaborative process as well as a spiritual mirror, in which people will hopefully see a reflection sooner or later. His art is a self rendering, soul sacrificing attempt at expressing his own emotional truths — a process creative people associate with and a visual representation others can relate to. However, in a monetized society that often casts a green hue over one’s original intent, Nielsen offers a gentle reminder to those pursuing a creative existence.

“For kids just getting out of high school and thinking about going to art school or be an artist, I want to tell them you’re going to keep looking for that day that you made it, that you know you’re making money…that’s not why you’re doing it, you know, look at guys like Van Gogh, he sold one painting in his life, maybe, he died but now there’s museums all over the world with his paintings, they’re priceless,” Nielsen explains. “Part of the sacrifice of being an artist is that renunciation of self in a way…you’ve got to put yourself completely into your artwork and then keep your fingers crossed that it just speaks for itself once people start picking up on it.”

Nielsen goes on to speak of the paradoxical nature artists are faced with: how does one create a true self absolution through their work in the hopes that others will relate to their unique experience? He references George Lucas and his lesser-known film, THX1138, as an example of an artist's self rendering. 

“People like George Lucas, they make this great work of art that they really love, they put so much work into it and no one really gets it, and then what do you do, you know?” Nielsen states. “That’s the goal of any artist — you're not going to live forever but you’re trying really hard to create something that does live forever or at least reaches people.” 

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