DOLF – The artist to watch in 2010

by Shea Slemmer
For local artist Dolf James, the inspiration for his unique sculptures stems from the fact that he loves to design. That truth is clearly evident in the clean lines and careful craftsmanship permeating his creative, off-kilter sculptures. His minimalist approach to everyday objects, such as an elementary school chair or wooden bar stool, reach into the viewer’s memory and then immediately throw things off-balance through his gravity-defying presentation. Dolf says, “The mental exercise is what excites me, fulfills me and gets me up in the morning.” And consequently, the resulting pieces have a quiet strength that calm and puzzle the viewer simultaneously.
Dolf attended the Atlanta College of Art at the High Museum in Atlanta and later transferred to the design school at Georgia State University, but his artistic roots came from home. His mother is an artist and ever since he was old enough, she would enroll him in classes at local studios or museums. Because of her encouragement, it seems only natural that he was able to recognize an opening door while he was on independent study for work redesigning and refurbishing classic old wooden sailboats. When an oil company executive saw his projects and offered him a job finishing the design and construction of the company’s 86 foot yacht in Miami, it was an opportunity too good to pass up. “I have been designing one thing or another pretty much ever since,” says Dolf.
EU asked Dolf James about Jacksonville artists who inspire him, his latest work and got his thoughts on the studio vs. gallery debate.
EU: How would you describe your work?
Dolf James: The series I have just finished deals primarily with remembrances. The structures include a background, or monolith, and in most cases a chair. The chairs emerge from the monolith so that only a portion is exposed. They are intended to be partial visions, just a whiff of some past place or occurrence. The viewer can see a glimpse of something from their own past and place themselves in a situation that may have been similar. The chairs have interesting and distinctive patinas that speak about their history and brings life to the vision. The chair is presented “out of context” and placed in a compositional structure with the monolith that ask the viewer to use more than just the standard visual positive and negative planes to solve the problem. We tend to place ourselves or somebody in the chairs, adding an emotional element that can also be used in the composition. Facing forward is more inviting and positive or perhaps aggressive. The back of the chair signifies facing away, a negative or void to be filled. These create new positive and negative energies imposing a new axis which can then be layered with the purely visual architectural composition.
EU: Where else have you shown your work in Jacksonville thus far and how does it compare to simply selling from your working studio in Riverside?
DJ: Galleries are very important but I enjoy having people come by the studio. It is much more exciting for me because I have all my materials, partial structures, color studies and concept sketches spread out amongst all the parts and pieces of ongoing projects. This way I have all these visual tools to use in explaining where I am going and what I am trying to do. It’s like having the history of my thought process lying around in little piles. It is the journey that is most important and I think people really want to see that. The final piece of art means so much more if you understand the creative concept it is a result of.
EU: Tell me about your new pieces.
DJ: My new series is more an exercise in a different aspect of my art. More just raw visual results. The attempt is to get as close to the creative result of an imposed compositional problem as possible. The preliminary studies start with two boundaries for the process, a 12” by 12” square and a letter of the alphabet. I am gathering as much material to be used as I can and the inventory continues to grow but to start I have wood, paper, metal, wire, different paints and glues and any combination of color, shape and texture I can create from these materials. Each piece starts with the 12” by 12” box and the letter, and evolves from there as shapes and textures are added. As the process moves through the alphabet my growth in dealing with the compositional problem will be evident as the shapes change and emerge in different results. Should be very interesting to see how the creative process grows and matures when applied to basically the same set of problems over and over again. I will be left with a visual record of the steps along the way.
This is a prelude to a series of much larger works that will use this growth, and the discoveries in materials used, to produce much more complex pieces. That series will not have the imposed restrictions but will be free to grow organically to any shape and size. The mental exercise will be how to solve the compositional problem presented by the combination of the first two pieces I chose, and then follow all the way through until I decide the exercise has come to a conclusion.
EU: Have there been any specific occurrences in your life that inspired this series?
DJ: Not a specific experience, more of an ongoing one. The best art works I see are the ones that give you a sense of peering into the mind of the artist. You feel you are experiencing their creative center and seeing it as it happens. When I daydream, or just get lost in my thoughts, I end up in a place where there is a sculpture under constant construction. The parts move in and out, are added and subtracted. Voids are filled and others are opened up. I can slow the work down or speed it up. Stop it and change a piece and then let it start back again, adding and moving and evolving. This is my creative center and this is where I want to be so my attempt is to bring this to reality as best I can.
EU: Are there any Jacksonville artists you particularly admire or draw inspiration from?
DJ: Absolutely! I am constantly meeting new artists I want to learn from. My studio is next door to Jim Draper’s studio. He is a remarkable resource that I have the pleasure of tapping on a daily basis, a privilege I am extremely thankful for. Talking with David Ponsler about his art while in his studio is an experience every artist should have. David’s grasp of his medium and design concept is humbling in its clarity. I often think about conversations Mark Estlund and I have had and try to keep in touch with what my art is saying. Zac Freeman’s work is incredibly interesting. I love talking to Christina Foard about her concepts for giving a large series of works a coherent, meaningful voice and how that affects the art. Dennis Campay’s art is very appealing to me because of the architectural aspects in his paintings. Every artist has a different approach to reaching their creative process. Learning how they accomplish their innovation may give me another angle of insight into my own. I want to meet as many as possible.
Right now the Jacksonville based artist and his wife Anna live close to Fernandina. They designed and built a house there on the water six years ago. “We love it. For us it is a magical place,” says Dolf. He welcomes artists and the public alike to visit him at his studio at 1512 King Street in Riverside. He’s also showing at the downtown Southlight Gallery on the corner of Laura and Forsyth. He’s thrilled to be a vital part of the creative core in this up-and-coming city. You can see his thoughts online at The site is a log of works in progress and concept sketches that he updates weekly. You can also reach him by e-mail at [email protected].