US Art Interview 2019
JAMES STANFORD: "My approach is always flexible. Each project really tells me what it will require of me. I just have to listen and watch. After making art for so many years, I find that I can change styles to fit the project."
A PHALANX OF ANGELS ASCENDING
Designed by James Stanford
Native Las Vegas artist and photographer James Stanford has designed a monumental site-specific mural to commemorate the iconic Blue Angel statue that watched over Downtown Las Vegas for 61 years from its mid-century perch at the Blue Angel Motel.
Hi James, thank you for talking to TNC, how is everything going?
I’m doing fine thank you, for someone my age. Thanks to my life as an artist, I am doing what I want to do and I have an incredible amount of energy because of it.
Do you ever get nervous when a nice piece of work is getting ready to be unveiled?
I get nervous when I know it isn’t right. Once a work of art clicks and I feel that it is finished, then I feel calm and confident.
Is it hard to let it go and hand it over to the public once it is completed?
No, I feel complete only when it is done. Usually, afterwards, I am ready to start a new piece. I am prepared to move on to the next challenge.
When did you first see the iconic Blue Angel statue?
I first saw the Blue angel when I was 10 years old.1958 was the year that The Blue Angel Motel was built. As a child, I lived only a short distance away from the Blue Angel Motel.
As an artist and photographer what was it about the Blue Angel that connected to you so much?
Besides the obvious intrinsic beauty of the design work of the great Betty Willis, who is also known for her design of the world-famous Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, the history and personal memories surrounding the Blue Angel drew me to her. I am not alone. The entire community seems to have connected to this project in a big way.
How much did this landmark influenced you growing up and your art?
The Blue Angel stood as a sentinel over my end of town. At 16 feet tall, standing on a ten-foot-tall pedestal on top of the two-story building she dominated the single-story skyline. She soared over the Blue Onion Drive-in Restaurant with car-hops on roller skates serving onion rings and a Cherry Lemon-Lime Rickey. Hot rod cars lined up under the Blue Angel. High Schoolers fuelled up on sugar drinks preparing for their cruise down Fremont Street, which was lined with neon lights. Cruising down Glitter Gulch, the brightest spot on earth, listening to the Rolling Stones, checking out all of the girls while cruising in a 1963 Corvette convertible was my weekend pass time. The Blue Angel bore witness over my misspent youth.
If you could choose one word to describe the Blue Angel, for those who hadn't seen it, what would it be?
Beatific! She has always beamed at all who view her with a beatific smile!
Did you have any apprehensions about designing a piece that would pay homage to such an iconic monument in Vegas?
No, I realized that the community needed to see the Blue Angel again. She was taken down and put on display temporarily at the Neon Museum’s Ne10 warehouse, while the City of Las Vegas decided what to do with her. The Neon Museum wanted to restore her and display her, but the City decided to hold on to her, restore her and put her on a perch near her original site at Five Points, an intersection where Fremont Street, The Boulder Highway, Charleston Boulevard and Eastern Avenue all meet. The whole process is taking a long time. Meanwhile, the public has been deprived of her presence. That is why I decided to create a mural displaying not just one, but many Blue Angels.
Can you tell me how the A Phalanx of Angels Ascending mural came about?
Laura Henkel has been in charge of curating the art that goes on the former Veterans of Foreign Wars building across the street from the Neon Museum in the City’s Cultural Corridor. The first artist that she selected for the building was Aaron Shepard, who painted a fairly controversial mural which alluded to the work of Aubrey Beardsley. When I was asked to do a mural on the building, at first, I was inclined to do a mural using my well-known mandala images from my Shimmering Zen series, but I felt that the symmetrical nature of the images presented a problem, because it would be difficult to execute. When I thought about an image that would resonate with the community, the Blue Angel was a “no brainer.” Alison Chambers, the owner of the building, has turned the former VFW building into an Arts incubator. When I mentioned that I wanted to do something that honoured the iconic Blue Angel, she was thrilled. The whole community has responded very positively.
Other than the Blue Angel what other aspects of your life and experiences inspired A Phalanx of Angels Ascending's design?
As a young artist, I was deeply inspired by the artwork of the Northern Renaissance. I loved their attention to detail, the angels floating on clouds, and the religious subject matter really inspired me. The Blue Angel seemed to belong to a heavenly environment. It seemed natural to depict her ascension into the heavens. To many, she stood to watch over our daily activities, always smiling, always approving. She seemed so non-judgemental, blessing our mundane activities. If we got out of line, she could sprinkle us with unicorn dust from her magic wand. Depicting her ascending into the heavens seemed to be an appropriate homage to this inspiring icon of Las Vegas.
"As a young artist, I was deeply inspired by the artwork of the Northern Renaissance."
You are going to be working with Cliff Airbrushing Morris, what has been the process like working together?
Cliff is a real pro. He takes direction well and has a lot of facilities. Like every project, one runs into obstacles. The heat of the Las Vegas summer was the toughest part. The soaring temperatures took its toll on Cliff, but he fought his way through it and managed to turn out a great effort. It was easy to work with Cliff. His ego never got in the way. Together we did as well as we could to reach our goals, despite the sizzling heat. Cliff executed the mural with only one assistant, Trenton Larson. I look forward to working with Cliff on many future projects.
How important is the collaborative nature when working on an installation like this?
As the designer of the mural, I had a certain goal in mind, to keep the vision as close to my digital montage as possible. I knew that it would be impossible to capture the photorealism of the original artwork, but I wanted to see it executed as close to the original vision as possible. Even though one surrenders a certain amount of control when working with collaborators, a project like this is simply too large to execute alone. I just tried to be honest about what I wanted from the other artists. If I didn’t like something or if I thought something needed more attention, I had to push for perfection, after all, our reputations were on the line. Thank goodness Cliff and Trenton were very amiable, and never seemed to take offence.
This is a huge mural what have been the biggest challenges you've faced designing A Phalanx of Angels Ascending?
Executing a 2,000 square foot mural takes teamwork. The building was pretty rough. The walls were either concrete brick or plaster roughly applied to brick. It was a very difficult surface to work with. Our budget didn’t include enough money to resurface the exterior, so Cliff and his assistant Trenton Larson had to work under that restraint. Even so, the mural seemed to take on a life of its own. Alison Chambers created a successful Kickstarter fundraiser. Thanks to generous donations from William H. Bigelow III, Kris Morris, Dunn-Edwards Paint, Natalie Davison, Ryan Breeden, The Neon Museum, and all the other contributors.
How much has your approach and working style changed since you started?
My approach is always flexible. Each project really tells me what it will require of me. I just have to listen and watch. After making art for so many years, I find that I can change styles to fit the project. I have always felt that an artist’s style is initially formed to hide weaknesses. I like to fight through my limitations and I try to adapt to the goal of the project like a film director would change to accommodate the subject. If it is a comedy, I try and make it funny. If it is a tragedy, I make it sad.
For any emerging artist or photographer do you have any advice you would offer them?
Don’t listen to your negative thoughts that inevitably seem to appear in your mind. Don’t allow yourself to be discouraged. Just recognize that negativity is an old familiar feeling and don’t hang-up on it. Don’t react one way or another to negativity. Remember, you are not who you think you are. You are not your ego. You and your job are one. You are the process and you are always changing.
Finally, what do you want people to take away from A Phalanx of Angels Ascending?
I want the viewer to be inspired by the angels ascending into the heavens. I want them to feel like they could join in and take flight also. Las Vegas has a rich visual history, one that appeals to the denizens of Pop Culture. Betty Willis seemed to capture the spirit of Las Vegas. Las Vegas isn’t Disneyland. It has a playful nature, but it isn’t insipid. As the official mantra of 90’s Las Vegas used to proclaim, “Las Vegas, the place to play.” And, we don’t mean tiddlywinks!