Recipes and Alchemy: An Interview with Artist James Feehan

One enters into the home and studio of James Feehan and Susan Roseman very much like one enters into a labyrinth: by stepping into the entrance and putting one foot in front of the other.  The first steps seems ordinary enough but be prepared to experience a transformation.  The guardians of the domain are James’ and Susan’s four spirited dogs who are superstars in their own right having won hundreds of fans through their appearance in the celebrated Artie Art project. With a playful excitement they begin to cast the spell of enchantment, circling and barking and then dashing off.  James Feehan greets me and we chat while he puts himself to work in the kitchen rolling out chocolate butter cookie dough. With studied assurance he presses  a star shaped cookie cutter into the dough, arranges the cookies onto a sheet and places them into the oven.  While the cookies bake we step over to peruse the artwork that has been mustered for display at the Carversville Grocery for the month of October. Enjoy the following insight into the unique world of James Feehan!


James Feehan


JF: You were saying that things bubble up as you are looking at them, you are relating to them but you’re trying to figure out what the ‘compass’ is…. and I think that’s the way that I create in the sense that I am used to doing things starting with something, letting it percolate and being subjected to the vagaries of my “whatever is percolating through.” So I try to refine that to a degree or winnow it down to something that’s palpable, something that I’m starting to relate to. Sometimes that happens more broadly and with more excitement and sometimes it happens in a smaller “theater” too, but it’s the idea that I’m doing a kind of a check of my subconscious, in trying to find the creative sparks and then once that has happened then I can assemble… and work around them.

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Philip Stephano: These are fantastic…

JF: You’re seeing different techniques.  I’m a proponent of the fact that different materials and different techniques will drive you in different directions, will bring unique things out. When I taught, I loved to expose people to a variety of means and methods to sponsor that kind of creative spark and reaction.

PS: They are very cinematic. I know they may not be visually cinematic but the interior experience is cinematic.  There is a kind of story that is unfolding as I’m looking at these. The characters seem to have a little “queerness” to them…


JF: Yeah, right. I take that personally (laughing). Because that is…in a good way, oddness and they have got to have the odd going for them.  I don’t know why that is, to tell you the truth. It must be my identity. I relate to these. I’ve always been attracted to the distorted. Not to it in life necessarily, but when it comes to creativity, the distortion has always been a tool to bring into clarity, perhaps, some of the interior life, some of the interior qualities I’m trying to capitalize on.  Maybe they are best expressed by exaggeration, pulling things out, letting things develop relationships that are, at one, not obvious, but still integral.


Look at this one here (Poet’s Retrieval) just because it illustrates a point that I’m trying to make. The relationship isn’t obvious but it is integral to the gestalt of the scene. Hopefully that will provoke a bit of the interior idea. There’s psychological component. There’s the isolation, there’s the separation, there’s not knowing.  That group in the background, they’re sort of haunted and haunting.  Here’s this individual separated from all that activity and yet there seems to be a relationship, a yearning. I had no story that I was trying to tell.

PS: It seems so spooky because he (the poet) is so serene in his thoughts and yet there is this other life that’s right there.

Susan:  I see it as funereal. The poet’s coat looks like a shell almost like a turtle’s shell. He seems very secure in that sense, secure mentally.  He seems in his own place. He’s looking forward….

JF:  That figure in the boat is very funereal.

PS: Remember it was in Greek mythology: there was an oar man who would take people across the River Styx.  You would put coins in the mouth of the deceased and that would be the wage for the oar man.

It’s very cool because there is somehow a psychic space between me and the key figure.  And then I’m somewhat more distant from the things that are happening to him so there are layers of presence…

JF:  Yes, it’s almost like it’s capturing a feeling of time. That illustrates exactly what I was trying to come to terms with in that deep diving, and psychological deep diving, and being open to influences and then trying those influences on…maybe not in a concrete way….but they will dictate color.  On a primitive level some of the things that I want to bring together will start to accumulate in the methodology, in the expression in the color, and then that helps me form further the story or the “poem” almost.  They are not really “stories” so much. They don’t have that neat conclusion but they do reflect a kind of honesty and a directness that, well, it’s about the only thing I’ve got going for me.

PS:  The red is strong.

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JF:  The red usually functions pretty intently in pieces.  If I could say one more thing before we depart…Now, technique-wise that is using a cold wax method. To me, that means quite simply I’m mixing my paints with wax and applying them with a palette knife directly to the surface. That happens to be done on paper. Of course it is supremely archival, what with the wax, the wax is terrifically long lasting. It encapsulates the ephemeral bits and makes them permanent. But,the reason that I mention it is in the technique I’m painting with a palette knife and thick bodied color and almost like carving into the surface…it’s much more open to large expression and forceful delivery and contact and even content because of that physical relationship. You are much more engaged in terms of what you are creating: you’re right on top of it, you’re using your whole body. In contrast, when you’re handling a brush and you’re creating something you almost entertain this distance from the subject but this technique really forces you to be so direct and so involved and so much a part of the development of the piece that it elicits another kind of energy from you.



Let me show you what I’m talking about….

PS: It almost feels like sculpting even though it is a two dimensional surface.


At the very start of the process wax and paint are mixed and layered with a palette knife to build layers of luminosity.

JF:  You’ll see the build up and some areas… The whole surface will be developed. You can see the striates from my palette knife that are left there so that this layering of color and skittering over the surface is really created with a knife.


PS:  Are you a fan of Rilke? Because I’m feeling this emergence of being and light…

JF: I love Rilke. I used to read the Duino Elegies… I just saw a photograph of Balthus…it was his mother who had the affair with Rilke. She was a bit of a Bohemian… Rilke wrote about the young Balthus: Letters to a Young Artist.


PS: It’s amazing  that we stumbled upon this because I’m feeling the influence of Rilke in a lot of the characters…they seem archetypal in their own way.  They seem part of some mystical iconography (that I’m not speaking the language entirely yet).  But I can see that it has the grammar and logic and strong underlying metaphysical quality to it.

JF: You brought Rilke up. I would never have made that association but that is fascinating…and that’s how it works…that’s the richness of the creative tapestry.

PS: Are there any musicians in your experience that are working that same corner of the poetic and the storytelling and the psychological aspect?  Do Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie or any of the story telling musicians inspire you or is there any music that you feel inspires, relates or connects to what you are doing?

JF:  I don’t have any particular chapter that I can refer to…. Music IS very important and so my approach is pretty open to all kinds of influences so I can’t realize a particular aspect to use to illustrate…but the thought that does occur to me is that when music becomes the subject in my work then I have the tendency to allow that to become more light hearted, less tethered to reality, and more joyful.  They will be about the celebration of music, not so much about penetrating the individuality but rather enjoying that kind of unity of expression.  I’ve used those as almost “palate cleansers” to indulge myself because it is a different mentality. It’s freeing for me. I’ll use the same process…I’ll allow things to generate out and percolate up.  To me music…that has always been my response, it is always much more light hearted when I choose to paint musicians. For a long time I painted a lot of musical episodes.


Street music and Klezmer music have an important place in Feehan’s iconography.

There’s a piece here that has the sax player but he’s more tethered to a religious expression. Even though it’s all music here I started putting them in another setting.  Here’s the Madonna in the background. Here’s a bunch of street musicians   There is an interplay of the kind of visual formality that I was thinking about with a kind of musical expression. This one isn’t as untethered and joyful as perhaps what I was referring to, it’s much more studied and portentous than the kind of work that I had in mind.

PS: This cloud of people around the edges reminds me of an El Greco with the chorus in the background.

JF: They do represent the chorus.


A whimsical tower inspired by Bowman’s Hill.


PS:  (looking at an interpretation of Bowman’s tower). That’s the condo-ization of Bowman’s tower…(Laughing)

JF: I was playing around. I just saw a photograph of it and  see how I have this side…I’m playing around with the little figures in there and there’s a division down there…I was so curious to see that the building itself does have a division down the middle of it and the windows are side by side. So it’s kind of factual even though it has a kind of Disneyesque approach to it.


PS: I love the perspective on that.




JF: (Looking at another work)  This is an oil tempera. Tempera Grassa: tempera and oil. I was always fascinated with the pre-renaissance Italian work.  Those guys used tempera grassa… Giotto and Duccio and Piero Della Francesca.  Della Francesca has been a terrific inspiration for artists for ages.  

PS: because his paintings are jewel like?

JF:  I think that they are also composed using compositional patterns that are realized best in Della Francesca’s work.  I remember reading a little thing it talked about Botero for instance, always had a copy of this book by his bed )and he talked about….the book was a book on technique by Max Dorner that I devoured…the second thing was “what’s the thing with Della Francesca?”   Well, the two things came together when I found out that he too painted with a tempera grassa as well as when you look at the Botero’s , the organization, you can find the beautiful Della Francesca geometry  involved in his painting.

Baptism of Christ by Piero Della Francesca.

Baptism of Christ by Piero Della Francesca.

So there’s the “jewel like” and also the separation, I mean it’s not a visual thing, but then the jewel like colors seem to be represented beautifully. When you look at it like a Della Francesca it’s easier to ascertain, to set these things in their correct relationship and you can better understand what he’s doing to construct these paintings. Once he had this ability, like a lot of artists, once he knew what his ground was, then he was able to build on that and he build monumentally from that point on.  A lot artists do small works of a more modest nature but once he had that idea for his work he never stopped; he developed it into a monumental expression. It was the lifeblood of everything that he did and still does.  He approached it, like every artist he searched it for what is going to elicit best from him material wise what he is thinking of.  So there’s that material journey and ergo the Max Dorner book which was all about materials and techniques and recipes.  Yes, recipes.  The baking, that’s all an extension.  Like making my own paints and having the pigments around.



PS: The tempera grassa is fat?

JF:  Tempera grassa is oily ingredients mixed with the egg as the binder. Strict tempera painting is egg yolk as the binder. Now it’s been found with restoration investigation that they painted…it was thought there was a clear division between tempera and that the evolution of oils, big time, after the renaissance was always looked upon as a separate development that happened chiefly in Northern Europe but recent investigations have shown that they were, Botticelli for instance, was using a lot of oil in his technique, would layer in his paintings. His paintings have always been ascribed to as being tempera paintings but on closer examination there are a lot of fatty ingredients mixed in. So even with Botticelli the tradition of incorporating oils, they were using nut oils in those days, and experimenting.


PS: It is recipes!


James Feehan mixes his own colors for his vibrant palette.

JF: Yeah, a lot of ingredients from the kitchen were of first consideration, it seems, because they had passing knowledge of what the different aspects were. What is it in Italian…is it zabaglione?  It is used in desserts. It is an incorporation of what you can get the egg to do, making an emulsification. Basically what you are doing is going to the egg and the egg is a natural emulsion with fatty and watery ingredients combined in a perfect stasis so you are adding to those oily ingredients and yet you are able to paint in a light application. The way the paint handles is more fluid, less viscous. The development of oils and then oils and varnishes led to a viscosity thing that was very different. So you can understand that that would influence the way they painted,  the physical act of painting.

Tempera, the paint that you make with it is referred to as being “short”. There are no long strokes that you develop, just short strokes.   The paint itself is drier and will exhaust off the brush more quickly.

PS: Jim, I wanted to ask you about the fish (a recurring image in the works of both James and Susan). I even see it is showing up in Susan’s work too.


JF: OK.  On that wall there is…see the three fish?  That was something that we did when we first got together and it became a vehicle for us. The fish seemed to be included in lots of our expression

Susan Roseman: It was one of the panels… all the local artists did a panel, at Christmas time they had them hung in New Hope. Rhonda Bigonet did one. She did incredible artwork: she was a graphic designer and sign painter. Many of the local artists contributed.

JF: So the fish is an integral thing.  It started quite honestly in this first work that we did together. Then it generated because I liked it as a cursory spiritual statement. It is an early Christian symbol and it was probably a pagan one before that. It does get included a lot.(referring to one of the paintings in the studio with nebulous visage) That too was a chef that was holding his fish. This too is tempera grassa so you can see the drier short quality of the paint, you can see the linear aspect in there. I’m following the form with the color so I’m building dimensionally while I’m applying the paint. The idea that the strong colors, the ‘cools,’ that will be underneath when I start bringing out the warm colors on top of it. Here’s the cool underneath. It’s this back and forth, temperature changes that then elicit the  reality that I’m after. Also the “back and forth” creates the nuance in the paint that I find so satisfying too.



PS: Obviously there is a lot of technique that is going into your work. What would you say is the role of accident in your process?

JF:  Accident does play a large role and I love the idea of it in my encaustic and my painting in wax. As I told you it being so much more physical and it requiring a directness, it is very liberating because you are not so committed so early. Instead you’re slashing and creating…

PS.:You have to deal with what it is giving you too…

JF: That’s right. It took me quite a while, and probably certain individuals  find it a similar experience,  that concentration on your technique, let’s say, or your concentration on your performance in creating the work is a prison.  It’s very easy to get closed in too soon along your creative path because you are locked into something that you found you enjoy and you have strong relationship to. You have to be able to sacrifice that, when necessary, to go past that.  The idea that you’re starting broadly, that you are going to the wax and the palette knife and the direct application is liberating, certainly in comparison to having the canvas blank in front of you  and going about your initial work.  This, your first intention is to create a dynamic and excitement, just based on color application and what’s being fed back to you. Out of that foray come some nuggets.  If you are willing to find the germ of the idea from what’s there for you then it’s really very encouraging to have that to build around.  That starts to realize a lot of the ingredients so you’re able to pull those together in a way that I find is very honest and satisfying.  I like it because I didn’t dictate that. Instead, I discovered it.

PS: So that prison of creativity is unlocked inside the creative process also…

JF: It can be, or it can be just the opposite can happen where perhaps you are not even happy with what you are doing. Perhaps you’re stuck or determined. You have to have a great deal of determination to pursue it.    The idea of starting in a confined situation that you want to break out of and learning to equip yourself to do that. To find your little openings that make some sense to you and have the courage to pursue that and then nail things together as those opportunities start to assemble in front of you.

PS: So there is an improvisational element…

JF:  Very much.



PS:  A lot of the characters have an everyday-ness to them… I’m looking at workmen and they are not shiny. There is an ordinariness to them.


JF: Yes that prosaic aspect….that is often said about my work and I gravitate to that. But then you’ll see, like this one, I took from a resource. It wasn’t until I got another idea that it started to generate and it started to go in another direction. I look at those figures there and there’s this trinity of workmen and nothing is special… what’s this relationship, what’s the thing that I’m trying to unearth here? Then it occurred to me that there is a device… Now the fish monger,  he’s more beatific. He’s going to be more of a celebration. A positive. The chef, unfortunately, is going to be a little more diabolical.  The wings are ornamental or a kind of heinous winged demon.  We all know that is integral to a chef’s personality (laughing).  So then that gave me, “now there’s a relationship here.”  Then there’s the musician who is going to be cast in the shadow. I wanted him to be emerging from the darkness being in the shadow of the chef. That’s the kind of raw material that I’m trying to discover. Once I understood about their relationship I could have so much more fun with it. I could festoon and develop some suggestions.


PS: Wow, this is almost like kabbalah. There is a superficial layer of understanding but then as you go inside there are more layers of meaning.

JF: This guy here, this is a testament to one of the early teachers I had. He was modeled after Hyman Bloom.  Hyman Bloom painted in Boston when I was there. Just before I was to go off, I was being drafted, I was completely confused and really depressed (although self medicating and getting through somehow.) The depression was such that “I don’t know what I’m doing.  I am blue collar. I do need to make a living.”  I was violating everything I knew by making this a choice, making this art a choice. And then, when I went off to school,  I was surrounded by people who had a lot of education and a lot of experiences and I felt totally apart from them. Their kind of approach was light and easy and I was always with a furrowed brow and heavy hand. It was hard for me to find my place. Well, Hyman Bloom was …he took care of that for me. I stumbled upon a show of his work  which was altogether unsalable, beautiful pieces, large drawings. It was called “On the Astral Plane”  He was very much an expressionist in his work. But he stopped painting when he met his new love through yoga.  He had this other world opened to him.  He went back to his drawing and he started to delineate this other world.The subjects were like “on the dung heap”, “in the forest” and they were, the images were beautifully detailed and delectably delicate in their presence. But they were macabre and foreboding and a challenge at the same time. Very off putting.  Like, “In the Forest” was not a friendly place to be, it was definitely a scene that brought out some uncomfortable reaction in the viewer. If you found yourself relating almost too much their seemed to be a threat imposed there. I didn’t have all this at hand when I was first seeing it. What I saw was mastery of his drawing and mastery of the form and this terrific strange vision that he was hammering out. I thought, “gee, that’s kind of what I am interested in.”  I’m not interested in the macabre, because I really fought that. In the beginning I found that that was easy to do . I consciously decided to not go there.  I’m only saying this because I hadn’t realized it with any great depth. That was important to me and I knew I was making a conscious decision. I embarked on my own road to find my own center of strangeness. That also was my essence, my truth but it would come along. Some of the work is light hearted. A lot has religious trappings because that’s where I came out of.

PS:  There’s a poem by Yeats that I was thinking of when you were talking about that point of your life where you had to think about, as a blue collar person and you were entering into the arts, in fact it is called


“The Choice”

The intellect of man is forced to choose

perfection of the life, or of the work,

And if it take the second must refuse

A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.

When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?

In luck or out the toil has left its mark:

That old perplexity an empty purse,

Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

JF: I wish I had that one. Instead I found: “Salvation only comes to him who ceaselessly bestirs himself in the pursuit of something which in the end may not be fully realized.” I used that to start my grant application. (laughing). I love the Yeats quote which is so much more of a complete thought.


After this poetic experience in the studio of James Feehan and Susan Roseman we sat down to enjoy the freshly baked chocolate butter cookies and neighborly conversation. Ever so gently we returned to an ordinary sense of time and place, the dogs circled around and we all said our goodbyes.  We know you will enjoy experiencing the extraordinary characters and colors of James Feehan’s art at the Carversville Grocery this month!


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Artist James Feehan

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