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Jimmy Navarro: Painting Iowa

    Rick Lozier
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I met him at the red car outside Crane Artist Lofts. “Red car?” I thought. I knew Jimmy drives a ’68 Impala wagon that is two-tone gray and I’d harbored a “windows-down road trip in the Impala” fantasy since we’d made our plans.

“Oh no, the ball joints are really sloppy and that thing gets terrible mileage. Four ‘smiles’ per gallon,” he says with a grin. We took the red car.

I had only met Jimmy Navarro about a month before, but I’ve known of him for years. I knew that he did the painting of old Court Avenue that hangs in the front of RoCA. I was familiar with his mural at the Ingersoll Square Lofts dog park, a glass of whiskey at Bubba and a great painting of converse in the lobby of the Crane Artist Lofts (one of numerous Converse paintings I’ve learned). I guess I felt that I had him pegged, and knew what he did as an artist. I admired him for doing it well — warm, rich earthy paintings on canvas that feel like oil even though they’re acrylic.

Then I was working with Dimond bikes and saw some of the custom airbrush jobs he’d done on their highend triathlon bikes and helmets. Lava and flames, and is that a phoenix? The high gloss, smooth gradations of the airbrush were completely different from what I thought I knew about his style. “Jimmy Navarro did that?”

That’s when I realized I don’t know what Jimmy does, at least not all of it.

“You ready to do some Clint Eastwood shit?” With his long hair tucked into his hat, semi-reflective glasses and long beard he could have been a character in a “Dirty Harry” movie.

But we were going to do a plein air painting of a bridge and take some pictures in Madison County, Iowa — the other Clint Eastwood shit. So covered bridges, in the tradition of 19th century impressionist painters, were added to my list of surprise things that Jimmy does. This time he wanted to paint Hogback Covered Bridge and get some pie. He likes to explore the small towns around Iowa where he paints, often stopping into diners for a slice of pie. Again, not what I expected, but I liked it.

That morning it was sunny with scattered small but chunky clouds moving quickly across the sky. The windows stayed up, but the landscape, brown with fresh green shoots reaching out to the sun, rolled by in a way that even without the Impala and the fast blowing air evoked that “on the road” freedom that I was hoping for.

Between Jimmy calling out “delicious” barns and old pickup trucks, we discussed being an artist. He told me he has been doing plein air paintings for about 15 years and belongs to a number of Midwestbased plein air groups like the Iowa Plein Air Painters, a group out of Iowa City. These groups provide consistency, encouraging painters to get outside and paint. He tries to get out at least once a week, but he says he frequently gets out more than that, sometimes five times in one week. It’s his favorite thing.

He particularly likes going late at night in to the city because he can be by himself and capture the energy of the lights as well as the sleepiness of back allies and empty streets. But I’ve also seen him with his friends at the Capitol, talking and comparing, and on the bridge over Gray’s Lake, there he really lights up. Bikers glance back as they pass, “Looks great dude! Keep it up.” Walkers and even runners slow to see what he’s up to, peeking around the canvas to catch a glimpse.

He invites them right in, cracking jokes, a little Bob Ross shtick. He interacts with just about everyone like they’re best friends so that there is something like a small party happening around Jimmy on the bridge.

“Don’t worry about it. He’s got this,” he assured a nervous mother as her son brushed a reflection line on Jimmy’s nearly finished painting. He likes the people, entertaining and engaging them, just as much as the quiet of the alleys or Hogback Bridge.

As the orange faded to deep blue in the western sky and the softening breeze turned the lake into a mirror, he calls out the groups of lights as they light across the skyline, the way they reflect in the lake, or silhouette a tree. I marvel at how his experience with the evolution of the scene only increases his appreciation. It doesn’t really matter where or when, Jimmy just likes being outside and painting.

I realized that the way he talks about doing plein air sounds a bit like training — a really fast one in a day, a little longer and more worked on the next. But training without the sense of burden, training that he loves. They’re practice and they’re “visual diaries,” a way of recording what he sees and working out what he likes to paint. He has them stacked in his studio, the ones that he hasn’t sold, or given away, or even left behind at the site for anyone to find.

It got pretty windy and was a bit cooler than it looked in Winterset, so he painted quickly. Even though the sun was just creeping around to the face of the bridge making the whole scene “creamy,” we packed up and headed to town with a fast, but very impressive painting drying in the back seat. I figured we’d just head in and order some food but he had some things he wanted to show me.

“You see this Marquee? This marquee is amazing, perfect.” We walked around just outside the town square of Winterset, admiring all sorts of things — all while armed with his phone ready to capture inspiration. The vintage furniture store — his favorite — the alley with the water tower popping up a couple blocks behind, the door on this building, the windows on that one, cornices on the older buildings, the construction equipment, the old Ford pickup with the Mack truck head piece, the landromat. He was energized by the seemingly endless angles and subjects for potential paintings, the stories and history, the shapes and lines and light.

Even once we sat down at the Northside Cafe, he remarked, “This place is like an Edward Hopper painting” as he snapped a shot. He was right. It was perfect.

I figured I should interview him a little for the article. I had already recognized that he has a seemingly insatiable hunger for scenes that reminded me of coming home from a vacation with thousands of digital photos and feeling paralyzed by the selective process that lay before me.

Rick Lozier: Out of all of those pictures, how do you decide what to come back to and spend a couple hours on doing a “field study” type of painting, and then decide which of those you invest weeks into for a large painting?

Jimmy Navarro: It is difficult. You set out your studies and your field sketches and any photos you took from that location and that helps with the planning of starting a big canvas. The field studies are great to draw back on because they are the true, pure sense of time stamping that mood and color, which can completely differ from a photograph. I found out that the camera can’t capture all the subtleties of hue and shadows of my perspective.

RL: Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the number of things you appreciate visually and want to paint?

JN: Yeah, for sure, that’s a great question. It’s so easy to find inspiration almost anywhere. There’s not enough time in a day to do it all, but it doesn’t stop me from giving it a try. Anyone that knows me knows I go all out. I have an appreciation for vintage things like bikes, car culture and all things nostalgic, things that people take care of and pride in from the past. Aside from painting I put a lot of craftsmanship into other things like typography and sign painting and pin striping, too. I’ve done everything from Japanese chinoiserie to faux finishes. I like airbrushing and pin striping bikes, motorcycles and helmets, but I don’t want to do cars — too much, those lines are too long.

RL: I guess you can’t do everything. How’s your pie?

JN: Good.

Thus concludes the interview portion of this article.

I learned that he doesn’t do cars. That’s the only thing I know he doesn’t do.

At this point I can only assume that I will learn of other very different subjects and mediums that he also loves to work with. His selective process, how he chooses to paint this and not that, will remain a mystery. But I do know that he doesn’t seem bothered by the gulf between what he appreciates visually and what he will ever have time to paint. Probably because he just keeps painting.

I asked him one last question: “I’ve learned that you love to do so many things. So what is the one thing people should know about you as an artist?”

“I’m a painter’s painter. I just like painting.”

Yeah, I guess its just that simple.

Plein air painting, from French en plein air, meaning “in the open air” is a movement of painting outdoors capturing landscapes and views in their natural light, a central feature for French Impressionism.

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