Ahh! The fabrics! The paints! Loving Jonni Cheatwood's mixed media canvases, which combined sewn-together elements from burlap bags or other repurposed material, which he then paints on in a bright, abstract, sometimes gritty, cartoonish style that is genuinely fun. Self-taught and grateful for an informal art education instead of a traditional art school path, he's landed on a style and process that can expand as he continues to explore its possibilities. Thrilled to share this wonderful interview and some of his great work!
+ + +
Hey Jonni! First, can you tell me a bit more about yourself? You're based in LA and are originally from California as well?
I was born and raised in Thousand Oaks, California, which is a suburb of a suburb of a suburb of LA. I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona when I was 17. Then to Phoenix, Arizona. I spent 11 years in Arizona, then moved to Los Angeles about a year and a half ago. I currently live and work in downtown Los Angeles.
What has your art education been like, whether formally or informally? Do you have any significant mentors or influences?
I actually didn't start painting until I was 23. At the time, I had dropped out of college to work full-time in restaurants and bars. Before dropping out, I was a film major at Arizona State University and kind of got fed up with school, but I kind of picked up this affinity for street art right around the time the Obey blew up. I wanted to be a street artist so I would seek out other writers online or around town, but somehow ended up falling in love with painters like Jaybo Monk and Conor Harrington, which kind of gravitated me to the fine art world, but I never had the formal training of how to paint. I mean, I took an art class in high school, but it was just for credit. So I really just dove in and over the years I oversaturated myself with art by teaching myself a little about art history, color theory, how to paint with acrylic, then oil, how to stretch canvas, build stretcher bars and so on. It was an obsession. I wanted to learn this. Not for a career, I just needed a hobby.
I ended up going back to school, but decided that I was going to be an art teacher. However, since I had so many film credits, it would have been a waste for me to start over with a new program. Luckily, ASU had a program called Interdisciplinary Studies which basically turns two minors into a major; so my degree is basically in secondary education and film. If I could do college all over again, I would be an art student. Actually, maybe not. I was fortunate enough to do a residency at Hooper Projects and it was an important residency for me because I got to spend so much time with other artists who make work different than me and how have done the whole art school technique thing, which enabled me to learn a lot.
As far as influences go, I feel like my biggest influence has been the approach of Jack Kerouac writing "On the Road." Just a long stream of thought. As far as painters go, there are a lot; but of course Basquiat, Joe Bradley is up there. Eddie Martinez big time.
What first interested you in painting?
I grew up in a creative family, but my family dynamic was more so based off of music. Music was always on. My dad was big into photography also. I think I overlooked a lot of what was around me at home because I was big into sports. I went to college to be an athlete and for an elective course I took this easy easy art appreciation course and I remember seeing "Male and Female" by Jackson Pollock in a book and it actually made me gasp. Something about it gripped me like a vice.
Where do you derive your ideas from?
I honestly couldn't really tell you. I'm kind of all over the place. I really just put my head down and work.
You use other materials as well as paint; do you have a medium that you enjoy most? What do you like most about it?
I use a lot of fabric in my work. I didn't really have money to buy canvas already stretched when I started to make bigger pieces, so I would go to the fabric store and buy canvas by the yard, but while I was at the store, I would find scraps of vinyl or cotton, quilt scraps and whatever I found interesting. I bought a sewing machine and learned how to stitch all this fabric together to make a bigger canvas that was different than anything that I had personally seen before. I also worked at a coffee shop and we would get these burlap bags in that had the locations of coffees were coming from. The first one I picked up was from Brazil, and I had an immediate connection to it, because I'm Brazilian. I thought it would be an interesting way to tell a story of what all went into this painting and I just love the rawness of the burlap. I think the visible seams add a nice element of surprise for the eye.
I recently came across and old beat U.S. Mail bag that I thought was incredible so I cut it up and sewed it to some canvas. I also got some old salt sacks and stuff off of eBay. I love that type of material because it's a part of someone else's story, that is now a part of my story, which will eventually be in someone else's story.
What is your process like for starting a piece? Do you plan a piece, or work more intuitively?
I do enjoy the end product, but I think that the process is everything. The process is what makes me come alive, so I let the process take over. Everything begins at the sewing machine for me. Now I rarely use just one single piece of fabric and stretch it. So I spend a bit of time trying to figure out what fabric will go together and how those fabrics will dictate where I paint. Not so much what I paint though. I tried to sketch out paintings once and it didn't work for me. I don't know why, I just couldn't do it. I've never been a planner, but I'll generally stretch at least 6 or 7 canvases out before I start painting and I bounce around from painting to painting carrying one color and that's why I will have a similar palette on a lot of my pieces. I'm an intuitive person, so that's how I like to work. It's just familiar to me. When I was in film school, I had a teacher that told us to write what we know and I took that into my practice for the most part. I also allow and strongly welcome mistakes in my work because it forces me to really take a step back and really look at the moves and marks I'm making. It allows my taste and intuition to kick in.
What is your studio like?
When I'm working, I work like a madman. But I'm OCD clean. I sweep and vacuum every day. I put everything back where it goes at the end of the day. I like order and structure and knowing where everything is, which is odd because I don't paint that way. I drag my work through the dirt sometimes. Anyways, I think maybe because my mom is a neat freak and maybe it's because I worked in fine dining for a while. I don't know. I just get thrown off by walking into an unorganized or dirty space.
How much time do you typically spend there?
I treat my time in my studio like a full-time 9-5 job, that actually looks more like 12-7 just about everyday. I've been painting full-time for almost two years now and I realize that I am very fortunate to be able to do this for a living, so I want to make sure I give it my all.
What do you consider to be the most challenging or daunting aspect of pursuing art seriously? Are there any obstacles you've faced in the past that you learned a lot from?
There are a few aspects like finding a great gallery, but honestly the most challenging for me has been the lack of art school and not that the lack of schooling is affecting my work, it's just affecting the way some gallerists, collectors, etc. view me. True story: I did a group show and the long-time installation photographer for a well known Los Angeles gallery took a liking to my work and told me that such n' such gallery that he works for would love my work and that he wanted to show such n' such gallery my stuff. We keep talking and the photographer asked me where I went to art school, so I told him that I didn't go to art school and I'm self-taught and his attitude completely changed and told me that his gallery only takes art school pedigree and just walked away. I can't take stuff like that too personal because it's my reality, but it does have an affect on me and it's a motivator and reminder of how much harder I have to grind to be taken seriously.
What is the best advice you've ever received? Have you ever ignored any, and been happy you did?
Don't go to art school! At one point, I strongly thought about applying for an art college. I had a lot of conversations with artists who had gone to some great schools and I was reminded that I have a unique take on the way I make art and the way I see things and that I should keep on this path because I hadn't been "tarnished by art school." So yeah, I'm happy that I get to own whatever raw talent that I have.
Why do you continue making your work? What is the most fulfilling or exciting aspect of it?
Two reasons. One, I literally wouldn't know what to do with myself. Making work is so much a part of who I am and my overall identity. Secondly, no one has ever encouraged me to stop and I think that may be the most exciting aspect. I have a good support system. Every painter needs support.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects?
I don't have anything set in stone for 2017. I didn't have anything set in stone for 2016 either and it was a great year for me. So I'm open to whatever comes my way. I'm in talks with a gallery on a solo show, but I can't say for certain yet. I really want to see other parts of the world via art. I've applied to a few residencies as well.
Anything else you would like to add?
You're doing great.
+ + +
Support Young Space! Like what you see? As an independent curatorial platform, this project can use your help!