On an unusually hot summer day in Anchorage, Alaska, we sat down with abstract painter and muralist James Temte at his home and outdoor studio. With an easy smile and a clear love of laughter, James gave us a rundown on what makes him tick both personally and professionally.
James explained to us how art has helped him become even more proud of his Northern Cheyenne ancestry over time and why helping others, fully experiencing life and adding more beauty to the world wherever he can is so important to him. He’s never afraid to take risks with his work and through experience has learned that living a balanced and healthy lifestyle helps him produce his best possible work.
In our conversation, James shares:
- How community involvement can help your name rise to the top for grants and other opportunities
- Why it’s important to support young artists and how you can help boost their confidence
- Why showing your work more often can quickly propel your career
Can you give us a quick overview of who you are and what you do as an artist?
My name’s James Temte, I am a member of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe and also of Northern European descent, Norwegian, on my dad’s side.
As an artist I’m really attracted to color. I love color. But then I also love some texture and just kind of manipulating paint. I love the idea of loud and quiet conversations in pieces, so when you see a piece from a distance it’s like, Pow! But when you approach it you can see there’s other smaller subtleties going on that can help tell a different story or add to the big story.
I saw you got a bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology and were pursuing a master’s degree in applied environmental science and technology. How did you go from that to what you’re doing now?
Yeah, that’s a big part of my story. Growing up I was free to be creative. I loved it. My mom saw that I enjoyed it and it was probably around fifth grade she got me private art lessons with one of her friends who was an artist, which turned into me being an apprentice to that artist all through high school, which was great.
I thought I was going to go to art school. I was on my way, putting together my portfolio, looking at schools, and then I talked to my dad and he was like, You know, James, are you really sure you want to go down this path? He said, You really like being outdoors, too — maybe don’t declare a major right away, I encourage you to look at some of the other fields out there.
So I went to school and I took art classes, but with his encouragement I decided to pursue a degree in biology. I was really into microscopes, DNA, gene sequencing and stuff, it’s so interesting. So I was like, I’ll do cellular molecular biology, be a scientist and I graduated with that.
But when I was pursuing that path, my artistic nature and production dropped off significantly. I was like, I kind of think this is now who I am, I’m going to be a scientist, I’m going to be a researcher and that’s me.
For maybe about 10 years after college I was creating but not a lot. And during that time I was a total critic. Everything I saw that anybody else did I was just like, Oh, I could do that. Or, Oh, that’s cool, but they should have done this. But they were creating and I wasn’t.
Then I moved up here and got involved at UAA [the University of Alaska Anchorage] with the master’s of applied environmental science and technology and, while I was working on that, I started taking art classes again.
What year was this?
This was around 2015. I moved up in 2010 and worked, then dropped out of school, then went back to school. So it was a long degree, but I finished.
During that time I started diving into art classes. I was like, If I’m paying full tuition I’m going to add these classes and I’m going to love it and enjoy it. Around that time I read this book, The Artisan Soul, and one of the quotes that really just sucker punched me is like, There’s no proof of creativity without action. And I wasn’t acting. So I was like, Oh my gosh, that’s my problem. And then it just was like wildfire.
I met Steve Gordon who is a local artist and he was also my professor and he totally took me under his wing. He was like, You’ve got a fire and I’m going to help stoke that. We’re great friends. I was actually hanging out with him today.
Then I just couldn’t get enough of painting. I couldn’t get enough. Every night I was in the studio until— I would show up probably at around 5 and then I’d leave around midnight. For weeks on end. I wanted to try new things and explore new areas — I did finger painting, portraits. Just couldn’t get enough of it. And that kick started me back into the art scene. I was just so happy that that happened because it’s definitely a passion of mine and it gave me permission, almost, to dive back into the art scene and not just be a scientist or a researcher. I could be a more complete person.
So were you still working while you were a student or how were you paying the bills at that time?
Yeah, I’ve worked all throughout school which is partly why I dropped out for a while, because I had a full-time job. And the skiing was really good. So I was like, I don’t know about school. I could retake a class but I could never have a winter like this.
You have a point. [Laughter]
So yeah, kept constantly working. And that kind of ties back to the advice that my dad gave me when I chose a major and I think is really important in my life. I don’t know if you know, but I’m working at APU, Alaska Pacific University, helping with their art program, doing some teaching and special projects type stuff. And that allows me to create work that I want to create and not create work for the market.
If I could give anybody advice it would be, it’s not creativity’s job to support you, it’s your job to support creativity, whatever that looks like. And I stole that from Elizabeth Gilbert because I heard that in a podcast and I was like, Oh my god, I love that.
A lot of times artists think that creativity and the arts have to support us, but I think we’re the most free when we do whatever we can to support creativity. Then we give ourselves permission to do what we want. If nobody buys it, whatever, we still get to do what we want. And that allows me to take more risks, to try things. People may think, This guy’s an abstract artist and he paints squares, who’s going to buy that? But you take that risk and people will. They like to see that, I think. And if I like a piece and I’m happy with it, then chances are somebody else will. That’s important.
It is important, yeah.
And is that a full-time position, part-time?
It was part time for a while and recently they asked me to go full time. So that’s a challenge. But fortunately, because it is involved in the arts programming and I can incorporate my passion into my job — which I think is really, really cool — I can grow that for other people as well.
We started [the Anchorage Mural Project] and so I can not only do what I love to do but help engage other people and community and kind of transform neighborhoods. In a way there’s this bigger goal that alone I don’t think I could do. With somebody like a university supporting and encouraging that, they can connect me with the museum and their seed lab and all these other folks. So it’s nice and I feel really fortunate. I love my job. But I also love creating, so it’s finding that balance.
It is for sure, both timewise and monetarily for most people. How does that break down for you?
Most of the money comes from them, but timewise I would say it’s maybe 60/40 — 60% working for them. I don’t know, if you had a pie, administrative stuff and that junk that you have to do would probably be 25% and then the rest is kind of more art-related and community engagement-type work.
Nice. So talking about collaborative pieces, you’ve done things with Michelle Xiao, Jon Burpee and Steve Gordon, who you mentioned. How did those opportunities come about and why do you choose to collaborate?
I love collaborating. I love working alone but I think collaborations are really fun, too.
One, you get to meet and hang out with other artists and you can bounce ideas off each other and feed off each other. Like big mural projects, it gets lonely if you’re on a lift all by yourself. And a lot of times you need somebody on the ground looking up at the mural saying, You know, maybe adjust the nose this way, or, This piece needs to be bigger. It’s really helpful to have multiple people.
And then also knowing what other people’s strengths are and building on those. So if somebody is really good at this one component, then you can support them in that in the collaboration. I love the puzzle of tying it all together.
And how do collaborations with communities work for murals?
One thing that I’m really sensitive around is if you’re doing a mural in a neighborhood, it’s going to be their piece and a lot of times you are an outsider. So I try and interact with the neighborhood. If I go to a reservation down in the lower 48 to do a mural, or even in Alaska [in a village], it’s really connecting with the community to learn about them so that you can draw elements that are important to them. Because then it’s a mural that’s more about them and their place and their environment and less about you as an artist.
I think it’s more meaningful and I love the feeling when it’s all done. People come up to me and it’s not like, Oh, thanks. It’s like, No, really — thank you. People will just start crying. It’s great and it’s so rewarding. So encouraging community engagement and involvement through the arts is really powerful.
I have a theory that, especially on reservations and in villages, a lot of times the built environment isn’t necessarily beautiful. But if we can reflect culture and heritage and traditions, even if it’s just designs in a mural, I think it supports people with their identity and it can help them stand up a little taller and really make a positive impact and a positive change in a lot of these communities that are dealing with really hard issues. So I love that. If I were to be a researcher, that’s what I would research: How does art that includes culture really change an environment and create behavior change in a positive way?
At what stage do you bring them into the design processes? Is it when you get there, is it beforehand when you’re planning?
It’s beforehand. I’ll try to find somebody in the community who’s excited about the project and also knows people in the community they can connect me with. Then a lot of times I’ll just have a community meeting, a pizza party or something, listen to them and ask questions like, What’s something that’s really important to your community?
One mural I did in Lame Deer, Montana, was a collaboration with Bunky Echo-Hawk, this rad artist, and when we talked with the folks in the community one thing they’re really concerned about is their environment. They’re also really proud of their women, and water was a central thing that came up. So the final design was a woman warrior with traditional regalia on and a big headdress carrying a briefcase because the battles are fought in court now and not necessarily with bows and arrows. It’s a really cool, powerful design. The community loved it, they felt empowered, they’re like, This is us now. Murals are huge and they make statements, they can be powerful.
And also, one really cool thing is having one or two helpers who are maybe high school age, young kids who are interested in art because it gives them an experience. A lot of times they maybe don’t have a lot going for them and so, to have them included, I think it’s a big boost in their confidence and it can kind of connect them and motivate them to maybe do other things.
Yeah, I love that.
How often do you do these types of projects?
Typically I try to do one a summer.
I understand a year ago you received a $3,000 Excellence in Education grant from the Cheyenne Schools Foundation in Cheyenne, Wyoming. How did that grant come about and what’s your approach to applying for grant work?
That grant came about through the teacher at the school. Actually, we were childhood friends and she was like, I want to get James to come and work with my students.
Nice. So that’s how it got on your radar and then you applied?
Yeah, yeah. She’s like, You need letters of support, we’ll get you those. And my parents are in Wyoming so I was just like, Oh, I could stop by and hang out with them for a while.
But for grants it’s kind of who you know. That’s the best way and I think a lot of times the most productive. Because in such a competitive environment right now, if you don’t know somebody— I mean, unless you’re like Mark Bradford it’s really hard. Because grant writing is a skill and people who are good grant writers usually get the money. So if you’re not focusing on your writing and you’re focusing more on concepts or design or something, it can be difficult to get tied into the money.
How else do you build up your network of people who can maybe help?
You get out there. You have shows, you go to openings, you go to museums and you go to fundraisers, you donate art. Any time you do something like that, your name rises to this level and you meet people, you meet directors. Because a lot of times, say you’re at a gala and it’s sponsored by someone who has money and you donated a piece. You could just happen to be sitting at their table and they’ll be like, Oh, cool, the artist. [Laughs] So you hand them a card and ask them what they do, and if they have opportunities, you just kind of brainstorm.
So you do have to get out there and kind of beat the streets. But I don’t like to bang on doors, I just like to help create opportunities through whatever else is going on.
Do you have any follow-up mechanism with these people that you’ve met or do you just try to stay in touch?
Yeah, definitely, following up is important. So just sending them an email that has your contact info because most likely they lost it, you know? And asking if you can put them on your email list so any time you have a show, you can make sure they’re included. Kind of always be in the peripheral so when a project or an idea comes around, they’ll say, Oh, I know someone.
What does your email list look like? How often do you send emails and what do you use?
It’s all in an Excel spreadsheet. Any time I get a contact I just add it in. And there’s a couple of different categories, like, is this a funder or is this an interested collector? Then I just copy and paste them into the email Bcc.
How often do you think you send to these people?
Probably not enough. But definitely before any show or before any big project.
So over a year’s time, how many emails are you sending?
I would say maybe four emails. I don’t want to bombard people, I don’t want to be annoying.
Yeah, just enough to be in touch.
Yeah, and I do want to tell them what’s going on and let them know a little update on what I’m interested in and pursuing.
Title: Arrow Throw. Medium: Oil on Canvas. Size: 4” x 24” x 24”. Description: Arrow Throw was inspired by a historic photo [Arrow Throw, Richard Throssel Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming] of Northern Cheyenne men playing a traditional game where they throw arrows at a target. This photo connected me to the competitive, fun and comradery of my Northern Cheyenne heritage. The color pallet of the painting was inspired by the winter elements in the photo. —James Temte. Photo Credit: Michael Conti.
Great. So you’ve done mural installations at locations as varied as the Anchorage Museum of Art and a high-end liquor store here in Anchorage called La Bodega. You’ve also had fine art featured in museums, you do First Friday art events, design work, etc. Who are your main clients and customers and how do you get them?
Main clients are, right now, just folks in Anchorage.
Showing is important. I would say as an artist you have to show. Getting shows can be difficult if you’re starting out, so ask friends if you can put a few pieces in their show. Then you can say you showed at that gallery, even if it’s one piece. It helps build your résumé. That really helped me because my first shows were not solo shows, it was one piece with a group of people.
So I think for folks who are just trying to get their foot in the door creating a network is important. Then you just grow and you can start intentionally planning ahead with these folks to do specific themes for shows or creating work specifically for the show instead of just entering what you already have into a show.
I think more and more I’ll approach a show as a body of work and try to make it cohesive. That’s fun because you get to dive into themes or ideas or concepts and really work through them. And a lot of times, when you see a majority of it together you’re like, This is cohesive, it makes sense.
And what sells best for you?
I do some stripe paintings that a lot of times look like birch trees and those definitely sell. But I get tired of doing them and so I’m like, Only a few a year. Because I want to explore other things and I want to look around and respond to what is going on, either that I see or what’s happening in my life or things just happening on the news, you know? So I’m not just creating for the market.
How about size-wise?
I like big. I wish I could do bigger but I have to fit them in my truck. If they fit in my truck, I can do it.
I have done ones that are three pieces that you put together and show them as one larger piece. I love doing those but it’s finding the space to create that size of work. It’s also thinking about where you’re going to show it, how you’re going to display it and eventually maybe ship it somewhere. So feasibility I need to think about.
Title: White Wash. Medium: Oil on Canvas. Size: 42” x 42”. Description: It is our innate desire to hide our flaws and imperfections in an attempt to curate our lives, histories and stories. However only by owning our imperfections do we become truly beautiful. The thunderbird symbol in the top right provides a watchful gaze over the “heart” depicted by the central turquoise square. —James Temte
Absolutely. How about pricing?
Pricing is a difficult one. A lot of times I’ll get help from a gallery. I have a few friends who work at galleries and I’ll invite them to a pre-show. They’re good friends and they’ll be honest with me. They’ve seen my work grow and also have sold things of mine, so they know kind of where the market is.
One thing that I struggled with coming up, and other artists do too, is pricing stuff too low. If you’re going to take yourself seriously, you want other people to.
So this is really interesting — the whole pricing discussion is one reason why I got into murals. I had a show at a gallery downtown and I overheard these two women talking and they’re like, I love this so much but I just wish I could afford art. And as the artist I was just like, You love it? Just take it! And so then I was thinking, Who really doesn’t have money? And a lot of times it’s people who are on the streets or people taking the buses going to jobs and trying to make ends meet. So I’m really interested in murals because nobody has to pay to look at them.
It’s just art for the people.
Yeah, we like that aspect too, it really levels the playing field.
You were talking about how a lot of people contact you on Instagram and Facebook and buy pieces there. So what are you doing for marketing on social media? Is there any sort of strategy or is it just kind of when you make stuff you post it?
It is a lot of times when I make stuff. And there is strategy. I’ll try and write up a description on each piece to give people a little bit of background — that helps — and then I’ll post it on Instagram and Facebook.
I think the description is important with abstract work especially. It helps give people context. Titles too. For a while I was like, Untitled #7, you know? And that’s great, but it really doesn’t help people looking at it. So titles helped me be more engaging with the audience and kind of give people background by saying, This title could mean this. And if some of the work that I’m doing is based off of an old photograph or traditional dance or something I’ll reference that. It helps give people clues and they can feel more connected to the piece and the experience.
But the opposite reason why I love abstract art is because it asks questions, it asks you what it is. If it’s realistic it just tells you, This is what I am. And personally, I don’t want to be told what to do, I want to be asked and I’ll be happy to do it. So I’m drawn to abstract work because it allows that kind of freedom for the viewer to kind of ask and to imagine.
What does your creative process look like?
A lot of times it starts with a thought or a theme. If I have a show coming up, I’ll reflect on where I am, what’s going on in my life. Or I’ll be drawn to an idea or a concept.
The theme for my latest body of work is structure, chaos and the thread that connects. I was thinking a lot of times in my life, I’ll get up at seven, go for a bike ride and everything is kind of regimented. Then something will happen, just one thing that throws everything out of whack. And then when everything’s out of whack for a while, what is it that takes you back to that place of rest or structure? It could be somebody says something, it could be a friend coming over, it could be you read a book or you hear a song. But it’s something that draws you out of that chaos space back into this place of structure. Not that all structure is great, I think sometimes chaos is life and it’s exciting. But I was really focusing on that idea of that balance for about six of the pieces in the show. Trying to think about how to say that visually without words, trying to draw off that when I was creating.
When I’m putting together paintings it’s a puzzle. I don’t necessarily have a full idea what I want it to look like. I want it to feel and I want it to tell something, but also I want it to be visually pleasing because that’s one thing that I like about art is you can feel good about it. You’re like, Oh, that looks great. You know? I don’t want to create things where you’re like, Oh, that’s terrible.
It’s very much like a puzzle to me, the whole process, and I work in a lot of different stages. And with layers the pieces can take a long time — because I work in oil paint so I put down a layer and then let it dry. And then I put down another layer and let it dry. Then I start to pick out things that I really like and I’m like, I love that section over there, how can I respond to that with this other space around it or include some elements of that in different areas so that when you look at the piece it looks solid and cohesive? But really, they kind of just build themselves. And as the artist I have to create or put the puzzle pieces where I think they work best.
It’s like a game. It’s fun and it can be frustrating. It can be like, Ooo, that was a bad move. [Laughs] But giving myself the freedom to make bad moves, that’s important. Initially I was so critical. I was like, Oh god, it’s just crap! And I would rip up canvases. But learning that I can just put another layer of paint on, and I’m going to create hundreds of pieces in my life, what’s another layer of paint? And if I didn’t try that one thing, I wouldn’t know what I know now and I think that’s part of the process.
So do you work on multiple pieces at once then?
Usually. What you saw [outside in his work area] is slim pickings right now, but typically I’ll have between six or eight pieces going on at the same time.
And then start to finish, on average, how long does it take to finish one?
On average I would say between two to three months.
Some pieces I’ve taken years. I’ll just set them aside and I’ll be like, You know what? I’m mad at you, you’re going to rest, you’re going to the corner. [Laughter]
You’re in time out.
Yeah. So I have had pieces that I’ve worked on for a couple of years and that’s okay too. I loved the finished product.
So what is your biggest challenge right now?
Time and managing time is definitely the biggest challenge. Because there are a lot of good things going on, so how do you manage time in a way that you don’t get burned out and you remain healthy and have friends?
Also knowing when to say no. You can say no because you’ve already said yes to something that you care about, and that is something I have to keep telling myself. I care about this so I said yes to it, so I have to say no to these other things.
Is there any one thing you try to do pretty much every day?
I need to get outside every day. Especially in the winter.
Every day around noon I’ll go for a bike ride, a walk, cross-country ski or something. It really helps me keep the big things big and the small things small. Because it’s easy to get wrapped up in small things, especially with deadlines.
It’s important for me to kind of step back and be like, Okay, all this will pass and it may not be the perfect thing in the end, but I’ll still be alive. And I want to be alive in a good way, I don’t want to sacrifice my body or my sanity for these things that are just going to pass. I’ve learned that the hard way. It’s important for artists to take care of themselves.
Yeah, I think a lot of people neglect that.
Yeah and a lot of that I think is part of the American culture. It’s like, Let’s just work, work, work and forget about what we need as a human being.
So being mindful, I guess. I hate using that word, but it’s so good sometimes. But just being true to yourself and respecting who you are as a human. Caring about that is important.
Yeah. Because you can’t create if you’re not in good health, in mind and body.
Yeah, yeah. And I definitely know if I’m not in a good place, creating is harder. Good work comes from that too, but I prefer to be in good health and in good mind, and have good relationships, have good friends.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
I dream of having my own studio, that would be amazing.
I really love connecting with students and teaching, so I hope that continues.
To have more time to just work on my own practice. I think that would be ideal.
And, you know, who doesn’t want to have a piece in the Met[ropolitan Museum of Art]? Or the Louvre. That would be a good dream. [Laughter]
Any final thoughts or advice that you have?
I think art is important and it’s helped me as a Native American be proud of who I am. For a long time— I grew up off the reservation and when I go to the reservation, I see there’s a lot of pain and hurt. And when you go to a museum and you see all these dark mannequins in the corner, it doesn’t really make you feel proud to be who you are.
I went to this show, actually at the MET, and I saw some pieces from the 1600s, 1700s displayed beautifully. They were so colorful and so geometric and I thought, You know, they really wanted to surround themselves with color, with beauty, with structure. I think art helps carry and shape culture and culture is beautiful.
So since then, I’m like, I’m Northern Cheyenne and I’m an artist and I’m going to surround myself with beauty. And with all these budget and funding cuts to art, that’s something that I want to tell people — that art is important, it’s really valuable. It helps people through their day and it helps life be more magical.
How would you suggest people get started who don’t consider themselves artists?
Take a class. Go to a workshop, buy some pens, you know? Just dive in, just start. And maybe it’s not visual arts, maybe it’s acting, maybe it’s poetry. Pick up a book of poems and start reading. Maybe write a haiku poem. That’s creating. I think we all have the need for an outlet to create.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. All other photographs by Kim Olson.
- Alaska Pacific University (APU)
- The Artisan Soul: Crafting Your Life into a Work of Art* – by Erwin Raphael McManus
- Bunky Echo-Hawk – artist
- Cyrano’s Theatre Company
- Elizabeth Gilbert – author
- Excellence in Education grant from the Cheyenne Schools Foundation
- Jon Burpee – artist
- La Bodega
- Michael Conti – photographer
- Michelle Xiao – artist
- Louvre Museum
- Mark Bradford – artist
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Richard Throssel – Cree photographer
- Steve Gordon – artist, professor
- University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA)
*ArtisticAllies.com is free resource we love creating, but one way to help us keep the site going is to use links on this Resources page if you need to buy something. Links with an asterisk denote referral programs we belong to, which means if you use the link to buy something you need, your price is either the same (or cheaper) and it’s a no-cost way for you to support the site as we may earn a referral for purchases. We really appreciate it + thank you! : )