James “Kingneon” Guçwa paints the American roadside, capturing vintage signs from the forties and fifties in a photorealistic style. See more of his art by visiting his website.
Since I was born with a paintbrush in my hand, there was little doubt that someday I would become an artist. Art is truly in my DNA—my father was an artist, but unlike me, his passion and determination must not have been as strong. As a kid growing up, I was always drawing. On my twelfth birthday my mother gave me an oil painting kit. When I was fifteen, she enrolled me in an art home instruction course. Thanks, Mom.
After high school, I spent my first year of art study at the Newark School of Fine Arts in Newark, New Jersey. The next summer I studied advertising art at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. It didn’t take me long, however, to realize that as an advertising artist I would be employed creating advertisements for products I didn’t necessarily support.
That’s when I determined the only satisfying art career for me would be as a fine artist. From the start, I had a need to draw and paint realistically. When I discovered the pioneers of the Photoreal art movement—artists like Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Chuck Close and others—I became determined to follow in their footsteps and paint photorealistically.
Thinking I needed more education, I enrolled in the Memphis Academy of Art. Just before graduation, my painting professor at MAA suggested that I personally contact a contemporary photorealist painter in the United States in an attempt to study side by side with them (like the Old Masters employed apprentices to work with them in their studio).
After a few attempts, I was thrilled when a contemporary photorealist, the late Gregory Gillespie, accepted my proposal. I spent that summer studying with him.
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After my apprenticeship concluded, and while everything I learned was still fresh in my mind, I decided to go off somewhere and just paint. Remembering Paul Gauguin’s years in Tahiti, I opted for the island of Jamaica. With my paints, brushes and easel in tow, I explored the island until I found a small town with no tourists. I rented a house and unpacked my art supplies.
Once back in the states, I began working as a sign painter, painting canvases as time permitted. I was still searching for my signature style, knowing that art galleries didn’t represent artists who had not found that level of maturity.
One day, out of the blue, I had an epiphany! Instead of painting signs for businesses, I would begin to paint vintage roadside neon signs of the forties and fifties on canvas as fine art, and I would paint them in a photorealistic style.
The large photorealistic canvases of those old neon signs gained me one gallery after the next, from Miami to Scottsdale and Los Angeles to San Francisco, and finally to one-man shows in New York City.
I believe that passion, hard work and an unwavering determination is the key to my success. Not only did I have numerous gallery shows, but in 1998, I was made an “Officially Licensed” fine artist for Harley-Davidson.
I’m living my dream.
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