The artist currently known as James McPhillips

If you have spent any time in Princeton recently you have probably seen a drawing of the musician Prince with “TON” written below it on a bumper sticker or t-shirt. This play on image/word was created by local artist and frequent library visitor James McPhillips. He currently has a solo show of this image and more “serious” art at Small World Coffee on Nassau Street. I have known James for a long time and recently had the chance to converse with him about his art, his books, and what Prince might think about his work.

Q: Hello, Jay! Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself?

A: Hello, everyone. I grew up in Philadelphia where I enjoyed a childhood of drawing, skateboarding, BMX in the woods and soft pretzels. At University, I studied engineering until calculus said I better go sharpen my artist pencils. I graduated with a bachelor of science degree in Visual Communications. Immediately, I went to work for 80 hour weeks at big NYC ad agencies. All the while I was screen printing shirts, doodling and painting on my off hours. After a few years of the subway, bus exhaust and fluorescent lights, I headed to Portland, Maine to study painting at The Maine College of Art and freelance at ad agencies. Then, I was off to Portland, Oregon. Everything the TV show Portlandia says is true. I then moved back to NYC to work at Comedy Central TV as their ad designer. After a few years there, I left the city for Princeton to do graphic design for McCarter Theatre. It was wonderful and after five years I left to pursue my own art and design work.

Q: Your Prince-TON design has become somewhat iconic in this town. How did you come up with it?

A: I’m always thinking of shirt designs. I thought of the Prince-TON design after having success with my Lamb-Bert-ville design for Lambertville, NJ. It’s a lamb, a character that resembles a familiar Bert and the letters “ville”. I refer to these designs as a Pop Rebus. A rebus is a letter and picture combination. A Pop Rebus is that with some pop culture reference.

Q: Do you think Prince would have an opinion on the shirt?

A: I hope he’d get a kick out of it. I believe my drawing falls into the category of parody. Also I print the shirts on my kitchen table. I’m not sure it’s the type of thing on his radar. Friends say I should send him a shirt. We’ll see.

Q: You also do serious impressionistic paintings. What artists do you admire?

A: I like a range of artists. I like painters from the late 1800s. Locally, they were The Pennsylvania Impressionists (Lathrop,Garber,Coppedge) and more widely known, the Tonalists (Whistler,Twachtman, Inness, Eaton) who painted very moody landscapes. I would like to paint more paintings that are what I’d call “pleasantly haunted.” I also like Banksy, the mysterious pop graffitti artist, for his humor and ideas. I also can’t say enough about a TV show called The Mighty Boosh. Again, this would be humor, though I see it as some of the highest form of art. Ha.

Q: Your current show features many famous Princeton locations including the public library. How do you choose the subjects for your paintings?

A: I usually choose subjects that have interesting lighting and/or architecture. There’s plenty of that in Princeton. Also, I really like windows…interior, looking out or vice versa. It creates an interesting combination of interior light and outdoor light. Also, since I am open to commissions some of the subjects are chosen for me.

Q: You have also written a few books of “doodles” and funny stories including one titled Staff Pick.

Do you see any conflict for your audience in doing both funny, comic art and more traditional painting?

A: No, I don’t see a real issue with doing various work and forms of media. I think being varied is a good thing and something I can’t help doing. I think people respect artists who can wear many hats today. Even The Beatles sang “Yesterday” and also sold a “Flip Your Wig” board game. I’m not comparing myself to the Beatles or Milton Bradley, but I’m just saying if Her Majesty the Queen wishes to bestow knighthood upon me one day, she shouldn’t get all hung up on the fact that I once sold bumper stickers in a CVS parking lot [laughs]. Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Next question, please.

Q: Ok, here’s a self-serving question: what’s your favorite thing about the Princeton Public Library?

A: Of course, I love the art book collection. Also, the staff is wonderful. It dawned on me that anyone can walk in and ask anything. And, the staff helps them with that. That’s astounding.

Q: So what’s next for James McPhillips?

A: I need to create a new book, actually. I’ll keep you posted. Also, I’m thinking of doing more video work.

So far, I created a video with a talented musician friend Eric Venuto, promoting my last art show and an energy drink called Ef-Dup. It involved me in gray make-up in a color world like I was from the 1800s.

Q: Hmm…I believe I will not be drinking any of that. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me and I look forward to the next book or painting or video or rebus.

(photos courtesy of James McPhillips)

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