“I am one of the few artists who encourage people at my shows to feel my work. I never tire of seeing the look of bewilderment from folks who would have sworn they were about to feel texture.”
by Peter Chawaga
Sometimes an artist’s calling sounds from a place both mysterious and inevitable. While the clarity of a finished piece can make it seem like maker and craft were always meant for each other, origin stories are often more happenstance than premeditated. This paradigm lives in James Garrett, whose circuitous route to the art of Venetian plaster can seem inadvertent, but whose work now appears all but inevitable.
Born in London, England, Garrett dreamed of a life outside of his home country since he was a teenager. The opportunity came when his uncle purchased a painting and decorating company in New York City and he was invited to join as an employee.
“I flew over with the view of maybe staying a year,” Garrett recalls. “Two years later I was managing a large part of the company. We grew to be one of the top painting and decorating companies in Manhattan, with clients like Jackie Onassis, the Rockefellers, and even Donald Trump.”
Because many of Manhattan’s buildings were built so long ago, Garrett’s painting work was inextricably linked to the plastering business, and he had the chance to apprentice with some of the field’s masters. In 1986 he traveled to Trieste, Italy, to study Venetian plaster. When he later applied the technique to a client’s wall, a change came over him.
“I remember standing there looking at this beautiful wall, burnished to a glass-smooth finish, with subtle movement of color and the kind of visual depth you would see in a piece of marble,” he says. “It was not glossy like paint but had the reflection of a polished piece of granite. I was transfixed. I imagined cutting out a section of the wall, framing it, and hanging it as a piece of contemporary art.”
Years later, Garrett began pursuing that vision in earnest. He identified Atlanta as a potential headquarters for work as a faux-finish artist and moved there in 1994. As an expatriate with a passion for art, he found the South to be a welcoming haven.
“Like most places, the South has a rich heritage and culture,” says Garrett. “Whether it’s the music, or the food, or even the way of life, it is celebrated and protected. I would say that for artists either born out of or transplanted to the South, the same applies.”
As he mastered the craft of Venetian plaster, its potential for artistic applications called to him. “Had I not had so much experience with this medium and such a deep understanding of its properties or how it reacted and could be manipulated, I dare say I would not be an artist today,” Garrett says. “I think it was more of the case that this medium chose me.”
It seems that hardly anyone would think to seek out the practice of Venetian plaster as an art form without first stumbling upon it for other purposes. Dating back to the 14th century, it is a technique that combines marble dust and lime to create a strong plaster with depth and color. The technique largely disappeared for hundreds of years before becoming popular again in the 1970s as a wall finish for high-end Italian architecture.
“It has a silky texture to it, not gritty or sandy like most plasters,” explains Garrett. “It is pure white, so much so that it is impossible to achieve absolute black, as it takes more colorant than plaster to get there.”
Garrett applies the plaster in various colors to pieces of wood with custom-built frames. He puts down a thick first coat, then sands it. Subsequent coats absorb into the first one and dry more quickly, eventually becoming silky and polished. In landscape works like those of his Winter Tree series, Garrett must complete a full background before carefully adding foliage with small blades and sculpting knives. Finished pieces are typically between thirty and fifty layers of plaster and give off a misleading rough look.
“I am one of the few artists who encourage people at my shows to feel my work,” Garrett says. “I never tire of seeing the look of bewilderment from folks who would have sworn they were about to feel texture.”
Nashville’s Bennett Galleries has been a home to Garrett’s work for over six years. To say the least, it provides something that few are used to seeing.
“I don’t think we have too many artists who use this technique on display in the area, and I think people love seeing artwork in a style or medium that is out of the norm,” says Emily Cothran, marketing director for Bennett Galleries. “Of course, we did not have anything in the gallery in his medium, so I couldn’t resist.”