“On Creating for a Living,” an Interview with Jonni Cheatwood
Born in Thousand Oaks, California. 1986.
The paintings that Jonni Cheatwood makes describe the broad visual ideas stemming from still life, abstraction and at times minimalism that are a direct reflection of, or in response to living and working in an electric city such as Los Angeles. At first glance, the graffiti-like scribbles, scratches and primitive colors of Jonni’s work may resemble artwork hastily produced by a child, but that is not the case: it is in fact the controlled chaotic work of an erudite, expressionist painter. In both the content and the process of his work, Cheatwood is interested in how a painting ages in the studio. He shows that by often painting on the floor of his studio, allowing his canvas to collect dirt, paint and shoe prints, then often times turning the canvas over to start a new painting, exposing what the canvas collected on the ground. Writing and language also serve as a major conceptual foundation for Jonni’s work, as he focused on the process of writing, both by sketching unidentifiable doodles and squiggles or words directly onto the canvas by creating line based compositions that all have become part of his language. He starts with a brush or a paint tube used as a pen to make marks in order to build something to react to. If he sees something that he enjoys, he will keep using the same lines and shapes over and over to work an idea out until he feels as if he has exhausted it. Jonni feels that this practice of repetition teaches him what he likes to see in his own paintings.
Jonni lives & works in Los Angeles.
Monomyth Studio: When/How did you know you wanted to be an artist? How did you get here?
Jonni Cheatwood: I think you’re always becoming an artist, and you’re always trying to figure it out. I don’t know if I ever really set out to become an artist full-time, but it just kind of happened with momentum. I sold my first painting to a friend for $150, which was half my rent at the time and I kind of got this high from painting and selling something. When I was 21 I dropped out of college to work full-time and kind of got fed up with the waking up, eat, work, sleep routine so I decided to paint just to have some sort of an outlet. I just needed a hobby, so I stole some paints and a few brushes from my little sister and found a few artists that I really loved then tried to figure out how some of these painters painted. I sucked at it but there was this excitement that I got by simply making marks on a canvas or panel or whatever I was painting on. This kind of became an obsession, which turned into my passion and having a passion about something was what I was really looking for. Now it’s my career.
As far as me getting to where I am now, I’m not so sure I know how I got here. I’ve just decided to show up everyday and work and eventually someone noticed, then more people noticed and it’s just been a big blur for me. I guess I’ve been at the right place at the right time and worked like a madman.
Could you tell us a bit about your experience as an artist in LA compared to your time in Phoenix?
I grew up just outside of Los Angeles and I’ve been wanting to come back long before I started painting. So this is home for me. However, Phoenix is where this journey that I’m on began and I absolutely love Phoenix. Redemption Tempe was gracious enough to give me a little studio to get dirty and figure this art thing out and I’m forever grateful. The community is great and the Phoenix art scene is full of insanely talented creatives. About two years ago I was starting to make a lot of connections with my work in Los Angeles and I was driving back and forth a lot, so my wife and I decided to just move. It hasn’t been easy, but there is so much going on in Los Angeles and the opportunities that I have here, I may not have had in Phoenix. You can’t really get away from art in Los Angeles. It’s everywhere.
What has your experience been like with Yoobi? How did you become a part of this project, and what have the results been like for you?
Yoobi is an incredible company! I was approached about the Yoobi project through my friendship with Usher, who curated the designs for a new line of school supplies exclusively for Target by Yoobi. The best part about the project for me, wasn’t the artwork, working with Usher, or even the idea that my work will be sold in Target – but the fact that through this project Yoobi was able to donate supplies to over one million students in need of new supplies. But it was very, very surreal to pick up a notebook at Target with my name on it. I don’t get giddy much, but I was giddy every time I went to Target.
Could you tell us about the Hooper Projects and what you did there?
Hooper Projects is a three month artist residency in downtown Los Angeles. Basically it is a restored warehouse that has been turned into four massive artist studios. So every quarter there are three or four artists selected to come and work out of Hooper, which is really cool because I got to work with two painters from Germany and one from London. Over the quarter, we get studio visits from galleries and collectors, then there’s a big group show at the end of the quarter. Free supplies and a studio to go with some sweet exposure. It’s been my favorite thing.
Which of your pieces are you most proud of? Why?
I’m not the type of artist that premeditates anything at all and I kind of work as a stream of thought. Kind of like how Kerouac wrote On the Road. That was my focus at Hooper because I was able to try new things and make the work that I wanted to make for myself to enjoy and I am excited about the work that I’ve made in the last three months.
What artists have had the most significant influence on your work? Why?
So many. Richard Avedon, Cy Twombly, Rodney Graham, John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Joe Bradley, Eddie Martinez, Albert Oehlen, Oscar Murillo, Jaybo Monk. Basquiat. It’s hard to narrow down my list because there are so many influencers that have made me think differently about the work I make, or what I want to make. It’s also hard for me to describe why these artists are so influential to me. They’re just awesome.
If you weren’t an artist, what other career would you consider?
High School art teacher. I ended up graduating with a degree in secondary education from ASU.
Have you had any mentors? How have they had an impact on your craft?
I have two. When I was working out of Hooper Projects, I got to work next to Will Bradley from the UK. His work is unbelievable, but he was also influential in the work I made and how I made it. He would come by my studio and give me feedback as well as teaching me some techniques and technicalities in painting that I missed out on because I never went to art school. Usher is the other mentor that I’ve been able to also call a friend. He found my work on a blog and had his people contact me with some insane opportunities. Believe it or not painters are entertainers as well and he can entertain like no one else. He’s very wise, a big fan of art, but he’s a teacher who has made himself available to me because he is passionate about helping creatives explore their craft more and more.
What risks have you taken to get where you are now?
Moving to a monstrous city like Los Angeles to pursue art is a massive risk in itself but to be honest, the biggest risk for me has been being vulnerable enough to show my work because I’ve always been a bit apprehensive, sorta shy. With that said, I don’t know if I’ll ever really shake the idea of being rejected because I think it is just human nature to succeed and never fail, but if I get the most joy getting to create for a living, I’m going to fight for that.
Could you tell us about what you’re working on now?
So far, I am working on new paintings for a group show out here and then in June I am exhibiting in a museum along side of Christian Rosa and Albert Oehlen, which is unreal for me. I just did a commercial for 7up and I just did a limited edition of bags with a company called The Ollin, that is being sold at Harvey Nichols in the UK. I have much more coming up within the year and I’m excited to talk about it all when I can.