Artist Spotlight: James Parker Foley

March 24, 2022
Image courtesy of Lissy Thomas Photography
Image courtesy of Lissy Thomas Photography


Last year, we had the pleasure of meeting artist James Parker Foley through their involvement in our annual Fresh Faces exhibition. In March of 2022 we debuted their work in person in Layered Truths, a three-person exhibition centering on portraiture and the process of painting. We recently sat down with James to discuss more about the symbolism in their work and their history as an artist.


Abigail Ogilvy: How did you decide to become an artist?
James Parker Foley: I’ve always been a painter, but I didn’t realize how rich the world of painting really was until I went back to school. Once I started my MFA program and grew accustomed to focusing full-time on my practice, I realized there was just no other option for me. I wasn’t willing to give up the time I dedicated to my practice in grad school. I just loved it too much to stop.

AO: Your style of painting revolves heavily around portraiture, but you also have this incredible process of building worlds within your paintings. What drew you to incorporating this in your practice?
JPF: I do a lot of plein air painting and drawing. The work I’m doing now, and the work in Layered Truths, was created by introducing figuration into that practice of landscape.

For me it’s important to be genuinely committed to exploring what is possible in every painting; to allow each one to be their own world. It feels unfair to get to a certain point in a painting and then try to make it “go with” my other ones. I don’t think you can really get anywhere in your work by trying to intentionally make them all the same. I think that just makes a product. But painting is about discovery, and pursuing that discovery, without obligation to your own past.

AO: Could you speak a bit more about your choice to leave the faces of your figures blank?
JPF: I’m not really worried about the details.

AO: What is your favorite color right now, and why?
JPF: I’m in a good place with green. I struggled for a long time to find greens that worked for me, and to figure out how to use them. I recently found a phthalo green that really works for me, and two different permanent greens that I like. I’m using dark phthalo greens as water in some works, and they’re deep and cool, but more distant and less friendly than a color like ultramarine. I like the mystery.


James Parker Foley, Night Feeding, 2021. Oil on canvas. 42 x 46 in.


AO: Many of your paintings feature figures with purses that often become a focal point in the piece. Could you take us through the meaning behind these bags?
JPF: The work is, in some ways, about my own experiences as a woman. I use gender-coding signifiers with my figures—hats, long hair, coats, shoes, purses—to let you know how the figures are operating and, sometimes, who has power in the composition. I’m not painting women, I’m painting bodies dressed up like women.


So; the purses. A lot of my figures are busy ladies who have things to do and places to go. It’s a no-brainer, they need their purse. They have kids or errands or they just need somewhere to store their tampons. We just have so much to do, and I don’t want anyone to forget that.


AO: What brought you to painting as a medium?
JPF: I’ve always painted, since I was very young. I don’t remember a time before painting.

Painting is one of the most basic forms of human culture. As a species, we’ve been painting for at least a hundred thousand years. Painting connects me not just to art history, but to our shared human history. It’s embedded in who we are. I think people respond to painting because it is so deeply human.


Installation view of James Parker Foley’s paintings on view in Layered Truths, March 2 - April 17, 2022


AO: Where do you draw the most inspiration for your paintings?
JPF: Wes Craven—the horror director famous for the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.

My work is about formal possibilities of a body within a picture plane—and I think his films are as well. The body is a compositional element. When the body—and what might visually happen to it—is the driver of the work, you have a completely different way of making. My paintings are—first and foremost—formal propositions, and the magic happens when the formal begets narrative. It’s about creativity unbridled to rules or expectations, about saying, “how cool would it be to try to put a body on the ceiling? to suspend a person in the air?” and in painting and film, you get to do that. And the meaning comes after.


AO: What was the most helpful piece of advice you have gotten in your life or your career?
JPF: “Don’t have a plan B.”


About the author

Abigail Ogilvy

Add a comment