Vakseen: In conversation with an LA-based artist and music executive

2 September 2017
Vakseen The Curious Element Interview

Vakseen is an artist and a music executive. When I saw his art on Instagram, I was completely blown away and wanted to get to know the artist and how he came to be creating these incredible pieces.

Tell me about yourself and your art.

My artist’s name is Vakseen, my government is Otha Davis III. I’m a visual artist. I’m also a music producer, song writer, a music executive, and I manage talent. That’s really what encompasses my days – music and then art.

Did the music side come first in your business?

Vakseen-No Filter Me 20x20- (Acrylic on canvas) 2015If we’re being technical, not necessarily first. I’ve been into the arts for as long as I can remember. I was always drawing and doodling. I did art in high school but never really took any classes – I’m self-taught. In high school, the art teacher I had was somewhat discouraging. She was trying to censor some of my work; it wasn’t even explicit or anything of that nature, it was more about the perception because you knew what was there but you couldn’t see it visually. It turned me off from wanting to pursue art.

I graduated high school in ‘97 so at that time it was much different from now, where you can make a career out of being a visual artist. I got into music when I was in high school and that really took over my life and my focus. After I graduated high school, I got much more serious with music. I was in a group and we decided we wanted to try to put an album together and really start pursuing a serious career. I was an artist and started producing music out of necessity.

I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida and moved to Miami to better my chances. In Miami, I had an opportunity to intern at a very successful record label and I jumped at the chance. All this time, I was focused on music and I wasn’t pursuing art whatsoever. At work, I was doing customer service work on the phone so between calls I’d be sketching and doodling and I still have a lot of those doodles. I ended up doing the album cover for my group. There was definitely things that I was doing but I just wasn’t pursuing art seriously. So I got into the music business with that internship and my career just took off very, very quickly where I had less and less time for my creative output as an artist and a producer and I was more focussed on the label’s artists.

I accomplished a lot of amazing things at the label and at a certain point felt like I had reached my ceiling there and in Miami. In 2011, I just felt it was time to take what I was doing to another level. I was actually set on moving to New York but my girlfriend at the time suggested LA, and I was open to it. We made a trip out and on 1 April 2011, we moved there officially.

Once I moved to LA and stopped working for a label, my time freed up completely. There is an immense creative energy here in LA that you can’t really explain; it’s just here. I think it’s all the creative minds that come here to make it. So with the additional time and that energy and people seeing my older stuff from high school and saying, “Man, you should do something serious with this,” I decided that I would buckle down and take it seriously. 1 January 2012 was when I decided to start taking art seriously in addition to what I was doing in music. I already had a professional career in music and I decided, okay, I’m going to be a professional artist. Almost immediately, I had my first gallery exhibition and then my artist career just took on a life of its own.

How did you get into that exhibition?

Vakseen-Swan Psalm 20x20- (Acrylic on canvas) 2016I’m a very proactive individual. Just working on the business side of the music biz, I understand how important certain things are. Opportunities are not just going to fall in your lap. You have to go out and seek opportunities. I’ve always been that way with my career. I’m very diligent and on top of things. It was just me looking for an opportunity to show my work somewhere. The art gallery is actually in walking distance from where I live, so I could’ve just walked in and asked, “How do I get my work in here?” Most of the things that were on display were my work from high school and I was such a novice that they had to frame it for me, so it’s cool to look back and see how far I’ve come, knowing that I have to go after what I want.

Was Vanity Pop born in LA or was there a moment that inspired the series?

It was when I was in Los Angeles. All of my earlier paintings within 2011 to late 2012 are all cohesive, in that they were all female based, definitely abstract, and there were some cubism elements within the design, but it was nothing close to what I’m creating now and it was doing very well for me. I sold all of that work, I don’t have any of my older pieces. It was doing very well in a commercial aspect, but for me, it was so simple to do those pieces. I could do them in my sleep, so to speak. I needed something that challenged me more as an artist. I needed something that allowed me to have a voice and say something, but at the same time, still have something that had that pop appeal to it. I also understand just from working in the music business that you have to have something unique and something distinct that allows you to stand out from all the competition. There’s a million people who are trying to do the exact same thing that you are trying to do. I understood that and I was actively seeking it.

I wasn’t trying to force anything because I’m a very organic person. Things have to just naturally happen for me and everything I do in my life. The very first piece I did was called Ignorant Butterflies and it just happened completely organically. It happened just creating and that was the first piece within my Vanity Pop series and I had a really great reception to the piece. It’s a very bold piece and it was a lightbulb moment where I thought, okay, I’m onto something. I was still doing other work and I slowly did a second piece, then a third piece, and I think by the third piece, I realised I absolutely had something and I was going to focus all of my time on building, developing, and ultimately mastering this style. I did Ignorant Butterflies in 2012 and I’ve been mastering ever since, so it’s been 5 years now that I’ve been doing this style. I still do music, you’ll see music pieces here and there from me that are in the older style, but I guess it’s only really because there’s such a demand for them. I thoroughly believe that if you have people supporting you, you don’t want to necessarily let those supporters down. It’s funny because people love those pieces but I walk a fine line, I love everything that I do, but I try not to do too many of the music pieces because I want people more focussed on my Vanity Pop style as that’s very, very important to me.

How long does it take you to complete a piece?

It depends on the size. The average piece that I do is probably 20×20 inches and, on average, that will take me roughly 3 weeks. I also have to balance my time because music is still in the forefront, as far as the revenue coming in, just because I’ve been working in the music business for almost 15 years now on a professional level, whereas I’ve been a professional artist for 5 years. Coming into this year, I’m in a blessed position where most of my originals have sold and I am coming into a time where the demand for my work is exceeding the actual work that I have available. I’ve sold probably 4 or 5 originals this year, so I have maybe 6 originals left and I just accepted a huge solo show this July and the goal is to do 6 pieces in 3 months. Coming into it, I don’t know how the hell I’m going to make this happen, but it’s possible. So now, I’m trying to finish a 24×24 inch piece in 2 weeks while I’m very focussed since I have a deadline that I have to meet because it’s such a huge opportunity. The show is at La Luz De Jesus gallery and it’s pretty much the gallery that is known for breaking pop surrealism. Mark Ryden got his start there. A lot of prestigious artists in the pop surrealism genre got their start at this gallery. This year was a 31 year anniversary so it just puts in perspective how long they’ve been doing this and the kind of artists that come from this gallery. I’ve shown there before in group shows, but it’s my first solo show there so I’m taking it for exactly what it is – a huge, huge opportunity.

How do people interact with your art at shows?

I create for myself first and foremost, but if I’m expected to make a living from art, which I’m blessed to do, you have to pay attention to what people say and what supporters say as well. It doesn’t mean you have to act on it, but you have to at least have that option to make that decision. I love standing back at shows and I won’t introduce myself initially. I’ll sit back just to hear an organic conversation. If you introduce yourself straight away, it takes the organic element out of the equation. I want to hear them in their natural element and what they think. Those are my favourite moments because I learn so much about my own work. I’ll hear these messages that people say which I didn’t intend but I can see where they come from. You learn a lot about your work and a lot about yourself.

A good 95% of the time, people automatically assume the Vanity Pop series is collage. It’s so funny to stand back and watch because a lot of the times, people will walk by a piece and almost dismiss it. Then they’ll come back after they’ve viewed the rest of the show and see a group of people around my work which encourages them get really up close to investigate and they’ll be like, “oh my god, wait, this is a painting?!” That’s the simplicity of it, my work is very complex but it come across as so simple that you dismiss it. You’re like, oh I can do that. Collage holds a certain reputation that anyone can do it so it’s not real art, but the reality is that you probably couldn’t. It’s all about an artistic vision and pulling off simplicity effectively is one of the hardest things to do. You’re not working with multiple elements and there’s not a lot of room for error, so you have all these dynamics at play.

Once I do introduce myself, people are amazed and they want to know more about the work. A lot of the times, people will try to convince me that it is mixed media. There’s depths to the piece that you can only see in person and, with the way I paint it, each section is the slightest bit raised and it gives that feel to the point where people will argue with me that it is mixed media, it is collage. I understand it because it looks like it is, I totally play into the optical illusion, and at this point I’m playing that much further into the optical illusion by adding things like white edges to look like a torn piece of paper. So I’m painting these sorts of things into it, I’m painting subtle shadows to really play into it, because my art has really taken on a life of its own. It wasn’t my initial intention for it to be interactive whatsoever, I’m just creating a painting, and it’s completely become an interactive experience where people are up close and trying to really figure out what’s going on. They’re looking for an area where a piece of paper might be slightly raised so they can say, “Ahh, it is a collage!” But they never find it.

I love how I handle these situations, just standing back watching, because then there’s also the element that most people don’t expect a man to be creating such feminine work and there’s always a “wow” aspect for so many different levels and I love it.

Are the subjects in your paintings women you know or do you find reference photos?

's The Day I Realized 36x36- (Acrylic on canvas) 2015They’re women we all know in a general sense, which is what allows me to be successful with my work. My work is very emotion based and that’s the biggest thing that you get from my work. When you see it, it’s going to make you feel something, and that’s because it’s key for me to capture these poses that are very emotion based. I do a lot of my own photoshoots, I get inspiration from magazines, I typically try to lean more towards foreign fashion and beauty magazines that have really obscure shoots, things that are way more edgy than the stuff that we see in Harper’s Bazaar, for example. Those are the kinds of things that I look for just because they’re the things that resonate with me as a creator and creating for me. As much as I listen to what people are thinking and saying, I am creating pieces that I love for me and I just really trust my taste and my intuition knowing that this is crazy, this is hot, everybody’s going to like this. And then from there, it just really boils down to if you appreciate my stuff. I understand that what I’m creating, it’s something that’s so bold and in your face that you’re either going to like or you don’t. There’s never really a gray area for people and, thankfully for me, most people really appreciate what I do and it draws you in.

I’ve heard a couple of times that my work is disturbing and I was very curious to know what makes it so disturbing to them and one said that it’s very colourful and almost psychedelic and that they couldn’t even explain how they felt. So for me hearing that I thought, mission accomplished. You feel something. You don’t always know how to express what we feel, but you feel something. Another woman told me she wouldn’t have one of my pieces in her house because she’d feel like it was staring at her the whole time because I have all these juxtaposed pieces that are abstract portraits of women and I can see how something that bold and distinct staring at you could make you uncomfortable if you aren’t secure in yourself or whatever the case may be. I haven’t heard anything negative but that’s some of the things that I do hear. It’s almost all typically praise and amazement that it’s a collage.

Every piece is going to speak to someone differently.

What do you love about the LA arts community and being involved in that?

LA is a major hub for entertainment period and there’s endless opportunity here. So many creative careers are started here, so many are taken to another level here. For me, I had a career moving here. I was blessed to do a lot of major things in the music industry, but honestly, art was nowhere on my radar as far as pursuing it seriously and professionally. Pursuing it period. It wasn’t on my radar moving here and that’s the really unique thing about my personal situation, that just says so much about the climate here, about the city of LA. There’s all this creative energy, you have all these creatives, and if there’s a such thing as being too much opportunity for a creator, that’s what this city encompasses and I don’t believe there’s ever such a thing as too much opportunity. LA is just that, it allows you to really flourish and figure out who you are as a creator and really thrive in that fashion. It feels like home. There’s a lot of politics and things that I hate on the business side of things, where I deal with a lot of things that your average creator doesn’t have to because I work with contracts and things like that, but at the same time it allows me to get that much further in my career because I have a different understanding of the business and marketing of an artist that most artists don’t have and that’s what really allows me to be so successful in my career. I come with a business mindframe but I’m also a true creator first and foremost.

Have you ever felt completely overwhelmed and, if so, how did you work through that?

Vakseen-Thrill$ of Entitlement 12x12- (acrylic on wood panel) 2016I’m feeling quite overwhelmed these days because I have 6 clients in music where I’m managing their careers, I have my own career to manage, I have a relationship. I’m very passionate about my art and as much as I’m doing music, that’s on the forefront of things. I have this huge solo show that’s coming up. I’m very stressed lately. Balance is key to dealing with my hectic day to day life. I love what I’m doing but it’s important for me to keep a balance and with that comes going to a lot of live music shows and travelling within the country or even internationally. I travel a lot and that is key for me to be able to unplug. It’s not as crazy as people can imagine because it’s not like I’m in and out of corporate meetings, I’ve scaled a lot of that stuff back. Managing your own career is a lot, that’s a job in itself. Balance is absolutely key and I love enjoying life to the fullest so I have to take that time to really enjoy the things that make me happy because that in turn allows me to continue doing what I’m doing. It’s about taking care of myself in all aspects to keep that balance.

What music do you like to listen to and that inspires you?

I’ve always listened to some of everything. My favourites are urban music. Hip hop is my foundation, but I love r&b, soul, jazz, rock, you name it. I’ve never been too big on country, but there’s definitely country records that I can appreciate. Pop music as well. I’m very well versed in music. I have vinyl. I really appreciate good music. There’s a lot of good music coming out now, but it wasn’t like that for a while there. The 90s and 80s and prior are the music that I really love because that was before the business took over the creative aspect of it. There was always business involved but music has evolved so much because of the business and now you have so many artists that are just doing things not because they love it but because of a cheque and for all the wrong reasons and you can hear that difference in music.

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