In Conversation: Vaughan James

Creating awareness of water makes people aware of the truly valuable things in this world. It also makes us question our future and the very future of the planet itself.

Vaughan James is a New Zealand born artist who has been living in Zürich for over a decade. His work has been featured in Swiss Airlines magazine, Leica Switzerland and numerous blogs. He is now working with the Water Survival Box Charity in the UK and Switzerland and, here, he talks to Libby O’Loghlin about one of his great passions: water.

Welcome, Vaughan. Water is indeed a mighty theme. Tell us what initially drew you to it, and how it has manifested in your work so far.

My real interest in water began as a child growing up in New Zealand, close to a beach. During the summer we would swim every day. It was process of continually being in the water. My brothers and I would windsurf and snorkel. I was also in the sea scouts and crewed on a sailing boat for racing season. Often we would go for walks with my father around the rocks at low tide. He had studied biology for a while and would introduce us to all the creatures that lived in the rock pools and clambered through the rocks. It was thrilling to watch the waves break over the rocks and disappear, leaving glassy underwater paradises with small fish and crabs. It was like looking into a crystal glass ball teeming with life.

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It sounds like environmentalism plays a large part in your work, and an interesting humanitarian element has blossomed through your water project. Tell us how you became aligned with clean water charity work, and what the impact is when people donate.

I have a concern for the environment but like most of us, there is definitely an element of hypocrisy. To a certain extent it goes back to the economic argument of the ‘collective good’. We would all benefit from a clean sustainable environment; however, we can only achieve this by individuals acting in a positive, selfless way.

There are some charities that are making a difference. I am currently working with the Water Survival Box Charity that sends people a box with a water filter and shelter equipment in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. One of the first things that happens is water contamination, and one of the biggest killers in the world is dirty water. For just 200 Swiss francs, a family of five can have clean drinking water for up to five years. Let’s face it: no one is immune to natural disasters.

What advice would you give young artists starting out?

As I once heard somewhere: ‘Take my advice, I’m not using it!’

When starting out, focus on the process, rather than a goal. If you like the process, do it. Some would say that making money isn’t the goal of making art, but when you don’t it can be very limiting and depressing. Creating work is often the easy part.

Also:

  • Be shameless about promoting your work. These days people buy the art as much as the personality behind it. Get the work out there. It’s great if you can find a gallery to sell your work and support you, but galleries often don’t have the budget to build an artist’s career.
  • If someone wants to buy your work, sell it. An artist friend of mine said years ago, “You can always make another one.” When someone buys your work they will ‘stick’ it on the world, their friends will see it and you will have a much better chance of selling the next picture. They will also look after it and treasure it.
  • If you don’t have an exhibition, organise one. A room, some art on the walls, a few drinks and some cool people. Sounds like a party and it is not rocket science to organise. Collaborate with your artist friends in a show. The more people that come and see your work, the better. There is also a book I would highly recommend called Show Your Work by Austin Kleon
  • Get a thick skin. I joked to a friend that being an artist is like running a marathon, but a marathon, even if you are slow, usually takes four or five hours—and as an artist, you replace the hours with years. You are trying to change culture and make people look at the world in a different way. That takes energy and stamina. It’s not easy and I believe there are no overnight successes. Read biographies of famous artists—it is a different journey to a normal way of life. As my physics school teacher once said, “There is no such thing as luck, only preparation meeting opportunity.”
  • Leave the door open. Rejection sucks and it will happen, but often it isn’t personal. Keeping the door open enables you to present work in the future, widen your circle of influence and build your voice as an artist. And if you don’t like it, get a real job! For me, it’s a question of existential boredom or an existential journey. No path is easy, whichever you choose.

What’s the next project on the horizon? 

I am developing a number of projects which tie into an overall environmental arc. There is a series on trees and a series on fish which pose questions about man’s influence on nature. There is a third series on the death of small creatures. While I would like to talk about them, one other piece of advice is to build a voice that is uniquely your own. That is why I am very focused on Water. For me, the subject matter is infinite and critical to our future on this planet. The body of work is expanding and the number of countries where the work is being shown is increasing.

And, finally, The Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

Probably my favourite book for its simplicity is The Old Man and the Sea. It is an allegory of life and man’s pointless endeavours for status and ego. Ernest Hemingway was big on proving his manhood and dominion over the natural world. In the book, an old fisherman, alone in a small boat, catches a huge fish, struggles and finally triumphs over the natural enemy. But once he has achieved his goal, the fish is eaten by sharks as he battles the weather and makes his way home. It’s as if the final achievements of life are lonely and meaningless. For me, it has significance both for my fish project and my ego as an artist.

The second idea relates to art and trophies. As an artist, the trophy is my work and the accolades and prestige of it. For the collector, it is some coveted object or possession with status. But in the end, the most important thing for me is the resonance of the idea within the object of art, not the piece itself.

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Water the Essential the Book will be published by Damiani Editore Bologna, and officially released in 2018.

You can connect with Vaughan James via his website: vaughanjamesphotography.com

Or become involved in water charity work: www.watersurvivalbox.ch

Author: Libby O'Loghlin

Novelist, social entrepreneur, nutrition and narrative coach. Creative Director of The Woolf Quarterly; Co-Founder of WriteCon and The Powerhouse Zurich. Nature is my jam.

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