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The artist’s real “real job”

The following is an interview with Justin Rivenbark – artist, and founder of the Rootist Movement.

In the interest of full disclosure, Justin and I went to high school together.

I was one of the dorky, younger kids, and he was the cool senior.

I don’t believe that things have changed all that much since then.

My Beautiful Anger

Natalia: I’ve read the description of the Rootist Art Movement, but I’ll be curious to know if there was anything specific that spurred you on in your decision to found something so distinct.

Justin: The Rootist Art Movement is essentially the culmination of several beliefs and ideologies that have been revealed to me over the course of my lifetime. Simply put, it is the answer to the question any artist should ask himself: Why am I dedicating my life to this pursuit? What is it about art that makes me feel it necessary, not only to create it, but to share it with other people as well? I asked myself those questions for many years without an answer. Only when I was able to find the courage to be honest with myself about who I am, and the things I believe in, was I able to answer those questions. And from those answers the Rootist Art Movement was born.

Natalia: Are there any specific influences you’d like to tell me about?

Justin: My influences are people. Everyone’s life is unique and complicated; however I believe if we were to strip down ourselves to a very rudimentary level, I think we would find our lives to be extremely similar. The Rootist Movement wants to remind people of this bond we share. It aims to help people remember that we are connected, and that connection is an important aspect of our lives. Life loses some of its sharp edges when you are able to remember that you are not alone; that everyone you cross in the street, no matter their age, faces the same simple question you do: What is the best way for me to live my life? The way people answer that question is what influences me.

Natalia: Do you have a formal education? I noticed that Rootist Art is not particularly concerned with formality.

Justin: I attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for two years. It was an important experience for me, given that it was my first real exposure to other people pursuing a similar path as my own. Being surrounded by extremely talented people in a creative, open, learning environment catapulted my growth in both the creation and my understanding of art.

However, the real obstacle that was presented to me was an unexpected one. I found myself unable to answer the question I needed answered most: Why was I here? My art, from a technical standpoint, was improving dramatically; however, my conceptual understanding of why I was making art felt like it was being diluted. I was a kid, surrounded by a bunch of other kids, and although we all liked to pretend we did, not one of us knew what we were doing. Or maybe it was just me, I don’t know.

Essentially, my time at school ended when I realized the only way I was going to truly understand what it meant to be an artist was to go out into the world and be an artist. That’s exactly what I did, and I have no regrets.

Natalia: There is a wealth of work on your site. How long does it usually take you to complete a piece?

Justin: A matter of hours to a matter of months. Each piece of work has its own lifespan before its completion. I have always tried to be completely honest about making my work, and sometimes that means putting a painting aside for a day, or a month, or a year. If you allow yourself to be at the mercy of your art, then the art will control how long it takes to complete it; and there is something very liberating about that.

Natalia: Are you planning on recruiting any other artists to join you?

Justin: I want everyone to join me. The misconception that art can only be understood and utilized by artists and those knowledgeable about art is exactly what The Rootist Art Movement is trying to change. Those people who believe they possess no artistic talent are wrong. It is our perception of art that we must change.

There was art before there was spoken language, before organized religion, before money. It is an innate human tool within all of us. We must relinquish these ideas that art must look a certain way or only be done by certain people and try to embrace the fact that all of us have the ability to utilize it. And more importantly, that there is a real reason to utilize art. Everything cannot be communicated through words; everything cannot be verbalized and conceptually digested, some things can only be felt. That is what art is for; to communicate those feelings that cannot be verbalized or expressed any other way.

Look at my paintings, and you will feel something. That is because I made those paintings, as honestly as I could, to communicate. Pieces of who I am are contained within each one of those paintings, and if you are open and receptive you can take those pieces for yourself. If you were to make a painting, as honestly as you could, then there would be a piece of you in that painting, and if I were open and receptive, I could take it. Now I would understand a little bit more about you, about people, and about myself. This is the Rootist Cycle. It is a way to communicate, a way to learn about each other, and a catalyst for change. We are limiting our knowledge about people and our existence by not embracing art as a communicative tool.

If we were to build a giant library that was to house all the knowledge in the world, we wouldn’t just take only the books written in English. That would be ridiculous. We would be missing an infinite amount of knowledge. The same is true for art. If we refuse to utilize the communicative properties of art, then we will be missing out on the infinite amount of knowledge, understanding, tolerance, and compassion we as people have to give. Its scary and it makes us vulnerable to think we all have the capacity to share such intimate feelings with one another; but it is so important.

Natalia: People generally place creative work in two categories: Pop Culture and Art (or High Art, depending on who you ask). What do you think about these distinctions? Personally, I’m under the impression that the line can blur quite a bit, but I’d be interested to hear what you say on the matter.

Justin: I think it’s a matter of perspective, and I agree with you I think the line can definitely blur very easily. Honestly, I think it mostly is defined by the number of people that are aware of something. Its difficult for a big budget blockbuster to ever be considered High Art, for no other reason than it is perceived as Main Stream Media. Could it be High Art? Absolutely. Although I understand the distinction, I personally think its sort of ridiculous. Art comes in so many forms, through so many mediums, that it seems sort of futile to me to try and categorize any of it.

What is Pop Culture today could be High Art tomorrow, and vice versa. Other than a discussion in semantics, I don’t know what good labeling any of it does. Substance; that is what should be looked at and appraised. I don’t care what you call your art, if it has substance, then that is all that matters.

Natalia: A lot of my friends who paint are inundated with messages to “get a real job” (even if they have a real job to begin with!). Is this something you encounter?

Justin: I think it is a reality that almost any artist faces. The practical reality is that it is difficult to make “a living” solely based on the income generated from selling your art. The more complicated aspect of that reality is dealing with the societal undertones that say making art is not a “real” job. That somehow it lacks the practicality or securities of another career choice. This is a struggle I believe all artists constantly grapple with.

In a society, founded on, and driven by money, pursuing an artistic career can very much feel like you are working against the grain. However, being able to persevere through the pressure to “get a real job” only strengthens the artist and his or her work.

Natalia: I am woefully ignorant about how the modern art market works, so please forgive me if this is going to sound unintelligent: Do you generally market yourself on the Internet only? Do you do shows, or do you plan on doing shows?

Justin: This is an ongoing lesson for me. I moved to New York to get involved with the gallery scene, with out any real knowledge on how to do that. I have had a show here and there, I have a website, I have a business card and a portfolio; but to be completely honest, I still don’t know what I am doing.

I am learning more and more everyday, about what I want with my life, both in regards to my art and those things outside of art. It was a tremendous step for me to write the Rootist Manifesto and The Ten Tenets of Rootist Art last July and really solidify my beliefs and goals in art. Over the past several months though I have worked on putting my life together the best way I know how, and I am just now arriving at a point where I want to focus again on getting my art work into the world. How am I going to do that? I’m not sure; but that’s all part of the journey I suppose.

Natalia: Ok, this one is going to make me sound like a total loser, and I hope I’ll be forgiven: If there is someone sitting in their bedroom right now, reading this, wanting to make a career out of being an artist, what potential advice would you give them?

Justin: First and foremost and forever: Believe in yourself. At some point you will lose everything else: your inspiration, your confidence, your patience, your love, your motivation, your direction, even your passion. The only thing that will keep you going is an undying and indomitable belief in who you are.

Secondly: Find the courage to be honest with yourself.

Finally: The world might never care what you do, and that doesn’t make one bit of difference. If you need the world to validate the value of your art, go do something else, your life will be much easier. The odds are, as artists, we will not find excessive wealth, nor will we accrue fame and notoriety. Our contributions may never be recognized or appreciated, and our lives most likely will not be documented or celebrated. And those are all good things; because what we do is worth more than any amount of money or recognition. We have chosen to be the creators. With each piece of art we make, we give the world one invaluable gift: the possibility for change.


Natalia Antonova

Natalia is a writer and journalist. She's the associate editor of openDemocracy Russia and the co-founder of the Anti-Nihilist Institute.

8 thoughts on “The artist’s real “real job”

  1. I still don’t understand what “Rootism” is, but I do know Justin Rivenbark and he’s a straight shooter as is the intrepid interviewer and editor/writer. Ah to be young and an artist in NYC with his own Movement! So what does Justin do to put food on the table and pay the rent? And, yes, artists are generally unappreciated in
    America but nevertheless it is not a betrayal of oneself to fulfill every human being’s necessity to feed, clothe and find shelter from the storm. Only after that comes the art. Survive first, paint ( or write or dance or sing )second. For many people, that reality can be cruel. Ever read a poem by Oliver Goldmith “In a Country Churchyard”? Required reading for all artists.
    Thanks for the interview. Very well done.

  2. I think i’m a rootist. I’m just discovering that. I don’t have a menifesto or anything… but i’m starting to make art, that’s well ‘me’

  3. first let me say thank you for the interest and comments, they are much appreciated.

    To respond to Stephen: basically the Rootist Movement is a belief structure. It is an attempt to change how we use and perceive art in our communities. There are no visual or aesthetic stipulations about how to practically create Rootist Art.
    I believe, at its core, Rootism is asking people to question the very points you raised. What are the basic elements of human survival? Of course the need for food, clothing, and shelter are fundamental, however, as long as people have been around there has been art. It may seem like a preposterous question to ask, but is it possible that art is just as fundamental as those other elements? Could people survive without art? Probably. But that does not necessarily make art a luxury. The only reason making art is not viewed as a real and viable way to provide food, clothing, and shelter is because of our perception of its value and use within a society. If that were to change; if we were to believe that art plays a crucial role in our existence and development as people, then perhaps its ability to provide those other fundamental elements would change as well.
    thank you for your feedback and thoughts. i value them greatly.

    – oh and because you asked: im a bartender 🙂

  4. Thanks for sharing with us Mr. Rivenbark. I have a question inspired by a scene in Woody Allen’s film “Hannah and Her Sisters” in which Daniel Stern plays a young, popular rock star and Max von Sydow plays an old, obscure painter. The rock star comes to the painter’s studio apartment in search of a painting that would match his living room set, and this enrages the painter, because he feels that his painting has been reduced to just another piece of furniture in the rock star’s apartment.

    How important is it for a Rootist to know the motivating forces behind someone’s decision to purchase your paintings?

  5. i apologize, but let me rephrase that question: How important is it for a Rootist to know the motivating forces behind someone’s decision to purchase THEIR paintings?

  6. Sim- first let me apologize on how long it has taken me to respond to your question.

    but, for what its worth-

    I think it is essential for the artist to make the distinction between the ideology of why he makes his art with the choice to sell his art. For me, as a Rootist, the distinction is this: I believe in what i do; i believe i make art with a purpose and i am driven to do that because i believe in that vision with all of my soul. The choice to try and sell my art, to make it a commodity, is my own. I want to, and i choose to, believe that if someone buys a piece of my art it is because it has affected them. Even if they say they want it because it matches the color scheme of their living room, i still believe that the art has impacted them on some level.
    How this connects to Rootist beliefs is this: People paying for art has nothing to do with it. If someone desires a creation you have produced, then a connection has been made. We need to focus on that; we need to learn from that. The measure of success in Rootist Art is not based on the demand to BUY the work; success is measured on the demand to be AFFECTED by the work. If the artist chooses to sell his work, and is fortunate enough to do so, then that enters the realm of the practical, not that of the ideological.

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