“...Underneath the names we call ourselves and the actions that shape us, we are all the same beings, simply trying to connect and find meaning in a chaotic and sometimes terrifying world. And with that in mind, I strongly believe that the arts are one of the few vehicles that allow a transcendence from ourselves into the world”
- Justin Brooks
By day, find Justin Brooks working on the finance team at Deloitte. But in all the other moments of his busy week, he shifts entirely to the opposite side of the career spectrum, immersing himself in and around various art forms in New York City as an aspiring artist and musing creative writer. Here we delve into his creative endeavors as he works to write literary fiction and to create paintings and drawings that are sparked by his emotional “quarter-life crisis”. This self-proclaimed sense of crisis drives his need to express how incredible he finds personal human connection through creating art. Brooks is inspired by artists like Rembrandt and Freud, and he binds together elements of early 20th century realism and explored abstraction techniques while incorporating the human figure. With his creative exploitation stemming from existential questioning of himself, he ponders leaving behind the money and titles of a high end job and incorporates those somber and moody emotions into his work. His zeal for expression and human connection draw him to the realization that we as humans take the beauty of the universe and each other for granted. He infuses this philosophy in every fiber of the art he shares with the world. Art we can’t help but view in awe.
You live in Brooklyn, New York and have a full-time job in Manhattan, how do you find the time to write, paint and draw?
I basically am forced to dedicate my weekends to painting and writing, which I don’t mind at all. And I would have no problem doing that every weekend, but I think it’s healthy to go out every so often to relax and more importantly to speak with friends and meet new people. Connecting with others is one of the key pillars of art in my opinion. I think it’s important for any successful artist to step outside him/herself every so often, to converse, observe and interact with the world that they’re trying to recreate or reshape in their work. In terms of balancing the two, I usually will spend a weekend or two writing and re-writing a short story and circulate it among a few peers for feedback. During that time I’ll return to painting, then incorporate feedback for the story, submit the story, then go back to painting while I’m waiting to hear back from publications to which I’ve submitted.
When did you start painting/drawing?
I’ve been drawing ever since I can remember, mostly of superheroes and Dragon Ball Z characters back in elementary school. Most of my time spent in the classroom at high school and college was spent doodling, but never anything more seriously than that. It wasn’t until a little more than two years ago, in October 2015, that I actually put paint to canvas.
Why did you start painting/drawing?
I remember going to buy my first set of paints, canvases, and brushes from this little art store near my apartment on 23rd and 2nd. It was raining out. I had stopped on my way home from work, still with my suit on and feeling very out of place, but it was the first time I had felt a sense of excitement in a while. There were a lot of things at play when I made the decision to go to the art store that day. Most significant was this quarter life crisis, I guess you could call it, when I started having to face a lot of existential questions I had never really considered previously, mostly stemming from my job. When my mother would ask me what I wanted to be when I was younger I had no clue, but the one constant was that I wanted to live in New York City. If I could just make it there after college, I thought, everything would work itself out - the job, the money, the “success”.
I did get a job in New York after I graduated, but skip forward about two years, in late 2015, and I realized that my initial assumption was completely false. Don’t get me wrong, I love New York, but it wasn’t the end all be all, which seems obvious in hindsight. I was forced to ask myself why I was unhappy when not so long before that I thought I was the luckiest guy on the planet. I started looking to philosophy to help answer these questions, trying to examine my life and life in general from a different lense, which only further intensified this cosmic anxiety I was dealing with – initially.
I was suffering a lot over a few months period. I was deflated inside, scared and confused, showing symptoms of depression, carrying this existential malaise with me at all hours of the day. As I continued my self-study in philosophy there were a few key figures I came across like Alan Watts, Arthur Schopenhauer and Albert Camus, to name a few, and I started to reshape my worldview into something where creative expression was integral. Somehow, over that time I found all the things I cared about so much before, the money, the titles, the air of prominence, all so absurd – I realized that I was a sham, that I was building a life not for myself but for other people to look at, to be impressed by, which is really sad when you think about it.
Ultimately, I came to the personal conclusion that existence is inherently and fantastically absurd, and if that is the case then I see no better thing to do than paint, make music, tell stories – to create. At the same time, I came to understand and feel this interconnectedness of things, of us with our environment and more importantly to one another. How underneath the names we call ourselves and the actions that shape us, we are all the same beings, simply trying to connect and find meaning in a chaotic and sometimes terrifying world. And with that in mind, I strongly believe that the arts are one of the few vehicles that allow a transcendence from ourselves and into/among the world.
As viewers, listeners, readers, we are granted a brief insight into the mind of another, connecting (or not) with the artist on a deeper level than typical human interaction allows and at the same time providing all of its users with a shared experience. As I’ve moved forward, my love and reverence for art has only strengthened. I try to immerse myself in art whenever possible, sneaking in some research on artists, periods and styles, whenever I can. I’m always amazed at people’s capacity to create such extraordinary pieces. I believe that we, as self-conscious humans, are forced to filter the world in order to simplify it and make it manageable, to hide its chaos and ambivalence towards us. While that is necessary to an extent, because otherwise it would be nearly impossible to get anything done, we end up taking a lot of its beauty and complexity for granted. Art, however, bypasses this filter and approaches the sublime, which is where I believe truth lies.
Sorry for the long-winded explanation but that’s really the key piece of my journey and difficult to summarize more succinctly. My father was also a painter. He created logos and posters by hand before computers were around - a really talented artist in his own right - so, I definitely get a lot of inspiration from him. Around this same time I remember also reading Carl Jung’s Man and his Symbols, which included several passages concerning how abstract art manifests itself from the subconscious, which certainly peaked my interest and nudged me towards the direction I have been going.
I also paint because it’s a very cathartic process for me. I’m able to disengage from everything else going on around me, halt my mind from wandering, and focus on just the piece. It’s my form of meditation.
How would you describe your style of painting/drawing?
I feel my drawings tend to land on opposite poles of the spectrum of realism and abstraction, which I think the two drawings you picked do a good job of representing. Many times when I draw at the office or on the subway, without a reference, the sketches become more whimsical and that is usually where I’ll experiment with deconstructions of the human figure. However, as shown with the sketch of the man holding a hammer, I will try to improve upon my light and shadow techniques, fundamental shapes of the human form, and an overall more realistic style. Both of these, I believe, reveal themselves in my paintings, where I will typically try to find balance between the real and the imaginative. As I move forward with my painting I continue to work on refining and exploring abstraction techniques, playing with brush strokes, color, and form in order to find that balance between outward appearance and the internal obscure humanness
Who are some of your biggest influencers in the visual arts?
Right now my three biggest influencers are Rembrandt, Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon. Some living painters I’ve been really into lately are Benjamin Bjorklund, Ryan Hewett, Carlos Delgado, to name a few. There are also countless professional and amateur artists that I follow on Instagram that are doing amazing work.
I hear you also write, what sort of writer are you?
I write literary short fiction, which is difficult to define as my work does not really fall into a genre. I’ve written stories that are set in tribal societies in Africa, political allegories surrounding the unfortunate climate we are living in today, and my most recent piece, set in Vermont, about a woman trying to get a cremation urn back from a drug dealer.
So like I said, it varies a lot. Right now I’ve been toying with the idea of doing some surreal/weird fiction. I just recently concluded a writing workshop here in the city and there we discussed authors like Lenora Carrington (who was more famously a surrealist painter) and Samuel Beckett. The instructor, David Leo Rice, is a really brilliant writer and fascinating person all around. He just published his first novel, titled A Room in Dodge City, which falls in the realm of the surreal and strange and was a truly spectacular journey. He was able to create this world where anything could happen, nothing was off limits, things were built up, broken down, mocked and deified, and the surreal provides a very compelling way to do all this within one cohesive story.
What are your future plans for your painting/drawing and writing in the future? Do you consider these artistic endeavors hobbies or professional efforts?
Originally this started as just a hobby, a creative outlet, but it has been evolving into something I’m taking much more seriously. After my writing workshop I’ve started submitting some short stories to various journals and publications. I’m still waiting to hear back. I’ve always thought that the path of writing would be a more realistic route. There is a pretty reliable framework in place of submitting your work, getting published, getting an agent, etc., There are more readable freelance opportunities, and I always felt that writing was on the more objective side of art (in terms of whether or not a story is compelling, well written) compared to visual art where peoples’ tastes and preconceived notions of what “good” art is are more at play. However, I’m continuing to speak with people that contribute to and work in the visual arts and to learn more about the process of breaking into it.
Do you have any rituals when it comes to writing and painting?
Leading up to a painting I will have usually been parsing through the internet looking for reference photos and subjects I find interesting, so I guess that is part of the ritual. On days that I’m actually painting I’ll typically go grab a coffee and have a cigarette or two while looking through recent pieces I’ve come across online that have struck me. I’ll also reflect on mental, and actual, notes I’ve taken about my last pieces (what worked, what didn’t). One of my best friends, Derek, is a classically trained artist who has a degree in fine arts. He always gives really insightful feedback on work from a technical aspect that he was taught in the classroom. During this time I’ll also take a hard look at the reference photo I’ve chosen, scrutinizing features of the subject, and planning my color palate and how I will approach the painting, and how I want to guide my brush strokes on certain areas. Finally, I put on some music, typically jazz or grunge/alt rock. At the end of the day, though, the most important thing for me is getting in front of the canvas or sitting down at my laptop, - that’s usually the hardest step, But I trust in the creative process enough to know that if I just start working, the rest will come.