SVA Features: Alumnus James Jean Talks Creativity, Inspiration and More
November 27, 2018
by Rodrigo Perez
Growing up, the preternaturally gifted SVA alumnus James Jean (BFA 2001 Illustration) knew, in his words, "nothing about art," and in fact, his gateway drug for the medium was comic books. But once he arrived in Manhattan in the late 1990s to attend SVA, his burgeoning imagination took off.
"Once you're living in New York, you're exposed to so much stuff immediately," he says in the latest edition of our SVA Features video series. Initially enrolling in BFA Cartooning—the comic-book connection that drew him to the school—he switched to BFA Illustration. "I became friends with a lot of very dedicated, focused people and that just really accelerated [my] rate of learning," he says. "It was like a pressure cooker. It made things happen fast."
Ambitious and eager to learn from his "great and generous" teachers, Jean's career took off after SVA. He quickly became known for known for his ability to work across different genres and disciplines with an imaginative approach to image-making—illustrating, exhibiting his fine art and collaborating with leading consumer brands on global campaigns.
Early on in his career, he became known as a comic-book cover artist, and particularly for his work with DC Comics, which included critically acclaimed illustrations for Batman, Green Arrow and Fables. Collectively, this work earned him seven Eisner Awards, three consecutive Harvey Awards, and gold-medal prizes from the Society of Illustrators in New York and Los Angeles. In recent years, Hollywood has come calling. Jean's 2017 trifecta of celebrated film posters—for Blade Runner 2049, mother! and Guillermo del Toro's Best-Picture-winning The Shape Of Water—that were widely regarded as some of the best movie one-sheets of that year.
Jean's commercial clients include ESPN The Magazine, The New York Times, Prada, Rolling Stone, Spin, Time and Atlantic Records. Among his music-related projects, he created the album art for My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade; the band's frontman, Gerard Way, is also an SVA alumnus (BFA 1999 Cartooning), and the two graduates would later collaborate again on Way's Umbrella Academy comic books.
"I prefer a more naturalistic approach to making art," Jean says, drawing from imagination rather than adaptations or pre-determined concepts. "I like to see the accidents and defects that happen from the image that you have in your mind and how it travels down to your hand and what comes out."
Jean's work can currently be seen at Disney's "Mickey: The True Original Exhibition," which is celebrating 90 years of Mickey Mouse's influence on art and pop culture. For his contribution, Jean transformed Mickey and Minnie into porcelain succulents, frozen in time after decades of constant evolution—meant to represent the ongoing growth of the character in the "firmament of our imaginations." (Incidentally, the work of fellow SVA alumni Katherine Bernhard, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf can be seen there as well).