Josh Talbott: Paints Lessons on Life
One day, Josh Talbott was painting on a street when a little boy and his dad came by. The boy was struck by the painting of a Lego monkey on a banana boat. As Talbott remembers it, the boy said “Dad. Look. There’s a little monkey riding a banana boat. He’s going through the waves, until he gets hungry and then he’s gonna eat the banana and then he’s gonna drown.”
Even though it was his own painting, Talbott was amazed at the child’s interpretation. “I was like, oh my God, it’s like the human condition and it took a seven-year-old for me to learn that,” he said.
Talbott’s Lego paintings are playful and whimsical and just fun to look at, but they also have a tremendous amount of content, he said. Talbott is incorporates Lego figures and other toys, such as Barbie dolls, into scenes. Often, they include conflict such as a rubber snake swallowing a Lego Chewbacca. “I’m actually reining it in from what children really do with their plastic playthings,” he said.
The figures look so real, at first glance you have to wonder if they are photographed in front of painted backdrops. But no, what you see is all formed by Talbott’s brush.
The toy compositions got their start when Talbott was living in New Orleans and painting bugs as jazz musicians. He needed something to balance the scene and give it a brighter color, so he put a Lego in it. “After that, it hit me like a ton of bricks,” he said. “The Lego people.” He started painting adventures such as his pirate Legos battling ants. For Talbott, the possibilities seemed endless.
However, the toy pictures have always been just a part of what he paints and, for a while, he felt confined by them. Sitting on the streets of New Orleans with his easel and brushes, he would try to talk to people about painting, but his notoriety would interfere.
“You would hear it, quite literally, a thousand times a day – ‘Oh, the Lego guy! Look at the Lego guy!’” he said. “I don’t want to be the Lego guy. So I shied away from the idea for a long time.”
Two friends he made in New Orleans who remain an important part of his life, Phil and Ocean, were the fellow artists who encouraged him to start painting and selling on the streets. Talbott was originally from Georgia, where he found refuge from his large family at his grandmother’s house and the art supplies he enjoyed there. He fine-tuned his self-taught skills while hanging out with the artists he met in New Orleans. He lost everything when Hurricane Katrina hit and he then moved on to Los Angeles. There, he continued painting and landed showings at galleries.
Later on, it was Phil who convinced him to return to Lego painting by asking him to produce some of those pictures for his gallery in Florida. After Phil’s encouragement and the experience with the seven-year-old boy, he realized it wasn’t beneficial to judge his ideas – or for anyone else to limit their imagination.
“As these things arise in our heads, and we discount them immediately, we are doing ourselves a huge disservice” he said. “Participating in our own imagination is a really important and powerful part of being a human being.”
His paintings of other subjects are no less creative and imaginative. One of the themes that also interests him are people’s hands. “Our hands are the front line of participating in the world,” he said. “Where you move forward and touch the world with those ideas is usually through your hands.”
He often paints his subjects, such as hands holding a book, over a collage of old sheet music, pages from old books, newspapers and magazines or old photos. He rescues these old images from obscurity and sets them out where people can experience a sense of what was. They add another layer of texture as they show through the painted images.
He also uses this technique for murals. One shows a rocky coast with waves crashing in a cove. The printed pages of the collage show through in places.
He has a mural at the San Francisco Community School on Excelsior Avenue that is four feet tall and 65 feet long. The job was on a tight schedule with little money. His housing arrangements fell through and his paint was stolen. Financially, he didn’t come out ahead, but he had complete artistic license and wanted the job.
“It was an adventure,” he said. “It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever done. I got an email a few days ago from someone who said: ‘I just was walking by your mural again and I want to thank you for your contribution to our community.’ That was so nice.”
Another project is a mural for a deli in Los Osos, which is the town where he now lives happily in a tiny house filled with his paintings and supplies, and a garden like his grandmother’s out back.
Currently, his personal favorite of his paintings is titled “Self and Other.” It shows a dried rose reflected in a lens. “It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever made,” he said. “Some of them really do become kind of magical.”
He struggles to put into words how ideas and artifacts of the artist can come together with the viewer to create feelings. “It’s sort of a cooperative nature, the making of the thing, which is really just canvas and paint and then there’s the expression of the idea. And sometimes the circumstances conspire to deliver tremendous results.”
Now that he has created this painting, which has been described as gorgeous, amazing and a masterpiece by viewers of his works, what he is hoping is that he can continue this trend. “If you’re doing it right,” he said, “hopefully the things that you are doing now are more exciting than the things you’ve done in the past.”