interview • liz rice mccray

This month we had the pleasure of interviewing A.J. Nesselrod, a local Orange County artist. A.J. has a refreshing outlook on life. We caught up with him to talk a bit about his art, influences and a little OC music history.

Will you please introduce yourself to our reader, a little synopsis if you will?
Hello readers! My name is A.J. and I’m a father first and foremost, and I also like to paint. I live in Tustin with my wife and two kids, and my day job is running my own promotional marketing company. My grandfather was a Western art dealer, so I think there was an admiration of this thing at an early age. We used to visit my grandfather’s good friend Burt Procter and his wife Kay at their home in Palm Springs every summer. I was very enamored with Burt, and loved seeing his studio and all his paintings. My early adult life shifted to graphic art for the most part; I played in bands around Costa Mesa and spent a lot of time at Kinko’s making fliers the old fashioned way by cut-and-paste. That sort of led me into computer graphics at the onset of personal computers, and if nothing else, it helped me acquire some tools along my path to painting. A friend of mine, Jeff Sewell, took me on my very first plein air outing – I think he even supplied the easel and the canvas. I was hooked. It was a complete departure from computer graphics (for the most part) and I found it extremely difficult. I wanted to quit almost every time. I didn’t, and the journey continues.

I’m curious, what was your childhood ambition? Was art on the radar?
Hmmm… I think my very first ambition was to be a paleontologist. My mother was an archaeologist, so naturally I wanted to do something like her. In junior high and high school, I apparently had an aptitude for drafting, so I was convinced that architecture was in my future. I went to Cal Poly Pomona briefly and quickly realized it wasn’t for me. This also happened to be the same time I started playing in bands, and another world abruptly collided into mine.

You started out in the music world; will you give us some back-story?
Sure. I always loved music and was surrounded by it from my earliest memories. My mom had lots of Beatles records – so those were pretty much gospel to me. I picked up acoustic guitar as a kid, and then discovered Hendrix and Led Zeppelin along the way, like every other red-blooded American youth. I screwed around with high school friends playing cover songs in garages. Punk rock ensued – The Sex Pistols, The Damned. Then parties. I think my first real band was with one of my dear friends Tony Scalzo. He went on to form Fastball and became quite successful. I landed in Costa Mesa, and at that time (early ‘90s?) there was an unbelievably great local music scene and lots going on. Bands like Film Star, Smile, F.H. Hill Company, The Women, Supernova and lots of others. My friend Chris Fahey ran local clubs in Costa Mesa, one of which that stood out was Our House on 19th Street. It became a notable stop for national touring acts and exposed me to countless great bands: The Cows, Drive Like Jehu, Tanner, Rocket From The Crypt, Jesus Lizard, The Supersuckers, The Muffs… You name it. One of my favorite bands was Throw Rag. Opening up for them was tough because they were THAT good. We became good friends and I eventually joined the band playing rhythm guitar. We toured almost nonstop for about three years straight and saw the better part of the world. Eventually I burned out. It’s a natural occurrence when you’re playing that much. Six guys in a van and usually in one small hotel room. They still play and I still love them. Go see The Mutants when Sean Wheeler is signing with them. They are awesome!

What was your first attraction/introduction to art?
Well, aside from my early visits to Burt Procter’s home… thinking about it now, my mom used to have framed prints of Maxfield Parrish around the house. Those definitely got my attention. I think the first painter that really gripped me was Gustav Klimt. Still does. I think he was the first painter who really grabbed me emotionally. That was the tip of the iceberg.

Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process and techniques? What are some of your favorite materials to work with?
I’m still developing my creative processes. I think any good artist will always continue to develop those along the way. I’ve been a sponge along my path and have been very fortunate to study with some incredibly great artists. With regards to figurative work, I tend to gravitate towards people with distinct features, landmarks on their faces. I’m naturally drawn to them because they interest me on a gut level, but it’s also much easier to draw. The underlying techniques that I always go back to are drawing and value. Those two things are the nuts and bolts for any representative artist. Color comes after, at least for me. Simplifying is not simple, nor easy. Working small at first. Capturing the right colors. That comes from the plein air school of thought, and it works. Knowing when to stand back from your work. Not just physically standing back, but also knowing when to leave your work for a while and come back with a fresh eye. The two materials I work with most are charcoal and oil. Charcoal has a bad rap as being a difficult medium. But for me it’s very natural and pliable. It’s as much about subtraction as it is adding medium. Oil is the same way. They are both very forgiving.

What are some of your consistent influences?
Oddly enough, Facebook. One of the concepts of computer theory is accelerated learning. I would argue that social media has been possibly the biggest catalyst for me in discovering new artists. You tend to gravitate towards painters with similar tastes, and it snowballs. There are so many fantastic artists, young artists, alive and well, and that blows my mind. You don’t have to look in history books to find them, although that doesn’t hurt either. A few painters who I love and admire right now include William Wray, Martin Campos, Patrick Lee, Charlie Hunter, Hollis Dunlap, David Sharpe, Simon Addyman, Stephen Early, Nathan Seay, Terry Miura, Douglas Fryer, Jeff Horn and on and on…

Do you still work with music?
I play acoustic guitar to my kids, that’s about it. I would like to record some instrumental stuff at some point.

If you could change one thing about the perception of art by the majority of people what would it be? 

For one thing, I’d like to see art regarded as an essential building block in school curriculum, and not as an ancillary or disposable activity. I know it is more fundamental in learning and thought processes than most people realize. Another common misperception is that being able to draw or paint is a “God given talent.” It is not and can be taught to anyone. However far you want to take it depends on how passionate you are about it, but art is for anyone and everyone.

Any last words for our readers?
Yes. There is so much negativity in our current political state. I’d like to think that you can have a much more lasting effect on someone by intentionally doing something kind or meaningful. Not to get too metaphysical, but somehow the universe responds to concentrated thought, good or bad. Help someone, even if it’s uncomfortable at first. That’s how you make change. Find the things we all share in this short, short life and build around those. Follow the lighter path, and maybe even make some art along the way! Bye for now.