Julia Martin Wants You to Stop Being Afraid and Pick Up a Paintbrush Already

There are no rules when it comes to art. Perhaps that’s why creatives seem to be the rebels of the universe. The rule-breakers who are gifted with looking at the world in a different way, through an ulterior lens, and have all of us questioning everything we’ve ever learned. And it’s not for the faint of heart, either. Exposing one’s most vulnerable inner thoughts and lived experiences to a world that tends to feel rooted in a competitive and judgmental nature towards the bits and pieces that make up each person’s unique being can be terrifying. Sitting down to chat with Nashville artist Julia Martin, owner of the Julia Martin Gallery, eased a lot of those fears even for myself through the simple pleasure of having an open and honest conversation with the painter.

Visual Artist & Gallery Owner Julia Martin

“I just feel like visual art is the most incredibly powerful tool for, you know, education. Change. And also just cathartic release. I wish everyone would paint. I wish everyone wasn’t so afraid of it. I think everybody’s got it in them,” Julia spoke encouragingly as she revealed a wax pastel along with a small piece of paper and, before I knew it, I found myself dipping my finger in my champagne glass and smearing the liquid across the waxy blue streaks on the paper, making art.

“It’s so good for your soul,” she raves. “I love these little wax pastels. You can use them with oil. You can use them with acrylic. They’re water soluble. It’s a very forgiving versatile fun tool. And I love these on and in my paintings. Just somewhere on a desk or your countertop, get yourself a sketch book and some of these wax pastels just so they’re there and they’ll call you when it’s time. They’re beautiful. You can do so much with these. They’re the simplest tool and I recommend them to everyone I meet.”

When Julia’s friend bought one of the last L&N Railroad houses still in tact in the Wedgewood Houston neighborhood in Nashville, he obtained his dream of owning his own studio space to record his music in the basement of the house. After growing tired of renting out the upstairs to loud tenants, he decided that he’d prefer sharing the upstairs space with a non-residential close friend who wouldn’t be so loud and wouldn’t mind music floating up through the floorboards. That’s where the Julia Martin Gallery comes into the picture. Nashville native and local artist Julia Martin once had a studio space where the new Soho House is about to open up, as did many of Nashville’s visual artists at one point or another. Until 2013, Julia had never considered opening her own gallery and running her own space. She opened the gallery on Friday, December 13th, 2013 and hosts a solo show of her work every December in honor of that grand opening.

Opening Reception for Jon Langford & Wayne White with performance by Nick Woods

photo by Greg O’Loughlin

“I really opened it with the intention of it being a dorky little vanity gallery where like, you can always come see my shit,” she says. “I opened it with 18 paintings and two days later was completely sold out. I had two paintings left. I had to hide behind this wall and cry. It was absolutely overwhelming. I did not see that coming. And I don’t just like, shit out paintings. I work kind of slow. So I started to panic.”

Julia started reaching out to some artists that she had shown with in places like Birmingham and North Carolina, asking who wanted a show, or who needed a show. The Julia Martin Gallery has snowballed ever since. They’re booked up with shows through 2023.

“That’s a really big blessing of this place is how many other artists I get to interact with and talk about,” she shares with glee. “And honestly, I don’t have kids. I’m never gonna have kids. I’m pretty much resigned to that fact at this point in my life. I really love the fact that I get to nurture the newbies and really try to encourage the little greenies, you know. And take as much of the fear away as possible. And then that comes from just sharing experiences. But there’s no fucking rules! This is the least scary fucking thing you can do but somehow it’s so terrifying to make art. You make your own rules and you have a fucking blast doing it. Don’t let anybody tell you anything, you know? You’re the fucking mayor of that little world that you’re creating. Nobody can tell you what’s right or wrong. You make what feels right to you and it’s a guarantee that someone somewhere is gonna love it. And even if they don’t, it’s gonna feel so good to just make it.”

One of those artists is Julia’s close friend, comedian and newly proclaimed visual artist Josh Black whose exhibition “Don’t Forget to Laugh” is currently showing at the Julia Martin Gallery through February 26th. It’s one not to miss if you’re in the Nashville area.

“Josh is a really, really dear friend of mine,” says Julia. “And this was a fucking fluke. Like, he didn’t even know he was a painter until a month before this show. It’s insane! We booked it as a collage exhibition. I had to go to St. Louis and Josh asked if he could come and work here while I was gone so I just gave him the keys and said, go nuts.”

Julia returned from her trip to find an exhausted and miserable-looking Josh, who had been feeling stuck and defeated. She noticed a small piece of paper on the floor and realized that he had veered away from his collages and had picked up a paintbrush instead, for what may have been his first time since grade school, or ever. He had painted two little figures with the idea of maybe cutting them out to add to a collage, or even painting on some of the collages.

“I picked up that painting and I was like, I could put this in a frame tomorrow. There’s something here. This is really special. And two days later he texted Daniel [Lonow, the gallery’s curator] and I two finished paintings and I got so emotional. I was really just like, what the fuck? This has just been sitting inside of you? He never picked up a paintbrush before. He didn’t believe us that it was good. We were flipping the fuck out and he didn’t want to believe it! And then I guess it was maybe a week or two later, he and his girlfriend and Daniel and I had all gone out and we were drinking. Daniel and I were a little tipsy and we were still just gushing about how amazing it was and he was like, ‘That’s the night I decided to believe you.’ He was like, ‘I figured since you were drunk there’s no way you could lie about that.’ It was hilarious. And here we are a week after the opening and it’s almost entirely sold out.”

From left to right: Daniel Lonow, Julia Martin, and Josh Black at the opening reception of “Don’t Forget to Laugh.”

Photo from Julia Martin.

Julia goes on gushing about her friend. “If you follow him on Instagram or any kind of social media it’s such a perfect extension of what he already stands for. All the messages he puts out into the world. He’s known mostly for being a comedian but he’s also a really, really inspiring public speaker. And he’s extremely, like he’s just a sponge. He’s so curious about history and just everything about the world. And his fucking moral compass is so fucking spot on. And he’s so fearless. And this is just another language and, even more to me of course as a visual artist and appreciator, to me it’s even more impactful.”

Photo by Josh Black via his Instagram page, @sirjoshuablack

As for the Julia Martin origin story, she began her artistic endeavors as a notorious doodler, drawing on the walls of her mom’s brand new condo. She says it’s a surefire sign that your kid is destined to be an artist. “She wanted to fucking murder me,” she quips. In high school she took an Art History class and her teacher encouraged her to take his AP Art class her senior year, but first she’d have to take a summer course. So she spent that summer studying at SVA in New York City.

“I was so fucking out of my league,” she admits. “Like, embarrassingly out of my league. But I learned a lot and I caught the bug up there. I was just like, ah I gotta do this. This feels right. It’s just the first thing I felt like I was decent at, you know? And it felt good. I felt like I was in my power for the first time in my little teenage life. And I just kinda hit the ground running.”

After high school, Julia attended the School of Visual Arts in Savannah, the only sister satellite school of SVA in New York. The school was devastatingly closed after only one year when the Savannah College of Art and Design sued their competitor and had their doors closed permanently. Regardless, that one year of hands-on foundational learning stuck with Julia and helped guide her in the right direction and she’s actually grateful to have not gotten “addicted to academia” by staying in school for too long.

“I feel like academia can become a crutch if you’re not careful, you know what I mean?” says Julia. “And maybe that’s true of anything, I don’t know. But that fear of just taking the leap, it’s fucking scary. I get it. And I keep going back to him, but that’s another thing that blows me away about Josh is the fearlessness in him to get out of his own way. Clearly he was having so much doubt about it. And to just suck it up and let it out. Power through. And look at the fucking reward. It’s unbelievable. I’m so blown away by him. It’s really been inspiring.”

Asking an artist about where they find their inspiration can be a tricky question for them to answer and articulate. How does one verbalize a feeling, an emotion or an instinct? Whatever triggers that inspiration for Julia, her colorful, dreamy paintings tend to take her in the direction of painting figures. Primarily female figures.

“I can’t get away from figures,” she says. “It’s a compulsion. It is extremely cathartic for me. It helps me stay on track with mental health and, you know, I start to get a little nuts if I go too long without doing it ’cause that’s my grounding point. It’s just magic to me. But I sort of like to make chaos and then look for the magic within it and pull it forward and then organize the chaos. It’s kind of a masochistic way of working,” she laughs. “I’ve always envied artists that keep these gorgeous sketch books and flesh out whole conceptual series and then execute them, you know, beautifully. I don’t have those superpowers. I never have. And any time I’ve started to sketch or sort of started to try and nurture that habit within myself, the thing I’ve made in the sketch book is the finished piece of art. I just fucking rip it out and put it in a frame. ‘Cause that’s money, you know? Why would I not show that? I’ve never been able to jive with the regimented practice of sketching, planning. When I try to plan shit it just turns to mud. And it’s not fun.”

Diving further into her emotional connection with painting female figures, Julia explains, “They’re super emotional. There’s a lot of vulnerability in my work. And it’s always very autobiographical to whatever the fuck I’m going through in my life. Inevitably, when I meet a new person and become fascinated or just spark a connection with another human, inevitably some version of them will come out in a piece. And I’m kind of the poster child for daddy issues. I’ve done a lot of therapy in the last couple of years and as I’ve sort of made peace with that trauma and those relationships and set healthy boundaries… I’ve almost always exclusively painted female figures and any time there was a male they were always a little grotesque or they were extremely rare. And someone pointed it out to me that recently, I didn’t even realize, there was a lot of masculinity showing up in my work in beautiful, magical ways all of a sudden. It was a nice thing to hear because I feel like that’s maybe a little sign that maybe those issues are ironing out. Again, I would like to believe that. I choose to believe that that is the case.”

Julia shows me a painting of hers hanging in a back room of the gallery. “I don’t think anyone will ever buy this painting,” she confesses, laughing. The painting shows a shadowy, contorted male figure next to a female figure. She says that the painting is probably too dark and unsettling for most people to want to own it and, I admit, the male figure does bear a slight resemblance to Voldemort. In the kitchen of the gallery hangs another painting amusingly titled “Clam Bake” that I’ve personally become obsessed with. The colorful painting features two prominent female figures with a male figure in between them. This time, the male figure is lighter in color and tone. She says this painting came about while she was experiencing a sexual awakening of sorts in her healing process from her divorce and past traumas. It struck me only while writing this piece that the reason I may have been so drawn to this particular painting was because I had recently gone through a similar experience. Art, man.

“Clam Bake” by Julia Martin.

Photo from juliamartingallery.com

Although Julia’s paintings are heavily influenced by whatever she is personally going through at the time, she wants you to know that these are not self-portraits as she’s so often been accused of painting. She explains, “That’s not what I’m thinking about at all. But they’re all kind of my offspring in a way.”

Going back to Josh Black and a lesson she wished she’d learned at a younger age, she says, “I wish someone had told me how important it is to forge bonds and maintain connections with other visual artists because it will serve you so much. And them. And those connections are really crucial to your mental health to share the struggle but also to share ideas and it’s a very unique language unto itself to be able to talk about the making of visual art. And not everyone can speak it so it’s really special when you can connect with someone and really enjoy that person’s company and also enjoy their work and also be able to have those conversations. That’s such a special relationship.

“And everyone’s so unique. And I mean, we’re all connected. We’re all so similar in so many ways but self-expression is very unique. What comes out of each of us is, and again especially visual artists, but when we think about music and the myriad genres of literature and all the things, if you’re really, really honest and open you can actually create something that has never been created before. I hate it when people are like, everything’s all been done. Everything’s been done. Fuck that. No. No it hasn’t. No one can do what you do. No one can deliver a performance exactly the way that you can. You know? And why would you try to mimic the way that someone else does it? What the fuck’s the point in that? That’s boring. And a waste of everyone’s time, most importantly your own.”

The Julia Martin Gallery is located at 444 Humphreys St., Nashville, TN 37203.

The gallery is open Saturdays from 12pm-6pm. “Don’t Forget to Laugh” closes Saturday, February 26th so be sure to check it out!

For more information, please visit www.juliamartingallery.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s