Artist James Ritchie battles back to make his mark in the art scene
Words Kathy Michaels
Photography Lia Crowe
Alive with an energy that reflects the playfulness he transfers to otherwise mundane surfaces, James Ritchie embodies all the reasons to keep art close to one’s heart at any age.
“I feel like everyone is born an artist,” says James, who has sold art to Johnny Depp and won numerous live painting competitions. “But eventually art gets beat out of you.”
That was certainly his experience. In high school, the surrealist painter, who combines vibrant colours and absurd images to create compelling works of art, won a partial scholarship to an art school but was convinced it wasn’t a viable way forward.
“I was told to get a real job, and I was so impressionable at that time, so I got a real job,” James recalls.
He worked in the service industry and, as time marched on, he found himself in a position to buy a bar in Nova Scotia and make a move east from Vancouver. That’s when he realized something wasn’t quite right.
“I felt a pull, and I did a lot of reflective meditating on it,” he says.
Over the course of that meditation, he heard, “You’re an artist,” and that’s when fate may have intervened. “Just by chance,” he walked into a spot in Yaletown that was doing a live painting competition and learned that someone had dropped out of the night’s previously packed roster.
“They did a draw and I got to do the live paint,” he says.
It wasn’t the day he found fame and fortune, but it may have been an even better option for a creative person trying to find his place in the world. He got to the finals, then, in his words, blew it.
In the place of a trophy, however, a seed of self-confidence in his own painting abilities was planted, and it has been growing and blossoming ever since, even in times of hardship and strife. It was a powerful little seed, and ultimately in those early days it blew up the life path he’d plotted out.
James started working at the venue where he first competed, Raw Canvas in Yaletown, as a resident artist, offering lessons to painters of all ages. He also taught at-risk youth and would-be painters on the Downtown Eastside.
“I started meeting people, becoming more confident and competing more,” James says.
“That helped me so much. Eventually, I won four first places.”
His personal brand of visionary surrealism or psychedelic surrealism has turned heads in the time that’s followed.
Confirmation of that came when a surrealist portrait of Johnny Depp prompted a meeting with the Hollywood legend, who purchased his likeness for his own collection and, James recalls, tentatively shared with him his own art.
“Artists are modest and self-conscious,” James says. “If someone on that level is so scared to share their art, how is some little person in a studio supposed to feel? But this showed me that there’s someone out there who likes what I created.”
James no longer competes but the realization that art could not just be a joyful way to express oneself but also build a community has stuck with him.
That community, creativity and even fun is something he wants to bring to Kelowna, where he moved during the thick of the pandemic. It was a time when creatives, like everyone else, had to move indoors and withdraw from the communities that were once thriving.
That vacuum of creativity is something James feels still, today, and that he says, is a loss to everyone who lives in the city and those who just pass through on vacation.
“There are so many great artists here in town, and you don’t see them unless you go out and look,” he says.
When art, however, is embraced and celebrated, he adds, it makes a huge difference. And he wants to be part of that, saying, “I suppose I just want to help make art in Kelowna cool again. There is a real sense of magic here and an abundance of talent. Perhaps I can’t single-handedly reinvent the wheel as far as the fine art scene is concerned, but at least I can be a face and, in doing so, give permission for other artists to shine as well.”
He’s started some projects to help that goal come to life.
“I’m currently working with two other creatives on a project titled Riot of Colour, the concept being live painting competitions, which will give local artists a chance to showcase their skills to the community.”
He believes it’s events of this kind that can bring the greater community the same kind of satisfaction he’s found in pursuing his dreams.
“I want to see the art scene here grow and flourish and I’m confident it can, and will,” he says .
He’s also started up Riot of Colour with his sister, who also lives in Kelowna and does paint nights at local spots with her friend Nixi. They’re called Beer & Brushes.
Find more information on James Ritchie at: surrealtalkart.com.