When your childhood is poisoned by drugs and death, how do you escape?

In the face of addiction, he turned to escapism. Learn the tragic life story of Jet James, and how he turned to art in times most desperate.

[Jet James, 2015, CQU]

Jet James is a talented artist and printmaker from Yeppoon Queensland. Having won various awards including the Oak Hill Annual Printmaking award in Melbourne and recently illustrating a children’s book about Cyclone Marcia, his future couldn’t be brighter. But Jet James has a troubled past.

Before he was born his mother Angie King married Eric Burdon, the lead singer of The Animals and led a life of thrill hanging out with Jimi Hendrix and attending Andy Warhol’s notorious cocaine bashes. But what was to be the “flower power wedding of the sixties” lasted only two years.

HAPPY: What was it like growing up with parents who were drug addicts?

JET: Unfortunately heroin took hold of their lives and this involved countless house moves and different schools. My dad stole what he could from houses to feed his addiction and took me on such escapades, at times ending with alarms going off and quick getaways in the car.

The police appeared a lot in that part of my life, with either warrants to search the house as I sat on a bag of heroin playing my freshly stolen Sega master system, or when my parents fought and objects were pelted across the room. At times the violence erupted onto the streets, ending with blood.

HAPPY: How did you become an orphan?

JET: On the 19th of December 1992 when I was aged eight, my Mum and Dad fought again but this time my Mum was stabbed to death and my Dad was sent to prison. It was a Christmas I will never forget. Letters from my Dad whilst he was in prison were few and far between.

He was released after two and a half years, and only after a few weeks he committed suicide whilst on drugs. I never saw him after my Mum died, apart from the one photo that was taken whilst he was in jail and a leather picture frame he made for me.

HAPPY: How dramatically did your life change after this?

JET: After my Mum died my whole life changed, I went from being a street kid in Perth onto a rural farm in Darwin. Unfortunately the life involved a family that resented having my younger sister and I, and as the resentment built, abuse and fear clouded my childhood.

With this lack of love and loneliness I turned to praying and found purpose by doing the best I could do with my life.

At the age of 15 I became isolated on remote cattle properties doing my schooling over the radio. It was at this time, with the lack of a social life, I made hundreds of drawings and paintings, a defining moment in my life, the time I realised I wanted to be an artist.

HAPPY: When did you first realise that you had a talent for art?

JET: My family believed I had a gift with art by the age of three. I was just really passionate about art early on. I didn’t think I made the best images but I was always eager to make more and I enjoyed the process of art.

HAPPY: Are there any artists which you feel have influenced you?

JET: My Dad being an artist greatly influenced my view on art. I remember him painting and dealing with clients, but when I was seven I sat on a sofa and watched him push oil paint around a canvas to create a bleeding heart with an arrow piercing it. It was that rainy night sitting in a dull lit yellow room that left a lasting impression on me. Through life my influences have continually changed and some of the most memorable artists include Russell Drysdale, Albert Tucker, Jim Dine, Brett Whiteley, Egon Schiele, Alberto Giacometti, Craig Ruddy and my late mentor Peter Indans.

HAPPY: Having lost both of your parents at a young age, to what extent do you feel that your artwork has helped you to shape your identity?

JET: To a large extent, after my parents died I felt different to others, and most comfortable by myself doing art. I explored self-portraiture when isolated on remote cattle stations. I expressed my feelings through art to help deal with the overwhelming loneliness and feeling of abandonment.

Art had this power to fill me with hope and purpose, and shaped me into the person I am today. I think it’s what my parents would have liked me to do too.

HAPPY: Where do you find inspiration for your work?

JET: I love getting inspired by things that engage all my senses, like the wind blowing against a fist full of flowers and the subtle changing light and colour of its petal’s. Inspiration comes to me when I immerse myself in the landscape.

HAPPY: Do you think art became a form of escapism for you?

JET: Yes art has definitely been a form of escape, but at the same time it’s a celebration of life.

HAPPY: What attracted you to printmaking?

JET: I really like the collagraph technique as it holds exciting experimental challenges through the making of marks and textures with various materials. I love how the technique allows you to push an image into a medium that keeps you guessing until the final print.

HAPPY: Do you have any projects planned for the future?

JET: I have a January exhibition in New Zealand and an opportunity to teach some of my processes over there. Then commissions and others projects, but mainly a lot more creating.