My pre-summer (May) New York vacation this year was, thus far, no less than ideal. I shot and interviewed for The Set Standard's debut feature, ran into and met the talented illustrator Richard Haines outside a Starbucks in Soho, and uncomfortably laughed myself to tears at Comedy Cellar. Now, it's Sunday morning - approximately 1:00am. I stand idly outside of Metropolitan - a bustling gay bar in Williamsburg whose bathrooms have seen more blow than a wind farm. I inhaled my cigarette deeply, slowly...each drag a bandaid for my sporadic social anxiety.
As I take my final puff, mentally preparing myself for stilettos and broken bottles inside the club, my attention is drawn to a man standing in a group of three just ahead of me. He was a club kid I had followed on Instagram since its initial takeover of what would become all of my future time and battery life. Despite my usual tendency to remain sequestered, this time I thought, "Fuck it...go say hello." The pools of sweat tickling each of my underarms triggered fear and hesitation, but I knew deep down they also suggested stepping outside my comfort zone was the right thing to do. I approached the group and introduced myself, telling my internet crush who I was, who he was..."I'm visiting from Chicago, I love your aesthetic/looks, blah blah blah." He seemed flattered and complimentary, at one point saying, "Ooh! Yeah! I follow you, too! I love your stuff." (This was a lie - he never followed me, but whatever! Stretching the truth to keep your fans can be fetch!) After parting ways, locking eyes with him and his friends (one, in particular...) a few times, dancing on my own, and drinking for hours, I stepped outside to smoke my last cigarette and decide my next move. Suddenly, my crush's friend - that "one, in particular", whose warm energy I felt since my initial approach hours before, walked up to me smiling and said, "Are you having fun?" This is how I met James.
Illustrator and sweetheart James Skarbek, 25, resides in a stunning antique building in Astoria, Queens. Unlike a number of younger gay men I've met living in NY, his apartment wasn't littered with wobbly IKEA plastic or a 1990's Britney Spears poster that glares back at you while you sit on the toilet. It was instead draped in opulent antique furniture, finishes, and records. My favorite touch was the picture of Dolly Parton facing his bed. The only visible post-1960's anything was a large, industrial work table (courtesy of Home Depot, I later learned) that served as the starting place for many of James' masterpieces. For a split second I considered putting our interview on hold to instead shoot and submit his surroundings to Better Homes and Gardens. But, perhaps another time – I was quite eager to pick the caring and optimistic brain of the FIT graduate. I threw on a Dionne Warwick record, took him out of his clothes, and asked him to paint.
How long have you lived in New York? When did you first decide buying an apartment was the right step at age 25?
I’m on my 7th year here! I moved here for college at 18 as many do, and felt very much at home. That feeling never went away, and at 23 I was blindsided when my parents brought the subject of purchasing up. It wasn’t even on my radar, but my mother is a planner and had actually been thinking about for awhile, keeping tabs on the real estate market, browsing listings to get an idea of prices, etc. When they seriously posed the question “Do you see yourself wanting to stay in New York? Is this somewhere you want to be for a long time?” I realized that yes it was. Any thoughts I had or have about living somewhere else are always fleeting. I realize that it's an incredibly privileged experience. I’m thankful everyday that I can wake up in a calm, creative space of my own.
What’s your favorite thing about the city?
My favorite thing is being constantly overwhelmed. But in a good way! There's never a lack of something in this city to be inspired by, to anticipate. Had a bad day? Well tomorrow is another one and there are a million things to do, so I can't help but be pulled along, to re-focus and get shit done. And yes it's stressful, I'm tired almost all of the time. But when I achieve something, no matter how small, it just feels amazing. That moment when the city makes you feel completely whole, alive and ecstatic. That's my favorite thing. Another very specific thing I love about this city is finding yourself in an usually busy neighborhood during an off time. So it's completely empty. I especially love when this happens down in Soho, when basically everyone has finished their commute, they're inside at their jobs. You get some time to just walk slowly (something I really can't stand but it's such a luxury when in the right mood) look around, reflect. Its great and it's refreshing. What’s your least favorite thing about the city?
When I get a fresh haircut and have it styled just so, but then a pigeon’s wing gently glides through it. However I’m bald now so this has become a non issue.
When I first got to your apartment, you were wearing a tank top and hand-died cotton shorts. Immediately I thought, “for a fashionista, he sure is dressed down for an interview." LOL. In your day to day, do you choose fashion, function, or a bit of both?
I love a hand-dyed short though! I made a tank top and baseball tee to match. To me I choose a bit of both fashion and function. However my favorite things are always really subtle details, or texture. That’s why I was so interested in that tiny dot pattern on your leggings! I have a green and navy plaid button down that looks SO basic at first, but the longer you look, the more details pop out. The brand is “Staple” and they have a small gold embossed staple punched into the pocket! Like how cute is that. So I may put a lot of thought into an outfit that then comes across as quite basic or only function oriented. But that’s fine because I always leave the house feeling great.
A majority of your work consists of portraiture and fashion - has anyone ever commissioned you to draw something completely out of your comfort zone? How did it turn out?
Hmm, well I've definitely had experiences where after the first round of sketches I've had to completely course correct. But since all of the work I put out is portraiture and fashion, that is what I attract in terms of commissions or requests so nothing has ever been that far off base. As an illustrator though I am always adapting to each project. "Portraiture" is such a broad term; I may do three portrait commissions but they will turn out wildly different, stylistically. And that can be quite fun! Its almost relaxing to let go and work in a style that is completely different, there's less pressure in a way. I recently worked on something where the bulk of the work was just in creating really detailed, pencil shaded hair. It was soothing, and a nice palette cleanser.
Earlier this year, Mic.com commissioned you to live paint all the best 2016 Met Gala looks in front of thousands of viewers. That sounds intimidating as fuck! How was that experience? Did it go smoothly?
Oh it was so intimidating! But such a thrilling experience. I have worked many live portrait events before, but never drawn live on that type of scale. It was a new experience for everyone involved, and I really think it went well! That is, until I spilled my water everywhere haha. It completely washed away a drawing of Zendaya, that I had JUST finished. It was a weird moment, I think I exited my body for a second. But I moved on and stayed focused. Each time I draw live or at an event I learn more about what materials work best, what don’t, and what type of setup is the handiest. Always refining and perfecting, ready for the next time!
A few months later, Mic.com featured your illustrations for NYFW 2016, including looks from Christian Siriano and Marc Jacobs. What facets of fashion intrigue you the most?
I love how personal fashion is. Unavoidably so. It's such an ingrained part of our daily lives, sometimes even unconsciously. My favorite color was purple growing up. I had a full DTM purple outfit, shoes included, that I adamantly wore as much as I could. I rarely wear the color now, I must've purpled myself out. But when I see it, it's nostalgic, and nice.
Oscar de la Renta re-posted your photo on Instagram of Imaan Hammam’s finale gown from their SS 2017 runway show. How did you feel? What was your first reaction?
What a dream! Each time I post a fashion illustration on Instagram, that is exactly what I am hoping for. To have a brand notice your work, especially in that way, means the world. I was in the middle of working on a commission that I wasn’t completely in the mood for, but had to be finished. I glanced over at my phone, it was around 10PM, and see a notification “Oscar de la Renta has tagged you in a post on Instagram”. My mind froze for a second, then I swelled with pride and excitement. This makes it all worth it! A small moment but that feeling is such a rush. It's addictive, to be vindicated and complemented in that way.
What is the best advice or constructive criticism offered to you by a peer or mentor? Was it tough to swallow?
The piece of advice that will always stick with me is from a college professor and mentor - Don't be precious with your work. And it doubled as constructive criticism too because I really can tend to get too precious about my work, especially if I'm in an off mood, too in my head. But repeating this, remembering this, has always helped me break through. Now this doesn't mean not to be detailed in your art, or not to spend time on it. It means, to me, embracing human error and mistakes.
What’s next for you - a young, single, and talented queer living in New York?
Well two years ago I toned this illustration board hot pink, and then have basically just stared at it! A running joke to myself "When ya going to draw something on that board Jimmy?" But creating your pastel portrait (pictured below) the other day got me back in the mood to sit down and render. My last wave of commissions are drawing to a close, so I think I'll take this time to start in on a new, large scale pastel piece.
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