If you go

What: Mixed-media paintings by Jason Graham, aka Mosley Wotta

When: Through Jan. 31

Where: Franklin Crossing, 550 NW Franklin Ave., Bend

Cost: Works range from several hundred to $10,000

Contact: 541-382-9398

Some people are fortunate enough to have one artistic talent — Jason Graham hit the jackpot.

Graham is best known for his work as a performance artist. For more than a decade, audiences have seen the charismatic 32-year-old host open mics, compete in poetry slams and, most prominently, entertain crowds as the dynamic frontman of hip-hop act Mosley Wotta and, prior to that, as a member of Person People.

Also Graham’s pseudonym, Mosley Wotta won the first Last Band Standing event in 2010 and has continued to play live shows in Bend and around the state, including a performance last weekend in Corvallis.

Relatively few associate Graham with his talent as a visual artist, though it predates even his music. That may change, however, with a show of 23 mixed-media works displaying through the month at Franklin Crossing in Bend.

Spilling paint

On a soggy morning earlier this week, Graham and art consultant Billye Turner, who organized the show, converged on the downtown building’s first-floor atrium to discuss his life as an ever-evolving artist.

In the early 2000s, Graham said, he and friends developed an interest in graffiti art, urged on by such influences as the Quannum music collective and the 2001 hip-hop documentary “Scratch.”

“There was a big push that brought a lot of attention to the world of hip-hop — what it could be and what it was becoming,” Graham said. One friend, he said, was such a prolific graffiti artist he hoped to get his hands on whatever file the police department had on him to use as his art portfolio.

Graham, though, “never felt comfortable doing too much in the way of graffiti. I think I must have done something here or there,” he said. As a mixed-race teen in Bend, “I never felt like I could hide anywhere, so I just didn’t really get into that stuff,” he added.

Fortunately, his parents had an “old shack that I could spill paint in,” he said. “So I started painting feverishly in there.”

Basquiat comparisons

Shortly thereafter, he watched the 1996 Julian Schnabel film “Basquiat,” based on the life of the neo-expressionist New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who started in the late 1970s as a graffiti artist with ties to the burgeoning hip-hop world, achieving international success with his art before his death in 1988.

Discovering Basquiat as an emerging painter himself was both inspiring and frustrating, Graham said.

“That was like, ‘Oh, sweet.’ And then it was like, ‘Oh, s—t,’” he said. “I thought I’d stumbled on something new, which I had, for myself.”

Though already somewhat familiar with Jackson Pollack, discovering Basquiat was his true point of entry into, as he put it, “the messy artists category, the expressy artists category.”

People who have seen his work often compare it to that of Basquiat.

“I see why you would, but … I think that’s for convenience. I think that’s for the sake of compartmentalizing or feeling like you have a grip on it,” he said.

Ultimately, Graham stuck to his guns, telling himself, “Don’t try to be him. Just try to do you,” he said. “I think that’s the case with anything. You realize you don’t have exclusive rights to inspiration. That’s great, but it also means you have to learn to share and you have to learn to play well with others, even if you are working by yourself.”

At times, he may use Basquiat comparisons to his favor, “in terms of justifying, like, why this mess should be up as much as something that is very straightforward or very technically refined,” he said. “I look at this more like cave paintings or much more like cave paintings, much more like the self-expression, like that nature that we have to express the world visually.”

Life in motion

Graham has had a modicum of formal training, including Central Oregon Community College. As much as techniques, he felt like he absorbed instructors’ wisdom about the marketplace and “how to proceed when you wake up and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m a hack.’ (Art instructor) Bill Hoppe had this great line when I was at COCC, that ‘doubt is a necessary, useless tool.’”

When he was studying art, “it was hard, when I knew what I wanted to be doing, to sit and do a still life when I’m like, ‘But life in motion is really cool. Let’s try to capture that,” he said.

Graham admires the work of peers who continued on to four-year art programs.

“Where they’re at now, their work is phenomenal,” he said. “Now I think I would like to maybe go back … maybe in 10 years or something. Just slow down a little bit and be able to turn the corner on the work.”

While the release of Mosley Wotta albums and live performances kept his music profile high, he continued to paint as a more private endeavor.

“I just pulled away from putting this out there that much just because I wanted to do it because I needed to do it, rather than I was trying to make a buck or whatever,” he said. As a professional music artist, “I have to deal with the world of money attached to the world of performance, much more than I do have to if I’m hiding my paintings in my garage.”

Some of his works, such as “Picket the Fence,” painted on a large, 5½ by 8½-foot canvas, have grime from his garage floor on the back.

“This is like the purest of the forms of art that I’m into, in terms of doing it for yourself and doing it because you’re driven to do it,” he said.

His current show features a mix of new and old paintings, but none of his works are exempt from tinkering, unless they should sell.

“I just kind of keep tweaking them until I get it right, which just means somebody else (has said), ‘Oh, I’ll buy that,’” he said.

‘Ghost behind the bones’

Art consultant Turner believes Graham’s paintings offer another side of him not evident in his music, known for its positive, unifying themes.

“When I’ve heard you rap, your dialogue is so humanitarian,” she said. “Within these paintings, I think I see a different emotion, or maybe that emotion with other emotions, too. There’s a lot of force in here, and a lot more objection to reality.”

“I feel like this is more than the ghost behind the bones,” he replied. “In the writing, it’s much more of a human perspective. (My painting) is more like, ‘Oh, we did the human thing, and now we’re trying to wake you up … as opposed to the softer hand of the human plea.”

The themes in “Picket the Fence” touch on immigration, recent shootings and other issues in the public eye, Graham said.

“Is there verbiage there?” Turner asked, moving in for a closer look.

Indeed there is. Graham’s way with words isn’t restricted to his rhymes: Along with layers of acrylic paint and surreal figures — many of them possessing jagged teeth, their mouths open as though to speak or scream — Graham uses pen and ink to include phrases, couplets, made-up words and other text.

Words constitute a large part of “Kno Title” ($550), a mixed-media piece on found metal: “Forget Pinocchio I want to know who carved Geppetto,” it says.

“I May Die Here” ($1,000), another mixed-media-on-metal piece, asks “Wheres the best place to die?” above a smiley face and the words “Not sad curious.”

“I don’t always get it, either. That’s the nice thing about it … I just paint it,” Graham said. “You can explain it to a certain extent, but this whole dichotomy of ‘This is what black is, this is what white is, this is what the problem is, this is what the solution is’ is really shallow. There’s a lot more to it.”

Show and sell

Prices of works in the show run from several hundred dollars to $10,000 for “Picket the Fence.”

“I would rather sell them for what we’re pricing them at now, or more, because that’s how much they mean to me, than selling them to pay a bill or whatever,” he said. “Selling them for the sake of selling them is not the point.”

Turner is now looking into getting Graham an exhibition in Portland, and he may show again locally in the spring.

“I think now is the time … I’m taking it more seriously and just pushing it,” he said. “But I also have a body of work now where I can do that, whereas before … I wouldn’t have wanted to have an upcoming show and then have to create a whole bunch of work for it.”

Graham said he approaches a blank canvas with a white flag, surrendering himself to what may come. Finishing a painting, or at least selling it, requires him to let go even more.

“I think that’s the big difference between the performance and this,” Graham said. When performing, “I’m there to explain it. (The painting) stands on its own. It’s open to your interpretation, and that requires a lot of letting go.”

His painting is “just the subconscious side of things, I guess. The music is much more of a conscious effort,” he said. “Like I was saying before, I think this is a more pure version — whereas the music has to go through more filters before it ever sees the light of day.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0349, djasper@bendbulletin.com

12285699