Artist’s Notebook: Jay Shells

March 3, 2014 | Marina Galperina

ANIMAL’s feature Artist’s Notebook asks artists to show us their original “idea sketch” next to a finished piece. This week, Jay Shells — of Rap Quotes fame on both coasts — talks about his New York-centric, labor-of-love-intensive wood burning series, on view March 7th-9th at the Fountain Art Fair.

A little over two years ago, while walking my dogs on West 16th Street, I fell in love with a mailbox. This mailbox, like many in New York, was covered in stickers and tags and grime and chipping paint and crap and I just loved it. I loved watching it evolve from day to day. New stickers would appear, old ones would be torn off etc. One particular day, I decided it was perfect. I wanted to uproot it and bring it into my apartment. It was an accidentally-collaborative, perfectly-curated piece of ephemeral art and I needed it. But, I didn’t have space for it and I’m not big on federal crime, so I photographed it. I wanted to take this portrait to another level, beyond the photograph, into the piece of fine art that it had already become to me.

Painting seemed like a too obvious place to go. I’ve never used woodburning tools before. I thought of what I could do, the textures I could create with the absence of color, the images I could burn into wood and into peoples’ minds. I got really into the concept of spending hundreds of hours to recreate an image that took only seconds to make initially, to ask other to spend time looking at it. After the mailbox, I just kept going. Capturing images of my favorite grimy New York surfaces and objects. This series is ongoing indefinitely… until I get bored and feel like painting again, I suppose.

I gravitate towards subjects that capture the energy of so many unrelated people, full of energy and emotion, like a surface covered in stickers — a collaboration between total strangers.

It’s a hard to walk one block in this city without seeing an “RD” hydrant. I don’t know him/her, but I have huge respect at the dedication to tag every damn hydrant. This particular one lives on 41st street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan and could be painted over tomorrow, or may live on for years.

Sometimes I free-hand the image onto the wood surface, other times I use a grid to enlarge it. In this case, I made a graphite transfer to establish a very basic outline of the hydrant onto the wood. Then, the meticulous burning begins, all detail and texture. I find it to be very similar to tattooing, as a process — begin with basic outline and add more and more layers and contrast until satisfied.

I use a soldering iron for wood-burning and soldering soft metals. The first few pieces I made are a bit crude, but now, I’ve clocked in well over 1,000 hours with the tool and have it down. I use two tips, for fine dots and for larger dots and shading on bass wood or birch.

Pointilism technique takes a very lone time. I have a few 3′ square pieces that took over 100 hours each. This one took around 25 hours, I think. I don’t always pay attention to time. I turn on M.O.P. or Mozart.

There is a portrait of my favorite taco truck on 14th and 8th Ave, the fire extinguisher that hangs by the elevator outside of Jonathan Levine Gallery, many sticker-covered random surfaces, a few footprint-covered skateboards and a bunch more. My absolute favorite piece so far, is a large portrait of a sticker-covered wall on West 26th street that no longer exists.I keep making these because I need to. I’m just so wrapped up in it that I can’t stop.

You can come see them at the Fountain Art Fair. I’m in booth B-105 and should be there all weekend.


Aside from the Fountain Art Fair, Jay Shells will be in group show at the R. Jampol Projects opening March 9th. His Rap Quotes solo exhibit at Gallery 1988 East in Los Angeles opening April 25th.

Previous Artist’s Notebook selects:

Artist’s Notebook: Jonas Lund
Artist’s Notebook: Brenna Murphy
Artist’s Notebook: Jonathan Monaghan
Artist’s Notebook: Genevieve Belleveau
Artist’s Notebook: Andrew Ohanesian
Artist’s Notebook: Buff Monster
Artist’s Notebook: Saoirse Wall
Artist’s Notebook: Melissa F. Clarke
Artist’s Notebook: Molly Crabapple
Artist’s Notebook: Don Hertzfeldt