James Gallagher

Ania Czajkowska
A while ago, an acquaintance told me a story about an artist who couldn’t leave his apartment to get art supplies because he was taking care of a small child. This temporary immobilization forced him to take up collage − a technique that does not require much space and transforms whatever we have within reach into a vessel of creation. This change ended up greatly improving James Gallagher’s life: he became a renowned collage artist while the themes he explored in his art helped him work through the more tumultuous events in his life.

 

Many of my friends tell me how their lives change when they become fathers. I believe that it’s not the kids that bring about that change; rather it’s just the natural way of growing up as a human. What was your experience?

My life has been all about change since I had kids, really. I went through a kind of midlife crisis. I married my high school sweetheart and we had kids right away.I was still at the School of Visual Arts at the time. People didn’t even know what to think of us having the kid.

You were the only couple with kids in your circle?

Yes. We would just bring our son around everywhere because we were just out of school in New York in 1990. We brought the baby to a party on 14th St. and we kind of just nestled him in the middle of the coat bed. I remember hearing people com- ing out of the coat room saying: “There’s a real live baby in there, you gotta go check it out!” Everybody would gather around and look at him and touch him to see if he was real. Nobody could even conceive of having a kid.

They treated him a little bit like an art object.

Kind of. We would go to art openings and I would set him down in the corner, in this little car seat, and people were like, “That’s real! That’s real! That’s not art.” I had two sons in my twenties – and it was great, very relaxed. And then I kind of went through a midlife crisis. My wife and I were great friends. We grew up together, we were like family, but we didn’t really know life with- out each other, and I think we needed to find ourselves – I certainly needed to do that but didn’t realize it. She was the first to figure out that she needed to move on. So she decided to move on. She began a relationship with another woman, so she really had to figure herself out. I remember we were worried about our youngest son who was 3 or 4 at the time. My ex and I went to a therapist who specializes in family and kids. We sat down in her office for a session and her takeaway was: “You know I think your son is okay, just keep an eye on him, you guys are doing the right thing.” Then she turned to me and said: “James, I think you should come back and see me at least once a week, starting immediately, because you need help.” And I didn’t even realize it.

So she was the second person after your wife that told you that you needed to make a change.

That started my whole journey of figuring myself out. I was in my mid-30s by then, and I didn’t even know who I was. Even though I had these great kids and I had this family, I didn’t know who I was. And that was also the moment when my art career began. I had dabbled with illustra- tion before, which didn’t really work out. I never developed a style or voice. Then

I started to use art as a way to get myself through all my experiences, as a form of therapy. It was the first time I was single in my adult life. I had my kids half the time and the other half I was out there, trying to figure myself out in the world with, you know, a lot of help, therapy, and that kind of stuff.

So you started to live in a new way and it made a mark on your art. Then this change to a new way of making art started to influence your life. It’s interesting how one is connected to the other.

I started experimenting with my art and it felt natural to incorporate sexuality into it, because that was something that I was finally able to experience and explore. To this day, that’s been a huge part of what I do, with my magazine and my artwork. Not just sexuality, but intimacy and the human condition and physical and emotional connections between people, because for the first 30-some years of my life that part of me was stifled. How do I put it – it was a big part of me, that I wasn’t able to explore or even acknowledge. I was always so scared of how big that part of me was.

And people around you started to notice this change.

People hadn’t really noticed my art before I started doing this work that was so personal and raw. I was just kind of let- ting it come out of me. It really took on a whole new level. The language completely changed in the work and it became real, and people saw that.

At that time you met Pam, your current wife.

Yes. She was really instrumental in helping me get out of this kind of limbo of “Oh I’m just trying to be this young person, reliving my missed 20s in New York City.” I was having this schizophrenic existence where I had my kids sometimes and then I was out there trying to be young when I wasn’t. So she helped me bring all this together, and that brought family back into my life. My family, my art, and my sexuality became more synced.

We have a daughter who’s 7 now. Interestingly, my ex-wife and her partner had a daughter around the same time. So my two sons have two young sisters, one on each side of the family. We’re all a big modern family living in Brooklyn. It’s interesting and very healthy.

Was it much different for you, having kids in your early 20s and then rediscovering fatherhood in middle age?

Yes, I was very surprised at how different the experiences were; having kids in your 20s and having them in your 40s. I have always thought that your 30s is the sweet spot for having kids, but I avoided that somehow. I didn’t stress or over- think raising kids in my 20s. I just went with it, maybe it was just that I was a bit naive about how big and important this role was. But with my daughter it’s dif- ferent, I’ve had to work a little harder to raise Lily – maybe because she’s a girl and maybe because I’m older and wiser. I’m more connected to my family now, less in my own little world. At the end of the day, I’m still an artist, I’m still a little scattered. I know it can be challenging for my family to capture my focus at times. I go into my personal headspace, which is huge, more than I should.

My kids range from 25 to 7 years old. My oldest son is 25, graduated recently from Pratt and lives in Bed-Stuy. I don’t see him as often as my other kids. We’re very similar and we don’t need to talk all the time to stay close. My 18-year-old is in a very intense period of his life right now. He just started college at Cooper Union, which I am very impressed with. He lives close by and I’m trying to see him more often. Pam, Lily and I love having the boys over as often as possible. We have a warm open household and a close-knit family.

At the end of the day all these roles come together, asking for attention.

Yeah, besides my complicated family there’s my magazine. I am a first-time publisher, plus the editor-in-chief, creative director, designer, production artist, ad sales person… that is a big project for me.

If I had known what I was getting myself into with this magazine, I would’ve definitely thought long and hard about whether I wanted to do it. Another compo- nent of my life, which is in flux right now, and keeps me up at night – is my day job. At the moment I’m in between jobs. I left a corporate job of 12 years, where I was a creative director. It was almost like performance art. I would go in there and be this VP. It was just a strange, surreal world that I played in from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. That company had been on a downward spiral for quite a while. I had to lay off so many people during the last few years, and finally it was my turn. So I was able to leave that place with a severance package and put some of that aside to create the magazine. Something I had wanted to do for so long. I really enjoyed not being in the 9-5 world. For a while it was a nice break. I got to reconnect with people and my art, and the magazine became very inspiring. But I eventually realized that I missed the structure of a job, having a place to go and something to do, and the stability and the peace of mind that a paycheck and benefits brought to our life. So I’ve been kind of bouncing around ever since. It’s been a couple of years. The Museum of Sex in New York asked me to come in and do a short stint as the creative director to help with their branding and some curating. Most recently I have been consulting as a creative director. My career has been full of change in the last 3 years. My family life has been changing for the last 15 years. I grow every time change happens. It’s scary, but it’s also the most important thing – to grow and adapt.

Seeing how you talk about change, it looks like everyone in your family adapts perfectly. All members of your family are very close to each other.

Luckily that is the case. We’re a really tight family, even though we’re not phys- ically close all the time. We are very con- nected and there’s a lot of love. We’re all sensitive artists. There is art everywhere. We are very into collage. Every time we go on vacation, I bring books and magazines and reams of paper and scissors and knives and glue.

That’s your family’s thing – creating.

Yeah, we like to create.

I saw a lot of pictures on Instagram of you and your daughter participating in some classes.

Yeah, I get to go into all her classes and do collage projects. The beautiful thing about cutting and pasting is that anybody can do it. That’s one of the things that makes it challenging to create your own style within that medium. But it’s also something that comes so naturally to these kids. When I come into the classrooms and do collage projects, the results are amazing. I walk out of there humbled, because they created masterpieces that I only wish I could make.

Yes, you’re very focused on art. I don’t think that other parents appreciate art so much in their lives, and especially in their children’s lives. 

And I like to decorate my house with it.

I think it looks so good. What does it mean for you that your kids are following your path?

I love it. My son made me this guitar in high school for father’s day. It’s like a Picasso.

Was it important to your kids that you appreciated their art as they grew and discovered themselves as artists? That you supported them by creating this gallery at home?

It’s interesting. My kids like to create the art but once it’s done, they move on. They like making it, but they don’t care about the displaying as much – and I do. I’m a graphic designer and I’m an art director – I like the presentation. With the magazine, it’s basically a curatorial project of mine. It’s an excuse for me to contact these artists and display their art beautifully. You see that collage there? My son collaged right on top of this beautiful painting he made that I loved. I asked him, “Where’s that painting?” And he replied, “Oh, it’s under there.” And I said, “But why?” Without hesitation he replied, “Because I was done with it.”

So the act of creation is more important than the result.

Presentation is really important for me. My 18-year-old had a take home test for Cooper Union, which was really intense, and he had to create all of this work. I didn’t help him with that – he had the idea and the concepts and the beautiful technique to make it all happen. Where I stepped in and helped him out was with the presentation, the final product. We almost branded it in a way. There are 6 different experiences. We labeled and organized them in a way that allowed the viewer to go through each experience intuitively. I think he learned a lot from that, and I think he realized how important that was for the whole experience.

Are you able to compartmentalize your roles of father and art director?

The art director side of me is strong enough to cut through the fatherly love. I can see all this stuff and I can notice what they should work on.

But do you tell them that?

That’s the thing. The communicating thing is tough. Even if I could communicate it in a perfectly loving manner, they would be like, “Screw you, Dad.” I eventually get through to them somehow. I think they’re influenced by what I do, and the fact that I’m passionate about art and artists. I think that is impressive… well, I hope that impresses them. They try to play it cool a lot. I remember when Casey was in his early teens I did a whole series of shirt designs for this skate company. They had me do this whole series of collages of skateboarders and surfers for their shirts, and he was like “Whoa dad, you’re cool!” That’s what made him notice. He probably didn’t say “You’re cool.” I’m sure he didn’t, but I thought that, I was like “Yeah! He thinks I’m cool! Finally!”

You are using a lot of bodies, lots of nudity in your artwork. How does that go over with the kids?

You know what? Now that I have a daughter and maybe also because I’m older, I’m thinking more about how I could screw
up these little minds. Some of the more sexual works and books I have put into one area. But there’s plenty of art around the house that embraces sexuality – like there’s this huge photograph in our living room of two guys making out in a field, which I think is beautiful and romantic. My kids have never thought twice about it. Although some of their friends have questioned it, “Are those two boys?” and I was like, “Oh… Yeah, they are. Is that weird or something?” And they said, “Yeah… It’s kinda weird.” But I guess my kids grew up in a world where they were surrounded by same-sex couples, my boys grew up in
a same-sex household. They understand that sexuality and relationships, who you love, is so individual. I use sexuality books, erotica. I really like the self-help manuals, like The Joy of Sex and Making Love. In the 1970s and 1980s there were a lot of beautifully printed books. I shy away from pornography, I look for publications with a positive and healthy sex element.

More about love or romanticism?

Romanticism, or sex education. I’m interested in the body and the mind: how they work together. And as far as sexuality – what’s happening in one’s head?

It’s not just about nudity.

Right. It’s all about the idea of physical connection and intimacy. Cut the figures out of these books and create new physical situations. Sometimes you don’t even know what’s going on – are these two men? Two women? What are these people doing? How many people are there?

Because of the concepts you’re working with in your art, is it easier for you to talk with your sons about sexuality?

Somehow. I never had to have that talk: “Let’s sit down and talk about it, son” – because it’s part of our conversations, and not in a weird way… It’s just part of life.

Sexuality, body, intimacy – that’s a tough issue for a lot of parents.

America is much more uptight than any European country. I’m very happy that I raised my kids in New York. There was a moment where I thought I might have to move back the Midwest, to Michigan, and raise my kids in a “normal” place. At that time I was working at a record store trying to make my illustration career take off. I am so happy that I stuck it out. It was a really positive experience for both of my sons, growing up in New York. They are so informed and so wise and I don’t think either of them will be leav- ing the city anytime soon. My oldest son went to RISD for his first year of college, but he transferred to Pratt and finished college in Brooklyn, he wanted to be back in New York. My second son applied exclusively to schools in New York. I think it’s a great place for kids to grow up.

Because of this colorful culture?

The culture! Especially if you’re interested in the arts. It is nice to take a break from the pace of the city, we take the kids back to my parents’ home in Michigan every year and all of my siblings bring their children as well. There are 13 cousins there in total. We go back for a week every sum- mer and it’s a nice time, but…

Only as a break.

As a break, right. I think that my daughter is really enjoying the community here in Windsor Terrace, our neighborhood of Brooklyn. The public schools are so great, I’ve been putting in a lot of time at Lily’s public school and I’m the co-chair of the art auction this fall. We are raising money for the art and enrichment programs for the schools.

So you’re very involved in school life as well.

Well yeah, I try to be, especially now that I’m in between jobs. I have more time to devote to it.

The second issue of your magazine Secret Behavior was about family life. What was the idea behind it?

Well, I focused on “Family” for a couple of reasons. This magazine is all about intimacy as seen through the eyes of contemporary artists and new writers. The first issue’s theme was “Anonymity” which lent itself to sexuality really well. There was a fair amount of provocative material in there, and some people began to think: “Oh, this is a new dirty magazine.” So I wanted to make sure that in my second issue I did something that was still intimate and still worked its way into the whole concept, but showcased a range of content. Also, I decided to make the “Family” issue because it would sync nicely with my life as father and artist. I felt very connected to the issue and I enjoyed making it. I don’t think that it has attracted as much attention as I’d hoped, but I feel good about it and the content is really great. Once people get it in their hands and buy it, experience it – they love it. But, it’s not going to jump out at them like the other one did. The third issue will be about “Exhibitionism”, so I’ve gone back to a more provocative subject matter.

That’s very interesting. In the process of making magazines, we push people towards exhibitionist behavior. But after taking one look at the content on Instagram, we can clearly see that there’s a lot of people who want to share their privacy or intimacy with strangers. Some parents are putting their children’s lives on display, and many of them have no boundaries. What are the boundaries for you with the magazine?

I can’t describe it, or tell you exactly where it is, and it fluctuates, but I know when I’ve crossed it. I have to think about that line with this magazine all the time. Especially with the “Family” issue, when kids are involved that line becomes more defined. The young girl on the cover of the issue lives in a small house in South America with her younger brother and their single mother. The mom happens to be a prostitute by night and a loving mother by day. In the photos it is obvious that she has a wonderful relationship with her kids. She’s just doing what she can in order to support them. It’s a moving story.

And the bottom line is… I don’t want anybody to walk away from reading the magazine thinking: “Oh man, that’s a dirty magazine verging on porn,” I want it to be a glimpse of life; people creating art and writing fiction inspired by that real stuff.

So, getting back to the boundaries, with the “Exhibitionist” issue I must be certain that everybody who’s showcasing their work is comfortable with their intimate lives being displayed. We’re in this strange time right now, where many of us are these everyday-exhibitionists on social media letting people know our every thought or see our every move. I don’t want to see what people are having for breakfast, but I’m kind of interested in the more intimate things. Like, how do people make their love life last or keep their sex life strong. It’s interesting to me when people talk about these things, because everybody can connect to it in a humanistic way.

Social media is kind of a self-published magazine. We can all create them – build our own content, or curate it by following people that we are interested in. Be a bad or good curator.

And it’s nice that you can do that if you are into it. I love seeing these small real life moments or things that are really creative.

Everything in my magazine can be classified as exhibitionism, but I want to be creative with it, not just show a bunch of people who take selfies. I do want to touch on this new digital movement – people living their private lives online for everybody to see. What are they getting out of that? Why do they do it?

When I initially went through the first issue, my first thought was: “This is real life.” When I read all of these glamorous magazines – that’s “dirty” to me. I’d rather have my daughter look at Secret Behavior than look at those glossy fashion magazines with skinny models slathered in make up.

We’re just not used to seeing real life portrayed in magazines. They are all showing perfection. And reality belongs to daily news, but it’s full of sensation.

I can imagine that a lot of people, when they look at Secret Behavior, think that it’s kind of weird, disgusting stuff.

Disgusting stuff is a part of life. I found it really interesting to watch people look through the magazine because there’s such a range of reactions. Some people really love it and get excited about how much they connect with it. The people who don’t like it are either disgusted or confused or kind of intimidated by it. One of the things I’m trying to do is create a magazine that embraces the human condition and sexual- ity in all of its forms. Often it’s a challenge for me to know exactly who my audience is because of that.

I thought a lot about who will be my audience for this project; what kind of people will buy this magazine. Because all parenting magazines were so gross and so into this “Kids are amazing and everything about them is beautiful. Just buy them nice clothes and put them on and everything will be alright” mindset. From the very beginning I was sure that all I wanted to do was to show the truth about the relationship between fathers and their children. So I think that’s what we have in common, we want to portray reality: the truth about love, the truth about relationships.

Yes. And the truth is somewhere in between. Looking at my family and my story, it can be perceived as crazy to some- body. But… I’ll show you something: my son is so into family that he’s been drawing these pictures of us all together. You see, we are all there, our whole complicated family. That’s his story and his truth.

interview: Ania Czajkowska
photography: Bejnamin Fredrickson