The Creative Life: Jonathan Grant

Jonathan Grant

Before we get too far into this new column I wanted to tell you why I chose to begin this particular column. One thing I find most inspiring is meeting and getting to know other creatives. When a group of passionate and driven creatives are all in one room amazing things can happen. I love meeting new people all the time and especially people who are truly living their dreams as an artist in whatever capacity. I have always felt the people who change the world are the ones who create with passion and that doesn’t always mean art. There are many levels and ways of being creative. It is one powerful task to be given the opportunity to live a creative life. One that may be more challenging than most expect. That is where this column began.

I wanted a way to open the door into someone’s own creative life where they were pursuing their passions and dreams and show how being a creative infilitrates more of your life than just what you do to make money. It ends up being the definition of you. True passion is not just part of your life but every bit of your life. It is a beautiful thing that I hope to expose in this column of people who honestly inspire me personally. Seeing behind the curtain into a creatives life and understanding their story is more inspiring to me than anything.

Instead of beginning this column with myself since most of you know quite a bit about me, I thought I would feature another Fresh Exchange contributor, Jonathan Grant of Culture Keeper. Jonathan has been writing the Manly Nine for over a month now so you most likely have caught a post or two of his, but there is much more to this man than just his natural style. Jonathan may be one of the most inspiring people to me personally. Fearless in his own taste and style, there is no one like Jonathan. He lives solely for his passions and calling as a creative. It is every part of his life.

Also this column is an opportunity for me, the creative, and a photographer to collaborate to create this feature. I am always looking for exciting and new ways to collaborate…aren’t we all?!

Okay enough fuss let’s get into the nitty gritty!

Explain your art and calling in life as a creator. How do you explain what you do to others?
Well my art has several facets. First there is my visual art- mostly commissions for churches or private collectors. I call it “Folk-Art-Iconography”. I use very simple images and a lot of gold leaf. I want to comment on history, religion and nature- talking about very serious things in a very simple way. Second there is the styling I do for magazines, writing for blogs, private styling and buying for boutiques. After High school I kind of lost touch with my Fashion side, but now I recognize that it is just as integral to who I am as my painting. I have been styling photo shoots since I was a kid- even before I knew what that was. In college I would always get my friends and family together and we would do shoots just for fun. That is still what I am doing. Photo shoots are still just a means of fun- a way to express and hang out with friends- although now those friends have become photographers, editors and models. Third- connecting artists. I collaborate with artists, churches and arts organizations to assist artists. This really is my favorite aspect of what I create. I love being the muse. I just hang out with artists in coffee shops and let them talk about what is not working in their art and help them brainstorm. I also try to get them connected with churches that need artists, as well as hosting workshops and creative retreats. We just had workshop last weekend at the University of Notre Dame and it was so much fun! I guess that is a pretty long reply- but my entire life is centered on creativity and imagination.

Jonathan Grant
What is your day to day routine consist of?
When I get up in the morning (10am) I hit the ground running- I grab a glass of water, stumble to the dining room table and get right to work. I don’t even stop to eat until about 2pm. I feel a lot of pressure in the morning to make the most of the day. Mornings consist of blogging for culture keeper, preparing guest columns for The Fresh Exchange, managing social media, and connecting with future clients, etc. etc. etc. By 2pm it is time to eat, shower and get ready for the day. 7pm dinner with friends, go for a swim, perhaps a movie, the pub, or a bonfire. From 10pm-2am I am back in my studio painting, listening to records and finishing up blog-stuff for the next morning.

Do you feel your routine effects your work?

My routine is centered on my work. At this stage in my life I don’t really have any commitments- so I can totally focus on what I create. I think that is just beginning to show. Since college I have not really been able to focus on creating- I have always just used my free time. My creativity has always had to be a side note. Last September I finished up a position buying for a boutique and took on a residency at a church. Even though it did not pay- it gave me time to style and write. I realized then that I MUST be creating constantly. I love working for myself because it does not really feel like work. I get to do what I enjoy doing.

Jonathan Grant
What purposeful steps have you taken in creating your work?
I am of the mind-set that if you are creative enough you can make anything happen. When I moved back from Paris to paint I moved to Kentucky because I knew a lot of artists in Lexington. I just surrounded myself with people who knew what they were talking about and could critique my work. I was working in a gallery at the time, and I soaked up every bit of information I could get a hold of. I spent all of my free time painting. When I had enough paintings ready I would host “Guerilla Art Shows”. I would get a few artists together and host a one-night show in someone’s living room or an abandoned building or the hallway of some school. I also worked odd jobs at bakeries, life guarded a lot, taught swimming lessons, and did some voice work for radio commercials. I guess every artist has to do whatever it takes to stay alive.

Jonathan Grant

Was there a point in your life a light bulb clicked on and you knew what you were called to do or have you always known?
When I was young I wanted to be a naturalist or an archaeologist. I was obsessed with wandering through the forest and collecting samples of leaves and birds nests. I staged protests to protect woods and read every history and archaeology text I could get my hands on. In college I started out as a Latin major, took some time in Israel to study Archaeology and ended up graduating with a History degree. After College I was about to move to Morocco- but at the last minute I moved to Paris to intern with an Art gallery. Under the guidance of my mentor I had begun to see the art world. I traveled to France with her and a bunch of my college friends one summer. When I hit Paris I realized that that was the place I had been created for. My personality, my inclinations, my style- were made for Paris. The Paris part of my calling clicked immediately- but the art part took a bit longer. Although I was painting throughout college- for fun- it was not until I was living in Paris that I realized- “I must paint”. I kind of had a nervous breakdown one week. I had just been homeless for a while and a friend was letting me borrow his apartment while he was abroad for a month. I really did not have much money- and what I had was given to me by my friends and family so that I could eat. (It really takes a lot of generosity to keep me alive.) I had this breakdown one night where I was sorting out all kinds of stuff and I realized that I had to paint. It was so direct. The next few weeks were a huge confirmation that it was okay to spend my life creating. I come from a family of artists, musicians, and poets- but most of us were told that to be an artist was lazy. There was this disconnect where we thought that creation was not real work- that it was okay to create- but only in secret- or on the side. After a trip to the art supply store across the street I hid away in my apartment for several weeks. I would stay up till 5am: naked, painting, and listening to Bowie. Everything I had been soaking up for years came flowing out.

How has that desire and passion shaped your life most significantly?
I feel a huge pressure to be a steward of that gift- a pressure to be constantly creating and to encourage others to create. A lot of artists deal with extreme guilt about creating or not creating. We have been told so many lies about what we do. I want to work to redeem that.

Jonathan Grant
Who has most inspired your work?
Linda Stratford. She is my college professor turned mentor turned friend. She is the one who first challenged me with the ideas of Art and Faith and the connection between the two. We also collaborate on projects now and then. This Spring I hope to meet up with her in Paris to work on a secret project she is developing. My kindergarten teacher- Mrs. Schmidt has also been a huge inspiration. She introduced me to my imagination.

Lately I have been very inspired by Miro, Picasso, Frida Kahlo and Matisse… mostly because I see that their work went in the same direction that mine headed. I see a lot of similar tastes in common between us. They inspire me, because they have similar aesthetic beliefs.

Tell us about your space. A space is always a vision into someone’s creative life…

I am a bit of a wandering gypsy but I must have space to paint. I can blog in café’s but I get distracted easily. Pretty people, noises, and colors- I only really work at home. I need music to paint. A lot of times I even need others with me when I paint- but I must blog and write completely alone. I also need the outlet of my own space. At times when I don’t have my own house or apartment- I end up re-decorating others’. Which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad thing. Whenever I am back visiting my parents I tend to cause a bit of an uproar with their house. Over Christmas I helped re-do my dad’s bathroom, which was a fiasco. I think my need for spatial creativity is satiated for a while.

Jonathan Grant Interior
Even though you are a wanderer is there a certain style each new space takes on? How do you feel that style coordinates with your work?
Every house and apartment is a bit different- but my style remains the same. I use a lot of fabric, I cover the walls with paintings, I fill every available space with books, and use as many antiques as possible. My spaces can become cluttered quite quickly. Each time I move I end up giving away a lot of my collection- but only keeping my favorite pieces. I think, decorate, and dress like a collector- holding on to only the best pieces that I will keep for the rest of my life. I use a lot of rich, bright colors- and somehow always end up feeling like I am living in a Bedouin tent. Tables and bookshelves are strewn with Art books and leftovers from archaeological digs, and odd little things I have picked up on my travels. I always sit on the floor to paint or read or drink tea with friends- so I try to orient all of my spaces around that. Every inch is strewn with rugs and pillows and low mid-century chairs.

My last apartment was in Traverse City, Michigan. It was such a spare and dirty little place but I loved it. It was an old factory worker’s hostel that I decorated with thrift store finds. I knew that I was only there temporarily so I did not even bring up most of my belongings. I just made do with what I could find. I made curtains out of African robes, bed sheets and old skirts. It was tinier than any of my apartments in Paris- but it was practically right on Boardman lake and only a few blocks from lake Michigan- so I could go swimming several times a day. It was not the best place for creativity actually- perhaps it was the size, or how it was impossible to keep clean, or the fact that the weather was always gorgeous. I didn’t really paint much… but I did get a lot of reading done- Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, and Gore Vidal mostly, plus a lot of fashion magazines. The bookstore downtown was always stocked with Vogue Hommes International, Industrie, Fantastic Man, and Acne Paper. I devoured them. At some point the reading switched to writing and I started writing for a few local magazines. Sometimes our living situations create us. When I live in a house with a television- I paint less- and rarely read. That is why I will never own a television. For me to create my environment must be “sympatique”. When I lived in Lexington and South Bend I had these intense communities of creative people who encouraged me to paint. We would sit around discussing art, theology, history and drink lots of tea. In other cities I have had friends who have encouraged me to write and style and pursue fashion. Traverse City was a terrible place to paint- but a great place to gain new outlets for creative expression. It is good to be reminded that we have more possibility than we previously thought.

jonathan grant, apartment, interior, traverse city

What part of your space is the most inspiring to you everyday?
Every Inch! I am constantly re-decorating and rearranging. But recently I have been getting the most creative inspiration from a few Mexican paintings and sculptures. It may not show in my previous work, but my next show “Martyrs and Monsters” is very much influenced by my pre-Columbian archaeological research.

If you could collaborate with anyone who would it be and why?
Devendra Banhart. Our tastes compliment each other very well. I have no idea if we would actually get on- but it would be an absolute dream to collaborate with him on Music, Fashion or Art. His visual art is really intriguing- and musically we are quite on the same page. He also creates with a team of people around him, which is the same way I prefer to work.  I love it when people create across boundaries- not identifying themselves as “only musicians” etc. I think that Devendra is revolutionary- or at least has that potential. He is extremely lo-fi, and a lot of his work is very international. He could be the next Dylan if he had something important to say. There are a few others that I would love to work with- namely: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Mika, Anastasia Barbieri, and Wes Anderson… I think that the six of us would make a fantastic team.

Is there anything you were ever told that altered your mindset and made you think differently about your creative process?

I leave myself open to a lot of critique. I crave it actually. Perhaps that makes me a bit weak- but I would like to think that because I have received very little formal training in art or fashion- I need all the help I can get. I hope that each and every day I am getting feedback- and altering my course just a little bit. At my last job, my friend Wendy noticed that I tended to be too “rule-oriented” about fashion. She gently took me aside and helped me to understand that there are no “rules” in fashion. There are no rules in Art for that matter either. I think it is in my personality to cling to rules- even though I am a bit of a rebel. I make up all sorts of rules for myself. Seeing fashion as rule-free has transformed the way I style. Now, when I help someone with their wardrobe- I am thinking about what they love, and what fits them, and who they are.

Jonathan Grant

How do you feel your fashion interests and art have come together? If they haven’t do you ever see that potential?
Not really. I kind of like my three separate worlds: Church, Art, and Fashion. I am not opposed to them mixing- perhaps that would make my job easier, but I have yet to see how they can. Church and Art should be able to play together nicely, but they still don’t really get along that well. That is part of what I am working on. But any connection between fashion and art seems rather contrived to me. I have yet to see an example to give me hope in that way.


At the end of the day what do you feel the most rewarded by as an artist and creator?
Absolute peace. When I am doing exactly what I was created to do- there is a peace that I cannot fully describe. I still do odd jobs here and there- things that are not “exactly” my cup of tea- just to stay flexible and humble. But nothing beats doing exactly what I was built for. Oddly enough there is no reward for me after the creativity is done. I would like to think that I love it when people connect to my work- or when they are completely offended by it- but I don’t really feel that way.

Jonathan Grant Art

Does your art make you see life differently? Has there been a moment you realized your view of the world was different?
Because my art is “folk art” (which is an over simplification of an image- to the point of being “naïve”), I tend to look for the simplest shapes, colors and forms in what I see. When I started creating junglescapes- I looked at leaves and created the absolute simplest form of a leaf I could. When I paint saints I try to make them the simplest and most universal saints I can. So I look around me and think, “What is the simplest way to say that”. I love discussing deep things in that way- a serious question of eternity turned into a lighthearted, simple metaphor. In some ways creation is a frustrating process for me. Some people have talent, some people have something to say, and the rare few have both. I am in the category of having something to say- without really having the talent to say it. My words and my paintings are still clumsy- but I am getting better each year. I have so much that I want to communicate about peace and justice and freedom and equality. I want to transform the world into a healthy place through creativity. That puts a lot of pressure on the creative process. I really have to turn off my mind when I create- and just play. When I over-think the idea I want to communicate- my work turns out rigid and I get stressed. I have gradually grown to realize that I have a unique view of the world. My view is optimistic, cutting, full of forests and history and invisible deity. In my world everything is connected to the sacred. I am not sure how it came to be that way- again it probably goes back to a childhood spent singing in trees, and drawing in church.

If you told your young self something three years ago what would it be?

Well the odd thing about life is- things I don’t even think are related to moving forward and getting to the next phase- ARE. Every “detour” in my life has shaped me and given me what I need next. I would tell myself that. I have always been pretty balanced, and hard working to get what I want. The past three years have been a fabulous journey of creativity and blessings.

Jonathan grant
What is the next big thing? Where do you see your creative pursuits taking you in the next two years?
Well… I am in the process of moving back to Paris. It might take a year or two- because I keep getting all sorts of incredible opportunities here in The States. In the next two years I would really like to continue helping churches get creative. I want to transform Church into a beautiful, vibrant, creative, living thing. I am also curious to see where fashion will take me in the next two years… I really have no idea. As a child I honestly never pictured myself living this long. I always thought that I would die in my early twenties in some remote African prison, or South American revolution. I had such adventurous dreams. I guess I never dreamt that I would have the opportunity to create and collaborate as well as have adventures. That makes every day a huge gift- and another opportunity to create and connect as much as possible. I have much more to say through my art- I can’t wait to express it more fully.


All images via: Bryan and Mae

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  1. I loved reading this feature- it’s always so fascinating learning about the creative ideas, interests, and the inspirations of other individuals. Loved all the questions!


  2. This is a fascinating interview and so in depth! Thanks for taking the time to pull this together. As a creative working within the church, I found it especially interesting to read about someone else working on bringing the church world and the art world together.

    can’t wait to see who you have lined up next!

  3. I feel like I met the male version of myself! (in such a small way haha) I think the questions you had him answer presented a great interview! so cheers to both of you!

  4. That’s too funny that he lived in Lexington! This is where I live. I enjoy the art scene here, but it’s kind of hidden. There are definitely lots of artists, especially that make jewelry and traditional crafts. I wish Lexington to become a more artful city with more public art throughout the whole city. Nice article!