Justin Hess

Article by Darren Rousar.

Justin Hess, Autoritratto.Justin Hess, Autoritratto.

Justin Hess, a Florence Academy of Art alumnus, was kind enough to participate in a phone interview awhile back. He’s an accomplished artist as well as the founder of JHess Studios, a working atelier located in downtown San Francisco.

To date, I’ve never met anyone who, after studying in Florence, doesn’t miss it. Many, myself included, often miss it intensely. One of Justin’s initial reflections of his time there was something quite similar. But that’s jumping ahead in the conversation.

Justin turned his focus to Art at community college in Ventura, California. Surprisingly, his introduction to Sargent and Vermeer occurred there. (I say surprising because neither artist would be that well-known nor respected in most college art departments). In his first year (2000-2001), Justin took part in a field trip to Italy, organized by the director of the art department. Florence captivated him such that upon returning to LAX he found himself feeling a little depressed.

Justin Hess, Reflecting on the Past.Justin Hess, Reflecting on the Past.

Following community college he moved to San Francisco in order to attend the San Francisco Academy of Art University (then, college). After a portrait painting session he was approached by a fellow student who complimented him on his painting. “It looks like the model,” he recalls her saying. A week later she showed him a catalog from one of the instructors at the Florence Academy who was having a show in New York. What he saw in that catalog was precisely where he wanted to take his own painting.

Justin left San Francisco short of graduating in 2005 and began his studies at the FAA.

Of his favorite memories of his time at the FAA was meeting his partner and fellow Californian (though not native), Alicia Ponzio. Both happened to be waiting in line at the Questura, the Italian immigration office. Alicia was a new FAA student as well, and seeing Justin’s folder with the FAA logo on it she walked up to him and introduced herself. Justin was ahead of her in line and after he finished he went outside to wait for her. Thus began a romance that ultimately brought them both back to San Francisco together.

Justin Hess, Gnossienne.Justin Hess, Gnossienne.

In interviews such as this I often ask what the artist would do differently if they could take a “do over” with their studies. Justin was pleased with how he managed his time in Florence and instead offered some advice to anyone planning on going there to study. “If you do not want do it just as a hobby, you should use your time and money wisely. There’s a great deal to learn and study in Florence. First, focus on your studies; and outside the studio, take the opportunity to learn from the incredible artworks and unique aesthetic of this singular place. Rather than seeing many places superficially, seek to know this place in depth.” In his case, he does not regret deferring other travel opportunities nor times spent in the studio till late at night. He was there to learn and study and that’s what he did.

Our discussion then turned to the relationship between painting and music that I noticed in his work. Besides being a violinist and having a father who plays guitar, Justin sees classical artists and musicians as being of the same mold. Both pursuits require similar training, dedication, and in-depth knowledge. “It’s about people who dedicate their lives to doing something that they know which will not necessarily be financially beneficial. Success at the art forms doesn’t necessarily equate with financial gain. It’s always the more difficult path to take in life, but for those who are passionate, the experience of creating sustains them emotionally and spiritually.” The theme of music in his art is but one of his homages, with dancing being another on the near horizon.

Justin Hess, Virgil's Lute.Justin Hess, Virgil’s Lute.

I had thought that this connection he sees between crafts (painting, music, dance, etc.) might also answer another question: What is Justin’s favorite subject to paint? In summary, painting itself is his favorite subject. He adds that if you are a painter, “…you should be able to paint everything equally, or at least strive to.” This, while we did not discuss it further, reminded me of learning to see through Sight-Size. It is best to not learn how to draw or paint a head, a tree, or a piece of fruit. Rather, it is best to first learn to see so that you might then draw and paint everything equally well.

Justin Hess, L'Aspettare.Justin Hess, L’Aspettare.

Back in 2016 my wife and I visited his studio/school. That memory brought our conversation to his atelier and his approach to teaching. He says that he sees a lot of people who would be dedicated to high quality instruction but simply do not have the time. As such, JHess Studios seeks to combine aspects of full-time studies with part-time, weekly workshops.

JHess Studios, Bargue Drawing Class.JHess Studios, Bargue Drawing class.

Justin works on his own projects at the studio from about 10 until 5. He then moves them aside and prepares for their students. The classes run in 9 week sessions, 4 times per year. Each class meets once per week and students can take as many or as few classes as they desire.

The schedule is as follows:

  • Sunday night is figure drawing.
  • Monday night is portrait drawing.
  • Tuesday night is portrait sculpture (taught by Alicia).
  • Wednesday night is Bargue drawing.
  • Thursday night is cast drawing.
  • Saturday morning is figure painting.
  • Saturday afternoon is figure sculpture (taught by Alicia).

JHess Studios, Figure Drawing class.JHess Studios, Figure Drawing class.

*In January and during the July-August break, week-long intensive workshops are offered by both Alicia and Justin. The subjects vary, and these are generally attended by a mixture of current students from San Francisco, and students who travel from outside of Northern California to take part. The workshop format offers students the opportunity to work continuously in the studio for a 30 hour week, which can be a great introduction, or can help current students increase their skill level.

JHess Studios, Alicia teaching the Ecorche class.

For those who have the time, this set of classes offers a broad spectrum of learning experiences. To those with more restrictive schedules, it allows them the opportunity to specialize as their schedules permit. The upcoming term runs from late April to June.

You can see more of Justin Hess’ art at his website here.

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