Artist Profile: James Kelewae aka LUV1
Flemington, Hunterdon County
Currently based in South Jersey, James Kelewae (b. 1977) was first enticed to make his mark on a public surface while skateboarding in the Chicago suburbs where he was raised. “At the time I didn’t give much thought to what I was doing,” he recalls. “I just liked the thrill of breaking rules. I liked the rush that I felt. There was an element of therapy to it. I was 14.”
But in 2006, James became serious about painting on city walls. Intent on bringing his talents and visions to spaces in need of vibrant, expressive visuals, he found himself lured to the streets of Trenton, New Jersey.
At first, Kelawae’s works—almost always site-specific—were largely unsanctioned. But most of what Kelawae went on to do in Trenton was not only sanctioned, but, at times, commissioned. He was, in fact, a co-founder of the SAGE Coalition, a diverse group of artists dedicated to planning and establishing inner-city beautification projects.
In addition to his many murals that have surfaced in Trenton, James Kelewae’s public artworks have made their way to a range of sites, from New York City’s famed Bushwick Collective to the streets of Flemington, New Jersey, where he and his family now live.
A graduate of the School of Visual Arts, Kelewae is increasingly focusing on his studio art that has markedly evolved over the years. “My style was originally illustrative,” he explains. “I focused initially on portraits. It was very different from my current visual language. ”
Presently, Kelewae’s studio work is largely abstract, featuring bold, interlacing designs noted for their vibrant colors and a distinct mystical sensibility. Spiritual in theme and perspective, his recent artwork radiates a hypnotic aura. “Among the major influences of my studio art are Celtic art, the Book of Kells, and medieval art,” he explains.
While he often completes large murals within a few days, working four to five hours each day, he works a few hours at a time over a period of several months on his studio artworks. And, while the artist’s public work is created with the community always in mind, Kelawae’s studio work is largely personal. “When I work in my studio, I am accountable only to myself,” he suggests. “And I tend to work on several pieces at the same time. When I paint outside, it’s important that my work is accessible to others.”
Yet, conceptually their themes are similar. “I’m interested in connectivity,” he conveys. “My intent is always to build bridges.”
James Kelewae is a featured artist in On and Off the Streets: Urban Art New Jersey.
Image Caption: LUV1, Garden State, Aerosol, 2021, 13 ½’ x 20’. Photo courtesy of Sara C. Mozeson