By Jessica Johnson
Artist James “J.D.” De Leon’s Santa Cruz roots run deep. His grandfather made guitars and ran a music store on the ocean side of 41st Avenue, stoking the De Leon family’s cross-generational love of music. His father went on to work for Columbia Records and his mother once had a Billboard Top 100 record. In fact, his parents met when his father cast his mother in a production of Madam Butterfly.
As if his grandfather’s legacy wasn’t enough to establish his Santa Cruz credentials, De Leon spent much of his early career in product development for O’Neill, designing wetsuits, accessories and clothing until eventually starting his own design firm, 57 Design, in 2000. Now J.D. has time to paddleboard to work from his home on Pleasure Point to his office in Capitola Village whenever he wants to and has dedicated himself to getting back to his early roots as a painter. His current project has him working to complete one painting a day. (Yes, you read that right!)
What is the first thing you remember creating?
[Creating] was just like breathing. There was always art and music in the house. I remember every Sunday we had family art time. We would all sit together and draw or paint or sculpt.
When did you first call yourself an artist?
Do ideas come to you in a flash or do they percolate?
I think I have experienced both. The flash ones are probably my favorite, when you see [the project] done before you start.
What is your painting routine?
I like to surf before I go into the studio. I’ll usually play some music – my guitar or bass – before I start to paint. I find music an essential part of painting. I create a soundtrack to the kind of imagery I’m thinking about.
What are you working on now?
I’m kind of a bastardized art person. I’ve got the art that I do as a profession…but when it comes to my [personal] art I’m at a fun, pivotal spot. I’m going to decide what I want to paint. I would like to paint something that makes some sort of statement. It’s going to be influenced by my love of things tropical and aquatic and Polynesian, but if I can somehow say something with it…that’s a big thing for me. It’s the opposite of everything I have done in my career.
Who are your creative idols? Why?
I have lots of them! Musically I am drawn towards people who did everything. I like to play everything, so Todd Rundgren, Prince, Frank Zappa…people who are nutty mad scientists who can do everything. When it comes to visual arts, my brother Cam is an absolute hero of mine, he always has been. And one of the classics, “Lenny” DaVinci, I mean the dude could do everything!
Do you have dry spells? What do you do when you have them?
Yeah, to me I had a 25-year dry spell with painting, since I did so much work as a professional illustrator. I did a lifetime’s worth of artwork in those years, so I felt used up, like that was everything I had.
What has been the most surprising thing about choosing the creative life?
Do you have a best mistake?
I can them “happy accidents” and they happen all the time!
Do you have a favorite piece?
The next one. (laughs)
What is the biggest myth about creativity?
That there is no work to it. There’s real work to endeavor that you’re going to put your heart into.
Is there any advice you would give to someone who says they are not creative?
Everyone has a different thing that they are creative about. I think the misnomer is that art is a “thing” – it’s painting or dancing. No, art is an approach. I’ve seen it in mechanics who are artists because they use their creativity as well as their logical thinking; they use both halves of their brain. So, creativity or art isn’t a “thing,” it’s an approach and if you use that approach with whatever you’re doing you’re going to have a much better outcome.
Raised in Aptos, Jessica Johnson is a freelance writer and blogger dedicated to inspiring others to live brave, creative lives. If you would like information on her upcoming vision board or writing workshops email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.