WALKING THE PLANK
A leading authority on contemporary marine art, the gallery owner knows the power of the sea to inspire
J. Russell Jinishian, a leading authority on contemporary marine art, talks about boats and the sea as creative inspiration.
What do you showcase at your eponymous gallery in Fairfield,
Connecticut? I concentrate on work by contemporary marine artists, but I also have a collection of 19th-century marine art. Everything I have is consigned to me either by artists or by collectors looking to sell. In that way, I’m able to keep nearly 1,000 works in the gallery covering a wide variety of subjects, styles, media sizes and prices.
What is the price range? You can find something for $100 or $350,000 or anywhere in between. It’s a very eclectic collection.
What’s the status of the marine art market? I think previous generations were more into collecting. Now as they divest, I see more work coming back into the marketplace than I have witnessed in years. With all the development in technology, the idea of collecting is not as prominent with this generation. There was a time when you didn’t watch TV at night. Instead, you devoted time to a hobby or interest.
Why do you think marine art has such a loyal following? The artists are very passionate about what they do. It is very specialized subject matter. Aside from the difficulties of painting water—which is one of the most challenging things to paint, particularly when you have to make it look as if it is moving—there is a lot of specific knowledge you need to correctly paint boats. Collectors don’t buy marine art because it is the hottest thing. They buy it because they like it and it gives them a great deal of pleasure, whether it is a painting of a place they have been, or a boat they are familiar with, or even just the ocean. As a result, it is a very steady marketplace. Prices don’t fluctuate wildly.
How can new collectors enter the market? Most people don’t think of themselves as collectors, but everything you own is a reflection of you. Look around. The objects you see reflect who you are and what you like, and art should be the same way. Start with what appeals to you. When you get to value, you need a gallery or dealer you can trust, just like you would with a stockbroker. You want to work with someone who will guide you to what is good quality and will hold its value. It has to do with the reputation of an artist. Sometimes it is a young artist who is just beginning his career, and a gallery can help you identify that person, or a well-established artist in the marketplace.
Do you offer a consulting service? It’s how I spend my day, looking at art and researching the market. I don’t do it for a fee or anything. A buyer tells me he would love a scene of Newport Harbor, for example. I keep it in the back of my mind. It may take me a year, but you will receive a call that I found what you were looking for.
What do you have in your collection? I have paintings, ship models, sculpture, scrimshaw, prints and drawings. We also carry a small amount of sporting art having to do with hunting and fishing. We represent artists who have been at it a long time: the top tier like the late John Mecray, who spent a career painting; the middle tier of artists, which is the majority; and then there are some young people coming along. There is everything from the most photo-realistic to the abstract, and every kind of style in between.
How do you choose artists for your gallery? The artists I represent, I have known personally for years. The work must be accurate, well conceived, and the craftsmanship must be done well. As I mentioned, it’s a challenge to paint moving water. If you look at a boat on the water, the water has to be correct. The boat has to be drawn properly in a difficult perspective. The wind has to be right. The sails have to be set right. The sky has to be believable. If there are people in the painting, they have to be to scale. There are many elements involved. The people in my gallery are the best from around the world, and all the elements are consistently done well throughout the whole painting. Is James Buttersworth considered the most
famous artist in marine painting? In 19thcentury painting, I would say Buttersworth and Robert Salmon were the forefathers of marine painting in America. When they came to the U.S., Englishman Buttersworth moved to Hoboken [New Jersey] and became famous for his paintings of boat races in New York Harbor, while Salmon, who was from Scotland, moved to Boston and painted the city along with images of England and Scotland. At the time, we did not have any art school; we were too busy building a nation.
Have you ever thought about putting
paintbrush to canvas yourself? Yes, I went to the Cornell School of Art and Architecture. I worked in oil painting and sculpture, but I discovered as I went along that I had other skills. I do think that experience helped me understand what I am looking at more thoroughly, and I understand also what is the struggle of an artist’s life. People focus on the aspects of living without a boss, but the fact is artists spend most of their day alone. No one is giving them a paycheck or health insurance or a promotion. It is a very difficult life. Having that training helped me understand that and build my relationships with my artists and collectors.
When did you realize you’d rather pro
mote other people’s work? When I got out of school, I did a couple of different things, and eventually I ended up working for about four years at the Silvermine Guild of Artists in New Canaan, Connecticut. It’s the country’s oldest art guild and is still in existence. I did some writing for Art New England, then I heard they were starting a marine gallery at the Mystic Seaport museum. I grew up in Greenwich, sailing in Long Island Sound, so I thought, I like boats, I like art, let me see what’s going on. I ultimately became the director and ended up there for 12 years.
That’s quite a learning experience. It was a great place to work with wonderful people. I got to meet some of the best marine artists, boat designers and boatbuilders. Then, I accepted an offer to set up a group of galleries called the Big Horn Galleries, but managing four locations, each exhibiting different art, was a bit much. Instead, I decided to open a small gallery of what I knew best, which was marine art. That was in 1997.
And did you write a book in 2003? Yes, it was called Bound for Blue Water. It was an overview of the marine art world. But then I was thinking: I talk to artists every day and watch the market daily; I should do something with that information. So, I started a magazine, Marine Art News. I made 20,000 copies and sent it out worldwide. I did it for 13 years, by myself. I may start it up again. I know that people go online and read back issues, so there still remains an interest.
It seems like your passion remains strong for the work. Most people who are in the arts will tell you that they knew what they wanted to do from an early age. That was me too. Since I was in grade school, I knew I wanted to be an artist. I may have done something else, but hopefully I have helped a lot of artists. When you buy art, you have something that you can enjoy each day, but also your purchase allows the artist to pursue their passion and skill and raise their family. It is a very positive equation in the world. It is not just a transaction. Looking back now after 40 years, it has been a great career choice.
Jinishian keeps up to 1,000 pieces in the gallery.
Miniature replica carving from an 18th-century ship