Brooklyn artist Will St. John: ‘If you go to art school, you’re paying for connections’

 (Will St. John )
(Will St. John )

Will St. John is lying in bed. Which is fair enough: he’s on holiday and our interview is interrupting (though perhaps I should say at this point that I don’t make a habit of meeting people between the sheets).

‘Oh! Hey, how’s it going?’ he asks, a little startled, propping himself up and walking me — via his laptop — into the kitchen. It’s 11am in upstate New York where the 40-year-old artist is in the midst of a ‘massive family reunion’. He turns his camera to show me the lake and woodlands that stretch out in front of him like a Bob Ross painting — ‘it’s our little corner of the world.’

St. John’s own work is a world away from the dappled landscapes of Ross. Over the past five years, he’s grown a following by painting technically precise, Renaissance-style portraits of modern-day New Yorkers. ‘It’s a juxtaposition that gets people really excited,’ he tells me. He’s not wrong given the critical reception of his work across the pond.

Eleven months ago, St. John’s portraits caught the eye of London gallerists Phoebe Saatchi and Arthur Yates. Flash forward and he is due to host his first ever London exhibition at their Mayfair gallery, Saatchi Yates. ‘We saw a couple of Will’s beautiful paintings at the Spring/Break Art Show in New York last year. The two portraits of David Mramor [one of which features on this week’s ES cover], avant-garde drag legend, became the basis of our exhibition,’ says Saatchi.

St. John has been committed to art since he was eight years old. Growing up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, it was his mother who provided the catalyst to his work. ‘My mom is a librarian and she got me a book, something like “how to draw mythological creatures”. That was the first time I ever did anything that really impressed my mum. I remember how excited she was by the progress I’d made. It pleased me that it pleased her. That was the real impetus to keep going.’

And keep going he did, even when treading an unpredictable path. In his early 20s, he made the bold decision to study creative writing rather than going to art school. For St. John, an education in classical art was not going to be found at an institution, but in Europe. ‘When I was in my 20s, I made a commitment to travel to all the major museums in Europe. I went to Spain, Greece, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, of course. I drew, studied and sketched from all the great works in the European museums. That was a big part of my education.’

I ask if he regrets his decision to sidestep art school. ‘Here’s the thing. There are so many connections that you can make if you go to art school, that’s predominantly what it’s all about. You’re paying for an education but you’re really paying for connections into an elite world of galleries; you’re paying for access into a network of peers. I think, if you go to those schools, you can definitely get on a fast track to success. A lot of really young people are incredibly advanced in their careers, doing extremely well and selling for really high prices. I think I would have been a lot further along now if I had gone to art school. While most people were sowing seeds in the art world making connections, I was backpacking around Europe looking at great art in museums.’

While most people were sowing seeds in the art world making connections, I was backpacking around Europe looking at great art in museums

Was there one artwork that impacted him most during his European quest? ‘I stood in front of [Michelangelo’s sculpture] La Pietà in St Peter’s [Basilica, Rome] and cried real tears, even though I’m not Catholic. I think it’s impossible not to feel genuine human emotion when you’re standing in front of great art like that. You’re experiencing the best of what humanity has done.’

 (Will St. John)
(Will St. John)

Nowadays St. John lives in Brooklyn with his wife, fellow artist Colleen Barry, and their two daughters, aged four and seven. I wonder, should his children wish to follow in his painterly footsteps, would he advise them against art school? ‘We would go the institutional route and try to get them those connections. My wife would say, “There is absolutely no way we are encouraging them to go through what we went through.” Years of obscurity, years of poverty, years of living in bad neighbourhoods in New York, not having two pennies to scrape together. Why would I encourage anyone — especially someone I love — to follow in the same footsteps?’ He pauses, before changing his mind. ‘But at the same time, it’s the difficulty that creates something good. It’s good to struggle, even if that means you’re 10 years behind your peers.’

St. John and his wife aren’t short of powerful peers. In 2021, Star Wars actor Adam Driver and his wife Joanne Tucker hosted St. John’s triumphant New York exhibition, Ride the Tiger. ‘It was amazing to be able to put their names on the invitation, a lot of fabulous people showed up. Since then, things have really fallen into place.’ The couple’s friendship with Driver and Tucker dates back decades, since the two women lived in the same building in New York. ‘We’ve been there to watch their journey too. Theirs has probably been more impressive.’

It was around this time that St. John began painting what he describes as modern-day, Brooklyn ‘bohemians’. Naturally, under the category of nonconformist, bohemian souls, comes queer muses, with St. John often depicting queer, trans and gender non-conforming subjects. ‘It was those works that made people in the art world start to pay attention. They thought, he’s taking this technique and historical perspective and combining it with people who could only exist in the public eye in this era. Drag queens and famous trans models, actors like Hari Nef — she is the perfect example. She came to my studio and posed for a photograph and then I did a painting of her in a sort of Pre-Raphaelite manner. She posted it on Instagram and it got something like 50,000 likes. People want to see the stars and celebrities that they like, who are people of today, represented in this classic, timeless way.

Hari Nef painted by Will St. John (Will St. John)
Hari Nef painted by Will St. John (Will St. John)

‘Going all the way back to Greco-Roman antiquity to the Renaissance, there is an interest in androgynous physical beings. If you look at Ancient Greek sculpture it’s androgynous, if you look at Caravaggio, Da Vinci, they were obsessed. People think that this is something that’s new, but it goes back thousands of years.’

Of all of his works — which can take anywhere between a week and six to complete — is there one that holds a special place in St. John’s heart? ‘I’m really proud of the Hari Nef painting that I did because it really brought together this idea of taking someone who is a relevant cultural figure today and infusing that with the classic sensibility of the type of painting you might see in the Wallace Collection.’

He may not have conquered the Wallace Collection yet, but since he’s about to triumph at Saatchi Yates, what’s next? Well, thoughts of the (significantly distant) future. ‘I’m very interested in what the work will look like in 500 years. Will anyone care? I hope in 100 years that a docent will be guiding kids around a gallery and telling them that Hari Nef was an important person of this time.’ Unfortunately, dear reader, we won’t know if people care about Will St. John’s work in the year 2523. But for now, at least, they certainly do. Will St. John, 13 September to 22 October, at Saatchi Yates (