Interviewer: Mandy Tang
Editor: Selena Perez
In this artist spotlight, Mandy Tang interviews Justin C.M. Brown. Justin is a third-year transfer student majoring in Sociology and minoring in Digital Humanities. He is also one of the Chief Layout Editors for Aleph Journal. As an artist, musician, and writer, Justin is dedicated to exploring his research interests within multimedia content. This article features his most recent creative project, “Signs of Spring”, a series of augmented photographs that showcase some of the many flowers on UCLA’s campus.
Mandy: Could you tell me about your creative project, and what the motivation behind it was?
Justin: So what really set it off for me was noticing how many different types of flowers there are on UCLA’s campus. There are some I had never seen before anywhere else, so I decided I wanted to learn the names of them. That was the whole energy for it. On my way to class, I would take a photo of a flower, and then use Google Lens to identify it, and then I would memorize the name. But the part that really made it stick in my memory was creating an original work with it. So, I spent an extra half hour playing with each photo, and now I’m never going to forget them!
Mandy: True! So, it seems like that is what motivated “Signs of Spring”. I get how that could create an efficient marker for yourself to be able to remember each name.
Justin: Yes, it’s similar to education in the sense that it’s not necessarily memorization as much as it is interpretation, and being able to explain it in your own words. That’s kind of the indication of learning something, being able to re-explain it. So this series is my version of re-explaining flowers to myself.
Mandy: What is your perspective on the intersection between art and nature in your creative project, and how do you interpret the roles different elements of your artwork play in constructing specific meanings?
Justin: That’s a great question and I think about it a lot. As far as the relationship between art and nature, I mean, irrevocably, nature carries many of the aesthetic values of art, but it is produced by the Earth. Sometimes I look at a flower and ask, “what is the purpose of flowers?”, and I realize that the answer is: the flower’s purpose is to be a flower, to do exactly that. That’s the only thing it does. It doesn’t change shape, it blooms in accordance with the seasons. It is just beauty created by the Earth and it’s just so wonderful (laughs)! I just really like flowers, I really do. There’s also so much math involved in flowers (regarding the shapes), and then all the chemistry that goes on— there’s just so much about flowers. Also, as a sociologist, I wonder about the social function of flowers, like how they’re used in celebrations and as gifts. I think it’s something that crosses all borders and all languages, even pre-language, because even children pre-language acquisition enjoy flowers due to how colorful they are. It’s pretty. There is something to appreciate about flowers at every level, from just purely, I look at it and it’s pretty and I like it, all the way up to Botany and Chemistry.
Mandy: Yes, you can look at it from both technical and scientific angles. But even in regards to children, we assume they don’t have much mental language, but they can still observe flowers and engage in aesthetic appreciation at early ages.
Justin: Yes, exactly… and you know, flowers are so embedded into culture, like if you say “picture a wedding with no flowers”, there’s kind of a shock. We don’t even realize how present or essential they are. So this series… I don’t think people can appreciate flowers too much. I know when I walk into campus, in front of the Engineering VI building there are Douglas Irises, and Blue-Eyed Grass, and Bladderpod. I look at them and I greet them by name. I say, “Oh hey Douglas Iris”, and it just makes me sincerely content and happy just to do that. I don’t think people can appreciate flowers too much. And I think that there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily pay much attention to them, but I think it’s a free and easy way to add a little bit of enjoyment into your daily life.
Mandy: Exactly, in some ways, it’s really Utilitarian. It brings joy and contemplation to people whenever they pass by a flower or tree. I feel like this project very much reflects themes of research because it highlights not only the acts of experiencing flowers or thinking about them in social contexts (or how their flowerness doesn’t only lead to a metaphysical picture), but also how we see flowers in our lived scenarios with our lived experiences.
Justin: Definitely, for sure. To me, loving flowers is all entry-level. You don’t actually have to learn the names of them, that’s optional. You can just look at it and say, “that’s some good blue right there, good job” and that’s it, that’s all it takes. And they don’t even have to be fancy flowers like these irises or trumpet vines (which are big flower energy). But even clover, even dandelions, once you tap into liking flowers, you’re like “hey, good job little flower!” (laughs).
Mandy: I feel like flowers are inclusive in terms of accessibility for observation, and I think that’s great. If you want to appreciate artworks in an art museum, you have to at least get into the art museum first, but for flowers, you can just walk around and take time, and that’s all you have to do to have your own thoughts about it. My next question… could you share an enlightening moment in your journey as an artist?
Justin: Hmm… I direct what I’m going to say to the artists and “will-be” artists— one of the most enlightening parts of my journey was buying my own website, because it is mine to determine what goes on it. There are no comment boxes, I put things out the way I want them to appear. It’s not mediated by social media, it’s not mediated by advertising, I can say what I want to say, there are no character limits, no size limits, it’s really my own space. That was one thing that really made me feel like an artist, was that feeling that no one was going to tell me what I could or couldn’t do. When you have your own artery to the collective consciousness of the internet, it opens up your freedom. So I would really recommend it for all artists— and by the way, everyone is an artist, researchers are artists, students are artists, teachers are artists, writers are artists, and all this stuff is art. Starting a website was the opening to freely communicate what I have, and I know that it will reach the people who look for it. I feel like that was a very enlightening moment for me.
Mandy: I feel like that’s so powerful, to have that infinite space to will. I imagine if there are no comments or external distractions disturbing how you view your artwork, then you have full agency to write what has been going on in your mind, kind of like what goes on to a paper or material medium.
Justin: Exactly, and I think this speaks to the core of my artistic philosophy, which is to value your own creative thought. Our brains are more powerful than we can ever understand, and there is a condition of self-respect and valuing your own creative thought that encourages you to document it, like taking notes, or sketches, or photos. People have original creative thoughts every single day of their lives, and only some of us think that it’s worth writing down or keeping. I would really encourage people to pay attention to the creative thought that goes on in their heads every day and value it enough to put it down, to get it out of your head and onto paper. Just ten seconds, jot it down, maybe it’s a funny phrase, something that makes you laugh… don’t let it disappear, keep it, keep it for nobody else, keep it for you because when you look back at your journal you can see it and say, “I’m a creative person”. Creativity matters more than being an artist, because it’s about going through the world as a problem solver, as someone who sees things how they are and knows that they have the creative capacity to change things, to create new things and propose new ideas. We all have that, just some of us engage with it in a way where it becomes part of our identity. So, when we see things around us in the world, in our world, we trust ourselves to influence it. If you don’t know where to start on making a change in your world, start by doodling and writing down thoughts you have in the shower. It’s transformative, and it’s approachable.
Mandy: I feel like you’ve connected your website as a storage of your personal thoughts to how human creativity is bound. I also think about how that storage can transform and transcend over time… that would bring us meaning and so much power in life. The last question I have is, are there any aspects of the art that we didn’t touch on?
Justin: Sure, thank you. So, I just want to explain my reasoning behind naming this style “augmented photography”. To me, it’s not photo manipulation because I don’t edit any of the photos, like I don’t move any lines, I don’t erase anything, I keep everything as it is. The art part comes from layering and effects, so it’s not manipulation per se. I don’t consider it editing either, because I think of editing as only working within the single image, and I try to draw out more than what was originally in the photograph through multiple layers. That’s why I call it “augmented photography”. I share that to say, I think of my art as a product of my creativity, not really as a product of some far off skill. I learned mostly through playing with the different programs and clicking on all the buttons to see what they do, so I would encourage anybody to find a graphic design program and play with it. Not for the likes, not for the money, or any of that, but just as a form of taking images from the real world and literally playing with them.
Mandy: That is really impressive. Would you like to share your platform handles?
Justin: I would love to, my main social media account is my Instagram, @JCMBmade and my website is JCMBmade.com. I also cannot forget that I must express my appreciation and gratitude to the UCLA Botanical Garden and the entire Groundskeeping, Landscaping and Custodial staff for their remarkable effort in making UCLA’s campus so beautiful. This series would not be possible without them.
Mandy: That’s great! Any final thoughts?
Justin: Yes, thank you. One thing I’ve really been thinking about is the initiation of becoming a researcher, there’s a process that a lot of undergraduates go through when trying to discover where your area of research is. And I would encourage everyone to collect data that is beautiful to them personally. That doesn’t mean happy, because there can be a lot of pain in research, but the stories and experiences in overcoming and making sense of the world, all of that is beautiful. So collect data that is beautiful to you, pursue what brings beauty into your life and you’ll never stop researching, because it becomes a thing that feeds your spirit. Research doesn’t have to be only numbers in spreadsheets, it can be something that gives you something back. And I will say right after that, that I recognize that some of the most important research is extremely difficult and dark and brutal and violent and tedious, and it’s extremely important. But for that, there’s got to be beauty in the solutions, in the hope and vision that there is a better world and that there are ways to overcome all of these things. So, it’s not only “let’s look at flowers” because that’s not going to be enough. So researchers, go forth, find what you love, find what feeds you, and find the solutions that will make the world more beautiful for everyone.
If you would like to learn more about Justin’s creative work and his journey as a creator, here is a link to his website: https://jcmbmade.com/ .