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Gazing Into Zen in Las Vegas

The abstract mandalas of UNLV alumnus James Stanford demand close inspection. A new art book collects his works.

People  |  Dec 4, 2018  |  By Diane Russell

"Binions" from James Stanford's Shimmering Zen collection.

Rather than seeing Las Vegas as culturally vacant, James Stanford looks around him and sees artistic opportunity.

One of the UNLV alumnus’ endeavors involves taking photographs of many of Las Vegas’ iconic neon signs and architecture and using them as the basis of new works of art.

After years of photographing such images, Stanford began using his graphic arts skills to turn those photographs into mandalas, which he describes as visual works of art that take you into higher consciousness.

He describes his work as “complex and meditative.”

He said he “opens his mind to meditation and asks the universe, ‘What is going on here?’ (The answer) seems to be revealed through my work.”

A Guide to the Cosmos

“Consider it a ‘trip,’ a guide to the cosmos,” said Stanford, ’71 BFA Art, whose Zen Buddhism heavily influences his work. Some of the first mandalas were created for planning Hindu and Buddhist temples, and many of the great temples in Southeast Asia are mandalas, he explained.

His mandalas have resulted in two recent successes.

First, is his second book, Shimmering Zen, which contains 150 of the images that Stanford has created during the last 20 years, including many of those drawn from the neon signs so significant to Las Vegas’ history. The 264-page, limited edition book was printed in Verona, Italy.

The second is his “Shimmering Zen” art show that recently was on display at the gallery in the Sahara West Library. “That’s such a wonderful space,” he said of the library art gallery.

Both the book and the art show have ties to London. The book launch took place in November 2017 at the London Library, a private lending library that was established by Scottish essayist, historian, and mathematician Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s. About 150 people attended. Some 30 of Stanford’s pieces that were on display at Sahara West were part of the London show, which was part of the 20th anniversary of Asian Art in London.

“I found the London experience to be just a wonderful endeavor — kind of a turning point in my career,” he said.

New Exhibition

Now he has Portals, an illuminative pop-up installation in the vacant storefront windows of the Quivx building, 1 E. Charleston Blvd., in the heart of the Las Vegas Arts District. While the installation will be visible from the street during the day, it is best viewed at night.

This installation, which will be on display through Jan. 31, will be the first of many select pop-up exhibitions curated by Laura Henkel of Artculture PR at the Quivx Building. Portals marks a poignant return of Stanford to the Arts District where he once opened the first commercial gallery in the area.

Lifetime Career

In some ways, Stanford’s career has been a lifetime in the making.

“I grew up being inspired by my oldest brothers’ work,” he said. “He was 18 years older, and he was a cartoonist. He went off to Korea in the war and left all his drawings, paintings, and sculptures at the house.”

Their parents, an English teacher and a football coach/mathematician at Las Vegas High School, were broadminded enough to encourage Stanford’s artistic leanings. Still, they had some reservations.

“My parents went to my high school art teacher, Willard Kowalis, and asked, ‘Does Jimmy have the talent and ability to be an artist?’  He told them I had talent and that I worked hard.”

After high school, Stanford found his way to Nevada Southern University, as UNLV was then known. He was thinking about pursuing teaching, rather than art, as a career. “I was kind of afraid I couldn’t make a living at it.”

The art department was led by professors Rita Deanin Abbey, Jerry Pfaffl, and Ray Obermayr, Stanford said.

“I enrolled in ’66 as an English major but I couldn’t leave art alone. I couldn’t leave life drawing alone. I took every art class that I could fit into my schedule. I would draw several hours a day,” he said.

The art professors noticed.

One day a group of them took him into the Grant Hall gallery where they had hung perhaps 100 of his figure drawings.

“Pfaffl asked if I was an art major,” Stanford recalled. “I said I was an English major, but that I only had been able to get a ‘B.’ They said, ‘We’ll give you an art scholarship if you will change your major.’ So, I did.

“I was encouraged every step of the way,” Stanford said. “I worked very hard at it. I found everything I needed at UNLV. The classes were small; the teachers were really quite interesting.”

Return to Campus

After graduating in 1971, he returned to his alma mater in 1978 when art department chair Bill Leaf hired him as an adjunct faculty member. He taught for 10 years and then returned again for three years in 2001.

His favorite course to teach? Color composition.

“It’s a combination of color theory and basic design and composition,” he said. “I consider it the core course for all the art courses at UNLV. I learned something new every time I taught it.”

Stanford said he thinks that because of his parents — after whom Las Vegas’ Stanford Elementary School is named — and a brother who also taught, he was sort of genetically predisposed to teaching. “It was in my bones.”

His advice for today’s art majors at UNLV?

“I would say believe in yourself and realize that being from Las Vegas doesn’t mean that you are geographically disadvantaged. You can find at UNLV what you can find at any other school,” Stanford said. “I went to a top-10 school for my MFA at the University of Washington, but I valued my UNLV education just as much. UNLV is a fine institution and I think it is going to do nothing but get better and better and better.

“I would say be proud of your city. Look around and take note. This is really one of the capitals of popular culture. I can’t think of a better place to make art than Las Vegas.”