Last night, artist James Jean started work on his mural going up in Luce Pavilion, projecting his detailed sketch on the red wall and sketching out shapes (pictured above). Today he is back at the museum, brushes in hand (he actually forgot a bag of $70 brushes in the cab on the way over here, and the driver just came back to the museum with them, asking, “Are these yours?” Yay nice taxi driver!). The mural is part of this year’s Pow! Wow! Hawaii, which also has the exhibition Exploring the New Contemporary Movement on view at the Art School through Feb. 18. Jean made his Pow! Wow! debut last year in Kaka‘ako, and he returns this year with the museum as his venue. Museum director Stephan Jost had only one stipulation for the mural—that it somehow connect with the exhibition Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art, which opens this Thursday. We asked Jean, who divides his time between Los Angeles and Tokyo, about his resulting design.

How does your mural design connect to Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art?
In Islamic art, there is a lot of emphasis on pattern and fractal design, so I took that as a starting point. I had a motif in my drawings of connecting heads that grow from each other, and that’s where I got the idea of using Islamic patterns, the idea of fractals, and I made it more of an organic character that’s floating on the wall. I’m always fascinated by vegetation and plantlife—how the elements branch off from each other, creating fractals. Hopefully there’s a feeling of continuity with the exhibition.

So the recurring head in the design is a repeated character, not multiple characters? And does this character mean something to you?
It’s one organism. When I started drawing this motif, I didn’t really go into it with any forethought, but afterwards I guess I could say it’s representative of the different aspects of our personalities. The first drawing I did I called Nervosa. I’m always fascinated by our ever changing moods, how the different parts of our brains that are activated at different times of day, how we are constantly fluctuating yet people expect us to be the same person all the time. I like the idea we can be multiple characters in one body.

As you work on the mural this week, what colors can we expect to emerge?
I’m going to try to work with the existing coral red, so I’m going to concentrate on creating monochromatic linework that will surround these fully painted faces. I feel it out as I go along, see what happens. For last year’s Pow! Wow! we bought a full range of colors and I ended up using only one. I’ve got four colors.

Your sketchbook work is very detailed, how do you approach a large-scale mural?
I do paint on large canvases, so I am used to the scale. In working on a wall, you can’t be too precious with what you’re doing. I also feel it’s very liberating because you’re working at a…I guess you could call it a human scale—you’re using your entire arm, entire body. When you work on a small piece it’s just your fingertips. These types of murals can be painted quite quickly. There are many challenges with this mural—the lift is not ideal, the scaffolding is incomplete, so we’re working on that. It’s also great to have enough space to step back to see what you’re doing. Last night we projected, getting rough shapes on the wall, and I’ll be referring to the print out. In the beginning you’re trying to solve all the problems.