Jaxon Northon grew up in Reno and spent a year post-high school in San Francisco, where he started drawing people he saw riding the bus. Now, two decades later, he exhibits his work regularly at the city’s Modern Eden Gallery.
In recent years, he’s been contacted out of the blue for some unexpected illustration gigs, including a portrait of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey for Barron’s magazine, the cover image for a French edition of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and—my personal favorite—the Reno News & Review’s 2018 Best of Northern Nevada issue. (I was Arts Editor there at the time.) For that series, Northon painted Reno locals past and present—like Evelyn Mount, known for her long-running Thanksgiving food drive.
Some of Northon’s paintings are on permanent display in bars and restaurants, including the Overland in Gardnerville, and Royce, Von Bismarck, and The Loving Cup in Reno. A recent painting of Inez “Mama” Casale and her son Tony Stempeck hangs at Casale’s Halfway Club, the restaurant that Inez’s parents opened in 1937. (There’s more on the story of that painting in this recent article by the Reno Gazette Journal’s Jenny Kane.)
Many of Northon’s images are available for purchase as prints.
What have you been doing the last few months or so?
A lot of commission work. I actually got pretty lucky since the pandemic started. I didn’t really slow down business. I just kind of locked myself in and just finished a bunch of stuff—a lot of private commissions, a lot of portraits.
As a portrait artist, how do you decide who to paint? You often paint people who are admired by the community. What else goes into that decision?
Well, honestly, my favorite people to paint are people that aren’t necessarily well known by the public. It’s just, if they’re interesting to me, either their story’s interesting or they have a unique look about him, like interesting features.
The series you did in 2018 for the Reno News & Review is dear to my heart. It’s this great collection of Reno figures, including some people who are household names, and some who have not really lived in the limelight—but you present them as people who we should be paying attention to.
Right? Yeah. … I do love representing historical figures and giving a light to people that might’ve literally been forgotten eventually. Then I like maybe using my paintings as a way to remember people that I think should be remembered, for whatever unique reason.
I just love your painting of Evelyn Mount.
Thank you. Did you see that she actually ended up with it? My wife reached out to a guy that she knew that worked with the Evelyn Mount Foundation and he’s like, “Yeah, get it to me. I’ll get it to her for sure.” And then we kind of lost track of the painting for over a year. … And then literally, like, a year, year and a half later, Evelyn Mount’s caretaker, the woman that lives with her, reached out on Instagram and was like, “Oh, I just love the painting. Evelyn loves it too.” And I was like, “Wait, does Evelyn have it?” She sent a picture, and she’s holding the painting. And it was just like one of the best feelings ever. It’s like that painting found where it was supposed to be, you know?
How did you decide to paint her in the first place?
When we did the Reno News & Review thing, me and [then-RN&R Editor] Brad [Bynum] sat down and were like, “Oh, let’s figure it out. Some people in town, not in the limelight, but … people who made Reno what Reno is, or Northern Nevada what Northern Nevada is.” … I’ve always remembered her on TV and doing all the turkey drives and food drives and stuff. And, my wife grew up down there by the Evelyn Mount Center. They used to go get food from her. She’s always been a big part of making Reno great.
You know else I like about that series? The Northern Nevada backgrounds. They convey such a strong sense of home.
I definitely prefer the kind of throwback, old English landscape backgrounds for portraits. It was really fun to pick different parts of Northern Nevada and use them, not only as pretty backgrounds, but also to represent each person.
There’s a question I’ve had on my mind for a long time, and I think you’d be a good person to discuss this with. With portraiture, an artist makes a lot of choices about how to represent people. Over the years, I’ve seen some strong local portrait work, especially photography, that portrays people who are struggling financially or experiencing homelessness or, say, working in the sex industry. Personally, I appreciate seeing people in those situations acknowledged. There’s been some criticism of that kind of representation though—a sense that Reno should be cleaning up its image, and artists who make that kind of work aren’t helping.
100% agree with you. I feel like that’s been kind of a problem, especially with portraiture, throughout history and art. I mean, portraiture has predominantly been for the wealthy, white people of the world, especially painting. There’s obviously some beautiful, beautiful portraits that have come out in history, from the Renaissance all the way up, but there is a very select group of people that is mainly portrayed. And obviously a few artists in history have painted people on the margins, and done amazing work. But it’s few and far between.
I think those types of paintings, of the people, not just the wealthy elite or the people that can afford it, or the people who rose to prominence to be painted, like government officials or whatever. I think the people on the margins paint a much more of a complete picture of the region or the time. [Painting them] shows the history of the place and just the soul of the place much more.
Here’s a related thought: An artist could portray people in a way that is voyeuristic or exploitative or tries to exoticize people. Or you could portray them in a way that’s respectful and dignified. But here’s where I get tripped up. Sometimes, those two kinds of portrayals can look exactly the same. As an artist, how do you manage that?
It’s a very subtle and difficult thing, no matter what. … I always just try and paint the most honest portrayal of that person that I possibly can. … You can only try and paint as honestly as you can. I think it depends on the viewer, how they’re going to take the image, subjectively.
You mentioned that you’ve been working on something for The Loving Cup.
I did the portrait of Jagger a long time ago when they first opened. … The bar The Loving Cup is named after a Rolling Stones song. And so when they opened it up, [owner Pete Barnato] was like, “Hey, let’s do a big portrait of Mick Jagger.” … It was really cool. It was his idea originally. And then I kind of ran wild with it. The song “Loving Cup” by the Rolling Stones was based off of a Renaissance painting titled “The Loving Cup.” … It was a woman holding the lid of a cup over her breast, holding it like it was her nipple, basically. It was this really taboo, suggestive painting for the time. … When the pandemic hit, I was like, I’m just going to paint this big painting cause I’ve got time. … I’m doing this big, horizontal, four-foot-wide painting of Keith Richards, nude—basically a picnic with Keith Richards.
What else are you working on?
Over the last few years, I’ve been doing this project in my free time where I interview people. I’ll do a painting of them, but then I’ll have their edited, recorded interview that you can play while you look at the painting. It’s like an oral history biography of themselves as they tell it. … “The Human Head” project is what I’ve been calling it. Some are really interesting stories. And even the ones that aren’t, it’s just kind of like, “This is who I am.” It still turns out really powerful when you’re looking at the painting and looking at this person, and they’re just telling you who they are. It’s pretty cool.
LISTEN: Charlie Ward’s story, in her own words:
People must appreciate being able to tell their stories.
Yeah. … I came up with the idea a while ago just cause I love podcasts, and I love listening to human interest stories. … It’s actually been really surprising at how personal and deep it gets. You put a microphone in front of somebody, and that’s a chance that they don’t ever really get in life to just say, “This is me,” you know?
Right. Nobody usually asks.
It turned into this really cool way to portray a person with an extra level.
I actually had some little vinyl records pressed for a couple of them. So you can put a little record player under the painting and put headphones on. You can actually flip the record and listen to them talk.
Has doing that project changed the way you walk around in the world? Does it change the way you see people when you’re in some random place?
Oh yes. 100%. Absolutely. Even before this project. I love painting people. I gravitated toward it young, and I’m still excited about capturing likenesses and painting people and painting who they are. I look at everybody now with that in mind, like, “Oh, they have an amazing story.” It makes me much more observant with people. It makes me go over and start conversations more than I would have.
I have struggled, as I’m sure most people do, with the existential questions of—why are we here? What’s the point to all this? But I have also, fortunately, found this outlet that I have attached that importance to. The point of my life, as I see it now, is to paint and to paint a body of work—as much as I can before the day I die, no matter what happens after I’m dead, if they all burn up in a fire or whatever—to just show the people of my time, who we are, just capture that as honestly as I can.
Cover photo: Crystal Sugartown Collazo Esparza Northon
You can see more of Jaxon Northon’s work on his website.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.