A (Still) Life of Avocados, Lemons, Oranges, and Strawberries.

The morning before an art event, you might find James Mertke unloading the Tetris puzzle of art pieces and display shelves from his car. It’s been a little over a year since James started participating in art markets, and although he’s still learning the ropes, he’s grown a lot since his first event. He’s created an eye-catching display with hand-painted signage and a variety of shelves.

James can’t remember a time he wasn’t painting. He loves pushing color vibrancy and emphasizing shadows. “I’ve landed on acrylic paints because I enjoy the vibrancy that can be achieved and the fast drying times that encourage me to work quickly and deliberately.”

Talk with James for a few minutes, and you’ll find there’s a story behind each brightly colored still life—sliced fruit, donuts, Botan Rice Candy, strawberry “grandma” candies—simple and happy childhood memories captured on canvas. “That’s one of my favorite things about the things I paint. Just on the surface, it’s a lemon to someone. But when I tell them the story about the lemon tree, maybe they’ll share something about how their grandparents had a lemon tree that they remember.”

During high school, academics became the priority while art took the back burner. James discovered a love of mechanical engineering in 2018 at Santa Clara University. Practicing art became something reserved for weekends at home. But when many doors closed during the pandemic, a door opened for James to pursue art. Commuting time could instead be dedicated to painting. 

Looking for new ways to practice his craft, James noticed a 100-day painting challenge on Instagram. Over the summer, he painted a new piece every day for 100 days in a row. With a time constraint, he spent less time adjusting the same painting and simply applied different techniques to his next piece. The subject of his paintings also shifted. “Before the pandemic, I was mostly painting ocean scenes…I would take reference photos when I went to Santa Cruz or Monterey…When the pandemic happened, I started transitioning to the still lifes because I was looking for things around my house to paint.” 

A prevalent subject in James’s art is lemon slices. He finds eye-catching glassware from the thrift store, arranging and rearranging lemon slices around them to get the right reference shot. James details the strong shadows and vibrant yellows in his art, but the connection behind the lemons is personal and sweeter. The lemons come from the tree in his grandpa’s backyard. “I always say it’s a giant lemon tree, but it’s a dwarf one—I’m taller than it—but it’s the most prolific thing,” he says. His grandpa remains one of James’s biggest supporters and is always thrilled to offer him lemons. After an art market, James will call him to share how it went. “He likes hearing when I make a sale…he’ll be so excited and smiling all the time.”

After the 100-day challenge, James improved his skills—and his inventory. “I had boxes and boxes of paintings.” He made it a project to get himself into events and shows to sell his work. Since James didn’t study art or take any art classes, he didn’t naturally find himself surrounded by an art community. He’s worked to find community by joining his school’s art club, frequenting art events, and exchanging art pieces with new friends. The art community he’s found is extremely supportive. “Art is about abundance. There’s not limited space for all the artists,” he explains. “The more art people create, the more opportunities people create for people to appreciate art, and the more people appreciate art, the more people will want to support artists.”

Early this year, James was invited to show his work at the Elliott Fouts Gallery in Sacramento. His pieces have been curated into an exhibit titled, The Still Life. James also connects with the local community for opportunities to display art at businesses like Voyager Craft Coffee and Fox Tale Fermentation Project. 

Recently, James introduced mechanical engineering pieces into his work by snapping reference photos in the machine shop for mechanical engineering–themed paintings. He submitted a series featuring LED lights, electrical resistors, and 3D-printed items to an art show sponsored by the School of Engineering at SCSU to celebrate the art of engineers. The paintings were acquired by the Department of Mechanical Engineering and now hang in the office.

Mechanical engineering and painting used to be two unrelated interests, but James has found they go hand in hand. “I’m an artist and engineer. I feel like when people think of engineering, it’s all math and logic…but I also like expressing my creative side,” he says. “Engineering is creative too, in a different way. I think engineering and art coexist and create some really cool combinations.”