Mention the name James Hackett in art and design circles, and you’re sure to be met with warm reception. In the business over a decade now, James has established a reputation as a creative illustrator and designer who’s always on the quest for artistic enlightenment.
I first met James in 2000, as a member of the Vox team – the legendary youth magazine that was published every Sunday in the Trinidad Express, and which was an incubator for many creative young people, who, to this day, are still involved in the media or the arts in various capacities. An affable guy, he was always humble, down-to-earth, and nothing near the male version of a diva designer who thinks he’s the ‘ish’. His pen was the only mic he needed, and with it he created illustrations that brought stories to life; and if that weren’t enough, he also penned the legendary “Tales from the Daaknite”, with help from fellow Vox friends Dennis Taye, Kayode James, and Naette Lee.
“I’m actually currently working on new stories with the help of two other friends,” he says, eyes lighting up. “I’d like to see my name up there with folks like Alfred Codallo who are known for their folklore writings. I would also like to see some fiction from my contemporaries.”
Vox definitely played a key role in James’ development, but his love for the arts started much earlier than that though.
“I trace my journey in three stages in a way – home, then secondary school, and while in secondary school I used to read Vox magazine,” he says. “My older brother used to buy comic books and he also drew very well, and he used to show me stuff. I also read a lot, since my pre-teen years. People might think it’s a strange way to start drawing, but reading aids imagination, as you play out storylines in your mind.
“In secondary school (Trinity College) I used to be drawing. You know how there’s always somebody in class who could do a lil something? That was me, and in secondary school everything picked up from there. It basically came to a point where I could have gone two parts, arts and sports. Honestly I couldn’t afford the football, so art was it. And I think I was fortunate to have a good teacher – Patrick Roberts – who was very knowledgeable. So I always felt like we got an art education that was beyond secondary level. I stayed at Trinity right up to Sixth Form, so I got a great foundation.
“I figured I could draw, so one day I carried some stuff for Dennis Taye, who was Vox’s Editor at the time. He liked what he saw, thought it was cool and gave me a shot. So the Vox stage kickstarted my professional career. A 19-year-old running a big section of the paper was a big deal. Vox was important. Work started to get published. It was like now it’s getting serious because you started to get paid.
“I had to prove to my parents that I could make money being an artist.”
“I had to prove to my parents that I could make money being an artist, because you know old school… they want you to be a doctor or lawyer. From when I was 18-19, I was making money for myself off of jobs and art. I think around 20 or 21, I had an exhibition at Hartford, Connecticut in the US. That was with other local artists, including longtime friend – Warren LePlatte.
“A little after that is when I started doing illustrations for Caribbean Beat. I’m glad I’m still on their roster. I’ve been with them since 2002, which is a really long time. It doesn’t feel like that because the magazine is bi-monthly.”
Carving a niche from early on helped James become a “go-to” guy in a small field of local illustrators. His interests also seemed perfectly aligned, as his love for comics and books prepared him for a much taken-for-granted skill designers and illustrators must develop – research.
“If someone has a story, and I need an illustration for it the first thing I do is read it,” he explains. “You need to have comprehension skills so that you can understand and appreciate the story and how the visual will capture it. You can’t make an irrelevant drawing. You research the idea and pull out what you think is the main part of the story or something that’s amusing that can catch people’s attention. You need to read, and research. Which is why I keep reading. It may not always be books, but I also read news sites, and credible writers, and pay attention to what’s happening. That always helps so you’re in tune with the spirit of the times.”
Despite all this talent, James still had some obstacles along the wall; in his case, though, they were self-made. Already in love with art, James also developed a heavy crush for gaming, and like most crushes, he found himself on a road of obsession that almost derailed him totally. That detour lasted four years.
“For three to four years I was serious about video gaming to the point where it was a real addiction,” he admits, showing every sign that he had fully acknowledged the extent of the situation, and the potential it had to stall his dreams. “When you’re spending 16 hours a day on video games, you don’t have time for much else. I had one of the biggest videogaming clans in the country. I was managing an Internet café and gaming rentals so I was living that whole lifestyle, but it came at a cost because all that time I wasn’t doing a lot of art.
So people were like where yuh gone. That was between 2001 and 2005. That period had a lot of people going to Internet cafés. At one point we had three of them in Woodbrook, and schoolboys and working people would come on afternoons. I was kinda drawing but I wasn’t going anywhere with it. I stayed like that for four years.”
Eventually finding his way back on course, with a few stumbles along the way, James decided that it was time for a challenge.
“After I came out of the gaming thing and came to terms with the fact that I was addicted, I spent a Christmas in Hartford with some friends and I kind of ended up staying longer than I should because a pickpocket snatched my passport. I spent a long time, and had time to think through stuff. I came back and decided I was going to get serious so I started to do some work for NCC for a little while with their website and stuff. Then eventually I decided I would do a steady job. And that’s where I eventually ended up at an advertising agency for a while – two years. I’m a restless spirit and I just kind of felt like I needed to grow because I don’t like to be stagnant. I was real hungry to improve myself and around that time I saw the ad for the degree in fashion design at UTT (University of Trinidad and Tobago). I wanted to do a programme that would challenge me and it felt right and it felt natural.”
Currently in his second year, James is now drawing more dresses than he ever did before. But, how come fashion?
“I always liked drawing the female figure so figured it was the right choice.”
“I think it was always there. I’d read magazines; I have a thing for fabric. I love Mode Alive (accessories store that used to sell fabric). I would go to Mode Alive and go look around at the fabric. I always liked drawing the female figure so figured it was the right choice. So I came here, met challenges. I don’t like to be in a place where nothing’s going to happen. I want to do well and it propels me to do better. That kind of back and forth is healthy for me. I respect a lot of the teachers here and their approach cause it leads more on the side of being professional and basically stepping up the game so I liking it. Plans still up in the air. I have a lot of options. I want to do some fashion illustrations. I’d like to make and produce clothes as a bonafide designer. Obviously I want to throw that knowledge into Carnival, as I’ve always been involved in mas design from my school days, and I’ve worked Peter Minshall and bands like Image Nation. I’ll sort that out closer to the end.”
“In 2009, I decided that I would get serious again, and start producing an illustration a day, starting from my birthday until my next birthday. It’s kinda hard but I try to stick to it as much as possible; I’ve done over 170 illustrations to date. I think artistically I’ve grown and gotten faster. Christmas 2010 was also great because I was able to sell prints, through Hackett’s Print Shop, which was successful. I’m not doing prints right now because I’m focused on school. Now, my focus is to improve, improve, improve.”
He’s now embarked on an even bigger creative journey, having formed the design company Zigwa with a close circle of friends – who he calls his brothers – and has formed a company. All of them (Warren LePlatte, Kenwyn Murray, Michael Norgriff, Kerhann Jones, and Richard Thomas) have a strong background in art, design and Carnival. Certainly one of the contemporary creatives of our time, James continues to seek inspiration from all over the world, and leverage life’s lessons.
“As bad as the video gaming was it opened me up because I think that’s where I really started to understand the power of the Internet,” he says. “I used to be videogaming with people from Japan, Korea, and Australia and I still talk to some of them. So it’s almost like turning something negative to a positive. I spend a lot of time on the Internet, reading what’s happening whether it’s BBC, Digg or Twitter. I’m just kind of there paying attention. But I have to pay nuff respect and homage to video games. I’ve grown out of that a bit though. Now, I pay more attention to movies, and not just Hollywood, because countries like Korea are doing a lot of interesting stuff. Then there are the European and independent films.”
Drawing inspiration from so many places, it’s easy to see how James has managed to move seamlessly from illustration to fashion, all the while remaining firmly placed in the arts. Still keeping his interests perfectly aligned, James is serious about making his mark, and it’s only a matter of time before he moves his art from paper sheets to the runway.
Photography by Mark Lyndersay.