The White Tower of Jess Black

Mike Ragan
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Jess was born in a small Scandinavian town in Iowa.  He was recognized for his artistic ability at an early age, was considered a prodigy and became locally known as a muralist.  By the age of fifteen, he was commissioned to do work in Des Moines, Chicago, Minneapolis and Dallas.  Those works were published in Better Homes and Gardens and Builder Architect.

I feel like I’m living in the present now, trying to be the best person I can, here on this earth today, because this life is a gift.

Jess was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, and lived in a lot of fear.  Painting became his way of expressing his emotions in a way that he didn’t have to talk about it.  He was very close with his grandmother, who was not a Jehovah’s Witness, and remembers the fear he felt that she wasn’t going to survive Armageddon.

At age seventeen, his parents found out he was gay from someone else—he was scared to admit it, scared to disappoint them and scared to be ostracized from the family.  You’re not allowed to be homosexual and be part of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  He knew his parents would believe this to be  a “signing of his own death certificate.”  

He was excommunicated from his family, friends and all the people he had grown to know and love.

After high school, Jess bought a plane ticket and left for New York City with $400 in his pocket.  Jess took a short detour from creating art when he was signed by the famed Wilhelmina Modeling Agency and booked jobs that took him all over the world.  The people of New York and the experiences of world travel began to teach him “the meaning of unconditional acceptance,” and he began to learn “how people become comfortable not caring what other people think about them.”   He found the love and support he needed, which reignited his interest in creating art again, and he committed to making art his career.

It took Jess fifteen years to create and debut a collection of work that explored his upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness entitled, “Leather Bound in Black or Red,” an exhibition of work on this subject matter that had never before been done.  This collection gave people a voice.  He wanted people to know “they weren’t alone.”

In 2012, Jess turned down several gallery offers to host the exhibit and elected to debut it online in a virtual gallery while he participated in a live chat.  The virtual gallery received visits from six continents, twenty-five countries and three-hundred-and-twelve cities.

In this short video, Jess tells the story behind his journey, the creation of this debut collection and how he has reconnected with his parents.


Jess’s work has been compared to Abstract Expressionists Wassily Kandinsky, Sam Francis, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francis Bacon. While comparisons are flattering, Jess continues to pave his own path in the contemporary Los Angeles art scene.

His work has been commissioned for corporate and hospitality collections, including The Hotel Figueroa–Los Angeles, Montage–Beverly Hills and FOX’s Hell’s Kitchen. It has been featured in national publications, including Juxtapoz Magazine, Paper Magazine, Avenue Insider and Art World News. Some of his notable collectors include The Point Foundation CEO Jorge Valencia, actress and designer Kristin Cavallari, radio-and-music-personality Elvis Duran, celebrity-designer Kari Whitman Interiors, television-personality Brooke Burke-Charvet, Chicago Bears–quarterback Jay Cutler, and television-personality Kris Jenner.

​Jess continues to exhibit his works in one to two shows per year. Most of his time is now spent creating art for private clients and corporate partners.

Get to Know Jess Black

1. Name the Person, Place or Thing that constantly provides you with inspiration.

Oddly, what inspires me the most is a new canvas. There is nothing more exciting to me than a big, blank canvas.  The bigger the better.  I have no artistic block (at this point), and I know that there is a possibility that this could be the best painting I have ever created.  I never know what I am going to paint when I first approach a canvas.  This is exciting to me.

2. What is your favorite color and why?

The first answer that pops into my head about my favorite color is white.  Most consider white the absence of color, but it sets off all other colors in a painting.  It may be the most important color with which I work.

3. What is your trend forecast?

As an artist I’m not sure I follow trends the way many want me to.  I don’t create art to match trends.  If I tried I would probably fail miserably.  I’m hoping what I create is timeless and transcends trends.  I have been lucky enough to have my art placed in some beautifully-designed homes.  

4. Outside of work what are you passionate about?

I have always been an advocate for animal rights. I have primarily focused on senior dog adoption and the anti-fur movement. I will always have a rescue pet. My pets have truly been the great loves of my life.

5. Who are your favorite designers?

One of my favorite designers right now is Natasha Jansz. I’d say her style is very California…modern, eclectic, an emphasis on an indoor-outdoor lifestyle, a bit of vintage mixed with organic elements and clean modern pieces. I love the way my work fits into her aesthetic. I’m also partial to Nicole Sassaman, who mixes textures so beautifully; leaving me feeling calmly energized, if that makes sense.

6. What is your favorite travel destination?

Oh, wow, my favorite travel destination? To pick just one as my favorite is impossible! There have been different places for different times in my life. I will say this, who you are traveling with can make or break a particular destination. Whether you are going on a lazy, restorative beach vacation in the Caribbean or an African safari. That being said, I have been fortunate to travel extensively, but I’m dying to go through the Greek Mykonos.

7. Is there a food or drink you absolutely CANNOT live without?

My food/drink preferences seem to go in cycles. Sushi is my mainstay. I really appreciate fresh, beautifully-presented sushi. I think a lot about becoming a vegetarian as I get older; great sushi prevents that from happening.

8. What was your first job?

My first paying job was at the age of thirteen when I was hired to do some murals. I’ve had a few detours, but it keeps coming back to art.

9. What is on your bedside table?

My bedside table is filled with BOOKS! Usually something by an author who makes me laugh. I think you should laugh before you fall asleep. There’s also a framed photo of my dog Peggy who was my constant companion for twelve years. She died two years ago. There’s also an occasional Buddha and orchid.

10. Tell us something that most people don’t know about you.

What don’t people know about me? I think if you put all the people in my life together they would be able to collectively provide a complete picture of who I am. There is a chance that no single person knows all of me. People seem to be surprised when they first meet me that I am a good cook. People are also surprised that I live in Los Angeles and do not own a car. I never needed a car when I lived in New York. Now with Uber I do not need a car in Los Angeles.

11. What makes you prowdr?

I live my life unedited.  I create from a place of freedom, and I experience life as best as I can with enthusiasm and an open heart.  I try to be a kind person.  This makes me PROWDR.  

Special Gift for Prowdr Readers: Enjoy 25 percent off your purchase at Mike Ragan Home. Use code Prowdr at checkout.

With a successful career in modeling, acting and dancing on and off Broadway, Mike Ragan founded RAGS, a high-end custom furniture company, which is celebrating its 25th year in business. He is a brand-identity expert and marketing and merchandising consultant. He proudly partners with renowned designers and retailers around the country to create some of the best home interiors in the world.

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