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  • Johnson Tsang

    Interview: Johnson Tsang

    Johnson Tsang

    “Still in One Piece IV” from Lucid Dream series – Porcelain sculpture by Johnson Tsang

    The mind-bending sculptures of Johnson Tsang push the limits of imagination and sometimes even of gravity. By turns whimsical, lyrical, and provocative, his works capture the fluidity of both physical motion and human emotion while challenging us to see the world in a different way.

    “My works depicting babies were expressing my point of view to the world through the eyes of a child—my inner child.” —Johnson Tsang

    Johnson Tsang

    Left: “Soul Shopping” & Right: “Hang in There” from Lucid Dreams series – Porcelain sculptures by Johnson Tsang

    Julie Winters: Tell us how sculpture became your preferred medium for creating art.

    Johnson Tsang: I have liked observing everything around me since I was four years old. The world was so beautiful for me, especially Mother Nature. I drew as much as I could. Ten years later, people said I was very good at it. However, I wasn’t satisfied with 2D expression because everything I saw was in 3D. I could not find a way to capture the beauty of nature even though I was able to draw very realistically. Then, just like other kids, I started to play with clay. I just loved it. The difference between me and other kids is that when I found something I liked, I never wanted to stop. So, here I am.

    Johnson Tsang

    “Open Mind” – Porcelain sculpture by Johnson Tsang.

    JW: You were a police officer for several years before you started making art full-time. Did you leave the police squad in order to devote more time to art, or did you simply find that after you left, you had more time for sculpting?

    JT: I had been working in the Royal Police Force for 13 years before my resignation. It was my passion for art that led me to this crucial step. In 1991, I started to learn ceramics. I fell in love with clay immediately. I kept having ideas when I wasn’t in the pottery class. Two years later, in 1993, I decided to quit my job to explore a new life. It was this turning point that changed my life forever. Then, art changed the way I observed things happening around me.

    Johnson Tsang

    “Dreams Come True” – Porcelain sculpture by Johnson Tsang

    JW: How did your time on the police squad affect your artwork in terms of subject matter?

    JT: At the beginning of my new life, I felt that I had wasted 13 years of time when I wasn’t exploring art. A few years ago, I started to see something hiding in my works that may have originated from the time of my service. I’d been serving in many departments in the police force—like the tactical unit, emergency unit, special duty squad, vice (anti-drug squad), and traffic accident investigation team. I’ve seen a lot of cases that needed police assistance or enforcement. Most of the time those cases showed the dark side of the city and humanity. What affected me the most were the fatal cases. I saw people being stabbed and killed by gangsters, a 6-year-old girl who was murdered by her maid, an 11-year-old girl who watched her younger brother die under a big tire of a double-decker bus while she was helping her mother to take care of him, and lots of faces of people who lost their lives in fatal car accidents. Today, I would definitely say that my service plays an important role in my creation. At least, I see things differently.

    Johnson Tsang

    “Security Summit” – Porcelain sculptures by Johnson Tsang

    JW Many of your pieces feature babies, often in contexts in which a person would not expect to see them. How did your work evolve to include babies?

    JT: For many years, I ran a workshop for teaching pottery . In 2005, I started teaching kids: I told my inner self to go back to the age of a child. Then I became one of them, enjoying the classes. My inner child kept visiting me from time to time, especially when I created my own art. I believe that sometimes I wasn’t the one creating my works. My works depicting babies were expressing my point of view to the world through the eyes of a child—my inner child.

    Johnson Tsang

    Photo of Johnson Tsang with his sculpture

    JW: Would you say that there is an overarching theme in your work? What is it that you hope viewers will carry away from your pieces?

    JT: There are something deep in our soul which answers all the questions and problems happening right now. That is love. I do wish to make a better world. Somehow, I couldn’t find a better way to do it, as I am not good at any other territory. Luckily, I found art. Recently, when I had a chance to look over my past works, as I prepared for a talk about my works, I discovered that I have a pattern in creation. I found that I created work related to the theme of love after I made a couple of works expressing some negative messages. It seemed like I was answering with “love” to the questions arising from my work.

    Johnson Tsang

    “Break The Rules” – Porcelain sculptures by Johnson Tsang

    JW: Do you start your pieces with a concept fully in mind, or do the concepts become more complete as you work through a piece?

    JT: I have worked in both ways, and I enjoy both. Sometimes, a spontaneous way of creating brought a big surprise.

    JW: What do you enjoy most about the process of sculpting?

    JT: I enjoy every moment in creation. I feel excited when building an idea in my mind. I find peace of mind when I touch clay. I feel satisfied when a problem is solved. I feel grateful when the mission is completed. Then, I feel that I love it more than ever. So I feel excited to start the next project.

    Johnson Tsang

    “Oops!” – Porcelain sculpture by Johnson Tsang

    JW: What are the most challenging aspects of making your art and getting it seen by others?

    JT: I have confidence in turning a piece of clay into any form. However, there are some limitations to working as a sculptor in Hong Kong. This is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Most local artists here face the same problem of unaffordable space. Practically, it limits the size of my works. Limited space may be good for me: it means I use less time, making smaller pieces, creating more works and sharing more ideas.

    Johnson Tsang

    “A Painful Pot” – Porcelain sculpture by Johnson Tsang.

    JW: You have worked in ceramics, stainless steel, and wood. Is there any medium for sculpture that you would like to try but have not yet?

    JT: I have tried different materials for my sculpture. I did search for any possibility of using other materials, exploring new directions, wishing to create greater work. Then, a question from inside arose: “Is that what you really love?” Somehow, my answer was so clear: I love working with clay. There is love and peace in it that interacts with my subconsciousness. What else do I need?

    Johnson Tsang

    “Yangyang” – Stainless steel sculpture by Johnson Tsang

    JW: What did you have to learn about stainless steel before starting to work with it? Did you have any background training that made this medium a natural one for you to try, or did you decide you wanted to use it, so then you set out to learn about it?

    JT: I am a self-taught artist, I learned pottery, metal work, and wood work, mostly by myself. Eight years ago, I thought of using stainless steel instead of porcelain for my splash work. Compared to porcelain, this material is much stronger. Then I spent two months learning and working with steel casting, welding and polishing in Guangzhou, China. This was a great experience. Afterwards, I created a few pieces of steel works for some public art projects.

    Johnson Tsang

    “We Luv U Dad!” – Porcelain sculptures by Johnson Tsang

    JW: What are your thoughts about the place of ceramic art in the current art scene?

    JT: Ceramics is just one of the hundreds of art forms today. I am not interested in finding its position among the others. I fell in love with ceramic twenty-five years ago. I still love it today. It has the most important place in my creations. Romantic, isn’t it?

    Johnson Tsang

    “Big Fish” – Porcelain sculpture by Johnson Tsang

    JW: Do you have anything you would like to tell our readers about what you are working on now and what you have planned for the future?

    JT: I am working on a couple of series right now. One of them is “Lucid Dream.” The idea came from my dreams. For years, I have written down my dreams. I turned some of these strange dreams into ideas. Sometimes, the ideas arose from meditation. As the ideas were not originated from my consciousness. I found this fascinating; after the first one was done, it felt like my dreams came true. What is my plan for the future? I would simply say that I will keep doing what I am doing right now. I spend about 50 to 60 hours a week in my work. My wish is that I can keep a healthy body and mind to persist.

    Johnson Tsang

    Left: “Two in One” & Right: “Go Within” from Lucid Dreams series – Porcelain sculptures by Johnson Tsang

     

  • greg craola simkins

    Interview: Greg “Craola” Simkins

    Where Am I – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    Where Am I – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    Greg “Craola” Simkins has a nickname to set him apart, but maybe that’s not needed: his versatility is enough to separate him from others. With a career that includes many years as a graffiti artist, a painter of beautifully rendered fine art pieces, and one who keeps his fingers in a variety of commercial art pursuits, including clothing, animation, toys, and album art, Simkins might well stand alone as a success on many artistic fronts.

    “I don’t know if I hold on too tightly to my adolescent insecurities, or if it is this wiring that actually pushes me forward in trying to get better at my craft, but I have come to terms with it over the years and have developed a saying amongst some friends to help us cope with these feelings and ground what we do: ‘We aren’t curing cancer.’ That way, I don’t take myself too seriously and I can just enjoy the process of making paintings and drawings and release some of the weight I throw on my back.”—Greg “Craola” Simkins

    Luna – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    Luna – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    Julie Winters: You started college studying veterinary science, yet you eventually switched majors to art. Tell us how that transition happened.

    Greg “Craola” Simkins: It was my freshman year of college. I started courses at a junior college over here called El Camino College, which is in the South Bay of Los Angeles. The courses I had prepared myself to take were all pre-veterinarian courses as well the basic requirement courses one needed to graduate. I made sure to add Beginning Art 101 to my list of classes because it was always an obsessive interest of mine and I was already doing small freelance jobs with my art on the side. As things go, two of my science classes were full and I wasn’t able to add them, so I was stuck at school with math general courses, a large break in between classes and art class. I did what I always did and just found a table and drew in my black book during my break. It was always a mixture of characters and lettering trying to perfect my style of fonts for my graffiti name, “Craola.” Every once in a while other students would see this and sit down with me and we would start up conversation on our shared interests in art and graffiti. These are the years that I met my friends Mayhem, Tron, Brad Hess, Circus, Cenema, Kazuko, and Havok. These other students had a great impact on me switching my major over to art. My first art instructor, Bihn Ngo, was also a big help, as he asked why I wasn’t focusing on art. At the end of that first semester I was asked to do a big illustration job through a portion of the summer on a kids’ game called “Pogs, ” which paid pretty well and helped me to convince my parents that this might be a viable alternative for me. I was hooked and pursued art full force from there on out. I was always doing it, but so many factors just pushed me in that direction from there on out. It was graffiti, the punk rock music scene of the early ‘90s, which I did lots of band merch, fliers, and covers for, illustration jobs for streetwear and skateboards, and just obsessive creating of art pieces to push myself.

    My Specialty Is Special Tea – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    My Specialty Is Special Tea – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    JW: Your paintings feature elements that are complex and multifaceted; are your paintings fully formed in your mind before you start them, or do they evolve as you go?

    GS: Some of the pieces are fully formed in my imagination, but I believe it is in my “sketch-life” that all the working out occurs. I keep small sketch books which hold all my random thoughts, as well as a notepad file on my phone which has pages and pages of story ideas and thoughts and phrases that spark images for pieces. Between these two tools, I am able to compose an image so that when it comes time to transfer and execute the painting, there is a lot figured out. But all the hard work is done in books and on paper. I always leave room to allow new elements in each piece, having gained an understanding over the years that once the painting begins, it often tells me where a new element needs to exist. A lot of interesting new storylines and rabbit trails have occurred because of this allowance.

    greg craola simkins

    A Branch in the Water – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    JW: Is there a particular moment when you felt like you’d really “arrived” as a successful artist?

    GS: No, and I still don’t feel that way. I don’t understand the concept of “arrived, ” as the bar has been set so high by so many amazing artists before me and I always feel just out of grasp of what I want to achieve with my technical skills. I feel like a fraud some of the time and like I am about to be found out as this fake artist who didn’t even make any of this artwork to begin with. I don’t know if I hold on too tightly to my adolescent insecurities, or if it is this wiring that actually pushes me forward in trying to get better at my craft, but I have come to terms with it over the years and have developed a saying amongst some friends to help us cope with these feelings and ground what we do: “We aren’t curing cancer.” That way, I don’t take myself too seriously and I can just enjoy the process of making paintings and drawings and release some of the weight I throw on my back.

    Good Knight – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    Good Knight – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    JW: I read in an interview that you noted that graffiti is illegal, so when it’s commissioned, it becomes something else, i.e., a standard mural. What are your thoughts generally about graffiti being featured in galleries and getting acceptance as something more mainstream?

    GS: I believe that it is important to recognize that graffiti artists in general were putting their life on the line, be it through fines, incarcerations, being beaten up, or even dying to make their art. And in my generation and the ones before it, it was not about getting a gallery show or even making a ton of money. It was for a variety of reasons, from just mischief making, being seen, some ego, making a statement—political and other—or just pushing your own limits to see what awesome creation you could make on a wall with a spray can under the various pressures surrounding the activity. I was driven by the first and the latter. But it was the graffiti artists who through their hard work inspired what has become “street art, ” which has taken the world by storm but also which has forgotten a lot of who paved the way. It’s just different now, but a lot of amazing street art is going up in the world, beautiful pieces by amazing artists, a lot who began their journey as graffiti artists. I just get a little annoyed when some college students develop a “street campaign” purely for the reason of getting a gallery show or making fast money, where that is the only thing that drives them to do it. In the beginning, it was a talk between the artists; now the public has been let into the conversation, and they all have an opinion with no knowledge of the history.

    Who Made You King – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    Who Made You King – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    JW: I’ve read that you learned a lot about color theory and perspective in your early days doing graffiti. Was there any discrepancy between what you learned in your formal art studies and what you learned doing street art, and if so, how did you reconcile any such differences?

    GS: Trial and error. Making so many mistakes along the way and trying to fix them is the best path to learning. You don’t get any better without doing the work. So many people want to be handed all the answers on their path, every step of the way. I found that just picking up the paints and noodling around with them gave me a relationship with the mediums that I have today. Moreso acrylics than anything else. The more I used them, the more I understood what each tool could do. Of course, everything else you learn lends back to the other mediums. Pencils, markers, inks, computer programs, acrylics, charcoals, water color, spray paint, house paint, you name it (I still have yet to dive into oils, mainly for fear that it will take over; I have been told I won’t go back, but I am having too much fun getting to know my acrylics all these years). Anyway, I would have to figure out perspective for some of these larger walls we would compose and how to create atmosphere and make things looked pushed back in order to put emphasis on the key elements on the wall. It just happened over time, and I have photos upon photos of horrible work that I made that were my path way to creating the stories that I do now.

    Gather Around – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    Gather Around – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    JW: Between the skills you gained as a graffiti artist and those you gained working in the video game industry, which would you say (if either) have had the biggest impact on your painting?

    GS: They both tie in, hand in hand. I can’t give one more credit than the other. Painting walls is physical and messy and tactile, while painting in Photoshop and Illustrator was sterile and precise and allowed for corrections. Both instructed me in different ways that landed back in my lap with brushes and paint.

    Join Me – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    Join Me – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    JW: Even as you’ve been consistent in making art over the years, you’ve worked in a lot of different jobs that have been more people oriented. I’ve read that you miss, to a degree, working with people on a daily basis. Do you consider yourself an introvert or an extravert, and how does that affect how you do your work?

    GS: I am a bit of a clown around my friends and enjoy the sarcasm and camaraderie that occur amongst my various groups of friends. Joking around, serious talks on life and whatnot are what really drove me for years, but when it comes down to composing a piece, it is like writing a story or a song. You need complete concentration and a big swath of uninterrupted time. I have to introvert myself for these moments or I’ll get nothing done. I love this part of creating and find it the most important. Once I get the idea fully composed, I can get back to the conversations and find the actual painting part very mechanical and satisfying.

    Tea and Jam – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    Tea and Jam – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    JW: Tell us about the stop-motion film you’re involved in, I’m Scared. How did that project come about, and what is its current status?

    GS: I was approached a few years ago by two friends on separate occasions about the topic of making a stop-motion short. One was Robyn Yannoukas—this an Oscar and Emmy award winner for her work—and the other was Dan Levy, who has been in the business via Robot Chicken and other projects. I found out one night at one of my shows that they knew each other, and we all got to talking. Dan enlisted our awesome director, Pete Levin, and they got together planning a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funding to make this animated short. Towards the end of the process, we were stoked to have our talented and supportive friend Mark Hoppus, from Blink-182, join the team to score the piece. The short has played in multiple film festivals at this point, and the fulfillment of the story book (or Mook, as we call it) are being mailed out along with the exclusive download as we speak. We wanted to make sure that all our backers were able to see the short first, before it was released to a larger viewing public. That is where it is at right now. The second toy sculpted by my friend Kevin Pasko and put out by 3D Retro is about to be released also, which I am very excited about.

    JW: How’d you come up with your website’s name, IMSCARED.COM?

    GS: I tell various stories about it, but I was working at Treyarch/Activision and we had a programmer who worked on various assets named Cody Fletcher. He was savvy with websites and such and showed me how I could put one together on GeoCities. This was around the time of Friendster and just before Myspace. I tried to buy the domain name GregSimkins.com, but it was taken. Various forms of it weren’t available at the time as well (although these days, gsimkins.com will take you to my site as well). I wanted to have something memorable and something that reflected my work and me as an artist at the time. My work was creepier back then, and I felt something along the lines of Edward Gorey and Tim Burton would be super fitting, so “I’m Scared” it was. It was fitting and rolled off of the tongue. It was a little phrase as well when we were surfing and bodyboarding. Our friend Doug Disante was a pro body boarder who was younger and smaller than all of us, and when we were all surfing larger waves, he would be the only one dropping in and taunting us from the wave in a high-pitched voice, “I’m Scared! I’m Scared!” So it was kind of just in the ether for me as well.

    The Artifact – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    The Artifact – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    JW: You’ve said in the past that you want to stay true to what’s in your head and not paint something just because it will sell. Is there much of a push-pull for you between what you feel driven to paint and what you feel will be commercially successful?

    GS: I try not to think about it. It stresses me out. If I think too hard it will muddy it up. The fact is, if I like to paint something and it is commercially accepted, then I battle the thought, “is that why I painted it?” No, I just wanted to paint it, and it ended up that way. I tend to brush that thinking aside and just work. I like to let it sort itself out.

    Stellar – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    Stellar – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    JW: Merchandise featuring your artwork indeed seems a natural outlet, but how did you end up selling a custom acrylic set?

    GS: My relationship with Trekell Art Supplies has been one that I love since day one. They are so supportive and so dedicated to making good products that I back them 100%. From the beginning almost 12 years ago, just talking with them about brushes, likes, and whatnot, to developing my own brush line to even having an acrylic set and now seeing the pro team develop, it has all been satisfying. A lot of it is due to my wife’s relationship with them as well. She brought up the first sponsorship between them and myself, and we have naturally grown together ever since. I never in my foggiest imagination would have imagined having art supplies with my name on them. It still blows my mind. Such a great company!

    Journeymen – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    Journeymen – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    JW: I was intrigued to learn that your work has found expression even in the form of toys! Please tell us more about that.

    GS: I have done a few toys over the years, the first being a Dunny and then a bunch of work with Strangeco and Upper Playground. Then we backed off from toys for a bit, but because of the stop-motion project, I am very pleased with what 3D Retro put out in the form of “Ralf” and “The Orcow” (Stair Monster; coming out soon) (both sculpted by Kevin Pasko).

    JW: I understand that you keep a fairly rigorous schedule for painting. Do you ever have times when it feels like your creative well runs dry, and if so, what do you do when that happens?

    GS: If I feel dry, I look through nature photography, go to the library and browse various books, sit and sketch stuff from life, make studies and whatnot, or my favorite, walk around antique shops. It is kind of rare that the well feels dry; there are always too many ideas and not enough time to do them. I feel like a slave to the clock and wish I had control over time.

    The Wanderers – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    The Wanderers – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    JW: Is there anything that surprises you about the art world right now, either in general or in terms of your own place in it?

    GS: I don’t think I am surprised by too much in the art world these days except for the fact that I have a little toe in it. It is hard to follow too much of it for me, as I am busy raising my kids and making pieces. I find myself a little bit tuned out to what the ebb and flow is in the art world. I catch on a bit here and there and try to stay the course with what I do and what interests me, which still ends up being animals and creatures and worlds and discovering rabbit holes to fall down. It has been that way my whole life, regardless of what the trends are in the art world.

    Beyond Shadows - Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    Beyond Shadows – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    JW: What does the beinArt Collective represent for you?

    GS: The beinArt Collective has always been a place where artists who have strayed off of the traditional path of making images have found a place to belong. The dreamers and story tellers have a welcome place to exist amongst each other because of this outlet. 🙂

    JW: Do you have anything you’d like to share with our readers about upcoming exhibits or other projects?

    GS: I am happy to announce that my first large-scale resin sculpture in collaboration with Silent Stage Gallery called “Beyond the Sea” is about to be released. It stands at close to 2 feet and is sculpted from the painting of the same name. I am very proud of this piece and the work that Silent Stage has done with it and hope it leads to more, larger sculpted works in the future. Seeing these pieces in 3D is how I have always imagined them in my mind, so I am very interested to seeing where this road leads.

    Killing Time - Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

    Killing Time – Acrylic painting by Greg “Craola” Simkins

  • Travis Louie

    Interview: Travis Louie

    Travis Louie

    Julia & Her Swamp Friend – Acrylic painting   &   The Thompson – Acrylic painting

    The old-fashioned portraits rendered by Travis Louie are decidedly unlike those which might hang in the home of one’s great-grandmother. A gentle-looking monster with delicate flowers sprouting from its head, conjoined one-eyed twins sharing a single suit, a woman posed with her improbably large pet damselfly, and similar characters have “sat” for Louie, who often provides parts of their stories through the written word as well. Louie’s portraits are alternately whimsical, disturbing, and poignant, the culmination of a fertile imagination and dedicated skill.

    “I think the human race is full of misunderstandings based on people holding too close to their own cultures and being unable to embrace the idea that people can believe in other things and still get along in a reasonable sort of way.” —Travis Louie

    Travis Louie

    Sad Miss Bunny – Acrylic painting   &   The Most Dangerous Combover – Acrylic painting

    Julie Winters: How old were you when you started writing and illustrating?

    Travis Louie: I have been drawing and writing stories since I was a small child. In the beginning they were more spoken-word-type stories that I would memorize. I remember my older brother wondering who I was talking to as he overheard me speaking out loud. I was 4 or 5 years old, maybe younger.

    Travis Louie

    Mike, Sam & Alex – Acrylic painting   &   Miss Bunny – Acrylic painting

    JW: You’ve described your work as narrative. Tell us about how a piece might come together from the germ of an idea through its execution.

    TL: I’m very interested in where people are coming from. How people interact with others is a fascinating thing for me. The source material of most of my work is from people watching, a thing I like to do. I observe interesting-looking people, imagining their origins: their point of entry into society, their past lives if they came from another country, the industry or town they came from, etc. I think the human race is full of misunderstandings based on people holding too close to their own cultures and being unable to embrace the idea that people can believe in other things and still get along in a reasonable sort of way. Civility is sort of a pipe dream for me. My stories start out as little descriptions. The writings become sketches. The sketches become finished drawings, and then maybe they become paintings.

    Travis Louie

    Sarah & Emmett – Acrylic painting   &   Henry & His One Flat Surface – Acrylic painting

    JW: As a collector of antiques, do you ever derive inspiration from the pieces you collect?

    TL: Sometimes I do. Most of the time, the things I collect revolve around old drawing tools and fine writing instruments. I’m kind of an art nerd that way. I’m always looking for different tools which make unique marks on the surface. I like to create new textures for my work.

    Travis Louie

    Emily and Her Troll Head – Acrylic painting   &   Gremlin – Acrylic painting

    JW: How did you develop your process of acrylic washes over graphite?

    TL: The fear of “losing my drawing” with so many layers of paint when I was in school helped create the style that I use right now. When I was a young artist and my drawing skill was not up to the standard it is now, I was very conscious of making sure that I had a solid plan before I set up my painting. I would paint over a very finished drawing. These days, the structure is much looser and I allow for things to develop more organically.  I’m more relaxed as I have made many changes while I’m in the process of painting. Obviously we become more confident as we gather more experience.

    Travis Louie

    Young Bill at Springtime – Acrylic painting   &   The Bride of Stan – Acrylic painting

    JW: I’ve read that you were very much into 1950s memorabilia as a child; you collect antiques, and your work carries a strong late-19th-century flavor. What do you suppose accounts for your abiding interest in the past?

    TL: The 19th-century flavor of the work relates directly to my interest in the immigrant experience in North America from the late 18th century through the early 20th century. I chose the old 19th-century photographic motif because it made sense to me as a convincing record of such things. The interest in the 1950s comes from nostalgia for Atomic Age science fiction stories. The economic and sociological atmosphere was very different in the 1950s. I almost get that sense that people were more hopeful about the future in North America than they are now and that played into a sense of wonder that is very important to me. When I talk to young people today, I don’t see as much optimism.

    Travis Louie

    The Strangler – Acrylic painting   &   Oscar And The Truth Toad – Acrylic painting

    JW: Of the subjects of your portraits, your website notes that “the underlying thread that connects all these characters is the unusual circumstances that shape who they were and how they lived.” Tell us more about what you’re exploring through your work.

    TL: I mentioned the immigrant experience when answering one of the previous questions. Let me explain a little further. Even though I’m a few generations in this country, I still grew up as an outsider in a way. When your race or culture is not the dominant one in a particular locale, it is very obvious for people to notice. There is so much xenophobia really, and it springs from so many things: fear of the unknown, outsiders coming to take or change the prevailing culture… I’ve experienced a lot of racism growing up, and I still do. I created these characters as a sort of veiled commentary on racism and the immigrant experience. In many of my stories, my characters came to North America like any other immigrants, only I chose otherworldly types of beings to make the stories more universal.

    Travis Louie

    Miss K and Her Jackalope – Acrylic painting   &   Oscar and The Giant Tarsier – Acrylic painting

    JW: The lines of your paintings are very soft, lending a peaceful quality to your portraits even on occasions when the viewer might be alarmed by (or for) the subject. Is this intentional, to make the pieces more “friendly” to the viewer or perhaps even for yourself?

    TL: Originally I made a conscious effort to create soft edges in an effort to emulate the appearance of those 19th-century photographs I collected. As I did more and more of the paintings, the technique “stuck.” I rather like having soft edges on most of the surface so that the things that I want the viewer to focus on are easier to bring to focus. Edges are very important to me.

    Travis Louie

    Mr Stephenson and the Bug – Acrylic painting by Travis Louie

    JW: What is your view on the relationship between the artist and audience?

    TL: Well, I’m thankful to have an audience. This is a very unusual occupation, vocation, way of life, however you want to describe being an artist of any kind. Generally, we would like to think that we create our “art” from within, in spite of whether or not an audience exists. I am very aware of there being an audience, as I get fan mail and such. It would be impolite and disingenuous to ignore the idea of an audience. I communicate with them when I can, as I’m always curious what they see in my work.

    Travis Louie

    Maxo the Ultra-Chimp – Acrylic painting   &   Pals – Acrylic painting

    JW: Regarding the stories that inspire and accompany your visual art, are they simply a springboard for your paintings, or do you play with exploring the writing more? Or is it the case that the writings in your journal are more expansive, and we just see clips that are selected to be viewed with the paintings?

    TL: I enjoy writing almost as much as I enjoy painting. I love a good story, and I intend on writing more. As far as being a springboard for the paintings…they have been and sometimes not so much. I can make a painting from a very expansive story or from a few descriptive sentences (which is often the case).

    Travis Louie

    The Family Yeti – Acrylic painting by Travis Louie

    JW: You’ve noted that the advent of the Internet makes it much easier to research galleries for what types of art they exhibit than it was when you were first looking for gallery prospects in the 1990s. What other impacts of technology on “the business of art, ” for lack of a better way of putting it, have you observed? And has technology had any impact on how you make art?

    TL: The Internet has made artists more accessible if they want to be. No person is an “island” unless they want to be reclusive on purpose. It has made the transfer of information a remarkably fast tool and also a place for hyperbole that makes one cringe. The ability to interact with our audience is made easier, but [doing so] requires a lot of time, so it makes us all work a little faster, I think, or at least more economical with our time. We still have to satisfy our urge to make our artworks, so we shouldn’t spend too much time on the Internet.

    Travis Louie

    Phineas G. Gruffin – Acrylic painting   &   Rhinochops circa 1881 – Acrylic painting

    JW: Has returning to art school as an instructor had any effect on how you approach your own artwork?

    TL: Mostly, I am more cognizant of my time. I think it helps me work more intuitively, and maybe I seem to be able to solve design problems faster these days.

    Travis Louie

    The Great Woolly Krampus – Acrylic painting   &   Miss Emily Fowler and her Spider – Acrylic painting

    JW: What are the most important things you try to convey to your students about their work itself and about the art world?

    TL: The art world is bigger than us, and there are always going to be people trying to control it. The attempt to control or predict the zeitgeist is a curious thing.  Always stay focused. Always try to maintain a positive attitude. We do not control all the variables, but be aware of those things that are in our control. Make use of your time wisely. Don’t forget where you came from. Be honest with yourself about what you are doing and how it connects to your life.

    Travis Louie

    Night People (All Nightmare Long) – Acrylic painting by Travis Louie

    JW: Is there anything you have in the works that you’d like to share with our readership?

    TL: I have a show coming up in November at KP Projects MKG, previously known as the Merry Karnowsky Gallery, and I am curating a special show in project room.

    Travis Louie

    Naven Overcomes his Spider Phobia – Acrylic painting   &   Emily – Acrylic painting

  • David Stoupakis

    Interview: David Stoupakis

    David Stoupakis

    Ozezos (2014) – Oil painting   &   Peddlers of Death (2011) – Oil painting

    The work of David Stoupakis may look dark, but don’t let that fool you: in his mysterious paintings there is also tender hope and affirmation, exquisitely rendered with a quality that is at once realistic and dream-like. Stoupakis has irons in a few different creative fires as well, which means that his audience can never quite tell where his work will end up next!

    “For me, the work I do is a kind of therapy and helps me understand and work out situations that I go through within my own life.” —David Stoupakis

    Julie Winters: Who inspires you, both in the art world and outside it, and why?

    David Stoupakis: The creative people that I have the opportunity to work with and what grows from those relationships and conversations. The thought that an idea is never too small and with enough time, thought and energy put into it, it can grow into something much larger. My family and friends inspire me. Their support of me has always been amazing; I truly don’t know where I would be without them.

    David Stoupakis

    Willa (2014) – Oil painting   &   To Live Is To Die (2012) – Oil painting

    JW: You’ve said that you’ve been drawing since childhood. Has the role(s) art has played in your life changed over time, and if so, how?

    DS: Yes and no. I use the role of art in my life for what it gave me in the beginning, which would be comfort and security with who I am as an individual. Art has always been something that has kept me grounded from the very beginning. I think it’s changed for me from time to time when I chose to make it my career. As personal as I try to keep the art I create for myself, I know that when I put it out there, there will always be others to criticize what I’ve done with the work. So that may have swayed some decisions that I have made in the past, but over time I’ve grown to know that people are always going to talk. So, I now just try to keep my work as pure and truthful as I can for myself and know that at the end of the day, the work I’m creating is still coming from who I am as an individual.

    David Stoupakis

    Martyr (2014) – Oil painting by David Stoupakis

    JW: I was fascinated (and heartened) to learn that many of your teachers in your primary and secondary school years embraced the fact that you drew during class because they recognized that drawing helped you retain information better. As you became an established artist in your adulthood, did you stay in touch with or hear from any of them?

    DS: I have been in touch with a couple of them by email, but I regret not staying touch with my junior high art teacher Will Robinson. He was very influential on my work and getting me to grow as an artist.

    David Stoupakis

    Undertow (2011) – Oil painting   &   Voyage Back Home (2014) – Oil painting

    JW: How did you get into doing album cover art several years ago? Were these pieces collaborative, in the sense of your being led by the music? What was the overall process?

    DS: I’ve always been really passionate about album art. It’s the way I got into a lot of music and visual artists earlier on. I remember as a kid purely buying music just based off of the art that was on the album. I would always go straight to the liner notes to see the name of the artist who painted the album cover. Back in the 80’s it seemed that the album art was just as important as the music that was on the actual album itself. I love creating album art if I have the opportunity to collaborate with a band that I love. I truly enjoy the whole experience: everything from painting the actual covers down to the designing of the booklet with the CD label, etc. I really dig making the whole thing an audio-visual experience of one world. The projects varied from a band coming to me with an idea that they had kicking around to the singer just giving me one lyric. The album art I did for Korn was all based off of the lyrics that Jonathan Davis gave me: “I’m just a child with the tears in its eyes. I am holding this gift that is broken.” Everything else just took off from there.

    David Stoupakis

    Seen It All (2005) – Oil painting   &   The Girl Who Sat For Too Long (2011) – Oil painting

    JW: You’ve said that the paintings come to you as images in your head, as with an overhead projector, and then you bring those images to life. And yet you’re able to describe the meanings of your paintings as well. Do the meanings of the images come to you right away, or do the images define themselves for you as you carry out your work?

    DS: It all depends on the project that I’m working on at the time. The body of work I am currently doing is a bit more literal, so there’s a theme and thread going out through it. Other times I find the story and meaning of the painting much later when I have time to step away from it.

    David Stoupakis

    Metamorphosis (2013) – Oil painting   &   Never Trust An Apple (2012) – Oil painting

    JW: Tell us about the landscape project you’ve been working on.

    DS: Growing up, I spent every summer of my childhood at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada. It’s where my mom is from and my parents actually live there now. To me, it’s the most beautiful place on Earth. Over the years I spent there I have taken lots of photos of these beautiful landscapes and have set up an easel from time to time. The landscape project is really just my attempt to capture the beauty that Cape Breton Island is—I guess with my own spin on it, but it’s really just as simple as that.

    David Stoupakis

    Crown of False Hope (2014) – Oil painting   &   Origin of Spirits 1685 (2013) – Oil painting

    JW: You have a background in comics, and I understand that you have a graphic novel (The Passenger) coming out this year. How did this project come about? How has your approach to it been different from your approach to your single paintings?

    DS: Yes, the comic book work is a bit more of a newer venture for me. It was the first thing that I wanted to do as a career in the early 90’s and just never seemed to work out. I truly love doing comic book work when I get the chance to. That industry meant so much to me growing up as a kid and still does today. The turnaround time and deadlines can be a bit more of an extreme, but I really love that challenge, and it’s fun as hell. It allows me to go about the work and process in a completely different kind of way. It’s a bit looser than my other paintings; in that way, it’s kind of freeing. The Passenger has been a project of love that I’ve been working on for some time now and collaborating with my friend and writer Pete Goodrich on. We very much look forward to finishing it and getting out there. It’s quite the story, and I’m hoping others will dig it as much as we do creating it.

    David Stoupakis

    Stillborn (2010) – Oil painting   &   Necromancy (2010) – Oil painting

    JW: There is a lot of symbolism in your paintings; for example, keys feature in many, as do birds and crowns. How would you define the evolution of your work in terms of symbolism?

    DS: I really like things that make me feel nostalgic and a certain kind of way. I have never put too much thought into the symbolism. I think the symbolism has just taken on a life of its own the more times I contribute it to a painting and how it’s being used. I’ve stopped using certain things in the past for not wanting to be known as the guy who paints teacups, haha.

    JW: Has there ever been a time when you’ve been surprised by an image and how you were able to translate it (or not) into a painting?

    DS: More when I’m experimenting and I have no real sense of direction where I’m going with a painting to begin with. I created a painting some years back [that] I guess I call “Rain”; it was this really loose and expressive painting that I had no real goal to achieve when I started it, and it really just took on a life of its own. That painting surprised me and is probably one of my favorite pieces I have done. I’m looking forward to getting back into that way of painting with the next body of work.

    David Stoupakis

    Red Woods (2009) – Oil painting   &   Resurrection (2010) – Oil painting

    JW: Old photographs serve as references for many of your paintings, especially those with children. How did you become interested in collecting old photographs, and at what point did they start making it into your work?

    DS: Collecting old photographs I blame on my sister Laura. Some years back, we were in an antique store and my sister found this old photo of this child, and it was completely haunting but endearing at the same time. The image of this girl shows up in quite a bit of my earlier works. I almost like the idea of giving these children that have long since passed a new world to live in. From that point on I just began collecting old photos whenever I found myself in an antique store or thrift shop, and from time to time, friends that know I collect them tend to get photos for me as well.

    David Stoupakis

    The Haunting of Sebastian’s House (2013) – Oil painting   &   The Other (2013) – Oil painting

    JW: You’ve said that frames “are the windowsill of the window…looking into the other world [of the painting].” How do you find the frames you use, and do you have to alter them sometimes to fit the vision of the paintings?

    DS: I feel a frame can make or break a painting. I like to view it as just as important as the painting itself. Normally if I buy a new frame or even an older frame, I usually refinish it to fit the individual painting. These days I’ve been more or less building my own frames from the ground up: that way, I’m able to make them much more personal for each individual piece. I also just really love carpentry.

    David Stoupakis

    House Of Forgotten Dreams (2013) – Oil painting   &   Last Rites (2014) – Oil painting

    JW: It often seems to be the case, as with you, that work described as “dark” is produced by people who are themselves positive and “light.” What are your thoughts on this apparent discrepancy?

    DS: For me, the work I do is a kind of therapy and helps me understand and work out situations that I go through within my own life. I like to think of myself as a pretty positive and very happy person. If I am painting something that’s thought or viewed to be “dark, ” maybe that’s something I am getting out of my system at that time. However, I feel that we as viewers always relate and find something in the works depending on what we are going through at that time in our own lives. I may create a painting and have the imagery being something very hopeful, but that same painting might be viewed by someone else as being something grim and dark just because of my choice in palette color.

    David Stoupakis

    The Things I Left Behind (2008) – Oil painting   &   The Traveler (2010) – Oil painting

    JW: What are your goals for your own artistic development?

    DS: I would say to keep being as truthful as I can to the work that I do. To keep evolving and growing as an artist to whatever form that may take and always keep the craft interesting to me and allow the idea to never be too big or too small.

    JW: Tell us about your upcoming show “The Kindly Ones.”

    DS: “The Kindly Ones” is an exhibition and art book that I am collaborating on with artist Menton J. Matthews III and writer Kasra Ghanbari. The theme of the show and book is based on the Greek mythology of the Erinyes. I am really excited for this exhibition! I have been working on this show for the past nine months. I’m very much looking forward to getting it out into the world and out of the studio. There is something really special about being able to collaborate with like-minded people.

    JW: Are there any other projects that you’re working on that you’d like our readers to be on the lookout for?

    DS: There are quite a few projects that I have in the works. I’m currently working on collaborative short film projects with Aprella Barule that I’m really extremely excited about. Aprella is amazing: she is an awesomely great actress, and her story writing is genius. I have also been working on this audio project that I am stoked about where I have been having conversations with other creative minds, talking about their craft and the journey they have taken to arrive where they are today. I’m looking to being able to start releasing those episodes sometime in June. I’m also working on a couple of creator-owned comic book projects with some other amazing creator friends. 2015 is going to be crazy fun! I’m very grateful.

    David Stoupakis

    Rebirth (2011) – Oil painting   &   The Choice (2011) – Oil painting

  • Kikyz1313

    Interview: Kikyz1313

    Kikyz1313

    “A Slumber Embrace” (2014) & “Elegy” (2014) – Both: Graphite, watercolor & white pastel

    The artwork of Kikyz1313 is a beautiful study of the grotesque in art. Her delicately rendered subject matter is initially easy on the eyes, but this aspect only acts as a lure. When her viewers fully take in her main subject matter of innocent children or animals, often in various states of disease and decomposition, an unresolvable contradiction occurs in their minds. Her artwork is stunningly uncomfortable, yet unbearably beautiful. Her concepts are not the fodder of horror movies; they are more complex and involved than that. They are tools of nature, opening the mind to the wonderful sublime reality that is human life on earth.

    “Why do we ignore the very intimate contents of our own bodies? Why isn’t there a balance between the mundane, tangible world, and the unfathomable cosmos of our fleeting existence?” —Kikyz1313

    Kikyz1313

    “The Disaster’s Heiress” & “Why so lonely?” (2014) – Both: graphite, watercolor & white pastel

    Samantha Levin: Your artwork takes a very uncomfortable subject and transforms it into something beautiful. This contradiction seems to be the crux of what you do. The elements you use to create this tension tend to be fragile, such as children, stuffed toys, animals, plants, textiles. Occasionally architectural elements are present, such as brick walls and columns. What leads you to choose these things to create the contradiction in your work?

    Kikyz1313: They are chosen after a process of investigation; I am always searching for them. For example, before starting a new artwork, I like to observe pedestrians on the street and their reactions to certain situations, including family interactions, the behaviour and the logic of children, and the characteristic features of the places where people spend a joyful time. I then decontextualize them, taking them out of their comfortable and expected atmosphere, enclosing them with objects that create contradiction.

    Kikyz1313

    “Numbed Pallor” (2015) – Ink, graphite & watercolors by Kikyz1313

    The contradiction makes you wonder why certain ideas transcend in our minds and grow untarnished in our memories. Why do we ignore the very intimate contents of our own bodies? Why isn’t there a balance between the mundane, tangible world, and the unfathomable cosmos of our fleeting existence?

    Somehow these kinds of questions pop up regularly in my head. My search for answers has lead me to constantly create this duality you notice in my works. That contradiction is also an excuse for me to share my thoughts and resolutions with my audience. Primarily through conversations about social systems and the incongruity in our desire to protect humans and humanity at any cost, existing alongside our condemnation of and revulsion towards any part of ourselves which is “abnormal”. My aim is to create a poetic paradox, depicting the inherent contradictions of our own nature, while also providing balance to our diametrically opposed perceptions in life.

    Kikyz1313

    “Leda & The Swan” (2011) – Ink & watercolors by Kikyz1313

    SL: The delicate and intricate linework in your paintings seem to add to the beauty of your work, furthering the impact of your grotesque subject matter. Is this something you do on purpose or is the ink and watercolor medium simply what you prefer?

    K: This is deliberate. I take advantage of the contrast of the ink with the watercolors to depict my imagery because it forces the audience to observe without any initial distress. Graphic arts (such as drawing, watercolors, engravings, etc.) aren’t closely attached to reality, as they translate an artist’s visions with lines and rough edges, consequently giving an unreal virtue to the artworks. This feature allows the audience to embrace the image unintentionally, as it doesn’t represent a threat to the viewer’s integrity. I believe this technique also makes the injuries and deformities of my characters less confronting and gives rise to an ambivalent feeling of comfort and annoyance at the same time.

    I also decided to work with this technique because of my disenchantment with my early artistic education, when I was hoping to learn traditional engraving techniques, such as aquiating and plate etching. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any educational guide in the art school that would help me. Therefore, I decided to imitate the look of an engraving with the use of crosshatching and ink. My use of color came as the result of a personal quest to achieve realist features in my scenarios.

    Kikyz1313

    “El Colmo de un Sordo” (2013) & “Refugio de los muertos” (2015) – Both: Ink, graphite & watercolors

    SL: Can you identify anything in your life that may have precipitated your fascination with grotesque subject matter? You’ve previously said that your upbringing in Mexico was an influence. Is it something you’ve always been intrigued by, or is it something that developed later in your life?

    K: I think I tend to focus on subversive themes as a projection of my own personality. Since I was a child I’ve been a big enthusiast of horror movies and bizarre imagery, and I was the kind of kid who admired the villains instead of the heroes. Over the years this perspective somehow grew to frame my artistic quest. But it has also matured into a kind of intrinsic guide, which leads me to observe and perceive reality from an alternate point of view that is normally unseen or ignored.

    On the other hand, the cultural context is always an inherent influence for all artists. Mexico undoubtedly, with it’s great contrasts and contradictions, has shaped me into who I am today, and these feelings would never diminish my artwork, since they describe me and the place where I come from completely.

    Kikyz1313

    “Inopia” (2014) & “Sun Lurker” (2014) – Both: Ink, graphite & watercolors by Kikyz1313

    SL: Can you describe these contrasts and contradictions?

    K: Describing the contrasts and contradictions would be like talking about the very essence of what Mexico means today. This is a country where one has to stomp over the heads of the others in order to reach the top and stand out from the mud pit. Where the poor are as racist as the richest gentlemen, and where the tone of your skin gives you social status and projects an image of economic wealth in the eyes of others.

    Kikyz1313

    “Ethereal Graze” (2012) & “Miasma’s Trill” (2013) – Ink & watercolors by Kikyz1313

    Mexico also has an immeasurable wealth in culture, resources, flora and fauna. Nevertheless it’s always scorned by its people, until the foreigner is amazed by it and then claims it for himself.

    There is also an ambivalent patriotic feeling between pride and sense of shame that keeps our heads dreaming of the other side of the world, while our feet are deliberately buried in the homeland’s dirt.

    But even after all the disadvantages and blessing of my country, I’d rather be aware of them and embrace them somehow, rather than living in a guileless charade.

    Kikyz1313

    “Flickering Joy” (2013) – Ink, graphite & watercolors by Kikyz1313

    SL: What was one of the first bizarre things you remember from your childhood?

    K: How could I tell if they’re bizarre experiences? I believe children perceive all life events as being typical and natural, and are later taught by society that particular experiences or memories are out of the ordinary.

    Each family unit also has their own particular guidelines for behaviour, rejection and acceptance, which influences how we interpret our memories as we grow up and determine what is “normal.” I wonder which one of these social institutions makes us feel most uncomfortable about our own memories?

    Kikyz1313

    “Sepulcro” (2012) – Ink & watercolors by Kikyz1313

    In light of these factors, I’m not sure what to share. Firstly, I have so very few memories of myself before the age of 10. I believe I had a cheerful childhood, but this impression has been provided by other people’s recollections, not my own.

    I didn’t have the most healthy early years as I suffered a lot from asthma, but I can recall that almost everything felt OK and normal, and the few strange memories I do have, acquired their sense of strangeness as I grew older.

    Kikyz1313

    “An Odd Spread” (2014) – Ink, graphite & watercolors by Kikyz1313

    SL: As an art curator, I’ve found it difficult to find people who will decorate their homes with dark artwork. I’ve even encountered artists who themselves find their dark work to be negative, which I’ve found to be a misnomer. When you encounter someone who is put off by your subject matter, how do you respond?

    K: I don’t think I could ever imagine dark artwork with positive or encouraging purposes. Dark artwork is, at its essence, blatantly raw, and to attribute positivity to it is an incongruity that undermines dark art’s very definition. I believe this incongruity to be so profound that it would defy the purpose of the work and discourage it’s own creator.

    Kikyz1313

    “A Soulfully Denature” (2013) – Ink, graphite & watercolors by Kikyz1313

    On my own behalf I can say I’m never trying to please the audience and therefore I won’t ever expect anyone to agree with my word. For that very reason, I can’t say I have an answer to any audience’s negative reactions (if they can be called ‘negative’) as my sincere concern is to produce a response, to burst out emotions, contradictions and questioning.

    What I can say is that I’m endlessly eager to find out about people’s reactions. They will always spur my desire to explore this alternate nook of perception.

    About the lack of daring in art collectors, I think it is pure fear that keeps them away as an audience from being open to truly understanding the so called ‘dark artwork.’ I feel we live in a time of absolute denial and rejection of everything that pushes us to consider our ephemeral and shallow existence; to everything that makes us recognize the dreadful decline of humanity’s constructs. Some people just want to ignore reality and continue building a new sickenly-sweet fiction instead of facing reality’s potholes and somehow search for solutions while acknowledging the direness of our situation.

    Kikyz1313

    “Olfacción” After Anahí Cifuentes short story (2013) – Ink & watercolors by Kikyz1313

    We are also spoiled by the media. We receive information already encoded and pre-packaged, so much so that new information presents itself as “too much effort.” We don’t want to waste our time incorporating new knowledge into our existing paradigm as it can seem too uncomfortable and inconvenient.

    This indicates why people find it easier to stick with art that is purely aesthetically pleasing rather than step out of our comfort zones with more intellectually challenging and visceral art expressions.

    SL: Kikyz, thank you for sharing these details about your creative process. Looking forward to seeing what new works you create!

    Kikyz1313

    “Metomentosis” (2012) – Ink & watercolors by Kikyz1313

  • Martin Wittfooth

    Interview: Martin Wittfooth

    Martin Wittfooth

    “Occupy” (2012) – Oil painting by Martin Wittfooth

    In the world depicted by Martin Wittfooth, humans are conspicuously absent, but their detritus remains: a junked car, a well-appointed apartment, a partially demolished building. That world is given over to animals in paintings that are at turns alarming, sad, and mysterious but unfailingly beautiful. Wittfooth’s work encourages us to think about our place in this world perhaps precisely because we are not in it.

    “Everywhere and at all times, we’ve been busy making things in our present for the simple purpose of communicating something, and thus sending messages into our future. What a peculiar habit. We’re the only species inhabiting this planet that routinely behaves this way, and there’s something really beautiful and profound about that.” —Martin Wittfooth

    Martin Wittfooth

    “Nocturne II” (2012) – Oil painting   &   “Nocturne” (2012) – Oil painting

    Julie Winters: Tell us a bit about your artistic path. How did you set upon art as a life pursuit?

    Martin Wittfooth: I’ve always been somewhat intuitively drawn to visual art, especially representational painting. I’m not sure where this taste or inclination comes from—perhaps it is not dissimilar from the subjective desires of a person’s taste buds or innate gravitation to certain music, and just like these tend to do, my tastes and interests have gotten broader with age and while exploring my own work over the course of my life. I was always drawing as a kid. Allegedly this was something that I started doing at a very early age, as with most people. In my case it was just something I kept doing. Sometime in the early years of high school I knew that I wanted to focus most of my studies and time into art projects and classes, and thankfully I found a school in Toronto that offered a pretty wide variety of art classes. We had a painting class, an illustration class, life drawing, and a few other options, all of which I took advantage of. This helped me build a pretty solid portfolio with which to apply to college. I got my undergrad in illustration at a school outside of Toronto. It had a strong focus on studio time (meaning less heavy on theory, more heavy on practice), and it set me on a pretty good path as far as figuring out what mediums I wanted to work with, the foundations of strong compositions, problem solving an idea visually, and so on. While at that school I thought I’d end up illustrating for a living, which was something I pursued for a while after school, though I kept returning to oil paint as the medium I most wanted to work with. It’s got such a long history and can have such a “living” essence about it—something that I always felt was lacking in my experimentations with acrylic and digital mediums, for instance. There’s something about standing in front of a great oil painting that just projects something genuine, something that breathes. It’s hard to explain, but it’s something I’ve always found to be irresistible, and inevitably it was something I wanted to try and capture in my own work as well.

    Martin Wittfooth

    Untitled (2014) – Oil painting by Martin Wittfooth

    So after school I tinkered around for a while and despite some flirtations with perhaps quicker mediums, which made sense to try and apply to illustration jobs with short turnarounds, I started working on a personal series, all in oils. Eventually I submitted some of this work to La Luz de Jesus’s annual group show, Everything But the Kitschen Sync, and got two pieces in. This was a huge game changer for me, to be honest. My very first time having my work in a gallery, and in Los Angeles of all places! I thought a kind of new avenue opened up, that maybe I should try and go down it for a while and see what might be discovered. Right around this time, I got accepted into the MFA program in illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and during the two years in that program I had a chance to really start exploring oils as a medium, and [to go] deeper into personal ideas and ruminations that I hoped to somehow be able to start discussing via the medium. I met and learned from some great instructors, and in the time I’ve lived here (for the past decade), I’ve met a host of very talented artists as well, and my interactions with all of these people have had a tremendous influence on my work, and my thoughts in general.

    Martin Wittfooth

    “Incantation” (2014) central panel of triptych with Jean Labourdette – Oil and gold leaf   &   “Shaman II” (2014) – Oil

    JW: What pulled you into a classical approach to painting?

    MW: Classical oil paintings often have something really incredible trapped inside of them: a kind of time capsule into eras and the philosophies and social culture of past times, which only art can give us a genuine glimpse of. Many classical paintings echo this sentiment that artists throughout human history have doubtless always been aware of—that we all share an instinct or desire, for some reason, to alchemically process the reality of our senses and thoughts into some “object” that can be shared with one another.

    Martin Wittfooth

    “Brahman” Sacrifice (2014) – Oil and gold leaf   &   “Atman” Mirage (2014) – Oil and gold leaf

    Once in a while I bandy this question around with other artists: “If you discovered that you were the only person left on Earth, with an endless supply of materials on hand, would you still make art?” I’m not exactly sure what my answer is, but I’m inclined to say no, because there’d be nobody that the work could speak to, other than myself. Looking at classical paintings, and connecting with some of them on a very deep level, leads me to believe that many of the classical painters share this sentiment. Through all this time that’s passed over the entire history of human art, these objects—these fingerprints—can reach us and communicate with us all this time later. We get these snapshots of our shared story on this planet, and the reminder that throughout it, we have all explored individual paths, while at the same time there are essential aspects about us that are united, including the desire to make art in the first place. We find this instinct practiced and explored in caves from the very dawn of our species throughout the world, we see it in the ancient temples of South America, Northern Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in the artifacts of the Renaissance, in the construction of modern-day New York City at the turn of the centuries. Everywhere and at all times, we’ve been busy making things in our present for the simple purpose of communicating something, and thus sending messages into our future. What a peculiar habit. We’re the only species inhabiting this planet that routinely behaves this way, and there’s something really beautiful and profound about that. I often think about what the psychedelic thinker Terence McKenna called “The Archaic Revival”: a yearning to look into the past to see meaning, connection, the sacred, looking back at us. I need those reminders sometimes, when the current state of human affairs seems dire and in need of a new perspective.

    Martin Wittfooth

    “The Gold Merchant” (2012) – Oil painting   &   “The Addict” (2012) – Oil painting

    JW: Although your work overall deals with the impact of humankind upon the natural world, you have said that you try not to be too specific in presenting particular facets of that in your paintings. As you begin a piece, do you start with a precise problem or focus, and if so, how do you expand from that?

    MW: I tend to explore my personal paintings in series, whereby there is a larger theme that sits like an umbrella over the whole body of work. Individual paintings within these series explore facets of the broader theme, and as such each painting in that series kind of speaks to one another, and usually presented as a solo show they all form a sort of unit. It’s nice to feel that—to walk into a space and somehow feel that the whole room is speaking to you at once in a way. This is why I often take issue with the art fair model of viewing work: there’s just too much going on at once, whereas museum rooms are often curated so as to have everything inside of it form a kind of symphony. The Frick Collection in New York does a great job of this, by the way, if anyone reading this interview is interested in checking it out. The museum is actually inside of the collector’s mansion on the Upper East Side, so as you walk through his collection you travel through the various rooms of the house. The rooms and alcoves have time period themes to them, and the artwork is hung in such a way as to play off of this.

    Martin Wittfooth

    “Shaman I” (2014) – Oil painting   &   “Smoke Signals” (2013) – Oil painting

    In my own work, the themes that form the basis for these solo show series are all in their own way a kind of meditation on topics that I’ve been thinking about at length because they interest me personally, and the individual paintings I create within them often springboard from one to the next: once I’m underway on a particular piece, the concept for another one tends to materialize. It’s a fun process, and I feel [it] lets me really sit with an idea for a long time and keep my focus on exploring it. I suspect that an author writing a book might feel the same way, the countless hours spent on research and writing on a particular topic or character plot line.

    Martin Wittfooth

    “Memento” (2010) – Oil painting   &   “Spring” (2010) – Oil painting

    JW: Fire and smoke have been running themes in your work. What is your attraction to these elements?

    MW: Fire and smoke are rather blunt symbols for destruction, and for a while I incorporated these elements rather clumsily to get at that point, though in recent works I’ve been bringing [them] in for more nuanced reasons. My 2011 series, The Passions, for instance, incorporated fire as a stand-in for the halo. That show dealt with blind faith and the persistent and troubling human meme of martyrdom. So in that series I borrowed titles and compositions from classical paintings and sculptures that portrayed this topic but replaced instances of “holy light” with fire, and that kind of thing. Another thing is [that] I love instances of light within a painting, which from a painter’s perspective offer fun stuff to explore. Painting fire is really interesting, as it’s very organic in its structure: alive and ever-transforming, affecting the color and temperature of the elements around it.

    Martin Wittfooth

    “The Baptism” (2011) – Oil painting   &   “The Sacrifice (2011) – Oil painting

    JW: What guides your decisions of which animals to use in your work? Are the animals ever symbolic? For example, hummingbirds, which appear in a few pieces, can be considered messengers or symbols of healing; is that at work in the pieces in which they appear?

    MW: Yes, the animals that I choose have something in their form, or body language, or our collective association with them that informs why I pick them. As a species we share a pretty significant degree of similar reactions to the natural world: there are forms in nature that we seem to have innate responses to. Like a sense of awe or respect for large mammals, and revulsion for spiders and snakes. I’m interested in this kind of shared pattern recognition and instinctive responses. I’m pretty invested in trying to imbue my paintings with some sense of “presence” and hence am working with subject matter that can impart an emotional reading of it, not just a rational (strictly observing) analysis. Trying to chase this idea, I’ve also become really mindful of the scale of my pieces and how that affects how the painting resonates: ideally I would like for you to “feel” that there is this animal standing in the room with you when you when you look at my work, and I believe I can only achieve that by letting the scene I want to portray and its inhabitants determine the size of the painting.

    Martin Wittfooth

    “The Heirs” (2012) – Oil painting   &   “The Spoils” (2012) – Oil painting

    JW: Jean Labourdette is another favorite artist in the beinArt Collective. Tell us about your collaboration with him last spring. How did that come about, and how did you put together the pieces on which you collaborated?

    MW: Soon after showing together in a group show at Yves Laroche Gallery in Montreal and taking a trip out to Miami Art Basel together with the gallery crew that same year, we became close friends. I think we have always had this mutual appreciation for each other’s work and that introduced us, but we also share a very similar mindset about the world and our lives in it. So we had been talking for quite a long time about a collaborative show, and in 2013 we created a painting together for a large museum show curated by Hey! at La Halle St-Pierre Museum, a triptych in the style and borrowed theme of classical altarpieces. It was a really fun and rewarding project. Shortly after that the opportunity came up to do a 2-person show at Roq La Rue Gallery in Seattle, and we jumped on it. We worked with the premise of one theme and worked on individual paintings tied to it, and [we] created another triptych piece together to serve as the anchor piece for the show.

    Martin Wittfooth & Jean Labourdette

    “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” (2013) Collaborative triptych with Jean Labourdette – Oil painting

    JW: Whose work do you find exciting right now, and why?

    MW: There are many, many artists out there right now that are doing superinteresting and inspiring stuff, so it’s hard to narrow it down. I’m really encouraged by what’s happening right now: it’s as though many artists who might [have] previously felt marginalized have amazing platforms from which to have their works seen and appreciated, and it’s encouraging a lot of people, it seems, to push the envelope and keep elevating each other in the process.

    JW: You’ve had several solo shows over the last handful of years, starting almost right after you obtained your MFA degree. Do you find that the shows guide the flow of your work, or are the shows put together on the basis of what you’re working on when you get the opportunity to exhibit?

    MW: Gallery shows are a great incentive for planning out a large series: the fact that this series will be exhibited in a particular space also informs the scope and scale of it. So, far ahead of time, when I’m first starting to plan out a show, I get floor plans if the gallery has them and take shots of the space. Some of the elements can affect what theme I choose to explore for a particular series.

    Martin Wittfooth

    “Fall/Advent” (2012) – Oil painting   &   “Ventriloquism (Politik 1)” (2014) – Oil painting

    JW: You’re an extremely accomplished painter at a relatively young age. Is there a style or medium that you’d maybe secretly like to try that would be a huge departure for you?

    MW: Thanks for saying that. Yes, I would very much like to explore sculpture in the future and site-specific installation work. I have something planned for a museum show in the next couple of years that will be an attempt at a large-scale installation. I’m really excited for it.

    JW: What is your vision of your future in art?

    MW: I would like to feel at each new year that I continue making art that I’m still exploring, and not taking it for granted. I want to constantly improve some aspect of my painting, and keep going deeper down the rabbit holes I’ve stumbled into.

    Martin Wittfooth

    “Fountain” (2011) – Oil painting   &   “New Suns” (2010) – Oil painting