Thursday, October 7, 2010

Interview with illustrator Mike Bukowski

It's interesting to watch someone grow as an artist right before your eyes. I have been friends with Philadelphia illustrator Mike Bukowski for about a decade now, and I can honestly say I've seen just that. From doing fliers for local shows, to record covers for international bands, to having his own solo shows, the progression has been obvious. We sat down at his South Philadelphia home to talk about "Roll for Damage", his new show in which we see his interpretations of classic Dungeon & Dragons creatures.

Denis: You have a show coming up and it’s based solely on Dungeons & Dragons creatures, why?

Mike: I’m really into monsters. Bestiaries in general are kind of a thing I’ve been getting into lately. I think just about every show I’ve done in Philadelphia has been some sort of bestiary, either real animals or monsters of some sort. I was actually on the way home from Benna’s [coffee shop/art space in South Philadelphia] one day and there was a flea market right outside your old house and some guy was selling the 2nd edition Monster Manual and the Fiend Folio [Dungeons & Dragons Publications]. I bought them from him because I thought the illustrations were…“badly neat”, if that makes any sense. It’s not the term, but you know. I thought it would be cool to reinterpret those drawings even though I know a million people have since in subsequent Monster Manuals. I thought, much like the H.P. Lovecraft drawings that I’ve done, there is almost what seem like impossible combinations of monsters and elements of animals together. Like a brain with tentacles and a bird beak doesn’t make any sense, so it’s kind of cool to take that idea and try to actually make it come to life and not look stupid, which I don’t know if I did.

Denis: I think anyone who is familiar with those Monster Manuals knows exactly what you mean by “badly neat”, which is why I think some people might have a problem with you reinterpreting them because that was a lot of the allure to those images…they were so crappy but awesome at the same.

Mike: They are really crappy. The Hook Horror specifically it’s just this, it kind of looks like a skeksi [creatures from “The Dark Crystal”] with armor and two giant hooks where its hands would be, and I was thinking how if this were any sort of real life world, how evolutionarily there would be no benefits to that at all. You wouldn’t be able to do anything with your hands besides claw warriors.

Denis: I thought maybe F. Gary Gygax…Is that his first initial? Is it F? [Ed.Note: It’s E]

Mike: I think it’s just Gary Gygax. Right?

Denis: [Mike searches through the Monster Manual to get the proper name of the man that created Dungeons & Dragons]

Mike: I’m sure everyone reading this is waiting on the edge of their seat.

Denis: I don’t think you can read moments.

Mike: It just says Gary Gygax in this one.

Denis: Well, I’m sure Gary Gygax was just trying to come up with the most ridiculous monstrosities that he could in the beginning.

Mike: Some of them are monstrosities but some of them are just stupid. Like one of them was a gorilla bear which is just a gorilla with the arms of a bear. So it’s not that much different than a gorilla.

Denis: Have you ever played Dungeons & Dragons?

Mike: I’ve actually never played Dungeons & Dragons.

Denis: You’ll find that a lot of them are just absurd, and ridiculous and not worth anything. So, you have no idea if you’re lawful good or chaotic neutral?

Mike: No, I have no idea actually. That is actually one of the things that always deterred me from it. It seemed very complicated.

Denis: I’m lawful good, if you were wondering.

Mike: Oh are you? What would you say I am?

Denis: Oh you’re chaotic neutral.

Mike: I don’t know what that means.

Denis: Exactly.

Mike: No, I’ve played Call of Cthulhu with you. I’ve played Shadowrun. I was really into Vampire: The Masquerade in high school.

Denis: Wow, you’re going to admit that?

Mike: I’ll admit it. Whatever.

Denis: How did you enjoy the Crow for the 20th time?

Mike: It can’t rain all the time.

Denis: What number show is this for you?

Mike: Solo show or including group shows?

Denis: Solo show.

Mike: I’m not being cocky I just don’t remember most things. I want to say around 6.

Denis: What is the challenge of doing a solo show? Do you just say “I’m gonna do a solo show next year” and then come up with an idea or do you have the idea first, start working on it and then put a date for a show?

Mike: It’s a little weird because it kind of evolved into something different than what it started as. The first show I did was a show in Belgium, which set the bar way too high. They flew me out, it was kind of a retrospective of all the work I had done up until that point and like maybe four new pieces. That gave me a very skewed perspective on what doing non-commissioned art shows would be like. Since then all of the shows I’ve done have been personal projects I’ve been working on. It’s gotten to the point where people are asking me before I have time to organically make the work. I can’t just say “I’ll draw just monsters.” It has to come from somewhere and seeing that guy at the flea market with the Monster Manual was when it happened. Unfortunately it was kind of later in the game than when I would have liked to start it. I think the animal show that I did at Benna’s, I started that a year before it actually went up. This one I started maybe four months ahead of time.

Denis: How do you see that your work has changed from strictly doing show fliers and work for R.A.M.B.O. [Philadelphia hardcore band 1999-2007] years ago to now doing records for international bands and doing your own solo shows? And how does it feel for you to go back and do fliers for shows or maybe humorous shirts or record covers for bands?

Mike: I think part of it is not taking myself too seriously, not getting too wrapped up in it. I’ll always do covers for bands. Honestly, I’ve never heard most of the bands I do covers for because a lot of them are new and from other countries so I haven’t gotten a chance to see them. I don’t know if I’m answering this question right but I love doing it so I’m not going to stop. So I’ll basically kind of always do whatever anyone asks me to as long as it fits the criteria that I’ve laid out which is no sexist, racist or homophobic stuff.

Denis: That brings me to my next question. Have you turned down things that you didn’t agree with?

Mike: I have. I don’t think I’ve told many people this but Michale Graves’ [former singer for The Misfits] publicist approached me once via email and asked me if I would do something for a Michale Graves record. I don’t know if I said “no” but I think I asked for $22,000 and I was very cocky in the email, like it was obvious I was being a dick to him. Even if he did offer me the $22,000 I wouldn’t have done it, or if I did it would have just been a drawing of him as a dick and that would have been it.

Denis: Do you want to explain why you would turn Michale Graves down?

Mike: Michale Graves is, what’s the website he runs? Punk Republican or something? Conservative Punk? He’s a douche bag.

Denis: You know conservative politics and punk music go real well together. [sarcasm]

Mike: There was also a compilation that I did a record cover for. The person that contacted me was really nice and obviously knew the kind of stuff that I did, and I’d heard of most of the bands. There were a few bands I had never heard of before. When I got it in the mail one of the bands had really fucked up, misogynist lyrics. There was nothing I could do at that point. It was different because it was a compilation so I didn’t have the one on one contact with every person in the band. The only thing I could think to do was write a letter to MRR [Maximum Rock and Roll – a punk magazine] and apologize for it.

Denis: Has there been something that you have done that has been widely accepted or that you were surprised at the reception?

Mike: The Rock Against Bush cover, which I’m also not very happy with but it was a while ago so I’ll let that go. At some point, I think I was still doing stuff with R.A.M.B.O. and Andy Wheeler [R.A.M.B.O. guitarist] called me up and told me I should go the Starlight because Anti-Flag was there and my drawing was plastered on their bus. It wasn’t a van, it was an actual tour bus and all four sides of it had this giant 5ft tall George Bush head on it that I drew. It was really weird. And one of the funny things was, one of the execs at Fat Wreck Chords was talking with me and joking “oh, we don’t owe you any extra money for this? “ and it was like “ha-ha, kind of you do.” I understand what it was for and I agreed with it at the time, but I think that I got paid very little for it. It might sound like a contradiction to talk about how much I love doing this and how I’d never stop but then also talk about how I need to get paid for it. I don’t make a lot off of it so when I am deserving payment for the thing that I did, I would really like to get it and would really like a large label like Fat Wreck Chords to not joke with me about how they’re not paying me for it.

Denis: Because at this point in time it’s not really a hobby anymore.

Mike: No it’s not.

Denis: I’m sure you love doing it but it does supplement your income.

Mike: Yeah.

Denis: You’ve done a lot of record covers and t-shirts for bands across the world. How does that happen?

Mike: I think a lot of it was from when I first started with Shark Attack, R.A.M.B.O., Down in Flames and Tear It Up Records. I think for all of those the combined payment was maybe $100 and a dinner. And my only stipulation was that my website and email address be in every single record. I guess a lot of those records were popular at the time. They got bootlegged and legitimately distributed in Southeast Asia and Central America, so people got those records with my information on them and the internet is free and accessible to everyone. That’s mostly how it happened I think. Just word of mouth from having my website and email on record covers. Being on tour with R.A.M.B.O. helped a lot because I would meet people, we would start talking, they would figure out who I was and then ask me if I would be interested in doing a demo cover for their band. And then other people in the Czech Republic would see that and other people in Australia would see the other thing that I did. The Australia thing definitively snowballed. It’s ridiculous; a lot of the work I do is for Australian bands and clothing companies.

Denis: Do you want to publicly thank the Internet right now?

Mike: I would like to publicly thank the Internet. I hear it weighs nothing.

Denis: What?

Mike: I hear it weighs nothing.

Denis: It’s true….

Mike: It’s really light.

Denis: It weighs nothing? I don’t get it. [Apparently Mike was referencing a TV show]

Mike: [laughs]

Denis: The Internet has played a huge part in how you have gotten your name out there. Do you think the Internet has made you lazier as an artist or has it made you try harder?

Mike: I definitely think the exact opposite of that. I don’t think that’s the case at all. It’s probably made it easier to do some things. It makes it easier to accomplish certain things. It doesn’t make me personally take it easier because, like I said, I’ll accept almost any job that anyone asks me to do. I’ve been basically working for 10 years straight, doing this because of the Internet. I haven’t really taken any time off except to go on tour or go on vacation for a little while, but there has never been that long of a lull. (knocks on his desk)

Denis: Knock on wood.

Mike: Knock on my desk.

Denis: You know that’s not wood right?

Mike: Yeah. But it’s also kind of driven me because I can see other people that are doing the same thing as me very easily. I can do a Google search, or looking at other record covers I can see other people that are making record cover art and be like “oh fuck that guy is awesome, I better step up my game”. It pushes me. It definitely doesn’t make me lazier. It’s weird, because I think that it’s definitely a completely different time from when people like Mad Marc Rude or Pushead were doing things through mail and through zines and stuff. I would not have gotten the amount of recognition that I have now. It would have taken me a lot longer. And also the amount of work I’ve done for bands would have been a lot less. I probably would have done the same amount of work for myself.

Denis: Your art definitely has a focus on horror, macabre, sci-fi, scary monsters…that sort of thing. Are you trying to work something out? Maybe by drawing monsters are you trying to protect yourself from them?

Mike: Whoa deep!

Denis: Yeah, I go to college now.

Mike: No, I really don’t think so. I’ve never really been that scared of monsters. I’ve never really had anything super-traumatic happen to me so it’s not like I’m retreating into my art to get away from it. Maybe I am just not thinking about it hard enough, but most of it is that since I was a little kid I thought monsters were cool! I would always gravitate towards “Tales From The Crypt” instead of Superman comics. Now I’ll read Hellboy instead of X-Men. I’ve just always gravitated towards more macabre stuff. Actually, I think my aunt has the first drawing I could remember making which is a crayon drawing of the shark from Jaws being stabbed by 20 harpoons with a lot of blood all over the place. And that was before even the minor fucked up things happened in my life. It’s just something I’ve always been interested in.

Denis: You went to art school?

Mike: Yes, I went to University of the Arts.

Denis: Do you want to give art students the message to stay in school? Is schooling for art helpful?

Mike: Yes I would say that. It was helpful to me. I viewed it as a technical school, as a place to hone your skill. They had me on a strict regimen of practicing and learning anatomy and looking at the human figure and meeting deadlines, learning how to use color. It’s stuff that I wouldn’t have thought of or I would have thought of it way later in the game, so it was good to have that kind of guidance and focus. I do think grad school for art is a big waste of time. At a certain point you just have to go out on your own and learn it, and exist as an artist in the real world.

Denis: Interesting.

Mike: Controversial?

Denis: Controversial!

Denis: Let’s talk about your process. How does something go from an idea to a finished piece that we see on the wall or on a record?

Mike: It usually starts with an absurd primitive thumbnail sketch that looks like a bunch of squiggles. You can probably pick out a skull and that’s about it. From there I’ll usually take reference photos, which are hysterical, of me or my friends in various poses.

Denis: Or one of your best friends in a cemetery in the middle of Old City?

Mike: Yes, that’s happened.

Mike: From the photo, I’ll gather other internet references of a place or a building. Then I do a pencil drawing, and then I’ll ink that. The pencil drawing takes a day or two, to ink it takes another day. Then I’ll scan it, import it into Photoshop, then add the color and render it. The whole process, for a record cover, start to finish…if I can work on it intensely, takes about a week and a half. I don’t know if I’ve gotten better, but I’ve gotten faster.

Denis: How many hours a day is that?

Mike: I’d rather not talk about it, makes me sad. It’s a lot of hours.

Denis: But how much of that is paying attention to watching Phantasm II?

Mike: I actually don’t pay attention to it! That’s the one good thing about director’s commentaries on DVD, I usually just put them on to listen to them, and I don’t look up. Unless it’s “Dawn of the Dead”, then I’ll stop to watch the guy’s head explode in the beginning. Netflix Instant is also great for that…I think I watched all of Fawlty Towers this weekend while drawing. It doesn’t need to be great, it just needs to be there so I’m not bored out of my mind listening to the same record over and over.

Denis: And for the record, what DVD has the best commentary?

Mike: “The Reanimator” DVD is really good, because it’s just a bunch of the people from the movie joking around.

Denis: And what has the most ridiculous commentary?

Mike: Probably “Trapped in the Closet”. Actually “The Happiness of the Karikuris” has actors doing the commentary since the director does not speak a word of English…I thought that was weird.

Denis: What happens after the Benna’s show?

Mike: After the Benna’s show, I have two record covers lined up, and a shirt design for Philly band The Claw. The description for the one band I’m doing a cover was pretty amazing, let me find it. [5 minutes go by] The band is from England, I think. The guy says, “I’m in a thrash/grind/ska/metal band.” And their idea was something with chainsaw trombones.

Denis: Ha! So naturally they came to you!

Mike: Yeah! I’m excited to do it!

Denis: Any other shows coming up?

Mike: Yes, I’m doing a show in March at Part-Time Studios with Jeanne D’Angelo.

Denis: Is it weird doing a show with your “life partner”?

Mike: No, I’m excited about it! I think it will be cool. Even though we work in very different mediums and approach art technically in different ways, our styles are very similar (flat color with minimal gradations, very graphic).

Denis: Ooo, gradations. Do you find that you inspire each other, or is it a little competitive? Not in an “I have to do better then you” way, but maybe in an “Oh man, Jeanne’s doing this, I better step up my game”.

Mike: Yes, it’s definitely like that. She’s really good. I’m not trying to show her up, but I see that she’s doing an awesome thing and it makes me want to do something just as awesome. But that also goes for friends of mine, like Justin Gray and Alicia Neal. Both of them, when I see their work, it’s the same thing.

Denis: What other artists are you blown away by these days?

Mike: Um…

Denis: Just Pushead?

Mike: Yes, just Pushead. I’ve only been accused once of borrowing from Pushead.

Denis: Oh, I don’t think your stuff looks like Pushead.

Mike: I didn’t think so either. I think the only reason is that there was a horse skull in that piece.

Denis: Skulls are so hot right now!

Denis: So what artists are you into? Any medium. Any video artists you’re into these days?

Mike: Knox Harrington? Geoff Darrow (Hard Boiled, Shaolin Cowboy), Charles Burns (Black Hole), D'Israeli (Scarlet Traces), Junji Ito (Uzumaki), Seth Fisher (Willworld), Mike Mignola (Hellboy), Guy Davis (B.P.R.D. Antonia Prohias (Spy Vs. Spy), Eric Powell (The Goon), Wayne Barlowe (Guide to Extraterrestrials), Ed Repka (Megadeth-Rust In Peace), Shawn Kerri (Circle Jerks), Screamin Mad George (The Mad), Zbigniew M. Belak (Watain-Lawless Darkness), Derek Riggs (Iron Maiden), Michael Whelan (Sepultura), Gee Vaucher (Crass), James Groman (Madball designer). One of the first artists that made me want to get into drawing record covers was Dan Seagrave. When I was in high school I was really into Death Metal and would specifically buy record covers that had his art on it. I remember the Suffocation “Effigy of the Forgotten” record and the Dismember “Like an Ever-Flowing Stream” record because he paints landscapes that make me want to go to those places. It probably wouldn’t be the best idea to go to those places, but they created such an environment and made me like the records. It helped me understand at a very young age what kind of power a record cover has in relation to the actual music.

Denis: So while other young kids that were getting into metal were buying records with “hot chicks” on the cover, you were buying records because they had “scary places” on the cover? I see where your focus is.

Mike: Yes!

Denis: You love traveling, what is up with that?

Mike: Ha! Well, there’s these things called places, and you can go to them.

Denis: There’s adventure right around the corner, why take a cruise to Antarctica?

Mike: Well, I’ve been to almost every state.

Denis: How many continents?

Mike: All of them.

Denis: That’s amazing. How many countries?

Mike: 37

Denis: You still have a lot to go, aren’t there like 250 and something?

Mike: I don’t know. There’s some Adventurer’s Club where you have to have gone to 100 countries to be in it.

Denis: Not even close bro.

Mike: I was thinking about it. I’ve done a lot of traveling, but only 37 countries.

Denis: So you’ve been to 37 countries, 7 continents, countless states…

Mike: Not countless, it’s very countable.

Denis: Fine…countable states. You’ve publicly already thanked the internet, would you publicly like to say that the United States of America is the best country in the world?

Mike: Mmmmm…I mean, it’s pretty cool. I don’t know about the US government, but it’s a pretty cool country. I’ve been back and forth across it a bunch of times, with you, and we’ve seen some really beautiful and amazing things.

Denis: Remember when that coyote scared you?

Mike: I remember when you almost peed because the coyote was outside the tent.

Denis: I didn’t almost pee, you didn’t tell me until the morning!

The opening reception for Mike's newest show, "Roll for Damage", is Friday, October 8th at Benna's Cafe, 8th & Wharton St in Philadelphia.

Mike has a blog of drawings inspired by H.P. Lovecraft here: Yog-Blogsoth

Mike also has a blog about Madballs, his new obsession. Check it out here: Blarghhhspot

Transcribed by Jaime Morgan. Thanks!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

God-knows-where, USA - 10/13/09

I think I love road trips and tours because of the temporary direction they give me. Here today, there tomorrow, back the next day. I always yearn for the open road and I'm jealous of folks I know that are out there now. I used to think I would have enjoyed a life of steady movement, but it didn't work out for one reason or another.

Mostly timing. Goddammit, I have the worst.

Right now though, I'm enjoying a new direction by staying still. I hope the enjoyment lasts.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Interview with artist Jeanne D'Angelo

What do you do when you read an old ghost story, and you let your mind create the chilling visage of the main ghoul? Do you shut your eyes and attempt to erase the thought, or do you get to work? Artist Jeanne D'Angelo seems to prefer the latter, using folk lore and old wives' tales as a fuel for her creative process. We sat down in her South Philadelphia home to chat about monsters, myths, and mayhem. (Well, not really mayhem.)

Denis: How did you get started as an artist?
Jeanne: I guess I always drew. When I was a kid I used to read a lot and I would draw things I thought were interesting from stories. There was a while in high school where I thought I was going to be an artist when I grew up, but I came to terms with the reality of art education and dropped it for a while. Then I took a class in college and realized I wanted to do it. I wasn’t at an art school so I just made the most of the general education I got there and took a lot of classes that I thought were interesting so I’d always have content I was interested in to make art about. It took a bunch of years after college for me to really get started.
How many years?

Jeanne: From when I graduated at 22 until about 26 I wasn’t really actively doing much. I always kind of drew in my spare time, but I didn’t really feel like I had an audience or knew what to do with my art so it didn’t really go anywhere from there. Then things just suddenly started picking up when I pushed myself a little further and took a screen-printing class and found that there was some interest in what I was doing. It sort of encouraged me to do more.
Denis: What else other then the screen-printing class did you do when you were 26?
Jeanne: I think that was it. I think I just needed to have something to focus on and to be forced to carry out a project to completion. Because it was a screen-print and because I could make multiples, people had an interest in them. I sold some of them. I felt like I was starting to come into a style that I really liked doing and I wanted to see how I could develop it further. It’s kind of weird, the lost years where I didn’t feel particularly motivated…I just didn’t feel like I was ready to show anyone anything or that there was anyone to look at it.

Denis: Your art definitely has a focus on the macabre, and it’s influenced by horror movies and odd folk tales. How did you first get into “spooky stuff”?
Jeanne: I guess I’ve always been into “spooky stuff”. I think specifically the first strange stuff I got into was the folklore and the mythology. From elementary school age, I’d go to the library all of the time and take out the D'Aulaires' books of Greek and Norse myths. Those were my absolute favorite books and I would stare at the pictures forever. Then I had a copy of Bullfinch’s mythology and a copy of “The Odyssey” for high school kids that I was obsessed with when I was younger. I don’t know, I’ve always been interested in strange things. My aunt said that when she used to take me to the art museum all I wanted to look at was the mummies. Every single weekend she would take me and I would beg to see the mummies. I guess I started watching horror movies when I was a kid too. My dad likes them a lot, but mostly the classics. I got into the other stuff in middle school and high school. I think it’s just the stuff that every weird kid likes and every kid that likes punk likes. Not every kid, but they’re pretty related things. I was also really into comic books that have a lot of the same type of imagery. There are a lot of things, a lot of the aesthetics of horror movies, which I like a lot. Not just the stories, but also the way they look. The imagery that’s in them, I’ve always found really exciting and interesting to look at.
Denis: What are your specific influences from those genres? Like movie directors or artists?
Jeanne: I guess I got a lot of influence visually from comic books like the EC comics, the horror comics and their stable of artists like Ghastly Graham Ingels and Johnny Craig and also from artists like Frank Frazetta, or the illustrations in the D'Aulaires' books, and people like Arthur Rackham and Ivan Bilibin. I had a lot of books that had a lot of really interesting illustrations, like folklore and fairytale books. As far as movies go, it’s harder for me to say because it’s not as direct to think about how they influenced me visually, but I really like horror movies that have a lot of atmosphere. I like a lot of the movies from the 60s and 70s that have a lot of bright color and really garish stuff, but also dark contrast, like Suspiria and a lot of supernatural Asian movies and Hammer stuff where everything is filmed on a fabricated set on a sound stage. I prefer creature movies and ghost stories to violent or slasher films. Not like I don’t watch those, but I’m not as interested in them. I really like the Godzilla movies, the monsters and creatures in those, and all the Universal stuff.
Is there something about folk art or folklore that influences you a bit more because you feel like you have to do a bit more research?

Jeanne: That’s definitely a part of it. I get really excited learning about new things and obscure things and forgotten things and I’ve always kind of liked the reading aspect of it. Most of the time the reason that I make a painting is because I read about the subject and just instantly thought, “that would be really cool to look at, I want to look at it, so I’m going to have to make it”. Researching a little about the culture it comes from and the kind of art and visual representations they made is really interesting as well as finding ways to adopt those things without copying them. I am definitely very interested in many things and I try to bring all of these things into art whenever I can, because it makes it way more fun for me to make it if I’m excited about the idea. And the reason I pick specific ideas is because I had a strong visual picture of them in my head when I read about them and see them described, or sometimes I see illustrations of them and I think that I could do better or put a different spin on it that would be interesting.

So you’ve been doing art for a while, do you look at your collected work and notice how you’ve improved as an artist? Is that something you pay attention to?

Definitely. The bulk of the work that anyone would look at now is from the past couple of years. There’s stuff that I did in college that’s floating around out there because it’s attached to projects that I don’t even like to think about. I try not to be really hard on myself and there’s stuff that I did even last year that I think I could do better now, but I still appreciate the way they look and I still understand they have good qualities. It’s kind of interesting, I feel like I don’t have a lot of time because art is not what I do full-time. I don’t have a lot of time to practice and try things and sketch and really consciously develop so I guess any development that’s happening is just natural. I’m naturally getting better because I’m doing more or possibly just because I look at a lot of stuff and pick up little ideas without even thinking about it. I have been settling into the style that I primarily use now, which is the full color paintings with the flat matte paint. It took a little while to master my medium and figure out what kind of paints I wanted to use and what kind of brushes and what kind of lines and gestures I wanted for certain things. Once I started to settle into those I feel like things started to get a little better. I assume that I’ll look at stuff I did this year, next year, and start picking at it…it’s just the sort of natural thing that happens, I think.

Even looking at your blog that you put some of your art on, you can tell that there seemed to be a point where your pieces became more detailed and more colorful. Was that a conscious effort?

Well for years I thought that my thing was just doing black & white, and that’s what I liked to do. I was really interested in the idea of making books and making work that was easy to reproduce so black & white lent itself really well to that idea. I still really like black & white work and it’s some of my favorite stuff but something happened…I was doing these prints so I had the option of adding a color to them and I didn’t really have a lot of confidence in my ability with color just because I didn’t use it a lot. When I was getting ready for my last show, the first color piece I did was the king vulture. I was looking at pictures of it and I was thinking it was so interesting with the color that it had naturally, I guess I wanted to reproduce that somehow. That’s when I started experimenting with full color stuff. I’m getting a lot more comfortable with it. It took a while to work out how to choose color, since before that all I thought about was how to put light and dark together in a way that you could read it really clearly. You have to make some of the same decisions with color. I think I’m getting better at it and it’s really fun for me. It seems kind of ill-fitting for my personality and personal style, but it is kind of fun to use every single color. I definitely remember when I was a kid my M.O. was to use every single crayon, so apparently I’m doing that as an adult now.

Denis: But now you’re getting paid for it!
Jeanne: Yeah, sort of.

Denis: Back to your blog. You recently started doing something new, where you’re publishing pictures of your art in stages of completion, and you’re also talking about the types of tools and brushes and colors and paints that you use. Why would you let people into those aspects of your creative process?
Jeanne: On a practical level, I wanted to keep the blog active even though I was really busy making work. I wanted to still be posting content and keeping people who were interested, if they were, involved. I also realized that it’s really interesting for me to see other people’s stuff in progress stages. I was a little nervous about it at first because I don’t think they’re much to look at in their earliest stages. Basically, it’s like a coloring book. You have an image in your head of what it’s going to look like finished. It’s a little weird to show someone that first step and assume they’re going to know it’s going to turn into something worthwhile. I enjoy seeing other people’s progress and talking to other people about their process because everyone’s is completely different. They have different mediums they like, different qualities that they like about their mediums. I think it’s kind of interesting that everyone has some picky little thing that they’re obsessed with that probably no one else notices, so I thought it would be interesting to talk about that more. I try not to be a shill for products at all in my blog, but I also think that if I find something I really like working with I might as well tell other people because maybe there’s someone out there that has been looking for something like that for their work.

Denis: Is this something you wished some of your favorite artists had done when you were starting out? Maybe if you knew their processes and tools it would have been helpful, or at least interesting?
Jeanne: I think so. I think that the advent of blogs, and just generally the Internet, has allowed people to express all of the stages of their work and show their work to people across the world. People have a lot more access to these things that used to seem inaccessible, which I think is cool because I don’t really like the idea of art being something that only professional people can do, like it’s something mysterious. I like the idea that people have access to how these things are done and could maybe see what it’s like when someone is working out problems with their work or working past problems. I always liked seeing the sketches that the master painters would do. A lot of the time I liked their sketches a lot better then the finished works. It’s really interesting to see that they go through some of the same stages of development that other people do. Whenever people I know post progress shots or whenever I hang out with friends and get to see their work in progress, it’s always interesting to me. There’s always something relatable…you can talk about a lot of common experiences you have trying to work through a problem with a piece, or trying to work out the best way to do stuff. Then at the same time there’s always something about the way they do things that is totally different from what you do. It’s interesting to hear about it.

Denis: You were saying that you didn’t like art to seem like only something that professional people can do. How does “do it yourself” ethics play into your career as an artist?
It definitely affects me a lot. I think that in general, being introduced to punk and DIY when I was younger made me feel like a lot more things were possible and it’s one of the few things I get idealistic about when I talk about it. I think it’s definitely important, especially when people are younger, to understand that you don’t need to do everything right the first time, and you don’t need to go to school to know how to do something. This is new to me, having a blog and being able to talk to people about what I’m doing. The fact that you can make art at home and you can put it on the internet and people that are interested can see it is a really big deal. I always looked at artists that were associated with punk, things that were self-published, and records that were put out on people’s own labels and was very inspired by that. Especially the punk artists, just the idea that a lot of them didn’t go to school or they weren’t going about an art career in a very conventional way helped me realize there were a lot of ways of doing this.

Do you think that the Internet has a positive influence on art?

My experiences have generally been positive. I think there is a negative side to all of it as well. The idea of images being constantly reposted without context, they start to lose some of their meaning. I’m becoming aware of the world of Tumblr, and the idea of an image you put out there being reposted and reposted and reposted…on one hand, I like it, it fits with my general philosophy of art that people having access to it is really important, but at the same time I wonder what it’s like to just constantly see images with no context and not really have an understanding of where they came from or who they came from. It’s interesting though, since it also means that it is being taken completely on its own merits and people are identifying with it in a personal way without having any idea how they’re supposed to look at it or who made it, and if that person is important.

Denis: Tell us about your upcoming show.
It’s called “Unclean Spirits” and it’s going to be at Benna’s CafĂ© on September 10th. The general focus of the show is encounters with unclean spirits from Slavic folklore. I fell into it as a topic. There was a Nikolai Gogol story that I read a long time ago and had wanted to do images from for a really long time. I was trying to find a way to segue that into my next show. Originally I was just going to do illustrations from that story and then read a lot more of the folklore. I took a couple classes on Slavic culture & folklore in college and was really interested. I started thinking and reading about that stuff again and decided I wanted to make the show a little more broad so I’m basically just picking an area of concentration. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever have enough time to do all of the stuff I want to do, but I’ve managed to pick a lot of images from stories that I really liked to illustrate.

Denis: What’s coming up in the future?
More stuff! There are a couple of people that have approached me about doing illustrations for things. There’s some personal projects, like a ‘zine, and trying to figure out how to paint on bones. Then next March, [Philadelphia-based illustrator] Michael Bukowski and I will be having a show at the Part-Time Gallery, so I’ll probably have to start working on that really soon, because I have a full-time job, and a lot of these paintings take a really long time to make, especially on any large scale.

Well thanks, that’s it.

Jeanne: I did it!
You did it!

Check out Jeanne's blog here: Wandering Genie

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Michael Bukowski, somewhere in California, 10/11/09

Everything I owned fit in a mini-van. It was sobering, depressing, and comforting all at the same time. I had the idea to leave California to return to familiarity and hopefully one day go back to school. Well, school starts in two days. This was almost a year ago. I still feel bad for waking up Erica at 5am to let me into the garage to get the sleeping bag that I forgot. Sorry.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Interview with photographer Melissa Farley

I could tell you that Melissa Farley is a photographer, but I don’t think that explains it all. In a time when point-and-shoot-from-your-phone-then-upload-to-your- Flickr/Facebook/etc is the convenient path of today’s photographer, Melissa is still scouting locations, setting shots for days, and telling a story with each of her pictures. We sat down at her house in South Philadelphia to find out about her start in photography, the stories in her pictures, and her rediscovered family.

Do you remember your first camera?
Yeah I do. It was a Pentax film point and shoot camera.
Denis: When did you get it?
Melissa: I got it when I was probably like 11 or 12. The only photo that I remember actually taking with that camera was my cat Louise underneath a chair. And I remember trying to walk around thinking, “What would be a cool thing to take a picture of? Something that’s different…” and it was just Louise underneath a chair. I remember getting the pictures back after I had brought them to CVS and being like “This fucking sucks!” [laughs] I was pretty bummed on myself.

Denis: When did you decide that you wanted to do photography more than just for fun?

Melissa: It’s kind of a depressing story. I took a photo class in high school. I wasn’t really good at much in high school. I wasn’t good in school. I played a lot of sports, but I didn’t excel at any of that really either. It sucked going through high school not actually being very good at anything. So I took a photo class and I started taking pictures. I remember being in the darkroom developing my photos and my teacher actually telling me “Wow, these are really good photos! You’re actually really good at this.” I was just like “Holy shit! That’s awesome.” I ended up failing that class anyway. [laughs] After that I continued to keep going with it. I guess it was just one of those things I was like “Well I think I’m good at this and I like doing it so fuck it, let’s do it”.

Denis: Other than the photo class in high school, did you have any other kind of formal training?

Melissa: Yeah, I went to college. My senior year I got a full scholarship to the Art Institute based on my portfolio. That was unexpected. Then halfway through that I dropped out and then I went to the School of Visual Arts in NYC. I dropped out of that. Then I went to U Arts for a week. Dropped out of that. Took that tuition money and bought my car, went back to the Art Institute where they gave me my full scholarship back and that’s where I graduated from.

Denis: How do you find the locations for some of your shots? Some of your shots that focus on Philadelphia are in interesting you just walk around?
Melissa: Some photos of mine...I’ve actually been there. The photo that you’re looking at has actually happened and I go back and recreate it because it was a moment that I just wanted to show people. I feel like it’s something that everybody could look back on and be like “ah, fuck I’ve been there before.” Lately it’s hard walking around, I don’t find shit around here that I want to take pictures of. I think that’s why I want to leave the city because I’ve just realized I need to be somewhere more aesthetically pleasing to me because it just makes me feel uninspired and just...shitty.

Denis: Do you feel that maybe sometimes living in someplace that isn’t as aesthetically pleasing makes you try harder to find subject matter? Or maybe just kind of sucks your will to be creative?
Melissa: I don’t know, it’s hard. The desire to be creative, it never leaves, but you can’t make something out of nothing. Philadelphia is a gorgegous city. I just think maybe I’ve played it out too much. I’m just done. I’m tired of taking photos that are involved in a city. I’m tired of it. I just feel like I need to expand. I think I’m growing as a person. I’m getting older. My feelings are changing. What I think is aesthetically pleasing is changing. So, that’s why I think it’s time for me to kind of move on in that way. I’m just not interested anymore.

Denis: Going back to where you said you wanted to take pictures of moments that actually happened. Do you ever feel that you can’t totally recreate that moment and it kind of frustrates you? Do you wish maybe you could take a picture with your mind just because it was a such a specific thing you can never recreate? Or can you recreate it enough that it satisifies you?
Melissa: I think I can recreate it enough to satisfy me. I think that I’ve lived kind of an interesting life, you know, for a 27-year-old white girl in America. A lot of people have had it way worse than I have but I think I’ve lived a kind of interesting life. I just feel like I’ve been in a lot of situations and I’ve had a lot of moments that were just different, that have really just taught me a lot. You know, that maybe I just want to share with other people. There is one photo of me and my friend Jenni in a car, in the back of my old apartment off Spruce street. It’s night out. Me and my ex, we dated for three years, we broke up and I remember being in my house and feeling kind of miserable. She came and picked me up. And I just had that feeling of like “Dude, I don’t know where to go, just drive. I don’t care where we go, let’s just go.” And we just went and sat somewhere. I remember putting my head on her shoulder. I didn’t have anything to say. I didn’t have anything I wanted to talk about. I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to laugh. I didn’t want to do anything. I just fucking sat there. Then a month or two later I went back and recreated that because, of all the shit I went through then, that moment stood out for me the most. That’s how I felt, I bet you a lot of fucking people have been in this position before. That’s something I just really wanted to remember and also something I thought was just really special in a way...that sadness you’re feeling and that comfort you can get from any person that’s close to you. Just like, everything is going to be alright.

Denis: Looking at your pictures, for the most part, I get a feeling of loneliness even though some of them are with other people. They’re kind of sad. Is that on purpose?
Melissa: Yeah, I guess so. I think a lot of my photos people take as being pretty sad or pretty lonely. For me, they’ve been more empowering in a way, to shoot or even to look at. Often times I feel like I struggle, I go through shit and I don’t know why. I have nothing to show for it. Sometimes when I can take a photo based off of something that happened I have something to show for it. “Oh, look at this. This is what I created out of this shitty thing that happened or this awesome thing that happened or whatever. Check out what I just created with that.” That’s awesome. I don’t know how else to explain it but in that way.

Denis: So, you’re trying to maybe prove to yourself that fleeting moments are not always fleeting...that there can be meaning in the most mundane of things?
Melissa: Yeah pretty much. It’s hard to say without sounding super corny. Just the way things look sometimes can be really fucking touching in a way. Just like certain moments stand out or just things that I want to capture and hold onto forever. And they’re not always the most special fucking moments. I mean right now I‘m working for a photographer who does weddings. I sit and look at wedding photography all day long. I think I’ve even told someone recently that at my wedding I don’t want a fucking photographer. Stuff like that, I don’t care about that shit being documented. Those things will stand out in my mind, that’s fine. It’s not about the wedding. It’s not about the actual ceremony. It’s not about the people there celebrating. It’s about what’s happening between the two people and that connection they feel and if there is a way to express that through a photograph...I don’t necessarily think it will be on your wedding day. I don’t know if that makes any sense, I just feel like there are certain moments that I want to make sense out of maybe. And just show people.

Denis: Do you think your photos fit together into a narrative that is your life or each photo tells its’ own specific story about a specific time?
Melissa: I think it’s maybe a narrative about my life. It just all things I’ve gone through at the moment. My brother died a few years ago and for the next few years I shot photos that expressed the grief I was going through, the loneliness I felt while dealing with his death. I’m sure not a lot of people would see that, not a lot of people would get that from looking at my photos, but most of them had to do with his death. Recently I went on a trip with my birth sister who is 12 and I hadn’t seen in 4 years. I met her when she was 5 or 6 years old. She’s my only blood relative. Her and my birth mom, I didn’t find them until I was 19. It was weird for a long time, a really long time and it really upset me in a lot of ways. I recently went to Paris and London with them and my whole last show, I put 30 black & white snapshots up and about 25 of them were of Bella, my little sister. People look at them and just go “oh that’s a cute little kid” or whatever, but for me I was documenting this weird bonding experience her and I had within those 6 days. The first day I felt really fucking weird. We wouldn’t even speak to each other. We’d be in the same room and just walk away from each other. I’m 27 years old and she’s 12. It was really strange and by the end of it, we’re both crying because we both don’t want to leave each other. So the photos that I shot are documenting that kind of weird...that bond you have. In all the ways that I think I’m so fucking weird, that I can’t relate to other people around me, I found similarities within her, my 12 year old little sister. Being 27 and going pretty much your whole life feeling like a fucking weirdo, to find that now, in a 12 year old little girl, is awesome. It makes you feel like “Oh shit. I’m here, I’m like this for a reason. I’m not totally on my own with it.” It’s cool. So yeah, I think my photos do narrate my life in a way.
Denis: You were saying people see pictures of a kid and don’t know the story behind it, do you find photography can be limiting in that way or is that your challenge as the artist to tell a story with just a photo?
Melissa: It’s kind of a challenge, I think, more so because it’s hard to not be totally overbearing and in your face with some kind of a message. I hate that, I don’t ever want to be like that. It just makes it pretty lame. So it’s hard not to make something totally boring and not having any meaning or any kind feeling to it, to being totally in your face and so obvious. But, there is a line that I struggle with where I have to think long and fucking hard. I think some people don’t really understand the kind of photos I take.

Denis: Do you find that photography as an art form is not as respected as others where it’s obvious how much work is put into it?
Melissa: Yeah, in a way. It’s hard to say. For photography I think a lot of people think you can just pick up a camera and take pictures. I’ve even had people say that to me, “you just push a button.” Sure I can walk around and take pictures of trash. Or I could walk around and take pictures of alley cats. Get an off camera flash, go to a party and take some party photos. Sure I can do that and all that shit’s cool. But that’s not necessarily the type of stuff I do. I know there are a lot of photographers, even in Philadelphia, who feel the same way. They take their shit seriously. They put in a lot of time and effort. You got to feel real strongly about what you’re doing to put all this time and effort into it. I feel like maybe people don’t see that time and effort. Which, who really gives a fuck, really? I don’t want people to look at my photos and be like “oh, look how much time and effort she put into this shit. I respect it so much more.” I don’t give a fuck if you knew that it took me three weeks to take that one photo. Just look at the photo. If you like it, cool. If you hate it, cool. It doesn’t matter to me. The only problem that I find, when it sometimes takes me a while to shoot one photo...I’m just kind of like, don’t get on my case when I’m not going out shooting photos sometimes. I can’t always do that. It’s more frustrating to me than it is to you. I don’t have a studio. I can’t sit in a studio, sit there and take photos all day long. Like some people can sit in their studio and paint all day. Fuck, that’d be awesome. Sounds relaxing.

Denis: Even painters and other kinds of artists and musicians don’t just keep painting or playing the guitar until something comes. You wait until you’re inspired.

Melissa: Yeah, totally. Everyone has to take a break for a little while, for a little bit. I feel like I took a long break with the stuff that I’ve been doing. I think I hadn’t taken my photos, my kind of photos in a few months. I wasn’t getting inspired, I didn’t have any real ideas. I think a lot of it probably had to do with the fact that I have a job, I’m working on photos all day long, I’m sitting at a computer for 8 hours a day. My neck hurts, my back hurts and shit. When I pick up my camera now I’m like “fuck this is making me think of shooting weddings”...which isn’t bad, that’s cool too, but it’s not making me want to go out and take a photo. But that’s why I wanted to try something else which is why I got a smaller camera that I can keep on me all the time. I started going around taking snapshots, doing other stuff, working in a different form. Doing black & white stuff instead of such vivid color stuff. And that’s fun, that’s been awesome. It’s making me think differently. I think that before I got to a point where I started to think more and more on a bigger scale of things where I’m just like “fuck. how awesome would it be to shoot on top this gigantic mountain with all these people”, you know what I mean? And have all this shit. But fuck man, I’m just Melissa. I’m just sitting here in my house in South Philly. No one knows who the fuck I am. I can’t go to some mountain. I don’t have those resources yet. I just am not capable of doing that yet. So what are you going to do with that? Are you going to sit around and bitch and moan that you don’t have the money or resources to go out and do stuff like that. I went kind of backwards and that’s why I got the smaller camera and I started walking around taking pictures of whatever, my friends or taking pictures of my littler sister. That stuff, I just focused it on something else so I wasn’t frustrated. Which is cool, I think that it worked out for me in that way.

Denis: How do you feel about technology with photography? Flickr. Digital cameras. Do you think it’s dumbing down an art form or do you think it’s maybe giving people a voice, so to speak, they normally wouldn’t have because before photography was a little tough if you didn’t know what you were doing?

Melissa: I don’t really know. Part of me just doesn’t care. I have a Flickr account. I don’t know how to use it or anything. I rarely put pictures up on Facebook or anything like that. I think it’s cool that other people are way into it. I think that anybody who has a hobby whether it be photography or anything at all...if you’re into it, I think that’s awesome. If you want to put that shit up on the internet that’s real cool. It doesn’t bother me any. I don’t think it necessarily dumbs photography down or anything. I think that people who have a lot of talent, who really want to make it their career and it’s their passion, I think it kind of forces them to think outside the box and do something different, which is always a positive thing. It makes you go “alright, what can I photograph that nobody else has before? How can I express myself in a way that only I can do?” It just makes you think on a different level when everybody else is doing it too. That goes the same with everything. It comes in waves. Comic book nerds, they hate everybody because people hate them because they’re comic book nerds. Then a comic book becomes a huge fucking movie and all of a sudden everybody is a comic book nerd. The OG nerds get pissed off but that means they’re not going to keep enjoying their shit? Everything happens like that but you can’t hate. Not hating.

Denis: Good analogy. I’m sure comic book nerds will appreciate that.
Melissa: I love comic book nerds.
Denis: [Laughs.] Good to know. we’ll have your email address and phone number at the end of the interview.

Melissa: [laughs]

Denis: Let me just ask a typical question: Who are your favorite photographers? Who did you get stoked about when you were first starting out?
Melissa: One photographer I really liked in high school, his name was Huger Foote. He has a book called “My Friend from Memphis.” His photographs were really beautiful. He worked a lot in color, a lot of color stuff, real vivid shit... like midwest, fucking suburban type shit. Really really pretty stuff. Obviously Cindy Sherman, as any girl my age who is into photography would probably say. Gregory Crewdson, who I think is a genius. I think he’s awesome. You should check out his stuff. I don’t really look at a lot of other people’s work to be quite honest with you. I guess a lot of artists I feel look at a lot of others artists work to get inspired and motivated, I don’t. It’s not that I don’t like other photographers’ work, I do. I admire a lot of photographers’ work but I just, I don’t know. I’m just not the type of person to go to First Friday shit or go to a lot of art shows or photo shows. I have other things that I want to do too. Photography is not the only thing.

Denis: What’s coming up in the future?
Melissa: Uh...not much. I don’t have any shows lined up right now which is a good thing because I’m broke and I can’t really afford to do it. I do have this photo job so I am doing a lot of shoots with a lot of different equipment that I’m not really used to using. Which is cool because if I want to make money with photography then I’m going to need to know this stuff real well. So I feel like right now I’m kind of focusing on that. Using photography as a way of expressing yourself is awesome, in an artistic form it’s fucking awesome, but if you want it to be your career you gotta know your shit, you gotta know your technical stuff. That’s more what I’m focusing on, that’s been a long time coming where I’ve probably needed to do that a few years ago and now I finally have an opportunity to have equipment at my disposal and really take advantage of it. That’s what I’m focusing on right now. I don’t think that anything else is going on. Besides Croque Madame.

Denis: Why don’t you tell us what Croque Madame is?

Melissa: Croque Madame is my band with my friend Kat. We do lo-fi home recording stuff. We will soon be put out by Peasant Magik. We’re going to write one more song. I just started writing a blues song which I’m into.

So other than photography you also play guitar?
Melissa: Yeah I play guitar and sing. I’ve been singing in bands since I was 19. But I’m not very good at playing guitar or anything. But I can handle it for Croque Madame style. Kat plays keyboard. I’m way into it. I’m pretty psyched on it. That’s what’s happening in 2010.
Denis: When can we expect that record to drop?

Melissa: I don’t know, not sure yet. We need to finish writing our demo and then we’ll get it over to Peasant Magik. Hopefully that shit will drop soon. I’ll let all of y’all know.

Denis: Finally, what advice would you have for someone who wanted to get serious about photography?

Melissa: Maybe to just try and think about it in your own way. Really think about why you want to do photography. What is it about photography that intrigues you or interests you? Think long and hard and if you can’t think of anything then, I don’t know, fuck off. But make it your own, really is what I would say. More so it’s just practice, I guess. Don’t get too hard on yourself, which is what I should say to myself. Use it as your way to tell your own story, show your own world. I think if you do that, your photos will always be unique.

Denis: Any closing statements?

Melissa: Are you sure you don’t want a cookie?

Denis: [laughs] I’m sure. thanks..

Melissa: Alright.

Visit Melissa Farley on the web at

Special thanks to Jaime Morgan for transcribing this interview.