Monday, May 9, 2011

Jaw Cooper interview

me: I’m a big fan of turn of the century aesthetic. I see from influences that you’ve listed that you share that. What about this time intrigues you, and how does it relate to contemporary times as a compliment and/or juxtaposition?
Jaw: Indeed! I am inspired by Victorian lithographs, turn-of-the-century poster artists such as Mucha, Toulouse-Lautrec, Steinlen and Chéret, as well as vintage photography from the 20's. I am intrigued by the grace, stylization, and beautiful use of line in the posters and the glamour and mystery of the photographs. It is easy to idealize an era like the 20's as being somehow more luxurious than the present, and while I am aware that this perception in superficial... it's still fun to pretend. I mean look at those vintage babes!

me: what first made you want to become an artist?

Jaw: I’ve been drawing compulsively since I was around 6 years old, but honestly I resisted the idea of making it a career until the very end of high school. It nearly came down to a coin flip, whether I would go to UCLA and study zoology or go to Otis and study illustration. I’m so glad that I chose to pursue my passion!

me: At school, did you take non-art classes that you feel were particularly formative to you as a thinker and therefore as an artist?

Jaw: I went to Otis College of Art and Design and every class there, even the liberal arts classes were geared towards art. Though I see going to art school as an important factor in my growth as an illustrator (the equivalent of immersion while learning a foreign language), I really mourned the absence of natural science/biology classes like those I had taken at city college senior year of high school. Senior year of high school I was so torn between my two loves: drawing and zoology, that it was nearly a coin toss between which I would pursue in college. I think it is very important for artists to seek knowledge outside of their immediate field since an artists work is defined by their influences and interests. Investigating these influences and interests sets an artists work apart from everyone else's, and guards against "inbreeding" where they just continue to reuse and recycle their own work or worse yet, the work of those around them.

me: In particular I wonder about philosophy, in every sense, ideologically, culturally, aesthetically. I feel I am always learning and shaping my own. How has your own philosophy developed through your art?

Jaw: My art is a reflection of myself, so the natural evolution of my personal philosophy as I continue to grow and mature has naturally influenced my work... though I don't think it has been through any conscious effort. I would be lying if I said that I often mused about my own philosophy, though I do often muse about how many dog treats I can hide in my dog's floppy lips without waking it up

me: I read that you have taken an experimental Illustration class. Can you tell me a little about that?

Jaw: I was fortunate enough to take the "Experimental Illustration" class taught by the amazing Daniel Lim and it was by far one of the best classes I took while at Otis. It was the first time the class was taught so it had a pretty organic structure with a lot of give and take between the professor and the students, but the basic idea was to expose us to the conceptual and physical limits of what could be considered "illustration." In addition to several smaller guided projects, each student pitched their own "experimental" project to the class. I wanted to explore my love of zoology and taxidermy and came up with the idea to make a life-sized bear rug creature; and so "Randal" and "Buddy" were conceived.

me: I have seen your “Randal” and “Buddy” pieces, which seem a little more “crafty” than your paintings and drawings. What is your stance on the Art vs. Craft and or the fine art vs. design art debate?

Jaw: There is often a perceived hierarchy in the art world, with fine art at the top followed by illustration and design with craft at the bottom. Naturally, I do not agree with this hierarchy nor with the idea that something you make has to be categorized as either illustration, fine art, or craft. I see the mutant bear rugs as carefully crafted illustrative fine art, as they were created for gallery shows, told a story visually, and required a great deal of attention to craft to realize. As for my stance on the "fine art vs. design art" debate, I'd say that regardless of how conceptual it is all art is commercial on some level and to think that the "commercial" quality of illustration and design somehow diminishes it's value is silly. Naturally, there are shitty illustrations out there that have been diluted by the commercial pressures placed upon them, but that can just as easily happen in fine art as well. That's just my opinion.

me: As students it’s hard not to get overwhelmed by our failures. What is one of your own that stands out in your mind? How did you pick yourself back up? What keeps you going when you get frustrated?

Jaw: I don't know if one particular piece of mine stands out in my mind as a failure, but I would say that I am frequently displeased by my own work particularly when the piece is rushed. I have a terrible habit of leaving things until the last second.... Sometimes the rush of adrenaline as a deadline approaches has wonderful spontaneous results, but tight deadlines can also reduce risk-taking since there simply isn't time to make mistakes and have to start over. When you make something you are not particularly happy with, the only remedy is to make something you are VERY happy with. It's redemptive and allows you to see the "failure" as a learning experience rather than a reflection of your skills as an illustrator. When I get in a slump, the only way to pull myself out of it is to sketch sketch sketch sketch until I hit on something that excites me.

me: How do you promote your work?

Jaw: I promote primarily through my blog, though I do also have a facebook account, send out emails and mail promo cards. I’m working on a new set of promo cards right now, actually. In general I think it is important to have a strong web presence and to go out of your way to make connections with others in your field.

me: What is your usual process?

Jaw: I almost always start with a list of words: ideas, motifs, subjects, colors… etc. which helps me to quickly synthesize the ideas floating around in my head into a coherent concept or direction. From there I gather reference along the lines of my concept and start sketching until I hit on something that I’m excited about, and then I build the rest of the composition around it. Once I’ve finalized a drawing I scurry out to Kinkos to copy it, adjusting the size and making the lines darker and crisper and thus easier to transfer via light box. I usually transfer the drawing to a heavyweight printmaking paper like Somerset, Rives, or Stonehenge and then mount the transferred drawing with matte medium to museum board for structural integrity and to prevent warping. I let it sit under heavy books overnight and in the morning I’m ready to paint! For my freelance/editorial work I generally start with washes of water/fade–proof india ink to establish the values and then build up the color with thin washes of gouache. With this system I can easily finish a painting in a day. For my gallery work I use everything from graphite, gouache and acrylic to oil depending on what suits the project best and how much time I have.

me: As an illustrator that does commercial and gallery work, what are your suggestions to an Illustration student that wants to do both as well?

Jaw: I think the biggest "mistake" of the new illustrator is to work on dead-end projects. Usually these involve a lot of grunt-work, low pay, no exposure, many revisions, and high stress. Often the "client" is a friend or family member adding another dimension of complication to the mix, and usually your time would be better spent looking for legit work or refining your portfolio. Gallery work is a tricky balance... you really can't make a living at it unless you are famous, so you have to look at it as a side-hobby and use it for exposure and to build your ideal portfolio (since you can do whatever you want!) It's fun as long as you are not looking at it as a source of steady income. Commercial work can be just as rewarding as gallery work if you go in excited about it. I quite enjoy the challenge of realizing someone else's ideas while injecting some of what gets me wet (ha ha). Gallery is like working in a vacuum, it can be paralyzing unless you approach it like a commercial job where you create the prompt. Soooo basically, if you want to stay sane get a REAL job that allows you to use your skills (ie: in house illustrator, sketch-artist, storyboard artist, freelance illustrator IF you think you can rustle up enough steady work to make a comfortable living at it) and something that doesn't leave you so depleted that you are unable to create personal gallery work when you get home, and just try to stay excited about your work!

Bonus question:
You mentioned La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Hollywood. I might be traveling to Los Angeles this summer, so what other galleries would you recommend I check out while I’m there?

Jaw: Well, I only really know about the "Illustrative Fine Art" or "Pop Surrealism" or "Lowbrow" type galleries, but I'd recommend Gallery Nucleus, La Luz de Jesus, Black Maria, Gallery 1988, LeBasse Projects, Carmichael Gallery, and the Copro Gallery. Of course, for real "museums" there is LACMA, MOCA, and The Getty.... and for weird fun places to visit I recommend the Museum of Jurassic Technology, and the LA Natural History Museum.