Updates: Well, it seems like the busier my personal life and side projects get, the more this site suffers, but I have a full list of incredible people still to post about, so more content is on its way.
In the meantime, I’ll share (or re-share, depending on whether or not you follow me) some links that have caught my attention recently. Spending a chunk of my day on the internet is part of my job, but honestly, I’d feel lost without it.
- Love this poster! Infinite Possibilities by eighthourday etsy.me/ejdriD via @Etsy
- Advice to young artists:“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If youíre sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”
- Chuck Close
- Here are some great quick summaries of relevant business and personal development books that everyone thinks they’ve read (but probably haven’t): http://sivers.org/book
- Speaking of business books, I’m reading a great one right now. Highly recommend it for an enjoyable, insightful read on great business minds. Ten Steps Ahead by Erik Calonius.
- I grabbed my free iphone/Kindle copy of DO THE WORK for free at Amazon. This is the book that follows Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: http://tinyurl.com/4c7zrox
- GTD app for gmail looks interesting: http://t.co/XDr9OxU via @activeinbox. I’m using it but still undecided.
- A really surprising, intriguing interview with…Mr. Rogers. http://ow.ly/4uszn Who knew?
- I worry about this a lot—probably more than anyone should—When you’re stuck in the box of all your plans, you shut off infinite possibility. http://bit.ly/f0kg2r Is your plan your crutch?
- http://www.navalubelski.com/image3D1.htm The best use for old tax returns. I do love a good piece of paper art.
- Our gym, Woodward CrossFit, is hosting a Throwdown for a Cure. https://woodward-crossfit.zenplanner.com. Register to compete (or just donate) to a great cause! Fight for a cure for a fellow Woodward Crossfitter at the Women’s Throwdown, May 7th.
- I love this whole site, but the wallpaper map of Paris is unique. Find it at Rollout. You can pay them to print custom designs. It would be great for a business or an economically gifted individual. Still, love it!See the post at Design Sponge.
- Fascinating article & quotes from Steve Jobs: http://ow.ly/4y6o8 I recently read his biography, and obviously, the man has some issues, but would you give up social skills to have his vision?
- WSJ.com – The Sleepless Elite http://on.wsj.com/hPAByT I’m so jealous of these people; I need massive amounts of sleep.
- How Mundane Routines Produce Creative Magic http://t.co/zwLXbc2 via @the99percent. Do you hypnotize yourself into creative states? This is the classic argument between treating creativity as work or waiting for the muse.
Name: Yusef Nicolas Svačina
Occupation: Film Editor
Business: Swatch Post
Interests: photography, the human condition, the art of bonsai, fencing
I have known Yusef (“Nico”, to his college friends) for over a decade, and he’s always been eccentric to my small-town mind, but he’s also always been captivating. You can’t listen to him talk about something he really loves and not feel a temptation to dabble yourself—or at the very least to feel a deep-seated envy for his passion and talent.
Nico was the only guy in college who had a fully designed and styled room at the local party house. His walls were upholstered in dark red felt, if my memory serves me correctly, and his color scheme was modern and clean. It was incredible that he put so much effort into a temporary home when we were all so broke and so busy. That’s Nico, though. He has no lack of patience for doing something right, and if a subject captures his attention—be it film, fencing or photography—the man will submit completely to the muse, and you won’t hear from him again until it’s mastered.
This characteristic is the subject of many friendly jokes at his expense, but you can’t deny that it’s served him well in his career and his life. I was shocked to find out exactly how much Nico’s been doing because he doesn’t seem to recognize his progress as success. It’s more like he sees himself on a continuum of actions and projects that always extends a little farther out into the horizon. So Nico, if you’re reading this, (which you better be!) take a second and look back at the last ten or eleven years and breathe easy. We’re so proud of you!
When did you first realize you had an artistic talent? Was the talent encouraged or noticed at a young age? Do you think you were born with the talent, or did you develop it, or both?
As young as I can remember, I was enveloped by art, and perhaps at an early age I didn’t quite understand how much it permeated my life. My father, a catalogue photographer who hand-drew his own set design for companies like JCPenney, Sam’s Club and The Sharper Image, employed me during the summers of my childhood as his assistant at his photography studio. My mother painted with oils and excelled in interior design and worked along-side my father as a stylist in his studio.
As with most artists, I suppose, it takes some kind of “great pain,” to propel them to that next level. I’ve never been able to do good work without incredible heartbreak behind it. There’s a point at which you lose everything, and the only outlet you have is your expression. Some people react violently, some people cower in a corner, but for some, creativity is their escape, and that escape becomes their raison d’être. That, in essence, was my first experience of a glimpse of understanding of what my creative potential could be. Perhaps in that moment my life-long exposure to the arts took over, and I ran with it, not quite knowing where I was heading or what I was doing. But I was doing, and that was all that mattered.
Was I born with the talent? I think that’s too pointed a question. I think I was born with observation and an ability to adapt. I used the myriad of creative outlets I had at my disposal and took what was most easily accessible to me, namely photography (the generation of a single image) to the next level and delved into the mystery of the moving image and how that could tell a story that could in turn evoke emotion. Why would you stick with one image when you could have 24 images per second at your disposal?
I think there has to be an innate talent within you, or at least the desire to learn a craft. Film editing is a craft. It is something you continue learning over the course of your lifetime, and just when you think you understand and create a “maxim,” your next project will blow that to bits. It’s a continual process of discovery, disappointment, frustration, the ultimate emotional highs, and the darkest grave lows. However, film editing is something that gets under your skin and changes the way you view the world. It is the most basic of all art forms—telling stories—and to be a master, takes a lifetime.
How did you get started as a film editor? Tell us a little about your journey from aspiring artist to your current career?
It all started with a card. So anybody with the desire to get in the Industry, get a card, and never change your phone number. Through a seminar in film school I was introduced to Richard Linklater’s editor and assistant. I walked up to the assistant after their presentation, introduced myself, gave him my card, and a month later received a call to be an unpaid intern on Linklater’s next ambitious feature, and I was in.
But here’s where a lot of people falter. They get in, but they don’t make the most of it. Think about it. You’ve got your foot in the door. They know your name, they’ve got your cellphone number in their address book, what more could you want? You must do the work, and you must make yourself invaluable. If you don’t, you are forgotten, and it’s as simple as that. You must do something that makes you different, that makes them remember you.
On Linklater’s, A Scanner Darkly, I went from editorial intern, to post production assistant, to at one point assistant editor when the current assistant editor could no longer be on the project. You take the opportunities presented before you and capitalize on them.
In editing, traditionally you start as an intern, become a post production assistant, to apprentice, to assistant editor, to first assistant editor, then to picture editor. That’s the progression, and union rules apply where applicable. I followed, for the most part, this progression. However, a producer I worked with once told me one of the most important things I was to ever hear in my film editing career. He was trying to convince me to stay in Austin and cut a short film as opposed to move out to Los Angeles and try to find work as an assistant editor. He stated, “If you want to edit. Edit. It’s the only way.”
That, in essence, is the best advice I have ever been given. If you want to do something, go for it. Do it. Damn the cost. Damn the tears. Damn the heartbreak. If you believe in it, and yourself you go for it. If you want to be an editor, be an editor.
And I was off.
You attended the University of Texas’s Radio-Television-Film school? How did you get your first paid editing job? For someone looking to work in the film industry today, would you suggest they get a formal education in that art?
I did attend UT’s RTF school. The only thing I learned there was how to network and get what I wanted; everything else I learned on the job, working on features and commercials. If you want a good background, go to film school. If you want to work in the film industry, network, meet people, do good work and make people remember you. If they remember you, you get calls when they’re in a bind. And never screw up because you’re only as good as your last job. It’s that simple.
What part of your art do you find the most rewarding/interesting/enjoyable? What part of it do you find taxing or disagreeable?
When you put a scene you’ve just spent hours and hours cutting to music, and you have that moment to yourself with your new scene that now breathes life, that is the ultimate moment I think I can have as a film editor. Those moments are important because it’s those moments I remember when I’m in the depths of Hell trying to puzzle out a scene at 4am in the morning the morning before a test screening with the director breathing down my neck.
Where do you look for/find inspiration for your work? What/Who are your influences? Do you have specific styles that you enjoy more than others? Are there any movies, music, books, images, people, websites, etc. that are currently inspiring you?
It depends on the job. When I’m working on a film, I watch all the films the director’s directed, all the films he loves, all the films he hates, and then all the films pertinent to our subject matter and relatively close to our story or material we’re dealing with.
I also delve back into my love of photography when I’m cutting a film; my love for the single image telling a story. It reminds me that a story needs to be boiled down to its lowest common denominator and that the most simple way of telling a story is usually the right one—with artistic license, of course.
Do you have a process for editing, or a ritual for getting into the right headspace?
Procrastination. I work best under pressure, especially heavy pressure I put on myself. Lots of coffee is involved, pacing, hot showers that produce excellent story structure ideas. Most of all though, editing is a process of continual sanding and polishing. Sanding and polishing. This, in essence, is a perfect analogy to a film I’m editing: A woodworker in a village is working on his masterpiece and the villagers come by day in and day out to observe him working, sanding and polishing, sanding and polishing. Months go by, and the villagers still come by to observe the woodworker sanding and polishing, sanding and polishing. One day, a villager says, “So, all you do is sand and polish; when are you done?” The woodworker smiles and replies, “Ah, I am never done; I am only done when they take it away from me.”
My process is continually refining, gaining perspective again, making changes, and then sanding and polishing until the schedule says it’s time to turn it in.
Who do you look up to in your industry?
What drives you to create? What do you hope your customers (or the people who see the films you work on) gain from viewing them?
I think it’s a combination of a need to tell new stories in a creative way and a fascination and obsession with technology. My profession as a film editor in the modern digital world has allowed me to combine those two loves.
For my photography, I only shoot film. It’s an aesthetic choice, something that’s very tangible in my hands. Something that forces you to think about what you’re doing in a way digital I believe does not. It makes you wait to see images you’ve captured, and sometimes you forget about moments that occurred, only to relive them in a completely fresh way when you see the image again, sometimes many days later. It’s the lack of instantaneousness I love about it—a medium that forces you to go slow.
Do you surround yourself with inspiration, or do you require a clean slate/mind in order to be creative?
Creativity comes in a flash. I only hope to be ready, mentally, to receive it when it happens.
Can you tell us more about any current personal projects?
I am currently writing a futuristic feature film adaptation of a famous play. I have multiple personal photography projects: one is a photographic book about the cemeteries of the Deep South.
Do you think there’s still a place in this economy for the average artist to survive and succeed financially? What do you do to market yourself? How did you differentiate yourself from the rest of the market? Are you worried about the recent issues with funding for movies and the arts in Texas?
I have been in business for myself for three years, and consider myself extremely lucky to be living in Austin and have had the exposure and work I’ve had available to me. I find work primarily through word of mouth, but am concerned that large budget union features will not come to Texas due to the extremely low tax incentives. However, given the state of Hollywood right now, I am happy to be working in Austin.
Do you feel like you’re more or less stressed than people who work in non-creative industries? Do you feel like you enjoy your life more b/c of the creative outlet inherent in your business?
I will always bring my work home because I own my own business. But I feel it’s far more rewarding than getting a W-2 at the end of the year.
What goals do you have for yourself? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
When I was 24 I set two goals for myself. Get into the Motion Picture Editors Guild and cut my first feature by 28; I completed both by 27. My next set of goals are have picture editor classification in the Motion Picture Editors Guild and have five features behind my belt by 33. I have five years.
Tell us what an average day looks like for you?
First, coffee, and then let’s talk. Editing by 10am, director in by 1pm, lunch at 2:30pm, hopefully out by 7pm.
Name: Nick Hirsch
Music: Listen here
When did you first realize you had a musical talent? Do you think you were born with the talent, or did you develop it, or both?
I remember always being able to imitate sounds and personalities on TV as a young kid. This along with a steady intake of 80′s pop radio music laid the groundwork for my musical sensibilities.
I first started playing the guitar when I was nine. My older brother got one for his birthday, and I would steal it whenever he wasn’t toiling over it. He would show me everything he learned, and I picked it up really fast. That’s when I knew I had a talent. I enjoyed learning and imitating each new melody, rhythm and song.
With that said, I don’t think musical talent is something that any one person is born with or without. Music is largely just imitation. If you like to mimic the sounds of the world around you, you can definitely be a musician!
How did you get started as a musician?
I was a very shy kid, especially in high school. I would spend most nights bent over my guitar noodling around and making up instrumental tunes. I would play the same thing over and over and did not give much thought to whether anyone would like it or not. It was sort of a meditative practice that helped me keep my emotions balanced. I began to come out of my shell the summer after I graduated from high school. I started partying with some new friends. After a few beers, I was able to work up the courage to play and sing at some parties. As my appreciation for certain beverages grew, so did my comfort level performing in front of people. By the time I got to college, I was playing at fraternity house parties to very appreciative audiences! People started passing a hat around and those became my first paying gigs. Since then I have been playing at clubs and restaurants in Austin with bands I’ve formed or as a solo artist.
Did you attend a music school or have a formal musical education? How did you get your first paid performance? For someone looking to work as an artist today, would you suggest they get a formal education in that art?
I did take some music theory courses while I was in college. That helped me to open my mind to a larger range of possibilities for composing music. Taking classes to develop your ability as an artist is hugely advantageous. Perhaps the greatest reason for doing this is to put yourself around like-minded people who can give you honest feedback and help you along.
What part of your art do you find the most rewarding? What part do you find taxing or disagreeable?
Without a doubt, the most rewarding part of being an artist, for me, is when that initial spark of inspiration comes for an idea. It is elation&emdash;a quickening of energy that revives your whole being. Or it can be more like a tremendous release of emotion that has been blocked up inside of you.
I also love the end of the whole process&emdash;when it’s finally time to perform or release a recording. Everything in between is taxing. When months or even years have passed by after you’ve created something, and you’re now trying to collaborate and bring people on board and into your vision, it takes a lot of focused energy to keep the creative flame going. Ideas become edited, augmented, stripped down, or changed into something you completely did not expect! All the way through you have to focus and hold on to your memory of the initial spark.
Where do you find inspiration for your music? Who are your influences? Do you have specific styles that you enjoy more than others?
As I mentioned before, I think music is basically imitation. I have found a lot of inspiration in the past by listening to music from other parts of the world. The exotic, unexpected qualities and sounds excite me because they’re hard to imitate. In particular, Brazilian music is exceptionally fascinating. With that said, it’s important to mention the impact that emerging technology has on songwriting. It’s getting a lot easier now to work with synthesizers, sampling, and beat production. I’ve found a lot of inspiration by simply just tripping out on the crazy, limitless possibilities that now exist for songwriters. It’s a steep learning curve though. I think I’ll have something to show for those efforts in the near future. I think a lot of musicians feel the same way. It’s just too tempting not to delve into that stuff. You have to be careful not to get caught up into the technology/gear side of it though. It’s a hole that will suck your creative power and steal your focus. I’ve seen a lot of musicians get too bogged down by that. I suppose the same trends are at work in the field of visual art.
Do you have a process for writing music, or do you write when inspiration strikes?
I have two processes for writing music. One is pure and gentle. I’ll sit on the porch early in the morning and develop ideas that I wake up with. The only necessities are my guitar, a tape recorder, and the sunrise. That type of inspiration is pretty rare though.
The other process is more like a hammer and a chisel. I’ll use a device called a looper, and I’ll record melodic phrases so that they’ll play over and over, and I’ll add part by part to it in order to develop the overall sound of the piece (bass, percussion, vocals, harmonies). Then, it’s on to the next loop, and the next, and so forth. Eventually, you end up with a bunch of loops, or a bunch of melodic ideas, and you just sort of put them together like legos. The software I use for that is called Ableton Live. It’s a life saver.
Who do you look up to in your industry?
Three icons that come to mind are Beck, Muse, and Arcade Fire. They just seem to have an endless supply of ideas, and everything they release is really good. They have some of the best people in the business working with them and at the core of it all is really innovative, important songwriting. I can’t say enough about them. They’re pretty much invincible.
Locally, here in Austin, three musicians that I really look up to are Bob Schneider, Guy Forsyth, and Alejandro Escovedo. They have all reinvented themselves time and time again and managed to stay alive and successful here in the Austin scene for years. That’s not easy.
What drives you to create? What do you hope your audience gains from listening?
What drives me to create is the need to supply positive energy into people’s lives. My hope for the people who hear my music is that they can use that positive energy.
Do you surround yourself with inspiration, or do you require a clean slate/mind in order to be creative?
In order to stay inspired, I think you have to constantly evolve your creative process. That’s what works for me. I will hammer myself with a new musical style or artist that I’m into in order to absorb a lot of ideas from them. Sometimes that works. I’ll end up imitating them in such a way that allows me to put my own little spin on it. Other times, you’ve got to “clean house” and get rid of all the distractions around you, so that you can really hear the quiet little voices inside your heart.
Can you tell us more about any current personal projects?
The current project that I’m putting the most energy into is my group nicosounds. We play a fun collection of songs I’ve written that are not easy to classify stylistically. That’s why I love it! It’s a mixture of tropical rhythms and funky, groove rock. I’m blessed to play with some very talented musicians who share a similar musical vision. It’s taken me a long time to put this current incarnation of the project together. I’m really excited about us being a presence in the Austin music scene. We also really want to be able to break in to the festival circuit with time.
I’m just about to release an album that comprises the softer side of what we do, and we have already begun the second album as well that will feature the punchier, funky vibe that is more like what we do in our live shows.
Do you think there’s still a place in this economy for the average artist to survive and succeed financially? What do you do to market yourself? How did you differentiate yourself from the rest of the market?
I think there is definitely a place in our economy for the average artist to survive and succeed financially. I have not been any good at making money off of my art so far, but I’m trying to train myself to be open-minded. I have been reluctant to release recordings in the past because I had this idea built up in my head that there are all of these necessary milestones you have to achieve in chronological succession in order to move on to the next level of success as an artist. I’m starting to recognize that this outlook will get you nowhere. What I’m finding with experience is that artistic financial success is more about staying connected to the people you care about, and who care about you, and serving your role in that community as an artist. I’m trying to focus more on that now.
This is a good moment to thank you for the invitation to be featured on your website. Avenues such as this that create opportunities for people to peer into each other’s creative processes and urges is what it’s all about! With that said, I think it’s important to point out that when you invite someone in to your creative process, or even better, teach them how to do it, you can start finding connections to people beyond your community and anywhere in the world! For example, I could post a video online of me performing an original song, and I might get lucky if it gets 200 hits in 3 months. Or, I could post a video explaining all of the gear and software that I used to actually compose the song and how YOU can do it too, and that is guaranteed to get a LOT more views out there in web world.
Do you feel like you’re more or less stressed than people who work in non-creative industries? Do you feel like you enjoy your life more because of the creative outlet inherent in your business?
I think it’s safe to say that being a working artist comes with a lot of stress. Anyway you slice it. If you are holding down a full time day job to pay the bills, then you have to be able to kick your own ass, or be around people who will do that for you to help you get the job done on both sides of the coin.
What goals do you have for yourself? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
My goals for the next 10 years are:
- to have a family,
- to become more conscious of my community and how it grows,
- and to hone my craft as a songwriter and performer in order to ensure my place and service in that community.
Tell us what an average day looks like for you?
In addition to my full-time day job, I have two band rehearsals a week. I practice on my own for about an hour a day. I usually only spend about 30 minutes a day reaching out to my community and fans online. Once I release my first album for sale, I plan on spending about 1-2 hours a day promoting it for a while until I can find an effective marketing strategy that I won’t have to keep an eye on so often. Then, I’ll be able to put more hours each day back into songwriting and moving on with another body of work.
Do you feel like you’re in a niche market? If so, do you plan to stay in that niche, or are you actively trying to engage other communities? Do you have a particular market in mind when you brainstorm ideas?
I don’t feel that I’m in a niche market. I just try to write upbeat, positive music that will work in a variety of occasions. I do plan on performing with two other musical groups that I have in the works as well. One is a Latin guitar duo in the style of Rodrigo y Gabriela. The other is a Texas country rock outfit. I would like to establish a weekly residency at a small club in the downtown Austin area and have a variety of acts to pull from so that it’s not the same thing every week. I think the most successful Austin songwriters who manage to perform several nights a week around town and keep fans coming out on a consistent basis often employ this strategy.
Nick’s upcoming shows are:
- Starting March 28th, 8-11pm (Solo Acoustic): Monday night residency at Mister Tramps (8565 Research Boulevard, Austin, TX 78758); Hosting Open Mic: (Musicians that you know are most welcome to come and perform!) 7:30 sign-up for performers.
- March 31st at 12:30 pm (afternoon) at the Art House on 700 Congress
Ave. Downtown Austin (w/ full band)
- April 30th – Neon Desert Music Festival – El Paso TX (with full band)
- April 5th, 7PM, Fiesta Gardens (east) w/ Latin guitar duo: Nylon & Nylon
- April 8th at Hanovers, Pflugerville, TX: doors at 8, $5 cover, Nick Hirsch with nicosounds
This is just a quick post to highlight some things that caught my attention this week. What inspired you this week?
After seeing this compilation on a friend’s bookshelf, I had to read it. The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry is full of great work, from Tupac Shakur and Jim Morrison to Allan Ginsberg and Walt Whitman. You couldn’t ask for a more eclectic compilation.
I also love to read Words with Writers by my friend, Marissa Bell Toffoli, that focuses on what makes writers tick. The latest post, up right now, is a great look at poet, Caitlin Doyle. It’s a great read, and I highly recommend it.
Currently Listening to:
On the commute to and from work, I’ve been listening to the audiobook, Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. I wasn’t sure I was really going to like it, but it’s made my commute enjoyable, and it’s incredibly inspirational. There are not a lot of people who could make ultramarathons sound anything but insane to me, but this book really delves into the zen state of running and how natural it is for humans to run. Blending that with the interesting stories that McDougall mixes in about the Mexican drug cartels and the history of the Tarahumara Indians along with the excellent character descriptions of Caballo Blanco and other eccentric runners keeps this entertaining.
A quote from the Amazon interview with the author discussing what he learned from the Tarahumara:
“They remember what it’s like to love running, and it lets them blaze through the canyons like dolphins rocketing through waves. For them, running isn’t work. It isn’t a punishment for eating. It’s fine art, like it was for our ancestors. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle—behold, the Running Man.”
There are a million links I could put up each week on what gets my attention, but I’ll keep this to two….maybe three. The first is a portfolio by an installation artist out of San Francisco that caught my eye through Gallery Hijinks. If you’ve ever wondered who is responsible for some of the great eye-catching windows at Anthropologie, Aleksandra Zee’s portfolio offers a peek into that world.
Last but not least, my friend Kat introduced me to the work of Jon Contino. I think it speaks for itself, but if you need something more, this video should do it. There’s a clothing line! You didn’t think I could post without calling attention to a type artist, did you?
Name: Michael Owens
Occupation: Paper Cutting and Mixed Media Artist
Michael Owens is a name that has been buzzing around in my brain since I first saw his and Levi Dugat’s work back in October, hanging at Bijou Studio*. I was—and still am—enamored with a piece of his titled, “Swarm.” It’s not the subject matter that hooked me—death and flies and swarming isn’t really a vibe I’m usually drawn to—it is Michael’s medium that drew me in. Michael Owens is a master of the ancient, intricate art known as papel picado in Mexico and Scherenschnitte in Germany (and by a dozen other names in a dozen other countries). He’s a paper cutter.
Look very, very closely at his work, or you’ll miss it. You’ll assume, like I did, that there is paint or ink or even string in his pieces. You might be as embarrassed as I was when I was told I was staring at paper—painstakingly cut from sometimes single sheets and applied to a base of canvas or wood or framed on paperboard. In fact, knowing that the pieces were all from paper (yes, even the shading and outlines), I still had to ask for confirmation from Michael that yes, the Impala’s body is indeed paper and not paint. Stepping in front of one of his massive boards of work is like stepping into a micro-universe of detail. The closer you get, the more you see. This is why I’m in awe, and why his work inspires me.
When we met to talk, Michael struck me as fasitidious and controlled. He is well-dressed, soft-spoken, and every word he speaks is issued with the weight of forethought. There’s a fire in him that I’ve seen in many artists when they talk about their world and their passions, and his is lit with determination.
What inspires Michael? And what first inspired him to enter the world of papel picado?
Michael tells me that his first entrance into paper cutting was at the request of a friend. She was getting married and wanted him to help her with the decor for the wedding and was looking for a Latin papel picado theme. This led him to investigate the art and eventually produce a 9′ by 5′ altar piece for the wedding along with three smaller paper cut pieces. The pieces got such great reviews, and he enjoyed making them so much that the medium became his favorite.
Before this event, Owens had only taken a couple of art classes at Austin Community College and told me that prior to these classes he had resisted art instruction in general because he didn’t want to be directed or told what to create. After the first class at ACC, though, he explained that the techniques he was taught opened up a whole new world for him to explore. He went on to say that if he has a “beef with life” it is that although his parents encouraged him to create art, they always told him, “I hope you find a way to do art somehow,” but no one offered Artist as an occupation.
The sources of inspiration that come to his mind when pressed are varied: a book of engravings from Webster’s encyclopedia, the website Notcot, fairy tales from different cultures (you see this theme in some of his earlier works)—specifically a famous animation of Hansel and Gretel. The fairy tale imagery he tells me is equally linked to the ideas of nostalgia and commonality as it is to the birth of his twin niece and nephew. He also mentioned his loves of expressionism, German woodcuts (post WWI), paper cut art from many different cultures, and artists Henry Darger, Kara Walker and Alice Neel. In addition, he recommends seeing the documentary “In the Realms of the Unreal,” about Henry Darger’s life and work.
Paper cutting came to Michael as his medium of choice after forrays with painting and mixed-media work such as small quilting projects. One of his major inspirations is quilt patterns which probably stems from seeing his grandmother quilt and sew, and which led to pieces such as his quilted heart. He liked the idea of juxtaposing something seemingly gross and anatomical with the prettiness of flowery fabrics and quilt stitching.
He also told me that he had never considered himself talented at painting and drawing, but his paper cutting has now honed that talent. He somehow manages to capture emotion and movement and grace from a flat plane of paper, and that takes skill and practice and patience. It also takes brevity of line—which is a skill necessary in all artistic mediums. He still loves to paint, but it’s taken a back burner to paper cutting for the time being.
His work somehow balances heavy color, pattern, geometric shapes and minimalism. It strikes you as well-edited and precisely finished, but he explains that if you look closely, you will see small mistakes and imprecise cuts. He leaves these in the piece willingly and says that he doesn’t stress out about small imperfections because they make the piece more personal. The mistakes that do get replaced have to be glaring or in key elements—like eyes, which have to be exact to convey the point of the piece.
Each paper cut piece is sketched onto the backside of paper and then meticulously cut with an artists’ exacto knife. The pieces appear in reverse as he cuts them from the back of the paper, and the fact that the voids where the paper is cut away is just as important to the overall image as the paper he leaves behind adds to the confusion during the process. Michael tells me that the zebra piece was incredibly difficult because the stripes of the zebra had to align correctly, and he had to imagine the pieces flipped and in their negative and positive spaces while he was sketching and cutting. It made my head hurt to even think about it.
The show that I saw at Bijou Studio last fall was titled, “Avoidance, Delay and Denial”, and he joked that his art reflected how he was feeling about creating it. He gathered a lot of inspiration for that show from watching Animal Planet, and you can see this—and the conflict so inherent in the life cycle in these pieces.
His image of the dying Impala bleeding diamonds, is a confrontation of death, as is his depiction of black flies titled “Swarm”. The zebras in one panel are attacking each other, and the rams are likewise butting heads. It’s interesting to me that his idea of avoidance is such a direct confrontation of aggression and death.
Method Hair-Current Show:
Right now, and for the rest of this month, you can see Michael’s current show, “Brainstorm” up at Method Hair on East 5th. This show includes a lot of storm clouds, prism shapes, and electricity, and two of the pieces—my favorites from the show—are cut from individual pieces of paper. No pressure there! These two pieces again include animals, but this time solitary.
He told me the show was titled and produced quite literally from the process of brainstorming ideas for this show. He spent a lot of time thinking about the environment the pieces would be viewed in (a hair salon) and the viewers themselves. Michael wants his pieces to be affordable and relateable, so that they can be profitable, but he said the downside of this mindset is that he doesn’t feel he has the freedom to go willy-nilly, creating whatever he personally wants.
He hopes that soon he will be able to explore more personal and social messages through his art. We talked about our shared degrees in Sociology from UT, and he tells me that his interest there was in gender studies and different forms of masculinity, and that he would like to merge his art and this interest at some future date. I will love to see this work when it is produced, but I can’t help but think that some of this idea already exists in his work. He has leant a very masculine edge to two areas that society might deem more appropriate for women: quilting and paper cutting, and he is equally skilled at producing images of love and fairy tales as he is with aggression and death.
In ten years, Michael Owens will be making his living as a full time artist—illustrating and still doing paper cuts, but he would like to have his own art gallery, organize art shows, have pop-up galleries throughout town, and illustrate children’s books. He just wants to create, and who can blame him?
Where You can See Michael’s Work:
If you’re in the Austin area, and would like to see his current show in person (believe me, it’s worth it!), please visit Method Hair this month. To purchase an original papercut or print, contact Michael at owens[dot]michael[at]hotmail[dot]com.
* You’re probably beginning to see the web of networks that has overlapped on 3 or 4 of these posts—and that’s important. More on that later!
Name: Maris Malone Calderón
Occupation: Makeup Artist
Business: Maris Malone Calderón Makeup Artistry
When did you first realize you had an artistic talent? Was the talent encouraged or noticed at a young age? Do you think you were born with the talent, or did you develop it, or both?
I was always a lover of drawing and I had an ability to copy other drawings accurately to-scale or to larger/smaller scale. I think that my talent is definitely something I was born with, but I also know that without my dedication to improve my skill, I would never be the artist I am today. My mother was always very supportive of my artistic nature and she created a perfect environment for my talent. She homeschooled me and I spent much of my childhood and teenage years traveling with her. I had been to most of the lower 48 states and Alaska by age 16, and one of my favorite activities while traveling was coloring and drawing.
How did you get started as a makeup artist? Tell us a little about your journey from aspiring artist to your current career?
I knew at a young age that I wanted to be involved in the film and television industry. I thought I wanted to be a continuity supervisor for Disney because I would always notice all the flaws in the animated movies I loved. I wanted to change that. Even though I didnʼt end up at Disney, or even in film and television at all, I know that I still use my eye for continuity in my makeup artistry career. My mother was an intricate part of my choice to become a makeup artist. Itʼs very difficult for me that that she passed away before she could see me become the artist I am today. I will be forever thankful for her support.
Did you attend a cosmetology school or have a formal art education? How did you get your first makeup/stylist (or other creative) job after graduation? For someone looking to work as an artist today, would you suggest they get a formal education in that art?
Yes, I did. Complections International School of Makeup Artistry in Toronto, Ontario was my school of choice. I canʼt remember the first job I got out of school… I do know it probably didnʼt pay very well or at all! If someone is looking to start a career in makeup, school is not a necessity; it just happens to be the route I choose. Having talent is far more important than education in this industry and no amount of schooling can teach someone talent. Learning from someone who has experience is invaluable and school or an internship can provide that.
What part of your art do you find the most rewarding/interesting/enjoyable? What part of it do you find taxing or unenjoyable?
Itʼs always very nice to see an image that I worked hard to create be published or get recognition, but what I find most rewarding is working with my clients and colleagues to achieve a vision. I feel itʼs very important to make a difference in the world through my work and without the human aspect, my art would be nothing.
Where do you look for/find inspiration for your work? What are your influences? Do you have specific styles that you enjoy more than others?
My inspiration comes from many places. Websites, magazines, blogs, other artists… the list could go on. A lot of times though, I get my inspiration from the people Iʼm working with on a shoot or wedding. I always have an idea of what I want to do, but sometimes when I see the model, wardrobe, bride, location I get a flash of what I am going to do with the makeup. My makeup style always leans towards clean and simple, even if the style is dramatic in the end.
Do you begin a project with the end-result fully formed in your mind, or do you modify the look as you go?
There is always room for modification in my mind. Art is a journey. You have to feel your way through and change your perspective constantly. Many times the end result is not even close to the vision I started with.
Who do you look up to in your industry? Name three artists who you consider the best in the business.
I really donʼt like using the word ʻbestʼ when referring to artists, because I think art is in the eye of the beholder, but here are some very talented makeup artists whom I look up to and admire very much: Roshar, Kabuki and Kevyn Aucoin.
What drives you to create? What do you hope your customers (or the people who view your work) gain from seeing your work?
What drives me to create is two-fold. I create makeup for my private clients (weddings and other events) because they want to look and feel beautiful for their wedding or other event. Itʼs really the love I have for making people happy that drives me to create for this type of job. I know that this is an art form, but I donʼt feel that I am giving up a part of me when I do this type of makeup. My hope for this aspect of my art is that my clients will feel the most beautiful they ever have, and that I will truly make a positive impact on their lives in a very personal way.
What drives me to create fashion/conceptual makeup is very different because it seems to me that it comes from deep within me, and itʼs something I have no control over. When Iʼm in the creating groove, I go with it, because Iʼm not always going to be there. Right now, Iʼm not in that groove. My life is filled with my family, cooking, cleaning, drinks with friends and very ʻnormalʼ things, and I love that part of my personality just as much as the artistic one. My artistic nature has always been an ebb and flow. At times I will be in a very artistic stage, at other times, a very domestic one. Just as I know the winter will turn to spring, I know that I will find the artistic flow again and create works of art. My hope for this aspect of my art is more about affecting people by what I create, like I am effected by what other artists create.
Do you surround yourself with inspiration, or do you require a clean slate/mind in order to be creative?
When I am working on a project I will use inspiration, but I donʼt surround myself with it. I find it overwhelming to have too much clutter while working. Although I donʼt really like a completely clean slate either.
Are there any communities/meet-ups/organizations that you belong to locally or nationally which provide you with networking or inspiration opportunities? Are there any competitions you participate in?
I belong to the NEAWP, a wedding vendor organization. Itʼs a great way to meet and network with other vendors in the wedding industry. I competed in the Austin Fashion Awards for two years in a row, winning Peers Choice Award for Best Makeup Artist in 2010 and Critics Choice awards for Best Use of Color & Most Creative Makeup Artist in 2009.
Can you tell us more about any current personal projects? Do you get to do high-fashion/conceptual makeup on a regular basis? Which do you enjoy more?
I will be working with Tyler Reed Cochran, designer of Via Christa Chains, on a photo shoot to showcase his chains in February, but other than that, I have no fashion shoots in the near future. About 6 months ago, I decided to take a break from high-fashion/conceptual makeup. I love working with my bridal and private clients so much and seeing how thatʼs a full time career for me, I donʼt see me going back to high-fashion/conceptual makeup as a focus anytime soon. Iʼll always love fashion, but I see it as more of a hobby and outlet for my more creative side.
You are one of the few artists with a very commercial occupation. Do you think thereʼs still a place in this economy for the average artist to survive and succeed financially? What do you do to market yourself? How did you differentiate yourself from the rest of the market?
Honestly, the reason I am able to make it as a full-time freelance MUA is because I am a good business woman (punctual, organized, etc.) and because I love working with private clients. Unfortunately, Itʼs next to impossible to make it as a makeup artist working exclusively on fashion shoots in Austin, there just simply isnʼt enough of a market for it. I am very dedicated to providing outstanding customer service as well. I think this aspect of my industry is a far too often overlooked and is just as important as the quality of the makeup applications. I market myself through networking and word-of-mouth a lot as well as the internet.
One thing that sets me apart from the crowd in private client work, is the fact that I have a background in editorial/fashion makeup. I think that every woman should look and feel as beautiful as if she were in a magazine, even if the style that she ultimately chooses is clean and simple. Itʼs a tricky balance between a makeup style that looks amazing in photographs and one that feels as natural as what you wear every day, and my approach to makeup is always stunning, flawless, yet achievable beauty.
Do you feel like youʼre more or less stressed than people who work in non-creative industries? Do you feel like you enjoy your life more because of the creative outlet inherent in your business?
Absolutely less stressed. I worked for Gap Inc. off and on for 7 years and I felt much more stressed then. Mainly because I had no control over the way the company was run, and the fact that I felt I was contributing nothing meaningful to the world with my work. Donʼt get me wrong, I still love to shop at The Gap! Itʼs just not what I was meant to do.
What goals do you have for yourself? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In 10 years I see myself with a child (maybe two), living in a house we own in Austin, working as a makeup artist. I donʼt really feel the need to change my path in life drastically, like move to New York or L.A. Since I love what I do and how I do it, my goals are to just become more prominent as a makeup artist in Austin perhaps by owning or co-owning a salon or makeup studio.
Tell us what an average day looks like for you.
An average day for me can range from a few odd appointments, to a day working on marketing and answering e-mail, to an all day wedding or photo shoot.
Do you feel like youʼre in a niche market? If so, do you plan to stay in that niche or are you actively trying to engage other communities? Do you have a particular market in mind when you brainstorm ideas?
I would say that I am in a niche market somewhat, and I like it that way! I am always open to new opportunities of course.
Name: Eya Floyd
Occupation: Painter, Jewelry Maker, Sculptor and Graphic Designer
The whole experience of meeting and getting to known Eya Floyd has been enlightening and positive on so many levels that it’s hard to focus on one element of her personality and work over another. I guess this is the way a life is meant to be experienced, and we all have a lot to learn about multitasking from this multi-talented artist. She is a graphic designer by degree and trade, but she excels at painting, sculpture, and jewelry-making to the point that they can also easily be considered large pieces of her career. I first encountered Eya’s work at an art show at Bijou Studio on East 6th street where I fell in love with several prints of her paintings, but ended up purchasing a portrait called, “Kathren.”
Eya’s artwork is a fantasy of dreamy imagery in a rich complexity of color and texture and pattern, but what really spoke to me was the quiet searching facial expressions of her objects. Amazingly, getting to know Eya through this interview opened up a whole new level of depth to her work that I hadn’t consciously realized was there when I first fell in love with it. If you ever get the chance to meet her, and I think you should, you’ll be impressed by how humble and deflective she is about her talents, but also by how happy and addictively effervescent her personality is.
Eya’s artistic bio goes back generations. Her aunt is a blues musician, her mother is very creative, and her grandmother and great-grandmother were both oil painters. On her dad’s side, his mother was also a “champion knitter” and gifted Eya with some items that she will always treasure, including a highlighter yellow sweater that brought a laugh from Eya when she remembered it.
Her first memory of being labeled artistic came from entering an art contest in elementary school where the students were asked to draw the school mascot, a mountain lion. Eya didn’t win, (Han Suk, who she had a crush on, did), but she clearly remembered enjoying the contest. She told me that her mother always encouraged her to be creative, but that somehow, despite family support, she developed the idea that being an artist wouldn’t be a financially sound career path for her, so she initially put the dream aside.
Fast forward a few years post high school, and Eya had played around with craft and art, even showing a few pieces in a small-town art exhibit at a friend’s gallery, but still did not consider herself an artist. She calls her work from this part of her life indulgent, and I wonder if she means that she enjoyed it too much for it to be a money-making venture, but she disagrees, saying she just means that she didn’t feel like she knew what she was doing. She felt untrained. Soon after this, Eya enrolled in Arkansas Tech for a degree in graphic design, which satisfied her need for a financially sound career but also indulged her love of fine arts. It was Arkansas Tech that first provided her with experience in painting, printmaking and sculpture.
We go back and forth in our discussion about her work now and her training in college, and a few nodes of interest develop for me. I was shocked to find out that Eya still doesn’t feel that she is a “technically proficient” artist and has some insecurities about her work not being “correct.” She tells me she has a lot of skill still to develop and that she can see pieces of her work that would benefit from more training.
An interesting issue she mentioned was that she feels like she uses her mediums in incorrect ways. For those of you who are artists, maybe you’ll understand this, but I had to have her explain it to me. Her examples were that she feels like using ceramics, for her, is like drawing with clay, and that she feels like she draws with acrylics rather than paints with them. Watercolor was another issue, in that she layers heavily, when she feels like watercolor should be used in lighter, more watery applications. She summed it up for me by saying that her acrylics are too thin, and her watercolors are too heavy. I think her paintings express what she’s trying to say regardless of how she applies her medium.
Two other items stayed with me from our discussions about college, and they were both regarding teachers’ commentary about her work. These came up when we were going through her portfolio, and she showed me some pieces from college where her subjects had closed eyes. A professor of hers mistakenly believed that Eya was drawing all her subjects this way because she lacked the ability to draw (or in this case, sculpt) eyes. Eya tells me that what the professor didn’t know was that she had gone through an earlier stage where she had obsessively sketched eyes and really enjoyed drawing them. The issue here was that Eya wanted her pieces to be introspective and looking inward instead of out at the audience. She expressed this literally through depicting them with closed eyes. She said that the professor was great, but she thought “he would pick apart the fact that she sucked at drawing noses, not eyes!”
The last comment from a professor was that her work was “decorative.” Eya said that this really offended her when she heard it, but soon after she learned to embrace this description because she truly has a love for patterns and mandala-like details in her pieces. She said, “Patterns and decorations bring you into a meditative state; your art brings you back to who you are–for me, I think that person is someone who doesn’t really care what people think.”
What inspires Eya Floyd
In answer to my broad question of what inspires her, Eya immediately said, “symbolism, spirituality, and metaphysics.” Now that I’ve seen more than a few pieces of her work, I can easily see this, but metaphysics struck me as a large, strange subject to use as inspiration. I’ll confess that I had to look it up to really grasp it, but it’s basically the philosophy of being, and the belief that everything that exists interacts (if you believe wikipedia).
Of all the art that Eya creates, she says her favorite medium is painting. She described her enjoyment of painting as being able to access a “private, quiet place inside her where the art comes from.” Lately she’s been working on layering color, like one of her favorite artists, Mark Blaney, and she is still trying to understand herself and the world around her through her art. She also told me that when she’s asked about her favorite color, she’s given up on a satisfying answer and goes with her true belief in saying, “all of them.”
As we were going through her portfolio, we got to a grouping of recent, very symbolic work, and she pointed out that you can see that her work, like her personality (her opinion, not mine!) isn’t very grounded. There isn’t a linear plane in sight in a lot of her work, and the subjects exist in water and air. She described this as accidental but relevant as she feels like these two spaces are truly mental and emotional planes of existence that resonate with her. This was probably my favorite part of the interview, where Eya’s eyes lit up with a joy that you can only see when people are talking about their specific passion.
Eya’s work lately has been very exploratory, and she’s learned a lot through her own paintings–about herself and other people. She’s begun doing portraits of people through their astrological chart. This started because of her interest in symbolism and spirituality, but the first chart she did began with a doodle of a moon, and she didn’t realize that it had turned into a full-blown exploration of her own personality until it was done. We went through the piece detail by detail and she showed me the items that describe her personality. Emotions and imagination are closely tied (shown by the moon in Pisces) and get snagged on (or are squared by) the inability to decide and act (Mars in Gemini). I’m really not doing her explanation justice here, but I’m hoping you get the general idea. The point is that her art is useful to her in expressing who she is and who she understands other people to be. She said about this piece that she, “didn’t understand [what she was painting] while she was in the middle of it, but immediately understood [what it was about] when it was done.”
The print that I purchased last year (and what instigated this whole interview) turned out to be a portrait of one of her friends. When I asked about the deer antlers in the image, Eya laughed and said, “it’s corny, but she’s kind of a “dear”—she’s so sweet and kind that I thought she needed antlers to protect her—plus, she’s a Capricorn.” She went on to say that she enjoys juxtaposing depth (like the intense look on a character’s face, or the subject of death in some of her Dia de los Muertos paintings) with something lighter and more innocent (like children, wings or other elements of playfullness).
Where you can find Eya’s work
Eya’s work is shown in a lot of small venues in shows usually curated and organized by her friend, Tara Biddleman. Upcoming shows are in March at the Blue Dahlia, and in May at Rio Rita. I will definitely post more info as these shows get closer. If you would like to see or purchase a painting, sculpture (really, these deserve a post unto themselves), card deck, piece of jewelry (she has some really fun pieces in her toy jewelry collection and some exquisitely detailed and more traditional pieces for sale as well), or even one of her self-published coloring books, contact her at eyafloyd(at)yahoo(dot)com. Her future interests also include illustrating children’s books, so if you would like to purchase her talent for your work, please contact her. I would love to own one of these books in the near future!
For the first month that inspiration networked has been live, I have gotten to meet and interview some beautiful people. So far, almost 1,000 people have met Amy V. Cooper, Billy Baca-Baldwin, Adam Faucett, and Jon Rush. I hope that people are liking the variety and content that’s going up over here, and I know I love getting to meet all these great talents and quench my curiosity about their training and inspiration.
Introductions have also been made for a full roster of potential interviewees who I hope will consent to go through the torture that is my interview process. (It’s not really torturous, is it? I hope not!) If your name has been given to me, and I haven’t contacted you yet, hold tight; I promise you’re getting an email from me shortly!
For February, I have the pleasure of introducing you to four more lovely and talented people: Eya Floyd, Maris Malone Calderon, Nick Hirsch, and Yusef (Nico) Svacina. They have some really great stories and are all amazing artists, so I know you won’t be disappointed.
As this little community grows a bit, I’m wondering if there are any opinions out there in the great beyond. I’m trying different formats with interviews, so if you like one better (conversational vs. formal) or you have suggestions for questions or new topics, please email me at bschwanke(at)inspirationnetworked(dot)com or leave a comment below this post. Oh, and an archive page and a real events page are in the works, so stay tuned for that!
Speaking of events, this Saturday Nick Hirsch is playing at Independence Brewery’s first Saturday tour with his band, Nicosounds. It looks like it’s going to be sunny and 62 degrees, so come on out and join us! The next weekend, February 12th, there is going to be a gathering of “handmade sweetness from Austin area artists” called the AustinFlea. I’m looking forward to it!
Signage gets me every time! These signs have popped up around me in the last few days, and I think they’re worthy of a second look—even though my iphone pictures are miserable! I’ve got to remember to carry an actual camera with me vs. my phone.
This apparently hand-drawn (or screenprinted?) light-up sign was on the wall at the Brixton on East 6th Street and Onion. I’m not sure you can see it well enough in the picture, but the type is awesome, and the raven image doesn’t hurt the aesthetic one bit. I asked the bartender, and she told me that one of the owners drew this!
This is the wine list at the Ghost Room, and it caught my eye because of the Art Nouveau-esque type. I especially love the word “Chateau”, fourth line down. Anyone know who does the lettering?
The last image is from the set list at the Ghost Room last Saturday (for Adam Faucett‘s show) and the playfullness got to me. This is such a simple and cheap solution for some serious signage. Was this in place when this was the Gingerman, or is it new to this venue?
Name: Jonathan Rush
Occupation: Senior Character Artist
Business: EA Bioware—Austin
Artist Portfolio: pig-brain.com
When I met Jon, we were working out together at CrossFit ATX (now Woodward CrossFit), and he struck me as positive, athletic and a bit obsessive (following a brutal 40-minute workout with a run of several miles to work, I find a little obsessive). Hopefully he’ll forgive me for saying that! The point is, I was completely shocked when he told us what he does for a living. This says a little bit about me and my preconceived notions, but I didn’t correlate the person blowing us all away in the gym every morning with a guy who first excelled at classical and jazz guitar and then ended up studying trompe l’oeill painting before becoming a character artist. In case you’re not fully aware of what a character artist can do, they are responsible for designing and building the highly-technical characters that bring video games to life. That obsessive bent that we saw at CrossFit ATX might be the exact requirement for excelling in Jon’s field.
Growing up inspired:
Jon’s artistic life began early, around age 2, and as a young kid, his parents enrolled him in adult as well as children’s art classes. He also attended an art specific elementary school called Bullard TALENT, which really perked my interest since a) I have never heard of art specific elementary schools and b) I don’t know how his parents knew that he needed to be in that environment versus, say, a science or math specific school. When I asked him when he knew he had a talent in art, he told me, “I’m not so sure that I ever came to a realization that I had a talent in creating art. I’ve always been good at expressing myself, so perhaps art was just a by-product of that?”
Jon says his interest in character creation stemmed from his early love of comic book super heroes—specifically Spider-Man. (My nephews will be overjoyed to hear this!). The reason? “[Spider-Man] was always drawn in very dynamic and interesting poses.”
Video games also played a large role in his childhood, and did a lot to inspire his future career. He says, “I remember my parents bringing home our Atari game system and playing Donkey Kong for hours. Comic books, and video games! I suppose it’s safe to say I was (maybe still am) a pretty huge nerd.”
College Turning Point:
Jon went to Cal Poly, in San Luis Obispo, CA, for college, studying classical and jazz guitar. He explains his change of major as a result of an injury, not necessarily a choice, but the story is a recurring one in the history of people excellent in the arts.
In his much more eloquent words:
“One of my weaknesses is moderation—I really like to go all in, and it sometimes doesn’t work to my benefit. In this case, I was practicing too much—around 12 hours a day. I ended up straining some tendons in my picking hand. After going through some physical therapy for my hand (I know that sounds silly), I realized I would never be back to where I was, as my performance had greatly suffered. I chose to switch majors, and hop back into visual arts. I went through the portfolio review, and jumped through the necessary hoops to land in the art department. I was a studio arts major with an emphasis in trompe l’oeill painting.”
Makes it sound easy, doesn’t he?
Don’t worry, Jon put in his time going to class during the day and teaching himself the computer programs he needed to know at night. He says he sent out a portfolio to “every [video game] company that had an HR dept and an e-mail address” and got a break only after a year of trying.
The surprise ending is that Jon never graduated from college! He says, “I actually cut out with only a couple classes left, and accepted my first job offer with a Sega Sports studio.”
When I asked Jon about his current work, he said something so real and so familiar to me, that I couldn’t bring myself to summarize it:
“I love being an artist, but it can be an extremely rocky rollercoaster at times. Starting out on an assignment, I always think ‘I can’t do it…this is going to be the one I can’t do. It’ll never get done. It’s going to look horrible.’ Even while working on the initial stages of the asset my mind tends to stray to those thoughts. ‘Why am I an artist? What are they going to do when they find out I can’t deliver? How am I going to get through this?’
It can get emotionally taxing, even though I realize these aren’t rational thoughts and that I always get through it. Nevertheless, it’s the one part of being an artist that I very much dread—the low self-esteem.
The part I enjoy is when those thoughts get snapped out of existence just as quickly as they came about. I begin to enjoy what I do when I see the piece begin to look good. Then the road to completion becomes very visible, and easy to follow…I definitely have the end result in my head, but the trick is to figure out how to get there. It’s almost like I’m going through a puzzle-book maze, and can see the start and end points, but the actual maze isn’t visible. I need to take a step, see what comes up, and react accordingly. [It's] very much an ‘evolve as you go’ process. “
As for inspiration, Jon mentioned music (he’s got ecclectic tastes, so it changes daily) and a few industry websites (www.cgtalk.com, www.polycount.com, www.maxforums.org, in case you’re interested), but he talked mostly about being inspired by his team members. He explains, “I look to my co-workers for a lot of my inspiration. As the team goes through a title, each asset one does seems to push the boundaries just a little bit.”
If you’re interested in details about the games Jon has worked on, he can’t show us his current project until after its release, but he did answer some questions about past games and work environment.
Which game was your favorite to work on?
All games that I’ve worked on have been enjoyable. I really dig being part of a team, and helping to push towards a large goal. Creating these games is a tremendous undertaking. It’s a good feeling to walk through Best Buy and hear people saying great things about the game you had worked on for the past couple years, or see them pull it off the shelf and go buy it.
GUN was a pretty special game for me to be a part of. A good part of my heritage is Native American, and since GUN was in a western setting (think spaghetti westerns), I was afforded the opportunity to explore this time in history. I got to learn a lot more about the different Native American nations and tribes, and even got to create a couple for our game!
In most productions, the concept department and the character department are kept pretty separate. The concept artists get to come up with the characters, environments, etc… and the artists create it in 3D. GUN was a special case because I actually got to do some concepts for the characters I was assigned.
One time I was told to make a big burly bar bully. He needed to be big and ugly! So I made this big ugly dude with acne, a comb over, broken nose, etc… When I was done with the approved concept I wrote the name ‘Cowpunch’ on the concept for his name, as kind of a joke. I went through and created the character, got him in the game, and moved on. Later on in the development cycle I was playing through our game to check out our art in action. I found myself in the bar that this character was supposed to be in. A bar fight erupted, bottles went flying, guns shooting, and a guy in the bar yells ‘TAKE THAT YA STOOPID COWPUNCH!’
I almost fell out of my chair! I thought that was the coolest thing…
Do you have a certain type of character that you prefer working on?
I don’t prefer any certain type of character as I think they all offer their own unique challenges. It’s just as fun to create some grizzly old man, as it is to create a voluptuous beauty. The challenges here would be creating all of the detail in the skin for the old man and in capturing all of the subtle nuances of the female figure.
Do you get to have creative control over the characters you develop?
Creative control depends on how the project is structured. Of course, all creative control and input ultimately lies with the art director. Sometimes we get input into the concepts on a project, but more often than not, concepts are created by experienced concept artists who are very good at formulating fresh ideas and conveying them through one medium or another.
Do you feel that you work better with strict structure and deadlines or with more autonomy and freedom?
This is one of the hardest parts about my job. When you’re working for a publisher, there are deadlines that must be met. Not just for the sake of meeting the deadline, but because other cogs in the machine are waiting/depending on you fulfilling your commitment. If your responsibilities aren’t met, the machine isn’t running at capacity, and other parts are stalling.
As an artist, I have a natural tendency to make an emotional investment in my work.. As a professional, I need to put that aside, otherwise my deadline will never be met. If I don’t put that aside, the perfectionist (not a good thing) comes out, and the work never gets done.
In my eyes, creativity is an emotional investment. With that said, having to be creative while meeting deadlines turns out to be an emotionally exhausting game of tug-o-war.
How do you feel about working in your niche? Do you feel the need to escape it, and where do you see yourself in ten years?
I think the jobs are pretty diverse in this market. There are jobs ranging from HR, marketing, finance, etc… all the way to actual content creation. In that regard, I don’t think the market is niche. I think my role on the team is pretty niche though. I would be hard pressed to ever be taken seriously as an environment artist since the main body of my work and work experience lies in character art creation.
It doesn’t bother me since I enjoy what I do. I don’t have any real desire to try and get outside of this…my utmost goal is to get better at what I do. I can do this by exploring the software packages I use more, studying anatomy—biped, and quadruped, painting, etc…
10 years ago, I would have said ‘in 10 years I want to be the art director at my own company.’ Now, seeing how the industry works, and how fast things change, I can honestly say that I have no idea what I’ll be doing 10 years from now.
Do you think it’s still possible to survive as an artist in this economy? Would you counsel people trying to get into your field to get a college education?
Absolutely! Jobs may be a little harder to come by these days, but they’re out there. To get into the industry you need to have a great looking portfolio. To advance through the industry into higher positions, you need to have a great looking portfolio, and a polished resume. A formal education is not required to be an artist, however I can’t see how it would hurt (aside from paying back the student loans).
Do you feel your life is more or less stressful than people in non-artistic careers?
That’s a tricky question! I suppose I would be just as stressed as anyone else working in a competitive field, regardless of the industry. With how many people that are out there looking for jobs, it really puts the pressure on to perform.
As far as enjoying my life more because of the unique creative outlet in my job, I suppose I enjoy it not so much for that, but just because this is the occupation I want. I enjoy most aspects of my job, whether they’re creative or not. I suppose I really thrive off of overcoming large obstacles and enjoy getting lots of opportunities to do that in my job. Making games is hard! If it was easy, everyone would do it.
For my last question, I saw from your website that you also teach a course in character design for CGTalk.com. Do you enjoy teaching? You also have more positive reviews on linkedin than anyone I’ve ever met!
I haven’t had much time for personal projects these days, as a good portion of my effort is geared towards working on our current game in development. [Editor's note: Jon and his wife, Erin, also have two small children at home!] The CGTalk.com workshop has been going on for a couple of years. It’s an 8 week, open-forum workshop geared toward teaching students how to create game characters in a pseudo-studio environment. Most of the students have never worked in the industry before, so they seem to get a big kick out of it.
By this time, the class content is a little old, so it’s getting a refresh. I’m currently working on making a mini-workshop which only spans 3 weeks, to potentially attract more students for the bigger course.
I had to threaten a lot of folks to get those recommendations…they were written in fear! I enjoy teaching what I can. If someone is eager to learn, I love showing them whatever I can.