..And he came from someplace else. Vancouver-based artist Ryan Heshka has long worked in the dream-like world of his own fanciful creation. Acutely informed by the imagery drawn from the Golden Age of science fiction, Heshka’s paintings feature a strong element of dark humor that is, unintentionally and efficiently, multi-faceted, vigorous, vibrant and sharp in color. Ryan Heshka is an amazing artist and one of our personal favorites, no need to hide it. His works, executed in a style which is incredibly unique, honest and unpretentious, have been featured in Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, just to name a few, and exhibited all across the continent and Europe. We had the great pleasure of interviewing Ryan Heshka as he prepares to open up his first European solo show at the Antonio Colombo Arte Contemporanea in Milan, Italy. The exhibition will open on Thursday, March 22, 2012, so make sure to drop by and say hi to Ryan. Otherwise take a peek at some of the works from the upcoming show , here on Love and Dishwasher Tablets, and read our interview after the jump.
First of all, thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with us, Ryan. We’re sure you need no introduction but for those who are not familiar with your work would you please introduce yourself? Tell us briefly about your teenage years, education, artistic background and anything else you think we should know.
I’ve been drawing and creating artwork since I was about four years old. Where I grew up (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), we had very long, cold winters, and that was conducive to hours of drawing, making cities out of cardboard and found objects, shooting super 8mm stop-motion movies, and reading comics/watching monster movies. All of which have made their way into the art I make now, almost 40 years later. As a child, I was always drawn to time periods way before I was born, specifically the 1930′s. Not sure why, but it always made sense to me.
My formal education consisted of a commercial art program at a vocational high school, and four years of interior design at the University of Manitoba. I went on to practice interior design for a few years before turning to animation (hand-drawn, character clean up/in-betweening type work), but ultimately returned to my passion, creating art in about 2000. That’s when Kate Larkworthy, my illustration rep, took me on and that started my career in art and illustration.
I’ve always been a late bloomer, and have never seemed to take the straight path in terms of career. As a teen, I sort of “grew out” of childish things like comics, drawing for fun, and monster movies, in favor of heavy metal and doing dumb teenage stuff, later growing up and trying to do things I thought were “practical” (like interior design, a practical application of creativity). But all those childish things have found me again.
How did you get your first commission? Do you have a quick story you’d like to share with us?
My first actual illustration commission was through a graphic design firm that rented space out of the interior design firm’s office I worked in while I lived in Toronto, Canada. It actually came about after I moved back to Winnipeg in the mid-90′s… they were looking for somebody to do spot illustrations for the Nike annual report they were working on. So I started out on a really high note, and it took years to get another job anywhere near that prestigious!
Your upcoming show, “Ours” is inspired by the mysteries of childhood discovery. What prompted you to explore that as a theme for this new series of works? Can you give us an insight into how you approached each of your new pieces, conceptually and technically? What are some of your favorite works in the show?
I have been collecting small vintage frames for years, and the idea of doing a show of paintings that looked like small clipped comic book panels, framed in these small antique frames really appealed to me. Conceptually, the show is based on that feeling of a fuzzy childhood memory … one that has been distorted by the passing years. These are not paintings of any literal memories of mine, but rather just the odd, dream-like feeling you get from recalling an early memory of something you might have seen as a kid… a weird book cover, a strange movie. Tapping into those childhood obsessions was natural source material for me. I wanted to keep each piece very loose and spontaneous, to maintain that dream-like feel… I never over-thought any of the pieces, and often would just develop a rough sketch into a finished piece. Being spontaneous with the works felt very in line with how I created art as a child… children tend to not over-think things the way we adults do.
My favorite pieces from the new show include the one large painting I did: a scene of crustaceans attacking a seafood factory… it’s a sprawling, overhead scene. The factory is made up of buildings that look like sardine tins and cans. I am also happy with “Cannibals of the Stone Age” and “Ours”, where the show got its title from.
The exhibition, Ours, is planned to be hosted at the Antonio Colombo Arte Contemporanea (Milan, Italy) on March 22nd, 2012. I know that is not the first time that you’re involved in Mr. Colombo’s several projects, including the creation of the new Cinelli Catalogue Cover. How did this collaborative relationship between you and Mr. Colombo get started? What was your first meeting like?
Antonio contacted me via email, after he had seen my work online (I can’t recall what or where he saw it)… he started off by taking on a few existing pieces for inventory for his gallery. About a half a year ago, he invited me to be a part of his booth for ArtFirst (in Bologna), for which I created brand new pieces. Before that though, he had asked if I was interested in doing a show in his Little Circus project room, and I jumped at the chance to do a solo show in Italy! Now here it is, a couple of weeks away from the opening. I haven’t met Antonio yet, but am looking forward to meeting him when I fly in for the show opening. He has been such a big supporter of my work, and an ideal gallery to work with.
In an article about the new cover art on the 2012 product catalog issued by Cinelli, The New York Times reported that you wanted the Cinelli painting “to look like the stereotypical Italian ’60s movie gone wrong”. We love the definition, can you tell us more about it? Could you provide us with a quick overview of your creative process for this piece? What was your original idea and how did it change, if it did?
I submitted several different sketch ideas to Antonio, and everyone involved liked the robot riding the bicycle the best. I have never been to Italy, but I wanted the piece to capture an Italian setting the same way old Hollywood movies capture an American setting… idealized, fun, other-worldly. Nothing says old Italian movie to me like a classic Italian sports car in the country side! And it seemed natural that its nemesis would be a giant Cinelli robot on a Cinelli bicycle, rolling over this sports car in this peaceful, pastoral country-side setting, scattering its fashionable occupants like mice. The basic concept was bicycle culture ruling the world, portrayed in a fun and strong manner. Incidentally, the original rough sketch and the final painting are almost identical in layout… the creation of the cover art was a very spontaneous process, which is rare for commissioned pieces.
Devilish submarine creatures, epic battles, burning aircrafts and houses, superheroes, giant insects, alien invasions and space monsters conquering the Earth are a recurring theme within the majority of your work. Your distinctive aesthetic code is firmly rooted in the orwellian characterization and iconography of the late 1930s and early 1950s pulp magazines, comic books and scientific fictions where symbolism was known to play a very significant role. I’m interested in your use of symbolism, Ryan, particularly in those painted characters and details that recur frequently in your work. What relationship does your work have with reality?
On the surface, I would have to admit my work has very little to do with reality. However, underneath the outer layer of pulp/comic book language and symbols lie current themes of modern world anxieties, such as man and/versus technology, man and/versus nature, apocalyptic endings (through man’s own hand or natural endings), mass/group intelligence (humans acting cohesively, like bees or ants), etc. I’ve discovered I use this quirky and often darkly humorous visual vocabulary to address my own beliefs and projections for a future world… what used to seem like random images now seem to have more cohesive stories behind them, as my body of work grows. The symbols and icons of this crude sci fi language of the pulps gives the work that dream-like quality, and hides the anxiety below a layer of rubber monsters and fake backdrops… like an innocent looking nightmare.
More than perhaps any other genre, horror and science fiction from the 1930s to 1950s examined under a different light the various faces of politics, religion, science and faith. The idea of scientific and technological progress was a peculiarly frequent one – see H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (1933) or Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956) – and the very idea of Progress does appear to be another constant in your works. So what I can’t help but wonder is this: Do you believe in progress? Which kind of progress do you believe in?
Progress is here whether I believe in it or not! Yes, I believe in progress… in the past hundred years, the world has made incredible leaps forward, technically as well as on a human level. But as we are seeing, humanity has not been able to stay a step ahead of what we are producing, and the obvious result is we are burning ourselves and our world out at a tremendous rate. And while some might see a Starbucks in every city on earth as progress, I see it as a loss of culture and individuality. I constantly wonder what things will look like a thousand years from now, and unless we learn to introduce moderation into our lives, I don’t think there will be much left by 3012. I know that sounds grim… and I don’t think it’s all bad or too late. I do believe in human progress, and believe individually we can all make a difference. We just need some REALLY strong leaders, and I think we are lacking that at the moment.
What’s great about your work and what I think everyone loves is that it’s uniquely entertaining, stylistically coherent, natural and instinctive. What do you feel has changed the most in your work over your last few projects?
I’ve used this word a bunch of times already, but I would like to think my work is getting increasingly spontaneous. I try to do less planning on paper, and jump right into the execution of the pieces as early as I can. As I gain confidence, my goal is to get to the point where I just start painting… just open the floodgates and let it flow. Picasso is my blueprint for this, although I’m not comparing myself to him by any means… but he started off painting so classically, and by the end of his career, his work was totally freedom of expression. You mentioned instinctive, and that is something I strive for. To tap into my own feelings and energies, rather than bending them to suit a particular painting or image. I am constantly trying to capture that carefree feeling of being five again, and drawing at the family coffee table. Unselfconscious joyful creativity.
And now we would like to play a little game with you if you fancy. You can lay on our ideal coach and we will show you five portraits, each of which we believe are somehow related to your work. Would you like to tell us for each one of them which memories are connected to these people, which stories they bring up when you see them and whether you feel they have influenced you and your art? Consider it a free form test, so you can add anything you like or feel it’s related to them. If you are game, we can start:
Kirby was by far my favorite artist when I was a kid. I was nuts over Jack Kirby. When I discovered comic book stores, I bought as many Kirby-related books as I could. I was really into Kirby-era FANTASTIC FOUR comics as a kid, and my uncle passed on his collection of early FF’s to me when I was very young, which was like inheriting a fortune at the time… maybe Kirby was in our family’s blood! I am still a huge fan of Kirby, especially his earliest work in comics, when he was basically inventing the language of comics. He was an innovator, a real talent. He helped form modern popular culture. To say he influenced my work is an understatement!
With Orson Welles, I think of high art (CITIZEN KANE), and low art (his portrayal of the Shadow on the radio in the 1930′s). The first exposure I had to Welles’ work was one Halloween when I was about 7 or so, a kid in my class brought his record of the famous Welles broadcast of the War of the Worlds, as adapted by the Mercury Theater on the Air, to play for the class. It blew my mind. I didn’t even know about the back story, how it caused panic among listeners when it first aired… but I knew it was a very strong piece of work. Since then I’ve probably listened to it 500 times. I have visualized it so many times, it plays like a newsreel in my head when I listen to it.
Welles was an incredible artist, using funds from his commercial work to finance his elaborate stage plays. Not many movies have surpassed the artistry of his CITIZEN KANE. He was a visual genius, seemingly fearless in terms of what he achieved early in his career. The boy genius.
I have always been attracted to non-linear, abstract storytelling, so when I discovered Lynch I fell in love with his work. ERASERHEAD remains one of my favorite films of his… I often gravitate towards artists’ earliest works. Lynch is one of the few modern artists who can really capture dreams on film… and he manages to do so with such economy of resources. The fact he leaves so much to the imagination is the whole appeal of his work to me. I also admire the strength of his artistic identity… when you watch a Lynch film, there’s no doubt it’s a Lynch film.
I had the good fortune to be involved in a TWIN PEAKS 20th anniversary art show last year, and the curator worked directly with Lynch on the exhibit. The curator passed along some comments Lynch had made about my piece, and I was over the moon that Lynch even knew I was alive! It meant the world to me that I was on David Lynch’s radar for even a minute.
When I emailed Monte about seven years ago introducing him to my work, I had no idea that we would become good friends and collaborators. We are both huge fans of the same sorts of pop culture visuals and art, which makes collaborating a fun and rewarding experience… we both get each other’s aesthetic. Monte has also acted as a mentor to me, pushing me and challenging me to really explore and expand my art, to rise to the high standards of BLAB!. We always have a blast when we get together, and enjoy showing off our collections to one another (Monte has an incredible matchbook collection). I have been a fan of BLAB! for a long time now, and going from a fan to a contributor has been a huge milestone in my career. BLAB! has opened up many doors for me, and Monte and I continue to collaborate and dream up new projects… there’s not enough time to do all the projects we want to do! Monte is a living legend of alternative art… I can’t say enough about this man.
THE CLAYTON BROTHERS
This past September, my friend (and fantastic artist) Mark Todd set up a Clayton Brothers studio visit for my wife and myself, which was a highlight of my artist career. We had met the Claytons while we were living in LA a few years ago, but to be invited into their studio space where so many incredible works were created (and were in progress) was like stepping into a dream. I have been a Clayton Brothers fan for over ten years now, and their work has always been the high water mark for me to live up to. Their work has a quality to it that spoke to me from the start… folk-like, yet highly contemporary, and totally unique. And not only are they amazing artists, but they are two of the nicest, most helpful human beings you’ll ever meet. They were very open and free with their advice to me about what I should be aware of as an artist… they truly live up to their art.
Another Earth, a science fiction film directed by Mike Cahill in 2011, tells the story of the discovery of a replicated Earth populated by our identical opposites. There’s a scene in the movie where Rhoda (Brit Marling) asks John (William Mapother): “If you met yourself – in this parallel world – what would you say?” What if I asked you the same question, Ryan? What would you say?
I would tell myself to always be me… don’t second guess yourself.
You now have two children’s books under your belt that you’ve illustrated, ABC Spook Show and Welcome to Monster Town. How did you break into children’s publishing? What can you tell us about Welcome to Monster Town and what was the biggest challenge you faced in creating the book?
I self-published the ABC Spook Show book… the entire book was originally conceived as an art show. That book was mailed out as a promotional piece to about six children’s book publishers, and Henry Holt showed interest to doing some books with me. This was done through my agent, Kate Larkworthy, who had worked with Christy Ottaviano, an editor at Holt. I guess the biggest challenge in creating Monster Town was doing something that was worthy of being published… and being my first real children’s book, the pressure was on! However, I think the book came pretty naturally to me once the basic concept was down, as I have always loved monsters and old monster movies… it was pretty natural to draw from that obsession. The book has since been optioned by DreamWorks, which in itself has been a real thrill for me. I hope to do more narrative-driven books in the near future.
What do you think your greatest achievement is so far?
I would have to say my work for BLAB! has meant the most to me… it represents the materialization of my ambitions into reality, as well as moving my personal work into a showcase that includes my heroes of modern art. Being published alongside these giants of art means the world to me. Getting to do the cover of BLAB! #18, the last of the old-format BLAB! books, remains a high point.
What specific projects are you currently working on?
I’m always pretty tight-lipped about projects that are in progress, for fear of jinxing them. But I will say that I have projects that involve comics and children’s books in the works. I’m also working on a short film project with a musician friend of mine, which involves stop motion animation set in a world that is essential a painting come to life. It’s very crude, and a work in progress, but I’m excited about the end results! I’m also hoping to hone my oil painting skills this spring and create some new works in that medium.