We round this old year out with some fresh, new, bits from an underground comic and animation artist you may already know; J.R. Williams. From the paper pages of WEIRDO to the digital pages of Flickr J.R. has done his share of swell artwork. We caught up with the artist and threw a few questions his way. Enjoy.
INTERVIEW by Richard Mullins
You work out of Portland, Oregon. I have heard the young music scene is smokin' in the northwest...how is the art scene up there?
There are more people doing creative work here than the local economy can support! Not so very long ago the Portland art scene revolved primarily around the more established downtown galleries. As the city has continued to grow, gallery spaces and even entirely new "art districts" have begun popping up all over the place. In addition to painters, Portland is also home to people who are doing a wide variety of visually creative work: filmmakers, animators, cartoonists, comic book artists, photographers, sculptors, and so on. Small press and self-publishing are very active here. Living in such a creative environment can be quite inspiring.
Your career seems to really take off in the mid-80s. What was the first big gig you got to do?
Getting into Robert Crumb's WEIRDO magazine in the mid-'80s is what I consider to be my first "big break." I sent a submission to Crumb, who had been editing the early issues...he forwarded my work to Peter Bagge, who was about to take over as editor. Pete accepted my submission, and even invited me to stay with him and his wife in the Seattle area while I looked for work, which I eventually did. WEIRDO was probably one of the most widely circulated anthologies of alternative/underground comics being published at the time, and attracted a fantastic roster of contributors--both seasoned underground artists and relatively new up-and-comers. It was a terrifically fertile period in the development of the omics medium, so it was naturally very exciting to suddenly find myself, essentially, in the middle of so much activity and innovation. Nearly every day Pete would go down to his p.o. box and return with something amazing or wildly amusing. I think I contributed to WEIRDO 3 or 4 times. After that, I seldom found myself sending out "cold" submissions. Editors and publishers started requesting work from me, so it wasn't difficult to stay busy.
1960s animation and graphics seem to be giving you major fuel for your work these days. What makes that time special for you?
I was born in the late '50s, so the 1960s were my childhood years. Many of us never seem to lose the enthusiasm we felt for certain aspects of the culture in which we grew up. A big part of that, I think, is because our emotions are so much more intense when we're young, and things we're exposed to during those years can make such powerful and lasting impressions. Anyway, the above is certainly true for me--imagery originating from that period of my life can evoke a lot of different emotions and associations, some long forgotten. If I can communicate a bit of that sort of intensity to others through my work, then maybe I'm doing my job as a visual artist.
Like myself (and most other artists over 30 years old) you had an art career before the internet and neat-o sites like Flickr. How has sharing your artwork on Flickr changed how you see your own work?
I can't say for certain that Flickr has changed the way I view my own work.
But I do see some correlation between publishing in a printed medium and
posting work online for public view. It's always satisfying to finish a new piece of work...but after working in comics for a number of years, I developed the feeling that something wasn't completely "finished" until it was printed and in circulation. The same tendency applies to posting new work online...it's not done until it's "live" and out where people can see and respond to it. I've attempted to run my Flickr page like a blog or online journal, making regular entries, even daily updates whenever it's possible. Of course, this kind of commitment is a strong motivator to produce new work regularly. Sites like Flickr provide the opportunity to respond directly and immediately to posted imagery, and it's very gratifying to know that people are interested enough in my work to comment on it! I could go on and on about the ways in which the current technology benefits those of us working in creative areas...but to be brief, I'd just say that I'm in basic agreement with Terence McKenna, who saw the internet as a potential "cultural accelerator." The ability to share ideas and information--whether visual, verbal, or audible--has become faster, more direct, and more efficient.
Robert WIlliams and his Juxtapoz Magazine (along with the rise of the internet and local art scenes) brought the Low Brow vision into the mainstream. As an artist working in this vein has this spotlight helped you get your work in shows, magazines etc...?
It's perhaps a bit too soon to say...I've been working in an intentionally "lowbrow" vein only since about April of this year (2008). Prior to that I'd been doing work that was much more abstract. My recent work definitely seems to generate more immediate response. It's no great surprise to discover that people tend to respond most enthusiastically to "appropriated" imagery that's already more or less familiar to them. We don't have the same sorts of standing associations with intentionally abstract imagery, which can seem obscure or puzzling. Just the same, I'll probably continue working in both veins. Although I haven't been too active in comics for the last several years, I did do a two-page piece for an anthology of abstract comics to be published by Fantagraphics in 2009. In some ways I think the boundaries between "lowbrow" and "highbrow" art are becoming less and less defined. I see elements of my more "legitimate" creative tendencies creeping into my "pop" work, and vice versa.
Besides the more typical cartoon stuff you also paint near abstraction works such "Towers." These are a cool departure. What informs this direction?
I was a Fine Arts major in college, and am still very interested in modern/contemporary art. I've developed a curiosity about primitive art, especially native American petroglyphs and rock paintings, and "folk arts" of the Huichols and Oaxacans of Mexico. I like Art Brut and so-called "naive" art. On one hand, I've always had an attraction to the kind of clearly outlined, strong graphic approach that's become so commonly associated with the comics form. On the other, I'm fascinated by the textures and random elements present in much modern painting (and in the natural world). I'm conscious of trying to merge both of these approaches in my work, in some way or another.
Who are some of the artists you have worked with over the years that really impressed you?
As you probably know, the work of an independent visual artist is typically a lonely business. Most of my work is done in solitude. I did do some collaborative work back in my comics days, mostly illustrating stories written by other authors. I've also worked in TV animation for a number of years...I'm a former animator/designer/storyboard artist for (primarily) Will Vinton Studios (Claymation™), and continue to do occasional jobs in the animation industry. Working with the many, various, remarkably talented individuals present in the business of dimensional animation has been one of the most formative and satisfying experiences of my creative life. Puppet animation is tremendously complex. So many different types of skills are involved: sculpting, woodworking, metalworking, camera operations, the innumerable nuances of "performance" that bring an illusion of life to inanimate matter...it's an intensely collaborative medium, and to be accepted as a contributing member of such a creative community by one's peers is extremely gratifying. I feel that I've learned a great deal from others throughout this aspect of my career, but I couldn't even begin to name them all...–END