Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The dark and the surreal | An interview with Dylan Garrett Smith

 When did you discover drawing and illustration was your passion and you had a talent for it?

When I was growing up, I never felt like I was particularly good at anything despite how hard I would try. I was awful at sports, I didn’t feel like I did all that well in school, as much as I loved skateboarding, I wasn’t ever very good, and even though, out of all of those things, I was the best at BMX, I still couldn’t keep up with other kids I knew. When I was 11 or 12 I started really getting into punk after I read an interview with someone talking about how much they loved Ramones and Black Flag. Punk was empowering to a kid like me because I didn’t feel like I had to be all that good at anything to be a part of it.

 I tried playing guitar and started a few bands, but I could never remember the songs and was far too sloppy, even by standards of high school punk bands. Around that time, all we did was try to start bands and skateboard, so we would pick up records and magazines. My younger brother had picked up a few skateboard magazines that I thought were okay, but then I opened up Thrasher and that was it- seeing bloody noses and broken teeth, was gnarly as hell, and then I saw a full page spread of Pushead’s art. I ripped it out and duct-taped it to my wall. That not only made me want to draw and write, but it also made me realize that art and design doesn’t just happen- people MAKE those things and I began looking through the liner notes of the albums I loved seeing who was making the art – Pushead, Alan Forbes, Eric Haze, etc. I was immediately hooked and kept pushing myself to learn new techniques and new media and the people around me were really supportive of that. 

Your work is very identifiably yours. Where do you find your inspiration for your work and are there central themes you like to visit and re-visit?

There are so many fantastic artists, designers, bands, writers- it’s difficult not to be inspired when I’ve been fortunate enough to surround myself with such unique and prolific people. When you see someone putting everything they can into a project, you can’t just ignore it. But I think what makes my work identifiably mine, aside from the fact that I’m making it using my own hands, is that I’m pulling from my own experiences and ideas and perspective, trying to work through things.

 My last exhibition, “What You Fear Will Come Upon You”, at Central Tattoo Studio in Philadelphia was so incredibly personal. Some of the pieces are difficult for me to talk about because of the themes of examining childhood experiences, putting my neuroses under a microscope and really investigating what’s at the root of these emotions, how these feelings affect relationships with people in my life, working through medical issues that were then undiagnosed, but have now been identified as the autoimmune disease, myasthenia gravis, which has caused me to have severe double-vision and vertigo, amongst other things, and existential fears, depression, and anxiety. Aside from those very personal feelings and experiences, my work always has an underlying theme of our continually growing distance from the natural world, and ultimately nature’s triumph in the end- whatever that “end” is.

A lot of your work uses primarily black and white combinations. Is there a reason behind this preference?

Before I began working this way in 2012, my work was primarily watercolor paintings and screen prints using a very soft, delicate color palette with details added in black ink. I enjoyed working that way at the time, but because of how often I had to move my studio, I began drawing and illustrating more often in black and white. For some reason, my brain always had an easier time processing drawing light than drawing shadows, so working with white media on black always made more sense to me. Through experimentation, I figured out the process I’ve been using for the last four years.

Can you briefly explain the process you undertake from idea to finished illustration?

Absolutely- the most important part of my process is a good nap. Sometimes if I’m having a difficult time figuring out a design problem, or how I want to illustrate something, or even if I just don’t have any solid ideas, I’ll take a quick nap while I’m thinking about whatever issue I’m having. Most of the time, I solve it in a dream while I’m sleeping and wake up with an answer. It sounds absurd, but I highly recommend it, haha. It’s also helpful when I’m feeling too anxious to actually get any work done. So once I have an idea and have figured out what I want to make, I start sketching in pencil. Sometimes I sketch on white paper or Bristol board, sometimes directly on tracing paper, depending on how solid I am on the concept. The black paper I use (either Canson Stonehenge or French Paper Co. ) is pretty unforgiving, so it’s best if I nail down the composition first, transfer the sketch onto the black, and get working from there. Depending on the image, I have a few different processes of getting started. When I want to tone the paper first, I grind a layer of ashes into the paper and use white chalk/charcoal and black India ink to pull things forward or push things back, otherwise I work from the sketch directly with white chalk/charcoal and black India ink, using ashes on occasion when I want to smooth things out.

Are there any artists across any medium you admire and would love to someday work/collaborate with?

Aside from the painters, illustrators, musicians, and photographers that I’ve worked with in the past, there are a few areas I would absolutely love to venture into that I haven’t yet. I have always been in love with avant-garde, high-brow, and ethical fashion, so I would love to collaborate at some point with friends like Timothy K, Leanne Mai-Ly Hilgart of Vaute Couture, Ashley Rose, Wren Britton of PureVile, etc. I think they all do fabulous work. Animation and film are other forms of media that I haven’t done much with, but would really love to get into. There are a few directors/writers whose work I adore and would be ecstatic to work with in the future; building sets has always been a dream of mine, but hell, I’d be honored if they came to me for a poster, too. To work with Guillermo del Toro, Ti West, Robert Eggers, would be incredible and if Laird Barron’s brilliant work is ever translated into film, I would drop everything for the opportunity to work on it.

Is there any subject matter or new materials you would love explore but haven't yet had the opportunity to?

Aside from fashion, animation, and film, I have been slowly working on oil paintings. It’s been an ongoing battle, but I’m getting there. Eventually, I’ll feel okay with them enough to show, ha. I also have some plans for more sculptural pieces, performances/recordings with my two projects (KVØID and Low Spirits), and more prints, but those are things I’ve done before that I am carving out time to do more of. I have been discussing the logistics of doing a web-series with some friends and I couldn’t be more excited about that. 

Is there one piece of your work that you are most fond of or proud of?

I think I’m proud of every piece after I finish it, or at least the ones I show people, and then that feeling slowly wears away over time as I create new works, explore new techniques, and push myself. Particularly, I’m really proud of a couple new pieces I’ve done within the last month or two where I’m more consciously focusing on how light and shadow fall on objects, building textures, and how objects interact with each other. I’m also really proud of a shirt design I recently created for Mastodon. I couldn’t be happier about working with such an incredible band.

You have worked on a few collaborations and projects where your work has been used in textiles, clothing, and band artwork. Is that something you are generally picky about or is that an avenue you would like to pursue more aggressively?

Yes, I’m very picky about these projects- I like working with bands, companies, and individuals who I feel understand me aesthetically, conceptually, and ethically. I want to work on projects where my work will enhance the experience that they are providing. I can work in a variety of styles outside of my set aesthetic, but if I listen to a band or see a company and I feel that another artist or designer would better suit their goals, I have no problem introducing them to that person. I would rather lose a potential job for the sake of good art than produce mediocre work and go out a few more times this month. But I love working on different projects and I’m always excited to hear what people are doing, so while I’m very selective with what I get involved with, I’m also ambitious and look forward to these opportunities. 

How hard is it to maintain personal integrity while also working on more commercial work? How do you ensure it is still uniquely yours?

With bands and companies that are coming directly to me, they’re already familiar with what I’m about, so it’s not difficult to maintain personal integrity, but with design work, where people are coming to me for a more contemporary design style that’s completely separate from my personal work, I’ve had to adjust some things. If I’m working on album art or a shirt design, someone that knows my work will usually be able to identify it as mine quickly, and working on these pieces is emotionally satisfying because I love what I do. But with contemporary design where things are more vanilla and commercial, I’ve had to recognize that a client might not always be willing to listen to my opinions or design sensibilities and I have to be able to let those things go. 

 These projects are often more financially lucrative than working with musicians and smaller companies, but they are so much less satisfying emotionally. With these projects, my name is barely ever attributed to the work, but I prefer that if I’m not able to call the shots. I used to be really critical of designers when I would see poor design choices, but after working with more (and larger) clients, I realize that nine out of ten times, it’s not the designer that made that choice- it was a suit and tie that didn’t know their ass from their elbow, but ultimately had the final say. 

 I love that your work has a very strong connection to nature and the world around us. Even though most people would probably describe your work as dark I think there is a lot more light in your message. Would you agree?

Absolutely! Like nature, I like to think that my work exists in a space that isn’t looked at as light and dark or negative and positive, but it just IS. Nature is loving and caring; she’ll feed you and keep you warm, but nature is also cold and vicious and allows your young to starve. These things exist outside of human morality and aren’t positive or negative because of the complexity of how things interact in nature. For a while, my autumns were incredibly busy because people were mostly inviting me to show in darker, Halloween-themed art shows, but over the years people have started realizing that that’s not exactly what my work is about and the message is a bit more complex. I’ve also spoken to people who saw my work as very nihilistic, which may be true in some instances, but I don’t see those ideas as being negative. In the plainest terms, if nothing matters, what the fuck is stopping you from doing what makes you happy?

What can we expect from Dylan Garrett Smith in 2016/17?

Currently, I’m creating the album art/layout for 5 albums to be released by the end of 2016 and later this month, Seventh Church Ministries will be releasing “Living and Dark Undead”, a zine inspired by Lord of the Rings and JRR Tolkien by Ellie Gill and Michelle Dugan, that will come with a print by Alan Brown and a print of my illustration of Ungoliant. All of the work for “Living and Dark Undead” will also be showing at The Convent in Philadelphia on July 29th. On July 15-17, I’ll be selling some prints at Square of Opposition Fest in Allentown, PA, September 15-18, I’ll be selling some prints and things at Shadow Woods Metal Fest in White Hall, Maryland, and November 11-13, I’ll be showing alongside some of my friends and favorite artists in Long Beach, CA for Midnite Collective’s “Midnite Communion: Return to Dirt”.

 Aside from albums, shirt designs, festivals, show posters, more prints, and art exhibitions, my depressive surf band, Low Spirits, will also be releasing our first tape in the next month, I’ll continue writing with my good friend, Dave Fylstra, for our experimental metal project, KVØID, in hopes of releasing our second album sometime in 2017, and I’ll have a piece in “The Devil’s Reign II: Psychedelic Blasphemy”, a book and exhibition curated by Peter H. Gilmore, High Priest of The Church of Satan, and published by Howl Books. I always have to keep myself busy.