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Check Out the New Artwork at Waverley’s Vinyl Listening Station by Duncan Weller!

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Duncan Weller in his art

Duncan Weller is a very complex person; chatting about his art, he exudes a nervous energy, yet is simultaneously very soft-spoken and unassuming. “I love to draw and paint all sorts of subjects,” he says when asked about the complexity that is in many of his pictures. “I love assembling a number of images together.”

Along with being a visual artist, Weller is a writer, designer, publisher, promoter, and salesperson who lives here in Thunder Bay. He has written and illustrated several children’s books, a book of short stories for adults, and a book of poetry. One of his children’s books, The Boy From the Sun, won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2007 for Illustration in Children’s Literature. The way his artwork and writing go together to tell his stories is deliberately planned: “I’ve actually thought quite hard about what I want to say and work hard to get ideas across. Some ideas are clearly in the text, but there can be an entirely different story created in the visuals that run in tandem with the story line.”

You can often find Weller at the Country Market, where he rents a booth and sells his books. The Country Market is where he met Bobbi, the model in the painting Weller created for the Thunder Bay Public Library. He was really inspired by her great attitude and wanted to capture her beaming face. Weller spent more time than he had planned to on the painting; it ended up taking two weeks to finish. He used acrylic to paint her pants and the purple background, while her upper torso, blouse and hair were painted in oil. Her natural hair is braided; she liked the idea of being painted with an afro.

Weller also rents a gallery on North Cumberland Street. “The gallery is fun,” he says. “It’s nice to see my work up on the walls. If I don’t have enough wall space, they’re in boxes.”  The gallery takes a lot of time, so he has created a work space inside of it. That was where the painting was created – he nailed the masonite up onto a wall and started painting. At the gallery, his eventual plan is to have other people’s work shown as well as his own.

While some artists mainly worry about creating artwork that sells, that is not Weller’s primary concern. “The whole idea of being an artist is to do your best work, to challenge yourself and see what you can do,” he says. “Too many artists hold back or rely on an ideology that makes it too easy to be an artist. I see nothing wrong with blowing people away, creating a sense of awe and mystery and wonder and excitement. If it’s fun for me, it’s got to be fun for the viewer.”

art work at the Waverley Vinyl Listening Station

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Interview with Duncan Weller

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Duncan Weller in his art

Duncan Weller is a writer of children’s books, adult fiction and poetry.  He is also a visual artist who shows his work regularly.  He lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and travels often to get ideas and images for his books.  He won two of Canada’s top awards (Governor General’s, Schwartz) for his picture book, The Boy from the Sun.  You can find him online at duncanweller.com. And check out his artwork at the Vinyl Listening Station at Waverley Library!

Shauna Kosoris: So what came first for you: art or writing?

Duncan Weller: Children are quite happy to draw until they learn to write. The interest in writing supersedes drawing because words more easily express ideas and feelings than pictures. I kept drawing as I learned to write to satisfy an itch that I can’t explain. According to my mother, my first spoken word as a one year old child occurred when looking at a sundown over the Ottawa River. I said, “Pretty,” and not another word for three months. In my twenties I thought of myself as a visual artist. I was getting paid for my art long before my writing, but today I don’t distinguish between the two as powerful twins.

In university, you were originally in Fine Arts. Why did you decide to switch to English?

I wanted to learn about the history and methods of creating children’s books and other forms of literature. And at the time the Fine Arts Departments across North America emphasized modern art, which has value for some, but wasn’t my thing. The philosophical underpinnings of modernism was too subjective for my taste and Fine Arts departments completely ignored the potential of popular culture.There’s nothing wrong with the traditional functions of art when those traditional functions are used progressively to dramatically enrich a democratic society. And humanism is at the core of English literature which applies not only to visual art, but to cultures the world over. That emphasis, of art with a mission beyond aesthetics, ideology and the self struck me as more meaningful and useful.

Do you normally write or illustrate your books first? A Starship by Duncan Weller

Stories are movies in my mind, complete with settings, plot and characters long before they are organized into a format using words and images. In order for others to enjoy my books, movies on paper, I have to make the computer keyboard come atonally alive with the laborious part of organizing words and sentences into a meaningful story enhancing and being enhanced by the illustrations. It’s a complicated balancing act, so I make notes, a good outline and/or a story board. So again, the writing and illustrations come together. Hundreds of stories were memorized by griots or bards who passed down stories orally for thousands of years. I’m not that clever, but I have entire plots and ideas for novels worked out in my head where not a sentence has been formed, not a drawing made.

What is your favourite artistic medium to work with and why?

Watercolour is amazingly versatile and perfectly suited for illustrating children’s books. With the right paper and techniques, watercolour effects can mimic the texture of skin, bark, cloth, steel, clouds, water, etc. in wonderful ways. Oils are my second favourite. A story I completed called Lara Wood, yet to be printed/published was done in oils and alkyds. I used a crackle medium to imitate tree bark. It looks awesome. Painting faces with oils is the best way to go if you want to take your time and blend skin tones nicely, along with creating setting effects, like skies and atmospheres. For the books I’ve used all sorts of different mediums and plan to use more in the future.

In your books, you’ve written both prose and poetry. Do you have a preference for one or the other?

Prose. It’s so much easier. And safer. Poetry is hard to write and dangerous. An incredible number of poets commit suicide. This is because poets often look deeply inwards, searching for bigger truths in the well, reaching beyond the rejuvenating properties of the drinking water and heading straight for the rocky bottom. Also, the subjective nature of poetry and lack of financial support makes the life of a poet pretty hard. At its best poetry can be the most perfect form of human expression so I look forward to writing poetry for future children’s books. I look deeply, but I don’t plumb the depths of my own being for the rocky bottom. I’m not all that interested in ultimate truths. I believe there is some kind of order to the universe, and I have a few ideas about how it works, but I wouldn’t dare to take myself too seriously. I leave these depths to scientists and philosophers and try to look at the outside world as an observer with a heart. And because I’m sensitive I like to keep the poetic impulses to a minimum. I’ll live longer this way.

That’s fair. I know you’ve made videos of some of your children’s books; are you still working with film at all?

Occasionally I work on painting backdrops that may one day be green screened into a short film I want to make. And I’d love to make animated shorts and short films, leading up to making a feature film one day, but films get made by teams and require lots of management and money. So I’m sure I’ll do a few more small projects, maybe one next year.

The Ugg and the DripAs both a writer and illustrator, you must get pulled in so many different directions artistically.  How do you decide on the project you will focus your attention on?

As a writer, painter, designer, publisher, promoter, and salesperson I have to balance too many jobs with paying for rent and food like anyone else. So I take on commissions occasionally to earn some quick money. My book projects are eventually more profitable, and more so if I can find an agent and a good publisher this year. It’s expensive to print a book on my own, and will put me in debt for a while, but will eventually earn me good money. Despite the complications, choosing a project or starting a new project comes from feeling inspired or just getting bored with painting in one medium. Sometimes it’s a sudden rush of emotions that are connected with a story I love that I just can’t wait to work on. It’s also about timing and situations, some just too hard to explain.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’ve got three visual art commissions that will pay the rent. In my spare time I’m working on three different novels with lots of interesting characters and situations: We Play You (for adults) is about an artist who has his work stolen by a gallery owner. He discovers that the gallery owner is connected to an investment company that steals art from artists the world over. Punch-Out and The Search for the Ugg are two middle readers for kids. The Ugg story will have over 80 small illustrations. I hope to have Tiger Dream, a new picture book, completed this year.

So what book or author inspired you to write?

As a teenager I read nearly a novel a day, everything from Farley Mowat to dozens of science fiction authors, along with all the required books in high school, enjoying the Russian authors, Shakespeare and George Orwell. In University I was a big fan of the English Romantic Poets, Roald Dahl and the political writings of many American journalists, especially Tom Wolfe who blew up the writing world decades ago with his dramatic writing style. These days I read Ian Rankin and lots of political articles. I am looking to get back into reading a greater variety of novels by joining a book group.

What books influenced your children’s books?A picture from Girl from the Moon

For children’s books I had a few favourites like Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, books featuring Mr. Ben Red Knight, Graham Oakley’s church mice, a couple books by Dr. Suess, Jack Ezra Keats (Goggles! was my favourite), and a few oddball books from Europe including the strange imagery in Eastern European books of folktales. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was my absolute favourite because the allegory applied to all sorts of strange adult behaviours. Most often I was disappointed as a child with children’s picture books. I felt the authors and illustrators had very little imagination, playing it safe, especially when compared to the amazing imagery in movies and television which also had a big influence on me. The Tom and Jane series that my mother got me as a young child made me feel ill. These books and many others were so bad I thought adults were robots who had no idea that children had feelings. I didn’t want to grow up to be an adult. For a while I thought adults were another kind of animal. At the age of nine a school librarian recommended we read the picture books with gold stickers on their covers. After I read over twenty books with gold stickers I told my classmates that books with gold stickers were the worst. It was about this time that I gave up on picture books and began reading comic books. I recall how disappointed I was when I made this as a conscious decision. At seventeen I thought I could make a ton of money writing good books for children because so many of them were terrible. In my early twenties I discovered Roald Dahl which later had a big influence.

Is there a book you think everyone should read?

For anyone interested in the visual arts I would recommend Learning to See by Alan Gowans. It’s out of print, but old copies can be ordered from Amazon and found in secondhand book shops in British Columbia. Gowans was an art historian who taught at the University of Victoria. He offered an alternate history of art that is amazingly coherent, practical and useful for artists if they ever feel confused about what art is for – about the amazing things that art can do for people.

And what are you currently reading?

I’m reading a book by Keli Goff called Party Crashing: How the Hip-Hop Generation Declared Political Independence. It’s one of many books I’m reading about race relations in order to improve the allegory for a story called Tiger Dream. I want to show children that it’s okay for us to eat, dress, talk and express ourselves differently because underneath the human dress (culture) we are all biologically the same. Our variety of cultures make the world an amazing place. I have to do a lot of reading for this story to better develop the allegory and ensure I’m representing other cultures accurately and positively. My research for Tiger Dream began with a trip to Ghana, which was made possible by a Chalmers’ Art Fellowship Award through the Ontario Arts Council.

Duncan Weller's books

Interview with Christopher “Merk” Merkley

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face croppedChristopher “Merk” Merkley makes stuff from nothing. Comics, paintings, photography, illustration, tshirts, multimedia, sculptures….whatever he can get his hands on. He has 2 graphic novels under his belt (another one on the way), an ongoing comic strip, a regular weekly piece for Comic Book Resources’ ‘The Line it is Drawn‘ , and fits in as much art and craziness in between those as he can. He is also one third of Zero Issues Comic Podcast with two fellow comic artists, Bry & Kyle.  You can find him online at merkasylum.ca.

Shauna Kosoris:  You did the artwork for Nowadays, a zombie comic that takes place in Northern Ontario.  How did you get involved with that, and how do you know the writer, Kurt Martell?

Merk: Kurt and I used to work together at HMV.  He was studying film at that point.  Then we disappeared and did our own things, but I kept running into him at events, usually during Halloween.  He’d have a mask on and I’d have no idea who he was until he said “Hey. Want to make a comic?”

Kurt had a love of zombie movies and wanted to make one.  Long before the current explosion of zombie stories, he wanted to reinvigorate the genre.  He ended up approaching me to make a comic instead.  From a business standpoint, I get lots of pitches of ideas, but nothing is written.  Kurt was different; he had everything written and he understood it’s a business.  “I don’t want you to work for free,” he said.  So we applied for grants and got one.  We also did fairly well with the Indiegogo campaign.  We were approached by Indiegogo to do talks about it but had to decline because of the distance.

Wow, too bad you weren’t able to go!  Going back to Nowadays, you used a lot of browns and other somber colours in the art.  Why did you choose that colour scheme?

I’m not big on bright primary colours.  And they don’t suit the tone of the book.  Each panel is made up of different photos with locations between Beardmore and Thunder Bay.  We found places on the highway that looked interesting.  The cars are from the junkyard. There were stores in Thunder Bay and Nipigon. Houses out on the highway. I had to take thousands of photos to find the ones that work.  Then I drew the people in before adding textured layers, filling in colour then tonal layers to match.

Originally we weren’t going to do the book using photos. It was just a test at something different but it looked great.  I thought it would be easier not having to do the backgrounds but it took way longer.

I wasn’t sure about asking people if we could take pictures of their businesses to use in our comic with no compensation.  But Kurt had no problem asking the first time.  After that it was a lot easier, and everyone was great about it.

You also did the art for Victor’s Legacy, which was by Andrew Sookram and Matthew Jowett.  How did you get involved with that?

They were both based out of Winnipeg.  I was living in Vancouver at the time.  I don’t know why I looked at it, but they had a Facebook group or page called Starving Writers. I’d never seen anyone looking for collaboration that way.  Usually you run into people and talk.  Those things don’t usually amount to anything.  But we clicked, and did the comic as short chapters available online, and then we eventually collected the first story arc.  We’ve discussed a second volume.

I hope you guys work on it; Victor’s Legacy was a fantastic read!  Thinking of collaborations, how did you get involved in Comic Book Resources’ ‘The Line is Drawn’?

I’d seen it online and thought it was a good idea.  I sent messages asking how to get involved and they ignored me.  Then last December they were looking to expand their pool of artists.  They had tryouts that were like how it’s done now: here’s an idea and draw it in a week.  Then again.  If you couldn’t do that, you weren’t cut out for it. I made it through.

It sounds like a lot of fun.  Who is your favourite character to draw?

I don’t know if I have a favourite character.  I get bored quickly and like to draw different things and different styles.

That’s fair.  Where did you get the idea for your comic strip, Zygote Bop?

It was part of a bigger idea I came up with years ago.  Part of it was two guys who work in a music store, like how Kurt and I worked in a music store.  The absurdity of working in retail.  But the original idea had Felix as the son of a superhero.  Carl wants to be a superhero and idolizes the dad.  It was going to be a quirky look at superheroes in retirement.  But that didn’t suit the format when it got picked up by the Walleye.

I’m going to keep on it now that it’s not in the Walleye.  But I’m really bad with deadlines.  And I’ve got the new strip, Freak Nuts, too. Both are available at Merkstrips.

Along with comics, you work with paintings, photography, illustrations, t-shirts, multimedia, sculpture, and whatever else you can get your hands on.  What’s your favourite medium to work with and why?

Comics easily.  It’s such an underrated genre and a way of expressing a story as art.  It’s coming into its own now more so.  Thirty years ago adults didn’t read them.  They got to a certain age and stopped.  That’s not the case anymore.

I look at comics as modern mythology.  We pass things on through stories, like religion.  We don’t pass things on through lists very much. It’s just a universal thing to pass along ideas, morals, lessons and information through a story.

What are you working on now?

Another book that I’ve written.  Season of the Dead Hours.  Wrote it awhile ago.  It’s going to be smaller than Nowadays.  Closer to Victors Legacy in size. 100 pages or so.  Black and White.  Dealing more with mythology, magic, etc, among other things.

Good luck with that!  Was there a particular artist who inspired you to draw?

All of them.  There’s a couple that stand out but there’s always that continuing awe of seeing both old and new.

I grew up reading comics and copied the pictures.  Then I went to Lakehead and took Fine Art there.  It opened a whole new world of fine art, the gallery experience, art history.  I did gallery art and comics fell to the side.  Then ten years ago I got back to comics.  It was like returning to what I wanted to do.  And it’s super inspiring now that Independent comics are exploding.

That’s so true.  Is there a particular comic you think everyone should read?

There’s some I would’ve said 5-10 years ago life Jeff Smith’s Bone before it got picked up by Scholastic.  The simplicity of his line.  How he’s able to capture the nuance.  Other than that there’s so many independent comics.

And what are you currently reading?

My comic list.  I’ve never had so many.  I try to weed it out for budget reasons.  But there are so many to read.  There’s a slew of Marvel stuff.  I kind of gave up on DC.  Image comics (Saga being the number one).  Black Science, Paper Girls, Fade Out, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Afterlife with Archie, We Stand On Guard, Conan the Adventurer.

And I love finding books on the history of comics, or biographies of creators. I just finished From Shadow to Light: The Life & Art of Mort Meskin by Steven Brower. I’m a comic geek. Head to toe.

Victor's Legacy cover