The DART Interview: Jason Holley

By Peggy Roalf   Friday July 12, 2019

Peggy Roalf: Which came first, the pen or the brush?

Jason Holley: It has to be drawing, right? When you’re a kid and you pick up your mom's lipstick and draw all over the cat, well… that is as primal as it gets. Painting for me is more socialized and cerebral, and it requires so many more steps, extra gear etc. Drawing is as direct as you can be—it’s like a seismographic representation of your nervous system, from root to stem—doing it keeps me in a visceral, emotional place and I love the abandon of it (although I’ve moved on from cats).    

PR: Please describe your work process—is most of your work done directly, or do you also use digital media as well? 

JH: The first (and maybe most important) thing I do is spend a lot of time working out ideas—which get turned into four or five sketches that are as different as I can make them. The paintings are done in acrylic and oil on paper. All the main parts are painted separately and cut out with scissors or an Xacto knife and then glued into place, removed, repositioned re-glued, repaired, re-painted and on and on until it reaches a kind of ‘just barley balanced’ point—that’s when it feels done to me. 

After they are published, some paintings are dismantled and their parts are recycled into other paintings and some paintings are left complete. The work is photographed, so it ends up as digital file but otherwise I haven’t found much use for a computer in my painting process. Computers only do what you tell them to do, which I find a little tedious (I’d rather just do it myself and cut out the middle man). But, more importantly, there are no consequences to working digitally: you can save everything or delete anything, so there are no mistakes, nobody gets hurt and I find that kind of boring. The motion work I’ve been doing lately is a different animal, and I absolutely could not do it without digital tools, photography and editing, so even though most of the animation is analog, I spend plenty of time staring at screens these days.

PR: What are some of your creative inspirations—artists, music, literature, culture in general—that you draw from in your work?

JH: When it comes to art and culture I am a total omnivore, obsessive and mercurial—slutty almost. I love plenty of the obvious expected stuff, but the things I consciously invite into my work tend to be weirder or from the cultural margins—things that I imagine no one else is all that interested in—wiring diagrams, heavy metal lyrics, ikebana …the list is too long. 

PR: Hand lettering and typography figure largely in your work. Could you tell the readers how you became enchanted with this art form; your process in making these characters become characters in the visual story you are telling; and how does this practice inform your teaching? 

JH: As an illustrator, I might just be hardwired to nerd-out over the relationship of image to text. When I was a student (late 80s), I was looking at a lot of work by Raymond Pettibon, Barbara Kruger, Jean Michel Basquiat, Ed Ruscha, all of whom had a really different take on how language can inform or activate images and vice versa—the tension you can create between them can be so powerful. But when it comes to the physical form of the letters, I like to use them as a contrast to all of the organic activity in my paintings—as a hard-edge disruptor, a word can be visually / formally powerful as well. 

PR: I noticed, in the section of your website “Videos and Low-Fi Experiments,” that you seem to have built a branch of your practice in which seemingly “rough and ready” –you might say “unworldly” characters reign. As if, “You can take the boy out of Texas but you cant take Texas out of the Boy?” Could you speak to this “personality” at work within your work? [second question within the question: Yet these characters are not at all unworldly—is this a “Deus Ex Machina” for your deeper concerns? 

JH:  Well, my relationship to Texas is a complicated one. I suppose I would have to undermine the romanticism of your question a bit and say that ‘rough and ready’ would not be the words I would use to describe my experience of growing up around Dallas —systemic racism, violence and homophobia’ is much more what I witnessed as a boy, and yes, it definitely left an indelible mark on me. 

The animations have been really interesting to make because of the ‘unworldly-ness’ you mentioned, and they pack a very different punch than the still images I make. Maybe it has something to do with the quality of time, and by extension, the narrative that is inherent in the process that pulls you into the reality of those worlds. Rarely do you see anyone scream, laugh or cry in front of a painting, but they do it at movies all the time (even bad ones!). I think it has something do with a kind of surrender that happens when we watch a story unfolding, even with a 10 second GIF, and somehow we are willing to make ourselves emotionally available to ideas that, if they were static images, would probably have far less impact. The attitude and ‘personality’ that runs through them feels consistent with everything else I make, and there is absolutely a reflection of me in there (sometimes, I am actually in them), but I hope that once I put them out in the world, other people can relate to them in their own way—that’s the goal anyway. 

I’ve never been one to worry about the stuff I don’t know how to do—I’m happy to figure it out as I go along, and come up with my own solutions for things, so the ‘rough and ready’ jankyness is part of my general approach to everything. To the other part of your question, I use the device of violating the reality or logic of my illustration (moving or still) quite a bit, it grabs your attention as well as reminding you that you are not looking at a fantasy world, that it’s a statement about what’s going on right now. 

 PR: I also saw a subject heading, complete with hand lettering title, “Woulda…Coulda…Shoulda” that echoes a piece from long ago that was included in the 1991 edition of American Illustration Is this an undercurrent that occupies your thoughts that you might shed light on?

JH: Where did you see that? My art director wife is super concerned that there is a runaway subject heading on my web site! That painting your referring to is the one that was published in American Illustration.  I was asked to make a piece that illustrated the year 1991, but I was completely preoccupied by current events—this was during the US invasion of Iraq. So I made a laundry list of people, places, things that would have been good to have gotten rid of at the time. Now the list seems almost quaint. But no, the notion of ‘would’a should’a ‘ does not occupy my thoughts at all—like I mentioned before, I like consequences and dealing with messy evolving situations. I don’t spend any time wringing my hands over what ‘could’a ‘ been. 

PR: Do you keep a sketchbook? If yes, how does that contribute to your work process? If yes, does this figure in with your travels?

JH: No, I don’t work in sketchbooks—they remind me of tombstones, where ideas go to be buried and forgotten (or visited only on special occasions). Making art is such an interior process for me and it can be a little isolating or anti-social even, so when I travel, I rarely make art or take pictures—I don’t want a record of what happened, I want to have an experience in real time. 

PR: I noticed you have brought animals—from dogs to vicious wildlife—into your art. What is there about drawing animals that appeals to you?

JH: When I started my career, most illustration was figurative—usually an anonymous white guy in a suit holding a piggy bank or whatever—and I just didn’t have any emotional attachment or reaction to those images. I wanted to use a subject that I could empathize with but also left some room for the imagination, like the way Leo Lionni would illustrate a story with characters made of geometric shapes and it was still heartbreaking.   

In the context of a magazine article about…lets say: internet privacy—animals are going to be understood immediately as metaphors. It demands a little effort from the reader to piece together the connection of the image to the story, but I think that allows someone a way to become invested and curious before they have even read the headline. I started using a lot birds in my work after I met my wife who is a birder, and I was trying to get her to fall in love with me.

PR: Please describe your workspace and how it contributes to the illustrator’s basic condition of working alone.  

JH: We bought the house next door to the house we live in and that is where I work. The commute is unbeatable, and my wife maintains a magical garden I get to walk through every day. I removed a few walls, tore out the kitchen and 90% of the bathroom to make it more functional as a workspace. There are usually five or six different projects going on simultaneously—currently I’m building a guitar amplifier, re-habilitating a tiny upright piano from the 1930s, working on several paintings and sculptures and helping my wife build a display unit for a show she is involved in. There is just the right amount of chaos at the moment. 

PR: How do you know when the art is finished—or when to stop working on it?

JH: Short answer: The Clock tells me its done.

PR: Do you use photographic reference materials very much? If yes, how do you avoid the pitfalls that can arise when working from reference? 

JH: Yikes! What are the pitfalls? I use tons of photo reference. But, I don’t have the patience or skill to copy a photo with any accuracy, so maybe that keeps me out of trouble? 

PR: If you could live and work anywhere, where would that be—and why? 

JH: I think whatever is going on in my life, and wherever I happen to be will find its way into to my work in some manner—which is cool, but I don’t pine for some ideal locale. I’ve worked in a lot of different places, and within five minutes they look and feel exactly like my setup at home—I can’t escape myself.

PR: What would be your dream job—the one thing you have always hoped for in an assignment? 

JH: For me, I think it would be more about the people than the assignment. The longer I do this job, the more I value the opportunity to work and collaborate directly with extraordinary people outside of our design community. So in no particular order:
.—Create the visual identity for LA County Natural History Museum
—Work with Richard Dawkins on an illustrated book about evolutionary biology
—Create all the imagery, and set design for a musical that Nick Cave writes and directs based on Cormac McCarthy’s, Blood Meridian. —Create an animated series based on the writing of MFK Fisher, Johnathan Gold and Anthony Bourdain 
—And, yeah, of course… a New Yorker cover.

Jason Holley is a Texas-born illustrator, educator, and exhibiting artist living in Los Angeles. He served on the board of directors for Icon8 and Icon9. Since 1997 He has been a member of the faculty at Art Center College of Design, where he is an associate professor.
Current/ upcoming events:
The animated video for Josh Ritter’s single, ‘I Still Love You (Now and Then) was recently released

Ill be doing a show at Hey There Projects in Joshua Tree CA, October 12th.  

My band Ukefink is currently recording a new record which should be finished sometime in the next 25 years.