Back in November we headed out to LA for our 24th global event CS Los Angeles. While we were there we caught up with artist Gary Baseman who works across various creative fields, including illustration, fine art, toy design, and animation.
How have you got to where you are today?
Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be an artist, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t consider myself one. The other thing I wanted to be when I was a little boy was a stunt man, so if I wasn’t drawing I was usually practicing how to die. The obsession of creation and the obsession of death. I think some of that has stayed with me, when I create I still try to make the effort to do so like I’m creating for the very first time.
I never studied art formally, but I was always the class artist. When it came to college I didn’t want to go to art school because of Art Centre College of Design. My elementary school was across the street from it and as a kid I would walk past every day. I couldn’t relate to the art that I saw come out of that place.
As a child, perfection was old Warner Brothers cartoons from the 30s, for me you could not draw anything better than that. I got into UCLA, majored in Communication Studies and didn’t look back. It represented understanding the theoretical concepts of what communication and persuasion could be.
When I graduated I was scared to death of failing as an artist. I drew all the time but I really had no idea how to transition that into a career. I ended up interning at Chait Day who were the hot studio at that time, so I thought I’d go into advertising. The trouble was I had no real design experience, so I took some night classes.
I believe those conceptual advertising classes combined with this idea of message making that I had in my head played into me becoming one of the best illustrators in the country. Once I’d finished those classes I got my portfolio together and started getting in front of people. I met with Steve Heller at the New York Times, on the third visit he gave me the cover of the New York Times Book Review. He then asked me to create an additional 20 images for that edition. Steve normally only worked with NYC artists so to use me based in LA was an extra accolade.
Off the back of that I moved out to New York and for the next 10 years I created 12 – 20 assignments a month, everything from Time, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, a bunch of ad campaigns, and 2 pilots for Nickelodeon. By the end of that 10 years I had realised that I had too much that I personally wanted to say through my work.
Even though I was drawing in my own style and had my own voice, I needed a new way to get my opinions across through my work. So I started painting, it gave me a new sense of freedom. My friends, painters Mark Ryden and R. Kenton Nelson introduced me to the Mendenhall Gallery and that is where I had my first exhibition.
I’ve been exhibiting and putting on fine art shows for the last 15 years. With that came the sculptures, toys, tv shows and performances that I’ve been involved in. Drawing is still like breathing to me, I’m currently on sketchbook 142.
What have been the biggest influences on you creatively?
Still to this day my favourite animated short is Porky in Wackyland directed by Robert Clampett who just happened to live 2 blocks away from me when I was growing up. It is completely surreal, very Dali-esk, very Three Stooges-esk. For me it was art, beautifully drawn and animated, and really said so much.
I love the story – Porky going into deepest, darkest Africa to find the last Dodo bird, coming up against all these strange creatures that he can barely comprehend. It’s a actually a pretty good analogy of the documentary I’m doing right now about my parents, where I go into deepest, darkest Ukraine during the war to try and find some last remittance of my family, and there is literally no physical evidence or memory of them ever existing. But in someways, I also was looking for the last Dodo bird, with a similar result as Porky.
What is you favourite film?
Momento. I can totally relate to a guy that has no long term memory. I love the ending, it throws up so many questions – is there a purpose? Is it just about the journey? What is truth?
What is you favourite track or album?
Quicksand by David Bowie. I used to sing the lyrics wrong and I actually had an exhibition called ‘Knowledge comes with gas release’ (rather than ‘Knowledge comes with just realise’. It’s such a beautiful song about the futility of man. If I had to describe my art in 1 sentence it would be ‘a celebration of the beauty and bittersweetness of life’ and for me that song perfectly fits with that.
The one thing (not a person) that you could not live without?
What is your That’s Me That Is (piece of work that best represents you)?
Toby. He was created to be the keeper of your secrets. He was created to blur the line between fine art and toy culture. He was created to be an art piece that was used to break down people’s inhibitions; it’s an idea of openness and sharing.
The creative accomplishment that you are most proud of?
At the moment I would say it’s my museum exhibition. I was able to create my childhood home in the middle of the space; I put my parent’s real furniture in there. People could sit in the in the same room that I celebrated birthdays in, they could take selfies on my parents bed. It was really interesting to mix my art with my family memories, and really just letting people know that art is important because it’s about all of us.
The best piece of advice that you’ve ever been given?
The title of my latest exhibition is The Door is Always Open. That’s something that my father used to say to me all the time. I took that advice to mean that we could always make opportunities for ourselves. There is a wall of fear that often holds us back, and knowing that we are the ones who can open up the doors allows us to walk through that wall.