November 15, 2008

It’s Not His Fault That So Many People Like His Work

An Interview with Jesse Parrotti by Ziggy Nixon

Jesse Parrotti is a San Francisco-based designer, illustrator, and painter who has been gathering quite a lot of attention over the past couple of years. Fans from across the globe have been eager to spread the word about his unique style that combines elements of past influences with techniques of the present day.

Whether you’ve seen his work as an illustration, a playbill, a poster, a logo, an album cover or even printed on a tee-shirt, Jesse’s style will definitely catch your eye. One thing that you have to admit about his work is that it’s just plain fun to sit and stare for a while at the images and let your mind wander.

And whether his work makes you think back to the early 1900’s, the late 1960’s or even a future or reality yet to be defined, that’s okay with him. The stories Jesse weaves with his art open the gateways to just about anywhere you want to go.

Ziggy Nixon is happy to have caught up with this young talent to discuss his art and influences:

Jesse, from the brief snippets about your education and career I’ve been able to find, I see that you graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Ohio University in 2004, and afterwards worked with the Berkeley Repertory Theater, sorry, Theatre in San Francisco.

Just to be overly nosy, how did you find yourself moving from Ohio to San Francisco for a design career? Why didn’t you look to find something either overseas or even more foreign than that, say, in New York City?
San Francisco, or better said, the Bay Area, was not my only choice of places to move after college. I just knew I wanted to get out of Ohio. Don’t get me wrong: I love where I grew up and went to school, but after living there for so long… Well, I wanted to move on.

So I just started applying to any design jobs I could find in a couple different areas I would want to move to, the Bay Area being one of them. It ended up being the place that I got my first job. Actually it was an internship to be accurate.

Jesse, just about every entry I found for you in the past months lists you as someone who, quote, ‘creates work that looks like it’s both from the future and a throwback to 60s psychedelia.’ Another blurb that I disagreed with was ‘Jesse Parrotti’s style can only be described as groovy.’ I’m just curious if these descriptives are in line with your own vision of your work?
I’m ok with those descriptions I guess. I like to think my work goes a bit beyond the realm of the psychedelic, but I’m certainly not opposed to that description.

I do like it that people might see it as a mixture of the past and future.

Do you worry about getting typecast with such buzz lines floating around the web? Like ‘oh, if you want something groovy and psychedelic, just call that Parrotti guy!’
I’m not really worried about being typecast. I think, unlike an actor, a visual artist can change their style at any time without any resistance; you just need to make it happen. It’s really whether people will like your new work or not. There will always be people that you alienate and others that you bring into the fold.

I hope as my style evolves, people will say, ‘oh, check this new shit out, way to change it up’. I certainly don’t plan on doing the same exact thing over and over.

What are your main inspirations, including current or past influences?
There are a ton of things that inspire me to make art. I think one of the biggest though, is just my love of building new worlds, creating stories. It’s fun as hell. Being able to make up anything at all, and then make a little story out of it, in the form of an image. To me that’s really gratifying, even if no one else really understands what the story means.

People can make up their own stories for the images I make, that’s okay, too.

I love to try when I’m first exposed to an artist’s works to imagine what may have influenced their work or what they might enjoy in life that supports their creative process. These are some of my first impressions that your work brought to my own mind (tiny as it may be) –
· First of all – and this may just be because I’ve become enamored with his work since recently watching the extended ‘
Pan’s Labyrinth’ DVD for the first time as well as viewing an on-line interview with him – would be the creations of director Guillermo del Torro, who is also the director of the ‘Hell Boy’ movies (with a nod to Mike Mignola’s unique imagery in the original comics featuring same). This comes across strongly for me in this image that you’ve also chosen as your background for your website, which is perhaps my favorite so far of your images;

· Secondly – and pretty obvious really – would be a selection of my old Beatles’ and/or Hendrix LP covers (ZN recommends coupling Jesse’s work with ‘
The Wind Cries Mary’ or ‘Little Wing’ for the full sensual ride);

· I sense in addition a pretty strong affiliation to science-fiction in general (less Frank Herbert and more Asimov or especially Heinlein and Bradbury). Also, without giving away too much about our age difference, I see some of Ralph Bakshi’s imagery and especially background detail from his film ‘

· Finally, there seems to be a bit of
Alphonse Mucha in your works, particularly in the kind of (I hate to use this term, sorry) art deco backgrounds that occasionally appear. For example, this really came across to me in your piece ‘Grimwood Son’, shown here.

Now after that long bit of bloggy rambling (no worries, it’ll get tightened up if this makes it to a real web-site): Which of these fit in with your own tastes or inclinations and which are just way off base in your eyes?

Everything you mention here is pretty close. I really enjoyed the imagery from Pan’s Labyrinth. I’m not sure it had any direct inspiration on me, but it’s definitely something I like.

I’m also a huge fan of the science fiction genre. I definitely include sci-fi on my short list of inspiration. I have seen Wizard’s, but it was a long time ago, I should probably check it out again soon.

In terms of Alphonse Mucha, yeah, I love his work. Certainly it’s kind of played out in a way. I mean he’s one of those artists you always see on calendars and silly little fake vintage posters. But I really love his high level of precision and craft. You just know he spent a lot of energy on each piece. It’s not his fault that tons of people like his work.

What led you to favor an approach that features primarily classical illustration and/or painting techniques, including watercolor, acrylics and even markers (correct or did I miss some?)?
I really just work in those mediums because of my limited workspace. I plan on getting myself a proper studio soon and will most likely be branching out into bigger and, perhaps most importantly, messier mediums.

How has your design process evolved over time?
I think my work has gotten a lot more organic, less structured.

The aforementioned ‘Grimwood Son’ was not just watercolor on paper, but was in addition digitally inked. How does this combination of techniques work?
Basically, I do a normal pencil drawing then I color it with acrylic and/or watercolour. Finally, I scan it at high resolution and ink it with a
wacom tablet. Pretty basic.

How much work do you do with computers to compliment your art?
Not a lot right now, other than digitally inking some pieces. I am experimenting with certain digital processes and applications and will certainly be utilizing them more in the future.

Have you even considered working exclusively with computer-based illustration techniques or do you wish to keep at least part of the hands on aspect?
I really love working digitally. But it will never really replace a pencil and paper for me.

Like I said, I do see myself working more digitally in the future, especially for paid client work. It’s so much easier to make edits and changes; really stuff you just can’t do in the real world.

But when I am working on a personal piece, it really means something to me to have it in my hands as an object, a touch-able thing, and not just a digital file. This makes it a bit more personal. Even when working digitally, I usually start with a scanned drawing anyways. That will never go away I think.

I’ve really enjoyed looking at your pieces and trying to de-construct if you will how they come to be, from the first sketched line and/or drop of paint. I’m curious therefore if you start with an image already in mind or does a piece sometimes develop outward from some first part of the picture?

To put it a different way, which comes first, the sketches or the color or have you started works coming from both directions (I hope that didn’t sound too weird or offensive)?
Usually I just get an idea for a scene or character, and just start building from there. Sometimes ideas are more fleshed out before I start, and sometimes they are not. Other times I just let my hand move and see what happens.

Some of your pieces almost strike me as an amalgamation of often dissimilar images (whoa, that bordered on sounding intelligent, noting I’m writing this with my thesaurus open). Is that intentional or are do you sometimes aim to include seemingly disparate images in order to tell a deeper, even more mysterious story?
Usually my pieces tell a story. But I like the idea that anyone can look at it and come up with there own narrative.

So many other inputs on the web in the past months have featured your work ‘Magician’s Triumph’. Again, a fantastic piece of work but I also find myself wondering how these often ethereal (bingo, this is how I would describe your work!), yet spiritual, political or even romantic images fit together?
Yeah, for me that piece is really about conquering god as a practitioner of magick, becoming your own god. I think that it really tells that story. But again, it might be totally different for someone else and that’s cool.

Was design for you a life-long ambition or did you decide later on that it was attractive owing to the flexible working hours and lack of heavy lifting?
Well, I always knew that I wanted to make images for a living. I just didn’t really know what form it was going to take. I kind of still don’t.

There was kind of a moment when I began working as a freelance illustrator and designer, I think 6 months or so into it, when I said ‘wow, I guess I’m making a living at this’. I still don’t really feel like I am settled into one area or another in regards to how I make a living.

But for me, I don’t ever really want to settle into a career, which I guess is why I chose to work freelance; all the variety, a bit of mystery and enough stress to keep me on my toes.

Jesse, what does the phrase ‘pushing the envelope’ mean to you, and specifically how do you think you’ve already done that or will try to in the future?
I don’t really know if I have ‘pushed the envelope’ or not. I guess to me it just means being on the avant garde of what is happening around you. I don’t even know if that is my goal or not. Certainly I want to keep progressing as an artist and person. Whether that qualifies as pushing the envelope, I’m not sure.

I think maybe everyone is trying to accomplish that, that is, pushing the envelope is really just current mainstream culture. Most people are doing it in one way or another, or at least trying to.

Obviously, exposure is important to any artist or designer. You’ve had an interesting collection of different showings that I’d like to get your insight on (in no particular order):

You participated in the ‘
Toil & Trouble’ event in June 2007, which was listed as an exhibition and fund-raiser for the film ‘Story about a Witch’ (how cool, I have never heard of a fund-raiser for a film!). How did that work out for you?
It was ok, just a little one night show. I actually didn’t sell any of the three pieces I had in there, so you know…

But there was free wine, so in the end, it worked out pretty good!

The band ‘Innaway’ seemed to be pretty impressed with your album cover, saying it was ‘so cool that we pressed a two song single onto 12’ vinyl just to enhance the cover art.’ How has your working relationship with this band or other musicians worked out?
Innaway is a great group of guys, and
their music is phenomenal. I have a great relationship with them and am currently working on the cover for their next album. And sure, when the set-up is right I’m happy to work with other bands, too.

I was also fascinated to see your work featured in of all places as part of the invitation to the recent ‘
Jack the Ripper 2008 Conference’ that was held this year in Knoxville, Tennessee. Is this kind of weird for you (what do these people possibly do together?) or is any exposure = good exposure for a rising design star?
Ha, yeah. I did a book cover for this annual magazine about Jack the Ripper; apparently he has a big following. But you’re right, I’m happy to have the exposure plus I’m still alive and all.

Looking perhaps even further back in your development, I see you were invited to participate in ‘
PEEP!’ that not only helps Bay Area artists get their works shown but also I believe supports arts in general for public education in this area. Was this your first serious exhibit?
That was a while back. It was a good show; I definitely got a lot of exposure from that. It was probably my first real showing of work.

Recently, you’ve had a good deal of success with your work designing tee-shirt motifs, including for the company
Deeper Shades of Soul – more commonly known as ‘DSOS’ – among others (e.g. Zoo York or Von Zipper). In fact, you mention that some of your designs will soon be featured in shirts and accessories offered across the nation at a ‘major brand-name clothing store’.

How does it feel to see your work offered in such a way?
I’m ok with it; I mean it certainly is and will continue to be a decent amount of exposure as long as the prints are out there.

In terms of business, is this lucrative in terms of earnings for you (like a commercial jingle, do you get a % of each tee-shirt sold)? Or is it a one-off licensing deal?
Nah, I just got paid to do the artwork, the company owns the rights.

How involved are you in the actual larger-scale production of these prints? Just as an example: let’s say someone wanted to change the basic color scheme of one of your designs. Do you then have the right to scream ‘no way’ or how does it work exactly?
For the DSOS work, yeah, I worked very close with the production. I even spent a lot of time travelling to Indonesia to actually manage a lot of the sample production.

For other jobs, I usually just do the design and then it is out of my hands. I like being involved in all aspects when I can though. I think it is important to know how things are made, things we buy.

On the other hand, do you have any mixed feelings about going more ‘mainstream’, even wondering if any of your friends would tease you about ‘selling out’?
That kind of thing does not really bother me. Plus most of my friends are sell-outs so there’s little chance I’ll be an outcast ;)

The fact is, everyone has to make a living; well, not everyone, but most people. And if you are not lucky enough to be independently wealthy, then you have to work.

But I still consider myself very lucky because I do something I love and make enough cash to pay rent. Some folks live a lifestyle where they never have to ‘sell-out’ or even work for that matter, but again, usually those people have rich parents.

Your main media have focused on using paper and also managing to get your works onto textiles (or as one blogger recently put it ‘Jesse puts his semi-psychedelic, bold yet soft images on anything he can get his hands on’). I also see in your portfolio that you’ve worked on logos, swing tags, web design, and various hard-copy materials particularly for your work with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (is that enough plugs for them yet?).

And now the actual question: what media have you not yet worked with or worked with extensively that you’d like to try more with in the coming moons?

I’m super excited to start doing some oil painting. Also, I have recently been exposed to working with spray cans, I have some friends who paint graffiti and it’s really enticing.

How do you see your work developing in the coming years? Is your target to remain more illustration focused or to branch out further into the general ‘design’ field?
I definitely see myself moving more solidly into illustration actually. I love good design, and it complements good illustration. But I really just love drawing pictures.

Where do you see design in general – in all its shapes, forms and incarnations – heading?
That is a good question, and I really don’t know. It seems like there are really no rules, or at least fewer rules with less and less restrictions. I’m just not sure where that will take design.

Finally, what IS the joke about the 3 midgets and you (noting there are lots of other listed ‘
Movie Night Members’ which one could eventually track down and ask)?
Man, you really googled the shit out of me. Movie Night was a thing me and my friends did back during High School in Ohio. It had quite a big following; sometimes we’d have up to 20 of us at a movie night.

Basically, it was just a bunch of teenage jerks watching the worst movies we could get our hands on, consuming way to much caffeine and generally causing trouble before and after the movie. Nothing too special.

As for the midgets, man, I honestly don’t remember that one; it was probably something completely absurd.

Insert here - free space for any advertising you want to do:
I have a new shirt coming out through
Friends United Network, a group where I’ve sold some other stuff before as well. It should be out soon, so keep checking back. I’m also working on getting my on-line store up and running (don’t buy anything yet, it’s just in the test phase!).

And as always your readers can always check out my
website for my latest updates and work! Give me a shout if you see something you like or have an idea for something I can do for you!


All images are full copyright of Jesse Parrotti, including for commercial items, and are used exclusively for this article (or licensed reprints of same) by kind permission. No further usage of these images is permitted without full written consent of Jesse Parrotti and the Commisioner's office of Major League Baseball.

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