January 29, 2011

So A Talented Graphic Artist Walks Into A Bar ...

An Interview with Graphic Artist Steve Dressler

Part 1 of 2 (link to Part 2)
Click on any picture to embiggify to original size

One of my first impressions about
Steve Dressler was simply: ‘wow, this guy is having fun!’ Sure, that leaves a lot open to interpretation about one’s definition of fun, but consider
a) he’s ‘out there’ making a real name
for himself with his quirky yet highly stylized illustrations and other designs;
b) he performs stand-up comedy w
ith, among others, the ultra-hilarious troupe known as ‘The Upright Citizens’ Brigade’ or UCB or UCBW or even just ‘those funny folks down on 26th Street’;
c) and he has an array of talents that he’s only scratched the s
urface of, ranging from photography, sculpture, web design, fine art and more!

Plus, he’s worked with musicians,
writers and other neat folks, plying his trade in two of the world’s most exciting places to be, namely, Green Bay and Pittsburgh. Sorry, what? Oh my bad, that’s the upcoming Super Bowl match-up. I meant to say L.A. and New York!! And if that’s not enough for the cynics out there, he only days ago helped some schlub named Ziggy Nixon ‘tighten up’ his blog header ... and if that’s not a ticket to fame, then I don’t know what is!!

Now before I go any further in scaring you away with my own brand of Grade-Q non-professional humor, let’s dive in and get to know this unique craftsman:


Steve, welcome! Can you tell us a little bit about Steve Dressler please and how he became the interesting man-of-many-trades that he is today?
Its kind of hard to pinpoint exactly how I became this guy, but here goes...

I’ve always loved to draw. My mom was a teacher, so we had plenty of arts and craft supplies in the house. When I was in elementary school, I found that my drawing skills made me special. I sucked at sports, and wasn't super-popular either, so I had to make the most of it. I remember creating lots of drawings as gifts in an effort to make friends. I also put a lot more work into book report covers and dioramas, rather than studying Social Studies or Language Arts.

In addition, my father worked with computers for Bell Labs, so we always had a computer in the house when I was a kid. We never had a Coleco, Nintendo or Sega, we just had a PC. So I played around a lot with layout programs like Print Shop and Print Master. I used whatever the equivalent of Microsoft Paint was on a Commodore 64!

We were even lucky enough to have this Okidata color printer, in an age where that was pretty darn rare. I wish I still had any of those original files or prints, but they're lost to the messiness of adolescence. As I got older, of course, computers got better and so did the programs. I kept playing with those programs like video games. I have vivid memories of spending hours and hours using Photoshop 4.

On top of all that, I collected baseball cards quite seriously. I fell in love with the graphic design (and value) of the vintage cards. I also collected Swatch watches and would spend hours designing my own. Add to that my love of skateboarding culture and all the cool ads in
Thrasher along with some serious graffiti-watching on drives to the Bronx to visit my grandparents. Last, but not least, there was TELEVISION. From Saturday morning cartoons to Saturday Night Live, from Hanna Barbera to SCTV, I have always been in love with most things TV.

I love how many of your pieces are steeped in a retro-/pop-, or as you put it, vintage or old-timey feel! I even found myself thinking ‘hm, so this is the kind of thing Warhol would be doing today if he were still alive’ (oh and loved the
Tale of Two Andy’s pic on your blog [incl. Warhol and Kaufman for those not in the know])! Is this style a target or a particular passion of yours or how has it come about?
It has been both deliberate and subconscious. I remember when I was a kid being aware of Warhol and the Campbell's Soup and Brillo Boxes. I totally "got it" but didn't think it was anything other than a super-interesting guy getting away with appreciating pre-existing things. I truly enjoyed everything he did. His visual language was the same one I could appreciate.

Me? I stared at gas station logos. I looked at the way the printers didn't line up the yellow plate on the box of cereal. I would stare at posters in the butcher window and geek out on the typography and color of ink. And as I got older, I studied the 60's pop movement quite heavily and fell in love with
Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. I really dug Lichtenstein for his skill in actually painting the panels, as opposed to silk-screen, and his sense of humor in choice of imagery stuck with me. Rauschenberg blew my mind with his choices in what defined art. I wouldn't explore that on my own until senior year in college, but I had that idea in my head when I was a teenager.
You’ve referred to your illustration as ‘(creating) images that hold vintage elements while exploring forward thinking design.’ How do you maintain this attitude in your work?
The vintage elements are built into my visual vocabulary. I've always had an affinity for antiques and ephemera. I can walk down a city street, see some old tattered box in a dumpster, and happily walk away with a piece of the paper label. Later I'll translate what I get from that scrap, using color and typography to help tell a story.

The "forward thinking" part comes from my desire to infuse a bit of wit and pathos into whatever the end product's ultimate message is.

Can you describe how pop culture, current events or even other cultural icons influence not only your art but your daily ‘philosophy’ about life and, um, stuff?
I celebrate pop culture for all it’s bubble-gum aspects. I love that we are a visual culture. I love that we are voyeurs and narcissists.

The problem is that I see pop culture as recent as 15 years ago as a whole lot more charming and steeped in subcultures and phenomena. Musicians could still be somewhat ugly. Paparazzi photos were limited to the supermarket checkout counter. Looking at the world today, it just seems like a big commercial for about 5 or 6 corporations at times. It’s a lot different. That may be why the culture of today looks backwards so quickly. Things are getting confusing. 24 hour news cycles leave no time for posterity.

Somewhat tangential, yet an interesting perspective on pop culture: my brother went to Brown University in the early 90's. I would visit him and see Providence, Rhode Island all covered in ‘Andre The Giant’ stickers. I collected all the logo parodies I could peel off lamp-posts and phone-booths. In fact, in 1998 I did my term paper on Shepard Fairey for a Public Art class at Parsons. Through a chain of a few people I was able to trade a couple of phone calls and care packages with Shepard.

The gist of my paper had a lot to do with his creation of a recognizable mascot that held no real meaning. By this time, Shepard had started the Obey branding and was starting to pull jobs from much bigger clients. Fast forward to the present: Shepard is one of the most notable artists of the 21st century. He's great. He literally branded Obama. The similarities in what he did for OBEY and HOPE are exactly what pop culture is about.

How's that for philosophy? Meh.

Comedy obviously plays an important role in your life. How has performing live on stage or even in front of the camera affected your art approach? How about that in reverse (let’s try this: how has your art affected your comedy? Hang on... yeah, that looks right)?
That's two different questions. Let's see...

1) Performing comedy has affected my art by instilling in me a freedom to explore whatever I enjoy. With improv comedy, you trust you and your partner's choices and work towards finding resolution. I guess that philosophy has carried over into my art.

The difference between a blank page and an empty stage is the audience. Most times its easier to approach an empty stage!

2) My art has affected my "comedy" in a couple of ways. I have done a number of bits based around my parody Photoshop work. For example, in one bit I did a monthly talk show loosely centered around hipsters, where I stood onstage and took the role of a court sketch artist during the performances. I doodled the topics of conversation and punch-lines of the guest stand-ups. That was probably the closest marriage of the two.

I also did a speed-painting sketch one time that started as a portrait of Ray Charles but resulted in a portrait of Hitler.

The use of parody is obviously important to both your comedic and your design endeavours. However, is there in your mind a limit for how far particularly an illustrator should go with parody before it becomes something done in bad taste?
Bad taste is a question to be answered by the audience. I've never felt weird about doing taboo topics, but I use my own moral compass to navigate the touchy stuff.

I guess my most controversial image so far has been my Stephen Hawkman photo mash-up. I got some mixed feedback, but I don't think it was in poor taste. It doesn't comment on his handicap, other than recognizes that he has one. It’s a visual pun, but some people think it was a far darker commentary on something important. It’s not. His name is Hawking. I made him Hawkman.

Just curious, but what is the funniest thing you think you’ve ever seen or heard and why? (btw: I really hope it’s not that
cyclist up on the roof of the news car... how did you wind up with that project anyway?)
I wouldn't even know how to start picking the funniest thing. I can say that I have laughed to the point of tears more times at the UCB than I ever thought possible. The caliber of talent that I have seen on that stage boggles the mind. Now a lot of those people are starting to be on TV and in the movies. I feel lucky to have seen them in such a raw environment. That being said, you can never go wrong with a chimp dressed up in costume. And then the chimp farts. Comedy gold.

As for the
Gawker image, I started a relationship with them in 2008 after answering a request for a New York Post mock-up. Since then, I have had an on-going relationship with Gawker and its sister sites. It’s a great challenge to do work for them. The turnaround is usually really quick and their readership is very receptive to good graphics.

Continued in Part 2

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