Friday, February 09, 2007

Art Space Talk: Cam de Leon

I recently interviewed artist Cam de Leon. Cam is an American artist who specializes in surreal- darkly fantastic imagery.

Cam created some of the band Tool's early artwork, as well as working as a digital illustrator, doing concept and visual development and character design for the feature animation industry.

He has worked as a digital illustrator for movies such as Ghostbusters, Hook, The Sum of All Fears and Cat in the Hat.

Q. Your father was a piano player and your mother was a singer. Your family, based on what I've read, was very musical. Did that early musical influence help to shape your direction in art?

A. "Probably. I’m not sure it influenced me in any particularly visual way. But my dad was a real stickler for getting your act totally polished before taking it on the road, and believed in a certain amount of showmanship.

This had the effect of making me a hopeless perfectionist, and as a result I’m miserable most of the time. And, since I’m socially awkward and not at all comfortable being the center of any attention, I’d rather entertain by proxy, so visual art seemed a way to handle that. But I played drums first, and love the instrument still…I think I missed my true calling."

Q. You left home at the age of 19 to pursue a career as an artist. Can you tell our readers about those early years?

A. "I had already been making a job of illustration for a few years before that, but as soon as I had some money saved I headed off. I had no portfolio. I just had this clumsy lapful of original drawings and paintings, and started hitting up every art director in L.A. for an interview.

It was hysterical. I grew up in the woods, and had no clue how this stuff worked, but eventually I got the idea that if you want to get jobs, you have to promote the heck out of yourself. Once I got that figured out, I stayed pretty busy, but continued to make things hard on myself by pursuing many other creative avenues in my attempt to make my job more enjoyable."

Q. In the early years you worked as an advertising illustrator. Can you tell our readers about your experiences in that field? Did it help your career as an artist or did it hold you back?

A. "I suppose it depends on how you define career and/or artist. I agree with the notion that integrity does not include the need for approval. So, naturally when you attend the school of hard knocks, gaining experience while serving clients, there’s bound to be some confusion there.

When someone’s paying you to paint something for them, then their approval is the only defining factor in your success. So, though I care a lot that clients are super happy with what I do for them, at the end of any given day "at work" it still feels like I haven’t done a damn thing worthwhile. So, I try and put in some late night hours as often as I can to keep from losing my mind, or what’s left of it.

Regarding experiences in that field: well, in the beginning, I worked utterly absurd hours routinely up all night through weekends and holidays, to hit deadlines, painting on stuff. It was absurdly stressful. And almost every time, I’d have some last-second overnight courier pissed at me ‘cuz he was there to pick the thing up, and I’d have to make him wait while I made the damn shipping crate.

Now, 20 years later, we have the technological advancements of digital data transfer, so I no longer need couriers. But everything else is pretty much the same."

Q. You created some of the early artwork for the band Tool. How did you meet the band? Can you tell our readers about that experience?

A. "I met Adam, working in the make-up effects industry, back in the late 80's. We had a lot of similar influences and interests, so we became friends and hung out a hell of a lot.

About 3 or 4 years later the band came about, so I started right away making images to help with their promotion, at Adam's request. The "wrench" was the first piece I did, to promote their first show. I did that in ink so it would Xerox easily for the flyers, but that sort of set up the look for most of the T-shirt art I did for them later.

Over the years, I’ve done art that’s been used on the covers of their first demo EP, "Opiate", "_nima", "Salival", and the non-US release "Sober/ Tales from the Dark Side", in addition to the art that’s appeared on many products. I also did a great deal of visual and concept development on most of the videos, which included the full body painting of the figures in both "Stinkfist" and "Schism".

It was on these video projects that I got to know my friend Chet Zar, who was in charge of make-up and other physical effects, and has also contributed many of the 3D animated video loops that appear at their live shows. I continued to contribute art and design work, up until around 2002."

Q. You've worked as a digital illustrator for movies such as Ghostbusters, Hook, The Sum of All Fears, and Cat in the Hat. What has it been like working on such films? Can you share some of your experiences with our readers?

A. "Did you get that list from Wiki?? I don’t know who posted that, but it’s not something I tend to call attention to. There’s a bunch of others too but I don’t really mention titles too much, unless somebody’s asked for a resume. But basically, yah, I’ve worked as a visual development, concept, and character design artist for films and animation for the last 9 years or so.

It’s been a lot more fun than advertising illustration, just because you have a chance to really stretch out with a subject or idea, usually in the form of a story. It’s much nicer to try and find the key moment in a sequence, and then express that with the most atmosphere and mood that you possibly can. There are lots that are way better at it than me, but if the project is something cool, I do like it.

I don’t assume that this needs explaining, but for those that don’t know, this type of work is done before a film has gone into production. It is intended to cover as much of the creative visual development of the film, particularly in the case of animation, as possible before the real money starts to get spent.

It’s usually with a small group of artists, and is a real team effort kind of thing, and it’s always tough when one of these gigs is over, cuz you leave these people you’ve gotten pretty close to. But, then you often gang up again, since it’s not that big of an industry, and you cross paths often.

This is the kind of film work I prefer, but I’ve also done matte painting, and some sculpting, and make-up work as well."

Q. Your fascination with New Media turned a simple online portfolio into an art project that you call HappyPencil. Can you tell our readers about that project? Why did you decide to do it?

A. "I realized at one point that I needed an online portfolio, but as soon as I sat down to try and design a site, I fell in love with all the cool stuff that was being done with Flash. But so much of it was graphics based, and I wanted to use the same technology but skin it more with imagery for a more immersive effect. So the site design went nuts and has absolutely no value as a self-promotional tool. But I had more fun putting that together than most things I can remember.

It got bombed in the beginning, and I had to set up a store to try and cover the costs associated with a ton of traffic, and it’s done okay to hold it’s own. It was built with the able help of Liane Polosky who did the very complex programming and assembly, and my friend Lustmord made the amazingly beautiful noises that help make the site feel more like a place than a magazine, which was the goal.

I have so many ideas for it’s development, but I’ve just been too busy to be able to do all the things with that project that I had in mind. I’ll still continue to add stuff to it when I can afford to, but sadly, it’s in a bit of a holding pattern. There’s more to come though."

Q. You have been very influential to many younger artists. Did you ever expect that you would make such an impact on the lives of others?

A. "Really?! Wow, who knew? It’s hard to comment on that cuz I wasn’t aware of it. Naturally, if I’ve had an effect on others, I’d hope it was positive."

Q. How has society influenced your art? Are there any social implications in your art?

A. "Well if, in this case, "society" could be construed to include high school, then yeah, I guess. I was just as much a freak then as I am now, so I did get beat up a lot, and that influenced me plenty.

I realized right then I had no interest in reality whatsoever, and my stuff seems to grow progressively more detached from real things as time goes on. I guess that’s cuz I continue to feel beaten up. But, the upside is that’s kept me hungry and mean, in the creative sense, and I just push on.

As for social "implications": honestly, I’m pretty much expressing my desire to get the hell out of here. So, despite my passionate concern for the condition of so-called "life on Earth", I figure society will be just fine without any of my implications."

Q. Do you have any 'studio rituals'? As in, do you listen to certain types of music while working? What helps to get you in the mood for working?

A. "Let’s see…nothing too fancy; just 3 or 4 hours of yoga, and another couple in deep meditation and I’m good to go. Actually, I’m just lucky to be alive, physically or spiritually. You might as well have asked what gets me in the mood to not work.

What helps get me in the mood to work is fear of what will happen to me if I don’t. If you’ve got anyone other than yourself who depends on you to eat, for example, then hitting deadlines on time becomes more of a priority. But, on most days, a cup of coffee, and knowing that Dawson and the kids are in good shape is about all I need to be able to get focused.

Once there, I do love music, and that helps sustain the space quite a bit. But sadly, I’m finding that the way life is now, I’m interrupted so often that I can no longer get through a whole album, say, before having to jump up and handle something. The by-product of that is, when I get back to it, I forget to push play again. So, I’ve found that I work in relative silence more often than not.

Late nights though, I can pretty much do things my way. So long as I don’t have to be somewhere first thing in the morning, 2am feels a lot like the good old days."

Q. If you could pinpoint the characteristics of people who collect your art, what would they be?

A. "I think they’d probably have to have a sense of humor. Honestly, I have no idea. But I can say this, that whatever they are, I’m grateful for every one of them.

I simply can’t afford to make new art without the kind support of those that find it interesting enough to purchase it. So, considering the very selfish nature of my love of making things, I don’t take the sale of a single sticker for granted. In fact, it might even be said that I feel guilty for it.

So, in a futile effort to compensate for that, I tend to also give a lot of stuff away. With virtually every order from the website, I send some freebies along to show my appreciation. I joke that giving things away for free is the secret to my huge success, but the obvious truth is that it’s a constant struggle to buy the time needed to move projects forward."

Q. Discuss one of your pieces. What were you thinking when you created it?

A. "Well, it’s a bit hard to choose, because I don’t have any particular procedure when it comes to developing ideas. Sometimes I arbitrarily pick something I want to paint, and then put a little time into making up a story or concept that supports that image. Other times, I have something more abstract in mind that I want to convey, and work up symbols that suggest that in an image. But more often stuff just snaps into my head, and I don’t immediately, if ever, figure out where it came from.

I’ll use "Dream.02" (image above) for example, because it seems to address why this is a tough question for me. I tend to be easily overwhelmed by the amount of things to be done every day, leaving very little time left for even thinking about my own art, let alone actually making it. And if too much time like this passes, I start to go somewhat mad. That frustration makes my head get really noisy. This is of course counter-productive to the process of making art.

I had this show coming up, and I wanted to do something new for it, so the noise I referred to was getting louder as the opening grew nearer. Oddly, I was conflicted by having too many ideas and I could not seem to settle down, in the time I had remaining, to commit to any one of them. So, very late one night, totally unable to sleep, I decided to just try and paint exactly what that felt like.

There’s a figure descending on another, in a gesture of offering. It’s glowing with the energy of its message. The dream figure’s visage, always the origination of the dreamer, is somewhat ghastly, though it’s intention seems full of warmth. The dreamer, confused by his own anxieties and therefore unable to recognize a gift once offered, is the victim of his own creation. Seeking comfort, the prone figure attempts sleep as an escape, but the womb-like place he’s imagined remains hard and cold."

Q. Do you have a degree or do you plan to attend school for art? If so, how did it help you as an artist?

A. "Up till now, I’m pretty much self-taught, whatever that means. But, I just started trying to figure out oil paints, and it’s painfully clear that I’m gonna want to sign up for something quick.

There’s nothing obvious to me about that particular medium, and that’s one wheel I’d rather not try and reinvent on my own. I think it would be very helpful to see that demonstrated by some folks who are good at it to hopefully minimize my own time spent flailing. I’m sure I’m going to like it though.

I didn’t go to art school, but I do wish I’d given myself the time to experiment more, and to get some solid instruction in the academics like perspective, anatomy, and color theory, stuff like that. But, the government loan applications were too hard to fill out, and I needed the rent so I just went straight to work.

I do get asked all the time about what art school I recommend, and frankly, I have to warn folks to be careful how they decide. It’s no small amount of money to attend any school, but art school in particular is an expense that can be argued as truly needed. It’s not like a law or medical degree.

Unless you want to go into teaching, the grade point average means nothing. What you’re really buying is the time and freedom to experiment, and take some creative chances. So be prepared to ignore any bullshit criticism that comes at you, and remember that concept and creativity cannot be taught, only encouraged or discouraged.

Definitely pay attention in any courses pertaining to perspective. Trust me, it’ll save you from a world of pain later. Oh, and jam in as many figure drawing, and painting workshops as they’ll let you take."

Q. Why did you choose the medium(s) that you use?

A. "Pragmatics. I’ve only used a handful of mediums, and they were almost always the result of what was needed to work faster. I taught myself to paint with acrylics, using a bit of airbrush, and other odd techniques, and as soon as I had a basic handle on that, I went to work.

Well, I could never justify taking chances on a client’s timeline or budget, so I just stuck with what I knew so I could keep it going. Then as work started to really flow in, there wasn’t any time to experiment with anything new. Same goes with digital.

Around the middle 90’s I landed this job that was pretty lucrative, and took that moment to buy a computer and try and learn Photoshop. Well, I got that figured out just in time, because the workload, and the lifestyle changes that followed would have never allowed for organic materials. But it’s the same thing again. No time to learn new apps, because I’m so swamped doing this now."

Q.Where can we see more of your art?

A. "Well, thanks for asking. Being self-promotionally retarded, I’m actually not all that visible. There’s always But, I have a little book that I published, and I’ve appeared in the Spectrum Annual a number of times.

In L.A. there’s a ton of these group shows going on, and I did the heck out of that sort of thing a year or two ago, and was very dedicated to try and contribute what I could to that scene, or whatever you wanna call it. The stuff I was showing was very well received, and I was starting to get invited into more and more shows, which was very nice.

It’s a ton of work to keep that up, and I found it was cutting into my time to make newer work, so it stopped making sense after a while. Plus, I never quite fit into the whole tattoo, tiki, flaming skull, mud-flap-girl, designer-toy thing. I have enormous respect for many of the artists working in those idioms, and I always wanted to participate, but it’s a very cliquish type of crowd, and I always felt like the kid at the playground with one short leg."

Q. Are you represented by a gallery? Do you have any upcoming exhibits?
A. "Not represented, and nothing coming up right away, but I’ve been showing fairly often at a couple places. Downtown L.A. sports the model of creative symbiotic coexistence, the Hive. It’s run by the mighty Nathan Cartwright, and houses some super cool young talent.

I’ve also been happy to be included in a number of group exhibits at the very hip Gallery Nucleus, in Alhambra, CA. It’s run by the always tasteful Ben Zsu, and is a real breath of fresh air. Ben’s selection of books is one of the best I’ve found in one location, and in his shows he delights in featuring some of the newest talent around.

I also spent the better part of a year showing in the Cannibal Flower events, curated primarily by "L.C." Croskey. That was a lot of fun. There’ve been a few others, but for now, the main thing I focus on is Comic-Con in San Diego. It’s a ton of work but a lot of fun, once you’re there. Hope to make it again this year."

Q. What galleries have you exhibited in? Can you provide links to their sites?

A. "Hive Gallery

L.A. Center for Digital Art

Echo Gallery

Other independent shows held at temporary spaces:

"Chop Shop" at the SanDiego Convention Center/ Comic-Con curated by miQ willmOtt

"Back in the Day" at the L Street Galley curated by Wheaty Wheat Studios

"Creature Features" at White Manor curated by Taylor White

"Chet Zar and Cam de Leon" at Collective Minds Art Gallery curated by Nanci Withee

"Field Of Vision" at Jewl’s Catch One curated by Franck H-Bomb and
The Angelus

"L Salon Show" presented by Deity Group curated by Nathan Spoor

Third Eye Gathering by Barry Krevoy"

Q. What trends do you see in the 'art world'?

A. "I’m sorry. I haven’t been paying very much attention, but there’s certainly no shortage of cute, sad and wide-eyed stuff going around."

Q. Has your work ever been censored? If so, how did you deal with it?

A. "No. Not that I remember. But, I was asked once if I thought that art, could ever go too far, or should be censored and I said no, of course.

How art is interpreted will always be the responsibility of the viewer. If your impressions offend you, then make some more art that expresses your view, but don’t presume to deny others their own impressions.

What offends or annoys me makes a lot of other folks really happy, and the other way around.

Now, propaganda makes an argument, because it's whole intention is to sway opinion, and some of it is very effective. Trouble is, it may well be lying, but I still feel the same way. Just because a bunch of seemingly civilized people used a symbol to rally, and justify mass murder, doesn't make the swastika a less attractive graphic.

Symbols are great for this issue. Take the pentagram, for example. If you painted one of these on the front door of your average Christian home, they'd get back from spreading the gospel and likely freak out. Paint the same pentagram on the side of some hut in the heart of what's left of the Amazon, while the humble inhabitants are out hunting monkeys or whatever they do. They'd get back, not knowing anything of our absurd notions of the Devil, and perhaps be happy and thankful for the damn fine decoration.

Look, you can read a book. That doesn't mean you have to become the book. If someone feels the need to be scared of an image, then who am I to judge? But, don’t impose your fears on the rest of us. So, no, I’m not aware of anything I’ve shown being censored, but if that happened I suppose I’d make a bit of a fuss, on principle."
Q. What was the toughest point in your career as an artist? Have you ever hit rock-bottom?

A. "Funny you should ask, cuz I think I just broke something on the way down."

Q. In one sentence... why do you create art?

A. "To contribute something, and to be happy…I think."

Q. Has politics ever entered your art?

A. "I’m not sure what you mean by "politics". You mean like republicans and democrats, Bush, Cheney, and stuff like that? Or are you referring to the hysterical mess things are in right now, as a result of policies put in place by the all of the above.

For me, politics is the practice of holding differing points of view on a subject, and the subsequent process of swaying opinions of one side or the other. But that process, in its current form, has become little more than who can lie and cheat the best. So forgive my confusion, but if that’s what you mean, than no, I haven’t done any art that conveys my disdain for the behavior of our so-called leaders, yet.

I don’t presume to have the ability to change the minds of folks these days, anyway. There’s so much fear, it’s like trying to take a trap off a poor animal’s foot; you’re still gonna get bit. But, I truly wish I had the ultimate bumper sticker slogan that would end all arguments. I do believe that such a thing exists; it has to.

I get so frustrated with the dumb rationalizations for war. Am I the only one who’s mom told him to stop fighting, and that she didn’t care who started it? It’s like when Bush was little, his mom encouraged him to kick the neighbor kid’s ass or something. But you only have to hear one severely burned Iraqi preschooler’s confused voice crying "make it stop" to a doctor with no medical supplies who knows she’ll die of infection within days to realize this approach will never achieve the stated objective. Whoops! I’m ranting.

Never mind anything I just said. Instead, try this little exercise: First, close your eyes and imagine you’re out in space watching the timeless Earth spinning there silently in the void as it’s done for countless eons. Then, do the same exercise again, only this time with your TV set to CNN Headline News. It all sounds pretty stupid all of a sudden, doesn’t it?"

Q. Does religion, faith, or the lack thereof play a part in your art?

A. "No. I gave all that up after I saw a Thomas Kinkade painting of the white Jesus, you know the one with the white robe and the red sash, and the two-pointed goatee, ushering an entire herd of sheep into the front door of his very quaint and well-lit cottage. Well, I was artistically demoralized. I mean, what more could I possibly add on the subject of spirituality? That just said it all."

Q. Is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the 'art world'?

A. "No. Thank you so much for your very kind interest, and for your thoughtful questions."
I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Cam de Leon. Feel free to critique or discuss his work.
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin


Anonymous said...

I love Cam de Leon. Your site is fabulous, just amazing. Amazing work. I can't say it enough.

Anonymous said...

Cam de Leon was a fantastic interview. Brian asked insightful, thought provoking questions, and Cam answered them beautifully. Nicely done.

Anonymous said...

Cam (because of his own words... "beaten up") reminds me of this kid i hung out with in 5th grade. Everyone thought I was joking with the kid (Don Worley) because he was like 6 feet tall and wore like 8 inch highwaters snd got beat up a lot. I hung out with him because he wrote these westerns, OUT OF HIS HEAD! He would write one every night! I would read them during class and sometimes at lunch, but these things were the best stories I've ever read... to this day! I hung out with Don for the same reason people are drawn to Cam's art even though he isn't comfortable with it and feels like the kid with the short leg, because we recognise genius, and want to just chill and absorb it. Cam rules.

Anonymous said...

Cam is one of my favorite artists and people. With talent like his, it's amazing that he remains so grounded and with no signs of the huge ego that artist's with his level of success can so easily attain.

Thanks for the great interview!

"there’s certainly no shortage of cute, sad and wide-eyed stuff going around."


Unknown said...

Cam is my youngest son and his mother and I never cease to be amazed at his creativity and sensitivity. The only credit we can claim is that when he was young we provided him with the tools and encouragement to fuel his ambition and talent. His description of his 'Dream' series says more than I can contribute. There is so much more to Cam than even his art can say. Gordon de Leon

Anonymous said...

Fantastic interview...I read it here in my studio with 3 cups of coffee and now I am shakey and inspired to paint for the rest of the evening. I feel like I just kindly walked Cam out of my pad after a vibrant conversation! Very cool cat, keep giving us those brilliant nocturnal visions!

Editor in Chief said...

He and Adam were/are best friends, his artwork is all over Tool albums and T-shirts... why is he suing them?

Anonymous said...

He+Adam won't be best friends anymore if adam accused him on trial.

Unknown said...

Cam de leon is my uncle.
it interested me how insightful all of you are to his life and artwok.
i find it quiet fascinating.
h and, him and adam aren't best friends.
i love my uncle, and his artwork will never cease to amaze and inspire me.
-megan de Leon

Anonymous said...

Just decided to look and see who did all the art for tool after like 10 years and found Cam De Leon and read this and some other stuff and wrote a 3 page report on him, he seems like a neat person to be around as well as a very talented artist, it is also interesting to see his father here. i wish my father was interested or involved in my art, Cam is lucky for that...

Jordan de Leon said...

My father is a beautiful minded, humble hearted soul. He desirves the world and more for his hospitality and kindness. Anyone that would try and deny him of work that has all along been rightfully his, to come between his self survival and that of his family doesn't deserve any respect and wouldn't be considered a "best friend" in my book. My dad is absolutely amazing at what he does, and he's the most honest, hard working person I've ever met in my life. He's by far the most inspiring person I've ever been blessed enough to know.

Cam de Leon is a patient, kind hearted, easy going, humble man. I'm stoked he's in my life. I respect, love and adore him.

- Jordan de Leon