Beautiful.bizarre had the pleasure of interviewing Oakland artist John Casey. He paints, draws, and sculpts awesomely strange characters that transcend all logic and reality. These absurd characters beg to be sympathized with, emotionally connected with, and ultimately understood. These morphed characters are vastly interesting creations with melancholy, whimsical, and/or deeply psychological stories to tell. John purposefully leaves an open narrative, allowing audiences to fill in the blanks. The result of his time in the studio is pieces that are multi-dimensional, humorous, compelling, and simply cool. The zany, eclectic nature of his work comes off as a distant cousin of Wayne White’s puppets, sculptures, and illustrations.
Below you’ll read about John’s relationship with Oakland, California, and his connection to the local art scene and fellow artists. He expands on his breadth of talent in many mediums, as well how he locks down ideas while having a chaotic creative mind.
So John, how would you describe your work?
I guess I am an oddball character creator who leans toward the surreal and absurd. Basically, I try to draw, sculpt or paint characters that are emotionally interesting to the viewer. They can come across as amusing, frustrated, or under duress. I try to keep the character’s narrative open so that viewers will be engaged enough to continue the visual story in their own mind. My beings, or people, tell me stories as they themselves are created. But my personal interpretation of my work is pretty fluid. I work intuitively as much as possible.
How does residing in Oakland affect the type of work you make? How do location and the people/art scene you are surrounded by inspire you? Also, tell us more about the Oakland art scene.
I’ve lived in Oakland for 17 years now. This place has a tremendous amount of creative energy and creative people. Seriously, I think there are more artists per capita outside of Brooklyn, or maybe more per capita. Between Oakland and San Francisco, and San Jose, there’s always great art to see and experience. Oakland has its own unique scene of course. There has always been an underground art scene here but since Oakland Art Murmur emerged in 2006, there are more galleries than ever before. Art Murmur is huge now with a big crowds coming out for gallery openings on First Fridays. It’s almost too big, a victim of its own success. But there’s so many happenings going on within and outside of Art Murmur that raw art energy still persists. I collaborate with a number of Oakland artists and I participate in live art events and drawing groups. Practicing art in your studio can be isolating at times, but here, you can connect with a lot of like-minded creative folks. There’s tons of support for artists.
You sculpt, paint, draw, and do paper cutouts. Is there anything you can’t do? What medium do you enjoy the most?
Ha! I’d say drawing will always be my favorite. I was a painting major in art school but that wasn’t my true medium I feel. Drawing is really challenging, creating something from nothing. Painting has those qualities, but the mark-making of drawing is very physical. Sometimes when I am drawing something with texture, like hair, or skin, or clothing, I don’t really draw it true to life. I feel it through the pen or pencil. It’s very tactile. I work in many mediums simply because I enjoy it. I may have an idea of a thing to make, and sculpture may be the best path. Or painting, or a costume. I’d love play with animation or film in the future. Who knows? That may happen.
What is your favorite part of being an artist?
Feeling purposeful. Aside from being married my awesome wife, making art is the most validating thing do on a daily basis. Which is ironic since art will be the first thing to go during the zombie apocalypse. You know it’s coming. But in the meantime, art sustains me mentally and emotionally.
Your wife is also an artist. Do you two work together? What are your experiences with being an artist couple?
Mary and I have worked independently from each other as artists for years. Some time ago, Mary began writing fiction. We came up with this collaborative project idea to do a “call and response” with her writings and my drawings. In some combinations, Mary would write a story or poem, and I would draw in response. Or I would present her with a drawing and she would write an accompanying story or poem. It was a cool project and we both were happy with the results. We published a book titled “Call & Response”. We’re considering doing a similar project in the near future. Too bad, it took so long to collaborate but I think the time had to be right for that kind of back and forth.
Can you tell our Beautiful.bizarre readers about your process? How do you get inspired? What is your studio like? How do you go about creating?
My studio is surprisingly neat and organized. Things can get a little chaotic when I’m in the middle of a big project but I find some order in my workspace balances the chaos in my mind. My studio isn’t big, probably under 200 square feet. I have a sculpting table and a drawing/painting table. If I’m working on bigger project I have a folding table I put up in the center of the room. Ideas sort of creep into my mind when I am not in the studio. I could be taking a shower or drinking coffee and get an idea. So I don’t immediately forget it, I email myself the idea. Usually just a few cryptic words, since the ideas are fleeting like a ghost, both seen and unseen. Sometimes I read these email messages from myself later, and I’m like the “what is this?”
Your work is undeniably, awesomely odd. When/how, did you decide to go this direction instead of down a more traditional path?
Oh, thank you. I have always been attracted to making weirdos or oddball critters. Drawings that my mom saved from when I was just starting to draw show that I had an obsession with the figure at an early age. The people in these drawings reveal my fixation with skulls, teeth, spirographic eyes, and invented body parts. At some point early on, I thought the world would be amazing if people could express their emotions physically my morphing their bodies. It would be part curse, part superpower. Recently I’ve been calling this fantasy “emotional biomorphology.” That premise gives me a big strange playground.
What contemporary artists still working and creating inspire you?
There are way too many to name. So many talented folks out there today, are working so hard. Instead, let me go with an artist I recently discovered from the past. I was drawing cats a while ago, and I kind got obsessed with tabby cats especially. My wife and I have two tabbies and they are really like little people in fur suits to me. Several friends told me to check out Louis Wain. Wain was a Victorian illustrator who drew these fanciful cats behaving like people, dressed in people clothes and living human lives. Anthropomorphized animals were a common Victorian motif. Historians believe Wain may have developed schizophrenia later in life. His paintings and drawings evolved from these playful cat people works into these bizarrely colorful and energized psychedelic felines. They almost break down into fractal patterns. Psychedelic art in Victorian times. Really quite amazing stuff, even if its source is dark.
When was creativity first integrated into your life and when did you know you were going to pursue a creative career?
Really from the very beginning. My mom is a nurse and my dad was a cop. As far as I know, I am the first practicing artist in my family. My parents have been very supportive of my art making since I was able to hold crayons. I think they knew that it was something I had to do. Something I was compelled to do. My dad died in 1993. He once said to me that I was either a genius or completely nuts. He knew my art was unique and important to me, even if he didn’t understand it. My mom has recent works of mine hanging in her house. She’s a proud mom. Both of my parents taught me a lot about being open to the world. They may not be artists, but they both inspire me in many ways. I’m sure that sounds corny but it’s true.
What’s next for you?
I am finishing up work for my solo show titled “Okay, Not Okay” that opens November 27th at Galerie Polaris in Paris. That show will feature new drawings and a few sculptures. I’ll be attending the opening there, then heading to Hamburg for the “Don’t Wake Daddy X” group show at Feinkunst Kruger. Lots of talented artists in that show and I will have some sculptures there. I’m looking forward to meeting some cool artists there. Also, I’m in a group sculpture show at Good Mother gallery in Oakland in December. I like showing on my home turf too.