Sunday, May 10, 2009

an interview with Theo Ellsworth

Theo Ellsworth, based in Portland, Oregon, creates entire microcosms in every illustration, and mixed media piece he makes. Theo's complex and incredibly detailed comics convey the impression that each page contains its own unique laws of physics. Despite the epic scope of his sweeping, surrealistic landscapes and the pantheon of characters who inhabit these worlds, his work always feels very personal. His characters are often magical hybrids of  humans and beasts, and his work is teeming with gentle giants. Recently Theo's collected work was published in a great, big, beatiful book called Capacity which is available through Secret Acres. Theo also has a solo show coming up with Giant Robot, you can peep into Theo's creative process and get lots of info about his newest projects on his blog,, and on his website, where you can also see some of Theo's self published minicomics, installations and more!

Q: Can you tell about your transition into being a full time artist and the things that happened that gave you that opportunity?

A: I'm one of those people who's only really qualified for the worst jobs out there and I've worked some really bad ones. I've always put all of my focus into my art and story, and there really don't seem to be any tailor made jobs that fit what I want to do with my life. To me, having a day job is like getting payed to not make art. When I first decided that I had to be an artist at all costs, I sold my car and lived off that money for awhile. It didn't last long, but it gave me a head start. During that time, I just made comics all day long, and years later, this eventually lead to my first published book. When I first moved to Portland, I had a lot of trouble finding a job, so I applied to sell my work at the big outdoor art market that goes on here every weekend. They accepted me, and it's been paying my rent ever since! I sell my zines, books, prints, and original art there. It's been a lot of hard work, but it's taught me a lot. Ideally, I'd like to just be making comics full time, but this at least allows my art to be a self sustaining system and helps me find a bigger audience.

Q: Recently Secret Acres published a whopping 336 page collection of your self-published Capacity comics together with a bunch of your new work. How did that super book deal come about? Any new publishing projects ahead?

A: I'd been self publishing my comics for a few years and getting them distributed to comic shops through this great guy named Tony Shenton. He's basically a one-man distro for small presses and self publishers. Barry and Leon of Secret Acres found my work at a comic shop in New York city and contacted me. I knew it was my big break. They were a brand new publisher with no books out yet, but everything about them felt right.
The next thing I'm working on for Secret Acres is a 32 page comic called Sleeper Car that will be coming out this July. It'll be released at the same time as my solo art show at the Giant Robot Gallery in San Francisco. I'm also working out the details of a big comic story that I've been wanting to tell for years. It's still in the writing and thinking stage, but I'll be ready to start drawing any day now.

Q: You've been self-publishing your comics for, golly, its been quite a while! these days i'm having a harder time self publishing because i find that it costs as much or more to photocopy a book as i can sell it for wholesale which means a ton of work that doesn't help me pay rent, how do you manage that? do you have access to a secret free copy machine or do you get your comics printed in bulk?

A: Yeah, it's a constant dilemma, but I'm so in love with making hand made publications, it's kind of hard to stop. I'm actually looking into printing the insides of my books in bulk, but still silk-screening the covers myself (I'd have a hard time giving up the hand-made, personal touch of doing my own silk-screening). A friend of mine also just started his own print-on-demand shop in his basement, so I might start working with him. I've never really been able to line up free copies, and it's been a constant struggle to find good copy machines that actually print the blacks right. I try not to really think about how little money I actually make doing this, but it does start to wear on me after awhile.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your role in founding Pony Club?

A: I had found out about these great gallery loft spaces in downtown Portland and gotten really excited about the possibilities. The spaces were designed for low income artists, and in a great location, right in the hub of the First Thursday Gallery walk. Just a few days later, I met David Youngblood, who had been a member of a gallery collective that had disbanded. He was thinking of renewing the lease and was looking for help. I felt like our ideas really clicked, so I decided to go for it. We just kind of put it together from the ground up, putting toghether a shop full of stuff we liked (which was easier than it sounds since we both know so many great artists) and started planning shows. It was a great experience. I did it for two years, then left at the end of '08 in order to focus more on comics.

the images above are super fun 3-dimensional installations

Q: what do you envision your ideal art career to look like in 10 years? 

A: My ideal career would be to make comics full time. Telling stories with my art is the most satisfying outlet for my thoughts, and comics feel like the perfect way to do this. It's also super challenging and time consuming. So ultimately, I would love to be able to cut out all the extra stuff I do to pay my rent, and just put all of my energy into my stories.

Q:  Your drawings are very detailed and you make so much work that I'm wondering if you have had any problems with tendonitis or repetitive motion injuries? If so, how do you handle that?

A: I've actually had to pry my pen out of my hands after a long day of drawing, but I try to hold my pen as gently as possible and pay attention to when I'm overdoing it. My girlfriend is an acupuncturist, and she's helped me a lot with that. I also figured out a few hand stretches that seem to help me get the kinks worked out. Drawing is actually harder on my back than anything else. I try to go on lots of long walks, and ride my bike a lot. Sometimes I worry that I'm going to end up a crazed hunchback because of my love of drawing.

Q:  How do you find a balance between work time and freetime? How do you structure your average work day?

A: Finding the right balance is always a struggle, and being self employed basically leaves it all up to me. I try to spend my mornings alone being really focused. If I start out the day in the right mode, it usually seems to carry me through the day. Sometimes in the afternoon I'll go draw with a friend. It's nice to be able to be social and still get things done. I also have to do a lot of preparation for selling at the art market and other events, so I try to lump as many chores together as I can and get them done in one day. I have to remind myself to take days off or I'll find that I just go on and on without a break. I'll usually still make art of some kind days off (because it feels weird to have a day without art) but It's important to have time just to daydream, read, check out inspiring things around town, and recharge .

Q:  What are your favorite materials or tools to use?

A: I love rapidograph pens. They're a kind of mechanical pen that you can endlessly refill with india ink. I've been coloring a lot with watercolor pencils. I like working on illustration board and bristol board.

Q: Any favorite artists or books that inspire your work?

A: There's so many! A couple of artists I've been looking at a lot lately are Adolf Wolfli and Martin Ramirez. Both of them made such personal and powerful work. I would like to be able to create something as individual, strange and sincere as they did. I'm also really inspired by a lot of ancient art. I got a book on mayan architecture awhile back that's pretty mind blowing. I've also been really fascinated by the scientific drawings of the Biologist, Ernst Haeckel.

this is an illustration Theo made for Nick magazine

1 comment:

  1. Amazing work! It's refreshing to hear about his creative process and how he's able to support himself with his art.