Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mark Mattson Q&A

What is your background? How did you get involved with art?

Well, first and foremost, I'd have to say it started with my parents. I'd spend countless hours in any museum possible with my parents; art's never not been around in my life, I suppose. My mom is an artist, among other things, and my dad really is, too, though he practiced architecture, and it's something I always took for granted, that art is everywhere, or at least was around us. I'd draw naked portraits of people in kindergarten, because of all those naked baby angel portraits floating around the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, and of all the nude portraits in books that I'd see. I didn't get into painting until high school, where, thankfully I had some fantastic teachers, worked on film, video, animation, illustration, design and painting in college, and have generally been making work steadily the whole darn time, really. I'd also probably still like to be a Berke Breathed/Bill Watterson/Charles Schulz hybrid-beast, who also paints.

Some professional gigs I've had, and still do, include kids' book art director, advertising art director, product designer, video game designer, illustrator, muralist, and interactive designer. I've made many products containing Elmo and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and many products containing licensed characters of whom I will not mention. I would love to be that guy who gets to put his signature on every product in the universe that contains his own licensed character, no matter what product it is, but this has not happened yet. I am super-contact-able, however.

How would you describe your work?

I tend to boil down what I do lately as "things that should not have faces, but with faces."

Like, anthropomorphic versions of pretty much anything that speaks to me in its special humanized, anthropomorphic way. I think mostly I deal with relationships, and nuance, and miscommunication, and things not said, between people, or ketchup bottles, or whatever, and with subtly-expressed desire. Sometimes I'll say "Pop Surrealism", just for fun. Robert Williams said of that "cartoon-tainted abstract surrealism", which I like. He didn't say that of me, he's never heard of me, but he said that of the movement. Subtle heartbreak and terrific whimsy. But fun. How about that?

Have you studied art in school? What did you like best about the school you attended? What advice would you give to anyone considering going to school vs. doing it on their own?

I graduated from the Columbus College of Art and Design, where I studied illustration, painting, and design. I also went to arts-centered junior highs and high schools, Stivers and Colonel White, in Ohio; and I went for a time to NYU for animation. I attend lots of kids' book conferences, and video game conferences, too, where I take a lot of classes, still. Classes are fun!

The best thing about CCAD was to be able to focus, all the time, on art, and not be so stuck in my own brain all the time about it, which is a serious danger to anyone making anything. Everybody, or at least most everybody "gets it", that act of art-making, and it's not an anomaly that you seriously want to study something that the rest of the country probably thinks is bizarre and/or essentially unnecessary to everyday life. Dang, did I just say that for most of America? Edit that in post. I had some fantastic teachers in college as well; especially the ones that most students probably thought were bonkers.

Well, it's not like you "need" an art degree to do art, but, for me, college was like a 24-hour master class of art and art history, with like-minded people, giving me perspectives and ideas that wouldn't have come from staring at myself in the mirror 24/7. I do plenty of that now, and it's really no good for anybody. No, but, being anything creative can be incredibly isolating, and getting a network of folks from school is an awesome first step to not going crazy. No guarantee, but still.

How have you been influenced by the art community? Who/ what inspires you?
As far as inspiration: children's television and literature, pop and contemporary art, video games, mass-market mail order catalogs, pictures of food, french comics, all-ages comics, educational filmstrips, New Yorker cartoonists, the Nintendo universe, humor writing, music. I get a lot from studying every parking lot in every strip mall in America, and highways, too. Night-time artificial lighting is intoxicating.

Going to galleries and museums really helps, because I'm in the same space as the work, which is hugely important to understanding my own relationship to it. And talking to people in the art community is hugely important, again, just to get out of my own stupid brain for a while, you know? No creative vacuums, fer cryin' out loud, which is something I always have to remind myself.

Do you have a career/ job (other than the art you create independently)?

I'm also an illustrator, game artist-designer, and full-time-dad to an amazingly amazing five-year-old.

Have you had any careers not related to art?

Not really, I guess; for a few years during and after college, I worked in a library, when I was avoiding the real world for as long as I could, but I was still making stuff on my own.

How have you handled the business side of being an artist?

This is one of the hardest parts, right? How in the heck does one handle that kind of thing? I, as many folks might tell you, am almost entirely right-brained, so that stuff came the slowest to me, as I'm sure it does to a lot of creative folk. I've always hated selling things, even when I was kid, it's all like door-to-door fund-raising to me. I should probably get an agent. Again, I am super-contact-able, all you art super-agents out there.

That said, I have as much online presence as possible; I maintain a blog (, a more illustration-based website (, an Etsy Shop (, a t-shirt and merchandise shop (, and I'm on Twitter and Facebook, and Digg, and Technorati, and all of that stuff, just to make sure I pop up in as many searches as possible, and to try and reach folks, you know? It's been so awesome to get to know people all around the world via internet means, through forums, and social media, and all of that; it's really gratifying, and it's really opened up a great way to reach people not in my zip code. But I love my zip code, too, no, really, 19119, I truly do.

It's also really helped getting involved with local creative groups as well: The Handmade Philly Team is amazing, and fun, and talented, and inspirational. It takes an art village, you know?

I hand out a lot of business cards, and flyers, and try to go to a lot of conferences, which I usually find completely worth it, for a lot of reasons, too. I'm aspiring to be a lot more awesome with my guerrilla marketing methods, as well, and, yes, I'm officially registered as a business now, with paperwork proof, and everything; thanks a lot, Philadelphia city business tax, you're awesome, no really.

What are your goals? What are your plans for the future?

I only want to work on terrific projects, no matter what they are, and I want to be able to do that: I want not to be bitter at the end of my life.

Do you have side projects you work on? Have you collaborated w/ other artists in the past?

I always pretend that I am an electronic music composer, but that's probably another story. I always write, which I also love. I've done a fair amount of collaboration; I find it really rewarding, in general. Filmmaking is a totally collaborative process, as is game-making, and book-making. I'm always trying to collaborate on comedy projects, with varying degrees of completion, i.e., none.

I co-made a wacky art publication in college, called "Stir", which I loved doing, thanks, CCAD, for the opportunity, and I've embarrassed myself numerous times with my songwriting collaborations. Again, another story. I'm game for anything cool, though.

What was one of the most memorable projects you've worked on?

Wow, I've gotten to work on some incredible projects, and I hope the best is still in my future, not in my "Diff'rent Strokes" past, sorry child cast of "Diff'rent Strokes", I mean no disrespect. Most infamous, perhaps, draw your own conclusions as to the quality and relative happy memory quantity of said projects, were making illustrated books starring "The Wiggles", and "Jay Jay the Jet Plane." End comment.

What are the biggest changes you've seen in the art world since you got involved? Where do you see the art industry going in 5 years? 10 years?

Um, this always depends; I've worked in different industries, of which some are dying and thriving at different intervals...I have no idea, really; I guess the constant wane of the print industry is always on the table, though. Illustration contracts seem cruddier now, maybe. Art was always hard, and it still is, and where are the answers?! Where!? Wherrrrrrre???!!! I wish I knew, but I think art will always matter.

Favorite painter/ artist:

Wow, this is like the hardest thing anyone can ever ask me; not even artists, just name your favorite anything, and I become a super stupid person; it's just how my mind works, I'm awful at any kind of favorite list-giving, whereas then I just seem completely without opinion, but really, I'm just completely and entirely daft with names, when asked directly. Really sucks at parties, when asked, like, biggest celebrity crushes, or something.

But, OK: I think if Ed Ruscha, James Marshall, Claes Oldenburg, Arnold Lobel, Philip Guston, Tom Wesselman, Louis Trondheim, Anselm Kiefer, Ed Keinholtz, Charles Schulz, Rosemary Wells and Robert Altman were hybridded into a science fiction mega-human, that would be the most amazing person who ever lived, at least creatively. This is where writing interview answers really helps. If I had to pick only one, I guess I'd go with Ruscha.

What are you currently reading?

Right now I'm reading "Broken Angels", a sci-fi/noir follow-up to "Altered Carbon", by Richard K. Morgan. I'm always re-reading "The House with a Clock in its Walls", because I love it, love it, love it. I'm usually reading several books at once, because of my rapidly deteriorating attention span, and I love reading The New York Times and The New Yorker.

I'm also always reading six thousand children's books, both for my daughter's sake, and my own personal obsession. If it weren't for the children's section of The Free Library of Philadelphia, we'd owe millions upon millions of dollars, just to support our kids' book habit in the house.

Is there a book that has strongly influenced you?

"The Runaway Dinner" kills me every time I read it, which is a lot. It's by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman. I think anything I read by James Marshall or Arnold Lobel is a miracle of ink and paper, and I can't believe it, they are so fantastic.

What are you listening to?

Everything, curse you, so appealing "Shuffle Songs" Mode, eating my precious remaining attention span.

I'm currently really, really into M.I.A., Tim Fite, Andrew Bird, Talking Heads (still), and Lupe Fiasco, though.