“A couple of times I have been forced to take full-time jobs at ad agencies. But I got very depressed and my creativity went down the drain. The whole pitching thing is so horrible and I get frustrated with the counter-productive way in which things operate”
INTERVIEW: RICK DE LA RAY
PHOTOGRAPHY: OLIVER KRUGER
You recently returned from living in Europe for a few years, spending most of your time between Amsterdam and London. What made you return to the homeland?
Well, unresolved matters of the heart.
You studied at WITS, after school. What did you study and how would you compare your expectations from back then to where you are now in your life, as an Illustrator?
Yes, I studied graphic design for 4 years at Wits Tech (now known as the University of Johannesburg.) My outlook on illustration was very much shaped by the Kannemeyer brothers, Mark and Anton. They started lecturing there in my second year. They come from a ‘do it yourself’ / punk background and basically made me believe that nothing is impossible. They inspired and encouraged me to create my own style. Because I rely on commercial illustration and design work to earn a living, I had to figure out where to draw the line between personal work and work for clients. But every now and then I have to check myself and make sure I’m not going too soft.
How do you think David Attenborough would have described the habitat and natural vegetation that your characters find themselves in?
They seem like miniature worlds that could exist inside terrariums. The grass is thick and soft like moss. Everything has got its own texture. Rocks are angular and wood is rough. There are a lot of little streams and water sources. Also, there are a lot of skeletons, mushrooms and tall grass that resembles seaweed.
You created the yet unpublished book ‘THE SNAKE AND THE SKULL’ a while back. Can you fill us in on the basic thread of the story and why it has not been published yet?
Yes, essentially it’s a story about finding peace. About accepting certain sad things about life, but also about hope and about never giving up on the quest for happiness. It’s a very simple story, but also very layered. Most people will have different interpretations of the story and to be honest I’m not even sure that I’m aware of all the possible layers myself. I have only contacted a couple of publishers so far. Overall, the feedback was that children enjoy stories about happy and confident characters that are having fun the whole time. They feel THE SNAKE AND THE SKULL is too “dark” and for that reason a huge risk to publish. It’s also not written for a specific age group in mind, so it’s very difficult to market. It’s as much a story for a 6-year-old kid, as for a 60-year-old adult. I spent the last 3 years moving between 3 countries. With all the hectic paperwork and stress involved with moving, plus the stress of finding work in big cities where I had no contacts during the worst economic time and having to work myself to the bone, it left me with very little time to contact publishers. Plus, you can’t get through to the big ones without a special agent. So I’m hoping to find a more independent or alternative publisher who might be willing to publish something more unusual. Since I’ve been back in SA my life is becoming calm again and I will soon continue the search for the right publisher. I’m also going to explore options like Kickstarter in the coming months.
Who is Lev David and what was his role in the production of ‘THE SNAKE AND THE SKULL’?
Lev is a good friend of mine. He’s a scriptwriter, poet and hot air balloon record holder with his own Wikipedia page. We share a similar sense of humour and positive outlook on life. When I first came up with the story for THE SNAKE AND THE SKULL, I wrote it in a very rough and naïve Afrikaans. But when it was time to start the project properly, I knew I needed it to be in English and it needed some grandness. Lev turned it into quite a serious work, which I am very happy with.
THE SNAKE AND THE SKULL
You have mentioned a few times that you are “unemployable” – even though you have worked on many international high-end jobs with clients like Adidas Originals, Coca Cola and SAMSUNG. In what sense do you see yourself as “unemployable”?
Ha ha! I am “unemployable” because I really don’t function very well in a full-time working environment. Off course I work every day of my life. Sometimes I work on exciting stuff and sometimes on boring and draining stuff. A couple of times I have been forced to take full-time jobs at ad agencies. But I got very depressed and my creativity went down the drain. The whole pitching thing is so horrible and I get frustrated with the counter-productive way in which things operate. I prefer to work undisturbed in my own studio. I usually really enjoy work and take pride in it. I like to see a project through from the beginning to the end. That’s why I work as a freelancer. Also, you get to work on more exciting projects that way. Obviously there’s a lot of uncertainty and stress at times, but it’s the only way for me.
Which advertising job has been your most favourite to work on and really captured the essence of your work as an artist?
I would definitely say the double-storey mural inside the Adidas Originals store in Amsterdam. It was a big map of the city. It’s something that will always remind me of the time I lived there.
Some of the corporate identities you have done allow the receiving clients to interact with the work by folding and cutting out models. You seem to enjoy the interaction of ‘origami’ and design in your work from time to time?
Yes, I really enjoy using paper in a 3 dimensional way. You can make pretty much anything out of paper for super cheap. Plus it feels more like playing than working.
Do you see yourself moving into the paper-sculpting medium a lot more in the future within your personal work?
Absolutely. To date I have only done papercraft projects for clients, but I have many very exciting ideas for personal projects. Including a papercraft exhibition.
If you could look back at your work over the years – what influences would you say helped to mould the spirit of Joh Del?
Nature has always been my biggest inspiration / influence. I have also been a long-time fan of the magical stories and drawings of Hayao Miyazaki. There are so many influences that will pop up all the time. It might be a TV series I’m watching, an album I’m listening to, the place where I’m living at the time or interesting people I meet. Currently, I’m on a big fynbos / mountain vibe.
You’re based in Cape Town at the moment even though you are originally from Johannesburg. Do you see yourself settling here for a while or is it merely a pit stop on the way to wherever the journey is going to take you?
Ha ha! Man after moving around so much over the last few years, I think I need to try and settle down for a bit and create a nest. Cape Town is the right kind of place for that, a cool city that’s surrounded by nature and the ocean. Having said that, one thing I know is that you can never plan out your life too far in advance when you have a traveller’s spirit. I know there are many places left to explore, and many adventures still to come.