When he’s not dabbling in audio-visual artistry, Ryan Heshka is busy creating distinctive paintings and illustrations to grace the pages of the Vanity Fair and the walls of galleries across North America alike. His sense of humor as well as his predilection for old radio shows and comic books come through in his colorful interpretations of 1950s sci-fi nightmares — works which have earned him exhibition in BLAB! and at Roq la Rue, a gallery in Seattle respected for its surrealist pop art. In his interview Heshka talks children’s books, representation, why an artist never stops learning, and his preferred method of e-commerce.
You said in your interview with Hi-Fructose that you recently took a course in oil painting. How important do you think continuing education is for artists, both established and emerging?
There’s no question in my mind that challenging yourself and your abilities as an artist is crucial to development. This doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of the classroom setting (although that’s certainly a legitimate choice)… there is so much value in just pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, and exploring new media and techniques on your own. This year, for example, I am working on a short film/music video project with a musician friend, who is very in tune with the digital realm, which I am not. By working with him, I’m hoping to break down some of the mystery of digital filming, effects and editing and explore the relationship between music and visuals. Seeing growth in your own art is exciting and motivating, and I can’t imagine painting the same subject matter in the same style for years on end. On the flipside, it can be a challenge just to come up with time to explore and educate yourself if you are trying to make a living from your art. I try to use group shows to explore new styles, themes and techniques. That way, it’s not a huge investment of time if your experiment doesn’t come off the way you had hoped — sort of a “learn while you earn” mentality.
You have contributed illustrations to Vanity Fair and The Wall Street Journal. How does visibility in these publications affect the market for your paintings?
I haven’t actually noticed a strong influence from my commercial art on my personal art, although appearing in well-respected magazines hasn’t seemed to hurt my gallery paintings, and it looks good on the CV! I like to think that getting those types of highly visible assignments will make people curious enough to dig a bit deeper into my body of work if they like what they see in mainstream media. Positive exposure is positive exposure. I keep my commercial and personal styles quite different from each other, and that has helped to avoid confusion with art directors and galleries (who know what to expect the art to look like when they get it in their hands), but still build the brand. It seems like there is increasing acceptance for artists who do gallery shows to work in or come from a commercial art background — at least at the level I’m at, or the kind of work I do. Even my personal work has a certain commercial accessibility to it, inspired by old comics or vintage advertising, so I think there is a common, familiar thread between the two.
You are represented by an agency:
-What kind of investment does representation require?
In my case, the investment was almost all on Kate Larkworthy’s (my agent) end. She took a chance on me as a novice illustrator, and covered the bulk of cost for promotion. An artist seeking commercial representation should not have to give money to an agent. If the agent asks for money, then you are talking to the wrong agent.
-At what point in an artist’s career should he/she seek representation?
I looked for representation from the start. I figured an experienced agent would be able to cover much more ground than I ever could, with a better Rolodex, and that would leave me more time to hone my craft. But there are a multitude of reasons for seeking representation at different points in one’s career. I think it just depends what you want at that particular time, and how much of the promotion and administration work you want to hand off to someone else.
-What advice do you have for making yourself attractive to an agency?
First, be original in your work (nobody likes a copycat). Secondly, make sure your style is not too close to other artists that agent represents; they don’t need two artists doing the same style. Lastly, mail the agent a nicely assembled presentation/portfolio of your work. I believe snail mail still grabs someone’s attention! Plus this can show off your visual presentation skills.
You use Big Cartel, an online shopping system, to sell your work from your website. What conveniences does a store like this offer, and what aspects of the sales process (shipping, packaging, etc.) remain your responsibility by using it?
Big Cartel makes it incredibly easy for potential buyers to browse and make purchases. They get to the store through your website, hit the buy button, it generates on invoice for them, and the money shows up in my PayPal account. The store has already paid for itself many times over. It’s a simple template that showcases the work very well with enlargeable images, and you can customize it to work visually with your website. Its also very user friendly … even a dinosaur like me can update it easily. I pack and ship the work, which is fine by me. I like having control over the quality of packing.
What steps did you take in publishing your books ABC Spookshow and Welcome to Monster Town? How does the experience of finding a publisher compare to finding markets for your paintings?
The ABC Spookshow was conceived first as an art show, then I had the idea to turn those paintings into a book while I was working up the sketches for the art. I was able to use the sales from the show to fund the self-published ABC book. I later used this book as a Halloween promo piece, mailed out to various publishers of children’s books, and Henry Holt really liked the book. They originally wanted to republish the ABC book, but it had been picked up by a local publisher here in Vancouver by that time, so I pitched them the rough idea for the Monster Town book. One thing really led to another.
I don’t have a ton of experience with seeking out publishers. I was fortunate that Henry Holt was interested in my book, and I didn’t have to look for a long period of time for a publisher, but I think finding a publisher compares with finding a gallery/market for paintings. It’s about finding a good fit to showcase your work, and finding someone who will take a chance on you, and work with you and for you. In both cases you have to prove yourself when you get that opportunity, as you won’t always get a chance to make a second impression.
Official Website: www.ryanheshka.com