Orderly Madness: Chris Kuzma Interview

Chris Kuzma always believed he would work in an artistic field, and over the years, he’s made that happen. Currently one-third of the Wowee Zonk art collection along side Patrick Kyle and Ginette Lapalme, the trio has created a contemporary comic collection that has grown rapidly into four issues. In terms of his solo work, Kuzma has had the opportunity to work with the New York Times Magazine, VICE, Maisonneuve, and other publications that have given the world a glimpse into the mind of an extraordinary artist.

The Toronto-based illustrator’s work portrays life using a combination of watercolor and impulsive materials that create a sense of vivid weirdness. His inspiration varies, and Kuzma feels most comfortable when his project is based on freedom and trust.

How did you get into illustration in the first place? How has your work changed throughout your career?
I always assumed I would do something "artistic" as a career, but that's obviously such a broad term. It wasn't until I moved to Toronto, Canada, and met some friends who told me about the Ontario College of Art and Design. I looked up the programs and realized that illustration encompassed a lot of the work I had been doing up to that point.

It's hard to say exactly how my work has changed over the years, even though I know it has and can visually track where different influences came into play or where I was trying something new. Like any artist, I've had my series of progressions and regressions, highs and lows, etc. Right now I seem to be drawn towards a more rigid, measured approach to line work and color; less "happy accident,” and more calculated and geometric. But whatever, that'll change in a few months again.

You’ve got a stacked list of past magazine clients. What has your favorite submission been and why? Do your clients have particular requests or do they give you free reign?
It's very rare to receive an assignment with completely free reign. There's always some art direction, even if it's just the specs. That's not to say I don't appreciate some quality art direction. I've had some pieces turn completely around because of an art director’s suggestion. With that said, my favorite pieces usually come out of a client’s complete trust that I'll come up with a quality piece. I have some actor and musician friends who get me to do posters for them. They always tell me to do whatever I want and those pieces are always very satisfying to work on. I guess each approach—free reign or art directed—provides unique challenges that I can appreciate.

Really though, I'm happiest drawing comics, but nobody makes a living off comics, right?

Since 2007 you have contributed to an art collective in Toronto called Wowee Zonk. What has it been like to work with those other members? Have you ever collaborated with others on a piece?
I met Patrick Kyle and Ginette Lapalme in 2006 while attending OCAD. We shared a similar aesthetic and just got along really well. We were all working on our school assignments and trying to do as much extra work as possible. We put together a comic book called Wowee Zonk and have since published four issues. The always amazing Koyama Press published the last two issues. We've also put together a few art shows and installations. Those two are a constant inspiration for me. Working with them is always interesting; the both of them are just so creative and prolific. I've done stuff with other people but it's fallen off a lot since my son was born. He's seven months old so I'm pretty busy with him. I'll get back on the horse soon enough.

The work seems to have a lightness to it in terms of style; bright colors, fluid lines, and a sense to humor as well. Where does that aesthetic come from?
Like every kid, I grew up reading comic books and watching cartoons. That's pretty much it. That's where it all comes from for me. I mean, I can appreciate and really love a ton of different types of art, but like, Ren and Stimpy is the bible. Calvin and Hobbes, Batman, Looney Tunes. I remember that California Raisins Christmas special in the ’80s blew my mind. That of course graduated to your Robert Crumb, your Clowes, Dave Cooper; "Comics aren't just for kids anymore" type stuff. But I was still into Dexter’s Laboratory and Rocko's Modern Life. I just like stuff that doesn't take itself too seriously.

Most of the pictured material isn’t what it first seems. Can you elaborate on some of the visual methods you like to use to reach that result?
I just like imagery that doesn't reveal itself to the viewer immediately. You have to work a bit to see it, or just really look at it. With a lot of this stuff, I like to complete a portion and then go on top of that with something that is somewhat unexpected. Like a cartoony looking solid black line work on top of traditional watercolor for example. A few times I completely wreck a piece this way, but that makes it more exciting. There's more risk. This stuff isn't precious anyways. 'Fine Art' sounds so goofy to me. I also like contrasting the bright, cartoony colors with darker, weirder elements. It looks innocent at first, but turns out to be quite disturbing. I like that idea.

There are some repeated symbols throughout the body of work. What’s with all of the smoke and natural themes?
Some of those pieces were for a series, so the repeated imagery is me trying for a cohesive idea and aesthetic. But honestly, the drawings came first and then I had to come up with an idea that would accommodate them. I started drawing the smoke because I just liked using a pencil and a shading stick to create these really dense cartoon cloud shapes. The plant stuff just came about through doodling and arriving at a pleasing pattern. Then I just started incorporating it in the paintings.

Word is that you’ve dabbled in some installation work. How does that front tie in to the illustration if at all?
All the installation stuff I've done was with Patrick and Ginette. It's always a nice departure from sitting alone at a drawing table. You're working with your hands, but it's a completely different approach than with drawing. We go about it really spontaneously; using whatever is lying around, hobbling together pieces of garbage and stuff. It does have a direct connection to our drawing as we're usually making our two-dimensional characters three-dimensional, or creating a physical world for them to exist in. Pretty fun. Then, when it comes down, the stuff goes into the recycling bin. I like the impermanence of it.

What is the direction you’d like to take next? Any new projects on the horizon?
Just working on the next issue of my comic book Complex. It's harder to dedicate a lot of time to personal work now with my son, but I'm figuring out how to do it. I teach life drawing at Ryerson University here in Toronto and a couple graphic novel courses at OCAD. I do contract work whenever I get it also. I don't know, I always say I want to start a new series of paintings, but my heart is really with my comics right now. It would be nice to do another book with Patrick and Ginette. Also, I want to buy a canoe and go out fishing on Lake Ontario; that would be nice.

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