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Billy Tackett Ramblings

Billy Tackett has been dubbed “The Creepiest Artist in America,” and it’s not just because he grew up in Kentucky.  In addition to being creepy, he’s also pretty damn talented.  Wherever he goes, he’s followed by hoards of moaning, drooling, shuffling fans, but he’s much more than just a zombie artist.

Here is our interview:

D. A. Adams:  What is your first memory of painting, and then when did you realize that you wanted to be a professional?

BILLY TACKETT: I’ve always drawn but the realization that I was different happened around the age of 11 or so. And then it was because everybody started telling me I was good. To me it was just what I did. I’m not sure what really happened around that time, it could have been that my skills took a great leap or that I started putting my art out there more. I’m leaning towards the latter because I recently found a book I had as a kid in which I had attempted to recreate the front cover inside the front cover. And it wasn’t too bad!

During my teenage years I started seeing all this great album art from groups like Iron Maiden and Megadeth as well as book covers like Lumley’s Necroscope series and it clicked; People actually get paid to do cool stuff like this! That somewhere out there there’s somebody that will hand over cash to draw the same stuff I was drawing at the time. And it was a little after that time that I also realized that drawing was quite possibly the only thing I was good at so I really had no choice.

An author and screenwriter by the name of J. Neil Schulman gave me my first opportunity as an illustrator doing covers for his company Pulpless back in 1999. I haven’t looked back!

DA:  What kinds of materials do you use, and why did you choose them?

BILLY: I have given most traditional mediums a try at some point in my career. I have pretty much settled in on oils, pencil and ink. I also use Photoshop a little but that is primarily for design work and a few specialty projects. I think as an artist you really don’t choose the medium but that it chooses you. I feel as though I had fumbled around trying different things for years and finally got the nerve to give oils a try. I should have tried them years earlier! It all just clicked. I feel as though each piece of art is a problem to be solved. If one chooses to use watercolors to solve the problem it requires a certain mindset whereas if one chooses oils as the means to solve the problem the approach is different and so on. For the problem to be solved successfully the medium must match the artist’s mind. I know it’s pretty esoteric stuff but it’s really the only way I can explain the connection I feel with some mediums and not others.

DA:  Can you describe your creative process from the moment of inspiration to the completed piece?  On average, how long do you spend on a piece?

BILLY: Since I do a lot of commissioned illustrations the inspiration usually comes from a brainstorming session with the client and sometimes the ideas just hit me and sometimes the ideas are like pulling teeth! Once the idea has been established I’ll do a really rough sketch exactly as I see it in my head without giving it much thought. I’ll take the idea and ask myself  how I can take this and make it interesting. Moving stuff around, zooming in, cropping, creative lighting, more action, less action etc. After I’ve gathered all my reference photos I’ll do a semi-finished drawing, scan it and then transfer it to the actual size I’ll be rendering it. The semi-finished drawing allows me to work out any problems I hadn’t thought of in the rough sketch phase. From there I’ll either complete the drawing or I’ll begin painting. And the entire time the creative process is a fluid thing. I can’t let myself get attached to one part of the piece because as I move along I may have to alter it or remove it if necessary.

DA:  Some of your most popular pieces involve taking iconic images from Americana and re-imagining them through a Zombie filter.  Where did the inspiration for that motif come from?  Was there a specific moment when you began doing that or was it a gradual process?

BILLY: The original piece, the black & white ink rendering of Zombie Sam which can be seen all over the internet now, was originally done for a publication called Fleshrot which was an anthology style graphic novel type book. I really don’t know where the idea came from. I just needed a one page zombie image and I probably just thought it was cool. It became pretty popular and I Zombie Sam would be a good candidate for my new found oil painting skills. He was completed for my very first convention appearance. After a few shows his popularity had grown so much that I decided a companion would be a good idea. Thus was the birth of Fannie the Flesheater, my zombified Rosie the Riveter. And the I decided to do another. Since I’m very patriotic I decided to stick with the American theme came up with the name Dead White & Blue. With the positive reactions the paintings have been getting I don’t think I’ll stop anytime soon!

You can even look forward to Dead White & Blue graphic novel later this year as well as other cool merchandise.

DA:  Who are your biggest artistic influences?

BILLY: Artistically speaking Norman Rockwell, horror artist Basil Gogos, Marvel cover artist Bob Larkin, legendary Gene Colan and Jack Kirby, pulp fiction artist Norman Saunders, Iron Maiden’s Derek Riggs and the one and only Bob Eggleton.

DA:  Outside of art, what else has influenced and/or inspired you?

BILLY: The spoof magazines Mad, Cracked & Crazy, old horror flicks (especially low budget ones!), 70’s comic books, 70s and 80s rock n roll, and cartoons. When I think back these are what comes to mind first.  I think the Mad Magazine type publications is where my sense of humor came from. I never realized until recently that my Dead White & Blue series draws direct inspiration from this form of literature and art.

DA:  You spend a lot of time on the Con circuit.  Can you describe what a Con weekend means to you?  What’s your favorite aspect of fandom and what could you live without?

BILLY:  A con weekend is stressful. The week before we have to get prints and other merchandise re-stocked and get the van packed and travel reservations confirmed. Actual travel is pretty good. My wife Heather usually sleeps and I always have an audio book to listen to. Then we get there, usually late, and we have to set up. Our display and inventory keeps getting bigger and bigger as does the set up headaches. After that it’s great everything’s great. Always meeting interesting people. We’ve been doing this so much that now it seems no matter what show, no matter what city we’re always meeting up with old friends. Getting to hang out after hours is quite possibly my favorite time of the show.

I think my favorite aspect of fandom and my least favorite aspect is the same thing. Our society seems to be so fad oriented that it’s hard to find anyone that is truly into one or two things. We are very ADD and we’re always on the look out for that next big sparkly thing to latch on to. But I meet so many people that are so passionate about one or two things, be it as general as zombies or sci-fi or as specific as Star Trek or X-men, and they love what they love so much. And talking to them is amazing because this passion shows through. It’s hard to find that sparkle in peoples eyes out on the streets.

On the flip side of that coin people can get so wrapped up in their own little corner of fandom that they can miss out on a lot of other cool stuff. Or worse, they may regard everything else as irrelevant and silly. I have had people at horror cons dismiss me because I don’t have a lot of fan art from horror movies. Or at sci-fi/fantasy shows they may think that I do only zombies and refuse to see all the other types of art I do.

Fandom passion: good. Fandom closed mindedness: bad.

DA:  Any final thoughts you’d like to share with your fans?  How can people find you and your work online?

BILLY:  I’d just like to thank you guys for digging my stuff. I’m very blessed that I can do what I love and make a living out of it. And that’s because of you zombie-lovin’ freaks out there!

My website is www.billytackett.com. I’m on Facebook, Twitter and all that nerdy stuff. Links to that are on my homepage. That’s where you can also find the listing of where we’ll be for the rest of the year. We’ve been given the opportunity to be guests at shows in Toronto and Seattle later this year so that will give us the opportunity to zombify whole new groups of folks! And keep your eyes peeled for my book For The Love Of Monsters that will be available in a couple months.

Christopher Rico Ramblings

The following is an interview with the artist Christopher Rico.  His works stirs something deep inside me and engages me on both primal and etherial levels.  He’s also a very dear friend:

D. A. Adams – You began your career as a sculptor. Can you describe how you evolved into becoming a painter?

CHRISTOPHER RICO – In those early years, I was using a lot of found materials and playing with all kinds of mediums; copper, aluminum, cloth and driftwood from the [Mississippi] river, because my studio was so close and I would take long walks with my dog down there. I mean, I made things that hung out in space, but they were still essentially paintings. At that time, I skated the line between painting and sculpture. I wasn’t really interested in making things that were freestanding in space, – I wanted to make the space. I didn’t know what I was doing to be perfectly honest, but I have always been attracted to industrial materials and their connotations when used by artists.

I got a few gigs as a set designer; -I had spent time in the theatre in high school and college so it was a natural world for me. I guess I’ve always learned best by doing, and the more I worked in space, -you know, the more I made things to inhabit space, I realized that my concerns were just so much more about playing with surface and people’s perception of the two-dimensional. I felt as though I could say what I wanted to say, or at least explore more fully what was interesting to me through painting. It really just evolved organically.

I think my paintings are somewhat sculptural. I generally use deep stretcher bars, so the paintings come off the wall more than usual. Also, I really try to see the painting from all points in a room and not just head-on. I think we can’t always make the kind of art we think we should make, only the kind that we are meant to. So with that in mind, I think I was always a painter.

DA – Can you explain your process of painting with your hands? How did you come to use this technique?

RICO – When I decided to start painting I tried using artists’ brushes. It just felt so forced. I had been embracing this world of industrial /trade materials and techniques and somehow using these small little brushes just seemed so precious. The first attempts were disasters. So I went out and bought a bunch of house painter brushes; angles and flats and 4” wide brushes and just went crazy. The feeling of gesture was so much more immediate and real to me with the larger brushes.

I decided to go to graduate school and after many failed attempts to get in I took a couple of years of undergraduate art classes. When all that was over I experimented with the artists’ brushes again, -bought myself some really nice ones. I had obviously developed technique and had some formal training but I still felt stiff using those brushes.

I remember I read “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, and as a new parent it just freaked me the hell out. I walked into the studio the day I finished the book and grabbed a painting I had been working on for some time and just started flinging black paint at it. Hurling it really. Then I threw the empty can at it, then jars full of terp and finally I just rushed the thing and started smearing the surface with my hands. That painting now reminds me Gerhard Richter’s work, but it was really important for me developmentally. The evolution was slow, it came in ebbs and flows, but by the time I got to the St. Teresa Suite earlier this year, I was already just pouring and rubbing with rags.

I was also painting a lot with my daughters and of course using finger-paints. I would just sit back and watch them and how they approached picture making. I just kept thinking how free they seemed. I tried it on some little post card sized canvas boards in the studio and things just sort of took off.

I feel really intimate with the materials, like how I felt all those years ago when I spent days burnishing my copper surfaces with a wire brush attached to a drill. Watching things react and occur, it’s really magical.

DA – What is your definition of “abstract” art?

RICO – I really dislike that term. The only thing worse is “non-representational.” I am really influenced by jazz music. I like it because it’s essentially a non-narrative form of music; each note is largely based on the previous one. The artists of the 50’s and early 60’s in New York were there when all this music was being made, and they saw it and heard it and were out in it. I think if there is an American-type painting, something really created here, then that is Abstract Expressionism.

I guess I distinguish abstraction in painting from abstract painting. Picasso certainly was abstracting his figures and forms, so was Cezanne for that matter. All painting is to a certain degree abstract. The more one tries to create the illusion of verisimilitude the more technical and abstract it really is, – the more it is really about the materials and not the subject. If you look at somebody like Vermeer for example, if you take his work in stages and look at a painting in its initial phase, he’s just laying down abstract forms that suggest the eventual composition. If you get the chance to see someone paint in the “Old Master’s style”, their paintings look like nothing for so long before the final skeins of detail and depth appear.

I’m steeped in JMW Turner. A lot of people consider that abstract painting, I don’t know, I don’t think he did. I respond to what is going on in the moment on the surface with the materials. I’m not trying to represent a subject or describe a situation or person through fashioning its likeness. Rather, I’m exploring conditions and perceptions and attempting to dip into a collective ethos, -explore mythological imagery. The Forest and the Sea paintings really blew that wide open for me and I think so much of that is scale.

DA – You came to parenthood relatively late in life. How have your daughters changed you, not only as a person, but as an artist?

RICO – Absolutely they have and continue to change me. For one thing, there is the connection to the world and to society that I’ve never really felt. That’s a broad feeling and a big change. But they teach me and I think they keep me honest in my art. I respect their freedom, their abandon in making pictures. I mean, they are obviously not trained, so they don’t possess the ability to discern and then take action based on those perceptions. (That’s why, -no, your kid couldn’t paint what I paint, and neither could mine for that matter, even though it may appear child-like). I feel like I have to preserve the confidence and freedom they feel now. That’s part of my job.

Also, and you know this because we’ve so often spoke of it. Also, looking into their eyes for the first time just made my resolve to not only continue to be an artist but to become successful at it, all that much stronger. It’s scary, wondering about paying for college and weddings and life, but I understood in that moment that this is what I am. This is my Way and I have to be true to that no matter how hard the road is. I want them to see my life as having integrity. I want to show them that they can follow their true path in life once they find it.

I was 40 years old when I became a daddy. So I hit middle age and new parenthood at the same time. It was intense.

DA – Speaking of age, you and I share the experience of being so-called late-bloomers. How have age and experience contributed to your artistic vision?

RICO – People love to talk about Mozart. It’s a compelling narrative, especially in our culture when young people make it really big. Some do. Some have meteoric rises to fame and fortune and their genius is easily seen and summarily exploited. But for every story of someone under 30 changing the world or achieving historical status, there are as many if not more stories of people who find themselves at a crossroads later in life and take the path less traveled.

I could site a bunch of examples: Barnett Newman, Rothko, Louise Nevelson. But I feel like that would be justifying something that doesn’t need to be justified. By art world standards, I’m actually still fairly young. I’m not worried about it.

I think one difference in being older is simply that I’ve lived. I don’t hang on approval, nor am I crushed by rejection. I’ve gone out and gone crazy and been in trouble and won and lost and loved and hurt and so nobody can take anything from me. My work is mature, even though I haven’t been doing it very long. I think maturity can produce mature work. I see that in your writing now as opposed to the writing you were doing when we met in college. That was good writing, but what you’re doing now is really on a whole different level. We both took time off, in a way we’re just starting. But now the whole of our lives is behind our art. So yes, I guess that contributes quite a bit.

DA – You were raised an Air Force brat. Can you explain how living in numerous states contributes to your art?

RICO – Air Force and then Army. I don’t know, it’s like being part of a tribe. Military kids can spot each other in crowds. Most people grow up in one or two places, -at least they used to. My life was uncommon at that time in this country. I kept having to adapt: every 2 or 3 years a new place, a new school, always the new kid. I think I built a very rich internal life and that still manifests itself in my work.

I spent a lot of time in my room, drawing and reading. I found Dali very early on in life; -he was very accessible to me as a young boy. Art was also a way to navigate constantly changing social situations. I could draw pictures for people in class and then they would like me or not beat me up or give me pot or whatever. I could whip out a copy of an album cover or comic book character in a couple of minutes, so people thought I was cool and talented. But it was boring; I always felt there was something else.

My parents and I didn’t know about fancy art schools. I ended up at a big state university and failed 2-D because the first time I had to get up and present a project I just freaked out and left class and never went back. I was really shy and couldn’t stand being in front of people. I was so used to being alone. I still like the studio because of its solitude.

DA – We’ve had conversations about your disappointment at not being accepted into an MFA program when you made the decision to pursue art seriously. Now that you’ve been productive for many years and are building a solid reputation, has that disappointment dissipated or morphed into something else?

RICO – It will always sting I guess. That feeling of not being “good enough” and feeling rejected by what I perceived as my peers. But I have developed by leaps and bounds on my own. My work doesn’t suffer for lack of that paper. Nobody cares at this point. Sure, I think I get passed over sometimes for not having a degree, but I can’t say it has hurt my career as an artist. I’m selling work, I have a great studio, and I balance work and family. I don’t have tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt cutting into my sales and in truth I never wanted to be a professor. It all worked out just fine.

People sometimes see my work for the first time and ask where I went to school, like it’s a given. So that tells me that I’m on a professional level. Some day I’ll pick up an honorary degree and that will be just as good if not better.

DA – As a “self-educated” artist, can you share some of your artistic influences?

RICO – Modrian, who by the way was also “self-educated.” Turner, as I said. Pollock, we’re all influenced by Pollock; he’s our Picasso, -you have to overcome him. Rothko, Still, Blake, the Spaniards like Velázquez, Goya, I love the painterly-ness of those surfaces. New stuff all the time, Schnabel is actually a big one.

I also read a lot of artists’ writings. So there are artists whose writings influence me, you know, their ideas, even if the work doesn’t thrill me. Frank Stella, for sure. Motherwell, -though I like his work very much, his writing is out of this world. Recently Tworkov.

DA – Outside of visual art, who are your other major influences?

RICO – I’m a fanatic about quotes. I consume movies. I read a lot of history. You could say that I am a student of greatness. So anyone who has been great, that’s an influence. Lots of people for very different reasons but the common thread is greatness. Not always fame or monetary success either. I am really interested in people who changed things.

DA – When we were young students, painfully naive and full of ourselves, we used to discuss creating our own literary movement. Now that we are older, somewhat wiser, and a little more humble, what do you see as our opportunity to leave behind as our artistic movement?

RICO – I want to make significant work that future artists will respond to, perhaps even contend with. Honestly, that’s it. Truly significant work. If other things come with that, fine. Those things are not what drive me. The world of painting is changing right now. I think I am really a part of that tide because I’ve stuck to my guns and followed my vision through the past decade. I just happen to be in that space right now because I never left it. I think we make our own luck. But who knows, right?

DA – Any final thoughts you want to share?

RICO – Trust your visions. Work like hell. Treat other people like you would like to be treated. Don’t deny yourself success because of false modesty or the misguided belief that poverty is noble. Go to the studio. Inspiration is great, but highly overrated. Lots of people have great ideas, but few realize them. Never be afraid to ask; sometimes the answer will be “no” but it will certainly be that if you don’t ask. I’ve been surprised at how much people have been wiling to do for me, -often for free, simply because I asked.