The creator of art so vibrant it virtually pops off the canvas, in recent years Jason Atomic has also become know for his curation of group art shows and performance events celebrating different aspects of underground pop culture.
I met up with the courteous, eccentric Brit in a Brighton [UK] bar to chat about his life and art – and during the course of several pints of foaming ale I came to realize that they were one and the same.
Did the way you were raised have an influence on you becoming an artist?
JA: Yes, my family moved a lot when I was a kid, so being an artist was the one constant that I had. I don’t remember the first time I found a pen, but it was very early – my mom has pictures from when I was one-and a-half years old. I was obsessed with drawing animals. I also got into history, ancient Egyptians and Native Americans, particularly; and from there I went into horror, and then comics.
How old were you when you got into comic books?
JA: My first ever collage was made from Tarzan comics around 1972, when I was five years old. Then I started collecting comic books about 1976: reprints of American ones that were full of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko [artists responsible for such awesome characters as Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four] comic strips. I really loved cave paintings too – it’s the kind of art I most relate to.
When did you start painting?
JA: I was instinctively drawn to the idea of it, but the shitty hog-hair brushes they give you at school frustrated me and really put me off painting. I couldn’t get the detail I wanted. I remember one instance when I was about six or seven years old: I couldn’t get Dracula’s fangs pointy enough, so I scrubbed out his face and left it on my desk, intending to finish it off after the weekend. But when I went to the school library it was on the wall – so my first publicly exhibited artwork was an unfinished piece that I was really unhappy with. So I gave up on it, decided I was going to draw comics, and wrestled with that through the 1980s. Unfortunately, in 1994 a bad experience with a publisher made me call it a day with comics, and I decided to move to Japan [for four years]. Around that time I had a dream that changed everything: I was in an old farmhouse at night, sat at a school desk full of sketchbooks from when I was a kid, looking out over a graveyard. Suddenly, I became aware that someone was with me. I looked around and there was the face of [surrealist artist] Salvador Dali floating over my left shoulder, and he said, “It’s time, we’ve gotta go.” I had to go downstairs for this big press launch, because Dali and his fellow dead art legends Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso had chosen me to represent them in the 21st century. While Dali was a floating face, Miró had manifested as a small, white talking kitten, and Picasso had come back as an enlarged newspaper cut-out. There was a sculpture that I had to unveil on their behalf, which basically turned out to be a triplicate phallic symbol. This dream visitation by the three ghosts made me realize that I shouldn’t be trying to conform to this idea of making a popular thing for people to consume [like a comic book]. Instead, as they did, I should get away from everything and start looking at life and drawing it: if someone puts your dinner on the table, draw your dinner; if you go for a walk and see a tree, draw that tree. So that’s all I did for my first year in Japan, I just got in touch with that idea of interpreting reality through my own consciousness.
But you still drew people, didn’t you?
JA: I did, but I knew I could draw people. I tried drawing the things that I didn’t know how to draw. I don’t look at the paper when I’m drawing, because I’m trying to take the ego out of the process: my hand just follows my eye in an almost mechanical way, so my brain doesn’t choose what it draws. I’m trying to make my process authentic, so that the line has a kind of existential nature. And the color, which I add afterwards, is more like an expressive playing: how the paint hits the canvas, how it rolls, how it coagulates.
How did you move on from subject matter that some would consider mundane?
JA: I always wanted to be investigative with my work, and being interested in sub-cultures and different scenes, I’d hang out with [for instance] punks and draw them in their environment. This led to me performing with a band called Fist Fuck Deluxe in London. It was great fun, but very different from my painting. So from the late 1990s/early Noughties I was fighting to pull together these two halves of my life: where one side’s interested in dressing up in weird clothes and performing, and the other side’s very observant and involved in drawing from life, and painting. Meeting my muse Manko [in the early Noughties] was like an act of God. She made me realize that my life needed to go in a new direction, and helped me resolve my interests in street fashion, comics, and life drawing, to a point where it’s all starting to make sense as a cohesive whole.
Is this when you started creating comic book related art again?
JA: Yeah… there’s a funny story that led up to it happening: one day I was very drunk and angry and chopping up parsley at home, when I decided to speed up things by putting it in the blender – along with my [drawing] hand, which saw me spend two months with it bandaged up in a sling. [During my incapacitation], I got to thinking that I’d slipped back into doing art to suit people’s briefs, and I decided it had to stop. So I made a mental note to myself that once my hand had healed, the next painting I would do would be something that I’d want to hang on my wall – something just for me.
What did that turn out to be?
JA: It turned out to be my rendition of [legendary comic book artist] Jack Kirby’s Devil Dinosaur. I’d never traced someone else’s work before, but I thought if I’d ever got hired to do so, I would have. So I approached the picture as a comic book inker/colorist for Jack Kirby. Once I’d painted it though, I wanted to show it, but couldn’t put it in a solo exhibition because it didn’t go with anything else I’d done.
So how did you resolve that situation?
JA: Well… I saw an amazing painting of [The Fantastic Four’s arch nemesis] Doctor Doom by an artist called Feroze Alam, in which he’d taken Kirby’s lines and then just colored it himself in oils. He agreed to be in a themed group show I wanted to do called Hail To The King [Kirby is generally referred to as ‘the King’], so I asked around and put together a bunch of other artists. We launched it in London at Resistance Gallery first, and then approached Orbital Comics about continuing it there. When I told their gallery organizer [the wonderful Karl Asaa] that I wanted to do something that would draw attention to Jack Kirby and highlight how respected he is as a serious artist, he waived the normal hire fee because he said the concept was “too important” not to do. So that’s what really re-established my connection with the comic scene, by meeting people who bought my comics in the 1980s, and some of my favorite artists of the moment.
Of late you’ve been actively working alongside your muse, Manko, and the Art Model Collective… how did that come about?
JA: Manko had been life modeling since before I met her but had become disillusioned with the scene. Basic pay for models has not increased much since the 1980s, and although life drawing is on the rise [in London], the models get very much taken for granted by organisers – so a few years ago we decided to start running our own life drawing sessions. We started out at London’s Orbital Comics with some sessions themed towards comic book artists and illustrators, and the Art Model Collective basically grew from there.
What exactly is the Art Model Collective?
JA: The Art Model Collective is almost an unofficial union for art models, which cuts out ‘middle men’ event organisers. It allows models to run their own sessions on a profit share basis and interact directly with the artists. This means our sessions have longer than average poses that can be repeated or extended at the request of the artists. The artists are also encouraged to suggest themes for future sessions.
What is your role in the Art Model Collective?
JA: I’m support staff basically. I take the money, lay out the drawing boards, keep time, and often DJ or read spoken word pieces to enhance the sessions. I also help with concepts and finding venues, generally at places I have exhibited my art at or collaborated on special events with – such as Orbital Comics and Underdog gallery.
Tell me about the artworks that illustrate this feature.
JA: Many of our life drawing sessions have movie themes. So, when you asked me to be part of the recent Billy Chainsaw presents… Walk Right Out Of The Film art show at London’s Underdog gallery, I immediately thought of working from sketches I’d done at Art Model Collective sessions.
Where are you at with your art right now?
JA: I think my style is constantly developing. I’ve always had a very flat, clean line style, but since we started the Art Model Collective I’ve been getting more into tonal work. I’ve been experimenting with using felt tip pens and the techniques I’ve developed there have led into some experiments with Photoshop. So I’m gradually creeping out from a very comfy comfort zone.
You can see more of Jason Atomic’s stunning art and keep up to date with his activities at www.jasonatomic.co.uk and jasonatomicblogspot.co.uk. Check out the Art Model Collective at facebook.com/artmodelcollective and @artmodcol
About the author:
UK-based artist Billy Chainsaw specializes in mixed-media pop art and has exhibited in numerous galleries in such far-flung locations as London and Los Angeles. Learn more about his work at www.koolkrakenincorporated.com