Rylan Thompson [Interview]
Interview with Rylan Thompson
August 2019 Digital Resident
MHM: By sharing your work chronologically from childhood to present, what did you learn about yourself and your practice?
RT: It was fun because I haven’t put much thought into those older drawings/paintings for a long time. They’ve always been around, and I remember making them, but haven’t revisited my mental state at that time for a while. I wore my heart on my sleeve (at least artistically) a bit more at that point, sometimes embarrassingly so, looking back on it. I made most of my early stuff completely in the moment, without much thought to what I was going to do with it. They were cathartic - which was important at the time. Drawings can still be cathartic for me now, but emotional release is not really my goal anymore. Mostly I learned that from an early age I was trying to forge my own artistic language, to make sense of the world through drawing. That much hasn’t changed to this day.
MHM: You mention holing up and drawing as a child, and drawing has obviously stayed with you as a way to process the world. Do you notice a difference in your mental state when you are unable to draw?
RT: I absolutely do. I’ve somehow grown to equate my self worth with contributing something unique to the world, and if I haven’t picked up a pen/pencil/brush for a week I strongly question what I’m doing. I’m my own harshest critic in that way, like “yeah, that drawing you made last week was pretty cool, but what have you done this week?”.
MHM: How do you begin to construct a narrative? Do you plan before you start a drawing or do you let the narrative develop organically?
RT: I honestly think I’m a crappy writer as far as storytelling goes. I always have grand, abstract concepts in my head that I have difficulty getting out in any logical way. Besides some one page comics, Birthday Bees! is the only real narrative story I’ve done. Most of the concepts developed naturally. I basically combined imagery that I was drawing at the time with ideas that I was reading about. I did have a whole blueprint mapped out for the book before I started though, so it was half planning, half organic. I’m always thinking about visual links and concepts while drawing, so most of my work has some kind of internal storyline. If it’s apparent to the viewer or not makes no difference, it’s more a means to an end than anything else.
MHM: With your work so influenced by your exposure to comics growing up, do you have a favorite illustrator or series that you associate with your practice? Tell us about your comic book Spirit House and what influenced that body of work.
RT: The two major comics that influenced me in my childhood were Tintin by Herge, and Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson. I still read Calvin & Hobbes often before going to bed. It’s so comforting. His view of the world is really funny, but also very compassionate. Beyond the stories, his brushwork is breathtaking - I’ve read his books so many times that nowadays I’m mostly just looking at the drawings when I read them. I was introduced to Tintin fairly early as I grew up overseas (Trinidad, Egypt, and Kenya. It definitely sparked a travel/adventure bug in me. I’m happy I made a travel book at some point, although it’s nothing like Tintin. Later in life I grew to love R.Crumb, Edward Gorey, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes and contemporaries like Marc Bell, Craig Thompson, Ed Piskor and Edie Fake. Spirit House, to me, felt like a perfect culmination of everything I’d been working on for years. I felt like I’d been fighting my intuitions forever and finally succumbed to just doing exactly what I wanted to do. The limited template of the book really opened up my imagination. The main influences of Spirit House are architectural drawing, an inclination to draw faces, Thai spirit houses and my own haunted house. Although, inspiration seemed to come from everywhere, everything I looked at became fodder for these drawings.
MHM: In the past we talked about the haunting in your home and the shrines you viewed while living in Thailand. Can you talk more about these influences?
RT: The Portland haunted house influenced the title of the Spirit House books, but that’s about it. Well, maybe a connection with the beyond as well, but that’s kind of hard to quantify in terms of drawing. I think no matter where you are, you’re influenced by what you see on a daily basis. I just happened to have had a lot of time to kill walking around Thailand. The beauty of their temples and shrines are astounding. I think a lot of my patterns and symmetry comes from my love of their art. While I’m not religious anymore, I love the idea of shrines and the symbolism implicit in them. Without trying to sound too haughty, my recent Shrine Mutation drawings are like little altars to drawing, at least for me . They use my own ideas and imagery to create something holy and important (no converts or disciples though, please).
MHM: During 2008, when you reference your practice without preconceived ideas, how were you able to separate yourself from the planning and technique you’d been familiarized with?
RT: Mainly by setting up a new set of rules for myself; instead of going through my natural drawing motions, I forced myself to draw in new ways. This involved limiting my utensils (mostly blindly), forcing my hand to move in unnatural ways, not relying on conventional shapes, working quickly, and reacting impulsively to what I saw on the paper. Some characters and motifs eventually rose their way to the surface, but I was ok with this because they seemed to show up on their own. This was, by far, the most crucial drawing phase of my life. It taught me how to draw like a kid again, where everything/anything is an option.
MHM: There is almost an ‘impossible objects’ quality to the subjects of the Spirit House books. Was this intentional, and if so, how do you think work from artists such as yourself can effectively blur the lines between the spiritual and tangible, past and present, mathematical and artistic?
RT: The impossible objects idea is definitely not something I thought about while making the Spirit House drawings, but I see it in hindsight. I think I was not really interested in how these “houses” would exist in real space, only in their 2D form. Some are more rooted in reality than others - I think of them like how I think of Murakami novels. You have to have some roots in the real world to make the metaphysical and bizzare seem plausible. As far as the rest of the question goes, an artist statement I wrote back in 2007 deals with these exact ideas, instead of paraphrasing, here’s the statement in its entirety: “My work is at the same time a reaction to the tangible world and an attempt to scratch the surface of the world of ghosts, dreams, imagination and hallucinations. Through drawing, I allow the inhabitants from our world mingle with the inhabitants of their world; to form a link. Who is more real, us or them? Where do ideas exist in space; how about dreams, nightmares and thoughts? Do they exist in time and space like us, or are they beyond that? Does the world of our dreams still exist when our bodies die? It’s questions like these that I ponder while drawing. It’s not answers that I’m seeking so much as a feeling; a connection. I like to think of dark shadows and tunnels in our world as portals to our dreams and nightmares. In these portals, as in my drawings, there is a middle realm of sorts. A realm that’s not quite our world and not quite theirs. It’s a place where birth is the same as death, comedy and tragedy are interchangable, secrets are told, jokes are shared. These drawings are not statements or facts by any means, but an attempt to understand the living space around me”. It’s a pretty fanciful statement that I’m not quite sure I’d stand behind at this point, but the concepts still resonate with me. In particular, I like the idea that I, the artist, am not trying to tell you something, but instead am making a connection with something larger than ourselves.
MHM: Sometimes, as with note taking, the act of inscribing helps to adhere certain moments to the memory. Do you feel that the physical act of drawing serves to connect you with reality in some way?
RT: Yes and no. I think drawing something can help me to understand it. Focusing intently on a photo or something in front of me and drawing it is almost a meditation, evoking deeper meaning. In another sense, drawing can be a way for me to completely detach from reality, in a good way (I think).
MHM: What excites you or makes you happy in your practice?
RT: To me, the best thing about drawing, or making art in general, is making something completely new and unexpected. I like to start with a basic seed of an idea and see what happens. Conceiving a final image, then executing it, is a dull process in my opinion.
MHM: What are you picky about?
RT: I despise warped paper and canvases. I hate fucking up measurements. I’m very particular about collage material, the more obscure, the better. Also,my experience earlier in life working with cheap pens and markers has also led me to a pickiness of supplies. If you want something to last, quality and archival pens and paper are a must. Finally, I’m irritated by wishy washy titles (like “Untitled no.4”), I feel titles should provide some insight to the piece.
MHM: You address dreams, physics, Samsara and the Tao in some of your worldbuilding. Can you go into more detail about the components of your philosophical and moral state of mind?
RT: I feel every aspect of life is like a coin with a good side and a bad side - both are crucial for existence. Life/death, light/dark, positive/negative, etc… I seek things that resonate with me, or open my eyes to new ways of thinking. I don’t subscribe to any religion or specific philosophy, but am open to learning from all or any. Discovering the concept of Samsara was interesting because it fit in with how I thought of the world on my own. It’s fun to discover new concepts and ideas, it’s also exciting to find ancient ones that are similar to how I think.
MHM: Are symbology and iconography planned in your work? Or do you find that they emerge naturally? Have there been any surprising motifs that made their way into your drawings?
RT: Most of my motifs arrive pretty naturally. I love symbolism, but I really love how you can take some basic iconography and transform it into something unknown. As I stated before, I have no religious affiliation, but I love the spiritual weight put into earthly artifacts, symbols, and shrines. I completely connect to the concept of objects and images holding weight and ideas far beyond our reach. My work is more about the idea of what a symbol is, rather than trying to convey some specific concept to the viewer. Within the Spirit House books, little characters and surprising motifs did seem to show up on their own. Even the little cartoon face/emblem of the book seems to belong more to the characters of the Spirit House world than to me. It just kept showing up without me really ever thinking about it.
MHM: Is there a particular era or architectural style that still appeals to you from your earlier work?
RT: Honestly, most of the houses I drew/painted were pretty boring. I even got to draw a mini mall from a blueprint once (thrilling). I mostly gravitated towards anything with a lot of details (bricks, windows/doors with ornate details) or fun value contrasts. Often I was just trying to figure out how to match my watercolors to the boring siding of a house in some vague tan/grey color - boring colors are the hardest to mix. I grew to love the obsessive pen and ink detailing of bricks though, and that came out a lot in the Spirit House series.
MHM: What is your relationship with color? It seems highly intentional, almost symbolic in your recent work?
RT: I find that color just gets in the way of what I’m trying to do sometimes. Limiting my palette to black/white/grey allows me to focus on composition, value, tone, and line without adding color to the mix. When I do use color, I try to think carefully about what colors I’m choosing and why. I usually start with contrasting colors and use my intuition on what to add next. If my drawing looks like a rainbow, I know I’ve gone too far.
MHM: We often ask what an artist would do with infinite resources. However, so much of your work is intimate and meticulous, how would you translate this question in terms of your own practice?
RT: I don’t think my focus would change with infinite resources. That being said, I wouldn’t mind a large format color printer, someone to build and prime panels to my specifications, and access to any pen/brush/paint I needed. An old friend of mine used to say “a good craftsman never blames his tools”. I’m really not one for old adages like this, but this one has always resonated with me. In reality, I’ve got everything I need right at my fingertips.
MORE ABOUT RYLAN:
Rylan Thompson is a Chattanooga based artist. He got his BFA from Northern Illinois University. Previously he lived and made art in Chicago, IL & Portland, OR.