Being able to look at the world and not only re-imagine it, but also re-cast it, is a talent few of us are able to maintain once the pragmatism of age bears down on the magic of youth. Allie Sheedy in “The Breakfast Club” said “When you grow up, your soul dies”, and sadly, so does the ability to see monsters in the dark. Greg “Craola” Simkins still sees not only his monsters, but their lives, and the worlds in which they live. Having a strong resonance of Dali, Bosch, Hannah, and Barbera, his work is able to fuse the surreal and the cartoon; the unreal stretched illogically over the logical like some magically delicious tapestry.
Starting his creative life as a notable graffiti artist, his sensibilities quickly overfilled the limited milieu of the walls, and his work made a successful transition to the canvas. Quickly evolving from the limited trappings of relying on cartoon and comic iconography into creating worlds independent of culturally based imagery, his work was able to flourish wonderfully. With his expansive vistas filled with hybrid characters telling as of yet unheard mythological narratives to the contained portraits of these creatures recalling the lush still-lifes of the 17th century Dutch painters-his vision is staggering. The success he quickly garnered allowed him to embolden his paintings with his extensive imagination. Goethe once said “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it”, and Simkin’s work contains all three on a level that allows us to immerse ourselves in the work, identify with and still be in awe of it. It’s a rare gift to be able to share the world as you see it with an unfiltered eye, paint spectrums of color and form collisions that defy your cynicism as an adult, but still acutely bewilder the beauty of being a child. Recently I sat down with Greg and talked about his past, his present and his future.
Q: How’d you get started? Before graffiti, what created your 1st impulse to make images?
A: My first memories of making art and images occur when I was quite young. I remember going to my first day of pre-school and throwing such a fit that my mom decided to keep me home those early years. I think I was around 3 or 4. Trying to figure out what she was going to do with me everyday, she set out a roll of butcher paper which I in turn attacked with crayons, and markers and those little watercolor sets for kids. It was exciting and always entertaining, and yes I do realize that every kid colors and draws and that this is no unique experience for me. I think the validation from my parents at the time and moving forward that I was actually creating something interesting to look at kept me going. It moved on from there, designing my own G.I. Joe characters in my notebooks, following the t.v. hosts teaching me how to draw Popeye and Woody Woodpecker, and designing my own pairs of Nikes. I was always drawing. In grade school my friends and I would set up a store at recess where we would sell overpriced candy and mazes that my friend Jack Huang and I would draw. He actually drew the best Robotech Veritech fighter and I began trying to copy a bit of what he was doing. In fourth grade there was a contest to draw the cover for the program for the school talent show and I won that with a drawing of a bear skiing for some reason. I think it was these kinds of things that pushed me, along as well as the cartoons and comics I was exposed to at the time. It was graffiti that just pushed me out of my comfort zone and kicked the crap out of the shy/introverted part of me.
Q: What are your newest influences, and do you still come across them the same way? When we’re younger, our influences come from our voyeuristic side and are influenced by visual mediums – do you think you’re still the same way, or more influenced by experience, now as an adult?
A: I think experience does play a part. Stories that I read growing up become jumbled up into a surrealistic background and almost forgotten history to my own life. Those memories of reading intertwine with my real memories and the emotions experienced work there way into my paintings. Rediscovering the Renaissance painters I viewed in museums as a kid has been a fun trip as I shape my own style. Twisting the animals I studied as a kid has also been a way of keeping my youthful side awake. My newest influences are harder to describe, song lyrics have inspired whole paintings. But my single largest influence in my past few solo shows and bodies of work have been in creating a back story. It started with a character named RALF who becomes the White Knight and enters a world called The Outside. In this world every element of what I paint makes sense. The Outside is every land that you have entered be it through a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, a tollbooth, a mirror or fairy dust. Your darkest nightmares and happiest dreams take shape there. Getting there is what keeps these paintings exciting to me. Knowing that world is what I am painting for makes all the difference in my 50 to 60 hour work weeks.
Q: The most interesting thing about your work to me is the malleability and liquidity of your subjects, the morphing feels so organic. Do you view the world and art as being that interconnected? Is graffiti as important as a Bosch painting? Is all life intrinsically interrelated?
A: The flow of the subject matter I believe developed when I was doing graffiti. Letter form and balancing my composition into something interesting on a wall switched over to canvas nicely and in most ways much better. I believe that we were made creative people so yes I think the world and art is definitely interconnected. Bosch was important for many reasons, be it his subject matter and approach to a canvas. Graffiti in itself isn’t the same. It is the individual writers, much like Bosch was an individual painter, that makes graffiti an important movement. There is a list of graffiti artists who I would just call artists because to classify them under a heading would be an unnecessary pigeon holing. Their work is going to be looked back upon like the works of Rembrandt and Van Gogh many years from now. I would hope that there was a thread that spun through all life to relate everything, or else what are we doing here?
Q: I totally agree, art is art, I hate the ordained hierarchy of it all. You merge seamlessly so many styles. That being said, do you have a problem with the “lowbrow” label, and do you even consider yourself a “lowbrow” artist?
A: Honestly, I do not like the term lowbrow and have a problem with categories and labels in general. I understand them and why people use them, but calling something “lowbrow” seems an easy way to dismiss it sometimes. “Pop surrealism” has a better ring to it, but I prefer to drop the pop altogether and just call it surrealism, or how about fine art, or maybe just “hey check out this painting”. I am only concerned with attempting to make paintings that you can’t take your eyes off of. Still trying to get there, but that is half the fun of it.
Q: There is an exuberant childlike feel to your work, like a kid in a sandbox playing; an unaware boldness that dissipates with age. How do you maintain that sensibility without it being contrived?
A: I really don’t know. I am not purposely doing it. I am just painting the way that feels right and comes natural. Also, the addition of my little boy who is now 3 sure brings back a lot of those feelings of being a kid that I thought I had lost.
Q: Who are some of your favorite artists? Do you have a different set of standards for the idiom they work in?
A: That’s a tough question, I do enjoy so many artists work both living and passed. You of course have been someone whose work I admire for sometime, I think dangerous and luscious come to mind when looking at your paintings, they are incredible. Mars-1 is always on the top of my list as are Joe Sorren, Oliver Vernon, Tony Curanaj, Alex Pardee, Mike Giant, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Albrecht Durer, John James Audubon, Frederich Church, Scott Gustafson, Frazetta, Dr. Seuss, and so many more.
Q: You do so many things, paint, curate, your clothing company, graffiti… is there anything left that you have left to put the “Craola” or “Greg Simkins” signature on?
A: I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to make a visual masterpiece of my world “The Outside” and the story of the White Knight into some kind of motion picture. I have been slowly writing the story out and enjoy that process as much as painting. Hopefully one day it could be worthy of an audience in its written form and movie form.
Q: What’s on the horizon for you?
A: I am about to release my very first book called “Drawn From the Well” by Presto art publishing (http://craola1.blogspot.com/2010/08/first-look-at-my-book.html) this September with the initial release at Dragon Con in Atlanta. Following that in November, will be my last solo show in the states for a while called Story Teller and will be held at Gallery 1988. There are some other fun things in the works as well but don’t want to unload too much right now.
Q:Thanks for taking the time to talk Greg, anything in closing?”
A: I really feel lucky and blessed to be able to do this work for a living. It really does feel like a dream sometimes even in the midst of long hours and pulled backs. If you are reading this and managed to get to the end of the article then I assume that you are someone who enjoys these paintings. I specifically want to thank you. All the emails and encouragement you have all sent me through the years has really made this all worth it.
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