Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Aaron Horkey Interview

Justin Norman of HI-FRUCTOSE magazine interviewed Aaron Horkey after the show in Windom. Justin is a good guy, I tagged Justin's car with a ITRPF sticker thinking it was someone else's car. I did not know it was his until I saw him get in and drive off, but he was a good sport about it.

Anyway here is his interview:

First off, how many stars were on that "Midwestern Heart" print? My guess was 2,500, but I never heard what the actual amount was.

The final tally was 4,340 which is substantially higher than I would have ever guessed. Even though it took about 8 hours to draw them, I assumed there would only be a thousand or so. Credit for the official count goes to my long-suffering wife, Kim. She figured out a system so as to not lose her place while counting and knocked it out between ferrying kids to soccer practice and whipping up some incredible vegan blueberry/peach cobbler.

Can you tell us a bit about the idea behind that print and the show?

The main idea behind making the print was to have something available for folks to pick up as a memento of the exhibit since nothing in the show itself was for sale. I tried to come up with imagery that wasn't too obviously Midwestern while still referencing the area (although, admittedly, a huge ear of corn is just about as obvious as it comes). Ladybird beetles are ubiquitous here, especially in the summer months, and the clear, star-filled sky is a definite hallmark of the rural midwestern experience. The dilapidated barn in the background was found on a gravel road outside of Mason City, Iowa and has long since returned to the soil. I've carried those reference photos around with me for almost a decade, wasn't until this project that I found the right spot for her. As for the show, I mostly just wanted to gather a few things together that I wasn't terribly embarrassed by and present them in their native environment. Most all of my reference material and inspiration for the work in the show was culled from the surrounding wilds of rural Cottonwood County and a majority of that from within a 10 mile radius of the gallery/museum. The Remick Gallery was the venue for my first solo exhibit which took place in the summer of 2003 and I wanted to present a good cross-section of my output from the seven following years. A decent amount of stuff didn't make the cut but the space filled up fairly well regardless, definitely the highest number of pieces I've had in a single show.

There were rumors floating around the Internet that this would be your final show, but from what I gathered, you've got another one coming up late next year. Can you tell us more about that?

"Midwestern Heart" will be my last solo show for quite a while, if not for good. If I did another solo show I'd want to exhibit a series of all new paintings and drawings which would take many years to compile as well as finding the right space to present them. Really can't see it happening what with the commercial work and parental duties absorbing most of my waking hours but the idea of a new painting show is always there, nagging at the back of my head. Never say never, I suppose. The show next year would be a group show in San Francisco, California but I'm not 100% sure it's happening so I can't divulge anything beyond that.

The oldest of your work at the show was a group of skateboard designs from 2004. What led you to begin working on skateboards and how did that lead to your work as a poster artist (if, in fact, it did)?

They are, for the most part, unrelated - just two avenues I always aspired to have my drawings applied to. I started skateboarding around 1992-1993 and have been obsessed ever since. Being land-locked in that era the thought never crossed my mind that I'd ever be able to contribute to the visual history of skateboarding. Then, around the turn of the century, my good friend Todd Bratrud began making headway within "the industry" and wound up eventually becoming art director at a company which essentially gave him free reign and he, in turn, let me know the door was open for submissions. Being called on to send in graphics was the most exciting/daunting thing I'd experienced up to that point. I'll never forget opening the first box of boards I'd designed. Lackluster though they were, it was an absolute stoke. The opportunity to work on posters came a few years later and when those started catching on and finding an audience I really slowed down with the skateboard graphics. I'd love to get back into it but I've vowed to never have my stuff applied to a skateboard via heat transfer ever again - screenprinting only from here on out. Unfortunately almost nobody shares my sentiment as screened graphics are more expensive, time-consuming and difficult to produce and as such are only practiced by a small number of individuals in this day and age. Another dying art I'm not prepared to let go of just yet.

When you put together a show like this and look back through all your previous art, in what ways do you observe your work evolving since you began?

I'd like to think I've started to figure out how to draw although it's painfully obvious I have many more miles to go before I'm able to pull-off a successful picture. The lettering on a lot of those early prints is just clunky and awkward - I was still measuring widths between letters and going to great lengths to make sure drop shadows were uniform, etc. Once I started to loosen up a bit the lettering became less stilted and more interesting, to me at least. As for the evolution of the screenprints, once I had a few under my belt I started to better understand how the inks interacted with each other and what elements could be omitted from the main drawing and added onto other layers. Discovering transparent black/grey was a huge step toward somewhat believable dimensionality with shadows and such, to the point of being sometimes ridiculous and often times spending days on shadow layers barely visible in the final printed product. You can really see the evolutionary leap, for better or worse, if you compare the three Andrew Bird posters in the show. I grouped all three together on the wall and there were 3 years separating each print starting with 2003, 2006 and ending in 2009. To my eyes the most recent is the most successful but the 2003 Bird still stands as the favorite for most of my collectors. I'd like to believe it's because it's the hardest to come by, as it's not a particularly strong piece, but I really can't tell anymore.

I got to talk to your parents quite a bit at the show. They told me that you were pretty self-motivated from an early age and that you mostly trained yourself as an artist. Yet even in some of your oldest work, your designs have been markedly intricate - requiring a very close look to notice everything you've packed into each corner. How did you go about developing your highly-detailed style when you were younger?

As long as I can recall I've tried to make every square centimeter of surface area count. The entirety of my 6th grade social studies note-taking was crammed onto one college ruled notebook page, much to the chagrin of my teacher at the time. I've always been drawn to excessive detail - my favorite books when I was a kid were of the sort where one could get lost in each page for hours. "Who Needs Donuts?" by Mark Alan Stamaty is a perfect example. Once I got more immersed in comics it was a similar thing - Rand Holmes, Serpieri, Hewlett, Crumb, Ware, Cooper, Kerri - all my favorites really know how to fill a panel/page. That's the sort of work I react to and that I've always aspired to make, horror vacui forever.

Manta rays and helmeted birds have been frequent characters in your work through the years, often found perched atop decaying machines or flying across rural landscapes. What sorts of things inspire these recurring visuals?

The rays, manta and otherwise, are there for their inherent symmetry, the birds are dogged survivors. Each has a role within a greater narrative, which each faction is slowly evolving within. I have a loose idea of where these animals are headed but I'm trying to let them find their own route for the time being.

Can you take me through the process of designing a concert poster from start to finish? I'm particularly curious how much bearing each band's music has on the design, and how involved you are with the screen printing process.

The music is of utmost importance - there have only been two or three instances where I was unfamiliar with a band's output prior to working on their poster. It felt a lot more like work and the resulting prints clearly reflect this. As for the process, I'll walk you through the Genghis Tron tour poster from 2008. The band and I had been in touch for a couple years but the timing didn't work out for a print until late in 2007/early 2008 when they were planning a record release tour for their sophomore LP, Board Up the House. I had an opening in my schedule, the record was incredible and the band understood my "no art direction" policy, so all systems were go.
Once I start in on a rock poster I don't listen to that particular band until the prints are signed and out the door. I feel like something's going to be compromised if I do - some literal visual translation will occur or some such spanner will be thrown. This is where being acutely familiar with the band's discography and outlook comes into play.
For this poster I knew going into it that I wanted to at least partially explore a merging of mechanical and organic textures to somehow mirror the music these guys create. I already had fairly fleshed out sketches of the antique microphone housing apparatus from an earlier, aborted project and thought they might mesh well with an insect of some kind. At this point I start gathering all my reference and, if photos are needed, (in this case the nail and dust covered, debris-strewn foreground) I'll shoot and print multiple angles of whatever the project calls for. By the time I start drawing up rough comps I've usually already pieced the poster together in my head, turning over each aspect of the final composition again and again until I'm as familiar with its basic "ghost" as possible so it's just a matter of stumbling through sketches until it all matches up on paper.
I typically put down 6-20 tiny, rough comps until one clicks and I'm able to build the final illustration from this loose idea. In the case of the Genghis print, the main foreground illustration and background lettering are drawn on separate plates but interact with each other on the final poster, following a basic line of movement up and away from the horizon line. Because of this I needed to draw one final refined sketch with both elements present, splitting up the lettering and illustration when it came time to transfer the art to the final paper for ink. My final pencil rough [sketches] typically include about 90% of the detail present in the finished ink work but may be only half the size. Similarly, the finished inks may be only a third or half the size of the final print, so the process from initial sketch to printed poster may involve a 500% enlargement. This is why it's so important to ensure the composition is solid from a very early stage. It really reduces headaches - especially with a deadline looming. It usually takes a good 4-5 days to get the inked drawing somewhere approaching acceptable [quality].
Once the ink work is completed I'll reduce it back down via Xerox and work up a color composite using watercolors, markers and gouache. This gives me a good idea of how many additional layers I'll need to draw for highlights, shadows, etcetera, and what color of paper I'll need to order for the prints. In this case I needed to draw two layers of highlights: a fill layer for the foreground illustration, and the “Genghis Tron” lettering that appears behind the insect. Additionally, I still had to draw the information text for the tour itself - dates, cities, flourishes - that would appear in the lower portion of the poster beneath the main illustration.
I ended up designing two separate text pieces for this poster as the first attempt was absolutely awful and really had no redeeming qualities. Once all the art is complete, everything is scanned in and assembled into a digital mock-up to ensure the various plates line up and nothing is terribly out-of-whack. Film is then output, screens are shot, and ink is mixed. I try to be present for at least part of the printing process if at all possible, either to sign off on colors or just to help rack prints, but I don't remember being around for this one until it was time to sign the band's copies. Ben LaFond handled printing duties on this one and absolutely nailed it as usual. The custom-mixed metallic green ink and split fountain lettering really turned out well on the dark brown stock, band was stoked and it was on to the next one.

You've made posters for a pretty wide range of bands. Does any of them stand out as particularly inspiring to design for?

Most all of them have been an absolute pleasure to work with. I'm very lucky to have been able to contribute something, however insignificant, to the visual histories of quite a few of my favorite bands. Isis, Andrew Bird, Converge and Boris are some of my repeat clients, all of which have inspired me for many years, well before I started working with them personally. Getting to work with Cable was a dream come true as well, I thought I'd never have the chance, but when they reformed in 2008 for a handful of shows I had to throw my hat in the ring. Two posters and an album cover later and the rest is history.

I've noticed that you're also a musician under the name Jack Spaar and even released an album back in 2005. Do you continue to write and perform music?

I designed and issued the Jack Spaar record as a historical document via my 420X10 imprint but, despite rumors to the contrary, I'm not Jack. There have been a small number of unsubstantiated accounts of his continued existence but he's presumed to have died in a mobile meth lab explosion outside Fulda, Minnesota in the early years of this century.

After years of designing for all sorts of surfaces - skateboards, clothing, shoes, belt buckles, album and magazine covers, toys - what's been your favorite material to work on, and why?

LP covers and skateboards are tops for me. My heroes growing up all had either album art or skateboard graphics (or both) in their portfolios so naturally that was the goal.

In June, your company, Dead Arts Publishing, released the first of a series of six sets of prints depicting your black-and-white original drawings. Can you tell me a little about the series and when we'll get to see more?

The letterpress series has been years in the making and every force in the known universe seems to be conspiring against its completion, but we are planning on announcing the contents of Suite 2 early in October of this year. The prints included in the series are 1:1 scale, 1 color letterpressed reproductions of my original drawings released in 6 sets of 3 prints each over the course of the next year or so. The prints are available individually or in lavishly packaged suites, which include an exclusive bonus print available only with purchase of the set that will not be reprinted elsewhere. Including bonus prints there will be 24 pieces total in the series: 18 standard edition pieces and 6 bonus prints. Each round of prints are available as an open edition during a specific ordering window and the edition size is determined by the amount of prints ordered during this window. Anyone interested in receiving updates and/or further information regarding the series can subscribe to the mailing list at

Lastly, what's next on your slate? Any new projects we should keep an eye out for?

So much backed up on the desk, now that the show is open I can get back to work. A couple new movie posters for Mondo, a new collaborative print at the Bird Machine with Jay Ryan, portfolio exchange in conjunction with the MAPC 2010 conference in Minneapolis, letterpress bonus prints and incidentals, painting commissions, more Japan-exclusive items to be released via Mega•Fauna, some shirts, look through the Jaime Hernandez art book, mow the lawn, ride my bike, change some diapers, wash some dishes, etc.


Check out my pictures from the show and rural Minnesota

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