There is an intangible feeling of nostalgia embedded in so much of Noah Butkus’s work. It’s a quality that’s vividly displayed in his stark black and white illustrations and whimsical paintings, but nearly impossible to explain. His paintings give the impression of existing in an almost Ralph Bakshi-like world, where bizarre creatures cohabitated with opinionated wizards and chainsmoking rabbit pimps. And his illustrations often delve into darker, even stranger territory. Mysterious hooded men disembowel one another with swords while jousting on skateboards; squishy, intestine-like tubes (with tongues) serpentine through homes that are actually hamburgers; and skull-faced men with empty eye sockets look on, faces melting. And while it may sound like the work of a deeply troubled mind, Butkus flawlessly pulls it of, treading a thin line between serious and surreal.
A child of the 1970s, and a self-taught artist, Butkus cites comic books as a key influence on and inspiration for his work. But not just any comic books, Mr. Butkus has standards, referencing the output of artists who dominated the scene in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Illustrators like Jim Steranko, Moebius, and Richard Corben are among the names he quickly rattles off. But there is more to Mr. Butkus than illustration, he is also a successful graphic designer, having done work for a range of clients from Burton Snowboards (where he honed his design skills) to Stussy to Nike. And while Butkus mentions that he’s been drawing most of his life, he claims he originally got the bug to pursue art after doing t-shirt and album cover art for his brother’s hardcore band, Death Threat. A five-year stint in the trenches at a screenprinting shop followed before he broke off to design snowboard graphics at Burton.
Originally from Hartford, Connecticut, Butkus now lives in Manhattan. At 32, he has already paid considerable dues in the art world. No longer tied to a company desk he spends his days at his home studio, balancing commercial and personal work. In recent years he has also begun exhibiting his work in both solo and group exhibitions, like last year’s group show We’re Rollin’ They’re Hatin’. Having worked with Mr. Butkus in the past, he contributed a page to an anthology I edited in 2005 called Young & Reckless, I wanted to catch up with him and talk at greater length about his work. I hope you enjoy.
One of the things I like about your illustration work is the way it treads the line between serious and surreal. Is there any premeditation on content before you begin, or do you just start drawing and see what happens
I pretty much just start drawing and what happens, happens. If I go in with a plan it almost never works out. When I look at a drawing I planned out, I can see all the spots that were pushed or forced and it just doesn't look natural to me. I will take a drawing and sometimes remake it, but as long as it holds on to the initial feelings I'm happy. I just try to draw things that entertain myself.
So does that act as a measure of quality control for you? Meaning that, if it doesn’t entertain you, you move on to the next thing?
Yeah, if there's no enjoyment it's really difficult to move through it. I'll battle with a project for a couple weeks until I find an approach that pleases me. Once that happens it moves very quickly. I've tried to take myself out of it many times, but then in the end I always revert to making it how I would without thinking too much about the outside influences. That way I can inject more of what comes naturally into the end product.
There's also a great feeling of youthful excitement to much of your work—influences that seem to stem from comic books, cartoons, video games, and album cover art. Is that a fairly accurate observation, or am I pulling these references out of my ass?
Yeah, I'd say you're pretty dead on. Comic books and cartoons [are two things] I could talk about till I’m blue in the face. Video games and music are really important in my life too. I feel like all of those things really sort of mold your imagination growing up. I say comic books had the [most] profound effect on me though. Comics really inspired me to draw at a pretty young age.
What was it about comic books that caught your attention? And who are some artists that you would say influenced your work?
My uncle and cousin were both comic book collectors, they're the ones who got me [hooked]. I was pretty obsessed with comics up until the early '90s. In the nineties [though] comic books became over polished with new printing techniques and computer coloring. For me it doesn't get any better than late '60s and '70s comic books. There were so many guys from that era that just blow away anything that's been done in the last 18 years. Guys like Moebius and Richard Corben and Jim Steranko, Berni Wrightson and Michael Kaluta. I wanted to be able to draw like all these guys. They were key in the motivation for me to keep drawing.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you came up in the art world?
After high school I worked at a screenprinting shop for a number of years, while still drawing stuff for myself. I would also do alot of artwork for my brother’s band and during that time it sort of started me down the road of doing things more on the graphics side of things. That lead me to doing work for Burton Snowboards and that’s when I started to receive some attention about my work. I never really for saw myself making a living off of any of it. I feel pretty fortunate that people are interested in the things I draw.
So are you able to live solely off your art now? If so, what’s a normal workday like for you?
I pay the bills by doing commercial work. My day usually starts out pretty slow, I don't really get going on any work till the early afternoon. Most of my work gets done late at night, into the early morning. I've always been more productive at night for some reason.
In the past couple years, I've noticed you're doing more gallery shows. Is that a path you're hoping to pursue more diligently?
I really enjoy doing shows. It gives me better reason to make things that I would normally think about doing, [but] never actually do. I would like to keep doing shows. I feel alot more connected to the work I make for shows than something I make for commercial use. The work I show is coming purely from me without someone else injecting themselves into it.
When you say, “without someone else injecting themselves into it,” I assume you’re referring to client-based work? Can you explain a little bit about how you find a balance between your personal and commercial work?
The balance is hard to find sometimes. If you're doing something that's just for the income and not because you stand by the end product, I find it hard to give all of myself to that. But at the same time I want to please the client so it takes alot a thinking to get my head wrapped around it. And hopefully when all is said and done, it's something we both like.
When it comes to color choice, and overall composition, your design sensibilities are really come through in your art. Do you think being a designer and illustrator has, for the most part, helped you in your work?
I think so. Growing up I had no idea what graphic design was. It was completely off my radar. The band Suede had all these great sleeves for their singles in the early nineties, I loved all of them. And all the early Verve singles had these great sleeves [too], and then Oasis, and finally I figured out that this guy Brian Cannon did all of them. It really opened up this whole world that I never knew existed. I would never call myself a graphic designer though. I think my work comes from a far too selfish place in me. I kind of approach art to please myself first, and if someone likes it too it's a real bonus.
So after being exposed to Cannon’s work, which sounds like it was your informal introduction to graphic design, how would you say your view of art changed, if at all?
I find that it hasn't changed my view of things. I'm still primarily drawn to work that has personality to it, work that makes you feel like you almost know what the person is like who's making it. I can't say that Cannon is a great example of that though. His work was out of reach for me. I lacked the resources to create anything like that, although I found it inspiring. It opened my eyes as to what a graphic designer does.
What do you like most about your job? And if given the opportunity, would you change anything?
I really enjoy the freedom of working for myself. I've never been good at waking up and showing up to a job where I need to be creative first thing in the morning. Now I work at my own pace and I think it's for the best. I don't think I would really change any of it.
What's the future look like? Do you have any gallery shows or special projects on the horizon?
I'm gonna have a small show at Premium Goods
in Brooklyn sometime this summer, we haven't figured out a solid date yet. I'll also be in a group show at a place called Penelope's in Chicago.
All images featured in this article were used with permission from the artist. Images are © 2008 Noah Butkus, all rights reserved.