Onsmith is a cartoonist and illustrator living in Chicago. His comics, prints, and illustrations have appeared in numerous publications and will have a collection of his work out in 2014, published by Yam Books. His blog is http://www.onsmithcomics.blogspot.com Also, see the collaborative artwork made with fellow artist, Paul Nudd, at http://westernexhibitions.com/westernXeditions/artists/OnsmithNudd/index.html
Vincent Wright: first of all thank you for taking you time conduct this interview. What’s happening work wise for you at the moment
Onsmith: I recently finished 2 stories for 2 anthologies: Black Eye 2 and Linework vol. 4. The new Study Group Magazine also has 2 pages of mine in it. The Graphic Canon vol. 3 just came out as well and features my adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s “Crash”. I’m also currently putting together a small collection of my comics and drawings for Yam Books, due out in early 2014.
Vincent Wright: when did you first know that you wanted to become a cartoonist/illustrator
Onsmith: Since childhood, I haven’t stopped drawing. I had different ideas over the years as to what I would make, the position I would aspire to, and how I would pursue it. This went from wanting to be a voice actor and animator for cartoons when I was a kid to superhero comics artist when I was in my teens to “artist” in my late teens/early 20s and then back to cartoonist nowadays. I suppose it was also in my early 20s where I started self-publishing mini-comics and pursuing illustration so I suppose this final incarnation started back then.
Vincent Wright: were there any people who heavily influenced you growing up to make take an interested in comics/art
Onsmith: My older brother and I drew all the time when we were young. It was pretty competitive but also quite inspiring. I suppose he was the first person that got me more into comics and art. In high school, I had a group of friends that read comics and drew superheroes and roleplaying characters so that too was encouraging. Having grown up in a small town in the bible belt with neither of my parents being involved in the arts, personal comics/art heroes were difficult to come by.
Vincent Wright: how do you find your commercial illustration and own personal comics work effect each other in terms of influence.
Onsmith: This is a bit difficult to pinpoint, as the two seem to blur together at times in terms of responding to art direction and creating narrative-based illustrations. Formally, I think the use of visual economy in comics has certainly strengthened my illustration work. There are times where an illustration of mine doesn’t vary much from say, a one-panel gag cartoon that’s more personal.
Vincent Wright: I have seen that you have public talks and anthology’s with some of the top alternative cartoonist that are about today how have you found that experience.
Onsmith: The panels I've been on with Ivan Brunetti have been really quite great because I know Ivan and am comfortable with him. He's very articulate and helps the panel discussions flow very well. It has also inspired me to step it up a bit with my response to questions. I was once on a panel with Chris Ware as well, at The Art Institute of Chicago. It's been surreal, to say the least, to be on these panels with such comics luminaries and of course, it makes someone like me question his worth, his validity within the comics world. But since it just happened to work out like this, I'm fine with it. I may not have another chance at something of this sort so I really appreciate having been able to talk about comics with these inspiring artists.
Vincent Wright: do you have many close cartoonist friends that you hang out with on a regular basis and do find that it helps your artistic development to have cartoonist friends
Onsmith: I certainly have several friends who employ different art disciplines, not just comics. One of my best friends and fellow collaborator, Paul Nudd, is an artist who works in various media such as drawing/painting, sculpture, film/video, etc. I’ve learned a lot from him for sure. I’m also fortunate to be friends with Ivan Brunetti, who was also one of my instructors in college. Then there’s the Trubble Club, which includes SO many talented cartoonists. There’s always something going on in Chicago so I’m lucky to get to spend time with all these great folks. Overall, yes, being here in Chicago and having access to these folks has certainly effected my growth as a cartoonist.
Vincent Wright: your work some times has a very abstract construction about it, how to do you arrive at that decision to when creating a piece.
Onsmith: Sometimes, it’s to contrast with the content or embellish, when other times, I simply wish to abstract the visuals and build the story around it. More often than not, I at least try to have some sort of logic to the abstraction, such as emotional upsets in the characters abstracting the figures. In “Dispossession by Tornado”, I used abstraction to indicate the tornado coming through as the couple is huddled in a storm shelter. Skewed or fragmented settings interest me again, as a sort of emotional projection or some sort of existential disintegration, if that doesn’t sound overly pretentious. A lot of the modernist works I’m drawn to, such as German Expressionism, employ this schism between emotion and visual rendering. Or, it could be that I’m just not that great at rendering so I rely on lawless abstraction.
Vincent Wright: are there any artist/writers/musicians out side of cartooning that have had a monumental effect on your work or creative decisions
Onsmith: Oh absolutely! I’ll try to keep this somewhat brief. From visual art, Chicago Imagist artists such as H.C. Westermann, Jim Nutt and Karl Wirsum. German Expressionists Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, and George Grosz (though he was more aligned with Dada, I suppose). Also other artist favorites like, Fernand Leger, Max Ernst, Philip Guston, Stuart Davis, and illustrator Jim Flora. In literature, Nelson Algren, Philip K. Dick, Harry Crews, Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, and William S. Burroughs when I was younger. I have been reading much more poetry recently such as, Fernando Pessoa, Robert Walser, Georg Trakl, and others. In music, it’s all over the place and always evolving. I find a lot of inspiration in Sun City Girls, the releases on the Sublime Frequencies label, early The Fall albums, Current 93, Townes Van Zandt, lots of old psych-rock and garage rock, old country and roots music, obscure and tragic folk singers (such as Jackson C. Frank, Robbie Basho, Val Stoecklein), and much more. Obviously, film has also made quite an impact on me. Most especially films by Andrei Tarkovsky, Elia Kazan, Stanley Kubrick, as well as documentaries by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog.
Vincent Wright: you work in many mediums illustration, comics, writing and installations, does this help keep your creativity fresh and reduce the risk of stagnation?
Onsmith: I suppose so, yes. It’s just that when I start to feel like a total failure in one medium, I might give myself a project that’s in another medium. It all comes back to comics though, especially when I look back at all the editorial (narrative-based) illustration work I’ve made.
Vincent Wright: how did you find working on the afterimage exhibit? Would you ever want to do something like that again?
Onsmith: The Afterimage exhibit was a great experience. Being asked to install my collection of toys and junk in the former studio/home of Roger Brown was quite a treat. I would certainly do it again but the next time, I would like to try and exhibit more of the prints and drawings from other artists I’ve collected over the years. Maybe even set up a display of some of my treasured mini-comics as well.
Vincent Wright: what tools and equipment do you use to create you comic and illustration work?
Onsmith: I mainly use the Pentel “Pocket Brush”, which works like a real brush because of its handmade bristles. No dipping though, just an even flow from the cartridge. I’ve been using this pen for probably 12 years and haven’t had to replace it. For finer lines, technical pens like Microns or Staedtler pens. I’ve also made some traditionally colored work lately using watercolor pencils, ebony pencils, and inkwash.
Vincent Wright: what’s your take on the comics industry at present?
Onsmith: Yeesh, I try not to voice my opinions, nor follow the trends in the comics industry too closely. But I do think there’s been a lot of work from obscure talents being published more so now than ever. It’s a really great time for comics now. Having said this, I also think there’s been a lot of mediocre, derivative work that’s been published as well. Sometimes, this bothers me but mostly, I ignore these sort of comics. I’m mainly speaking of North America here, as I don’t know much of the industries in other countries.
Vincent Wright: is there any plans to bring out a collection of all your collected strips at any point soon?
Onsmith: Yes, actually I’m putting together a book right now for Rina Ayuyang’s Yam Books. It’s called, Diminished Returns and is due out in Spring 2014. It will include selections from my comics, drawings, doodles, and collaborations I’ve made in the past 8 or 9 years. It’s not a comprehensive collection but will highlight some of (what I consider) the better work I’ve made.
Vincent Wright: what would be your words of advice to any younger cartoonists starting out?
Onsmith: Since I’ve started teaching comics here in Chicago, I typically tell my students to start small, keep it attainable, and keep it sincere. Self-publishing mini-comics teaches a person the fundamentals of what one might do with a larger work (such as a graphic novel). Again, I would tell cartoonists starting out to try to keep it sincere to their visions/feelings/perspectives and not to force something that isn’t somehow personal to them. But hell, I’m still figuring things out for my own comics as I make them, so this is what I tell myself. Just keep it sincere and keep making more work. Hopefully you’ll hit on something that really resonates.
Vincent Wright: thanks again for taking your time to answer my questions.