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The Story Of An Artist: Victor Gastelum

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Interview with Victor Gastelum.

“Victor is the fifth Beatle, he is the silent one that no one really ever sees.”

—Joey Burns, Calexico

Words: Craig Carry, Artwork: Victor Gastelum

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“Love the run but not the race
All alone in a silent way
World drifts in and the world’s a stranger”

—‘Quattro (World Drifts In)’, Calexico

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In an attempt to write the story of the Long Beach California-based artist Victor Gastelum, it is tempting to simultaneously write the story of Tucson Arizona’s beloved sons Calexico. For, across the band’s vast body of sprawling, timeless work — encompassing a string of studio albums, tour records, a plethora of EP’s, soundtrack scores and a multitude of collaborative works — the artwork of Gastelum’s adorn some of the most precious of Calexico’s records since their inception in 1996, following core-duo Joey Burns and John Convertino’s previous spell as rhythm-section to Howe Gelb’s Giant Sand; another one of Tucson’s most revered bands. Victor Gastelum, a native of Southern California, would provide the artwork for one of the band’s earliest releases, “Spark/The Ride”, a single put out in 1996, prior to the band’s full-length debut “Spoke” (released by Quarterstick Records in the following year). The music (both written by Burns) can be perfectly summed up by the description found inside, set in all-lowercase, on a black-and-white postcard-sized insert:

“two western gems from two southwestern gents. joey and john from giant sand moonlighting in the tucson sun.”

The stencil artwork on “Spark/The Ride” is vintage Gastelum, featuring a young man and his low-ride car in a striking 2-color blue and gold combination. The image — like his later work — is isolated on a white background like a flash-aided Richard Avedon portrait, highlighting the iconic feel of the image in its minimal setting. The artwork would be the first of many in a near-symbiotic journey between Gastelum and Calexico over the next couple of decades when Gastelum would go on to produce the artwork for the band’s studio albums “The Black Light” (1998), “Hot Rail” (2000), “Feast Of Wire” (2003), the tour record “Tool Box” (2007), “Carried To Dust” (2008), the limited edition box-set — comprising the band’s tour-only releases — “Road Atlas 1998-2011” (2011) as well as a host of various singles and EP’s (including “Stray”, “The Ride (Pt. 2)”, “Ballad Of Cable Hogue”, “Crystal Frontier”, “Service & Repair”, “Even My Sure Things Fall Through”, “Alone Again Or”, “Quattro (World Drifts In)”, “Black Heart” and “Convict Pool”).

Gastelum’s first meeting with Californian-born Burns came during his spell working as a designer for SST Records (home to such bands as Black Flag and The Minutemen) at the turn of the nineties. This period would also prove crucial in Gastelum’s artistic development through the meeting of another influential artist — the Tucson-born graphic artist Raymond Pettibon — whose iconic, hugely distinctive and influential drawings would be widely seen during the vibrant punk music scene of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Pettibon’s unique and sophisticated combination of image with text would also prove influential to Gastelum’s own artwork. Since the mid 1990’s, Gastelum has had numerous solo and group shows, as well as collaborating with Pettibon — amongst others — for the publications “Faster, Jim” (a special limited edition artist book published by Hamilton Press in 2002, the aluminum book cover is by Gastelum and the slipcase — featuring the artwork “Good Year” — is a collaboration between Gastelum and Pettibon) and “Line Drive”, a portfolio of 12 lithographs featuring 12 artists’ response to the subject of Baseball (Gastelum’s 6-color lithograph, entitled “LA Fury”, features alongside artworks by such artists as Pettibon, Ed Ruscha and Dani Tull).

Born in Torrance, California, Victor Gastelum’s distinctive artistic vision was much influenced by the punk and “DIY” ethos (characterized by the hand-assembled rough-and-ready made collages, photocopies and the often-coined “artless” approach as advocated by the Punk movement) of the period during the eighties when he graduated L.A. Trade Tech. The fact that Gastelum’s own training provided a grounding for commercial — as opposed to fine — art would prove significant. Gastelum would quickly appreciate the art of craftsmanship while learning techniques (stenciling, spray paint, overspray, creating halftones) which he would soon finely harness and adopt in his own personal work.

Growing up as a Latino in Southern California would shape much of Gastelum’s outlook on the world, and his near-outsider status would be similarly shared by his friends in Calexico. As Joey Burns recounted during an interview at Austin Town Hall in 2008:

“He didn’t fit in and like our music, he went a separate route, but benefited from strong influences and character.” 

Gastelum’s work (whether commissioned or personal artwork) has always been characterized by a deep love and respect for craft where each individual artwork holds a powerful individuality and resonance on the viewer. Since beginning his spray paint stencil multiples in the late eighties and early nineties, the lasting resonance of Gastelum’s work can also be attributed to the fact that the works are left open to interpretation for the viewer. As the Overtones Gallery director and curator Elizabeta Betinski has said, Gastelum’s art “leaves room for his audiences to imagine and create stories of their own.”

Herein lies the everlasting spark in Gastelum’s work, on looking at any one of his artworks a whole world of rich narratives begin to drift in. Like the girl in Gastelum’s “girl with 88mm camera”, we can project our own past experiences and feelings onto the lens of Gastelum’s treasured art. The world drifts in. And the world’s a stranger.

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“Checked my eyes to see if they had spokes
See if they are moving
See if they had spokes
See if there is somewhere else to ride”

—‘Spokes’, Calexico

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Artwork for Calexico’s “Spark/The Ride” (7″ vinyl)

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Album art for Calexico’s “Road Atlas” box set, 2011

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Interview with Victor Gastelum.

Your own background training stems from attending a school for commercial art. It’s really interesting because when you graduated computers were only in their infancy as such. This almost “DIY”, handmade approach can be seen throughout your work to date, where a deep love and appreciation for craft and technique can be closely observed.
What did your educational training consist of, and what techniques did you learn and later adopt for your own work when you began your spray paint stencil multiples in the late eighties and early nineties?

VG: I attended a two-year commercial art program at L.A. Trade Tech. College where I learned about design, typography and commercial art production. Specifically, I also learned how to use an Xacto knife, spray mount, technical drawing pens, acetate and the different printing processes. I learned how to use photostat cameras, spec type, line screens and a ton of things that the computer would pretty much replace or eliminate. At LATTC, you were taught things that could help you get an entry-level job doing production art, basically the stuff kids, who came from art schools did not want to do. Probably the most important thing I learned there was using an Xacto knife, spray mount and acetate. With those things I taught myself how to make stencil art. I use whatever methods possible to get my images done whether hand tools or computer.

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I imagine Pop Art, music (both punk and a diverse independent music scene) and much underground publications — including comic art — must have played a key role in your development as an artist. What were your formative influences on you as a young artist?

VG: Art was always important to me because it was the only thing I was any good at. But I never imagined it would develop into anything other than something personal. Mad Magazine was a big influence on my drawing skills and also provided a cynical view of pop culture and society. I started seriously liking music while I was in middle school. My younger brother started buying records and together we started to go to rock concerts. Then punk rock and hard core started happening and we started buying that stuff and going to gigs. I always loved rock album and poster art, and we read things like Creem Magazine. Punk rock and hard core created the possibility for me to participate with my art. The music, fanzines, record covers, fliers and comics spoke to me. I understood it, and what I didn’t understand did not scare me.

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“Convertible Impala No.2” 1993 spray paint on paper stamped and signed on front

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“Worker Looking Up” 1992 spray paint on paper stamped and on front [in the notes: “We Got Pressure”]

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I found it really interesting reading a quote that Joey Burns has said about your work: “he didn’t fit in, and, like our music, he went a separate route, but benefited from strong influences and character.” As the curator and gallery director Elizabeta Betinski has also stated before, “growing up with Chicano roots in a culturally diverse community” became a key influence on your choice of subject-matter. Would this be an accurate assessment on your work?

VG: I’ve never read the quote from Joey but my spray paint art definitely did not fit in at the time I was first doing it. I wasn’t aware of anybody making stencils as their primary medium. You just didn’t see stencils in galleries or museums. That was a good thing for me because when you are a young artist trying to develop a style you are wishing for something with a little originality and you don’t know what that’s going to be.

I think where you come from shows through in your art. Being exposed to different cultures, foods, languages, music, clothes, graphics, whatever put what I saw on TV and was taught in school into perspective.

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In terms of your choice of subject-matter, your work has various recurring images, for example; cars, guns and various “Cholo iconography”, as it has been described before. They remind me of Robert Frank’s “The Americans” insofar as a similar recurring use of distinct subject-matter runs throughout (the highway, automobile, jukeboxes, and so on). Like Frank’s book, your work — as well as drawing on a particular culture and time — equally strikes me as deeply personal. How would you describe your subject-matter and what it represents for you?

VG: My subject matter consists of things I am interested in or know about. Using my subject matter, I’m trying to cause an emotional response. I’m not cataloging cool cars or every masked wrestler I can find, viscerally I’m trying to create a narrative. When I repeat an image I think of it as running it over again and seeing what comes of it or what more I can get from it. I’ll stop drawing them when I get bored. Having as many as possible of a group is like building on the idea. To me, they start making sense more when there are groups. I’ve started on groups and have not been able to keep going and they just seem strange and out-of-place. Even though they individually turned out as good as I expected because there aren’t more I feel like they fail.

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Your unique work has been used — as well as for many iconic Calexico sleeves — by Culture Clash, Hamilton Press, Greg Ginn as well as collaborations with other artists including Raymond Pettibon for the artist bound book “Faster, Jim” and has also appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times Magazine and “F*cked Up + Photocopied”. Since the nineties you have also had numerous exhibitions — both solo and group shows — across California. How do commissions and editorial work differ for you as opposed to making work principally for yourself and subsequently for exhibition and galleries?

VG: Mostly, it’s not very different. In regards to the things mentioned, people have asked me to be involved because of the work I do. The biggest difference would be maybe a deadline and possibly some preference in subject matter. Also, if something is commissioned for a record cover or a play it is a collaboration because I want the client to get what they think is best for their purpose. Even if it’s a commission it might still end up in a gallery. The other way is true, too. A gallery piece could end up on a record cover. All this work is part of the same thing it is all part of the same body. It’s always work.

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“Julio Chavez” 1992 spray paint and stencil on cardstock 30″x20″

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“Untitled (welder)” 1995 spray paint and stencil on paper 17″x14″ reproduced as album cover art for Calexico’s “Hot Rail”

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If we could now talk next about Tucson Arizona’s beloved band Calexico. Of course you have shared a very close friendship with the band since the very beginning, your artwork provides the perfect visual accompaniment to the band’s distinctive blend of diverse sounds, styles and musical traditions. Your imagery is also so highly evocative — albeit loosely — of Burns’ own writing where inspiration has often stemmed from the Mexico and US border.
I would love if you could recount your first time hearing the sounds of Calexico and the impact and impression the music had on you?

VG: I knew Joey and John were listening to movie soundtracks, and they were buying instruments that were new to them at the time and experimenting. But when I first heard what they were up to, I was very surprised. Mainly because they weren’t following anything else that was going on at the time. Right from the start, they were doing something very original that had no category. One of the first times I saw them play here in Long Beach, they were touring with a bunch of instruments including a vibraphone. These were instruments you didn’t see rock bands playing. Plus I think it was just the two of them alone. They had been playing with Howe Gelb in Giant Sand for a few years already, and they were so talented and had their chops honed. It seemed like they had this confidence and followed through on their vision. It was very much like jazz and atmospheric. In the beginning it was very raw too. Joey was just starting to sing. So, it was just a whisper then and a lot of instrumentals. What they were doing in context of the time was almost shocking and I think took a lot of courage.

Joey and I used to work at SST Records, and we would go to lunch. Joey was just like he is now, very positive, full of optimism and enthusiastic. He would say to me, “I’m going to start a band and you’re going to do all the art work.”  I would answer: “Yeah, that’s a good idea”. Then he went and did it.

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Your artwork adorns the sleeves for “The Black Light”, “Hot Rail”, “Feast Of Wire” and “Carried To Dust” (as well as a whole host of other records, for example “Toolbox”, and, of course the many EP’s and singles from this period also).
Can you describe the process for creating a specific sleeve for Calexico? Does it vary across album?

VG: Sometimes, Joey would pick through stuff I had already finished. At one point, I had copies of all my comics and I gave half to my friend the late Chris Takino and the other half to him. So, sometimes he would use from there. Other times we would talk on the phone and come up with ideas, and later he would run them by John. John would come up with ideas too. Everything would be over the phone because we live in different states. He would mail me cassettes back then of rough mixes, and we would talk about what was going on in the world and with us personally. Sometimes, we discussed movies we’ve seen lately, books we were reading. We would talk about friends and family. Out of these talks, things would make some sense to us. We would start making connections. Song titles might come out of it as we chose the images. This is while they are recording. And as they built the songs the images would start coming together. I would also mess around with the typography. Once the title was chosen I might take some fonts, chop them up and see what looked right.

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Album art for Calexico’s “Hot Rail”

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Album art for Calexico’s “The Black Light”

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I must say, one of my all-time favorite artworks of yours is the magnificent art found on the reverse of “Feast Of Wire”. It really draws on — for me — the characters across the album and the often-doomed journeys they are going on (“Not Even Stevie Nicks…” or “Quattro (World Drifts In)”, for example). The image itself seems to echo Hitchcock’s “The Trouble With Harry” or Mantegna’s experimentation with foreshortening during the Renaissance period. What was the thinking behind the use of this image?
Incidentally, is it true you were behind the choice for the album title of “Feast Of Wire”?

VG: That’s really observant of you to notice the Mantegna influence. I did have that image in mind when I made my piece. I knew the Mantegna painting from the inside gate fold of David Bowie’s ‘Lodger’ album art. I learned from art history books I bought in thrift stores and swap meets. I didn’t read them much, but from going through them, I saw that all the masters works were reinterpretations of master works from previous generations. I was trying to make sense of my subject matter. The Hitchcock movie you mentioned I was not aware of. It’s amazing that image looks exactly like mine. My image came from an old science book from the 60s and it’s actually a man standing on a plexi or glass floor. The photo is shot from the below and only appears as if the guy is on his back. I was not a big Hitchcock fan until I saw a documentary film on him and I learned about how he made movies with images and really didn’t care much about actors other than how they looked. Even when I didn’t care for him, I couldn’t deny how pretty his movies were especially in color. The cars, clothes, furniture, architecture, landscapes – everything looks so slick. The “Feast of Wire” title Joey and I came up with together. He was liking “Feast of Snakes” from the Harry Crews book title, and he was also thinking about the idea of communications telephone wires. We just started going back and forth saying feast of this and that and at one point I think I said: “How about Feast of Wire?”

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Album art for Calexico’s “Feast Of Wire”

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“Alfred H.” 2005 spray paint and stencil on drawing paper 52″ x 36″

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Also, I really love the use of stamping on your artwork which you have done at various times over the years. It serves to add another layer of meaning (and subsequently another layer to be left open to interpretation for the viewer). The “Notes” section often contain really memorable passages or quotes (my favorites being found on both “Man On His Back” and “Young Man From Waste Up”). When did you begin stamping your artwork like this? Where do you get the inspiration for the words?

VG: The rubber stamp was my attempt at humility because originally, I would not sign the pieces. I got the idea from Andy Warhol and Mark Mothersbaugh who both sometimes used rubber stamps to sign their art. The stamp was supposed to say “Description” instead of “Title” but I forgot when I had it made. I started doing this before I showed the stencil pieces anywhere as art. It was mostly for my benefit and just trying to figure out what I was doing. I was trying to give them titles and like you said to give a little extra information. Sometimes when you give a little text like that, it gives the image more life and creates more questions than answers. I also made single panel comics using my stencil pieces by copying them with a black and white copier and putting them inside a border with a title at the top and a quote. I would write down quotes as I came across them by overhearing people or making them up myself. Sometimes they came from something I read or heard on TV or in a movie. When I started to show my art I thought it was better to make things a little simpler so I never really showed them with the stamp. I used to also put things inside the mats of my framed pieces like lapel pins, belt buckles, and coins.

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Another personal favorite is an earlier work of yours entitled “Man Looking At Watch”. This would later be reproduced on the reverse of the “Crystal Frontier” vinyl. It feels like a scene in a Raymond Chandler novel or a 1950’s film noir.
The cover artwork for 1996’s Calexico 7” “Spark/The Ride” was later cropped and reproduced as the cover image for the truly special “Road Atlas 1998-2011”, limited to 1,100 copies and comprising the band’s extensive tour records from over the years. Could you perhaps talk about these pieces?

VG: The guy looking at his watch was typical of the stencils I made early on. It’s just one stencil, and I took the image from somewhere and it originally appeared pretty small. I used to try and get images from pictures where the image I was taking was not usually the central image or seemed like it was lost to time. I tried to find anonymous images, and I thought this made it easier to make them mine and fit in with what I was doing. I had all these rules that I made up for myself about where I would not take an image from. But in time, I dropped these rules little by little to where I let myself draw whatever I want. The guy hopping the low rider Cadillac is a good example. It came from a car magazine and it was the main photo in the spread. A friend of mine later told me he recognized it from a calendar that was put out too. I had designed an announcement card for a lecture at the Getty Center and Joey liked the image on there and wanted to use it. I made this one for him instead. Nowadays if I feel like drawing something I draw it.

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“Man Looking At Watch” 1992 spray paint on paper 2nd print stamped and signed on front

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Your work must draw from such a diverse range of sources. I love, for example, the reference to Henri Cartier Bresson’s photography in the black-and-white stencil artwork you made for the “Black Heart” single which is found on the disc itself. How do you collate reference images for your artwork?

VG: I had a collection of year books from the 20s through the 70s, and I made a lot of pieces from there. It used to be easy to get really old books and magazines at swap meets. New and old Mexican and American tabloids were good. Some of my favorite photographers include Larry Clark, Bill Owens, Richard Kern, Weegee and Joel P. Witkin. I wouldn’t use their photos because those pictures are finished. THEY ARE those images. I try and find photos from more obscure sources. So, to me at least, they are starting a new life. I mostly try and take my own photos these days. But when I do use an image, it might be from an ad, catalog or maybe editorial where I’m taking it away and putting the image in a new context.

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Where did the artwork for “Toolbox” originate from, Victor? I love also how the new logo for Calexico as it appeared here (and subsequently on “Carried To Dust”) conveys “Calexico” in it’s new context. Since I first saw this image I’ve thought of it as a reference to the song “Gilbert” and it’s main character. I love also how “work” and “identity” itself has been a recurring theme for you (“Untitled (worker on sidewalk)” or “F.B.I. Girl” for example).

VG: Well, the Tool Box guy is a bomb squad cop from the 60s, maybe 50s. I drew him because, even as a photo, it was so strange. It was like a modern-day armored suit. Some friends asked for an image for a 7” sleeve they were hand pulling silk screen, and I guess they weren’t happy with it because they used it really small on the label instead of the front. Years later, Joey saw it laying around my studio and I was happy to let him use it. The FBI girl was from a newspaper story where there was a raid made on the home. She was one of a bunch of other FBI standing around the front yard. I like drawing people from behind so I pinned the picture to my wall at work. I thought she was attractive even though you couldn’t see her face, and to me, she appeared to be Latina. I made her stockings yellow just to make her kind of new wave and more fun. If a person has a uniform on or some kind of work clothes it’s saying a little more about what’s going on. The very clothes create an action.

I enjoy experimenting with typography, and, like with drawings, you never know what will come out. I remember reading something the artist Gilbert ‘Magu’ Lujan said about low rider cars and how taking an American machine — like the car — and transforming it into this work of art was a political act. I thought I could do something similar with typography where I would merge something very modern and minimal like Helvetica with it’s opposite: a very ornate antique gothic script. The type on the “Carried to Dust” cover was inspired by traditional American tattoo lettering. The kind of lettering people would do with a pin, some thread and India ink. I love to draw letters and chop up fonts, but I never know if I will be able to get anywhere. It takes hours, and I know some of them are very hard to read.

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Album art for Calexico’s “Toolbox” album

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“F.B.I. Girl” 2005 spray paint on aluminium 24″ x 18″

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“Nova And The Impala” 2008 A/P 1/2 spray paint on paper 19″x24″ Created for Calexico’s album “Carried To Dust”

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Onto “Carried To Dust”, the extensive artwork you created for this special album is truly breathtaking. The cover itself of a woman driving reminded me originally of a Hitchcock film still (Tippi Hedren’s “The Birds” character or Janet Leigh’s “Psycho” character perhaps), and later I thought of Minutemen’s “Double Nickels On The Dime” album (which would have influenced Calexico). It wasn’t until much later I found out it was in fact Joey’s wife, Nova. I also love the addition of the religious icon hanging from the rear view mirror, it ties back to your earliest work with Calexico. I would love if you could talk about both the front and back covers for “Carried To Dust” (including the wonderful “Blow Up Guy”) and the process involved in their realization?

VG: The cover idea I remember came from Joey and he was wanting something kind of very “Double Nickels”. John owns a 60s VW bug like the one Mike Watt was driving so Joey took some pictures of Jairo Zavala in the car. Jairo was recording and playing with them at the time. I think Joey wanted something “Double Nickels” but different because he sent me some pictures from outside the car and it’s side view. The car was parked, and they looked very posed and not very interesting and not working out. We went back and forth a few times and finally I told him let’s do it all the way but with Nova driving his Impala down the main street, straight up “Double Nickels”. He took a lot of pictures, and the idea was so good, and Nova looked so cool driving that car that it just worked out. It was an homage to the minutemen and Mike Watt who we both know and admire. The Virgin Mary air deodorizer was just there and worked out perfect. Sometimes things just work out naturally; everything being organic. When you do an homage like that, it’s like when you do a portrait. A portrait is not the real thing, so I think it has to be super deluxe to make up for that fact.

When I started working on that project, Joey and John wanted the feel of my earlier stencils. So I tried to make them simple with each image only requiring a couple of stencils. Joey had seen the movie “Blow Up” which I had not seen until just recently, and he was wanting that kind of mood. I made sketches and e-mailed them to him, and he and John would be like, “yes, no, how about this?” and I started making those images. The Blow Up guy came about from images I have done where people’s heads are missing or cut off. If you take a simple image and change something like taking a person’s head off it becomes more interesting. That’s the thinking behind the guy with a pin in his teeth because it makes you think, what is that, what’s going on? The girl with the angel wings is Mexican actress Silvia Pinal in a photo still from “The Exterminating Angel” by Luis Buñuel. Years ago, I bought a video of the movie at a swap meet. I bought the video for a couple of bucks purely for the picture of her on the box. I didn’t realize I had seen the movie when I was a kid. Anyway, I would normally not mention all that because it’s not important for my purposes. I’m not making a portrait of an actress in a famous movie, I’m using the image for the visceral feeling I can get out of it. But I do not mind the association and connection, I like that too. It also becomes part of the work. I added the wings behind her. I made a lot more images that did not get used. Joey kept pushing for more images and I did the best I could.

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“Avenging Angel” 2008  A/P 1/2 spray paint on paper 24″x19″ Created for Calexico’s album “Carried To Dust”

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“Blow Up Guy 1” 2008 A/P 1/2 spray paint on paper 24″x19″ Created for Calexico’s album “Carried To Dust”

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The very last question, if every sleeve in music was a blank canvas, which album (from any period in time) would you love most to illustrate and why?

VG: That’s a really funny question and I have known of art shows with that as a theme. I have never been asked to be in one but I am pretty sure I would choose not to participate. I have designed dozens of album covers most of which were just putting stuff together for other artists at SST. In that time, I realized that a great looking album cover could never save the bad music inside. But any art style will be legitimized by a great album, in fact if the record is really big it will create a trend in that style. When I think of my favorite albums, to me the covers are what they look like and that’s it. I think of the music and the cover as together and that’s the way it is. It’s like asking someone if you could change the face of the first person you ever kissed what would you do? I just feel like what’s the point.

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All images © Victor Gastelum. 

http://www.overtonesgallery.com
http://www.casadecalexico.com

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Very special thanks to: Victor, Elizabeta Betinski, Joey Burns and all the Calexico family.

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The Story Of An Artist: Iker Spozio

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Interview with Iker Spozio.

In our new regular section – entitled “The Story Of An Artist” (named in tribute to the American singer, songwriter and artist Daniel Johnston) – we will be focusing on the artists who have brought their own distinctive artwork and indelible mark to the independent music scene. First to contribute is the wonderful Italian artist and illustrator Iker Spozio, who currently resides in the northern Spanish coastal town of San Sebastián. Spozio’s name has become synonymous with the independent music scene over the last number of years, with the creation of record sleeves for such independent labels as London-based Second Language and the Brighton-based label Fat Cat Records. Spozio’s work graces the sleeves for such bands and composers as Colleen, Adrian Crowley, Mark Fry, Delia Derbyshire and Hauschka. Over the years, Iker Spozio’s reputation for a master craftsman, engraver, illustrator and painter of immense talent and versatility has been widely evident for all to see.

Words: Craig Carry, Artwork: Iker Spozio

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“Self Portrait” based on El Greco’s “El caballero de la mano en el pecho”.

Even if the Italian artist Iker Spozio is not a household name to you, his distinctive artwork has bound to have passed your eye on more than one occasion. In fact, the chances are his artwork adorns some of your most prized and precious records in your collection. Spozio’s artistry has adorned albums by some of the most inspiring musicians in the independent music scene. Musicians such as French composer Colleen, Irish songsmith Adrian Crowley, German pianist and composer Volker Bertelmann (aka Hauschka) and the legendary English folk songwriter Mark Fry – to name but a few –  have all had their music beautifully adorned by Spozio’s immense artistic gifts.

Most notable in his musical work is his ongoing collaboration with the gifted French composer Cécile Schott (aka Colleen). The pair have been partners for many years and their symbiotic relationship has produced a string of truly memorable and everlasting records over the last ten years or so (with Spozio creating both album and e.p. sleeves as well as concert posters), Spozio applies the visuals to Schott’s music, both as deeply immersive and enchanting as each other. Their most recent collaboration has come in the form of Colleen’s current album, “The Weighing Of The Heart”, an album released last May on London-based independent label Second Language. The album is an extraordinary achievement for both Schott and Spozio, where both artists sought new departures in their ever-expanding artistic visions. The resulting work (both in sight and sound) is a true joy to behold.

Iker Spozio’s work has thus far been as impressive in its versatility and scope as well as in its unwavering and passionate attention to detail. Throughout his varied work (across commissions, personal work and longterm projects) there is a huge emphasis placed on craftsmanship where virtues of both patience and skill are always in evidence. Spozio’s versatility as an artist is nothing short of breathtaking, his portfolio showcasing works across many mediums including watercolour, engravings, monoprints, pencils and india ink. Often, the work is a hybrid of many techniques combined together – where a truly remarkable appreciation for each process’ own intrinsic qualities can be discerned – yet such works never serve to lose any sense of vitality as Spozio’s own distinctive graphic approach can always be appreciated and admired. For any work which bears the name of Iker Spozio can safely be described as something truly precious and singularly unique.

Most recently, Spozio’s work has been published as part of Mark Fry’s “Dreaming With Alice” songbook, a limited, special edition publication which collects together for the first time Fry’s lyrics and sheet music from his seminal 1972 album “Dreaming With Alice”, an album which is today recognized as one of the most defining records of psychedelic folk music. Spozio’s work here encompasses a series of twelve specially commissioned engravings which serve to beautifully illustrate Fry’s dreamlike and mysterious sonic masterpiece. Like any of Iker Spozio’s masterful handmade work, the imagery – like those from an everlasting and recurring dream – will journey straight to your eyes (and heart).

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Taken from “Dreaming With Alice” Songbook, engraving.

Firstly, congratulations on the magnificent achievement of the recently published “Dreaming With Alice”, the lovingly assembled songbook containing Mark Fry’s lyrics and sheet music for his seminal ’72 LP of the same name. The project is obviously very close to your heart as you have expressed a deep admiration for Mark Fry (as both musician and painter) in the past, as well as sharing a close friendship over the years. You also featured Mark Fry heavily in your fabulous “Morning” music magazine when you memorably interviewed him back in 2009 for the issue’s second edition.
So, first off, I would love to ask you can you remember the first time coming across “Dreaming With Alice?” What effect did it have upon you when you first heard it?

I first came across “Dreaming With Alice” about fifteen years ago, when I was still living in Italy, my home country.
I was just starting to work as an illustrator, back then, but also had a “proper” job as a graphic designer for a company which did websites. This job allowed me to pay my bills and also, of course, to cover my badly needed monthly fix of music!
I used to get my pay and then drive straight away to the bigger town in my district, Varese, where there used to be a pretty big and nice record shop, called La Casa del Disco. I soon became friends with one of its clerks, a guy in his fifties who had lived first-hand all the psyche, folk and folk-rock era. He used to suggest me all kinds of amazing records, describing them with contagious enthusiasm and in the most colourful ways. He’s the one who sold me Mark’s album, in its unofficial CD version released by Akarma.
I perfectly remember the particular day I got the album and playing it at home: I really got blown away by it, especially by the eponymous song, that seems to constantly appear and disappear like a ghost all over the record.
I still find it hard to believe that I’m friends with Mark, now. It’s definitely a pleasure and a privilege to me.

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“I Lived In Trees”, LP sleeve for Mark Fry & The A Lords (Second Language, 2012).

You created the wonderful artwork accompanying Mark Fry & The A. Lords LP “I Lived In Trees” which was released in 2011 by Second Language. As this was effectively Fry’s return to music for the first time in over thirty years it was clearly a truly special project for all concerned. I love how deeply evocative your artwork (including the concertina inner sleeve) is to the music within. I also love how – on the one hand – we have strong dominant shapes and forms, yet, we’re also presented with so much texture, imagery, colour and detail. It’s one of my all-time favourite sleeves! Could you talk about the artwork for “I Lived In Trees”, the process and techniques involved and the resulting sleeve?

Well, actually “I Lived In Trees” is the second album after Mark’s “come-back”, following 2009’s “Shooting The Moon”.
I’m delighted to know you like the artwork for “I Lived In Trees” so much, since it’s also a favourite of mine. The idea for a tree being the subject of the sleeve came from Mark, while the format suggestion came from Second Language’s mastermind Glenn Johnson.
I thought it would be a nice concept to depict a tree that would be visible in full only when the concertina would be completely unfolded. This allowed me to insert various elements, sometimes incongruous, in each panel, making each section of the booklet kind of self-sufficient but also part of a whole.
Technically speaking, the background was painted in watercolour, then all the elements were inserted in the typical collage way, using various papers and textures I had prepared beforehand.

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Taken from “Dreaming With Alice” Songbook, engraving.

If we return to the “Dreaming With Alice” songbook and the twelve accompanying illustrations that accompany this special publication. Firstly, just to confirm, these are linocuts?

Yes, they are.

Since there is such an amount of detail and varying focal points across the various compositions, I imagine you must very carefully “sketch” these out beforehand? How does the process between the inception of your idea through to the realization of the completed artwork happen for you?

Yes, indeed, I design, or should I say “plan”, everything in detail beforehand, especially when I’m working on an engraving, a technique that seldom (or never) allows one to have second thoughts.
I must confess that I’m quite a perfectionist, when it comes to my artwork. Maybe too much for my own good, since there is always the risk of getting too rigid and clinical in pursue of a perfection of sorts. That’s why, especially in recent times, I have been kind of forcing myself to “let go” and surprise myself through less thoroughly planned projects.

I love how you have used both reds and blues separately across the work. It seems to create a distinct contrast for the series as a whole, and seems to represent that idea of fantasy and reality for me. What was the significance of the use of colour for you here?

At first I thought of using more colours than those. But, in the end, I found that red and blue were really the most suitable for the project, both technically and aesthetically. The colour choice for each illustration was based on my feelings and the perception I had of each song in Mark’s album. It’s hard to explain: I just found some songs to be “blue” and others to be “red”!

Actually, I seldom use more colours than the primary ones, in association with black and white.
Dealing with colour is not something that came really naturally to me. I used to work in black and white only for several years, until I decided to overcome my lack of confidence and try my luck in the technicolour world!

I love how your work can appear quite abstract and fluid here, yet it always seems so rooted in the world of reality and representation. Recurring imagery such as birds, figures, the moon, floral elements and musical imagery are interspersed throughout. The use of space – both positive and negative – is also so striking and makes for almost multiple versions of the same piece. In terms of the series itself, are the individual artworks done specifically for songs in mind from “Dreaming With Alice” or are they more loosely based on the music?

The illustrations are completely based on the actual songs, and they usually feature elements drawn from the lyrics.
Some of the engravings are more descriptive, others less so. I must confess that I have a marked tendency towards abstraction, which I tried to keep restrained in this particular project. I think that abstraction often got to the surface, anyway, mostly due to the fact that at the time I did these particular illustrations I was extremely interested in African art and its tendency to translate reality into geometric shapes and patterns.
The Odyssey project, which I did not long after completing the Dreaming With Alice songbook, shows my more abstract side, and its illustrations, which are still based on the characters and events described in the book, are so minimal that one may find it difficult to immediately associate them with the text.

If the opportunity arose for you to do a similar project for another classic album (of any time or period), which would it be and why?

Hhhm, tough question, here, since I’m such a music “freak” that it would be a hard choice to make: too many wonderful albums around…
A particular favourite of mine, though, is Burning Spear’s first LP, which I consider a masterpiece. I would love to illustrate it.
Actually, right now I’m working on a series of paintings inspired by Jamaican songs. They are going to be completely abstract, since I believe that music such as dub, which relies so much on sound treatment, could hardly be translated into descriptive images.

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“Run Run se fue pa’l Norte”, inspired by Violeta Parra’s song of the same title.

Just to talk a little about your earlier work and the formative influences on you as an artist. What were the initial sources of inspiration for you to create art? Were there specific art movements in art history or specific painters you were drawn to at the beginning? Since your work encompasses a wide range of various techniques – such as painting, engraving, linocuts – I imagine there must be such a variety of people who have influenced you in your own approach as an artist?

My father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather were all painters, so art, painting specifically, was part of my life since I was a child. I always drew, but it took me quite some time to make the decision to fully devote myself to painting and illustration. It actually came gradually, and in parallel with my passion for music, since the very first works I got published were for indie labels I followed.
I like almost all art, so it would be difficult for me to choose some specific artists or movements as my favourite ones. I must say, though, that, being an Italian, I surely was influenced from the very beginning by all the Renaissance greats, Piero Della Francesca and Paolo Uccello in particular. The Bauhaus has always been a source of inspiration to me, as well as some “eccentric” painters such as Piero Di Cosimo, Léon Spilliaert and Odilon Redon. In a more “graphic design” context, I’d like to mention Neil Fujita and his work for Columbia Records in the fifties.

For the record, what are the techniques you most commonly use?

I first worked mostly in black and white, using indian ink and various kinds of pens and brushes. Then I really got into engraving techniques, such as linocut. I prefer to mix techniques up, though, so I often combine the aforementioned ones with watercolour, gouache and acrylic paints. I also do monotype a lot, a technique I particularly enjoy, since it gives one an endless array of possibilities.

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“The Weighing Of The Heart”, LP sleeve for Colleen (Second Language, 2013).

Now, to turn to the music of Colleen and the hugely enriching and stunning work that has resulted from that truly special collaboration. Firstly, I’ll point out that Colleen (aka French musician Cécile Schott) is your partner for many years now and you have been creating the artwork for her albums as Colleen for the last decade or so. The resulting “collaboration” has most recently been this year’s magnificent “The Weighing Of The Heart” album. It’s obviously such a personal and special project for the two of you, not least since it’s the first Colleen record in five years. I know it sounds clichéd, but it just so perfectly embodies visually the music within (for example, Coleen’s new focus on rhythm, colour, and movement). There’s also so much else in the sleeve, including the reference to the Ursa Major constellation, the Egyptian book of the dead and also the location of San Sebastián, where yourself and Cécile now live.
I would love if you could talk about “The Weighing Of The Heart”, the artwork and the new elements found in this new work of your’s and what influenced you in the making of the artwork?

The making of the artwork for “The Weighing Of The Heart” took me an extremely long time, since I really wanted to give it my best. It’s a very important album for both myself and for Cécile, who was getting back to recording music after a fairly long hiatus.
I actually did three different versions of the cover artwork, but never was completely satisfied with what I came up with.
I think that the final one, the one Cécile and I were both happy with, reflects well the changes we’ve both experienced in our respective arts: Cécile’s new poly rhythmic compositions and more “colourful” approach to music coincided with a tendency I had developed to get my works busier and brighter in terms of colour. As far as I’m concerned, I believe it’s a consequence of my passion for traditional African art and also an influence of Juan Gris’s cubism.
It’s funny because I hadn’t heard a single note of Cécile’s new music until I had finished the artwork, so it’s the result of a kind of telepathic communication between the two of us if both music and images work along fine.

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“Les Ondes Silencieuses”, LP sleeve for Colleen (Leaf, 2007).

It would also be such a huge pleasure for me to ask you about the sleeves for both “Les Ondes Silencieuses” and “The Golden Morning Breaks” here as well. Both those records hold such a special place in the hearts of music fans and both of the sleeves distill so beautifully the space and time in which both those special Colleen albums were made, and embody the particular mood and atmosphere of both records too.

I’m pleased that you like those particular sleeves, even if I must tell you that I find it kind of hard to look back to that particular era of my work now… I don’t feel really connected to it anymore. Actually, the cover for “Les Ondes Silencieuses” is probably the very last “official” artwork I did in that pen-and-ink, Beardsley-esque style I had been working with. Oh, well, I still have a soft spot for that sleeve though, since it has such a “home-y” feeling to it… Cécile and our cat are on it, and the landscape is a familiar one: it could well be taken from the place where we live now or from my hometown in Italy.

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“Black Magic and Its Expose”, engraving, taken from “Master & Margarita”.

Last year your project – encompassing fifteen engraved panels, all handmade and hand-printed – based on Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita” was exhibited in the Bulgakov Museum in Moscow. This must have been such a proud and special occasion for you? And this project stemmed simply from your wish to illustrate each chapter from one of your favourite books?

It was a true honour for me to have my illustrations exhibited in Bulgakov’s Museum. The museum is actually in the house where the writer lived and wrote some of his books, including “Master And Margarita”.
When I got the offer to do that exhibition I was really moved, since I enormously admire Bulgakov, both for his work and for the determination he put into it despite the terrible living conditions and restrictions that were imposed on him by the Communist government.
I just wanted to pay a small tribute to him through my work, but unfortunately got stuck creatively midway through and never managed to complete it.
The original idea was to do 43 linocuts!…

Literature has also played a major role in your work as an artist. Which books and authors have you most admired?

I’m a huge fan of classical Russian literature: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Leskov, Lermontov and, of course, Bulgakov.
I also like early twentieth century russian poetry, Esenin in particular.
Generally speaking, I love the golden era of novel-writing, mid and late nineteenth century.
Other particular favourites of mine are Stendhal, Conrad, Maupassant and Tommaso Landolfi, maybe my most beloved author of all. He’s not well-known outside of Italy (actually he’s kind of considered as an “outsider” also there), but I find he wrote some of the most interesting works in Italian literature, especially when it comes to short stories.

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“Arrival at Pylos”, taken from “The Odyssey”, a series based on illustrating each chapter for Homer’s Odyssey, collage, monotype and sprayed watercolours.

Film has equally been important for you, I know in the past you have talked about such filmmakers as Marcel Carné and Tarkovsky. Which films and filmmakers would you recommend the most?

Tough question again! Hard for me to choose a few ones only!
I would definitely recommend some of the classic French movies of the 30s, 40s and 50s.
Carné is a big favourite of mine: I love “Hôtel du Nord”, “Le jour se lève”, “Quai des brumes” and, especially, “Les enfants du paradis”, definitely my all-time favourite movie (along with Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”).
All the French cinema of that era is really interesting though, especially for the particular flavour of the language used.
French is a fabulous language, so rich and inventive!
I also love silent cinema, the German one in particular (Murnau, Lang, Dieterle, …)
Of course I have a soft spot for classic Italian authors, especially Mario Monicelli, and for music documentaries. A particular music doc I’m totally in love with is Margaret Brown’s “Be Here To Love Me”, devoted to the life and the music of the late great Townes Van Zandt. It’s most probably the best (and most moving) music film I’ve ever seen.

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“Mark Fry”, monotype, taken from “Morning” #2.

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“Norman Jopling”, engraving, taken from “Morning” #2.

Lastly, to music, and I have to at this point mention your incredible music publication “Morning” (named after the Peep Show’s song of the same name) which you published, illustrated and designed yourself. What’s so special and unique about “Morning” is that you effectively went on a personal quest to seek out those bands and artists from the past who you felt were unfairly forgotten and neglected by the music press at large. The resulting interviews are so poignant as the reader can really get the impression that these conversations were from the hearts of the respective musicians and they valued the opportunity so much. The art direction is a thing of beauty too (imagery comprises either your own artwork or the use of previously unpublished photographs) and is such a far cry from the mostly fairly generic nature of music media at large these days.
Could you recount your fondest memories you have had from your time creating and publishing “Morning”?

The concept behind “Morning” was to publish a magazine in the spirit of vintage periodicals such as “The Yellow Book” and “La Revue Blanche”, aesthetically speaking, and devote it to the music I really love. It focused mostly on artists I personally felt had not had the recognition they deserved, either in their time or even today, when some “underground” musicians of the sixties, seventies and eighties have been re-discovered and become sort of cult-figures.
My idea was to let the musicians talk as much and as freely as possible about their lives, their creative processes and their careers.
I really enjoyed working on “Morning”, especially since all the artists I approached were extremely enthusiastic and committed to the project. It was a truly rewarding experience on a human level.
I only have fond memories about it, so it would be impossible for me to choose a particular one, but perhaps it feels particularly special that Sybille Baier accepted to be interviewed (“because it’s such a nice little project”, as she said – and indeed it was: I only published 150 copies of the first issue). As far as I know, this interview is the only one she has ever given – isn’t that cool?…

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“Sibylle Baier”, monotype, taken from “Morning” #1.

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“Dreaming With Alice”, the illustrated collectible songbook featuring twelve specially commissioned linocuts by Iker Spozio (together with Mark Fry’s sheet music and lyrics) is available now HERE

For all information on Iker Spozio and to keep updated with new works please visit:

http://www.ikerspozio.net

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To read our interview with Colleen please see here, and for our interview with Mark Fry please see here.

Very special thanks to Iker and Cécile for their time, patience and warmth.

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