Artist Spotlight: “Junk Artist” Chris Roberts

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Chris Roberts is Dead Clown Art and has illustrated a couple stories for SmokeLong. He is a full-time freelance artist, using mixed media and found objects to create his self-described visual nonsense. Roberts has made art for Another Sky Press, Kelp Queen Press, PS Publishing and ChiZine Publications; for authors Will Elliott, Andy Duncan, Tobias Seamon, Shimon Adaf, Seb Doubinsky, Ray Bradbury, Kaaron Warren, Ellen Klages, Claire North and Helen Marshall. He was nominated for a 2013 World Fantasy Award in the Artist category.

SmokeLong art director Alexander C. Kafka asked Roberts about his work and inspirations.

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Chris, would you tell me about yourself? How old are you? Where do you live? Family? Work? School?

I’m 44 years old. My brain is 24 years old. My body is 64 years old. I’m wildly conflicted. I live in Waukee, Iowa. Living the quiet life with two strong, lovely, smart, rage-filled women: wife and daughter. Currently in between jobs, so making art and taking naps. Well out of school, but I think they’re still a really good idea. What else are kids going to do during the day?

… Oh. Where did I go to school? Graduated from Grand View College in Des Moines, way back in 1996. Yes, they had colleges back then.

When did you become interested in art?

I’ve been making art for as long as I can remember.

Wow! That was a super cliché answer.

Take 2: My high school art teacher was the first direct example of somebody making art into a career. I was aware that “artist” was a profession. I grew up in small towns, but I wasn’t born in a barn. But high school art class was when it first clicked that I could be an artist when I grew up. There have always been outside influences of course–comic books, music, movies, museums–but that’s my origin story.

You work in mixed media. What are your favorite materials to create with?

Found stuff. I proudly consider myself a “junk artist.” Garage sales. Estate auctions. I walk around this amazing antique mall we have in Des Moines, looking for discarded treasures. I pick up interesting stuff on sidewalks and in empty parking lots. I have drawers and containers and folders filled with all sorts of random detritus. Each piece of junk is waiting patiently for the right illustration. Old keys. Brittle scraps of paper. Faded photos. Broken bits of plastic. Jagged rusty pieces of metal. Junk.

What are your favorite kinds of works to illustrate?

I love making art for words. I’ve made a pretty decent number of book covers for various presses, especially for the incredible PS Publishing. I always manage to find a way to channel my personal work through my professional work. Two birds, one stone.

I love weird and challenging projects. Feels like I’ve become the go-to guy for oddball stuff that publishers aren’t quite sure what to do with visually. And while I understand that makes me and my work sort of niche, I have absolutely zero problem being that go-to guy. Those are the projects that sink their hooks into me. The projects that I would have chosen, but they ended up choosing me.

Your pieces often have a warped religious or totemic feel to them. What kinds of imagery are you drawn to and why?

Astute observation. I’ve been an atheist since my early teenage years. But I’ve always been interested in what attracts people to religion. There’s no atheist iconography, obviously, so I’m drawn to the vast array of religious icons. I enjoy turning monsters into worshipped objects. It’s probably my way of taking those familiar symbols and unraveling them with an opposing visual context. Whatever religion used to be about, today it’s about power, money, corruption and division. It’s definitely not what it claims to be. It’s become a wicked mask. I try to expose that in my work when I’m able.

Which artists have you been most influenced by?

Dave McKean; Bill Sienkiewicz; Ted McKeever; Henrik Drescher; Galen Dara; Andrea Sorrentino; Jason Shawn Alexander; Jean-Michel Basquiat; Fiona Staples; Ralph Steadman; Jean Dubuffet. One of my favorite paintings of all time is Dubuffet’s The Villager with Close-Cropped Hair. It’s hanging in the Des Moines Art Center and I visit it as often as I can. It’s brilliant!

What other aspects of life and culture inspire you?

First and foremost and forever, my wife and daughter. I couldn’t do what I do without them. Truth.

Comic books have always been an inspiration, as you can see by the majority of my artist influences in the previous question. No matter how pleased I am with a finished piece, I can look at any piece in Dave McKean’s staggering catalog and instantly feel like a discarded toothpick of an artist. And that’s okay. That’s part of the fuel I need to keep going. Not to ever create a piece that’s better than his, but to just keep making the art that makes me happy. Keeps me sane.

What do you like to do in your free time?

This bounces nicely from the previous question. I enjoy movies. Comic-book movies especially, because they’re something I can share with my daughter. Light horror movies with my wife. I’m sort of a chicken when it comes to some of the darker, bloodier horror movies. My imagination is way too wide open for them. They creep in and take up residence. Hereditary, for example. That movie poked around violently in my head for weeks after I saw it. Loved it, but it rattled me.

I love music. Radiohead forever!

And, of course, reading. So many books in my to-read pile! It’s towering and probably a fire hazard. Ready for the name dump? Josh Malerman; Joe Hill; Sarah Pinborough; Kaaron Warren; Sarah Langan; Stephen Graham Jones; Nick Cutter; Tom Piccirilli; Helen Marshall; Lauren Beukes; Gemma Files; Rio Youers; Gary McMahon; Daryl Gregory; Michael Marshall; Neil Gaiman; Stephen King.

If you could assemble any group in the world for a mandatory meeting, who would it be and what would you say to them?

This one’s easy! All of the Fraggles from Fraggle Rock. Except for Gobo’s Uncle Traveling Matt, because fuck that guy!

Wouldn’t say a thing. I’d just wink and nod and we’d go on all sorts of Fraggle adventures together. We’d eat Doozer sticks. We’d masterfully elude being eaten by the Gorgs. We’d have all of our questions answered and problems solved by the ever-wise Marjory the Trash Heap. We’d swap insults with her ratty hench-creatures Philo and Gunge.

Then we’d leave the Fraggle caves, emerge in the human world and rapidly topple the evil patriarchy. Then, having worked up quite the grumbly appetite after toppling the patriarchy, we’d head to Taco Bell. Best. Day. Ever.

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You can watch Roberts misbehave at deadclownart.com, or on Twitter @deadclownart.