WARNING! PLEASE NOTE! CONTAINS GRAPHIC CONTENT!
James Unsworth practices art like an inventor who creates problems instead of solving them. Taking the world view that “all human production is problematic and we’re all part of one big problem that can’t be solved”, James makes sense of the world through drawing whilst trying to find amusement along the way…
What appeals to you, or attracts you to, working in pencil?
I’ve only recently started to use pencil. I used to always draw with Rotring Rapidographs, the name suggests that they are a fast drawing tool but they’re not. The nibs are metal and really fine, so you have to draw really slowly or they’ll snap. I’ve become impatient and I really like the speed that a pencil moves across paper. I’m also freer when I draw with pencil; I don’t mind the inconsistencies that would be unacceptable to me if I was drawing with a Rapidograph. You can have tonal variations with a pencil, that’s new for me so I haven’t used shading too much.
What’s your favourite pencil? Brand? Wood? Mechanical?
I use a Rotring Mechanical pencil with a 0.5 lead.
Do you create in any other mediums besides drawing/illustration? Are there mediums you’re interested in exploring?
I work in a wide variety of mediums: I used to only draw but then I realised that there were other things I want to experiment with, that can say things drawings can’t say. Working in different mediums allows me to keep learning and working out better ways to convey ideas.
How do you conceptualize/construct a piece? Do you think of it as a story, snapshot, or abstraction?
I usually work from other compositions, the images you have for Issue 3 are drawings I’ve made from a grimy German porno from the mid 90s, called Game Boys. Most of the things I do are inversions of existing subjects or images.
Sex and violence feature heavily in your work. What is it about sex, violence and the grotesque that you find fascinating? Where does the impetus to document these themes in your work come from?
I’m interested in paradox: we seem to be always in conflict with our civilised and animal selves. I don’t know what the right path to choose would be. These themes are so big and fundamental that to work on anything else would seem frivolous.
What do your parents or the people who raised you think of your work?!
My parents raised me but that was a nice sensitive way to ask that question! They think it’s strange, they don’t understand why anyone would like it and buy it, but they’re proud of me.
Do you actually find the grotesquery and violence in your work terrifying? What terrifies you, or repulses you?
Real life horror is what terrifies and repulses me. The images I make are perhaps a way of insulating myself from a world that contains real horror. So while I write this, some kid somewhere dies of hunger, and tomorrow I’ll spend loads of money on food and things I don’t need: that repulses me.
Are you afraid of or fascinated by germs?
I can’t say I ever really think about germs; I make sure that I occasionally eat things that have fallen on the floor, so my immune system has something to do. Something I like to say is – “People are germs”.
Could you tell us a bit about your creative process, from the initial image or idea to the finished piece?
Usually, I’m 80% research and 20% action but it really depends on the type of work I’m making.
What size do you tend to work at? Why this preference?
I usually work strictly in ‘A’ paper size formats. Sometimes I stray for specific projects, if I’m matching the size of source material for instance. I like the uniformity of ‘A’ sizes: it’s somehow utopian and democratic but a bit like a prison too.
Can you tell us about a favourite piece of yours, or a favourite creative experience?
When I was a student, I was researching at a library next to the Louvre in Paris and I ended up viewing and handling original Hieronymus Bosch silverpoint drawings. They were the most precious things I’ve ever held in my hands. As long as I can remember things, I’ll remember that. It was scary holding them, like standing on the edge of a building when you don’t quite trust yourself not to jump off.
If your drawings were a record from the last 30 years, what album would it be?
I think it’d have to be a bit of a compilation. My earliest stuff would be Sleep – Sleep’s Holy Mountain then it’d be Wavves – Life Sux and the stuff I’m doing right now is Janet Jackson – Control. There are other albums in the mix too but I’m aware that I’m totally cheating at this question.
Do you have any early memories of drawing or, what’s your first memory of an image?
I remember drawing American football helmets, using a side plate to draw around because I couldn’t draw a very good circle. I can also remember drawing my Dad and being frustrated that the result didn’t look anything like him, he was just a circle with a moustache with some lines coming out of it for arms and legs. I drew a big bum on the chalkboard in infant school and hid it behind the curtain, it was hot.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
Yes, I used to draw every day but now, I can sometimes go for as long as a month without drawing anything.
What is the most unnatural thing you can think of that currently exists in the world?
Everything humans have made.
What are you working on now? What can we look forward to from you next?
I’m making 100 collages out of pizza menus for a show I have in Tel-Aviv, next summer. They’re all called Everyone Wants to be Happy and I’ve done 80 so far. I’m also working on some new movies and photos.
Where can people get a hold of your work, or find out more about your previous projects?
Hopefully, by the time this is out, I will have an updated website: it’s currently stuck in 2007. My movies are on YouTube too and if you Google me you’ll find things, like my Tumblr page and Twitter page. There are a couple of other James Unsworths but I’m the best one so far…
Are you right or left-handed?
I am right-handed. My Nan told me a story about my Uncle who used to be left handed when he was younger. The nuns at the Catholic School he went to, used to hit him with a wooden ruler so he’d use his right hand instead of his left. My Nan found out and took him out of that school, sent him to a Jewish school and told me all Catholics were hypocrites.
What was the last film you saw in the cinema?
Filth, it was close to being as interesting as Irvine Welsh’s books but it’s somehow not as grim. It upset my boyfriend though which I thought was sweet.
What are the books on your bedside table?
I’ve got three books that I’ve not finished lurking around near my bed (I don’t have a bedside table). The first is Marina Warner – Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds. I started this in January 2012, it’s amazing but I still haven’t finished it, I find it difficult to finish anything that isn’t fiction. The second is Rev. Antonio Gallonio – Tortures and Torments of the Christian Martyrs. So far I have pretty much just looked at the pictures in this whilst I was on holiday in Denmark.
The third is Pierre Seel – I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror. Pierre Seel was the first person to talk about this part of the Holocaust that people still know little about. After the end of WW2, some homosexual people were sent back to jail after being liberated from concentration camps because they hadn’t finished their sentence. In some cases, the time spent in the concentration camps didn’t count towards their term. They were still criminals in the eyes of the liberators.
Now that I cycle everywhere, I don’t read half as much as I used to when I was on the bus for three hours a day. Having FIFA 14 on my phone doesn’t help either but my Ultimate Team is definitely well better than yours!
Coffee, nicotine, or booze?
Booze, always, sometimes with coffee in it.
How far do you go on a first date?
I haven’t had a first date for 10 years and I’m going all the way to marriage on that one.
Favourite city in the world?
Liverpool in the mid to late 1990s.
Favourite city to draw/sketch/illustrate/create in?
London is where I’ve done my best creating.
James’ work appears in Issue 3 of Tiny Pencil: The Beast Issue… Monsters, Machines and Unnatural Things! Available to buy here. This interview was brought to you by The Tiny Pencil – fine purveyors of the pencil arts.
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