Joe Fenton is a London-based artist who works mainly in monochrome. His lavishly scaled, surrealist drawings are produced almost exclusively in graphite on paper, and inhabit a world populated by humorous and grotesque Hieronymus Bosch-like figures. With a giant eye for darkness and detail, Joe’s work embraces the strange tensions between life and death.
Hi Joe, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Previously, you’ve worked as a designer and special effect sculptor before illustrating your children’s books ‘Boo!’ and ‘What’s Under the Bed?’ How/when did this switch come about? Do you plan any more books?
After I had worked in the UK for a couple of years in the film industry as a designer and sculptor. I moved to the USA where my wife is from. At the time it was difficult for me to find employment there as I could not legally work. Because of this, I revisited an old idea which I created a few years back when I had some down time. I illustrated a dummy book for What’s under the bed? I found an agent in NY that was interested in representing me and finally got a publishing deal with publishers Simon and Schuster. Even though it was a fun experience creating these books I still felt that I was not producing the work I really wanted to create.
I produced both books in our tiny Brooklyn apartment. My wife suggested that I should get a studio so that I had more space to work in. I did this in 2010 and it completely transformed the way I worked into the large scale imagery you see today. As for future book projects, I have an idea for a sort of graphic novel/coffee table book I would like to do in the future, but it definitely won’t be for small children.
Both your children’s books deal with the notion of fear. Was fear a strong element in your childhood?
As a child, I was very sensitive to things around me and had a very active imagination. These ingredients will often fuel things like fear of the dark, I was terrified of it as a child.
Do you remember when you first became aware of mortality? Either your own or that of others?
My earliest memory was around the age of five or six. My mother, sister and I were driving from the UK to Spain were we lived for a few years. While in Spain we stopped off for a break off one of the major roads and we noticed a dog crossing four lanes of traffic. Unfortunately the dog was hit by a car, it was not killed and tried to drag its injured body to the other side of the road but was hit again. I remember sliding down the side of our parked car, I had fainted. I don’t know if at this point I internalized this event as my understanding of mortality, but it deeply affected me in a way that left me feeling unsettled and unsafe.
I think a real understanding of mortality came further down the road when I went with my mother to see my grandmother just after she died. I found the experience hugely disturbing as did I the second time I saw a dead relative.
In your artist statement, you say that your current work “seems to spring from the fear of death and the need to distance yourself from it.” So what’s your particular attraction to fear? And also to death?
Control is a fear-based emotion. On the one hand, I think my attraction to death and my desire to try and understand it comes from a need to have some control over my life. But I am also painfully aware that this is a futile exercise. I also believe that it’s only when you can fully embrace death, will it be that you can truly embrace all that life has to offer as the two are inseparable. I have hope that I may eventually find some peace and understanding with the subject of my demise along my journey. My fear is that I won’t.
There are also quite a few religious references in your work – is this more of a stylistic choice or a thematic one? How does that connect to your thematic choices of fear and death?
There is definitely religious symbolism that runs throughout my work, I am both mocking religion and at the same time embracing certain aspects of it’s spiritual teachings.
What role has religion played in your life – or has it at all? What do you think is the connection between religion, death, and fear?
My first boarding school I went to at the age of eight in the UK was heavy on religion. We had Bible reading after breakfast, then chapel every morning of the week, at that age you are conditioned by the environment you are in but it never stuck with me. I believe myself to be a spiritual person, but I am certainly not a religious one. I interpret the goals that most religions have to fundamentally be the same, that is to give meaning and purpose to one’s life, and to ultimately try and ease the fears that mortality brings to the individual. Unfortunately, it’s the hypocrisy and greed of man and their need to control one another that distorts from the original spiritual message that most religions have to offer.
Your pictures show influences from both Western and Eastern cultures: How did this inspiration for your vision come about?
As I previously mentioned before, I interpret the goals that religions from all cultures have to fundamentally be the same. This understanding combined with my love of the design aesthetic from these cultures such as Indian, Asian and Islamic art, all feed into the overall look and feel of my work. My Grandfather was born in India in 1907 during the British colonial period. Much of my childhood was spent living with or close to my grandparents. Their houses were full of beautiful antiques and artwork from these cultures. Growing up, my mother also had a love and travelled to places like Morocco and India on many occasions and our homes would always be embellished with art and textiles from those places.
Do you believe in an afterlife or a resurrection of some sort? Perhaps in an Eastern or Western sense?
I don’t subscribe to the idea of an afterlife, but I do believe we are all energy and that when we die that energy has to go somewhere. I certainly don’t buy into the notion of a heaven or hell. I believe in karma in that what you put out there comes back to you in some way.
Tell us about your creative process, from the initial idea to the finished piece. How do you conceptualize/construct a piece? Do you think of it as a story, snapshot, or abstraction?
I have a general concept before I start. First and foremost, I am always trying to tell a story with my work. I never sketch out the whole idea before I begin a drawing because the design evolves organically piece by piece. I work out individual designs and slowly piece them together like a jigsaw puzzle until the image feels complete.
My background education was in sculpture and I approach my drawings in much the same way. You need to create an armature for everything else to work around, this is usually the most frustrating part when getting started with an idea, but once the central structure is in place the rest usually follows with relative ease. My largest works like Solitude and the triptych titled the Landing were more complicated because there are several main structures in each piece. Getting the balance right when there are so many elements and characters involved can be tricky.
What particularly appeals to you about working in graphite?
I just find it to be a really easy medium to control. I also just love the look and feel of graphite.
Your work is mostly monochrome: is this a choice because of the subject matter? Would/ could you work in colour?
I find there is something truly honest about a black and white image. I love the simplicity of using black and white and I don’t feel that colour would necessarily improve many of my designs. Although, I find the need to evolve artistically I am starting to think about introducing colour into some of my future designs. I am beginning to feel too comfortable working in black and white only and this is not a good place for an artist to be in. I don’t want to feel that I am repeating similar work over and over again. I also don’t want my decision to not use colour to come from a place of fear. I want to feel comfortable using colour and black and white equally. I am currently working on some ideas.
Do you have a favourite pencil? Wood? Mechanical?
When it comes to pencils, mechanical or standard I pretty much use anything I can get my hands on. I tend to work mainly with a mechanical pencil as I need to a fine tip to create the desired effect. With paper I try and find the largest rolls possible, my favorite paper is Arches watercolor paper but I will use other brands as well. And finally an electric eraser can come in handy when erasing fine details.
For your drawings you also use ink and acrylics: what are the advantages of those materials?
With regards to my black and white works. Using these other mediums on top of the graphite allows me to achieve further depth to my work, highlighting with acrylics and inks just makes the image pop more.
What size do you tend to work at? Do you have a preferred scale?
I prefer to work on a larger scale, this is for a couple of reasons: I don’t get the same sense of satisfaction working on smaller projects. I also find it difficult when coming up with a design to stop adding more and more details to it. I also find I need the sense of feeling a little overwhelmed when embarking on a new drawing after I have worked out the idea. The more I struggle on a piece, the greater the satisfaction is when I have completed it.
Can you tell us about a favourite piece of yours, or a favourite creative experience?
Solitude is my largest work to date, but it was also the image that launched my career and started to get me some recognition. It was the most difficult creative experience I have had. It took just under a year to complete and I was still not established as a stand-alone artist at the time. There were days when creating it that I lost hope and thought that I had invested all this time in something that just looked terrible. The highs and lows were extreme, but this is what finally made the experience so rewarding in the end.
What are you early memories of drawing like?
I drew a lot when I was younger. I really enjoyed art up until primary school it was the only thing that truly made me feel good about myself. When I became a teenager, I lost interest in it and indulged in a self destructive lifestyle for several years until I finally sorted my life out and made my way back to art school at the age of 26.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
I have to admit that I am bit slack when it comes to sketchbooks. Having said that, I am starting to sketch again on a regular basis as it is an essential exercise for an artist.
What directions are you interested in taking your work in the future? (or: What can we look forward to seeing from you next?)
I have recently been inspired by a couple of exhibitions I have seen involving old Japanese and Chinese art. The subtle and muted colours they used I feel would marry well with my aesthetic. I will most likely work on a series of smaller images so that I can play around with colour and get comfortable working in a different way this will, I hope eventually lead me to working on a much larger piece using the same techniques I have learnt.
I am also currently working on a commission for an American rock guitarist. I am painting one of his guitars solely using acrylic paints which I’m really enjoying and feel comfortable working in the medium now.So who knows, I might eventually do a large painting working in acrylic.
I would also like to bring my sculpture back into the fold somehow. So much to do and so little time to do it in.
Where can people get a hold of your work, or find out more about your previous projects?
For people interested in buying my originals or prints of my work you can contact my manager Belinda Chun at Gallery House: Info@galleryhouse.ca
I also have a Facebook fan page where people can check in and see older work and get updates on upcoming events and projects.
When you die, how would you like to be remembered?
I would like to remembered for creating artwork that touched people in some way.
Right or left-handed?
Coffee, nicotine, or booze?
Last film you saw in the cinema?
The Hobbit- the desolation of Smaug. The book is sooo much better.
What books are on your bedside table?
Seat of the soul by Gary Zhukov.
Favourite city in the world?
Favourite city to draw/sketch/illustrate/create in?
Joe Fenton features in Issue 4 of Tiny Pencil: The Death & Resurrection Issue! Available to buy here.
This interview was brought to you by Clarissa Widya and The Tiny Pencil – fine purveyors of the pencil arts. Follow us on twitter @TheTinyPencil, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram for the latest news on all of our new anthology artzines.