Interview conducted by Yuko Shimizu.
1. You are known in the industry as a really really nice guy whom everyone wants to have as a friend. Now knowing a bit of your personal history, it start to make sense because you seemed to have been surrounded by family members who were really supportive of your work; early on, your grandfather, and later your classmate and now wife and creative director of Asset International SooJin Buzelli. Would you mind sharing a bit of story behind how they have helped you become the artist who you are now?
Thanks so much! I’m not so sure that everyone would agree that I’m a really nice guy, but I’m glad that you think so. This question also sort of feeds into my paranoia about how others think of me. I think I need to see a shrink. Anyway, I did have some wonderful influences while I was growing up. My parents divorced when I was very young and my sister and I ended up living with our Grandparents on the weekend. My Grandfather Armando owned a television repair shop in a rough part of South Chicago Heights, Illinois. I remember coming to the shop on Saturday mornings and turning all the televisions to my favorite cartoons. I’d sit there for hours watching my Grandfather fix the old solid state televisions and, of course, I thought I was helping by holding his tools or testing the glowing tubes. On Sundays we started watching “Bill Alexander and the Magic Paint Brush” which was an instructional show on how to paint landscapes with oils. I remember being so relaxed during the show that I usually would fall asleep on my Grandfather’s shoulder during the program. Then I think when I was around 7 years old, I walked into the t.v. repair shop and my Grandfather had bought The Bill Alexander Magic Oil Paint Kit and set up two easels in the shop. This began my love for oil paints and we painted side by side almost every weekend. Later when I went to college, my Grandfather retired and turned the shop into Chris Buzelli museum. He had saved all those early oil paintings and lovingly wrapped them in Saran Wrap and Scotch tape. He filled the shop with these and artwork that I had created throughout the years. He even had some passerbys coming in for viewings. I remember getting calls from him when I was at college. He would ask if I created any new artwork and if I could send it home for the collection. I look back on those days and I realize that my Grandfather gave me the most special gift that one could give to another—time.
During my years at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), I met my future wife SooJin. We were both illustration students and we started dating during my last year in school. I think we were just too young for a serious relationship so we broke up when we graduated. I hadn’t heard from her for a few years and then one day I received a call from her about an illustration job. She had become the art director of a small financial trade magazine which was just starting to include illustrations in their publication. Of course I accepted, I took her out for dinner and the rest is history. We got married a few years later and her company, Asset Intl, has flourished with 3 new magazines that have become a playground for illustrators.
2. Can you share with the readers a bit about your creative process and media?
It is very difficult for me to talk about my creative process because it constantly changes for each individual project. However, I try to include images in my paintings that interest me on a personal level. I find that my work is much stronger when I’m personally involved in the painting. This is sometimes difficult when working for another client. But trying to find a personal connection becomes a part of the conceptual puzzle of the entire project—how to solve the visual concept for the audience and to make it personal for myself. I almost always find a way to include a favorite animal/beast, family member, friend or a childhood memory in my illustrations. I think this challenge has made the process more difficult but in the end the result is worth it. My media is very simple. I use oil paints on gesso board. I usually start with a detailed graphite drawing directly on the board and then I paint with oils on top of the drawing.
3. Since 1998 you have been taking 3.5 hour bus ride each way up to RISD to teach. Now you are such high-demand illustrator, do you feel like this gets in your way of your work, or it fuels your work? If you have figured out how to utilize 7 hours of sitting on a bus, I am very curious to know. 7 hours is a long time!
Yes, I’ve been teaching up at RISD for the past 10 years and I take the bus once a week from NYC to Providence. I actually look forward to the bus ride. I’m a workaholic and I live in my studio. So the bus ride has become a sort of a break from the normal schedule of painting all day. I think my mind needs a vacation to do other things. The bus ride is filled with catching up on emails, reading books, watching movies or just daydreaming. The class is 5 hours long and it just flies by. I think it’s because I really enjoy teaching what I love to others. And the student’s enthusiasm and their passion for illustration makes the experience even more fulfilling. Of course, that one-day away from the studio really cuts into my work time, especially with tight deadlines. And sometimes I do lose money by missing assignments or turning down projects. It is getting more difficult because my workload has increased and/or I’m just getting slower, but I still think it’s worth it. I believe the whole experience fuels my work.
4. There are so many animals, both real and mythical/fantastical, appearing in your paintings. Is this because you like animals, or are they secret symbols of something viewers don’t know about?
When I first started illustrating I had many financial and business based assignments and I used many of the typical symbols like business people with briefcases, on rocket ships, on tightropes, etc… I think I was just burnt out on painting people and I decided to paint and utilize other forms that I loved when illustrating a concept. So I started using animals and fantastical beasts in my paintings. This transformation made the images stronger for me and seemed to do the same for the viewer in terms of concept and execution. During this change, I also started getting inquiries from readers and galleries about buying my original paintings, which was a really nice turn of events. I think I always connected strongly to animals and they are just so much fun to investigate and paint.
5. Ok, so I see your work, and think of “children’s book”!! As far as I know, you haven’t done one before? And I am sure everyone agrees that we cannot wait to see Chris Buzelli children’s book coming out. Is this on your horizon? And, what else on your horizon?
Thanks! I’ve actually been thinking about doing a children’s book recently. I’ve gotten a few offers but nothing has clicked just yet. Recently I’ve been working on a few larger ad projects and I really enjoyed the collaboration. Recently, I finished up 12 paintings for Entega (a green energy company in Germany) for a calendar project based on green energy fairy tales—sort of a children’s book for adults. I’m right now working on a piece for a book by the infamous Monte Beauchamp of BLAB magazine. My main focus is still on painting and finding ways to improve and grow.
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