The Paper Snarl Interview














Just as it happens, both of our interviewees this month are notable for (among many other reasons) the fact that they express their art in a diversity of ways. We were delighted when Joe DeVito agreed to spare us a while out of his hectic schedule for this:

PS: You decided very early on in life to have, as twin strands in your career, both illustration and sculpture. Have you ever regretted not opting for just one or the other?

JD: Actually, it's the opposite: I regret very much having gone so long as strictly an illustrator. From as far back as I can remember I've had an equal inclination for both. I quickly developed an interest in animals and machines -- the bigger and more dangerous, the better! That meant ships, dinosaurs and whales in particular. While I revelled in drawing dinosaurs, it didn't do the trick for my interest in whales. Somehow I figured out how to fashion sperm whales with hollow stomachs from Play Dough. I would then sculpt sharks or squid and shove them down the whale's throat after which I would harpoon the whale with a sewing needle that had some thread attached to serve as imaginary rope. I would then hang it up by its tail and peel off strips of blubber, using fake razor blades from those shaving kits we would get for Christmas, until I could see the animals inside. Just like in the whaling books. It may sound strange, but that's how I started out in the two endeavours, as far as I can remember, both at the same time. As things turned out professionally, however, painting took the upper hand for many years before I began sculpting.

PS: Why?

JD: I was born in NYC but moved to NJ when I was young. Art was always there, but it took a backseat to my friends, athletics and girls. The only thing I ever really did in regard to art was draw and read voraciously about all the things that interested me. It seems all the initial interests I had expanded and intensified. From the beginning, the mould was pretty much set. But I began to sculpt much less often. Mainly because paper and pencil were quicker and more accessible. I'd grown out of kid's clay and other materials were unknown to me. But for an unexpected encounter with an old friend, when I was twenty-one, I might not even have become an illustrator. And when I did, sculpting was nowhere in sight.

PS: How so?

JD: My friend, Karen, told me about Parsons School of Design and got me an interview. I got in and was abruptly reminded of the fact that I knew next to nothing about 2D art, let alone sculpting. But I had two saving graces: I could draw and I was not afraid to work very hard. Luckily for me, everything flows from those two attributes. In fact, it being just after a whole whacked-out time in my life had ended, I was in wonderland. I sensed that it was "now or never". I managed to weave my way through the BS that permeates every level of art school (I'd be a liar if I didn't say I prayed often!) and found my niche: painting paperback bookcovers. If there was a market for sculpting, I was unaware of it. Learning how to oil paint took virtually all my time because it wasn't taught in any meaningful way. I was virtually on my own in that regard. Once I got work as an illustrator, though, it was tough to get off that hamster wheel. Money was coming in, but by then I was living on my own and bills were coming in as well.

Unfortunately I am not a particularly fast painter, so I had next to no time to dabble in other areas. Any deviation, such as sculpture, needed to be on a paying basis. It was over ten years before I got a chance to sculpt something.

PS: So what happened to open the door in that area?

JD: I was painting the last of the Doc Savage book covers at the time and came in contact with Bob Chapman of Graphitti Design. He was one of the first to tap into the figurine market and was looking to produce a Doc Savage statue. I saw the opportunity and begged him to give me a shot, sight unseen. I convinced him that it would be a good tie-in to have the guy doing the covers sculpt the piece. I had nothing to show, but just knew that, if I had the chance, I could do it. Thankfully, at great risk to himself (if I had failed), he gave me a free hand to do whatever I wanted. The Doc/Python piece was the result. That kind of established me and I've been sculpting steadily ever since. I don't know if it's more intuitive, or if all those years as a painter, in essence making an illusion of 3D, made it easier. I do know I felt I was at the same level in sculpting as in painting very quickly. These days I'm making up for lost time. I'd say 90% of the work I'm doing at the moment is sculpture.

PS: Many of your pictures and sculptures concern dinosaurs, which obviously hold great fascination for you. What gave birth to that fascination?

JD: There's something about giant animals and little boys that never seems to fail. I am not embellishing when I say that I knew how to spell "Tyrannosaurus Rex" before I could spell my own name. The playground on W43rd Street was all concrete, but we did have in NYC the Museum of Natural History. Can you imagine being 3-6 years old, having a mind predisposed toward fantasy, and walking among the giant skeletons in the Hall of Dinosaurs? It only took one trip, let alone several.

Add to that the fact that in the late 1950s and early 1960s dinos were all the rage because of Zallinger's mural in the Peabody Museum at Yale. It made the cover of "Life" (or one of those giant mags), and he augmented it with some fabulously illustrated books. And that classic set of plastic dinosaurs by Marx! -- one of the defining moments of my childhood was when my aunt brought home that huge box. It was as big as I was. I even remember the weather and what was on TV when I got that present!

Another major influence for me at the time was the "How and Why" book on dinosaurs. The only mediums I used to draw were pencil and charcoal. Everything in that book, inaccurate as the illustrations were (who knew?), was done that way. The pictures were easy to copy from. My imagination did the rest.

PS: You never mentioned the movies -- did they have any input?

JD: I was saving the best for last. It was my first TV viewing of "King Kong" on Million Dollar Movie that started it all and changed the course of my imagination forever. Remember Million Dollar Movie? If not, on channel 9 in the USA they would repeat the same movie seven days in a row, twice a day at 1pm and 3 pm. I saw "King Kong" 14 times in one week -- twice. I've seen the movie several hundred times since. I still have recurring dreams involving Kong. That movie took what was till then only in my imagination and brought it to life. The images, the atmosphere, the sounds, and Kong! To me, a perfect movie in every way.

And there are all the great monster/sf movies of the 1950s that were major creative influences. "Godzilla," "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" and all the other B flicks -- I was mesmerized by them. Who could forget seeing "Forbidden Planet," or "The Thing," or "It: The Terror From Beyond Space" for the first time? To me every Harryhausen movie was a classic. The Cyclops from "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" was as surreal as it got. It's second only to Kong in my recurring dreamscape.

I sometimes prefer stop-motion to computer generation because the creatures move as in a dream. The fantasy is suspended. They're not so tangible that they lose their mythic domain. I remember hiding under the kitchen table watching the opening appearance of Mighty Joe Young as he attacked the wagon cage containing the lion. Something that huge, out in the open with no barrier between it and the men in the camp -- I was terrified! But I couldn't peel my eyes away from the screen. Those movies and all the great monster flicks, especially those of the 1930s and the 1950s were the genesis of so much of what I do today.

PS: What do you think of the various sequels and remakes of "King Kong?"

JD: There is only one version of Kong: the original 1933 version. While I know Willis O'Brien was unhappy with "Son of Kong" for various reasons, I loved that too. If for no other reason than that it enabled me to see more of a world that existed only in the original movie, with some of the same actors and more of Delgado's fabulous stop-motion monsters. The closing scene was very poignant. That O'Brien animated it as quickly as he did on such a tight budget is astounding. (One of my favorite 1950s movies is O'Brien's "Giant Behemoth." He did much of that using photo cut outs as background scenery -- he got so much out of so little!) I could go on for hours on this subject. In my opinion, any remake of Kong needs to be done in a way that's never been tried.

As for the 1976 version . . . the less said the better. I have nothing but admiration for Rick Baker, though. His work is the film was very interesting. The Japanese versions are of a completely different nature and to compare them at all with the RKO version is impossible. As a kid I always loved "King Kong vs. Godzilla" -- if for no other reason than I was a Godzilla fan and everything seems so real when you're a kid. I must point out that, rubber suit and all, the original Godzilla movie is vastly underrated by many. I thought it was brilliant in some ways and still do. The story is one dimensional and has none of the romance or resonance of Kong, but it does have very effective scenes which are beautifully composed and lit and its musical score is, to my mind, extremely evocative. I'll take it any day over the remake.

PS: Do you find there's much difference between working for the comics and doing book-cover illustration? Do you have, as it were, to adopt a different mind-set for the two different disciplines? And likewise between those and your modelling and movie work?

JD: Yes on all counts. That's one of the reasons I became an illustrator rather than just a "fine artist". Illustration enabled me to get paid for indulging all of my interests in an artistic manner. There is virtually nothing I'm interested in that I haven't illustrated over the years. As an early teacher once said, he made the same choice because he wanted "to be honestly commercial". But I digress, this subject is too expansive to tackle here. Suffice it to say that each field or genre brings with it a different focus and a different set of problems.

PS: What would be an example of those differences?

JD: Take a romance illustration and a superhero poster. To do either well, a command of human anatomy is needed. But that's where the similarity ends. In the former, even when working from fashion models, there is still a need to idealize quite a bit to create the perfect couple. When working from photos you have to know what to leave in, what to leave out and what to invent. It is not easy to cross genres and pull one off. There is a feel to them that requires a completely different touch than say, Batman.

With the Batman, you've got to have some affinity with the character, know how he would move and be facile enough to avoid having the pose look stiff. And, if you're a painter, you have to know how to translate a pen-and-ink icon into reality. The mood is utterly different, the proportions are often greatly enhanced to give a superhero monumentality. While in a romance cover you could, in most cases, get away with tracing a photo and then slightly altering and refining it (not as easy as it sounds when creating the perfect female/male face), in most comic-oriented work you have to redraw everything. And that's if (especially in the case of sf and fantasy) the stuff exists at all! In cases where you can't photograph something -- such as aliens or weird machinery -- you have to know how light falls on objects in order to create realistic images completely from your imagination.

And we haven't even gotten to picture-making. When I got out of Parsons, I could draw and paint anything, but I hadn't the foggiest idea of how to make a good picture. Thank God I ran into an illustrator named Ralph Amatrudi, who was very well disciplined in the Riley method. Riley was a modern-day Howard Pyle and the mentor of many tremendous artists (James Bama, who revolutionized paperback cover art and made Doc Savage famous again, Roger Kastel, who painted Jaws, Bob McGuire, and many others). Someone was watching over me when I moved into Ralph's building. We developed a friendship that lasted until his death. In the beginning he tutored me every day on how to direct the viewer's eye through the proper use of edges, values, colours, shapes and the like. I could go on.

PS: I imagine what takes place between painting and sculpting is even more extreme.

JD: There you literally move into a different world. Most 2D work (I'm focusing on usual forms of illustration here) is basically an illusion meant to give an impression of reality by utilizing traditional methods of perspective, contrasting edges, colour shifting and the like. Full-dimensional sculpting is just the opposite. There is comparatively no illusion. You finally get past all the painting tricks and just make the thing. For some reason, painting had a much more gruelling learning curve for me than sculpting. After years of oil painting it was such a relief (no pun intended) to sculpt an object and change a shadow pattern as easily as I could move a light! Of course there's the problem of seeing things in 3D, being mindful that what you're doing will be viewed from all sides. And casting technicalities. But nothing comes without a price. If truth be told, I think the best way to revitalize your painting is to immerse yourself in sculpture and vice versa.

PS: Aside from dinosaurs, you've done a fair amount of work with superheroes, from Tarzan to Superman and Wonder Woman. Which of the established superheroes are you most comfortable working with?

JD: This may sound expedient, but for the most part I am equally comfortable with all of them, so long as I am not pigeonholed creatively. I'm sure it would have served my career better in some ways to concentrate on one area exclusively, but I think I would have gone nuts. It's taken me longer to get a "name" in a given genre because I was constantly hopping around, but after almost twenty years I've built up enough of a body of work to have a spot in several of them. In some ways I'm the ultimate fan. In other ways these things (sf, fantasy, superheroes, dinosaurs, wildlife. religious icons, etc.) reflect aspects of my personality that I need to work with. They are my attempts as an artist, given the opportunities I've had so far, to most effectively, most meaningfully and most influentially add my two cents to that amalgam of movements, isms, fields or whatever that collectively come under the heading "Art".

PS: Have you ever thought of taking the next step with your modelling work and going into stop-motion animation?

JD: Early on I dabbled in animation, in both cartoon and stop motion forms. The main problem is there is only one of me. On the east coast, the field I'm in made the most sense. I visited Rob Bottin's studio a few years back to talk -- a fascinating experience. If I were in California, I might have ended up in movies, who knows?

PS: You've also done a fair amount of card work. How does that fit in with the already broad DeVito oeuvre?

JD: I enjoy doing card work a great deal because I collected them when I was a kid. It feels wonderful to think that you're doing the same for another kid (I especially enjoyed working on the JPII dinosaur toys for that reason). Also, I developed a fast technique that enabled me to create images that were hard to tell apart, in printed form, from my larger paintings. Most of my card paintings are about 5in x 7in and my bigger paintings average 20in x 30in. The new technique always comes in handy in a pinch. I created many images that way and had a blast doing it.

PS: Do you find you read a lot of sf/fantasy/horror in your spare time, or do you mainly just read the books you have to illustrate?

JD: I've read many of the classics, such as "Dune," "Childhood's End," "Lord of the Rings" and related books, "The Martian Chronicles" (Bradbury has been a particular favourite over the years), etc., and many, many stories and series such as those about Doc Savage and Conan. But I must say much of it was in the past. When I read these days, it's almost always theological/philosophical, scientific -- particularly palaeontological developments -- historical or biographical. While working I listen to many of the classics in all genres on tape as well. I've recently been able to visit Verne and Wells again in that way. I've got a lot of time to listen and contemplate while I work.

PS: You've also done your fair share of romance covers. Is this a genre you feel particularly simpatico with or is it just a question of becoming interested in whatever commission is offered?

JD: The only reason I painted romance covers (the last one I did was over 15 years ago) was because that was where my break came. I worked my way through school as a waiter and found I couldn't get anything done going to classes five days a week and working on weekends. So I crammed all my classes into the first three days of the week and kept the last two for nothing but artwork. I ended up needing three credits one semester, and the only slot I had was a Wednesday night. There was a paperback bookcover class taught by Milton Charles that filled both needs. He also promised to take one student at the end of each year and give him/her a job. I had no idea what it was all about, how to paint, or where it would lead. As things turned out, in that class I was introduced to painting for book covers, figured out how to do it and got the job. It was painting romance novels. The last thing I would have expected I'd be doing when I went to Parsons, but they proved very instructive for many reasons, the most valuable of which was painting the human figure. And, of course, they opened a door to the world of illustration. I soon figured out how to get into genres better suited to me. I began working the day after I graduated and never looked back.

PS: Unlike many of your contemporaries, you don't make huge use of many of the new technologies in your creation of images. What has decided you against digital imaging, or is it more a case of something you'll take up one day but not yet?

JD: I don't know what will happen in that regard. I suspect I will delve into it sometime. My good friend Rick Berry has pushed to get me into it, but I'm just not ready yet. I've always been a gadget freak, but for some reason computers haven't clicked with me yet in terms of art. They don't convey a tangibility which I seem to need. There's nothing like applying real paint and shaping real clay. I'm sure I'll adapt if I need to in order to stay alive, but so far I've been lucky enough to keep going the way I am. Not that I'm not planning for the future, mind you. I've got several projects in the works that I hope will take care of that.

PS: In your 2D work, what are your favourite media?

JD: Oil paint and graphite. I love each of them, almost to the exclusion of all else. Everything I've wanted to say I've been able to pull out of those two media. The one exception is pen and ink. I was very adept at it years ago but for some reason it fell by the wayside. It's a rich medium and I hope to get back into it someday.

PS: And in your sculpture?

JD: There are two things that have made a viable sculpting career possible for me: Super Sculpy and Crazy Glue. Because of its ability to harden after baking in the oven, Super Sculpy is perfect for sending through the mail (be careful how you pack it!). While it has a decent tooth to it, it is also translucent, which can cause problems seeing detail. I usually mix it with one of the coloured Sculpy clays (Sculpy is actually a synthetic) to make it opaque. Why not use the coloured stuff straight? Because it is too rubbery for my taste. The Crazy Glue puts things back together that break or are changed and it holds up well in the oven. When I'm doing larger pieces, such as a 2ft Land Rover trophy I sculpted or a 7ft+ Madonna and Child statue it looks like I'll be doing shortly, my preferred clay is Chavant P40, which is basically like plasteline minus the sulphur fumes. It also can reduce to liquid under heat or become quite hard under cooler temperatures. There is also paraffin-based wax, but I don't find it as desirable as clay. The wax ends up looking too slick for my taste, something akin to an airbrush vs. a paintbrush for the clay. You can, however, achieve amazing detail with it. It's what all the action figures you see in the toy store are sculpted in. To each his own.

PS: Being commissioned to do the first authorized Tarzan statue in association with Burne Hogarth and the Edgar Rice Burroughs Foundation must have been pretty exciting. How did that come to pass?

JD: It was one of the best, most gruelling experiences of my career. It was the first time I worked in collaboration with another artist. But in this case it wasn't just any artist, it was Burne Hogarth. His brilliant draughtsmanship and stylization of the Tarzan comic strip over many years was just one of the achievements that gained him legendary status. He created the basic design, a one-angle view that was faxed over to me. We talked often during the sculpting and I sent videos. Upon its completion I was flown out to his studio in LA for the final details. That was an experience in itself because I had one plane ticket for me and one for Tarzan, which I was not going to let out of my sight. It took a while to explain. Again, it was Bob Chapman who commissioned the piece and lined everything up. Burne was 84 when I met him and as sharp as a tack. He loved to argue, which I soon realized was his form of conversation. Once I understood that, we had a great time. A more gracious host and astute conversationalist there never was. We became good friends. I am only sorry he never saw the piece cast -- he died the following year following a ceremony in his honour in France. It was the first Tarzan statue authorized by the Burroughs Foundation and the only sculpture Burne was ever a part of. I feel very honoured to have done it.

PS: Have you ever thought of taking up writing as yet another arrow in your quiver, just to make us all feel really small?

JD: Ha! Please. I have often thought of writing and at this moment am developing a project of truly gigantic proportions, the story of which is mine. I am participating in the writing as well. There are also two other endeavours that involve writing on my part. We'll see how they turn out!

PS: What advice do you have for newcomers to the field?

JD: There are many things I've discovered along the way that may be of some use. Never listen to anyone who says you can't make it. Try every possible option and be prepared to work very, very hard. The first time I interviewed at an art college I was told flat out I'd never make it and should not become an artist, and ended up graduating with honours from Parsons. If your heart leads you in a particular direction, chances are very good you're meant to be there. In relation to creating art, things are not as complicated as they seem: as I simplified my approach, the better I got. Don't try to do too much at once! Better to be very good at one thing than mediocre at several. It took years for me to expand into various genres. Given a decent aptitude, you would be amazed at how unmysterious it all is. If at times when you're starting out you feel you're the only one who has no idea of what to do or how to do it, believe me, you're not alone. Always help people: you'll be surprised at how much you get helped in return. No one makes it without the help of others along the way. Remember to reciprocate. And lastly, as well as firstly, pray. Often. It works.

PS: And the (alas) inevitable final question . . . What are your plans for the future?

JD: At this point in time it would be nice to consolidate all that I've done and leave some kind of definitive mark. This is not an easy thing to do because it requires a large deviation from the status quo and I've got a family to take care of. Still, I've managed to put together a proposal for a major publishing project based on the Kong character (who else?) with the full approval of the Cooper Estate. It is a story that I believe is unique, exciting and, of course, full of captivating visuals. I'll be co-writing it with Brad Strickland.

There is also a wildlife-themed illustrated series that I have written and laid out. It deals with a tried and true aspect of nature in an almost theatrical manner, for lack of a better description. It is very much in keeping with the interests I've had since the beginning.

I also will be embarking on two other major projects in the next three months:

The first, if all goes well, will be a 7-9ft statue of the Madonna and Child. The commission came out of the blue. It's something I always wanted a shot at. At least once. Now it looks like I've got it. Until it's finalized I can't give the details.

The second begins with a collectable sculpture line of new work that is presented in a rather novel fashion. Again, I am prevented from saying too much, but keep your eyes open. It will be at least a few months before it's advertised, but I think you'll know when it hits!

PS: Joe DeVito, thank you very much.