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June 21, 2005

{     Interview : Jeff Soto     }    

Sifting through the immense amount of graffiti-influenced and so-called "lowbrow" paintings that we see these days, there is one artist whom has developed a style consisting of instantly recognizable icons, incredibly attractive emotions, and still completely approachable ideas, all wrapped up in some of the most incredible talent and natural instinct I have seen in recent years. Studying hard to become what he is today, and shaped by the pokes, jabs, and then soothing caresses of a hard-knock art world, his name is Jeff Soto and if you haven't been peeping his stuff already, take note because he is one to watch.

Jeff has already shown in US and European galleries, has commercial clients including Sony Music, Spin Magazine, and Morrow Snowboards, and is still as creative, prolific, humble, and hungry as he was when he first began. There's not much else to be said that isn't covered below, but I will add that honestly, if I could pick only one painting to hang in my living room, it would be Jeff's 'Turtle God' piece that I have included below. Yup.

Shane: So, how has the Jeff Soto style evolved over the years?
Jeff: Style is a hard thing to talk about, especially how it's evolved. I guess my style has evolved to include all the types of techniques I enjoy- collage, mark making, drawing, stenciling, being messy and rendering things very tight with acrylics. I'm actually creating similar imagery to what I was doing 5 years ago, only my process and consequently my style has changed. I'm really into creating chaos and then redefining that chaos until I feel the piece is done. I'm really into layering and repainting areas until it looks right.

That's definitely one of the main things that first attracted me to your work; the depth of the detail, the things you keep finding peeking out from under each other. Considering all that detail, how much do you know about a painting's end result before you begin?
I know the basic imagery I'm looking for, and the finished piece is usually pretty close to that. I leave a lot of room for happy accidents and experimentation.

So, how do you see your style evolving in the future?
I don't know. There's a million more things to explore in art.

Maybe a better question would be what are you exploring on the side? Anything that you've gotten into lately that might end up being incorporated into later pieces? Or hey, maybe I should just drop it?
I'm getting more into drawing lately. I've been so much about painting the last two years that I've forgotten my enjoyment of some of the simple things like drawing and designing. Line work, diagrams, wallpaper, graphic shapes, things that have a different beauty than a detailed acrylic painting are capturing my attention. Also photography, printmaking, etc.

Roughly how long do you spend on a piece, and when do you know it's finished?
It just depends on the piece. A big one like "Gumivore Love" (above) could take several weeks. Lots of the illustration pieces I do are finished in a night. It's hard to know when something is finished but I do the best I can.

What two things keep you painting?
This question seemed easy at first, but it's kinda tough. In a way I don't know why I continue to paint. I think making art is just part of me. I've always made art, I don't know what else I'd want to do with myself. This sounds cliche but I guess I like being able to create my own worlds and ideas.

Would you care to elaborate on your choices of icons in your paintings?
I use a lot of flowers in my art. They're beautiful and represent growth or newness, but also death. There's all kinds of things I pull from nature- skulls, butterflies, cacti, naked people, palm trees. I'm fascinated by our world and everything that populates it. I can look through books of plants for hours. I also like to juxtapose these natural icons with man made things like guns, sparkplugs, diagrams, and tools. I like to combine beauty with destruction.

Picking these objects to portray and using such a warm palette, your work has a youthful and, in my opinion, uplifting vibe. I would compare it to a rocky desert, where you could get fucked up pretty bad, but you just want to go wander around because the flowers and the view are so beautiful. Without getting too new agey, what kind of vibe are you hoping people get off your work?
You hit the nail on the head, I am trying to create an uplifting vibe. When you break it down, one of the main themes in my work is 'hope'. No matter how bad things are, no matter how fucked up the situation I think there's always hope. I like that conflict of depression and hope.

So, care to tell us about your college experience?
It was a long process, from 1993 to 2002. I graduated high school in '93, and went to Riverside Community College. I took all kinds of classes- Anthropology, Astronomy, English, history, science classes, and of course art classes. This is where I learned basic skills like drawing and painting, design, life drawing, computer skills. I had an excellent teacher, Dayna Mason, who taught the 'advanced' classes. I learned a great deal from her about composition and art techniques, but she also taught us what it means to be an artist. I left in '98 with an Associates degree and transferred to Art Center College of Design. It was there that I pushed my skills further. They worked us so hard that it was impossible not to get better at making art! The school is different from most art colleges I've visited, they expect you to be devoted to your schoolwork. There wasn't much partying, at least among the crowd I kicked it with. Students who weren't taking things seriously would be weeded out. The lazy ones struggled. It was strict and tough the first two years but well worth it. The second half of the program they let us loose to start deciding our career paths and establish a style. I was around 26 so I took everything very seriously and started looking into the gallery scene and working as an illustrator. When I graduated in 2002 I was starting to show in galleries.

What was getting your first gallery show like?
My first gallery show was a group show organized by the Art Club at the community college I was going to. It was 1993, I was 18, and it was a small coffee shop/gallery in Moreno Valley of all places. I remember feeling pretty proud about having two pieces up on the wall. I did a bunch more small shows after that one but all were group shows. My first solo show was in September 2001 at New Image Art in L.A. I worked so hard for that show, I worked all night, every night for months to finish the hundreds of paintings. It was the best feeling in the world when the show opened, then like a week later it was September 11th. I was really upset, I totally forgot I had a show up for a couple weeks.

In the same vein, how did you feel selling your first painting?
It's a cool feeling, I felt honored that someone liked my work enough to spend their money on it. I still feel that way every time a piece sells. Growing up our family didn't have much money, we definitely had no extra money for anything frivolous like art, so I see it as a great honor that people spend their hard earned cash on my paintings.

I've always thought it would be impossible to sell a piece because after working so hard on something, it would be heart-wrenching to let it go. Don't you ever get the urge to go visit a sold painting?
There's a few paintings out there that I felt sad about selling. These were pieces that I felt were breakthroughs for me, or paintings that were highly personal. Sometimes it's tough because it feels like giving your babies out to a stranger. There's been some times when I finish a piee for a show last minute, like the night before, then it sells right away. You never get to enjoy the piece yourself. So, yeah, I'd like to visit some pieces that are gone.

Are you still punching a clock anywhere, or are you painting full-time?
Luckily I've been able to just be an artist. That was a goal I had before I finished college. That's one of the things that drove me to work so hard. I've worked some pretty crappy jobs in my life and I didn't want to do that again.

Do you collaborate artistically with others? If so, how?
I have in the past with mixed results. Some people can collaborate and it looks seamless, like there was this show in Japan with Tim Biskup, Gary Baseman and Mark Ryden, where they collaborated on a bunch of paintings. You'd think those three would create some weird, ugly shit together, just because their styles are so different. But the artwork turned out pretty amazing actually. The pieces worked. The only collaboration I've done extensively was with my graffiti buddy, Maxx ( link ). We'd paint together pretty often and sometimes parts of our letters would intertwine. I haven't painted with Maxx for awhile now, I should call him up.

Any other projects you're involved in right now?
I always have ideas for projects so I guess everything's in the ideas stage right now. I'd like to curate another show this year, the Robots Have Feelings Too show ( link ) was a big success, I'd like to do something like that again but maybe with less artists. I also have some book ideas I'm working on and maybe a story with some of the characters I've created. There's other things in the works that are secrets.

May I ask what kind of book? I would expect a graphic novel of sorts, or something in the vein of the Blab! series. I'm not trying to get you to give anything away, but is there a story that you've been telling, or trying to tell with your paintings? I've felt the "industry crushing nature" stance in your work, am I on the right track?
I'm slowly working on a book of my artwork, a big time work in progress with no timeline. I'm also going to be working on a book project with Mark Murphy, Joseph Hart and Ryan Wallace. Everything else is just little book ideas floating around in my head. I keep thinking that I know so many wonderful artists that it could be cool to do a book featuring them.

Any ideas or hints on future Jeff Soto merch? Clothing? Toy Soto-bots?
I like having merchandise but I don't want go crazy with it. My paintings are more important to me, they're my "art", I'm less concerned with other things. I don't know if I'll ever do a Jeff Soto mousepad, or a Jeff Soto stationary set, or a Jeff Soto mug or anything like that. You probably won't find a Jeff Soto coaster set anytime soon. I do have some products out, but they were illustration jobs- there's four boards coming out soon from Monkey Skateboards, and a "MacSkin" from Macskinz. I'm talking to some people about doing a toy which could be really cool if done right. Besides that, I only have plans to release prints and books in the near future. The prints are cool because they give people a chance to own some of my work without shelling out a good hunk of cash.

Let me be probably the 137th person to tell you that the characters in your paintings would make badass figures! I'm not super into the whole toys thing that's blown up in the past few years, but I'd buy every damn figure you put out. Speaking of toys, are you a big nostalgia kind of guy?
I love toys, I still have lots of my old Star Wars toys and Transformers, even though most of them are missing a head or have a chewed up arm. I collected the new Star Wars toys a few years back but didn't keep up with it. I didn't even know there was this big thing going on with imported vinyl toys until a few months ago, it's getting huge. They're well made and cool looking, kind of expensive though, I don't see them catching on with the kids, just older collectors who have money to spend. I'm very nostalgic for my childhood. In the last year I've bought Robotech (Sorry,..Macross) stuff, Construx, all kinds of plastic model kits, legos, books and videos from my childhood.

What are your biggest influences, both today, and back in the day?
My influences change all the time. There's artists I like a lot, but I'm always trying to be careful not to copy them! Some of the art I've been looking at lately: Lisa Yuskavage, James Jean, Saiman Chow, Michael Sieben, plus I've been looking at a lot of stuff from the Morning Wood book I just bought. I like all the "street" artists- of course Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Ed Templeton, etc. but I also like some of the more "hot rod pin-up" artists like Robert Williams and Coop. I guess I'm into the art that is in the middle. Back in the day I was more into polished tight graffiti pieces like the stuff from Mear, Saber, Giant, Toonz... Also artists that had a big place in history like Van Gogh, Warhol, Max Ernst....

What would you say most inspires you?
Nature, sex, people, Sci-fi, other artists, beautiful things. Nausicca.

Why did you choose the path you are now traveling? Or did the path choose you?
I think the path chose me.

What is the one thing that has most prepared you most for the life you live now?
Growing up in a blue collar area. I think it taught me to be humble and appreciate what you have.

Would you say that you're successful?
I think I'm doing alright. Everything depends on your perspective. There's so many things I still want to accomplish but so far I think things are going good. I'm starting to get some recognition in the 'lowbrow' art scene and paintings are selling, but I'd also eventually like recognition from the elusive 'art world'. I guess I just want my work taken seriously, like I'd be honored if a museum wanted me to do a solo show ya know?

Completely. You seem to be the kind of guy that just gets a lot of enjoyment out of people enjoying your work. It's what keeps you rockin'. Someone telling you that your work made them happy is much more important than being handed a nice check. Any advice on learning to balance the two?
I like compliments and the checks. It's not hard balancing the two. I need to make money to pay our bills and to keep making art. Nice compliments keep me going when I get artists block or I'm just burnt out.

It seems to me that a lot of the 'lowbrow' crowd started out, and usually still are, a very blue collar bunch. Making due with what they get, they take pride in making something out of nothing. The found wood instead of canvas comes to mind, the graffiti influence, the general roughness found in parts of your work, would you say these are the things that connect you to that scene? If not, what do you think does?
I don't know if I consider my work 'Lowbrow'. It's being accepted in lowbrow circles but I don't know if I'd call it lowbrow. Maybe that term is a little misleading. Sandow Birk is connected to 'lowbrow', so is Barry McGee, so is Big Daddy Roth, so is Takashi Murakami. Everyone's work is so different, everyone has different education levels, and completely different backgrounds. Maybe it's just narrative work in general; a huge artists' reaction to conceptual art. I think 'lowbrow' started with artists who were making things that weren't deemed "legit" by the art world, things like pinstriping, comics, tattoos, graffiti and animation. These kinds of arts have been accepted by mainstream audiences but except in a few cases have been ignored by the art world. There is a blue collar aspect to it, but at the same time it seems that many lowbrow artists are highly educated. To answer your question I don't know what connects me to lowbrow. Maybe I just paint narrative pieces. Maybe it's my graffiti roots. In any case I don't know how to work on hot rods and I've never owned any Tiki memorabilia. I don't have any plans to do a video performance piece any time soon either.

On another note, care to tell us about your very cool hobby of cactus photography?
Well, my brother-in-law Ralph introduced me to cacti and succulents about 6 years ago. I tend to get obsessed about things that interest me and these cool plants totally captured my attention. They were so weird, they were like little mini sculptures with interesting shapes and growing habits. With many of them you can stick a cutting into some soil and it would start a new plant. So I started buying some from the nursery to start my collection. Then I started noticing the plants everywhere- at restaurants, amusement parks, people's front yards. I started taking cuttings wherever I could find them. I'd go to places like certain botanical gardens which will remain nameless and very sneakily break off a branch or some leaves to start my own plant. I'd sneak into abandoned houses just to see if they had any cacti growing in the backyards. During walks at night I'd sneak into people's front yards and take cuttings. I was obsessed. I was always on the lookout for new cacti and succulents. I started driving to the desert and finding wild ones growing, that's when I decided I was going too far. I started reading about cacti conservation and how entire plant populations had been wiped out by collectors in the early 1900's. I decided to only take pictures, and leave the plants alone. I abandoned the art of stealing cacti.

That is such a unique and great interest, and an even greater way of coming around to it. Are there any other cool idiosyncrasies you have that would perk up our ears?
I was really into plastic model kits when I was 10, lately I got back into it. I never finished a single model when I was a kid. I finished my first at the age of 28- ( check it ). I've picked up a bunch of Macross models, some military jets, and a Nausicca gunship model which I just finished. It's fun and dorky, but I don't have much time to devote to it.

What would you say are your most vital possessions?
My brains, my eyes, my penis and my hands. Probably in that order.

Want to get into your strengths and weaknesses?
I don't want to talk about my strengths. Weaknesses: taking shit for granted, being lazy, sleeping too much, watch too much TV, don't exercise enough, annoy Jennifer too much, being self centered.

What motivates you to put forth your greatest efforts?
I always had this fear that I'd find an old painting of mine in a thrift store, you know, like someone didn't care to hold on to it. So I'm always trying to do the best work I can. I feel like if I'm not doing the best I can do, then what's the point?

What accomplishments in your life have given you the most satisfaction?
That's a hard one. I'll take a shot at that one in when I'm ready to die.

Fair enough. I'll get back to you on that. Here's a cheesy one, where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Maybe teaching part time at an art college, doing a big show once a year, being a great parent to my kids. Gardening, staying in touch with what's going on in the arts. Have a book or two out. Staying busy.

Could you ask yourself a question about Jeff Soto and then answer it?
Q: Jeff Soto, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: Uh,.......

To get your hands on some nice-priced Jeff Soto prints, as well as a really cool book comprised of pages from his sketchbook, move on over to his online store and get some of that goodness.

    » JeffSoto.com

Comments

well, i'm obviously not the art critic that many of the comtributors to this site are, however, i do enjoy it- i just flat out suck at it... but i recognize good or exceptional art when i see it.... shane may disagree here... so shane, being the artist that he is, has introduced me to a whole other world of talent that i never ever would have been exposed to otherwise and i'm really starting to dig it... especially this jeff soto stuff, these images are absolutely gorgeous and once i am more financially secure i would LOVE to get him an original, regardless of the price, until then, i'll stick to posters if available- but mark my word, i know this boy adores jeff's work and he WILL have an original to proudly display in our house sooner than later... thanks jeff for giving us a glimpse into your life and thanks shane for prying this info out of him... you guys rock and are inspiring to us all...

Posted by: stace at February 12, 2004 10:53 PM

i inspired your works very much!

Posted by: MICHAEL RYAN at December 11, 2005 5:12 AM

i would like to know the prices of this artist and what do you have available
thanks
da

Posted by: daniel abate at December 27, 2005 2:59 PM

jeff sottos work is truely beautiful! it holds such warmth and perpetual hope it really makes me feel like i have no worries! big up! big up! i wish i could afford one of his paintings! ahoy!

Posted by: nicholas saunders at December 15, 2006 1:51 PM

i would like to know where to find a large image of the piece, "fingertight". ive done some research and saw part of the piece as the cover of that band, but i want to see a large one of the whole picture.

Posted by: Alex Miyashiro at May 31, 2007 8:01 AM

cd

Posted by: dc at June 8, 2009 7:25 AM
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