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Jay Howell's World of Pure Imagination
A conversation with cartoonist and illustrator, Jay Howell about is collaboration on the Stance x Willy Wonka crew collection.
Many of us have probably had a similar experiences: sitting in front of the fat, box set TV, at our friends house watching the 1971 original, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The film is completely mesmerizing; the colors, the candy, the imaginative world that this group of lucky Golden Ticket winners got to experience. At the same time, there was a feeling of slight unease. The film is dark and trippy in ways that are hard to explain, let alone experience as a kid. This feeling of uneasiness and entrancement is the exact reason why Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is Jay Howell’s all time favorite film.
In early January, we made our way up to Portland, OR for the day to hang out with cartoonist and illustrator, Jay Howell. It was rainy and much colder than the LA weather we’re used to, but it was a welcomed change of scenery. Halfway up the tree lined driveway we were met by Jay’s scruffy dog, brilliantly named…Street Dog. We made our way up to his home studio where we dove right in:
WHAT TYPE OF ARTWORK/DESIGN DO YOU FIND INTERESTING RIGHT NOW?
I love character design. It’s how I made my career. Right now I’m really interested in making designs for different brands and products. I’m working on some surfboard designs, some skateboard graphics, wheel graphics, snowboard graphics. I want to finish a graphic novel that I’ve been writing, more skateboards, more snowboards, more shoes. Right now I’m just fully immersed in tattooing and products and brands.
WHAT DO YOU FIND IS INTERESTING ABOUT WORKING ON PRODUCTS
AND BRANDS VERSUS JUST CREATING ON YOUR OWN?
I think right now I want to just push further and really work on something that I can say is ‘iconic’. Some people would say that the Bob’s Burgers stuff is iconic, but I just want to challenge myself to stay on that and create things and characters that are iconic.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE YOURSELF AND YOUR CRAFT?
I am a cartoonist and illustrator. Saying you're an artist is kinda lame. It sounds a bit pretentious somehow. Saying you’re a cartoonist is just silly and fun.
What are some of your favorite cartoons?
I love Garfield, I like the Pink Panther cartoons and Peanuts. Those flat color cartoons from the 60s and 70s.
How did some of these early cartoons you were watching, inspire your career?
My biggest influence is the Simpsons. When I was a kid, I saw The Tracey Ullman Show and they would show The Simpsons shorts in between the sketches and I was just like, “this is like OMG! How could this happen?” I was a kid so I didn’t know how to ever be involved in something like that, but I knew I had to be doing something like that. I clearly knew what I wanted to do with my life and from that point on I pursued art. For a while I fooled myself that I was a fine artist, but that was idiotic. I had dreams of being at the MOMA or something stupid like that. Then I had a friend that said, “why don’t we make some small cartoons and make these things move a little bit?” the second I saw that fine art was out the window.
WHERE WAS YOUR STARTING POINT INTO ILLUSTRATION AND DESIGN?
I’m an 80’s guy so skateboard graphics, I mean I would flip through the whole magazine just to get to the back to look at the board graphics. I would go into the skate shops just to look at the boards. It was my museum as a kid. And still is really. It’s one of my favorite art installations still, the 4 walls of a skateboard shop. I just wanted to make skateboard graphics so badly. Everything in my life, I didn’t really know how to do it, but I just had to figure it out slowly and stupidly.
When it comes down to the things that I draw, I’m really influenced by the things of the past. I really like motorcycle gang iconography and like Americana aesthetic and folk art. I like when things are unintentionally beautiful art. Surfing is a big part of that too. It’s another piece of Americana. It’s people like Miki Dora and Rick Griffin and all those people who are really just pieces of art. It’s the same thing from motorcycle gangs, to surfing, to the grateful dead, to psychedelic cartoons from the 60s. It’s all intermingled and just a piece of artwork.
I lived in CA my whole life. Surf culture, skate culture, zine culture, that’s all I've known and really cared about. It’s not until recently that I really wanted to leave and get out of my comfort zone. I wanted to be uncomfortable. I wanted to keep moving and pushing myself. That’s why I moved to Oregon, but California will always be my home.
HAVE YOU ALWAYS FELT CREATIVE?
I don’t know if I’ve always been creative, but I have always tried to be creative. I’m the best at almost. I see myself as just always trying. Some people will say that I’ve “made it”, but I don’t think that way.
DO YOU THINK YOU’LL EVER FEEL LIKE YOU HAVE?
I hope not. I don’t think you should ever be satisfied with your work. Like with tattooing: I started tattooing when I was living in San Francisco back in 2009. I started just doing stick and pokes but honestly I just felt like, “why is this taking so long?” I got my first machine around 2012 and I would just do a bunch of fun tattoos for the homies after we got home from the bar, but eventually I realized…I’m really not good at this. I knew there was no other way to get good at it other than just continuing to do it as much as I could. Just practice. I eventually got better. But I’ll never be satisfied. When people do get satisfied, that’s when they start making bad records. It's good to take risks on things and not become self-satisfied.
LET’S GET INTO THE COLLAB YOU WORKED ON. WHAT WAS DIFFERENT ABOUT THIS COLLABORATION COMPARED TO SOME OF THE OTHERS YOU’VE WORKED ON?
When it comes down to it, this (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) was my favorite movie ever made. If there was one last movie that I had to watch, it would probably be this one. Sometimes people will ask me to work on projects similar to this, but I have to say that my heart just isn’t in it because I'm not interested in the source material but this is something that's interesting to me. I just love this movie.
And then in terms of the collaboration process, it was just extremely easy on this project. I did a couple of rough designs and the product team came back with a really hyper focused idea of how they wanted the images to look and how they wanted them to be laid out. Stance takes a lot of risks with a lot of different creatives. I always want to work with designers who want to pull out better work from artists and that definitely happened with this project.
WHAT ABOUT THE WILLY WONKA MOVIE MAKES IT YOUR FAVORITE?
The movie is so strange. They don’t even enter the chocolate factory until half way through the movie…and it’s somehow still such an interesting plot point. The music is great, the characters are unforgettable, the set designs are really beautiful, everyone really pops and it’s super well casted, and on top of that it's scary and psychedelic. It falls into that whole category of what was happening at that time: you have early motorcycle gangs, Mad Magazine, National Lampoon, Pink Panther. It’s that beautiful late 60s early 70’s coming out of psychedelia culture. Some of the best things were made from 68’-78’. It really represented that moment in history really well. It’s such a beautiful piece of England also it’s smoky dirty post industrial England. It’s all gray and shitty and then there's this beautiful and colorful factory. My favorite scene ever is when they have that claustrophobic moment right as they are all about to go in where the room keeps shrinking and they finally go into the factory with the giant chocolate waterfall. I mean that whole moment is some of the best cinematography ever.
WHAT CANDY WOULD YOU BE EXCITED TO TRY FROM THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY?
I’m a big chocolate fan so I’d want to try it all. I would for sure drink out of the chocolate river.
SO NOW THAT WE’VE HEARD WHAT SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE MOMENTS FROM THE FILM WERE, HOW DID YOU INJECT THOSE PIECES INTO THE SOCK DESIGNS?
When we started the design process I was sort of doing more traditional cartooning that I’m used to doing for shows, but some of the product designers at Stance came back with the note of: “You know let's push this a little and lose the black and white linework and let’s build up characters that you’ve never done before. I thought that was really cool and exciting so as soon as they gave me that go ahead I just jumped right in. As for color, I mean, it already exists. The film really has that technicolor early 70’s look. It all already existed so I was able to take direct screen shots from the film and work them into the characters on the socks. The rich browns, the velvet purple, the creams, the orange, the popping pinks. The colors turned out so great.
HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT CREATING YOUR VERSION OF WILLY WONKA CHARACTERS FOR THIS COLLABORATION?
I knew I couldn't get things going unless I created Wonka first. He had to look good first and then the other characters would come together. Once we worked out details around the eyes and nose and we could see exactly how he was coming together and popping, the other characters came together really simply. It was just a matter of getting a likeness of things: finding iconic moments within the already existing framework of characters made it really simple. Like Charlie's hair, or the Candyman has that little swoop there and a striped shirt. Mike TV and his little kerchief and white boots, Veruca Salt…she’s angry as hell. It’s just finding these little details in the characters and then playing off that.
We finished the interview with Jay trying on some of the socks, giving us the full studio tour including a look through his tattoo flash book, and talking us through the artwork hanging on the walls. Street Dog got one last belly scratch and then we thanked Jay for the collaboration and conversation and made our way back down to Los Angeles.