Artists of Color | John Picacio
Welcome back to the Artists of Color interview series. I have a few interviews currently in the queue with some very busy artists, but I promise you, they will be worth the wait!
Case in point, my latest interview with San Antonio-based artist and illustrator, John Picacio. I first learned of John’s work when he was interviewed by one of my favorite podcasts from some years ago, Sidebar, and have been a fan of his ever since. John has a long and illustrious career, and is easily one of the greatest fantasy artists working today. I am humbled and grateful that he took time from his very busy schedule to answer my questions, and can’t wait for you to read his interview. Enjoy!
1). Tell us about yourself! What is your background, and how would you describe your work?
I'm a Star Wars-generation kid who grew up wanting to work in science fiction / fantasy, so I guess I'm living the dream. I've been a professional science fiction / fantasy cover artist for the last 22 years. I went full-time in 2001, so that's 17 years, non-stop. I've cover-illustrated more sf/f books than I can count, won some Chesley and Hugo Awards along the way, and I've been fortunate to do work on franchises such as The X-Men, Star Trek, George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, and more. I'm the founder of the publishing imprint Lone Boy, where I produce my Loteria Grande cards and posters. I'm now turning those artworks into an illustrated story.
Why Loteria? Well, I'm 100% Mexican-American on both sides of my family, and after I won my first Hugo Award, I asked myself if I wanted to keep being a gun-for-hire or start telling my own stories. So I'm doing both, but the more I go along, the more I find myself becoming an artist / author / storyteller. I think my future lies in owning my own creative property. I will say that it's important to me to work toward being a great artist, not just be pigeonholed as a great Mexicanx artist, but the culture is a part of who I am. I don't see it being represented in a forward, future-driven way, so I want to change that.
2). Are you self-taught, or did you go to art school? How important was this training to becoming a professional artist?
I'm self-taught as far as the illustration biz. No formal art training. I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor of Architecture degree. I had some scholarship offers during my senior year of high school. So there was family pressure to choose a 'professional degree' opportunity rather than a path that led to a visual arts career like comics -- in other words, "conventional stability vs. perceived instability". So I picked architecture because I figured it was the only professional degree where I might be able to draw for a living. It was really as simplistic as that.
Architecture school taught me how to be a better problem solver. Later, that foundation ended up transferring well to illustration -- the understanding of process and how to break down a problem into smaller parts. It comes in handy every day when I'm observing the landscapes of a narrative, trying to create pictures that move the story, move me, and hopefully move my audience.
3). When did you first fall in love with art, and realize that you wanted to pursue it as a career? Did your parents approve or disapprove?
I can't remember not loving it. Comic books are amongst my earliest memories, dating back to first grade. When I was a kid, I don't think I let my mother take a grocery trip without me buying a comic off the spinner rack. Back then, my friend Eddie Moody had this tattered hardcover book called The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer. It featured the original first-issue origin stories of Superman, Batman, The Human Torch, The Flash, The Spectre, Captain America, and so on. I couldn't get enough of that book. Comics led to Star Trek, led to Star Wars, led to more sf/f films and magazines. I've always loved anything related to science fiction and fantasy.
Fast forward to college -- I did a semester in Europe during my third year of architecture school. The first stop of the trip was in London, and one day, I played hooky from the rest of the group and went to Gosh! Comics -- back when it used to be across from the British Museum. The shop owner saw me looking at a poster rack containing original comics art. I stopped cold when I saw a page of original Dave McKean art from Arkham Asylum. There were several more in there, and he took out the pages and let me spread them out on the floor. I just stared at them for a very long time. There was ink, graphite, acrylic and layers of collage everywhere. It was a revelation. At the time I had been discovering graphic novels like Violent Cases and Watchmen -- and the more I kept visiting museums across Europe, the more I knew architecture was not enough for me.
I got my degree and started working as an intern architect out of school, but by night, I wrote, drew, and self-published my own comics stories. Those comics led a publisher called Mojo Press to ask if I would be interested in doing cover art for a Michael Moorcock book. Doing that job was the hook that changed my life. I fell in love with the business and with the process of being a cover illustrator, and my days in the architecture biz were officially numbered. I started living, eating, breathing the business of illustration and kept working to score art jobs, building my portfolio in my off-hours. Five years later, I went full-time as a science fiction / fantasy cover illustrator and I've never looked back.
4). You were decorated as this year’s Artist Guest of Honor at the 76th World Science Fiction Convention. And you celebrated with a bang by creating the Mexicanx Initiative, bringing 50 Mexicanx sci-fi/fantasy fans and creators to the show with you. Can you tell us about this incredible milestone achievement, and what it was like to take WorldCon by storm with such an illustrious ensemble?
When I was asked to be the Artist GoH, I soon discovered that I was the first Mexicanx to ever be a Worldcon GoH in its 76-year history. The history of GoHs is mostly American and British whites. Thankfully, there are a few notable black creators in the continuum, but I don't think there have ever been any brown creators in that entire span. I was the first. That's great, but the disturbing question to me was "What if I'm the last?" I didn't see a lot of Mexicanx working in the mainstream spotlight of sf/f publishing, and I felt an obligation to plant some seeds for the future.
So in January, I announced on Twitter that I would sponsor a couple of Mexicanx creators to receive Attending Memberships to Worldcon 76, but then my friend John Scalzi matched the pledge. The endeavor began to snowball as it went viral, and more and more creators and fans began to donate. I called the campaign The Mexicanx Initiative and we then generated a second fund to provide travel assistance for each of the recipients. Then it was up to me to select the 50 recipients themselves, and I examined an ocean of submissions across Mexico, the United States and beyond.
That was a long, painstaking process, but I'm proud of the people I selected. 42 of the 50 attended the con and once they arrived, they received their travel assistance funds as reimbursement. The process worked -- which is not bad for me making it up as I went along. I made sure we had an even gender split within the group, consisting of artists, writers, editors, and fans from both sides of the border. The talent level was world-class and everyone brought their A-game to Worldcon. It was historic, not just for the number of Mexicanx present, but the professional impact that these creators are going to make on the field in the near future.
Look out for artists such as Tehani Farr, Gary Villarreal, Francis Vallejo, Mariana Palova, Robbie Trevino, Cody Jimenez, Babs Webb, Orlando Arocena, Dianita Ceron, Gonzalo Alvarez, Lauren Snow, Sara Felix, and more.
Many of us have bonded as a creative family in a way that I couldn't have conceived, and the best thing is that their impact has a chance to echo well beyond this Worldcon, for generations to come.
5). What is a major obstacle that you have faced in pursuit of your art career? How did you overcome this, or is it something that you still struggle with?
I think managing the balance between maintaining a social media presence and working on new art has been a tough one for me. I tend to not post every single day on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram because working on my art is where I want to be. The pressure to self-promote is so much more time-consuming than when I first started as a pro. I've never quite found that perfect daily groove of posting on social media, staying focused on my art, and engaging in online conversations. Every once in a while, I get it right, but most of the time, working on new art wins over everything else, which I guess is better than the other way around.
6). Does representation matter in art?
You mean in terms of culture? Cultural representation? Yeah. It definitely does -- for all people, but definitely for mine right now. Mexicanx on both sides of the American border are being politically targeted, harassed, separated from families, and killed because we don't control our own narrative. We have children being held in cages and being forced to defend themselves in court, without legal representation in current American society. This is happening right now -- this minute -- and it's disgusting. It's inhumane. Over time, we Mexicanx have allowed our cultural story to be twisted and reshaped by other people's political narratives -- whether that be the Latino narrative, the Hispanic narrative, or whatever passes for Western civilization's narrative these days -- and we're paying the ongoing price for that right now.
So how do we change that? We have to take control of our own cultural narrative. Tell our stories. Make our voices heard. There are so few Mexicanx currently working in the major leagues of art and literature in publishing, and that needs to change if progress is going to happen, so that the culture doesn't continue to get manipulated and denigrated. Our stories can expand the possibilities for the whole world, not just Mexicanx, and make it an enriched place. That's why representation matters, not just for us, but for everyone.
7). If you could communicate one thing to artists about representing a background or experience that isn’t their own, what would it be?
Don't just understand what people feel. Understand *why* they feel it. Too often, I see people say they're 'putting themselves in someone else's shoes' and they get the mannerisms, but not the mechanisms. I think cultural research goes beyond just reading history and flipping through visual surveys. You've gotta understand how people feel and why they feel that way -- or at least try.
8). Do you have a favorite character of color (from film, television, literature, comics, or any piece of art)?
Good question. I'm trying to think of Mexicanx characters that are part of the larger mainstream and have moved the culture forward. There are precious few, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. That just means they're not readily visible, and I think that goes back to the need for more Mexicanx creators and decision-makers shaping our narrative's future within the mainstream of storytelling. For me, I would have to go with La Calavera Catrina by José Guadalupe Posada. Between 1910 and 1913, Posada created infamous etchings of skeletons dressed in aristocratic garb, and the one featuring a skeleton wearing a wide-brimmed hat is the most well-known. These drawings were jabs at Mexicans of the time who denied their indigenous ancestry, in favor of being perceived as more European by painting their faces white and imitating European fashion. La Calavera Catrina -- as well as all of Posada's calavera works -- satirized high society and empowered the less privileged. She was a character very much of her time, and yet she will resonate well beyond all of us.
9). Who is the most underrated creator of color you wish everyone knew about?
I'll give you two -- one author, one visual artist -- both living. David Bowles is a Mexicanx author who lives near the Texas / Mexico border and I think he's ready to have a breakout year, where he becomes more known in the mainstream of publishing. His book Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky may end up being this generation's quintessential Mexican origin myth collection. He's getting ready to have high-profile releases in the young adult and graphic novel markets. I think he's one of the most brilliant Mexicanx literary scholars out there right now. (Follow him on Twitter at @DavidOBowles.) On the art side, I think Gary Villarreal is someone with a large Instagram following (@villarrte), but not terribly well-known beyond that. I suspect that will change in the next few years as his work receives more high-profile opportunities. He's an absolute drawing demon.
10). What piece of advice would you give to young aspiring artists of color?
Well, first of all, I would say that we need more of them -- across all cultures. We need those new viewpoints more than ever, especially within the wider mainstream of storytelling and publishing. Along the way, you might hear that your culture being featured on the cover of a book or product won't sell. Don't believe it. You belong. You just may need to build the market first.
Second I would say, "You're the artist. You figure it out." That's the piece of advice legendary author Michael Moorcock gave me when I asked him what I should do for some interior illustrations for my first book job. It was a really important thing to hear, at a very formative time. He was basically saying, "You can draw, but the real power is in the idea making. You've been given power. Don't hand it back." That idea of taking power and not just immediately handing it back when in doubt -- that became very key to my early success. I took charge of coming up with ideas for my clients and not just accepting sales and marketing briefs that told me what to do. I became very wary of jobs where I was told exactly what to illustrate, even turning down jobs where that was happening. The great artists take their audiences (and their clients) to dreams and places where those people could not go by themselves. You want to be one of those artists, not just the ones that can draw other people's ideas.
11). Any current projects you can talk about? What is your ultimate dream project that you canʼt wait to work on, or be a part of someday?
I'm working on new artworks for my Loteria series right now. 'La Musica' will be the next release as a Grande card. I only print 1000 of those cards for each artwork and they sell out quickly. I hope to have several more cards finished before the end of 2018. I'm writing the manuscript for a Loteria illustrated novel, and I hope to submit the revised pitch to my agent in the very near future. Would it be great to do covers for things I loved as a kid like Batman and Star Wars, or characters like The Spectre and The Phantom Stranger? Yeah, if those calls ever rang, I would pick up the phone, but they're not the end game for me. I don't think they ever were. Owning and sharing my own stories and creative property is the dream project. Loteria is my dream project. So that's the task every day -- keep living the dream and keep opening the door for more Dreamers.