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An Interview with Madison based, Visual Artist, Jacob Newman

I had the chance to interview Madison based visual artist, Jacob Newman, and learn about his creative process, influences, favorite themes, and more. After hearing about the creative work he has done in the past, such as directing plays, organizing shows, and creating an incredible volume of his own illustrations, I am very excited to see what he does in the future.

Who are you and what do you do?

I consider myself a comic book artist for people who don’t have time for, or interest in comic books. In fact, even though I am a comic artist and I have the utmost respect for manga and anime, I don’t consume that media. I use comic characters as a platform to talk about a range of macro and micro issues, sometimes social issues and sometimes personal anecdotes, and sometimes both at the same time. I believe that our lives are deeply intertwined with things that are happening on a larger scale in the news. My actual art form is an animated story which I present either on a torah scroll, collection of panels, collection of funhouse mirrors, or whatever I’ve scrapped or found at a thrift shop, and I do a flamboyant presentation where I have a full band behind me playing whatever jazz I listen to during that time and we tell a story where the performance itself is a statement and then the work is a separate statement to be considered. When the performance is complete the stage becomes a gallery and the audience is invited to come up and walk on stage to check out what I’ve put out.

Why do you do what you do?

I don’t know exactly how to answer this question, because I believe that the ‘why’ is sometimes implied when you’re an artist. You create art because it is at the core of who you are and you don’t know who you would be if you didn’t. You create art during times of prosperity and times of sorrow, you create art as thoughtlessly as you might go on a run or eat food you like. I create art because it is a tool for me to connect with other people in my life. My art functions as letters of apology to my friends, birthday gifts to my family, something I trade friends for vinyl records, something I use for school projects to get out of writing papers, and something that I put on the walls of whatever my current home is.

When do you do your work? Does your work take a lot of preparation or is it spontaneous?

I work constantly, and when I am lucky enough to have a lot of time on my hands I work almost the entire day. I work obsessively, for hours at a time without eating or drinking, because when I am blessed to have that kind of time the work becomes a sort of meditative process. I would say the preparation is about 1% of the time I spend working, I mostly work through trial and error, but I’m always working on about three exhibition pieces at a time.

Can you describe your creative process?

My art functions as one continuous story. It’s the journey of Jake Havoc, and it is a parable for my life. As Jake encounters new enemies and challenges and whatnot they mirror things that I am facing in my own life. Many people in my life are represented by other characters in the art, and taken as one cohesive body my art over the last 5 years serves as a comprehensive autobiography. There are specific characters and biblical symbols that are present throughout the work and consistently mean the same thing. Thus, the art can objectively be interpreted. It’s like how all Lego blocks that have ever been made fit together. If you look at something I did when I was 14 and you see a motif, it will mean the same thing as it does when I draw it now. All the characters are the same. The only thing that’s different is I have gotten slightly better at drawing and had lots of life happen in between.

What's your art background?

My lack thereof is what distinguishes me from a lot of artists. On the one hand, my grandma is a tour guide at the Met, and so I have a strong art history background, and a decent understanding of the timeline of modern art. And my other grandpa is a painter, and so I grew up taking informal lessons with him all the time. But the thing is, those were lessons in painting landscapes, and I draw ghosts. In a sense, I could be considered a folk artist. I am extremely influenced by Marc Chagall, who used modern styles to portray antiquated Eastern European lifestyles and celebrate Jewish religious values. In my work, a lot of what I do is based in my Jewish upbringing and the miraculous nature of a lot of the stories that I was told as a child. But comic characters are the medium that is the most alive to me and so I use them to portray things that are a lot older.

Who are some artists that inspire you?

Of course, like many other graphic artists, I am deeply inspired by Keith Haring, but his influence in my work is far more limited than it used to be. I would say that my work is most deeply inspired by funk music. Each piece I make is meant to look like a disco dance floor, each character dancing to their own beat. Songs in the key of life, if you will. My scenes are deeply inspired by Marvin Gaye’s I Want You album cover. I have always thought that was a glorious piece. I love Kenny Scharf, an artist who was on Haring’s scene in the 80’s. He has some amazing murals. I love Dali’s endless imagination, I love the unified chaos of Thomas Hart Benton’s murals. I love Picasso’s neoclassical stuff. I think that Dale Chihuly may be my favorite single artist, his sculptures are otherworldly. The thing is, I love visual art, but music is integral to my creative process. A lot of projects I have done correspond to a single album or artist. And even though my father is a businessman, we would always draw together as a kid and he has an unbelievable amateur hand at graphic art. He even has characters and all these cool ideas, so that was definitely a major inspiration. But my grandpa is definitely my single greatest inspiration. He was a surgeon and he brings the same level of scientific accuracy and precision into his painting, and the result is pretty amazing. A lot of extremely conventional and accurate landscapes where the colors have been rearranged and they really make you think.

How has your practice changed over time?

It has gotten a lot more focused and there is more of a game plan at this point. I used to just sort of make a comic book, which mind you could have 300 illustrations, finish it, and realize there is no cohesive story or theme. These days I make a lot less work than I did back then but the work I make is a lot more thoughtful and has a clear purpose or audience.

What are some of your favorite themes you like to explore?

I talk a lot about the state of partisan politics and democracy in general, but I also spend a lot of time talking about relationships I have with people in my life, and things I am going through. I spent about a year very seriously talking about global warming and the climate, and I also did a project called the Show Book which made the Republican Primary into a travelling circus, and the last play I directed was an allegory about the nature of ideas themselves. It featured a guy in a horse suit and a guy dressed as a bush. He had no lines or purpose but he sat on stage the entire show, and he sat there as the bush during every practice. The day of the show he started dancing and clapping during the production without warning.

What is something you love? What's something you don't love?

I love African funk, and I don’t love Radiohead.

What are some of your professional goals and aspirations?

My dream is to open up a concert hall here in Wisconsin and have it function as a community cultural center. I want to put my plays on there, have bands come, let people hang sell and display their art, and have it be somewhere that we can print independent magazines and books. I have this really ambiguous dream of filling all the holes I see in the art scene here through one extremely busy space that is always getting used by all different sorts of people in the community. I hope that something like that could very naturally bring people together from all different backgrounds. I have already seen art’s potential to do this in my own life.

Favorite color? Least favorite?

Yellow is at the center of everything I do. In my work if a character is yellow or surrounded by yellow, it means that they are very important to the scene, and I wear a lot of yellow clothes. My house is yellow. Someday I’m gonna disown my parents and buy a yellow car. Gray and orange really depress me.

When you're not drawing, what do you like to do?

Some nights if it is above 30 out I put my stuff on and go running, at like one or two in the morning, it’s an opportunity to see the place you live in an entirely different way. Then I come home after and basically eat another dinner’s worth of food.

Note from Jacob:

If you're reading this, and you like my work, I will send it to you anywhere in the world for free, and my only rule is that if you accept a piece of my art you have to hang it up somewhere special to you and send me a picture of it hanging...

You can find Jacob on Instagram at @jjakehavoc