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LAist Interview: Tom Neely

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Los Angeles based artist, Tom Neely took some time out of his schedule to talk with LAist, about his new graphic novel The Blot, his current exhibit Self Indulgent Werewolf, and art & life in L.A.

LAist: Why/how did you choose L.A. after graduating from art school?

Neely: I went to grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute to get my MFA in painting. While I was in grad school I got so disillusioned with the fine arts world that I decided I wanted to get a commercial art job after graduating. I have always loved animation and had done some experiments on my own. I was lucky that one of my best friends was a web-administrator at Disney, and I had been taking a lot of road trips down to L.A. to visit him. So through the help of my friend, I managed to get a job as a Flash animator for web cartoons and games. So, I moved down here 2 weeks after graduating and started working at Disney. I left that after 2 years to become a freelancer and pursue more of my own art. Since then I've been slowly working my way up through the fine arts world and comics.

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LAist: What part of L.A. do you live in now?

Neely: Atwater Village. About 1 mile from the Black Maria Gallery where my show is hanging. I live with my fiancée and my dog. I've got a nice house with a big back yard. I love it! It's like my own little oasis where I can escape L.A.

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LAist: A lot of your art has been influenced by comics, great cartoons of the 20’s & 30’s, and also many painters—tell me a few of your biggest influences.

Neely: In comics, one of my biggest influences has been Floyd Gottfredson, who drew the Mickey Mouse comics from the 30s through the 60s. Those were among the first comics I read as a kid, and I still love them. And of course E. C. Segar who created Popeye is one of my very favorites. I'm also influenced by artists like George Herriman who created Krazy Kat, Billy DeBeck who did Barney Google, and Bud Fisher who did the Mutt and Jeff strips.

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In painting, I get inspiration from some figurative painters like Lucien Freud and Egon Schielle. Philip Guston was a huge influence on me early in my career. I've always been a big fan of the surrealists, especially Rene Magritte, who are a big influence on my story-teling and use of metaphor. I like a lot of Japanese watercolor and calligraphy artists. I'm also inspired by a lot of abstract painters and old masters.

LAist: Your interest in animation led you to a stint at Disney—what kind of stuff did you do there, and did you learn a lot?

Neely: I worked as a Flash animator doing little games and web cartoons. I learned a lot while I was there. I didn't know anything about computers before I got the job, and I taught myself to animate with the help of a few of my co-workers. In a way, my job at Disney was like getting a second degree in commercial art. After 2 years, I left to be a freelancer and I still work in animation and web-games. It was also a good experience in learning how to draw a lot of different styles. One day you're drawing Mickey, the next day it's Mulan, then Peter Pan... All the characters have different style- guides that are very strict, so my drawing skills and attention to detail really improved while I was there.

LAist: The Blot started as a series of paintings in which you literally dripped ink on the finished works ala Pollack…how did that idea come about?

Neely: It started as an experiment. I was getting bored with my art. I felt like it had become too rigid and precise. I wanted to introduce some kind of abstract, chance element to try to force me out of my rut. I switched from acrylic paintings to watercolor and ink drawings because it felt more direct and natural. You can't make any mistakes with those mediums, once the ink is on the paper there's no going back. I liked that challenge. One day I had finished a painting and it just wasn't working for me. I have always loved painters like Pollack and Twombley and had experimented with abstract painting in school, so I was looking at some of those books and decided that I'd try laying the paintings on the floor and drip some ink on them. It was difficult at first, but it immediately broke me out of my rut. I started to get more excited about my new ideas about mixing the abstract element of ink-blots into the narrative comic-inspired paintings. As I continued to do more of these, a story started to grow out of the series and that eventually became The Blot.

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LAist: Your “everyman” character reminds me a little of Buster Keaton’s films—he was very good at using cartoony imagery, realism, and tenderness in his stories. Was he an influence for you?

Neely: Yes- I first saw some Buster Keaton films when I was in High School. They've been some of my favorites ever since. I think Keaton was definitely an influence on the design of my character. Those movies always had a bit of melancholy underneath the comedy, which is a tonal quality I've tried to put into my comics.

LAist: I read in another interview that you occasionally put a reference to other artists as homage in your work, and I think that is so cool. Can you give me an example of those?

Neely: That's something I started doing in grad school. It was more of an obvious parody then, but now it's more of a subtle homage. In the Self Indulgent Werewolf show one of the Werewolf Fugue paintings is loosely modeled after a Stanley Spencer painting. In the "Self Indulgence" series there are two homages: #2 is based on "The Fight" by James Ensor and #4 is based on the famous Goya painting of Saturn. In The Blot there are a couple of homages as well: The upper right panel of page 24 is a reference to a Lucien Freud painting, and page 143 is a reference to a Van Gogh drawing.

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LAist: Self Indulgent Werewolf revisits some characters from The Blot, are you planning on continuing to take these characters even further?

Neely: Yes the characters are continuing to evolve and inspire new work from me. The work in the Self Indulgent Werewolf show is starting to turn into a story that I think will become my next graphic novel. It will sort of pick up where The Blot left off and it might be about the main character turning into a werewolf... but it's all in the early phase right now. I tend to paint and write in a more stream-of consciousness free form and let the story reveal itself to me. I’ve also got a few new ideas that I may be exploring in an upcoming show I have with my artist Collective Igloo Tornado.

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LAist: Tell me about The Igloo Tornado.

Neely: The Igloo Tornado is an artist collective that I started with three of my friends: Levon Jihanian, Gin Stevens, and Scot Nobles. About 4 years ago we started getting together to critique each others' work and talk about art. When you see all of our work together, there isn’t much common ground visually- we all work in completely different styles- but there is a commonality in purpose between us. We are all relatively at the same stage in our career and have banded together in order to help push each other and develop further as artists. So far it's been a really good thing for all of us. I know that I've grown a lot as an artist with this group. We have our second show together this February at Black Maria Gallery. It should be an interesting show.

LAist: Are their any current comic books that you enjoy?

Neely: Oh, I read a lot of everything. I like all the big alternative comics names like Clowes and Ware and Woodring, but I also occasionally pick up a mainstream super-hero book. Some of my most recent purchases have been some books by the Italian cartoonist, Gipi, and a French cartoonist named Blutch. And I've been re-reading all of the Love and Rockets comics by the Hernandez Bros. I’m heading to an indie comics convention called SPX this weekend. At this convention, The Blot was nominated for an Ignatz award so we’ll see what happens with that. But I'm looking forward to getting a lot of indie mini comics from a lot of the artists who will be there. It's great to go to these indie conventions to find hand-made comics by artists who you wouldn't find elsewhere.

LAist: What is your favorite museum in L.A.?

Neely: Hmmm... that's a tough one. It depends on the exhibits, usually. I just saw the Basil Wolverton show at the Grand Central Art Center in Fullerton. I loved the Magritte show at LACMA and I'm hoping to see their Dali show soon. I like the permanent collection at the LACMA too. One of the best shows I've ever seen in L.A. was the Lucien Freud show at MOCA a couple of years ago. I'm curious about the Murakami show that opens at MOCA soon- I'm not much of a fan of his, but it should be interesting to see more of his work. And I've been meaning to check out that show at the Hammer from Ricky Jay’s collection. I don't get out to the museums as much as I'd like to though. I can be a bit of a hermit sometimes.

Self Indulgent Werewolf will be on view at the Black Maria Gallery in Atwater through Oct. 15th, and can be seen as part of the Gallery Alliance Art Crawl this weekend. The Blot is available at your local comic book shop or you can order online at Neely's website www.iwilldestroyyou.com.

Black Maria Gallery
3137 Glendale Blvd. - Atwater Village

Gallery photos by Jennifer Saxon for LAist.
Art work photos provided by Tom Neely.