Interview: Greg Kletsel
Inspired by the cartoons, comics, and friends of his childhood, Greg Kletsel infuses yesteryear and youthfulness into his largely character-based work.
Greg began his creative career as a designer and spent his free time dreaming about “doing his own thing” and filling sketchbooks with eccentric characters. His work is like looking lovingly back on playful memories. We sipped on coffee and chatted about adolescence, his first trip to New York, and Bar Mitzvah videos from 1985.
How do your work days begin?
Is the frigid winter keeping you home?
That’s part of it, but mostly its because I’m working on a top secret pitch for Nickelodeon! Working from home allows me to fully dedicate my mental space to only that project. I have an actual office in my apartment now, which is really nice. I used to work out of my living room, and it made it really hard to create a separation between home and work.
Sometimes my fiance would come home, and I would realize that I hadn’t spoken to a single person all day. Illustration is such a solitary career, you need people to help pull you out of that occasionally. It’s a tough balance. Getting out and going to the studio has really helped me.
Can you tell me a bit more about the transition from designer to illustrator?
It’s something that is constantly evolving, because I still do both. A few years ago, I was working as a designer at a branding agency, and I would draw in my free time, filling up sketchbooks. In the back of my head, I always knew that I wanted to “do my own thing” but I didn’t know what that meant yet.
I quit my full-time design job at the end of 2010, went to Europe, and when I got back, became a freelance designer/illustrator. My website was a hybrid of my design portfolio and my sketchbook drawings. It was a little all over the place. I started to seek advice from other illustrators. A friend had put me in touch with Frank Stockton, and he helped me a lot in terms of editing things down, focusing on a clear style and point of view. Another huge help was Sam Weber’s podcast, Your Dreams My Nightmares. It really taught me how a career in illustration works. Because I didn’t study illustration in school, I’m constantly looking for new things to learn from.
Your work is mostly made up of characters, are they inspired by reality? Do you have a favorite people-watching spot in the city?
I think there are a lot of artists that naturally love to draw people, then there are some that are drawn more to environments, patterns, color. These weird characters are just my thing! I think it comes from drawing my favorite cartoon and comic characters as a kid. As soon as I put my pen to paper, I start drawing eyes, nose, mouth. It just naturally happens.
I think a lot of my work is inspired by that weird time when you’re a teenager and you’re not who you are yet, but you’re trying to figure it out.
A lot of your work seems to be inspired by youthfulness and the teenage years, can you share a specific memory that inspired a specific piece?
There are two pieces that I made for an exhibition called Boys Vs. Girls at Bear and Bird Gallery in South Florida. I created the sketches for both during a two month stay in San Francisco. I spent that whole time exploring the city and drawing in coffee shops. Without having any client work, a lot of these youthful memories started coming up.
The video-gamer piece (seen above) is called 1993 and it’s basically me as a kid, but it really could be any one of my friends. Playing video games in my room was my existence as a 9 year-old. Your bedroom, the space you fill with things you love, that cave you make for yourself, it’s where you figure out who you are. My bedroom was exactly like the rooms in these two pieces. The image of the guy on his bed listening to his Discman is titled 1999 (seen below) and was inspired by my good friend Eric, who was a really metal guy as a teenager, with long hair and a partly shaved head.
Who were some of your early inspirations?
Barry Mcgee was a huge influence on me. I had an art teacher at the University of Florida that showed me his work, and Margaret Kilgallen, and Juxtapoz. He introduced me to this world of fine artists that made character based work that I identified with. It blew my mind. Because when I was taking art classes as a kid, it was just still life and landscapes, kind of boring, traditional drawing classes. It really turned me off to studying art. I would be there stuck drawing flowers after school, and all I wanted to do was draw Ren and Stimpy, and Wolverine, and The Punisher. I was so inspired by cartoons and characters
I had no evidence that it was the right decision, I just knew I wanted to be in NYC.
So you grew up in Florida, but was there a moment when you knew you wanted to move to NYC?
My parents were born in Argentina, but grew up in Queens, NY. South Florida is like a suburb of New York. Everyone is originally from the city, so I heard a lot about it growing up. I think the fact that so many movies and tv shows I saw as a kid were set in New York City, maybe subconsciously influenced my decision to move here too. Ghostbusters, Taxi, Welcome Back Kotter, Seinfeld, Newsradio, Muppets Take Manhattan…everything was in New York! For me, it was always a plan to move here. I had no evidence that it was the right decision, I just knew I wanted to be in NYC
Tell me about your first trip to NY…
My first real trip to the city was when I was 20. I came here with two friends and we stayed at a hostel in the East Village. We accidentally stumbled upon the Barry Mcgee show at Deitch Projects and after that, I was sold, this was the place to be. Especially since I wanted to do illustration and design. I also ran across the street towards CBGB’s and slipped in some genuine NYC sludge. It was a sign.
You design a lot of album art – would you mind sharing some of your favorite music with us?
I’ve been going backwards with music, trying to listen to lots of old stuff that I missed along the way. But a friend recently recommended Parquet Courts, who I like a lot. My freind Des introduced me to the world of midi file reggae. Other things I’m listening to are Aphex Twin, Diamond Head, Steel Mill and William Onyeabor.
Your Exercise the Demon Zine is amazing! Where did you passion for zines begin?
Thanks! I did a project in college where we had to create our own museum exhibition. And I did one called Photo Chop It, which was about making zines and the history of zines. But I didn’t start making my own until later. The first one I made was in 2007 which was a compilation of my sketchbook pages. I tried doing comics for a bit, and tabled with them at MoCCA Fest in 2012. The experience of making my own comics made me realize that my interest really lies in the drawing, and not so much the writing. To make great comics, you have to do both well.
Are you participating in MoCCA Fest again this year?
Yes, I’m working on a zine called Conceptual Bar Mitzvah Video which I’ll have at this year’s MoCCA Fest. It’s like a Bar Mitzvah video in zine format.
Is this inspired by your Bar Mitzvah?
My Bar Mitzvah video is in some storage unit in FL, so I’ve just been watching a lot of YouTube clips of Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs from between 1985-1998 for inspiration. Everything was taped on a VHS and the outfits are crazy, it’s great!
Do you have any words of wisdom for newbie illustrators?
Draw all the time and make tons of stuff. When you’re sitting on a mountain of drawings and projects, you’ll see real progress from where you first started.
And one last question, would you rather be stuck in a bar mitzvah video from 1985 forever, or would you rather be stuck in a Ren and Stimpy episode?
Definitely the “Black Hole” episode of Ren and Stimpy where they get sucked into an alternate universe and keep mutating and find a mountain of socks.