Off the Wall
Twenty-foot steel sculptures, amusement park caricatures, horror-themed comic books and hyper-color street art. Beyond the confines of museums and galleries, this is art that interacts with real life.
Dessa Kirk’s outdoor statues brought her fame in Chicago; she fled to San Diego to regain anonymity. Fine art in America’s Finest is alive and well, thanks in part to Court Jones, who paid his dues drawing tourists at Sea World. Hellraiser comics scare the crap out of millions, but Tim Bradstreet has darker tricks up his sleeve. As for Mark Paul Deren (aka MADSTEEZ), his design work and street art can be summed up in one word: WEEN.
Four artists, one vision: creating art that gets noticed. -DMP
Have color, will travel
By Jim Ruland
You know that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy wakes up in the land over the rainbow to discover that dull, dreary Kansas has been transformed into a Technicolor wonderland?
That’s what it was like for Mark Paul Deren (aka MADSTEEZ) when his family moved from the leafy suburbs of Washington, D.C., to sunny Southern California.
“I couldn’t believe this existed,” Deren says.
He enrolled in Huntington Beach High and threw himself into everything SoCal had to offer. While still in high school, he started working for Rusty, a surf company out of San Diego, as an assistant graphic designer. That’s where Mr. Ween was born.
“We would have these marketing meetings that would last three, four hours long,” Deren says. “There was literally no reason to be in them. I started drawing a little figure. Through all the meetings I kept drawing the same guy, same guy, same guy. Kind of started my whole art career.”
That “guy” is Mr. Ween, a round monster with red fur that sports multi-color leggings and appears in a lot of Deren’s work.
“Everything one hundred percent revolves around Mr. Ween,” Deren says. Even when Mr. Ween (real name: Weenzee) isn’t present in physical form, he lurks in the titles of Deren’s pieces.
Mr. Ween has since evolved from a marketing-meeting doodle to a commercial powerhouse in his own right. He spawned a multicolor universe of characters in a television pilot. He even has his own shoe: the Nike 6.0 Stinkween.
What’s most striking about Deren’s art, however, isn’t Mr. Ween and his Weenimal friends, but the bright, vivid colors he uses in creating them. Deren is a skilled figurative painter. His cows look like cows. His people look like people. But his unconventional color choices transform the most basic illustrations into works that startle.
In a mural Deren painted for the World Cup, soccer players are gashed with vibrant colors. The ghostly blue visage of real estate developer Henry E. Huntington floats over an alley in Huntington Beach. In Venice, a purple-hued Dennis Hopper foregrounded against a kaleidoscopic wonderland of color asserts: you’re not in Kansas any more.
“I didn’t set out to make stuff for the masses,” Deren says with a laugh. “I do what I like, and other people seem to like it, too.”
Welding, sculpture and deeper meanings
By Patricia B. Dwyer
In the seedy neighborhoods of Anchorage, Alaska, Dessa Kirk spotted prostitutes getting into their pimps’ Cadillacs.
“I had seen these women on the street, and they were posing,” she says. “And they would get into these cars.” The women in the backseat left a lasting impression on Kirk, who was just a kid at the time.
Years later, a professional sculptor living in Chicago, Kirk found catharsis in her art. Using parts of dismantled old Cadillacs, she built 20-foot-tall metal flowers, representing-and elevating-the subjugated women.
Her thinking: “Let’s turn the beauty inside out.”
More than 20 of her metallic masterpieces now grace public spaces across the country.
Kirk derives artistic inspiration from having watched her gold-mining grandfather at work in Alaska. “That’s where I learned about my affinity for steel,” she says. “He welded grates and cages around things, so the bears wouldn’t eat them up. But he’d make it beautiful.”
Shortly after graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996, Kirk began to receive significant recognition for her work. The growing fame didn’t sit well with her, however, and she was ready to escape. “I wanted to get away from being anybody,” she says.
When friend Billy Corgan, lead signer of The Smashing Pumpkins, invited Kirk to visit him on tour, she seized the opportunity to leave Chicago. The move to San Diego seems to have provided relief: “I want to breathe, I want to make art and I want to surf-and that’s it.”
These days, foam dust covers Kirk’s welding tools. She switched her focus to making surfboards after walking into legendary surfboard shaper Skip Frye’s workshop off Morena Boulevard.
“I walk into the room and there’s this shaped foam blank,” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, my goodness, that’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen.’ Like, object-wise, it looked like a force of nature. It looked like it was born that way.”
Now based in La Jolla, Kirk builds objects for herself and her customers. She refuses to do work for mean people.
On using intuition to help paint a picture
By Jim Ruland
Court Jones is many things: a wry caricaturist, an experienced illustrator, an ambitious portrait artist.
Just don’t call him talented.
“I think talent is a myth,” he says.
Jones, who earned an art degree from UCSD, attributes his success to the time he spent as a caricaturist at Sea World. After learning all he could from working at the theme park, he took classes at the Watts Atelier in Encinitas, a school that emphasizes hands-on instruction.
“One of the worst things you can say to an artist is to compliment them by telling them they have talent.”
Gifts can be given, but they can also be taken away. Skills, however, are acquired through hard work. Jones compares the discipline required to cultivate drawing ability to the focus demanded of a basketball player practicing free throws. In other words, it’s about perspiration, not inspiration.
And sweat he has. Over the course of his career, Jones has created a quarter of a million caricatures, many while sitting in uncomfortable chairs, drawing tourists reeking of sunscreen and corn dogs. The experience has made him intimate with not only his craft, but also humanity.
For instance, despite the adage, Jones knows it’s not the eyes that are the windows into our souls.
“The mouth is infinitely more expressive and more subtle,” he says.
That’s because more muscles control the mouth than the eyes. But a portrait is more than the distance between the eyes or the length of the nose. Executed correctly, it pinpoints a distinctive feature, revealing secrets the subject may not have been aware of hiding.
Cameras may lie, but you can’t hide from a caricaturist. And as his portraits attest, Jones has a vision that goes much deeper than the skin.
The magical dark art of Tim Bradstreet
By Jim Ruland
You may not know Tim Bradstreet’s name, but chances are you’ve seen his work. That’s because he’s an illustrator who specializes in licensed material. Think comic book adaptations of movies and television shows, including Star Wars, Star Trek and True Blood.
Particularly adept at the art of photorealism, Bradstreet works from photographs and movie stills, creating highly stylized illustrations that look almost real. Capturing reality is crucial, because his creations have to look like the characters audiences have come to know and love on the screen.
Bradstreet was born in Maryland and grew up in Illinois. For a while, his father worked on a satellite project for NASA. “I had a great childhood, great parents,” Bradstreet says, “but I was always trying to escape for some reason.”
Part of that escape-and the spark that ignited his imagination-came in the form of “a little movie called Star Wars.”
As he grew older, Bradstreet discovered there was more to comics than super heroes. “More mature themes. More mature stories than guys in capes.” Turning to darker, more macabre material, he quickly found his niche. Today, among comic book fans, he is best known for his long tenures as a cover artist for the comics Hellblazer and Punisher. No men in tights here.
Bradstreet’s work on Punisher led to his collaboration with Tom Jane, the actor who portrays the rogue hit man in the movie adaptation. Now, he’s helping Jane run Raw Studios and is currently producing one of the publishing company’s many film projects.
With so much work these days, Bradstreet finds getting back to the drawing table to meet his deadlines a serious challenge.
“I don’t have downtime,” Bradstreet says. “I live my work.”