Since a young age Jeff Soto (1975) has been captivated by the visual arts. He credits early exposure to the work of artists Mercer Mayer and Patrick Woodroffe as stimuli for his creativity. When he was 15 he began to dabble in the art of graffiti, which he credits as a major influence in his art. His artistic influences are too many to list but include Van Gogh, Paul Cadmus, Lisa Yuskavage, Twist, Otto Dix, Georganne Deen, Alex Gross, Manuel Ocampo, Margaret Kilgallen and the Clayton Brothers (to name but a few). Jeff's work has been shown in galleries across the US, and recently in Europe. He graduated with Distinction from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. In his spare time he likes to sleep in with the wifey, look for aliens at night, read comics, take crappy photos, and nurture the always growing cacti farm.
Entrevista realizada por Shane Bryant para su página web Crown Dozen (www.crowndozen.com):
Sifting through the immense amount of graffiti-influenced and so-called lowbrow paintings that we see these days, there is one artist whom has developed a style consisting of instantly recognizable icons, incredibly attractive emotions, and still completely approachable ideas, all wrapped up in some of the most incredible talent and natural instinct I have seen in recent years. Studying hard to become what he is today, and shaped by the pokes, jabs, and then soothing caresses of a hard-knock art world, his name is Jeff Soto and if you havent been peeping his stuff already, take note because he is one to watch.
Jeff has already shown in US and European galleries, has commercial clients including Sony Music, Spin Magazine, and Morrow Snowboards, and is
still as creative, prolific, humble, and hungry as he was when he first
began. Theres not much else to be said that isnt covered below, but I will add that honestly, if I could pick only one painting to hang in my living room, it would be Jeffs Turtle God piece that I have included below. Yup.
* So, how has the Jeff Soto style evolved over the years?
Style is a hard thing to talk about, especially how its evolved. I guess my style has evolved to include all the types of techniques I enjoy- collage, mark making, drawing, stenciling, being messy and rendering things very tight with acrylics. Im actually creating similar imagery to
what I was doing 5 years ago, only my process and consequently my style
has changed. Im really into creating chaos and then redefining that chaos
until I feel the piece is done. Im really into layering and repainting areas until it looks right.
Interview With Jeff Soto
By Dorian Denes & Agata Janus
From graffiti walls to gallery spaces - tell us more about this development.
I started doing graffiti the same time as I got interested in painting on canvas (sophmore year of high school). The two always went hand in hand for me, I wanted to show in galleries and at the same time rock walls. After I got out of high school I had more 'success' in the world of graffiti, but as I got older my emphasis started turning to expressing myself through painting and drawing. There were limitations to what I felt I could do with spraypaint, for example there were only certain colors available back then. Graffiti was a big part of my development as an artist but I don't consider myself a 'street' or 'urban' artist.
What about the American "underground" scene? Are you a part of that?
I don't know. I'm not trying to fit into any scene, I'm just trying to create work that I'm proud of. My work gets grouped in with the underground artists- graffiti, illustration, hot rod, skate, comics, etc. and I know many of these people so maybe I am part of the movement. I'll let someone else decide.
Do you like Art critics?
I'm cool with the critics, but haven't had too many reviews. In a way I think it's unfair for one person to make a decision on someone's work without meeting the artist or seeing them work and create in person.
Your images have a great amount of detail. How detailed do you do your sketches?
The sketches are pretty basic, just enough detail to get me started with an idea. The paintings usually turn out pretty different. I like working that way because it gives me freedom and lets things happen accidentally which sometimes end up nice.
Any interesting "rituals" before you start creating?
I used to go on walks and look at plants and nature to clear my mind. I also used to paint from my dreams. But these days I'm too busy so I just paint everyday and build off of past projects.
Do you have prefered working hours? Do you pay attention to the time of the day or maybe specific lighting?
Late at night, my best work comes during the hours of 11pm-5am. No one calling on the phone or asking me for help. Just me and my music and my mind. I love it.
You also seem to paint on "recycled materials" - do you consider it to be a concept? How important is it?
It's not that important, I just like the way it looks. But sometimes a nice old plank of wood will inspire me to paint something particular on it.
Who buys your paintings? To be able to successfully sell your art must be very rewarding.
I love the fact that I'm living off my art! It's been my dream for so long and I'm grateful to everyone who's bought pieces in the last couple years. All kinds of people have purchased pieces- from the rich to the practically poor. Designers, art collectors, other artists, professionals, students, all kinds of people from several countries. I love them all!
You mention that you have many influences, but is there one artist in or one particular art work that leaves you speechless?
There's been several but the one that stands out was a Van Gogh. It was one of his many olive tree grove paintings. There was nothing really special about it, not one of his famous paintings or anything, but, I felt his presence, I could read his brush strokes, I could see his hand. It really affected me, and Van Gogh remains one of my favorites to this day.
Have you met an Alien yet? Your favourite robot?
I've met illegal aliens. Does that count? Nope, never seen any aliens, but I do think they must exist somewhere out there. It'd be sad if our planet was the only life supporting place in the universe. My favorite robot? Probably the transforming Valkyries from Macross. Or maybe Darth Vader.
How is your cacti collection?
My plants have been doing alright lately but I lost several of them last summer when I forgot to water them. Most people think cacti don't need too much water, but they do when the temp. is above 100. What sucks is that sometimes you can't tell if they're dead for months.
Are you planning another chapter to the Robots Have Feelings Too collective? Can you reveal any other future plans?
That group show was fun and a lot of work. I'd like to curate another group show sometime maybe in 2005 but with only 8-10 artists that follow a theme in their personal work. I have some ideas but nothing set in stone yet.
READERSVOICE.COM: Can you talk a bit about the hernia operation you just had, how hernias come about, how it has affected your art work or your schedule, and how you're spending recovery time? Has the experience benefitted you in any way?
JEFF SOTO: Before I answer any questions I want to warn everyone that I tend to ramble. Okay now I'll answer some questions!
Hernias can come about by straining when lifting something heavy. Sometimes it's a defect that people have from birth that rears its ugly head later in life. It's caused by the intestines pushing through a weakness in the abdominal muscle wall. It's one of the most common surgery procedures, and I've met so many people in the last few months that have had an operation. I think it's more common in men than in women, but I've met a few women that have gone through it.
The actual operation was strange and fascinating actually. I'd never had surgery so it was all new to me. I was interviewed by half a dozen nurses and poked a couple times by the nurse who was having a hard time hooking up the IV.
Then they wheeled me off to the surgery room. I asked the nurses if they ever watched ER. "Nope", she said, " I get enough of that working here every day".
Then I was laying on a table looking straight up into turned off lights. It was just like the movies, someone placed an oxygen mask over my face and told me to take deep breaths. Immediately I felt a little weird.
I wanted to laugh, and I might have actually, because I took a few deep breaths and it felt like I was shrinking into my brain!
All the sounds (they had James Brown playing in the background) abruptly slowed down and my vision seemed to darken and things got smaller. I think I probably fell asleep with a big smile because it was just so wrong man!
Next thing I know I'm opening my eyes and I'm in a different room. It felt like a second went by. I was thinking maybe I didn't even have the operation. So I felt down with my hand and I was shaved and bandaged! It was so weird!
After the operation they make you hang out a bit and make sure you have no problems taking a piss. It was very difficult to walk, I hobbled over to the bathroom, a nurse holding my IV thing. I think my ass was hanging out of the back of my gown. Am I sick that I think it's funny that people saw my hairy ass hobbling down the hall? After that I went home and have been recovering by watching TV, sleeping a lot, playing a video game, and recently getting some illustration work done.
I think the experience of surgery has given me some insight into the whole process of how it all works. If that makes any sense...
RV: Can you talk a bit about where you grew up and what it was like? Did you go to college in the same area, and where do you live now and what's it like?
JS: I could easily write a book on my life up to when I completed college (I got my BA two years ago at the age of 26), but I'll try to keep things short.
I was born in Fullerton, CA, but I grew up in Riverside which is around 60 miles east of Los Angeles. I was ten when my family moved out here and I had three younger brothers.
We did all the things kids do in the suburbs. We played sports in the street, climbed trees, threw rocks at houses, found vacant lots to play in, explored the Santa Ana river which was about a 1/2 mile away.
We did a lot of drawing too, even though I'm the only Soto brother to pursue art as a career. We all enjoyed drawing. Skateboarding was big in our area so there was always a jump ramp in the street and we found old concrete drainage ditches to skate in. I think at the time skateboarding and art went hand in hand, so it was natural to be interested in both. Somehow, in high school I got heavily into graffiti. I became obsessed and my grades plummeted to D's and F's. I got my shit together last minute and barely graduated.
I started community college and ended up being there for six years. Then I transferred to Art Center in Pasadena, CA. I still live in Riverside and not much has changed it seems. It's part hick, part gangsta, part dirtbikers, part Goth, a little ghetto at times and yes, I've seen a few mullets around here. It's a pretty normal town, it's not very wealthy but not super poor either. There's no good bookstores out here, the art scene is small but growing, and the smog seems to be getting a little better.
READERSVOICE.COM: Generally, what sort of books do you like to read?
JEFF SOTO: I used to read more in college than I do now. It's sad but I never seem to have the time to read a book. When I get home after working I just want to sleep.
When I do have time I like to read fiction. I love the old Sci-Fi writers from the 50's, they had such an interesting view of spaceflight and what we'd encounter in the universe. I get all these old books from my dad who's a big time reader of horror and Sci-fi. I really love The Martian Chronicles.
I used to read 'popular fiction', y'know, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon. The first book over 100 pages I read was Swan Song by McCammon in 6th grade.
I have a huge collection of art books but I usually don't read them, I just check out the pictures. I just read half of a book last night that I'm illustrating the cover for. It's a campy horror tale called Gil's All Fright Diner. It's a story about a werewolf and a vampire that get sucked into a small town's zombie problem. I'm really enjoying it so far, it was nice to just read for hours.
I've also started a book called The Radioactive Boyscout, a true story about a kid who started experimenting with radioactive materials.
My friend Darren just gave me a book by Vonnegut that sounds cool, I just need to find time to read!
RV: What are some of your favorite magazines or newspapers, or websites?
JS: Magazines- I have subscriptions to Spin, Playboy, Juxtapoz, Jane, plus I get tons of magazines from illustration work.
I like reading Newsweek and National Geographic. Also occasionally I'll pick up random magazines like Men's Health, Tropical Fish hobbyist, Giant Robot, Vice, Tokian, Fine Scale Modeler, Communication Arts, Rolling Stone... I usually get my news at BBC news online
Some websites I frequent:
RV: Can you list your five favorite books of all time, whether fiction, biography, art books, anything, and maybe say why you liked them?
JS: Professor Wormbog in Search of the Zipperumpazoo by Mercer Mayer. Still one of my favorites. The art is so perfect for the story with all its subtle details. A real masterpiece.
Mythopoiekon The art of Patrick Woodroffe. An English artist/illustrator, his work was and is inspirational to me.
Battle Circle by Piers Anthony. One of the Soto brothers' favorite reads. Epic in scale.
Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit I read all these before the movie came out and loved them. Tolkien is the man!
Also: 1984, Swan Song, Che, the new Clayton Brothers book, Broken Wrist Project, and the hundreds of art books I collect.
RV: What's your daily routine usually?
JS: Wake up, get ready and head out the door. I try to get into the studio by 9:30 then start looking through email and taking care of office stuff (such as record keeping, organizing, and returning calls). I try to get a few hours of painting in each day. Lately I've been really busy with both illustration work and gallery shows so my routine is all messed up and differs day to day.
READERSVOICE.COM: What sorts of things trigger a painting for you?
JEFF SOTO: I don't know, I guess that's the hardest part. I'll see something new or have the rare original idea and pull something from it. When I had more time to read and explore it was easier to come up with ideas.
Sometimes I don't have any ideas so I'll just start working. I'll start with an abstract style of painting which sometimes leads me to ideas about what to do next.
RV: Your paintings have many details and lots of almost mini-pictures within them sometimes. I was wondering what sort of scrapbooks you might have and where you might collect ideas from, and what notes you might write in scrapbooks?
JS: My sketchbooks are very loose and undefined. I jot down notes and do quick sketches for possible paintings- everything is very unfinished at this point. It's also filled with artists names and phone numbers, maps, and to-do lists.
I think the sketchbooks are more important than the paintings because they show how I arrive at a finished piece. I have about 20 sketchbooks from the last ten years and I keep them in a milk crate for easy access if we're ever evacuated (I live in the land of earthquakes and brush fires).
RV: This is a big question, but I was wondering if you could give a layman's description of the steps involved in creating a painting like Gumivore Love. (one of the paintings featured in the Crown Dozen interview which can be found on Jeff Soto's website under "art") http://www.jeffsoto.com
JS: The Gumivore Love painting took a while to complete. It's four feet by two, one of the largest paintings I've worked on in the last few years.
I had an initial sketch for the piece, inspired by both environmentalist ideas and science fiction. Once the wood was cut out, I began by laying down a base coat. Sometimes this is house paint of various colors, but I think this time I used a bright red acrylic paint. Then I started blocking in areas of color, letting subtle areas of the red come through.
From then on I loosely followed the drawing, leaving things out and adding elements as I went. When it was done it didn't resemble the original drawing too much but that's how I work. I painted a few hours every day for a couple of weeks- the longest I've worked on one piece. When it was finished I felt it was my masterpiece, and I was happy that it was featured recently on the cover of Juxtapoz.
RV: Does your interest in model making, like the gunship from Nausicaa, and the Trade Federation tank from Star Wars, spill over into your painting? Are those figures you paint like toys or models you are assembling?
JS: I used to be into model making as a kid, though I never finished one in its entirety. It's something I rediscovered recently and is pretty much unrelated to my art. It's just a fun hobby that relaxes me when I get a chance to do it.
RV: What sort of illustration work did you do for magazines like Esquire, Entertainment Weekly, Field and Stream? How did you go about getting work from them?
JS: I've done all kinds of illustration work in the last two years. Editorial pieces for all kinds of magazines, advertising work, maps, posters, CD covers and book covers. That's one of the things I love about illustration, it's always a new challenge and there's always a new subject to learn about.
The illustration work is different from my fine art work because there's usually an art director and an editor who have a say in the final piece. I try to keep things in my style, and the best art directors will just let me do my thing.
To get the jobs a newbie illustrator must send out promos and make the rounds in New York. It's a long term project, you must always look for ways to promote yourself. For me it was a combination of hard work and getting references to certain art directors. To an extent it's all about who you know, but I also like to think my work has something to do with it and maybe that's led to some jobs!
READERSVOICE.COM: Can you talk a bit about your high school interest in graffiti, and a bit about your graffiti years?
JEFF SOTO: I could write a book about my graffiti experiences. It was an addiction. I'd tag all over, I was terrible.
There were a few things I was exposed to that got me into graf. It seems kinda cliche but skateboarding actually got me doing my first bit of graffiti. Probably around 1986-87 we started skating in a drainage ditch by my house called "The L" (it was shaped like an "L"). There was old graffiti already painted on it, not of the Hip Hop variety but just kids drawing obscenities and some gang graffiti.
We would take spraypaint out of our parents' and neighbors' garages. We redecorated The L with skate logos like Powell Rat bones, Independent, Santa Cruz, and lots of random arrows, checkers, names and doodles. I think I saw ramps painted with graffiti in a magazine I'd get sometimes called Freestylin', maybe we were trying to do something like that.
Then, a few years later in high school I started looking at art books. I had always been into art since I was little, but I started getting into the history of it, and looking at individual artists. I was really into modern art, artists like Andy Warhol, Barbara Kruger, Keith Haring, all these New York artists.
One day at the library I found a book on New York street art. It had all these artists who took their projects to the streets; it had postering, billboard art, sculpture, stickering...and graffiti. When I saw the graffiti photos I just knew I had to try it.
That was 1989, my freshman year. I consider it the start of my involvement with graffiti.
I dabbled in graffiti and did my first piece before I ever did a tag. At first I didn't even know tagging was part of graffiti, I thought it was only about painting letters. I worked solo for maybe half a year, in which time I learned a lot about can control, and graffiti etiquette.
I started painting with my friend Maxx, and we created a crew called CIA which stood for Criminally Insane Artists and Call It Art. We started meeting other writers at our high school and beyond. We painted in abandoned areas like old cement reservoirs, underneath bridges, behind buildings along train tracks and derelict buildings in vacant lots.
In the meantime the whole Chaka thing blew up and graffiti was in the news. Almost overnight graffiti became a fad and it seemed that all of Southern CA was being destroyed. By then our crew was pretty well respected in our area, at least as piecers. We painted at a place called Twin Palms (which sadly has been bulldozed recently), we considered it our yard.
Then in '92 tagbanging came into existence. It left a bad taste in my mouth; knowing that I'd devoted 3 years of my life to graffiti and it'd turned into kids shooting each other. Looking back you can't really blame the kids. The country was in a recession and everyone in my area was poor. The economy was jacked up, especially because of So. CA's aerospace industry dying out. Everyone's parents were being layed off and kids were probably not having the best homelife. Despite all this, I continued to do graffiti seriously until 2000.
I was never arrested for doing graffiti, most likely because I didn't pursue the high profile spots and wasn't much for simple tagging.
I don't paint graffiti too much anymore. The consequences of getting caught outweigh the fun. Plus my wife would kill me if I was arrested.
As far as my art skills, yeah, graffiti really taught me something. I learned a lot about scale and color combinations. And it helped me develop my style.
RV: You spent many years in college doing many different subjects and I was wondering if you would do things the same way if you could do those years over again.
JS: I'm super happy with the way things have turned out. I think if things were done different, I'd be doing something else right now. All the years I spent in community college prepared me for Art Center which was a very serious college and I feel that I took full advantage of the resources that were available.
RV: What sort of jobs did you do over the years and did they influence you as an artist at all, or were they just survival?
JS: I worked fast food, was a shopping cart pusher at Target, and worked for a school district. These jobs had no influence on my art other than driving me to be a successful artist so I didn't have to work at these places again! I quit my job at Target when I was 23 to pursue art and things were very tough.
I worked freelance for clothing companies, did logos for people's businesses, did window painting, tried to do comics, and tried to get into galleries. I learned about certain aspects of commercial art, but the crappy jobs I'd get never really influenced my paintings. It was hard to make any money and I felt my work could improve so I stopped working freelance and decided to apply to Art Center. Things never really took off until I finished college.
READERSVOICE.COM: Can you describe whether there was a lot of pressure on you after leaving the Art Center College of Design? What sort of steps did you take to ensure success and how much painting and drawing would you do per day?
JEFF SOTO: I felt intense pressure and stress when I graduated. I had been surviving on my financial aid checks which would come every few months. I knew I had to work hard and try to compete for illustration jobs. So I did a few things a year before I graduated.
I put a plan in place. I started taking out the maximum amount of loans (even though I was getting lots of scholarship money). I started saving a little from each financial aid check and started budgeting money. I put some aside to pay bills, some was set aside for promos and a trip to New York.
When I graduated I had enough saved up to pay off my car and pay my bills for a few months and I had saved enough to do a postcard mailer and fly to New York for meetings. The downside of this is that I owe a crapload of money!
The other things I did were to start entering contests, compile a list of possible clients, trying to get in gallery shows, and networking with my teachers and fellow students.
Before I graduated I had been in a few shows and had done a piece for Entertainment Weekly- the art director had no idea I was still a student at the time. After doing all this preparation for a year, I still had a hard time after graduation. The jobs came in but sporadically, and they never paid very well.
I was a very stressed out dude! I had trouble sleeping, acid indigestion, big bags under my eyes. I was making just enough to scrape by. Then things started picking up after a trip to New York.
At first I didn't do too much art. It sounds funny but illustration is a business and there was so much to take care of that drawing probably only took up 30% of my time. Things are different now that I don't do as much self-promo.
RV: You said in another interview that you get very passionate about interests you develop. Can you talk a bit about your interests, like your cactus collecting days and other interests you've developed and how you've pursued them?
JS: I have too many interests and not enough time. I love plants, camping, all things nature.
I tend to get a bit obsessive about my hobbies, for example checking out ten books on cacti from the library. Or buying way more plastic model kits than I could ever finish. Or going through my phase of wanting to go camping every weekend (though I usually go once a year). I just get really into things and forget all my other interests.
Right now all I want to do is go hiking. No cacti, no movies, no TV, just hiking.
RV: Do you have any favorite paintings you've made, and if so why those in particular?
JS: I like them all for different reasons. I never put something up that I don't like. If it's a stinker, I paint over it or keep working on it till I'm happy.
I do like Gumivore Love, I think because I spent so much time on it and I felt "close" to it, like it was my baby.
RV: What sort of exhibitions and other projects do you have planned?
JS: I'm doing a show at the new BLK/MRKT Gallery in Culver City July 17th 2004. It's a solo show and I'm going crazy painting for it.
After that I have more shows here and there, but I'm looking forward to doing bigger shows less frequently. I need a break!
To check out some of Jeff Soto's paintings see: