by Ilana Kohn in New Illustration on Wednesday 29 October 2008

Though you may know him as the driving force behind the amazing Ghostshrimp, his name is actually Dan James. To reminisce a little, Dan and I both attended Brooklyn’s Pratt College around the same time and he lived with a good friend of mine in our sophomore year. He really had a pet Ghostshrimp; I remember my friend pet sitting on it on occasions.

I have so many memories of entire conversations spent with Dan’s finger up his nose as well. That’s seriously the Dan James charm and wraps up his brilliant aesthetic in a nutshell. Dan’s taken a break from his busy schedule to answer some questions for us.

What is your artistic background?
‘Artistic background. Well. Let me take off my shoes and think about that. I have to relax and pretend i’m on an airplane for interviews to work. Okay, artistic background. Yeah my shirt is coming off too, I have to take my shirt off when I fly on airplanes or I break out in song. It’s a rare condition; only I know I have it. I collect rare infections. My brain is pretty badly damaged. Also my bladder is dangerously small. I have to sleep in the bathroom when I stay in motels. So. What was the question? Mm. Right. My background. Well I began masturbating when I was 13. That’s just a reference point. I had been drawing at least a decade by then. You got to just do it everyday. Which one? Well both I guess. Sometimes at the same time. To save time. My older brother drew a lot. When I went to college I had some great teachers. Mostly though, the way I understand drawing is like a large wheel turning slowly in deep space. And drawing is the only thing I understand about life. The rest is all heavy breathing underwater. I have to constantly set myself on secret missions. Also I must be wrapped in specific disguises. And the wheel works like this: m.c. Escher, for example, makes a bunch of drawings a thousand years ago. He dies of stage four fetal albatross syndrome. I am born in 1980. I smoke Newport cigarettes for three months in high school. I see the m.c. Escher drawings. Now this is where it gets magical: all the focus and creative energy he poured into that drawing is transferred to me. Inspiration travels through osmosis. Ask a doctor. Then my brain is severely infected with inspiration. Visions flood my tiny towns. My wiring is running hot. Full capacity. Now I have no choice but to put that down on paper. I draw a bunch of drawings. And the wheel rotates silently forever in deep space’.

How long have you been working as an illustrator? How would you describe the arc of your professional journey?
‘I have been working as an illustrator since I left school. Since I was 23 I guess. The arc of my journey? Well, I have to of each animal aboard, and they hump like crazy. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re on a boat in an infinite ocean with two of every animal that ever existed. But once you get the hang of it, there’s nothing better to do than draw all the time, so that’s what I do. I started working for the New York Times a few months after school. That led to other stuff. At first I was eager to work on anything, now, 5 years later, I am only interested in working on things that coincide with the dreams that i’m having at the time. If everything in my life doesn’t harmonize I get this pressure that builds up behind my knife and I just start cutting strangers. Once I threw my bicycle off a bridge into traffic. I am a specialist. There is a voice in the back of my Cub Scout hat that tells me this: dig deeper. Draw what is personally strange and everything will make sense. And that’s what I do. I published a couple books after school and I’m working on a few more. I’ve done a lot of magazine and newspaper illustration. Now i’m doing a lot of album covers. And I just started working for cartoon network, doing storyboards and some character designs for a show called THE MARVELOUS MISADVENTURES OF FLAPJACK. I just draw and somehow these people find me and keep asking for more’.

How would you describe your artistic process?
‘Well. I drink coffee every morning. I take baths. I ride my bike. I try to push my mind beyond the edge of the universe. I draw the things I see along the way. I listen to audio books while I draw. I try to keep my minds eye open to interesting things in the world outside. I eventually fixate on an idea. I’m an obsessive. My latest theme is robbery and assault. I had someone ask me for a three-shirt design, so I did a well-dressed fly who just stabbed a boy in the lung and stealing his basketball sneakers. I did a well-dressed cobra who just broke a boys nose with some brass knuckles and stealing his skateboard. And I did a well-dressed bird breaking a bottle over a boys face and stealing his boom box. I’m not sure where I got the idea of the robbery stuff. Usually it’s just an everyday sort of thing that strikes me as particularly extraordinary. Like female condoms: absolutely extraordinary. I’ve been doing a lot of blood lately. A lot of kids smoking cigarettes. My hand just follows where my mind leads. I just walk around the planet in a space suit. Trying to investigate the significance of circumstance and coincidence. The only thing stranger than the natural world as a whole, is every little individual thing in it. And the mind of mankind may quite possibly be the strangest creature in all creation’.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
‘The way it makes everything fit into place. I like coming up with new ways to draw things. I like it when a specific idea gets tangled in the net of my brain and it makes the entire world seem different. It’s all just ideas. The entire everything. It ravels and unravels at the speed of thought. I draw because it reminds me that imagination is the only thing that counts. To ten and back again. Imagination is the only thing I believe in. Every meaningful piece of my physical world has first appeared in my imagination. The trick is to find the exact section of wall that divides what you’re seeing in your imagination from tangible existence and tearing it down. Most grown ups decide, by a certain birthday, that its just a wild goose chase. Duck duck goose. The day I get tired of chasing my thoughts in circles is the day I swim with the sharks. Bleeding and laughing. You know what I like. My work is the only thing that defines me from everyone else. If I had somehow missed that boat. I would be treading water will the alligator rapists. My work is the only chance I’ve ever had to play by my own rules’.

When you find yourself in a creative slump, what do you do to try and get out?
‘I don’t really ever have a lack of ideas. I have the opposite problem; I have so many things I want to work on I sometimes feel guilty for not working more. I have a shitload of stories written that I want to illustrate. If I got stuck I would just dig into backlog. I’m always on the lookout for inspiration. Watch some Coen Brothers movies. Watch some Wes Anderson movies. Watch some Harmony Korine movies. Its very easy for me to just get to work. There’s nothing else in life that fascinates me more than creative exploration. As long as a I have a cup of coffee. With an eagle on the mug. And a realistic wolf on my shirt. I’m ready to get hot and heavy. Sometimes I work so much that my brain feels out of focus. Then I jump on my bike and ride around for a while. 21 speeds with headphones on. I normally ride every day. Right now I live 10 miles from work so I end up riding about 20 miles round trip. I ride like a bandit. Backwards with a chainsaw leaking gasoline. Take no prisoners. Swallow the poison if captured’.

Any advice for young illustrators just getting started in the field?
‘Never draw anything you’re not completely fascinated with. You’ll ruin yourself. Just let your life get weird. The hardest part is learning to breathe underwater. After that it’s all lilacs and walkmen. Become a specialist. Keep erasing until you would stab your neighbors gardener to protect what you just drew. If you think there’s the slightest possibility that you’re with the wrong girl, dump her on the spot. Don’t let ideas slip away. They won’t always come back later on. Write down words that seem like they might mean more than they do at the time. Never, and I mean never, make a decision based only on the advice of someone less idealistic than yourself. Do not underestimate the power of coincidence’.

Plans for future projects?
‘Only about a million. Right now i’m putting most of my energy into my episodes for FLAPJACK, trying to get the hang of storyboarding. I’m completely new to the world of network animation. In this case it’s a strange and wonderful thing. Some days I feel like I barley know what i’m doing, and the next i’m sure I’ll have my own show before the day is through. We have an amazing amount of creative freedom on our show and i’m trying to learn the rules quick so I can figure out how to break them without getting tagged. I’m getting there. I just, today, finished my fourth storyboard, my first one for second season. I’m going to spend the year in LA working on 8 more episodes this season then see where i’m at. Hopefully during that time I’ll also be able to finish my two new books: POLYGLOT and DREAMING THE WORLD AWAY. I’m also going to marry the editor for FOUND MAGAZINE sometime soon. That’s my favorite project. Sarah Mariah Locke. I’ve been working on that one all my life. That’s going to have a lot to do with everything from now on. DOSE ONE of ANTICON and I are also talking to adult swim about some show ideas. And there are always some illustrations on my desk. So I guess I got a bunch of stuff going. Maybe throw a few onemantwodog dance parties in there as well’.