Fairytale existence may be one of the most outdated clichés in circulation. At a time when stories like Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood are being mined for films, books and television shows for their darkness and complexity, the phrase is still used to denote a life of uncomplicated happiness. If, as it seems, it's time to reevaluate the phrase, then Chris Buzelli's life and oeuvre could be the perfect basis for giving those words new meaning. Shaped by extremes of experience and his own eager curiosity, the New York-based illustrator's personal story has all the hallmarks of the modern-day fairytale and, perhaps as a result, his artwork redefines the storybook landscape to good effect. Buzelli's visual world is a dramatically lit, colorful and often uneasy parallel universe, populated by outsized creatures, real and imagined; childlike figures sometimes share this landscape, tiny and vulnerable beside massive predators or mythic monsters.
That Buzelli's early experiences still feed his work is something he himself acknowledges. "A lot of my images are still based on my childhood. I keep going back to those memories and I'm not sure why." Certainly, as he tells it, the illustrator's early biography had an intensity that would understandably influence artistic development. Buzelli, 39, was born and raised in Chicago Heights, on the outskirts of the metropolis. His parents divorced when he was very young, and he, his mother and his sister, Tina, lived together in Section 8 housing. Buzelli says their neighbor was shot; he recalls sleeping on a couch in front of the apartment door as a child, hoping to protect his family. "I think I actually had insomnia, because I was getting up constantly, checking to see if the door was locked." At the same time though, he says, "I still had a great childhood."
Some of Buzelli's happier memories center around his grandfather's television-repair shop, where he and Tina stayed on weekends. The illustrator's grandfather was kind and caring, a "gentle giant," who steadily provided Buzelli with love and encouragement. He also helped him learn to paint. Every weekend, when Buzelli was about six, grandfather and grandson used to sit on the couch and watch a PBS painting show presented by German artist Bill Alexander. Says Buzelli, "I loved it. I still love watching people paint." One Sunday, he came in to watch the show and saw that his grandfather had set up two easels in his shop. From that time on, Buzelli and his grandfather regularly watched Bill Alexander and, side-by-side, tried to recreate the paintings from his lessons. This was Buzelli's introduction to oil, the medium he still uses for all his work. Indeed, so dedicated to oil painting is he that he renders corrections directly on the board without the aid of Photoshop. "I feel like a really rare breed," he says. "I'm much quicker and feel more natural with paint and brush."
In addition to starting his grandson on the path to be an artist, his grandfather kept every one of Buzelli's paintings. He continued to collect them through the illustrator's high school years and, when Buzelli went to Rhode Island School of Design, he asked his grandson to send him his work. Having retired, he turned his repair shop into a gallery, where he hung all of his grandson's paintings, carefully, if not scientifically, covered with plastic wrap. Buzelli feels that, under other circumstances, his grandfather would, himself, have worked as an artist: "If society and money would have allowed it, he would have been an artist instead of a TV repairman."
Buzelli found another staunch supporter during his teenage years. High school was difficult for the illustrator: He describes it as being like "one of those '80s movies—I got beat up a lot, and my books were knocked out of my arms." His art teacher, Kael Kirkpatrick, recognized how bad things were for him. "He realized I needed a respite from what was going on in the rest of the school. So I started eating lunch in his room, because it was tough for me in the cafeteria. He even created a little room for me in the back, and created all these classes, so I took three art classes my senior year. We're good friends to this day."
Kirkpatrick also led Buzelli to one of his first significant artistic influences, the American artist Paul Cadmus. Buzelli still finds the Seven Deadly Sins series, which Cadmus created in the 1940s, powerful. With its combination of psychological depth and technical virtuosity, it has a graphic force that, as Buzelli notes, reaches far beyond its time and genre. "It's illustrative," he explains, "and full of all these great pieces of visual information." Asked for his other influences, Buzelli pulls out a much-bookmarked volume of artwork from the Uffizi Gallery. Musing on his connection to the iconic Renaissance paintings within, he says, "It's something about the color palette and the environments they set up, and the fairytale-esque quality and stylization as well." William Blake and Hieronymus Bosch also come in for mention, along with Brad Holland. Says Buzelli of Holland, "He's the father of what we all do right now, of contemporary illustration."
Then there's the late, great Maurice Sendak. Buzelli remembers being fascinated by In the Night Kitchen as a child. "I didn't have many illustrated books growing up, but that was definitely one of them." Buzelli's own aura of childlike openness mixed with old-soul wisdom is reminiscent of Sendak's adventurous yet sagacious child characters. Buzelli leans forward with excitement when he describes something he's passionate about, easily conveying his enthusiasm for the topic at hand. His experience at RISD, for instance, where he has now taught for ten years, elicits unstinted praise: "Everything changed for me there," he says. "It really was great—the teachers, the introduction to illustration."
The art school, besides offering a much-needed change of pace from high school, also brought him together with the woman who would become his wife (and occasional art director). The two dated briefly while they were in college; some years later, when Buzelli had moved to New York City, he got a call from SooJin, then, as now, art-directing for Asset International, a B2B information and technology company. "She said, 'I need a spread and five spots, due in two days,'" he recalls. "I said, 'Sure, no problem!' And then I remember thinking, 'What did I just do? I can't do a spread and five spots in two days.' That was back in the days when I wasn't scanning pieces, I was FedEx-ing them. But I did it, and then took her out to dinner."
Buzelli's work at that time was largely for corporate clients: "I was doing a lot of people in business suits with briefcases and telescopes. I wasn't telling my own story." His style was also markedly different than it is now—a collage-based approach with a heavy dose of Henrik Drescher. All this changed in 2004. Laid up with a knee injury, "something just clicked." He called his rep, told him that he was done with the collage style, and that he was "just going to draw what I want to draw." When his rep told him that illustration was only a business, Buzelli exploded: "This isn't just a business, this is my life's work!" And in the following three weeks, he developed a portfolio that continues to define the current look and focus of his work. "I was illustrating the same stories," he notes, "but with a whole new narrative and an entire world that also worked outside of the magazines."
Now, he says, "I try and put a little bit more of myself into each of my pieces. I'm still concerned about communicating that visual connection to the story, but I make that visual a part of my own narrative as well." Whether working for Entertainment Weekly, Macy's or National Public Radio, he conveys the topic at hand in the context of his own unique graphic universe. "The trick is to find something in that narrative that you can connect to and that will spark something within your piece. Most of the time I'm lucky."
Among his luckier assignments was one for the Tropen Museum, an ethnographic museum in Amsterdam. The institution hired Buzelli to make illustrations for a campaign promoting five newly-acquired artifacts, including a fish-shaped coffin from Ghana and an eighteenth-century illuminated manuscript of the Koran. "They actually flew me out to the museum," says Buzelli in a tone of wonder. "They gave me my own tour, at night, when the museum was closed, and I got to hold each one of the artifacts." His artwork for the ads gives every object its own backdrop, lending them another layer of narrative and, at the same time, acting as lovingly decorated display cases to house the artifacts.
It makes sense that this was a dream assignment for the illustrator, whose own East Village apartment has the feeling of a wünderkammer. Artwork and objects mosaic the walls and fill each corner. Many of the pieces that grace Buzelli's wall come from fellow illustrators, such as Katherine Streeter (who created two portraits of Buzelli's dog), Red Nose Studio, Josh Cochran, JooHee Yoon and Gary Taxali. Buzelli's studio is adorned with a curly-horned ram's head ("a gift from a friend"), cacti and a watchmaker's desk filled with numerous enticing small drawers. His obvious love of collecting wasn't the only thing that suited him for the Tropen Museum job. An inveterate researcher, he enjoys delving into the background of each new topic he illustrates: "I love investigating all the facts. The more you know about the subject, the better you are."
His love of facts extends to a richness of visual detail that anchors his dreamlike illustrative sphere and makes it vibrantly alive. He is particularly adept at seamlessly meshing aspects of the real world with fantastic touches, as he did in the mailer for this year's ICON conference. Created with Jessica Hische, who contributed the pitch-perfect lettering, Buzelli's poster recreates the skyline of his college town, Providence, and brings in a swarm of giant moths that hover, mesmerized, around the light shining from the Bank of America tower. The assignment felt particularly meaningful to Buzelli, as it was directed to the illustration community. "The pressure was on," he says. "It's one thing to do a piece for Rolling Stone or the New York Times, because the audience is abstract. When you do something like this, you know exactly who your audience is. All the people you look up to are going to see this." Comments on Buzelli's Drawger site prove that those "names" liked what they saw.
After attending ICON, Buzelli visited Venice, where he taught an intensive one-week illustration course. It's satisfying to envision the illustrator in that dream-like atmosphere of canals, palazzi, art and light. Real-life fairytales like Buzelli's are never straightforward or free from pain, but for someone who strives for some personal truth, as he does, they can lead to some truly magical places. ca