At night, coyotes come down from the mountain and wander the neighborhood; during the day a menagerie of taxidermy animals watch over Jason Holley while he works. A pheasant, a boar’s head, an eerie possum with sharp little teeth and framed butterflies and insects are silent witnesses to the creative output that occurs in the small house on his property that he uses as an art and music studio. It’s part of the compound that he shares with his wife Lisa, a designer, and their four-year-old daughter Mavis, in the serene town of Sierra Madre northeast of Los Angeles. These natural and botanic elements are often found in the work he creates for illustration assignments as well as his fine art.
Holley’s work pulses with life. It has a visceral quality that engages the eye and the brain and demands more than a cursory glance and, like nature itself, it’s not always pretty to look at. His animal subjects seem to live and breathe on the page; their eyes convey their souls, engaging the viewer in a silent, but poignant dialogue.
Born in Dallas, Texas, the 41-year-old illustrator and educator grew up in South Pasadena, California, skateboarding and drawing. There wasn't a great deal for kids to do in the mid-1970s; music, art and skateboarding hadn’t fused into a cultural zeitgeist yet. “In high school I was already kind of a weirdo,” he says with a laugh. “The art room was my only refuge.” Although the message at school was that art education might be somewhat frivolous or expendable, that was far from the message he got at home. His mom is an interior designer so it didn’t seem like a big leap to consider making a living doing art. “I was always interested in art. It was pretty much all I ever wanted to do. There was never a time when I wasn't drawing and making stuff.”
After high school he had an opportunity to work at an ad agency in New Jersey for two weeks, which proved to be an influential experience. “I went from being the misfit to working with the people who were the misfits, a better class of weirdos,” he relates. “I must have been primed for a major breakthrough,” Holley claims. “I guess you could call it an internship, but mostly it was a favor a friend was doing for my father who instinctively knew it would be a really great thing for me to do—and looking back, he couldn't have been more right.”
That experience and a Society of Illustrators annual from 1985—that he found in the New Jersey apartment he stayed at—with work by Matt Mahurin, Sue Coe, Marshall Arisman and Guy Billot cemented his career choice. “They really got me,” Holley says. Lawrence Caroll, who taught classes at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, which Holley attended, and where he has now taught for the past thirteen years, was another inspiration. “Caroll had a hard time getting work; his stuff was way out there, pushing the form to the breaking point,” he explains. The latter part of that sentence is a definition that could apply to Holley’s own work as well. He often recycles parts of paintings, reattaching them to a new “canvas,” and incorporating cut-paper shapes.
In the room Holley’s dedicated as a music studio, tangles of cords echo the shapes he creates out of flesh-colored Sculpey polymer clay that he extrudes through a surgical-looking tool he refers to as a torture device. These strangely compelling shapes feature in his fine art. Holley has a band, Ukefink, that he records with and composes songs for. His fellow musicians are Sierra Madre neighbors who employ various instruments including a toy piano but take their name and inspiration from the often-maligned ukulele.
The components of a piece titled Everyone You Love—which form a giant skull (from his 2007 show Forever is Nothing at the SR2 gallery in Berkeley, California)—grace the walls of the bathroom, where he recently removed the bathtub and reattached a sink, precipitating a flood that occurred the evening before our interview. For an artist who had to drag his work out into the yard and mop up an amazing amount of water, he was remarkably cheerful. The deluge had also taken out his phone line, a temporary technological setback that did not seem to faze the somewhat techno-phobic artist.
His schedule revolves around several illustration assignments a month and his position as full-time faculty at Art Center that usually consists of two “long, long days,” a week. “It's been really great overall,” he says of teaching at Art Center. “We’re pretty fortunate that the people who come to that school are super motivated and some of them come in with more talent than they know what to do with.” “Jason Holley is one of the smartest teachers I have ever had,” says illustrator/educator and current ICON president Martha Rich. “He knows art and will not let you off the hook. He is not a coddling type and this is a good thing. He creates an environment where you can go out on a limb with your art, to be contrary and ornery. His classroom is not a safety zone.”
“The school was built on the principle of getting the working artists to teach. The thing that relates the two for me is the idea of empathy,” Holley says. “That’s the bottom line for me when I’m making an illustration or teaching something in the classroom; to see multiple points of view and direct the conversation without it becoming didactic. The word truth comes up too. One of the things I tell students about illustration and the dynamic of working with editors and writers is to let them worry about the facts and you tell the truth. There’s something about strong image making that can transcend the subject.”
Holley’s work is idiosyncratic, so clients come to him knowing they want his style and approach. Hannah McCaughey, art director of Outside relates, “Every one of his sketches is so well thought out that you could throw a dart and come up with a winner. He always gives me something totally unexpected but so smart and thoughtful that it goes way beyond the scope/expected solutions of the story.” For a range of magazines as diverse as Audubon, Bloomberg Wealth Management, The New Republic, Outside and Rolling Stone, as well as corporate clients such as Dell Computers, Holley’s approach is to consolidate the information by distilling the story down to its essence thus sharpening the impact of the picture.
“Sometimes I use the same tools but ultimately they are pretty different,” he says of the distinction between his illustration and fine art work. “I've had shows with both kinds of work, but I’ve never hung up an illustration in a gallery and considered it art.” Holley clarifies that he doesn’t consider illustration less than fine art, but that illustration must rely on its context. “It’s one of the things I work really hard on, how they relate to, and fall into, a conversation with the subject matter,” he explains. “When I look at it, that part takes up more hours of my day—working through those ideas. I will take three to five different approaches to an illustration. I can discover the painting after that. [I’ll give them] the bones, so they know how to design around it and they’re pretty clear what they’re going to get. I use the word ‘conversation’ a lot to describe when I’m doing an illustration.”
For Holley an assignment is like a conversation with the designer and the editor. “You understand the temperament but you don’t know the vocabulary,” he says. You can tell he relishes this challenge. “And this third thing happens: the conversation with the reader. It’s complete conjecture, thinking about how this may be received. I’m interested in that dynamic. I hope I don’t fall into the trap of pandering or making sweeping assumptions about how people perceive things. It’s part of the fun of the job, testing that boundary and pushing the dialogue—the relationship between the subject and the art and how those things are going to be read.”
He is disappointed that illustrators don’t often get direct feedback on their work, although he does point out one response that he refers to as his favorite piece of hate mail: “I did these portraits of weeds a while back and somebody accused me of contributing to ‘botanical illiteracy.’ I don’t know that they were wrong, they were interpretive portraits.
“I showed you the box of parts, things that migrate from painting to painting,” Holley comments. “There’s a dialogue that I have with the work itself. It’s almost a separate track running from job to job and painting to painting and finding ways to express that stuff. It’s a pretty cool challenge. I have ideas that I want to paint that might not have anything to do with a painting I’m working on. They hang around. I try to shoehorn them.
“I do so many sketches. It looks like I’ve got a good eleven-and- a-half inches of drawings—a good brick,” he says, referring to a thick notebook bristling with drawings near his worktable. “When you do five, you’ve got four left over,” he points out. “I’m probably only good for being a genius once a month, once every other month,” Holley adds, with humor in his voice. But there’s also truth to the statement, and you just know he will continue to sketch, unravel, reveal the bones beneath the surface, each time he tackles a new project. ca