Some years ago an art director warned Chris Sickels, “Chris, if you aren’t careful you’re going to become known only for drawing people who have red noses.” Sickels thought to himself, “Well, why not? Good a name as any.” Red nose, green nose, blue nose, no nose. Who knows and who cares? Sickels work is sensational—a richly textured, finely crafted, multidisciplinary blend that demonstrates stupendous imaginative power.
Smiling, soft-spoken, Sickels is a slender guy of 34, who wears a floppy fishing hat and round spectacles. He has a “gee whiz” air about him that gives him great charm. He’s aware of his own gifts, but he is more amazed by the potential of everyday objects and other people’s trash—trash he turns to treasure. Sickels might be the most carbon-neutral designer in America.
Sickels works above his garage behind the Greenfield, Indiana, home he shares with his wife Jennifer and his doe-eyed children, Owen (three) and Ava (one). His blind, diabetic, eleven-year-old dog Corwin noses about the cluttered studio trying to avoid the hundreds of witches, Santas, bad boys, good boys, space men, pallbearers, rabbits, pumpkins, spaceships, trains...and all the stuff that goes into making them.
Sickels is working on a set-up for a Norwegian dishwasher manufacturer. All his talents are on display: Drunk and slovenly lads spill across a living room set watching a televised soccer match. The remains of a party, food, soiled rugs and beer spills, surround them.
Every detail is handcrafted, from the leaves on the floor to the silhouetted trees outside the living room window. The red-faced fans wear hand-stitched jerseys with imaginary soccer club logos. They quaff beer from mugs made from the plastic tops of hairspray bottles. The soiled plates are cut from the bottoms of those little tubs from fast food restaurants usually filled with Technicolor dipping sauces. The wallpaper is hand drawn. The sofa and television are fashioned from paint, cardboard and fabric. That’s just half of it. When everything is built, art directed and set, Sickels lights it and photographs. Rarely does he use Photoshop and then only to retouch an image, not to fabricate objects or set backgrounds.
The work that goes into these fantastic tableaus cannot be overstated. People who see the final product (a photograph!) are impressed. To see the work in progress simply boggles the mind. I now know his secret: He’s like one of those many-handed Hindu gods, a Swiss Army Knife Ganesha, shape-shifting into an Indiana country boy when encountering mere humans.
Heading dead east on us hwy 40 towards Lynn, the town where Sickels grew up on his family dairy farm, we pass through one small town after another, most featuring shuttered shops and deserted streets. The landscape is broad, wide and flat. The swirling gray clouds and starched wind add to a sense of desolate, melancholy beauty.
At his dad’s place (now a struggling horse farm), Sickels shows me around. A big John Deere 4320 hulks nearby. He points to his grandparents’ former farmhouse in the distance. A mile or more in another direction, he points to his great uncle’s farmhouse.
All young boys and girls in the area were expected to spend their summers helping out on the farm in some capacity. At summer’s end, they’d get paid with a calf they had cared for since birth. The calf was then primped, combed and taken to the county 4-H fair for auction. It was at one of these annual events that Chris Sickels met Jennifer, carrying a five-gallon bucket of water to her calf in the stall across from his.
“I asked a friend, ‘Who’s that cute guy over there,’” remembers Jennifer, “and she said, ‘Aw, that’s just ole Chris, don’t bother with him.’ But I did.”
In 1984, also when Sickels was ten, a fire destroyed the dairy barn. A day later, the surviving cows were driven by horseback a mile down the road to his great uncle’s farm to be auctioned off. “It was like someone in the family had died,” Sickels recalls. A family tradition certainly had.
“My dad did not want me to get stuck on the farm,” he says. “He wanted me to have some options besides dairy farming and cattle raising. He knew it was hard and he knew it was threatened by modern industrial farms.” His parents encouraged him to develop other skills—drawing was one of them.
High school teacher Teri Martin also offered early encouragement. She took him to portfolio reviews near and far. Sickels entered the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1992. He graduated and married Jennifer in 1996.
After art school, Sickels snagged a few freelance jobs, but still worried about how he would make a living. In the summer of ’96 while working for the Contemporary Art Center of Cincinnati, he helped set up an exhibition for renowned artist Tim Hawkinson. “The guy sculpted a bird out of his own fingernail clippings,” said Sickels. Growing up, he was taught early that nothing was wasted on the farm. Not a part. Not a bucket. Not a bent nail. A seed was planted in his mind.
OUT TO LOS ANGELES
With Jennifer earning a decent wage as an occupational therapist and Sickels scraping by with his museum work and few illustration jobs, life was good. He began to build a network of friends in Cincinnati, including art director Amy Hawk and editor Megan Lane Patrick at HOW magazine and noted designer Lori Siebert.
“Tommy Rueff was another friend and stop-motion collaborator who had a huge impact on my art,” he said. “He took pity on me and gave me any work he could, from stuffing promotional material to creating props for photo shoots that nobody else wanted to work on.”
Sickels knew he had to go elsewhere to achieve a new level. Two friends, Bryan Konietzko and Brian Krueger, had both landed big jobs at separate animation studios in Los Angeles, which got him dreaming about new horizons.
“Bryan Konietzko talked me into staying with him for two weeks to do a trial run at Film Roman, an animation studio that was producing a show for Warner Brothers called Mission Hill. I then got an offer to be a prop designer, but we weren’t quite ready to pack up and move 2,600 miles.”
A few months later, Sickels began work on another pitch with Brian Krueger called Human Beans that had captured the interest of Disney. “I built an entire set with characters that were shot for the pitch bible. With the excitement around Human Beans and the earlier offer from Film Roman, L.A. was hard to resist.”
Human Beans never got picked up, and Sickels spent a lot of time schlepping his portfolio around town, with little to show for it. One day he visited a puppet maker’s studio near his apartment. “The owner told me I shouldn’t even be showing my puppets because they were so crude and unrefined.” But a more insightful man liked what he saw, pulled Sickels aside and suggested that he take his models to the Chiodo Brothers, known in Hollywood for special effects and everything from stop motion to severed limbs.
“When I showed my stuff there, the production manager I was meeting with nodded off,” Sickels remembers. One of the Chiodo secretaries saw the samples left behind, destined for the garbage can, and called them to the attention of Stephen Chiodo. He called Sickels in to see him and offered him an apprenticeship. Sickels took it and created “Innards,” a prototype of what would become his hyper-realistic, mad-magic world of make-do and make believe.
“I made nothing, but I learned a lot. And I built my portfolio,” recalls Sickels. “Then my illustration work began to pick up some steam, too.”
Finally, in 2002 Nickelodeon gave Sickels his big chance: a job offer to work as a character designer on a new show called Invader Zim at salary of $60,000 per year. “I was told I would work 60-hour weeks. There would be no time for my illustration work.”
Sickels turned Nickelodeon down. Jennifer recalls, “I thought, ‘That’s it. Why stay in L.A. now?’”
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
They came home, settling in Greenfield, 25 miles east of Indianapolis and not far from their families. The couple bought the brown, one-story Victorian with a little garden and red garage/studio, where they live now. I ask Sickels where he gets the inspiration for his characters. Just then, a chunky gal in full leather passes by aboard a pink Vespa. Her lips are painted black.
“Well, as you see, Greenfield has loads of character,” he replies. “I sometimes take a bench by the checkout stand at Wal-Mart so I can sketch folks. Wal-Mart is one of the most unguarded, realistic places on earth. There are people wearing sweatpants and glittered T-shirts, talking on their cell phones while swatting their children. They don’t care what they look like and they don’t hide who they are.”
Back in the studio, Sickels takes a call from his hard-working rep Chrystal Falcioni of Magnet Reps. She has a project offer from a Finnish company and sends him the art director’s sketches of a guy with scissor hands helping “cut” the ties of old technology. In another sketch, the guy’s ladder hands help someone down from their tower prison. The metaphors are clichéd but Sickels can take such mundane concepts and make them fantastic. And “Scissor Hands?” These guys think they’ve found the Poor Man’s Tim Burton. I mention this to him.
“Yeah, I know. I get that a lot and I’m always trying to get beyond it,” he says with good-natured resignation. “Whenever the brief says ‘there is room for interpretation of these drawings, I am very leery.” He pauses and asks, “So what do you think? Should I take this job?”
For a second I think how wild it would be for professionals to equate my work with Tim Burton’s, then offer: “Well, if the pay is right and the job offers artistic freedom, you’re probably fine. Besides, the deadline’s so tight the art director doesn’t have the time to screw it up.” He accepts the assignment.
Driving back to the airport, I think about the fact that I saw Sickels working on two jobs, one from Norway, the other from Finland, all in the span of 36 hours. Burbank? Please. Greenfield has a Wal-Mart and a Ponderosa Steakhouse.
Days later I call Sickels to ask how the Scissor Hands job is coming along. He sighs, “I’ve been dealing with some pickier-than-expected Finns. Something must have gotten lost in translation when it came to ‘there is plenty of room for artistic expression’ and ‘you can figure out things as you please.’ I should have trusted my gut and passed. Ah, the curse of hindsight...I’m sure it will work out fine. Usually, if I keep saying this, it does.”
It did. The ads are out in Europe already. They are unmistakably Sickels.
Life in Greenfield is sweet. You can walk to Town Square for a sandwich. You can watch your children grow up in the backyard. You can swing on a porch with the light of your life at night. And your work appears in newspapers and magazines all over Europe.
Life’s lessons learned:
Rule number one: Trust your gut.
Rule number two: Put life, family and dog above all.
Rule number three: Say “no” to soul-stealing jobs based in Burbank. ca