Ray Fenwick has created yet another masterpiece. His second book, Mascots, hit shelves in the beginning of this year and it’s quite a beauty. It’s filled with his signature style that mixes ornate hand lettering and imagery, creating amusing little narratives. We’re so excited that he took the time out of his busy schedule as a full time artist and new father to tell us what the book is all about:
When and why did you start painting on book covers?
I started using book covers as mini canvases around 2008. I was working on a comic-like thing for Fantagraphics’ Mome anthology and decided I wanted to make something that was more of an art object. I’ve been using them since. I knew when I started this book that I wanted it to double as an art show, so doing the whole thing as these objects made perfect sense.
I’ve used old book covers for a few reasons. They’re essentially small, cheap, pre-coloured canvases, and the colours are often quite unusual and rich. The book cloth, when it’s the right kind, takes ink nicely too.
The reasons for using them started off being practical, but after a few times drawing on them I realized there was much more to it, and that they weren’t just a solution to a problem.
First, I love the process involved in finding them. Instead of heading down to the art store I get to go and root through shelves in a thrift store, which takes a lot longer but is a much more pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
Second, there’s something nice about using a drawing surface that has a past. By the time I’m ready to start drawing on one of them I have a history with it, and that’s in addition to it’s already long history as a book. It serves as a strange base for what I end up doing, in that it kind of contrasts conceptually. The things I do are often fragmented, like short flashes of narrative, so I think it’s funny to have that take place on something that has a long previous life.
Lastly, the fact that they’re originally book covers makes a lot of sense. I often think of my work like titles for books that don’t exist, and in this case the book has actually been removed entirely so you have no choice but to imagine the contents.
One thing I should acknowledge here is that much of this was thought of after the fact, but that’s kind of how I work. I’m not trying to bullshit here. I try to trust instinct and improvisation when possible because the results are usually more surprising than when I try and plan something out in detail. In this case the book covers made a very simple kind of sense at first, so I went with it, but it became richer upon reflection.
Where did you get these books, what were they before and did that influence the art you created on them?
I got them from second hand stores, which in turn often got them as discards from public libraries.
I think in the whole book there is maybe only one case where I riffed off of what existed on the cover, but even then I’d had an idea for something. [SEE IMAGE BELOW] For the most part I used blank hardcovers.
And if anyone is up in arms about the fact that I ripped out the guts of these books, I should mention that for the hundreds of books that were sacrificed there was a grand total of one book that I actually kept to read. I’m just saying. Most of them were minutes away from being pulped.
Did you intend this book to be read as a story or as a series of unrelated images?
Neither, to be honest. Kind of somewhere in between the two.
I thought of the book like a collection of short stories, except instead of stories there are short scenes that concentrate more on a single idea, or a mood. Some scenes run for multiple pages while others are just a page, and while they don’t connect linearly there are definitely recurring themes. I thought a lot about the sequence and which stories are grouped together, so in that sense the images are related, just not in obvious ways. Having said that, there are a couple characters that reappear in different parts of the book, but that’s more about supporting or contrasting some of the themes that naturally developed.
It’s not a book where your left with one meaning or conclusion. I wanted to make something where what you’re left with at the end of the book is a sense. I wanted to build a world out of fragments that, while absurd and surreal, felt familiar to the one we’re living in right now.
Who are the mascots?
This goes back to my thinking of the book as a collection of short stories. In short story collections they usually take a title for the book from one of the stories, something that is indicative of the themes in the stories, but nothing worked that way for me. I thought of the idea of mascots because they’re these outrageous, often ridiculous figures, but they’re symbolic of something else. The thing they’re there to represent isn’t ridiculous at all. I thought that was similar in a lot of ways to the work in the book.
What influences your lettering?
My favourite lettering is actually the most straightforward stuff. I like things that are almost perfectly normal, but with a slight twist to it so that the person who made the letters peeks through a bit. [SEE IMAGE BELOW]
This image typifies what I love most. This is on the side of a building in downtown Winnipeg—the city in Canada where I live. The whole thing is very controlled, but the “g” and “y” have strayed slightly from what we’re used to. It’s so beautiful. I wish people would pay me to make things this simple. Just big, almost normal type, with just the tiniest bit of weirdness to it.
As an illustrator, storyteller, and writer why do you feel compelled to pair words with your images?
It’s interesting that you ask that, because it’s actually the other way around, in that I’m compelled to pair images with my text. I always start with text, and I actually feel like images are slowly being phased out in my work.
I’ve noticed you’ve been doing a lot of self-driven projects – how does doing books, comics, and sketchbooks compare to commissioned work?
Oh gosh, well I’m always going to prefer self-initiated work, for the freedom to explore ideas and move your work forward. If I relied on commissioned work alone, I think I’d stagnate pretty quickly, because clients often want you to do something you’ve already done. That’s not to say that there aren’t fun and fulfilling commercial gigs. There are. I just know that when I feel the most engaged and alive is when I’m working on something that’s self-driven. I suppose that’s a pretty obvious answer to your question.
You recently became a father, how is it going?
I suppose you’d have to ask my 11 month old, Cooper, for the best answer to that, but I think it’s going very well. :) He’s very funny and kind—I can tell that about him already without having heard a (intelligible) word out of his mouth. He also has the distinction of being the most handsome little man on planet earth. All other babies look like beef jerky to me. I feel sorry for other babies.
Haha! Thanks so much to Ray for sharing. Pick up a copy of Mascots right here.