It started, Joseph Fink says, as a chance encounter in a Hudson antiques store.
“My girlfriend, Meg, and I were browsing around and came upon this terrible, wonderful painting of a deer wearing a painting of a deer around its neck. It was very badly done, but also beautiful,” Fink tells me. “I wanted it so much, but it was too expensive.”
One of the lead showrunners behind the popular paranormal comedy podcast Welcome to Night Vale, Fink’s interests often seem to complement the idiosyncratic melding of small-town life and eldritch horror which defines the show. Thus a kitsch object which also just so happens to bend time and space, such as a portrait of a deer wearing a portrait of itself around its neck, is strangely perfect—or at least, whimsical enough to remain memorable. Unfortunately, the purchase that day at the antiques store was not to be.
The memory of the painting stayed with Fink, however, until—on a whim—he mentioned it to his fans on Twitter shortly after New Year’s. A follower offered to make him a painting to replace the one he wasn’t able to buy. Fink immediately responded with enthusiasm.
I am very serious. Please give me paintings of deer wearing pictures of deer around their necks like they just won a prize for Best Deer
—@PlanetofFinks, 2 Jan 2014
“I thought that perhaps a few might send something,” Fink admits. “I didn’t expect it would be this many.”
Fans initially sent digital sketches and paintings to Fink, several of which he retweeted. Then, when Fink and his Welcome to Night Vale collaborators set off on their West Coast tour later that January, the paintings got a lot more physical.
“For the first leg of the tour, there were only a few deer, so I could just carry them in my backpack. In one case, when we flew from Portland to San Francisco, I took one as a carry-on… I might have gotten some strange looks, I don’t know. I told the flight attendant that I always travel with my lucky deer painting when I fly.”
As the number of deer grew, Fink ended up having to ship many of the paintings back by post —along with an ornate deer mask which a fan had gifted him, and which itself wears a small deer mask on a long chain (below). In total, Fink received eight deer portraits over the course of the West Coast tour, in addition to the other presents bestowed upon him by fans.
“We get so many gifts,” Fink says, sounding humbled. “People are always coming up to us at live shows with things that they’ve made. But it was the level of care that people put into these paintings that really surprised me.”
At a San Francisco show, one artist went above and beyond her fellow attendees, presenting Fink with a large oil canvas replete with ornate frame (below). Fink says he plans to hang it over his fireplace mantle.
“There are so many of them, and they’re all just so cool. We’ve just moved into a new place and none of them are hung yet, but we plan to fill my office area with them.”
“Are they beautiful? Yes. But deer are also dangerous creatures. They are terrible, deceitful, and vile animals. Nature is gorgeous, and it is horrible, and it will kill you.”
(Welcome to Night Vale Episode 36: “Missing”)
Heraldry and Velvet
Cervids (whose ranks include all varieties of deer, reindeer, elk and moose) have a long history in the storytelling traditions of countless cultures, where their roles vary from symbols of fertility and sacrifice to avatars of divine visitation. The prototypical image of a deer, with its elongated proportions, glittering eyes and delicate gait, is at once surreally beautiful and menacingly alien, befitting its common mythological role as something otherworldly—even unknowable.
As game animals, cervids have a long legacy opposite humans as intelligent, challenging quarry. Their bodies have served as sources of food, leather, tools, medicine and jewelry. Some, namely the reindeer, have been domesticated and have served as draft animals for centuries. In fact, there is very little about the family Cervidae that is not interwoven with the history of humans—from their habitats to their place in our lore and culture, they have existed adjacent to us for quite some time.
Deer also serve as a recurring theme on Welcome to Night Vale, which Joseph Fink produces and co-writes with fellow New York-based writer Jeffrey Cranor. Listeners hear of mysterious transit agents speaking from behind very concerned (or perhaps disapproving) deer masks. In another of the show’s subplots, we learn that local real estate agents are known to take up residence inside deer’s stomachs, encouraging prospective home-owners to invest their money (and blood) in condominiums. In one of family Cervidae’s lengthier Night Vale appearances, the radio show’s host—played by actor Cecil Baldwin—warns children of the health hazards of deer, reminding listeners of the ending to Disney’s Bambi… which, in Welcome to Night Vale’s rendition, culminates in a gory, revenge-fueled rampage against the hunters who shot the poor buck’s mother.
In short, nothing is quite what it seems in Night Vale, least of all the wildlife. And while the underlying nature of things the show’s writers explore tends toward humanist revelation rather than gratuitous perversion, the deer are an excellent symbol for how Welcome to Night Vale teeters on the edge of that dichotomy, between sweet and feral. And so it makes excellent sense that the show’s producer should have a particular soft spot for them.
“We still do not know who the deer-masked transit people are, or whether they are people at all. Perhaps they are thousands of roaches packed inside a business suit, hiding behind a mask. Or perhaps the mask was not hiding them at all, but hiding us — sheltering them from our immature, solipsistic minds.”
(Welcome to Night Vale Episode 29: “Subway”)
Simple, Specific, Strange
Fink says he hopes even more deer portraits will turn up during the show’s next live tour, which will run throughout the bulk of March and cover over 20 cities, mostly within the Eastern half of the United States. You can view a full listing of March tour show dates and locations from Welcome to Night Vale’s official site.
“In past tours, it was always just the four of us—Jeffrey, me, Cecil and Meg—handling everything,” Fink tells me. “Now, with the most recent tour, we have a tour and merchandise manager, so that’s taken a lot of the pressure off. It lets us focus on the show and not all the logistics.”
The current live show’s script—which concerns one of Night Vale’s (highly dangerous) local librarians—is modular by design, allowing Fink and his co-writer Jeffrey Cranor to plug in different guest spots based on actor availability in each city. Between these variable elements and the script’s audience participation moments, the showrunners ensure that no two live readings are ever exactly alike, even if their fans attend two nights in a row.
“The show comes first, always,” says Fink. “We all come out of New York theatre. We’ve been doing live theatre of all kinds for years now… Any bumps we might’ve had in the last few tours are never things that a fan would see. That audience experience is always great.”
Voice talents who have previously appeared at live shows include Mara Wilson, Flor De Liz Perez, Jackson Publick, and Wil Wheaton. Some (namely Wilson and Publick) have also gone on to provide voices for the official podcast episodes, while others (such as Wheaton) may remain live show-only treats for fans—at least for now. As Welcome to Night Vale’s appeal continues to spread, so does its media reach: the showrunners have already announced a book spin-off, slated for release in 2015, and the team recently released its first ‘premium’ episode via Bandcamp, for a minimum purchase of $1. Other projects are almost certainly in the pipeline.
And as the show proliferates, it’s likely that so, too, will the deer that are slowly taking over Joseph Fink’s walls. Fink says he would absolutely love to see his fans’ paintings fill up his home office.
“I will always accept people’s deer paintings, for as long as they want to share them. I find it very fascinating, to see so many different takes on the same simple—specific but strange—prompt,” he says. “You see a lot more of the human being when you see them working from the same specific idea. The variations all come from them, the artist.”
If you’re interested in learning more about Welcome to Night Vale—or, indeed, any of Joseph Fink’s eclectic interests, deer paintings included—head on over to Commonplace Books. You can also follow him on Twitter.
(All deer portrait photography courtesy of Joseph Fink.)