Interview with Koak

Your description of yourself & what you do?

I am a visual artist and writer. Currently I’m working on several projects. I just finished a digital comic for Scrawl Magazine. I’m working on a new set of commissions for the band The Devil Makes Three. I’ve also just started a body of large-scale pastel drawings, called Noodies, for a solo gallery show. But my main focus right now is writing and illustrating a comic book trilogy, Sick Bed Blues, which I’ve been working on for the past several years. It’s a sort of fantastical, sci-fi inspired, coming-of-age tale for adults that takes place in a world set inside a human body that’s populated by anthropomorphized animals.

I’m also midway through receiving a Master’s degree in comics at CCA, and the co-founder of the Alter Space gallery in SF.

What turns you on creatively?

A million things. Whether it’s an article on epigenetics, or a brilliant song, an overheard conversation, a dream, a memory, an interesting face that passes me the street, or even something internal that I’m trying to process. If I have an emotional response to something, or something resonates with me, then it generally leads to the urge for creative expression.

What do you think is the greatest myth about creativity?

That there’s something to it other than the act itself.

By that I mean that we often mythologize creativity, transform it into something that is hard to capture, or only bestowed on us during divine moments that we have no control over. But I think creativity starts the moment we engage in the act of creating anything, be it a physical piece, a sound, a sentence, or even an idea that exists just in our brain. Creativity, in and of itself, is simple. It’s just a matter of diving in.

Excerpt from Scrawl Magazine

As an artist it’s natural to go through periods of feeling like you can’t tap into your creativity. I’ve been there many times, and it’s an ugly, depressing place. But viewing that lull as an absence of creativity is unnecessary. Every moment of output comes from some internal idea and sometimes those ideas need time to formulate.

What books, tools or resources have you used to improve your skills? And which could you never live without?

I could live with anything that would make a mark…but given the chance I’m pretty specific with my tools. I like Rotring’s Rapidograph pens, Kuretake makes a beautiful sable brush pen, and I’ve been using the same Pentel .03 pencil with B lead for ten years.

However, I can’t say that any one tool has directly improved my skill. More so, that comes from working with tools I have absolutely no experience in.

What false belief was the hardest to out-learn or let go of?

Turning off the initial editor that says things aren’t good right at the start, or that your ideas are dumb. Most things are bad in the beginning; if not then, they are bound to suck at some point. It’s part of the process. You work through it. Sometimes the dumb ideas are the most successful.

Who are your strongest influences (other than family)?

Old folktales, books on epigenetics and information theory, geeky stuff about the body and how information is transferred through generations (be it oral storytelling or DNA). The images of Charles Burchfield, Francis Upritchard, Robert Sergeant Austin, and Natalie Djurburg. The songs of Robert Nighthawk, Victoria Spivey, Roscoe Holcomb, and Nick Cave.

What sound do you love?

I’m going to have to say thunderstorms, which I would have said before, but I find funny now…I recently learned that was one of the most common words to appear in female online dating profiles.

I also love scratchy blues records, of course.

What book would you give someone in hopes of inspiring greatness?

Any science fiction novel that shows how terrifying our future could be. I think fear often does a good job of inspiring greatness.

Portrait of Mirabelle Burch (Pen and ink illustration for Sick Bed Blues)

What’s your favorite curse word?

I like the weird compound ones; lick-spittle, cinder-garbler, draggle-tail, paper-skull, storm-buzzard. I just used pig-meat quite a few times for a chapter in Sick Bed Blues. That’s a fun one!

Who do you think of when you think of success? What does success mean to you?

To me success is not about making money or being well-known, though both of those are important aspects in being able to pursue art as a career. It’s about engaging in a greater dialog with your art, about opening political and social discussions that advocate for a better world.

In that sense, groups like the Gorilla Girls, or the artists Kathe Kollowitz and Keith Haring, or the musician Hazel Dickens, all come to mind, as each of them successfully merged their art within a greater social context.

This is something I often try to incorporate into my own work, though it’s not that prevalent in the pieces I’m sharing with you. It does play a large role in my writing process for Sick Bed Blues and is a key factor in how I view that projects success.

What album could you never live without?

My dad played in this band when I was a kid, Frank Allison and the Odd Sox. Growing up they would practice in the basement of our house in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which meant I was the lucky kid with front row seats to a weekly private concert. It was probably about the only time I felt “cool” as a kid. So listening to any of their albums is instant happiness.

The Meek is Weak (sketch for pastel series)

Is there a creative place that you are trying to get to? Where?

Where I am now. Constantly working on a diverse set of projects that inspire and keep me challenged.To be challenged and working through it, that’s the goal.

What role, if any, does pain play in the creative process?

Pain plays a big role in my art. It was the initial thing that got me creating. In my early teens I worked through some difficult things and needed a way to communicate. Art was a form of exorcism, but also a way to connect with others.

At the time, I was amazed by how many people responded by opening up and sharing their stories and life experiences. In part, that connection was what kept me motivated.

What living person do you most admire?

Anyone who fights for a better, more tolerant and empathetic, world.

What quality do you value most in friends?

It’s hard to make that sort of generalization, each of my friends has a unique set of valuable qualities that inspire me. Their individuality, perhaps? But even that seems like a lacking catchall.

Who is your favorite fictional character?

The idea of God, in all of his/her/its/their forms, and in all the cultural variants, is fascinating.

In his book, ‘The War of Art’, Steven Pressfield explains “resistance” as anything that blocks you from creating. What are some forms of resistance for you and how do you deal with them?

The human body is a form of resistance. It limits me from being able to work as hard as I want to. Things break, or give way, or sometimes your brain just isn’t as alert as you need it to be.

Growing up, my mother was quite ill and I had my own set of health problems that were limiting. Since then, the topic of illness has become a major facet in my work, especially with projects like Sick Bed Blues. So, while being sick slowed me down at times, it also shaped my voice.

In that way, I would argue that resistance gives depth to the act of creating. It’s the responsibility of the artist to take the aspects of resistance in their life, process them, and throw them back into the world.

Dream dinner party: You, Andy Warhol and… ?

Valerie Solanas.

What app, system or method do you use to keep track of your tasks and projects?

I’ve probably tried them all, but I always fall back on lists scribbled on scrap paper.

Tuesday (Pastel and graphite on paper)

What was the last film that blew you away?

I recently discovered Nightbreed by Clive Barker. Not sure how I missed that growing up, but it was pretty awesome.

What’s the best creative advice you’ve ever received?

It came from an instructor, and very dear friend of mine, Yee Jan Bao. He said, when you’re making something and you hit that inevitable point where you’re stuck, don’t search for advice from others. Don’t call your friend or get on the internet. Stay in your seat and work through it. It’s that moment that defines you as an artist. In being stuck and finding a solution, your true voice comes through.

What’s your daily routine?

Honestly, it’s been all over the place recently. I wish I had more of a focused routine, but these days it’s essentially: if my eyes are open I’m working.

What do you listen to while you work?

Different things for different projects. For my current series of drawings, I’ve been listening to things that make me want to move, because that movement informs the drawings. So I listen to a lot of the Knife, or Talking Heads, or punk music (like the Descendents, Wire, Adverts). When I write, I listen to the blues or classical music. Blues specifically because the books I’m working on are inspired by that language. But when I’m working on more tedious drawings, I end up watching crappy tv on Netflix.

For you, what role does the artist play in society?

I agree with artists like James Baldwin and Keith Haring that the artist’s job is to disrupt systems of inequality in the world in order to forge a “more human dwelling place.” But I don’t think that this is often the case, as art is used as a tool to service capitalism.

Art is an incredibly powerful tool. It can be dangerous. It can change worlds, which is why it terrifies me that we’re not encouraging future generations to access the creative part of their brain at an early age. We’re not building a world of people who learn to think critically.

Drawing of the main character for Sick Bed Blues

What historical figure are you most fascinated with?

Right now, female prophets. Mother Shipton especially. I would highly recommend reading some of her prophecies from the 16th c.

When and where are you happiest?

Whenever I let go of my inhibitions and am in the moment. Like when I’m slightly buzzed and dancing.

How you stop from repeating yourself in your work? How do you keep things fresh?

In some of my work, like Sick Bed Blues, repetition is required. One of the biggest struggles with creating a very long comic bookis consistency. Especially in a comic where you and your technique mature over the years it takes to create, while the reader’s experience happens very quickly. Even more difficult than not repeating yourself and keeping things fresh, is keeping things fresh while being repetitive

Ralph Steadman or Edward Gorey?

Aesthetically, Edward Gorey, but it’s a lot more fun to work like Ralph Steadman

Where to find Koak:


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