Visualized spotlights visual artists in the music world.
The artwork of John Baizley is absolutely mind-blowing. There’s no way around that fact. But in addition to being such a talented visual artist John is also the frontman of Savannah, Georgia sludge metal band Baroness. Needless to say he is a busy guy.
We recently got the chance to hop on the phone and talk to John about his artwork and the place where it all comes from. His answers were surprisingly down to Earth and only make us respect him and his artwork all the more.
So John, how did you get into art?
I think I’ve always been into it. I know a lot of artists, and with most of us it’s, you know, when you’re a kid you sort of have a drive to do that. Some kids are technically proficient, some kids are bookish or into math, but for me there was always just a huge thrill in creating things. I did it at a very early age and both of my parents had a background in art so they understood something of the drive and they were very encouraging. The long of the short of it is that it is something that has always been there. I cannot remember a time when it wasn’t.
Your work shows a skilled understanding of artistic technique, particularly the anatomy of animals and humans, even down into the way you use shading. Is that something you were trained in?
I like to shy away from the word “trained.” It’s something I’ve always been interested in, and again going back to my childhood, when I was a young child I would go to life drawing classes from time to time, which my mother would facilitate for me. So I had a very early understanding of that, furthered by my sort of typical childhood interest in comic books, which are very…you know…to a child they have sort of figures and art for the young mind. I spent a large portion of my childhood in museums, exposed to sculpture and classic artwork. So it’s all part of my consciousness, I guess.
I was wondering how you color your pieces. It looks like it might be watercolors, is that right?
Yeah, I mean one of the most important things to understand is that I work entirely in the analog realm I guess. So I use really the most basic stuff: pencils, pens, paint brushes. I use India ink for the black and white portion of the artwork and then everything else is just watercolor. I usually finish my pieces off with just a little bit of sort of high-concentrated ink that is sort of unnaturally bright. I’m not interested in the super, super bright digital-looking stuff and working with it it is impossible to achieve that level of color saturation. So occasionally I feel like I’m cheating a little bit with these inks because they are not old enough for me or something.
I’ve looked at a lot of your work and it seems like the individual pieces fit together as some sort of larger mythology. You use a lot of women and animals (particularly birds and fish). Is that based on anything in particular? Or is it just the style you developed?
I think that it’s based on my experience in growing up where I did in the way that I did. I was exposed to an extreme amount of nature throughout my life, whether it was on the farm that I grew up on in the Blue Ridge Mountains or during the extended camping trips that I would take, you know, sometimes for months at a time in northern Quebec, Ontario and northern Canada. I would basically live off the land for two to three months at a time once a year, and you come in contact with a lot of birds and a lot of fish. It rubs off on you. It’s absolutely a conscious thing, but when you work figuratively like I do, you are drawn to the images that you enjoy and enjoy rendering. And I enjoy rendering the female form, I enjoy rendering animals, and very often birds and fish are of interest to me. I’m certainly not restricted to that. However I’m artist working in this time period and so it’s not satisfactory for me to simply render, you’ve gotta go beyond that. Look at why images are relevant. I spent a long time in the questioning period.
Your work also seems to depict a lot of ritualistic imagery. It feels very organic as opposed to the current trend of reappropriating occultist imagery. Are these ritualistic themes intended?
Yeah, for sure. Let me preface it by saying, the great portion of the work that I’ve done has a commercial aspect. That doesn’t sit particularly well with me because I don’t see myself as a “commercial artist.” But I’m a music fan, I’m a music lover, and a musician, so I understand the importance of a visual aesthetic. I have great respect for that. When the synchronicity exists and the aesthetic furthers the band, furthers the aesthetic. So that said, I always preface any work that I do with anybody else as not being compromising. I’m not big on compromising. So as long as that’s sort of the preface to any joint project that I do, and I feel entirely justified in working within this sort of universe or set of structures or boundaries or ritualistic imagery or icons, that suit my greater purpose as an artist. A lot of these things, which may look abstract or obtuse or, I hesitate to say occult, but you know what I’m speaking of. A lot of the metaphor, a lot of the iconography is subsidized. It comes from a more personal place than sort of occult, schlocky Hammer horror kind of stuff. There is some great art in that, but I like to separate myself from that realm. When you are using hyper-loaded imagery you have to understand what its impact is and what its relevance is. So way more often than not when I’m using an image that has that load to it, if it’s a nail, we in America tend to go straight to the crucifix with that. That’s what it seems to me.
So if I’m using a lot of the North American animal images then it sort of starts to reek of witchcraft or stuff like that. Occasionally I’ll dabble with things that have an Eastern thing to them. That’s the jumping off point, that’s the springboard. What I do with it is try to subvert it, because I think you can double, triple, quadruple the meaning of something. If you’re using an image that has some familiarity with people, they respond to it. If affects them. Then if you take that and use it to suit some different meaning, then I think that the imagery begins to take its own life on. And it’s not in any one particular tradition, it’s beginning its own tradition.
So then when you contribute album artwork to numerous other bands like Kvelertak, Pig Destroyer, Coliseum, and others. How do those collaborations come together? And how much input do the bands have into the finished pieces?
Well the collaborations can come about in very few ways. I’m fortunate in that I’ve never had to make many concessions towards the type of quality of bands that I work with. Simply put, I work with bands that I like. I work with bands that I know. I work with bands that I respect. And I don’t have to take the bigger paycheck jobs from them that I don’t respect right now. Much to the chagrin of my bank account, I realize that at the end of my career, or whatever it is, I want to look back and see that I only did stuff that I really believed in on some level.
That’s respectable, for sure.
Yeah, one thing is that it is respectable. The second thing is that it gives me a clean conscience at night. It gives me what I need in the morning to get up and produce something that feels poignant to me. As soon as I’ve lost the own importance of my work then it’s just a dog and pony show. Who cares? Who cares what it’s about? I’m just out for a paycheck at that point. Which is fine if you’ve got to make a living, but I’d rather make no money and just look back and say that I always felt it at the time.
With your band being on the road how do you find the time to be working on your art? Is it just something you do when you are at home?
I’ve had to develop that very fine line between the two. In some ways the band and my art career have very much run in tandem. In other ways I absolutely have to make a distinction between the two. Because at first it was cool but than at some point it begins to be counterproductive. So it’s a tightrope act. On a good year I’ll spend half the year making art and the other half of the year making, playing, and performing music. I don’t like to mix the two, I find it just wears me really thin and then the quality of the work suffers both on stage and on paper.
So then when you are home what does your art space look like?
Probably like most people’s art spaces. It’s small, it’s cramped, and it’s filled with stuff. Reference materials, paint on the floor. Just junk everywhere. I’m not really organized in any traditional sense. So it’s just stuff everywhere. It kind of sucks. (Laughs)
Oh yeah, I’m in the process right now of several collaborations. He and I are not currently collaborating, though we have spoken about it in the past. He and I have a difficult time simply finding the time to match up and do anything collaboratively because we’re busy, busy, busy. At some point I’d love to. He’s a fantastic artist; I’ve got plenty of his work hanging in my house and I love his music on top of it so it seems like an obvious thing to me.
Is there anything you’re currently working on that you care to talk about?
Well next week I’m headed to the Netherlands to do some solo musical performances as well as a couple other shows, and a couple other things in addition to that. And in conjunction with the same festival that I’m playing a gallery in Netherlands is exhibiting 25 original works of mine. So that’s been a lot of work to put together. So that’s happening next week and I’m always working on Baroness merchandise, posters, so on and so forth. A bunch of poster projects that I’ve got in the works right now. I’m currently starting work for the new Skeletonwitch record. They are in the studio right now, which means that I’m officially behind schedule, but that’s all right. That’s sort of normal. Also there are a couple of things that are pretty awesome and big, but I can’t mention them because I actually haven’t gotten totally signed off on yet.
Just out of curiosity, what music have you been listening to lately?
I’ve got pretty eclectic taste. Jeez what have I been listening to this week? This old Denton, Texas band called Lift To Experience that’s been on constant rotation. I’m listening to John Cale’s ‘Paris 1919’. We are talking about metal stuff so we should probably talk about that. I went and saw this amazing band the other night called Vektor on Earache Records. They are a killer, killer metal band. Kind of like Van Halen meets thrash metal. Gram Parsons. Gillian Welch. I like country music a lot so that’s always there. The music from Big Pink. That’s just a handful.
Well, I think that about covers it. So thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions.
Yeah, no problem.