Sep 21

Aaron Horkey: Midwestern Heart Interview (Part 1)

Posted by Justin Norman in Visual Art, Writing.

Note: This piece was originally written for and published by Hi-Fructose Magazine. This is a re-run with high-resolution photo links. Just click any image to see it in much greater detail.

Near a lonely silo in Windom, Minnesota, the massive, scale-covered tail of a rare bird whips around a decaying fencepost. Its claws grip the wood as it stretches toward the moon, holding a newfound treasure up to the light. Peering out from beneath its fish-shaped, metal helmet, the beast twists the object around in its elongated beak to examine it from all angles. A skeleton dangles there. The bent remains of a creature perhaps a tenth of its captor’s size. The bird pauses, as if pondering what to do with it. But it is soon startled from this dilemma as a flock of manta rays takes flight behind the hill, soaring up past the clouds toward the stars. The bird lets out a deep croak from its frog-like throat and, satisfied with the night’s find, flaps its massive wings, departing into the dark.

Aaron Horkey’s artwork is often a combination of both beautiful and nightmarish imagery – filled with hauntingly strange creatures that emanate from within his imagination out into the natural surroundings of his hometown in rural Minnesota. There, at Windom’s Remick Gallery, Horkey recently unveiled an exhibit containing an astounding 84 pieces of artwork he’s created over the last seven years. Of those, 33 were his original ink drawings, which hung nearby their finished counterparts. This allowed the crowd to catch a rare glimpse of Horkey’s work before any colors, lettering, or other modifications were made to create the finished posters.

Along with his previous work, a brand new print entitled “Midwestern Heart” was also available. The person who guessed closest to the number of stars in the print’s vast sky without going over the actual number walked home with a free $800 print. I got the opportunity to ask Aaron a few questions about that show and get a step-by-step look at how he creates one of his posters.

First off, how many stars were on that “Midwestern Heart” print? My guess was 2,500, but I never heard what the actual amount was.

The final tally was 4,340 which is substantially higher than I would have ever guessed. Even though it took about 8 hours to draw them, I assumed there would only be a thousand or so. Credit for the official count goes to my long-suffering wife, Kim. She figured out a system so as to not lose her place while counting and knocked it out between ferrying kids to soccer practice and whipping up some incredible vegan blueberry/peach cobbler.

Can you tell us a bit about the idea behind that print and the show?

The main idea behind making the print was to have something available for folks to pick up as a memento of the exhibit since nothing in the show itself was for sale. I tried to come up with imagery that wasn’t too obviously Midwestern while still referencing the area (although, admittedly, a huge ear of corn is just about as obvious as it comes). Ladybird beetles are ubiquitous here, especially in the summer months, and the clear, star-filled sky is a definite hallmark of the rural midwestern experience. The dilapidated barn in the background was found on a gravel road outside of Mason City, Iowa and has long since returned to the soil. I’ve carried those reference photos around with me for almost a decade, wasn’t until this project that I found the right spot for her. As for the show, I mostly just wanted to gather a few things together that I wasn’t terribly embarrassed by and present them in their native environment. Most all of my reference material and inspiration for the work in the show was culled from the surrounding wilds of rural Cottonwood County and a majority of that from within a 10 mile radius of the gallery/museum. The Remick Gallery was the venue for my first solo exhibit which took place in the summer of 2003 and I wanted to present a good cross-section of my output from the seven following years. A decent amount of stuff didn’t make the cut but the space filled up fairly well regardless, definitely the highest number of pieces I’ve had in a single show.

There were rumors floating around the Internet that this would be your final show, but from what I gathered, you’ve got another one coming up late next year. Can you tell us more about that?

“Midwestern Heart” will be my last solo show for quite a while, if not for good. If I did another solo show I’d want to exhibit a series of all new paintings and drawings which would take many years to compile as well as finding the right space to present them. Really can’t see it happening what with the commercial work and parental duties absorbing most of my waking hours but the idea of a new painting show is always there, nagging at the back of my head. Never say never, I suppose. The show next year would be a group show in San Francisco, California but I’m not 100% sure it’s happening so I can’t divulge anything beyond that.

The oldest of your work at the show was a group of skateboard designs from 2004. What led you to begin working on skateboards and how did that lead to your work as a poster artist (if, in fact, it did)?

They are, for the most part, unrelated – just two avenues I always aspired to have my drawings applied to. I started skateboarding around 1992-1993 and have been obsessed ever since. Being land-locked in that era the thought never crossed my mind that I’d ever be able to contribute to the visual history of skateboarding. Then, around the turn of the century, my good friend Todd Bratrud began making headway within “the industry” and wound up eventually becoming art director at a company which essentially gave him free reign and he, in turn, let me know the door was open for submissions. Being called on to send in graphics was the most exciting/daunting thing I’d experienced up to that point. I’ll never forget opening the first box of boards I’d designed. Lackluster though they were, it was an absolute stoke. The opportunity to work on posters came a few years later and when those started catching on and finding an audience I really slowed down with the skateboard graphics. I’d love to get back into it but I’ve vowed to never have my stuff applied to a skateboard via heat transfer ever again – screenprinting only from here on out. Unfortunately almost nobody shares my sentiment as screened graphics are more expensive, time-consuming and difficult to produce and as such are only practiced by a small number of individuals in this day and age. Another dying art I’m not prepared to let go of just yet.

When you put together a show like this and look back through all your previous art, in what ways do you observe your work evolving since you began?

I’d like to think I’ve started to figure out how to draw although it’s painfully obvious I have many more miles to go before I’m able to pull off a successful picture. The lettering on a lot of those early prints is just clunky and awkward – I was still measuring widths between letters and going to great lengths to make sure drop shadows were uniform, etc. Once I started to loosen up a bit the lettering became less stilted and more interesting, to me at least. As for the evolution of the screenprints, once I had a few under my belt I started to better understand how the inks interacted with each other and what elements could be omitted from the main drawing and added onto other layers. Discovering transparent black/grey was a huge step toward somewhat believable dimensionality with shadows and such, to the point of being sometimes ridiculous and often times spending days on shadow layers barely visible in the final printed product. You can really see the evolutionary leap, for better or worse, if you compare the three Andrew Bird posters in the show. I grouped all three together on the wall and there were 3 years separating each print starting with 2003, 2006 and ending in 2009. To my eyes the most recent is the most successful but the 2003 Bird still stands as the favorite for most of my collectors. I’d like to believe it’s because it’s the hardest to come by, as it’s not a particularly strong piece, but I really can’t tell anymore.

I got to talk to your parents quite a bit at the show. They told me that you were pretty self-motivated from an early age and that you mostly trained yourself as an artist. Yet even in some of your oldest work, your designs have been markedly intricate – requiring a very close look to notice everything you’ve packed into each corner. How did you go about developing your highly-detailed style when you were younger?

As long as I can recall I’ve tried to make every square centimeter of surface area count. The entirety of my 6th grade social studies note-taking was crammed onto one college ruled notebook page, much to the chagrin of my teacher at the time. I’ve always been drawn to excessive detail – my favorite books when I was a kid were of the sort where one could get lost in each page for hours. “Who Needs Donuts?” by Mark Alan Stamaty is a perfect example. Once I got more immersed in comics it was a similar thing – Rand Holmes, Serpieri, Hewlett, Crumb, Ware, Cooper, Kerri – all my favorites really know how to fill a panel/page. That’s the sort of work I react to and that I’ve always aspired to make, horror vacui forever.

Manta rays and helmeted birds have been frequent characters in your work through the years, often found perched atop decaying machines or flying across rural landscapes. What sorts of things inspire these recurring visuals?

The rays, manta and otherwise, are there for their inherent symmetry, the birds are dogged survivors. Each has a role within a greater narrative, which each faction is slowly evolving within. I have a loose idea of where these animals are headed but I’m trying to let them find their own route for the time being.

Come back tomorrow for part two of my interview with Aaron Horkey and read a detailed walkthrough about the making of the Genghis Tron poster!

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