Jeff Soto has published two beautifully illustrated books; “Potato Stamp Dreams” and “Storm Clouds”. His artwork has been featured in top art magazines like; Juxtapoz, Giant Robot, Hi-Fructose, Art Prostitute, Lodown Magazine, Art Week, and Clutter. He has also worked with some impressive clients including Sony Music, Warner Bros, Nickelodeon, Disney, Apple and Critterbox toys.
But even successful artists like Jeff experience creative blocks, read on to discover how he conquers them by imagining he’s having a conversation with fictional character Tyler Durdan and find out how he kicks him into shape.
Sun and Moon
Jeff you’re the author of two books, your work has been featured in many top art magazines and you have exhibited extensively across America. Many creative people tell us they struggle staying motivated and experience creative blocks, as an establish artist how do you handle these issues?
This is a subject that I’ve talked about in my book, let me tell you how I handle it. After a solo exhibit I often feel used and abused, beat up, defeated. The months of sitting hunched over paintings working feverishly to bring life to the ideas in my head always seems to take it’s toll. The adrenaline surge of the opening and after party quickly fade and before I know it I’m on a flight home. And I’m always ready. I’m ready to abandon art for a while and hang out with my girls. I’m ready to tend to the neglected cacti garden, and in fact everything else I’ve neglected in the name of art.
It’s time to relax and get back to feeling normal again. And I do. But after a few weeks, post show depression kicks in and I start wondering if I’ve used up all my good ideas. I picture Brad Pitt (as Tyler Durden) telling me, “Well Jeffy boy, you had a good run but you’ve used up all your ideas man. You got nothing. Get the fuck off my porch!”. I always feel like that after a show. I’m done. Burnt out. Guess it’s time to start looking for a new profession.
“It sparks something in my brain and new ideas start…”
But experience has (so far) shown me that this is just an important part of my creative cycle. I’ve learned to just accept it and go with it. Before I know it, I am back drawing and something tiny yet powerful happens. It sparks something in my brain and new ideas start to filter out. Some are straight awful, but I explore them anyways. Slowly I start gaining confidence and begin to experiment. I draw a lot and make notes. As I go I pin the drawings (successful or not) onto my wall so new ideas can be interwoven and built upon them.
Jeff in his studio
To my surprise I soon have the makings for a new body of work on my wall and the cycle has started again. As I write this I am in mid-cycle. The after show bummer has been replaced with the pre-show “man, I better get painting!”. This time it was collaborations with my daughter Shannon that lifted me out of the doldrums. We’ve been working on watercolor paintings together- sometimes collaborating, sometimes working separately. Painting with a child really opened me up to the happy accidents and playfulness that I’ve forgotten about.
Most importantly though, it’s just fun. Making art for no other purpose than to make each other laugh or to tell a story feels great. It’s art at it’s purest. This book (Storm Clouds) contains work from three years and three solo shows- three cycles of ups and downs and the experiments in between. enjoy.
You mention pinning up work successful or not, how often do you find yourself failing at something or abandoning a piece of work?
All the time, most of my work starts out looking like shit. I usually keep working through it until it works out. If that means repainting it, then so be it. Failing is part of my process.
That’s true however, a lot of people still struggle with failure, so its good to have people spur you on. Did you have anyone that encouraged your career choice?
My parents were always pretty supportive, and for the most part my teachers were too. I was lucky for that, but also I really enjoyed making art my entire life so I was driven to do it for myself. I think my own desire to be an artist is the reason I’ve had some success.
You say that you had the drive which is a key factor, but did you always feel like you could make a living out of it?
It has always been hard, and I still see it as a difficult profession. Maybe in a naive way I never really questioned it, I just went for it and didn’t let rejections get in the way. Even now, I feel pretty good about what I’ve accomplished so far but I am looking to the future. I feel I’m still in the beginning to mid stages in my career, and it’s tough sometimes to move forward.
Did you set yourself a plan at the beginning of what you wanted to achieve?
When I got out of high school I didn’t have a plan at all. I had pretty horrible grades so college would have to wait. I did 6-7 years of community college which was what I needed at the time.
I never really made goals, until I decided I wanted to go to art college when I was 24. After that I would jot down ideas, plans, maybe they were goals. I used to write a lot of that stuff in my sketchbook, but last few years I’ve been keeping track of my to-do list with the computer. Other than that, I just try to make good work and keep a clear head about what I’m doing. I need to make a new list of goals… it’s on my to-do list.
Did you experience any difficulties or obstacles when you started out, how did you overcome them?
Yeah, anyone going into the creative fields will have some sort of problems. It’s the easiest thing to do, make some excuses then you don’t have to worry about it, and you don’t have to worry about failing. I never had enough money to buy paints and supplies, somehow I figured it out. I’d do without. I didn’t have a car, I rode the bus. I bought my clothes from thrift stores. I spent money on my art supplies but didn’t have much else. If you want something enough you have to make sacrifices.
Did you have any particular people who helped support and guide you in the early days?
I got excellent advice from many of my teachers, there’s a few that stand out- at RCC (Riverside Community College) it was Dayna Mason, at Art Center it was the Clayton Brothers and Alex Gross. Since school I haven’t really had any mentors but I have learned a lot from people like (Dave) Kinsey, Jonathan Levine, Mark Murphy, Jana DesForges, mostly artists and art galleries and publishers- all very creative people in their own right. The important thing is to pick and choose from the advice someone gives you.
Jeff as a child
You mention teachers, what were you like at school, did you hang with the cool kids or were you a bit of an outsider?
I was both in a way. I was in the advanced classes when I started high school, so I knew a lot of the kids doing student government and clubs and participating in sports. But I was also friends with the skater kids who were the nerds of the school. Then I got into graffiti and started meeting some of the criminals, some of the bad kids that did drugs and stole stuff. I guess I was just well connected and knew a lot of the different kids at our school, maybe cool in some people’s book, but I was mostly a dork.
Jeff Soto with fans Cassady and Jesse Kloo, Photo by Lord Jim
You studied at the Art Center College of Design, what do you think about the view taught in many creative colleges that art shouldn’t be tainted by commercialism?
Well money is intertwined with art for better or worse. That high and mighty attitude of, “I don’t want to taint my art with money” can sometimes be bullshit, but there’s something kinda nice about it too. I have split feelings on it. I know some artists who make things, experiment with art, and don’t have to rely on it for their income. They are making exactly what they want, no stress about selling work and they are happy. I think colleges should bring it up, I think it only taints your work if you let it.
Jeff with his mural on Brick Lane London
What do you think about having to sell yourself and your work?
I don’t have to worry about it as much luckily, word of mouth is a good thing. It makes me uncomfortable sometimes, and I’m slowly having galleries and others do that work for me. When I got out of college I did a lot of self promo and it worked out well. I think there’s this myth that you go through college and a gallery is going to see your work in your studio and make you this art star without you having to do anything. And maybe that does happen sometimes if you went to a very well connected graduate school, but for the majority, that’s a fairy tale. I don’t personally know a single artist that had it handed to them. Everyone works hard, does research and yeah, you have to do some self promotion. Unless like I said you’re a well connected graduate and know the right people.
How did you sell yourself and your talents in the early days when you were starting out?
Man, I tried to show in as many venues as I could. Coffee shops, stores, local art galleries, I wasn’t picky, just wanted a place to show my work. It was a slow progression. I sent out packets of photos to galleries I admired, got a lot of rejection notices, but kept at it. I tried to meet other artists too.
It’s not just about talent, its a lot to do with attitude, what type of attitude do you think it takes to be a success in this industry?
Art is a very, very tough profession. It’s easy to feel discouraged and down on your luck. I’ve done alright and I still feel like shit sometimes. Attitude is funny because you want to find that balance of feeling very comfortable with your abilities and have some confidence but also have a lot of willingness to learn. Don’t be a cocky motherfucker, be humble and listen to people. That’s something I learned, listen before speaking. And shit talking is not the best thing either. Never dis anyone unless you’re ready to back up your words with actions. My attitude has been all over the place but I always try to be respectful and cordial to everyone I meet.
Photo by Kelly Vivanco
Talking about listening, how do you handle negative feedback, and where does it normally come from?
I read a lot of blogs and online art forums, and I get a lot of positive comments and the occasional negative. Those few negative comments can be the tough ones that sit and rot in your brain for a while. Sometimes people are just trying to be critical, there have been times when I say, wow, they’re right! Sometimes the comments will make me think and I appreciate the dialogue. Usually though, people are just being rude and that anonymity of the internet protects them. I try to take criticism, both positive and negative, with a grain of salt. And I try to stay away from message boards.
What would you say are the biggest benefits of this type of life?
I get to make my own schedule; overall I have less time off but I can work whenever. There is a lot of freedom. It’s also nice to get to travel and meet a lot of very nice people. Money fluctuates quite a bit though, it can be stressful.
What are the 3 things that bring you the most happiness in your life in general?
My wife Jennifer, my daughter Shannon Daisy and my baby girl Natalie Rose
All four of us spending the day together, with no work, phone or emails to deal with.
Interview by Angel Greenham