Bill Mayer is often referred to as an ‘illustrator’s illustrator’. The originality and humour present in his work are continually borrowed and imitated by other artists. With a natural flare for assembling narratives that utilise both his playful wit and a fascination with all things macabre, Bill sucks the viewer into dark dreamlike scenarios which frequently beguile by polarizing emotions. In his personal work Mayer taps into his subconscious and thrives on nurturing a poetic language that brings together surreal elements in an unbridled union of mystery and lure. Constantly revelling in the realms of paradox and irony, the imagery that unfurls from Bill’s mind reminds us that critical thinking and logic can sometimes come unstuck, and we should always leave room to be surprised.
Bill Mayer was born in Birmingham, Alabama on 25th October, 1951 and currently lives and works in Decatur, Georgia. He studied illustration at the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Florida and has since gone on to have a illustrious career in the industry, receiving commissions from giants such as Coca Cola and DreamWorks. Mayer is also no stranger to winning awards and has been honoured numerous times over the years, this includes receiving gold and silver medals from the Society of Illustrators.
WOW x WOW is honoured to bring you this exclusive interview with Bill, in which he chats about his love for the odd and the strange, reminicses about an old childhood memory and shares his thoughts about what future working life holds for him. Enjoy!
Hey Bill! First of all, thanks very much for making the time in your busy schedule to have this little chat, we really appreciate it. To start us off, if you would please introduce yourself, touching on anything you feel relevant to story of Bill Mayer the artist?
I was born in Birmingham Alabama in 1951. My parents lived in a little house they built behind my dad’s folks house on 55 street in Woodlawn. We moved to Memphis and New York before settling in Atlanta in the early sixties. I have five brothers and sisters, we are all very close and all still live here in Atlanta area although we have grown in numbers now to 45. I think. Kind of loose track… I went to Ringling School of Art when I was 17, where I met my my wife Lee.
What does your studio look like and where is it located?
My studio is in a house in Decatur, GA. It’s east of Atlanta by about four miles. I think when students come to my studio it must seem a bit odd, filled with books and art and strange cabinets filled with collectable junk and dead things lying around. There’s a cow head on the wall behind me with a Varsity hat and a chain of oval carabiners around his neck like a gold chain. There’s a stuffed dog on the floor and the head of a seal next to it. We were convinced for a while this house was haunted, although I have not seen or felt any ghosts for a long time.
Tell us something about the formal training you received and what impact it had on steering you in the right direction?
Ringling gave me really strong foundation in drawing and painting. Although at the time I hated school and the first year I freelanced a lot of my work to other students. The second and third year I did start doing my own work more. I think the one true thing art schools teach you is how to see. I think you certainly are exposed to a world of art you never knew existed. Ringling had access to the Ringling Museum as well. One of the best collections of Rococo and Baroque art this side of Italy.
As both an illustrator and a fine artist, do you compartmentalise these as two separate aspects of your creative output, or do you feel that these terms are redundant and that the word ‘artist’ sufficiently encompasses what you do? What are your thoughts?
I don’t really think of myself as a ‘fine artist’. Seems a bit uppity and high-brow. I love to scribble on paper. I love working in collaboration with a creative team. Solving visual problems, conceptually and in a visually pleasing way. In between the illustration assignments I always experiment with new directions. Almost always with the intent of using those directions for future assignments. Only recently have I started showing some of the pieces in gallery shows like BLAB!
Please give us some insight into your fine art process. From following you on social media it appears that you live with your works in various stages of incompletion for some time, and have no problems revisiting them and painting over beautifully rendered areas. Do you feel that not being precious about anything you’ve spent time creating is key to the development of an image? Guide us through your creative though process.
For me, the most important element of the painting is the concept. The medium you use is just a way of furthering that original concept or finding some elements that add an intelligence to the work.
Most of the time I start with small thumbnails which help me sort out the basic visual. a starting place. It probably comes from years of commercial work where you have to show your ideas before you start on a piece. I don’t hold anything I do that precious that it can’t be made better by changing it. Sometimes I will pull a piece of acetate over a painting and try to figure out what was bothering me and try a few things. Sometimes I will scan them in and use Photoshop, try some things, then go back and paint that way. I wish I trusted my instincts more and just let it flow. When that happens it’s like magic.
Many of your personal works have a habit of steering into darker territory. Your wonderful ‘Strange Dreams’ series is a testament to this. For someone as fun loving as yourself, what is it that compels you to venture down dark paths when you pick up a paint brush? Tell us about some of the current themes that you’re having fun exploring.
I have always been attracted to that line between humor and horror from an early age. It’s an irony that has flowed through my work over the years. Humor was always present and even in those ‘Strange Dreams’ it’s present under the surface. About four years ago we had some personal tragedy in our family that shook us pretty soundly, I guess after that the dark stuff just came a bit to the top. I think it’s the perception that the more realistic style gives, rather than the subject matter. It’s really my same sick sense of humor I have always had; Like, ‘taking a cheese-grater to the butt as a way to lose weight’ humor. Drawn in a sketchbook with simple lines it’s funny. Painted realistically… A little creepy.
You make references to different periods of history within the ‘Strange Dreams’ series, either through setting, scenario or clothing. Are you particularly fascinated by history? Do you have any favourite periods you’d like to tell us about?
I have always been drawn to the odd and strange. We live in an old Victorian house in Decatur. It’s filled with an eclectic collection of dead things and artefacts. Lee and I have been collecting from the time we met at art school. There used to be a strange little shop in New York on 31 street between 6th and 7th ave. It was a glass eye sales and taxidermy rental. On one side, cases of eyes staring out at you, and on the other, two headed cows and animated stuffed kittens playing instruments. And near Mexico Beach Florida there was a place called Rocky’s Indian Museum. Side show freaks and siamese twin dummies. Nazi war villains lined up in coffins, and a mummified Indian layout on the table… shrunken heads hanging from a bar in the broken juke box…We’ve always been drawn to that carnival freak show atmosphere.
Your paintings are so full of such beautiful observations and lush detail. What do you use in the way of reference to help you achieve this?
I am drawn to traditional paintings from the romantic period. Partially because I find it an interesting paradox between the humorous and sometimes creepy subject matter. Actually I don’t find them that creepy but I have heard enough other people say it, so I have come to accept it.
You are not only a master with a paint brush, as you make great use of computer technology, most notably for much of your illustration work and also your fabulous ‘Demented Little Beasties’ series. What do you enjoy about working this way? You’ve also mentioned that you sometimes utilise computer technology on your hand painted work. Can you talk a little about this and what inspires you to combine the two in the ways you do?
The computer is just another tool in your arsenal. With illustration work everything has to be delivered digitally, so it was certainly mandatory that you learn to use it. Almost all of the work I produce starts off in traditional medium. Photoshop is a great tool for retouching, editing, or even creating images for clients. And it sometimes comes in handy when I am not sure where a painting is going or what it needs. I will scan it in and try some things digitally, then go back and change the paintings. When I first started playing around with the gouache paintings, sometimes I would change them and add elements in to make them conceptually stronger. I never really thought about it, it’s the way I have been doing my editorial work.
In order to get a better understanding of the personality of an artist, it can help to get a peek behind the curtain. Would you be willing to share a story from your own life, one, which you feel, has contributed to shaping the person and therefore the artist you are today?
When I was five years old, we were living in Memphis and Mom and Dad dropped my brother and I at a matinee one Saturday afternoon. Probably needed a little alone time. I remember they took me and my little brother Bob, (he was four) in to the theater and sat us in our seats and told us when the movie was over not to leave and they would be back to pick us up. The movie was ‘The Fly’ with Vincent Price. Still a fright-night classic. “Help me! Help me!” the little white headed fly would beg. “Don’t let him eat me!” I still remember that so clearly. After the movie, all of the people in the theater got up and left, and we filed out right behind them and started wandering around downtown Memphis. Some nice man talked to us and took us into a drug store and sat us by the soda fountain and bought a couple of sodas. I don’t really remember how they located our parents but I do remember a rather panicked reunion.
If you could own one piece of art from the world’s collections, what would it be?
‘The Girl in the Pearl Earring’ by Vermeer. I saw that beautiful little paining in The National Gallery. That or an original ‘Big Daddy Roth’. ‘Ratfink’. Not sure, kind of close… Yes, the Vermeer will do nicely.
What’s next for Bill Mayer?
I get bored pretty quickly and I am surprised at how long I have spent doing these little gouache paintings. Might be time to break out the art school oils and try to get a little richer color and depth in the work.
When I started working on the gouache paintings, I experimented with different papers and sizes. A lot of the time I would scan them in and add textures or even add conceptual elements to them. The more recent paintings have been almost exclusively gouache, very little editing digitally.
I was always thinking about this as a direction for my illustration. A way to expand to a different type of assignment work. I read something recently that Sam Weber said in an interview. Of the first couple of dry years, Sam said that it was only when he shifted his subject matter to be more accessible that he became popular. He likened it to two slightly overlapping circles. In one is the work you like to do. The other contains what people want.
This got me thinking about the subjects I have been painting. Expanding toward a more usable subject. We’ll see where that goes. There was also a great lecture Milton Glaser gave about the fear of failing. Failing is how we grow as artists. The path to success as an illustrator may be to do one thing/style/brand, and promote just that one style. The problem with this is that clients keep coming back to you to have you illustrate in proximity of something you have done before. This ‘Success’ model may be in contradiction to what makes you successful as an artist. Don’t be afraid to try new things and fail at what you’re doing. You learn from your failures. I think I grow most as an artist in my personal work.