The magical swashbuckling adventure world in evidence within the paintings created by Deth P. Sun, is largely brought to life through his passion for history, the natural world and the small circulation self-published works that we know as zines. Having developed a unique and distinctively masterful grasp of linear brushwork, which is coupled with richly intuitive colour palettes, Deth’s visual aesthetic owes much to the language of the comic book image, and retains much of its deceptive simplicity. Narratives are suggested via Deth’s supernatural and anthropomorphised characters who appear to be lead by a central protagonist; a cat, who provides us with a genderless hero (or anti-hero) of no specific race, onto whom we can project our own meanings, and from whom we can derive our individual connotations and connections.
Deth P. Sun is an artist who originally hails from San Diego and is currently living and working in Fort Bragg, California. He studied for two years at San Francisco State University, until he transferred to the California College of Arts and Crafts, where he received his BFA in 2002 in Painting and Drawing. Deth has now been exhibiting his artwork for over a decade, and has seen it hanging in venues such as San Francisco Arts Commission, The Leeds College of Art and The Oakland Museum of California.
WOW x WOW caught up with Deth for a chat, with the hope to peel back the layers of his wordless storytelling. Read on to learn what we discovered.
Hi Deth! Thanks ever so much for freeing up some of your valuable time to have this wee chat with us, we really appreciate it. To start us off, if you would please introduce yourself, touching on anything you feel relevant to the story of Deth P. Sun the artist?
I’m an artist that lives in California. I exhibit a lot of work, and I do illustration jobs and make zines. I don’t really have a crazy backstory to any of that stuff to make my work any more interesting than anyone else’s. My parents were refugees, and they weren’t really good at communicating with me because they were from a very different place, so growing up I ended up using art as a way of getting by with things. But I grew up in San Diego, which is like the nicest place for a kid to grow up, so although I kept to myself I made friends quite easily when I had to be social.
We’re interested to hear about where you’re currently living and what you like about the area? What is the art scene like there and do you feel a part of that community?
I live in Fort Bragg, it’s a small seaside town in Mendocino County in Northern California. It’s tiny for me, but it’s big enough to not feel entirely isolated. I didn’t particularly want to know anyone, but it’s a pretty small town so it’s kind of unavoidable. The town is known for it’s wood working school, so I know a few wood workers, and my neighbour is pretty involved with art things, and I screen print with a friend at his studio that’s just around the corner from where I live. I don’t do the art walk, or try having shows in town, though, but they do have one here and in the village of Mendocino.
Do you remember the first piece of art you ever sold? How did the sale come about and how did it make you feel?
My first show that I sold artwork at was at a non-profit in San Francisco called Southern Exposure when I was 20. I sold most of my paintings at that show but I never met a buyer. I don’t remember caring so much about sales because for the most part I didn’t worry about money back then (life was great without student loan debt, and I was 20). I think I was more amazed I got a wall to myself and there was an opening with a bunch of people I didn’t know.
As an artist whose work contains a strong narrative element, can you let us in on what initially got you interested in visual storytelling? Also, what would you say are some of the most important ingredients that go into making a successful visual narrative?
I developed an interest in romantic paintings, and I like to think in my weird way I’m continuing along that line. I never sat down to think what makes a successful visual narrative, so I don’t really know. I like to add little things, but to not straight up tell someone a story. I kind of like a bit of mystery. Allegorical paintings aren’t my jam.
The characters in your imagery are often participating in adventures taking place in the great outdoors; plants, water, caves and mountains all feature heavily. What are some of the earliest memories you have, which contributed to forming the foundation of your lifelong passion for, and interest in wildlife?
Well, growing I never did that much nature stuff, so I mostly just daydreamed about it. To be honest I don’t really like camping, but I do like traveling and seeing other bits of nature. A lot of the visual stuff is mostly from me reading books, or visiting botanical gardens, and having friends with strange interests. A lot of the interests I have are from me developing a world for my paintings to live in, so I don’t know what came first the interest in nature or me having to creating the world to put in the paintings.
Talk to us about the supernatural aspects of your narratives. Where does your inspiration for these stem from?
I never really thought that was a weird thing to be into, so to think about this sort of stufft is sort of normal among my friends. I don’t believe in magic, or Gods, or any of the other stuff, but I like reading up on the history of things, and where these beliefs come from. I like history a lot, and the belief in the supernatural is an important part of most cultures that in some way it’s not that hard to have that sort of stuff in a person’s thoughts.
As a visual artist, can you shed some light on some of the most important inspirations and influences on your work that aren’t visual?
Maybe a clean house? I don’t know how to answer a question like that. I could say music, but that would be a lie. I can only paint if things around me are holding pretty steady, like if I’m clean, or after eating a good breakfast, or if my workspace is tidy. Probably the lamest answer ever.
Some of your paintings are made up of collections of characters, objects, memorabilia, etc. Are you a collector of anything yourself?
Books and zines, I guess. I sometimes will inadvertently start a collection but then I’ll get rid of it all because I like the idea of not owning too many things. My mom learned English using Richard Scarry books and when I was little I would go through and draw all the objects out of them. When I got a bit older one of my art projects was going through an encyclopaedia and trying to draw everything in it. It was just an exercise for when I didn’t know what to draw, so that’s where that type of painting comes from.
Would you say that the interpretations viewers offer about your work ever end up influencing what you produce? What are your thoughts about the dialogue and conversation cycle which is created between the artist and viewer?
The answer to the first question is ‘no’. To be honest I don’t really like learning what people think of my work most of the time. I just like living in my bubble and making things. I mean, I’m just not that kind of artist. I think the world can have many types of artists, and I’m in that group who just wants to drop off and not care about any of that stuff.
A little side story, though: A while back I was Googling my name and a blog post came up where they were talking about how my food paintings were probably a commentary on how people use food in a bad way to cope with things, and then I was like, “Whoa, they got it”. A few months later one of those food paintings got accepted to be exhibited in the new wing of a hospital and one of the people putting that thing together told a friend of mine how they thought it might send the wrong message being in a hospital hallway, but they just went with it.
We sometimes ask an artist if they’ve ever felt under any pressure to keep painting in the style they have become known for. Having exhibited your work for a number of years now, how have you seen your art evolve during this time and have you ever felt any of this pressure?
No, I don’t really ever feel pressured to do anything. The style that I draw and paint in is just me, it’s just what I’ve always been painting like, and it does evolve, and it does so quite naturally. Painting, to me, involves a lot of problem solving, which keeps me interested in it. It’s a pretty straightforward problem I have, which is, ‘how to make a decent painting’. Or working within certain restrictions, or using a different colour, or filling up a show.
But another thing, is that I don’t really see anything wrong with a person drawing the same stuff over and over again. It’s not my place to lay judgement on anyone. It’s just art.
What do you do to relax and take a break from painting?
Painting is kind of the relaxing part of my life. I take a lot of naps or listen to music with headphones on in the dark, and I like to take long walks when there’s sunlight.
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, possibly one who’s memory you find yourself returning to for inspiration, or maybe just a tale about a hardship you’ve overcome which has helped define the person and therefore artist that you are now?
I wish I could answer this question but my story is very unremarkable. Like I said earlier my parents were refugees and they went through a lot and that made things a little rough when I was younger, but it wasn’t anything too crazy to over come. I just moved upstate when I got into college. I did go through a bit of trouble and self-searching like anyone else, but I think a lot of that just lead me to escape into making art because it’s the only way I know how to really connect to people. In the end, though, if I wasn’t so alone when I was a kid I probably wouldn’t have drawn as much, and because I drew so much it made it easier to make the kind of friends I made. Pretty much after leaving my hometown everything in life sort of just fell in my lap from the life I lead to doing art as a living.
If you could own any piece of art from the world’s collections, what would it be and why?
There’s a copy of ‘Bleak House’ that Edward Gorey illustrated that I’ve been trying to get a hold of for a while. The other book is ‘The Hobbit’ illustrated by Tove Jannson but that’s in Finnish and the likelihood of finding that is pretty slim.
What’s next for Deth P. Sun?
New York for an art show, Portland for a zine fair, hopefully a productive summer working on stuff. I have three zines that I’m working on, so hopefully I’ll finish one or two of them.