|THE OPENING is all about delving into the fascinating, quirky and wonderful visual arts in Vancouver. Each week we’ll feature an artist, cover an exhibition, discuss a lecture and everything else in-between to delve deep into who and what makes art happen!|
I met up with Todd Francis on the last morning of Knowshow, where he was working on a long scroll drawing of pigeons doing dirty things. Grappling over a grimy sock, pecking at spilled pharmaceuticals, or waddling away with a medical syringe under one wing, they were comical in their sheer hopelessness and yet poignant in the context of marginalized urban areas, such as Vancouver’s own Pigeon Park. This, I learned, was Francis’ signature approach: dark humour served up with serious social awareness at the core.
Like the characters that embody it, Francis’ work is strong in its gutsiness and adaptability. With subject matter ranging from warming oceans and flooded ecosystems to cops getting their faces bitten off by their own dogs, it’s funny, irreverent, and darkly serious all at once, tapping into the underlying cultural anxiety that occupies these near-apocalyptic times.
Francis was easygoing and friendly to everyone who approached him as he worked and didn’t even bat an eye when somebody accidentally knocked a (thankfully sealed) bottle of Smirnoff Ice onto a stack of his drawings. With a lack of immediate seating around, we got comfortable on the floor and talked about his motivations, activism, and artistic process.
Vancouver Is Awesome: Tell me about how you got started doing what you do.
Todd Francis: I guess I’m best known for skateboard graphics. I got out of college with a studio art degree — you know, classically trained, painting and drawing, that sort of thing. I knew that was the only thing I was really good at. I moved to San Francisco and started doing horrible jobs to pay the bills and started hunting around for some kind of way to make a living doing art. I heard about an entry-level job at a really highly regarded skateboard company called Deluxe — the best skateboard company in San Francisco. I did well enough during that interview to get the job, and never looked back.
That was in the early 90s. I’ve been doing skateboard graphics ever since then.
VIA: The job you applied for was specifically for graphics?
TF: Yeah, you know, it was sort of like being a graphics gopher. It was doing the dirty work that the other artists didn’t want to do. The fortunate thing was that the art department there was small. There were only three or four people there so that ladder wasn’t the longest ladder. The separation between the art monkey, which is what I was, and the art director was only a couple of steps. With attrition being what it is, and the skateboard industry back then not really being particularly glamorous or highly regarded, people moved on to other things and the next think you know, a year and a half later, I was the art director there. It was a long time before I finally moved on as well. That was the start.
VIA: Such a quick move is usually unheard of.
TF: If you compare it in terms of Hollywood or something, well, yeah — if you’re getting coffee for Mr. Spielberg one year, you wouldn’t find yourself directing a movie a year and a half later. The stakes are a lot different too. It’s not like the skateboard industry is this mecca of riches where people line up from all around the world to make it big in board graphics. It’s an unusual little world unto itself. Especially then — I mean, skateboarding is a lot bigger now than it was back then. Everybody else that I knew thought of me as working an unusual job as opposed to the dream job that people might think that doing skateboard graphics now might be.
VIA: Was this career path always attractive to you?
TF: Well, I grew up skateboarding in Venice, CA, but the reason I got into doing what I do wasn’t because I was good on a skateboard. It was because I wanted to do art and had enough experience. I college, I worked for the daily newspaper. I was doing art for them on a daily basis. That was a great bit of job training because you were producing on deadlines every day, you worked really hard, and you were working with ideas, political ideas. Your interests became very broad and diverse, and you could apply that knowledge to creating graphics. Especially in skateboarding, where there are no real rules about content — there are no forbidden subjects. My background in being diverse and interested in politics informed me in that, and I guess it kept me around for this long. You get really adaptable and able to work in many styles and media while also being really serious, or funny, or mean, or empty, or whatever the moment calls for.
VIA: I noticed that in your previous work, there seems to be a lot of environmental destruction and animals that live in urban environments that thrive through doing depraved or indulgent human things. What sort of frame of mind do you have when you’re making these works?
TF: The pigeon is more of the anti-hero — it’s bleak, cruel, and morbidly funny. It’s more of an urban statement than it is a far-reaching environmental message. It winds up more being a message about the homeless, or a cruel joke on the urban downtrodden and the desperation and sadness. It’s meant to be dark-funny.
The environmental stuff is a little more sober — it’s not meant to necessarily be slap-your-knee funny. It’s more about drawing attention to these issues, which are a big concern and passion of mine. I return right back to environmentalism pretty frequently; when I’m running out of ideas, I always come back to that because there are so many different ways you can conjugate that interestingly. It’s not a problem that’s going away at all. It’s always timely.
VIA: It’s all the more pertinent now because there seems to be an underlying anxiety about climate change, especially when we can clock it in our own recent experiences. People can’t really deny that these changes are happening anymore.
TF: And yet they do! I don’t know if you get the same sort of deniers here as we do in the US, but there are always the same officials and networks that stick to their guns when it comes to denying global warming and that sort of thing.
I feel like it’s always going to be a timely discussion. It’s not always what people want to look at, but I’ve never really been into crowd-pleasing art.
VIA: How is the art community in LA?
TF: You know, I don’t really feel like I’m part of a community there. I sit at a home studio and work every day and night. The community that I’ve found is in skateboarding; it’s not really in a true studio art community. I’ve got friends in the industry who have crossed the line: these people who are fine artists who do screen prints and original work and art shows and that sort of thing. I don’t have friends in LA who are artists. The friends that I have are from the skateboard industry or neighbourhood friends that have nothing to do with art or skateboarding or anything, and don’t understand any of it.
Part of it is the side of town that I live in. Venice is not cheap; there aren’t artist lofts all over the place where you are part of a physical community. You may very well have that here. There are parts of Echo Park, Silver Lake, downtown, where space is still available and the price isn’t so prohibitive. The west side, which is Venice and Santa Monica, doesn’t really support that because it’s expensive.
It’s not like I feel like I’m some outsider, but it’s not a big part of my life. I’m not going to openings and shows on a nightly basis — there was a time in my life where I did, but now I think I’m a little set in my ways. I don’t do that so much. I’m just trying to hunker down and meet deadlines.
VIA: What’s your process for coming up with new ideas?
TF: With board graphics, a lot of the time it’s just sitting around, thinking of something funny. Sometimes it’s just thinking about something that’s horrible — something you want to attack. You think about targets, and the enemy. I read the newspaper every day and that gets me heated up. It’s a matter of channeling that anger and frustration at the world into an idea.
It’s a pretty simple process, you know. There’s no mystique to it. I just think about what’s entertaining, what’s funny, what’s mean, what’s interesting, and write it down. Staying informed tends to fuel that. There’s too much going on to not be inspired by that, you know?
VIA: What’s in store in the future?
TF: As disappointing as it will sound, I don’t really plan on the future so well. I get caught up in the ideas that I have in front of me, and what I’m having fun with, and what’s working and what’s not visually. I’m perfectly happy doing board graphics after all these years. It’s what I’m known for, and it’s really fun. The process of coming up with new ideas for it is hilarious. There’s no shortage of good ideas with that in mind. So I’m not going anywhere. I just need to be smart and become more of a studio artist as well so I can concurrently have both things going.
A lot of people have used skateboarding as a springboard; a lot of people have left it behind, but that doesn’t interest me. I enjoy it too much — it’s still a great challenge.
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