Inside The Mind Of Chris Sickles.
Intro and Interview Adam Fitzgerald IMAGES Red Nose Studios
On several platforms to the left are dozens upon dozens of little people, congregating en masse with smiles and frowns and looks of fear and awe frozen on their tiny, oddly-shaped faces. Their arms and legs are strewn about in various states of suspended animation—grasping, clawing, running, and stumbling about. It's a village made up of frozen moments in time—characters that have been plucked from their scenes and relegated to a life on the shelf until their puppet master calls on them again for duty, or perhaps just a piece of them. This is the studio of Chris Sickels, the illustrative artist whose medium takes the form of peculiarly stylistic characters that are freakish in the most endearing and fantastical way. You can't help but want to examine each one of them and learn their back story—or make up your own—then see them come to life at the hands of the master. To date, Chris has created character illustrations and environments for clients such as Microsoft, Target, Kraft, Nickelodeon, Fast Company, WIRED, and dozens more. Here, we get to know the man behind the curtain, talk about his roots, building tabletop motorcycles, and secret subways.
Who is Chris Sickels, and how would you describe your type of work?
I am a farm boy through and through. Born in Indiana and raised on a small family dairy farm of about 500 acres. I’ve moved around a bit and we have since settled back in Indiana. I’m a freelance illustrator, though I create images a little non-traditionally.
Have you always wanted to be an artist?
I grew up not really realizing that being an artist was a viable option. I had a magical art teacher in Junior High and High School, Teri Martin. She instilled a solid foundation in art and pushed me to realize my potential. She personally drove me to regional art schools for portfolio reviews and let me see that getting into a school with a scholarship was doable. Without her, I would be digging ditches somewhere today.
Were your parents artistic as well?
My mom always had a steady hand and patience. Art was something she always enjoyed—taking me to museums and buying me books. She paints regularly now and I love seeing her grow through that passion. I just felt that we kids held her back when she was dedicated to raising us right as a single mother.
My father is a guy that makes due with what he’s got. This come through from his father’s generation. My grandfather could fix just about anything with wire and I remember him closing out a long day on the farm by spending time to straighten the bent nails he collected in the pocket of his bib overalls throughout the day.
I often say that art comes in many forms, not just painting and drawing, etc. So it sounds like you’ve drawn inspiration from many aspects of your family.
Stuff that I hated as a kid I now see the value in. I always felt that having limited resources was a disadvantage. Now in my mature years, I see that I was dead wrong about that.
Your work and style are so unique. Who did you draw your early inspiration from?
My sophomore year at The Art Academy of Cincinnati, an instructor, Paige Williams, brought in a documentary on Alexander Calder and his Circus. This was an absolute turning point—showing me that making art can be fun and didn’t have to follow all the pretentious B.S. that runs like a river through the art school system.
Then there was the time after school while working as an art handler at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati. I assisted on an installation of the work of Tim Hawkinson. He was there for the installation as a lot of it was site-specific. Again this was a point where I saw that art didn’t have to follow the rules of work on a tightly prepped canvas, and couple that with the fact that he was a down to earth worker getting in there with his hands and not just directing us around. Truly made you feel that you could one day make it to where he was. He just worked and worked hard. Still does.
A lot of art comes down to just hard work and disobeying rules, I guess. At what point was it that made you think, “I might be able to make a run at this art thing”?
It wasn’t a specific point but lots of little nudges—folks telling me to keep pushing the work, to chase it and not settle. When I am asked what I wish I had known as a student, I tell them the fact that I was naive enough to think I could "make it" played a big part. If I was smarter or had better foresight, I probably would have given up. I think there is a lot to be said for not overthinking what you are doing and just get down to chasing it. Especially today in this world that’s obsessed with "likes."
Where did the name Red Nose Studio come from?
In the early days, I worked under the name Chris Sickels Illustration. When I started to develop the three-dimensional work, I felt like that name was pigeon-holing me a bit. I can remember driving through an area of downtown Cincinnati early in my career and seeing a few photo studios on the same street. Each of the studios had the name of the owner followed by "photography" on their front door. It was then that I saw that having a studio name would allow me to let the work be its own thing separate from my personal name. I had it down to two choices: Corn Fed Boy Studio or Red Nose Studio. Most of my characters had a bit of a rosey nose, so it made sense that Red Nose Studio be the appropriate choice.
I love that. Your work alone sets you apart, but the name doesn't hurt either. Can you talk about The Secret Subway project?
The Secret Subway is a children’s book that I Illustrated. It was written by Shana Corey and published this March by Schwartz and Wade of Random House.
Here is a snippet about the book:
"New York City in the 1860s was a mess: crowded, disgusting, filled with garbage. You see, way back in 1860, there were no subways, just cobblestone streets. That is, until Eli Beach had the idea for a fan-powered train that would travel underground. Fifty-eight days of drilling and painting and plastering later, Beach unveiled his masterpiece on February 26, 1870--and throngs of visitors took turns swooshing down the track. This true story by Shana Corey and a New York Times Best Illustrated artist, Red Nose Studio, will wow readers just as Beach's subway wowed riders over a century ago."
Beach wanted to build this large pneumatic tunnel to move his subway underground – which hadn’t been done before. He knew the powers that be wouldn’t approve, so he said he was going to build a pneumatic tunnel to move mail. When he got approval, he took some liberties and made his subway tunnel without folks knowing about it.
As soon as I read Shana’s manuscript, I was hooked. Beach’s grit and determination was a big pull for me especially with today’s kids and parents (including me) being obsessed with doing stuff correctly and not making mistakes.
Walk me through your process for starting a project like The Secret Subway.
The books are a bit more involved than typical single image illustration. Those are the bulk of what I create, where I have about four to eight days to complete. With The Secret Subway I became obsessed with the research, not only about Beach and his ideas, plans and patents, but also the time period—how people dressed, lived, got around and what their world looked and felt like.
From the initial research to sketching, creating dummy books and several revisions to the drawing and then the building of the characters, props and sets, lighting and photography, to the handing in of the final illustrations, it generally takes twelve months. This is while folding other work in the schedule to keep work moving through.
So the majority of your work now comes from single image illustrative pieces? Can you talk about a piece that you are really endeared to?
There is a piece for a short story called "Hero of the Five Points," by Alan Gratz. It's a rollicking short adventure set in 1853, following Dalton Dent as he tracks down the foul creature known as Mose (think Gangs of New York era).
What sort of raw materials are you using? I saw you using old cereal boxes for train cars in one piece. Can you share some of your go-to or makeshift supplies?
The lo-tech polymer clay, Sculpey, is a great medium for faces. I have grown accustomed to its ease of addition and subtractive manipulation and its quick bake times. Wire armatures keep things basic and fast, allowing me to work with tight deadlines and still have a bit of flexibility in posting in the final shot. Acrylic and gouache [paints] are both fast and allow me to build up layers that keep the surfaces painterly and less doll like. I am drawn to the high thread count of vintage scarves for creating the costumes, and a set of cheap dental tools that I picked up in New Orleans, coupled with some homemade brass devices, are my preferred sculpting tools.
What are you drawing inspiration from currently? What’s the juice that gets Chris Sickel's brain going?
People always feed my visual vocabulary, always trying to find faces that I can capture. Also motion and gesture. That’s the stuff that can quickly get lost in creating work in 3D, where you can get lost in the details and lose sight of the overall composition. My work seems to gravitate to stories of adventure, travel, exploration, flight, and curious venturing, be it a fella trying to learn to fly by sewing a suit that looks like clouds and leaping into the air with a feather in each hand while watching pigeons.
Then there is the moto stuff, where we (my son and I) collaborated on a fantastical contraption to create a land speed bike (a model of course). Taking that curiosity and living an adventure vicariously through the art-making process. Unbeknownst to us, it became a bonding experience between father and son that we didn’t really anticipate.
That project really intrigued me. I saw some of the process shots online, and it was even more of a reason I wanted to talk to you. How did it come to life? Did you invent a narrative with your son, or was there some other impetus for its creation?
I had created a couple other moto-inspired pieces and they generally are started by a model that I find at a thrift shop. Lead Sled started out with a partial model kit of a Harley WLA-45 that had been lying around the studio for a couple years. We had watched The World’s Fastest Indian together and had seen a bit about the journey of the present day land speed car, Bloodhound, and before we knew it we were drawing ideas of what we could build.
Not being a commission, we could take our time letting the piece simmer. It was a chance to teach him a bit about soldering and kitbashing. We talked about the character and what his motivation would be and if he would survive the "run." We had fun coming up with his head design, making it feel like he was built to fit inside the machine and the machine built to fit him.
Whoa. What is kitbashing? That sounds like fun.
It’s where you take [model] kits and mix parts up to create something unpredictable. In this case, the casing of the bike is made of airplane parts.
So it’s like a few steps up from Legos, and a few steps down from cobbling together an actual motorcycle. I love it.
Yeah, tabletop motorcycles.
Any advice for artists who want to break into this field? Words of wisdom you can leave us with?
This field is a wobbly one. Even after my 21 years in it, I am still plagued with insecurities and doubts. Confidence is crucial. Creating and promoting work that you are passionate about rather than promoting work you are initially hired for plays a big part in the work that will eventually come your way. Being nice is a constant theme I hear and agree with. Continually pushing your work with enthusiasm and curiosity is essential, too.