Needless to say we’re a big fan of KBANKS at PUZL (full disclosure, he is a frequent regular in our publication). This Massachusetts based illustrator has done his damage in both corporate and independent settings as an accomplished Creative Director. I first met KBANKS while working at the Boston Phoenix. He was making headway with well orchestrated art direction that tried to undermine the boring restrictive nature of its’ facilitators. It was there I came across his personal work, and was swiftly drawn into his weirdly playful environments and dark abstract characters.
Since then we’ve continued finding ways to work together, and when possible we grab a beer and share a few tall tales. It is that the story telling element within his work that directly exposes itself to a range of interpretation and thus draws its audience deeper into the world of KBANKS.
I got to catch up with KBANKS over the phone last week to talk about work, life, and delve a little deeper into his past:
About a year ago, I was the Art Director at a well-known media company in Boston that suffered a slow death over a roughly 3-year period, eventually shutting down completely. I was on board for six years and for a long time I really cared about the company, especially the young people starting out and how we all inspired each other to bring our A-game, while getting the job done. As the economic downturn worsened, creativity went out the window fast, design department budgets were cut, knives plunged into backs, and all levels of staff were jumping ship on a near weekly basis never to be replaced. When the company did fold it was a bitter-sweet relief.
For many of us it was a welcome time for a new direction: I have been teaching design in a graduate program at a university downtown for three years and find it very rewarding. I landed some contract work via faculty connections and combined with my larger clients was able to upgrade the Claymore Design Group to a full time endeavor. We produce a basic collection of bread & butter advertising or marketing design for companies that need to inject fresh creative into new or existing aspects of their company. I typically have a brief conversation with the client and later in the day send an idea for the AD to work with. Ultimately I provide files that they can implement across various platforms in-house. It’s not complicated but it all happens very quickly.
Last winter about a decade after my last gallery show, I purchased a pair of glasses and started illustrating again. Maybe to see if I still could or maybe to stay busy during a very long winter? I don’t know. I definitely needed a break from the corporate PDF shooting galleries — and now find the tactile ‘analog’ approach of paper and a pencil sharpener a welcome respite from spending 60 hours a week staring at my MacBook.
I began in Boston as an illustrator many years ago before hitting the Art Director beat. It felt really good to return to that era and visual playground where the assignments and the awards stacked up fast. I was raised on a steady diet of Edward Gorey, Mad Magazine, The Clash, Ralph Steadman, and cartoons from Playboy Magazines. I studied illustration at SVA and developed an editorial style that could swing in numerous directions; I could use humor, satire, or be a wise-guy toeing the delicate line of agitation. That kind of creative freedom had been squashed for too many years in my subsequent Art Director roles. I felt like I had suddenly exited some drab art directors subway line that only travelled in wide slow circles over and over — and was finally enjoying myself again while illustrating at night and doing design by day. Coupled with the fact that I was home a lot more getting to play with my kids when I wanted, take them to school, and pitching in more with running a household. I also trimmed my social calendar drastically. Stopped ‘having drinks’ with people that bring nothing to the table and spent a few months offline to detox from Facebook.
I started going to museums again, studying classic films again and reading a lot more. Most importantly: I started connecting and collaborating with people who I wanted to work with on independent projects as opposed to the coworkers that I had to work with in my past. Granted, I learned a lot from those in-house experiences and am very excited to be putting that knowledge to use on my own projects on my own terms.
Good ideas started coming. What kind of ideas? Well, the fun stuff that I never had time for and some new revenue generators as well. Besides illustrating, freelancing for cool clients, teaching, mentoring students – I started writing again. Mainly short stories about what where very colorful times spent living in The School of Visual Arts (SVA) dorm in Manhattan circa 1985-1988. This content has become the basis for several of my new projects. The most visible being the SLOANE comics online that you can find each Friday on this PUZL site. It’s not the type of content I’d want my mother reading because these are true stories of my friends and I during our college years in NYC in the late 80s. Yes, it gets raunchy and smoke-filled, obviously. (See Q&A below for details) Let’s just say that I’m glad there was no internet in the late ‘80s for footage of these depraved shenanigans to go viral on. If there was, I’d probably still be in an upstate prison with a gray ‘80s haircut listening to Killing Joke albums.
Now for the really tough questions…
PUZL: WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON CURRENT SOCIAL MEDIA TRENDS?
KBANKS: Everything in moderation. Like many people, I’ve learned how to use it gently to market myself and remain wary of it at the same time. I find it valuable as a collaborative communications tool: Staying in touch with idea people, shooting concepts back and forth, etc. IMO, the bulk of the ‘social’ aspect stanks of illusion, fiction, and recycled drama. Note: If you read social media as if it were a big city newspaper circa 1950s – it makes a lot more sense. Try it.
PUZL: TALK A LITTLE ABOUT SLOANE, ITS ROOTS, AND LIVING IN MANHATTAN IN THE 80S.
KBANKS: I moved in at 19 and spent three years living in ‘Sloane House’ which was a 15-story YMCA located on 34th & 9th Ave in NYC. Schools in the area would house students there and call it their ‘dorm.’ SVA had floors 8, 9, and 10. Parsons had 6 and 7, and F.I.T had a few floors. I remember being told that the only rule was that they didn’t allow fighting. You could do… What. Ever. You. Wanted. But just don’t fight or you would be evicted. It should be mentioned that the rooms were very small and everybody had their own 7×10 foot room, adding to the level of intimacy and drama. No surprise that the parties were non-stop and live bands could play in the hallways or function rooms on the second floor. Smoking weed in the lobby was called a ‘social club’ and throwing large objects out of the windows on to parked cars on 33rd street was a sport. When it was warm we would party all night and pass-out on the roof like cats.
The school was located over on the East Side and it felt very much like they didn’t want to know what went on at the dorm: With hundreds and hundreds of young, broke, art students living in the small quarters of a post-punk chamber of sex & drugs. It all got weird pretty fast but we liked it that way. Each floor smelled completely different and a bit rancid. Most notably: the 5th floor was housing for transients and section 8 elderly citizens. They would sometimes die in their rooms and it took a while for them to be removed. Sometimes we would spot one being wheeled off the elevator and out the lobby side door. Security had a code: a dead body was referred to as a “Vincent van Gogh.”
NYC in the ‘80s was a filthy, slutty, dangerous, hilarious, and drug-addled urban addiction — I loved it. I’m using these themes to tell stories of the Sloane dorm experience through the eyes of a 19-year old from the suburbs of Boston living in a city for the first time with a collection of art-school delinquents. The Sloane series is a dingy and sloppy Photoshop production, and the hook is that all of the events depicted actually happened. I’m in touch with a handful of people that also lived in Sloane, so I can mine additional perspectives and recollections of notable events to write about.
PUZL: WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST SHOW? ARE YOU PLANNING TO PUT THE NEW ILLUSTRATION WORK IN A SHOW?
KBANKS: The first solo exhibit I ever had was in a dive bar called DELUX in Boston’s South End. I think it was 1996. It was so much fun that I had three more shows there. It was a dark, boozy, music-themed dive, so I started creating small (10-piece) series of artwork that would look at home on the wall of a smoky bar. The owner and bartender would sell the originals right off the wall to customers. I would go in every few weeks, have a R&C and collect an envelope of cash. Weeks before a show I would write a super-serious press release and send it to every media outlet in town. I kind of buried the fact that the venue was a bar and not a gallery. Thankfully, the editors at the Boston Phoenix and Boston Globe were always very generous about my press. This in turn assured a packed ‘opening’ night, and the bar sold a ton of drinks on a slow night. Everybody wins. Short answer: I’m looking for another dive bar to do this again.
PUZL: 4. IF YOU COULD HAVE DINNER AND DRINKS WITH ANY ARTIST, LIVING OR DEAD — WHO WOULD THAT BE?
KBANKS: Ah, the living one.
Stay tuned weekly on Friday’s for the latest edition of “Sloane” by KBANKS