By James Dungeon
[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and Neil Orlowski. Check this story online at 5ensesMag.Com for an update about Orlowski’s forthcoming website. He also plays keyboard in Funk Frequency, who plays regularly around Prescott.]
How did you end up in Prescott?
I cam here for recovery, for treatment. It’s not something that I’ve intentionally hidden or anything, but, yeah, I came here in 2007 and have been here ever since. Originally, I’m from Leavenworth, Kansas, where I grew up. I went to school at Washington University in St. Louis, majored in illustration and got a BFA. Then I moved back to Kansas City and lived there until 2000, when I moved to Tucson, where my parents lived. I was there until 2007, when I moved to Prescott.
How far back does art go in your life?
I was drawing ever since I was a little kid. I’d draw anything, really. I remember when I was little, my mom would suggest I draw a bird or something like that. I used to draw on the church bulletins every Sunday. I was an incredibly shy little kid, so art and drawing was something I could do on my own. I got recognized for art at a pretty early age. I won tickets to a show in Kansas City for a drawing I did for my dad for Father’s Day when I was a 7-year-old. I even had a show at the local Leavenworth public library when I was 14. Art was just something I did all the time. I have one sibling, an older brother. He was the athletic one, and I was the artist. My artwork just kept evolving. I entered another art competition as a kid, won a bike in a state art competition, got several scholastic art awards, and I also went to an art camp at Kansas University one summer in high school. … Our dining room table was always filled with stuff I was making. Sometimes it was three-dimensional cardboard stuff. My mom was always especially encouraging. My dad died when I was 9. I took a few lessons, but what I remember was picking up little things, not necessarily learning how to draw or make art in general. I drew a lot of monsters as a kid, the classic movie kind. I was totally into that stuff. I actually tried to make an 8 mm movie when I was kid and wrote a script and stuff like that. I was always trying to get my friends involved. A big visual influence on me was the Society of Illustrators annuals which I remember ordering from a mail order book company. The illustrators of the ’70s were really playing with techniques and design, which was very inspiring to me. I wanted to emulate that. I created my own illustrations for hypothetical businesses and publications. And later on, I got publicized in a couple of them. That was surreal.
I’ve always wondered what happens to people who win those awards. You actually kept pursuing art, obviously.
Definitely. I got a full scholarship to Washington University. You know, I’ve been very fortunate through all of this. I was just doing the best I could do and it was recognized. If it weren’t for other people acknowledging and recognizing it, I would’ve never been able to go to school like that. I came from a lower-middle class family and my father owned a small business in a small town. Going to a school of that caliber wouldn’t have been an option had it not been for the scholarship. In art school, I loved creating my own illustrations for hypothetical businesses and things like that. Head shops and album covers were really popular at the time, I remember, and I loved doing lettering and designs for that. My education was in illustration, and my painting was always more self-taught. The intention was always to go into illustration along with graphic design. Like I said, I really liked to design typography and lettering of all kinds. I still do. I kind of wish I’d gotten in to painting in college, but I didn’t. I did get into all kinds of media, and used water color, acrylic, mixed media, pen and ink. I was all over the place. I got to go to London on a special exchange program that my school had with Goldsmith’s College. That was my first and only time abroad, in the fall of 1983. That was when I was really exposed to very traditional, classic paintings at all of these amazing museums. We took trips to Paris and Amsterdam and places like that to see more. The National Portrait Gallery in London was my favorite. I loved portraiture, and I still do, too. I did a self-portrait while I was there that ended up in the Student Society of Illustrators publication. I was also involved in music in college. That’s always played a big part in my life. I’d taken piano lessons when I was a kid for a few years and started playing on my own in a couple of bands in school, usually rock or pop, then alternative rock in college. I played keyboard. I did all the illustrations for our flyers and posters all around campus. Well, anyway, at the end of college, Hallmark came recruiting at my school. I’d already planned on moving back to Kansas City, and my girlfriend at the time was also from Leavenworth, so I moved to Kansas City and got a job at Hallmark. I spent 13 years there from 1984 to 1997.
The greeting card company? No way you’re skipping over all of that. What was it like?
I went in as an introductory artist and left as a senior design supervisor. It was an amazing experience. It was the biggest art department in the world at that time in the 1980s. I’d hate to estimate how many people, but that’s what it was known as. There was so much creativity there. It wasn’t just what people produced, but what their interests were. You were basically working in cubicles, but people would have their whole space decorated. I was exposed to things like Asian art like Japanese woodblock prints and South American artists I’d never been exposed to. One girl had all these fiber arts all over her booth. It was a really rich environment to work in. Sometimes I might not have realized it, but was amazing. You got inspired when you saw all of that stuff — whole genres of art you’d never really seen before.
What kind of art did you create there?
Hallmark had all these different lines of products from gift wrap to cards to three-dimensional sculptures for promotions, and I pretty much did all of it. There were also creative workshops by visiting designers and illustrators, some product-related and some not. I facilitated a couple of painting workshops for fellow employees, too. I even did some music for some in-house projects, including promotional videos and presentations. That was pretty cool. Through my connections with Hallmark, I did some freelancing on the side, too, and that was pretty interesting. I even did some posters for several Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions through an outside design agency which were little TV things done by an outside agency. I had stuff printed on billboards in Kansas City. Through another connection, I did music and stop-motion animation for some 10-second TV spots for a merchant group that were a lot of fun. It was a lot of things.
How did you grow as an artist during this time?
Just that exposure to all of these different styles and genres, that influenced me. I remember when I first walked in there and a guy who had been brought over to Hallmark from Italy who’d been a set designer there, and he painted these tiny things so intricately. It was amazing. I’ve always been loose and big with my art. There was a woman who worked on patterns, she would have these whole color palettes laid out and would work in that set of colors to do these beautiful, very traditional designs. And she would do so much with that limited palette. That’s something I learned at Hallmark: to work with fewer options within a sometimes restrictive set of parameters. Having fewer options can actually be more freeing and pushes you to be more creative. … It was Hallmark, so obviously the bread and butter was greeting cards, but I also did gift bags and things like that, too. Another great thing about Hallmark was that they sent you on research trips. It was amazing. They’d send a group of six or eight of us to New York for four days to basically go around to all these museums and look at store windows and shops. You just ate up design and saw what all the new trends were. I worked in different departments in Hallmark while I was there, the gamut, basically everything. Eventually I was supervising and directing some projects as well. I was playing a lot of music, too. I played with a couple of groups, and also did some freelance music including a couple of in-house videos for Sprint, and music for a logo I.D. — just three or five seconds — but that was pretty cool.
How did your time at Hallmark end and how did that affect your art?
It was 1997 and they were shifting over to more computer-based stuff. I was doing some freelance illustration on the side and left Hallmark to do that for several years. There was a group of us who’d worked for Hallmark, some current and some former, who formed a loose little painting group. We got together and painted and critiqued each other’s work. We had a couple of gallery shows together, too. That was really freeing. When I was at Hallmark, I was all over the place. I never really had my own style. I just immersed yourself in whatever style I was working with. I’ve done everything from cartooning to realistic paintings to three-dimensional art. Gradually, I started to paint more and started to teach myself. I just picked it up along the way, really. That led to my connection with these artists and starting to have some work in galleries. One of the difficulties I had freelancing was that, as far as style goes, most freelancers have a very particular thing they’re known for. I never could really nail that down for myself. So, as I was freelancing less, I gradually shifted into painting. In Tucson, I started working at a bike shop and really got into cycling and fitness, which I still do today. I also did lots of volunteering and worked with AmeriCorps for a year working with kids. Things went OK for a while until they weren’t OK anymore, so I came to Prescott. I worked for The Art Store for some time and that led to me teaching painting there, which I’ve done since about 2009. … Today, I’m more of an absorber. My strong point is that I have a sensitivity to all of the things that I’ve done and that I pick up on. Through art and even music, I’m able to adapt.
Why stay in Prescott?
The support of the community. There’s a big recovery community here, and it’s sort of an evolution to stick around with the people you go through that process with. I didn’t really have anything waiting for me in Tucson. My mom and step-dad were there — my step-dad has since passed away — but I didn’t do that much freelancing when I was there. … Since I’ve been here, my commercial illustration has mostly been through word of mouth with some of the artists here. Early on, I joined a drawing group that met in a little room above the Arts Prescott Cooperative, and I still go to that every once in a while. I’ve always loved drawing from the human figure. That’s the most basic thing, but it’s the most challenging. I love it. There’s a certain painterliness quality to it.
Your portraits, in particular, convey so much emotion with such a loose style.
I think you really get the sense of something when it’s less rendered. Those are the parts that I like best in my own work, and that’s the kind of simplicity that I strive for. When you take your brain out of it and respond more intuitively, you get more of the essence of the subject. Once you start to try and analyze it, manipulate it, and get too “precious” with it, that’s when it starts to die. You have to stay connected to that moment, to that essence. … Early on, I was doing really tight kind of renderings and gradually developed a looser, quicker style. One of the most important things about painting and drawing, is that it’s really about learning how to see. When you try to draw or paint something, by necessity you have to look more deeply. It’s like you don’t take anything for granted. Normally you see an object and just mentally label it. There’s no depth to that. Once you really look at something, it becomes less of a nameable object. It becomes light hitting this form. It becomes a collection of shapes when you try to paint it — an orchestration of shapes and value and color. It becomes less “this is an apple” and more about figuring out the dark and light parts Are, where there is contrast, etc. It would be considered more right brain kind of stuff — less intellectual and more intuitive. I think that’s what’s amazing about art, and that’s what’s humbling about it, too. You don’t take anything for granted. Once you go through that process, you actually start to see the world differently. It’s very humbling. It’s not just as easy as drawing a heart-shaped apple.
Where might’ve people seen your work around town?
I had a show at The Raven Café in late 2016. I also had some stuff at the English Garden Tea Room. I used to have some up at The Art Store, too, where I still teach art classes. I don’t have a website up yet, but it’s coming soon. … You know, I haven’t taught them, but I’ve participated in art classes at Yavapai College just to stay involved. Being around other artists is really important. You feed off of each other’s creativity and energy. And I had an opportunity recently — I was laid off from a job at the end of 2015, so for about eight months in 2016, I was able to really get back into painting. That’s where a lot of my recent work came from. Without that time set aside, I’m horrible at self-discipline. That’s probably why I gravitated toward illustration. I get assignments, I run with them, I can be creative within the parameters, I have to finish them on time. When you’re on your own, you can do anything. Sometimes that’s harder.
At this point, what role does art serve in your life?
I don’t know. I guess things are picking up, but I’d hate to narrow it down to painting, though the painting is definitely continuing. I’m beginning work on the largest pieces I’ve ever done —2 canvases, each 5′ by 7′ — for a client in Denver. I’ve also been writing little sketches of musical ideas that I would eventually love to record and/or play with someone. Apart from the physical production, it’s more, well, creativity and beauty is really just what makes life worth living. Otherwise, it’s just drudgery. You pick up on things, the subtleties and nuances, along with the “big dramas,” whether that’s in music, nature, or art, or seeing it in somebody else’s art — even in the way someone lives their lives. You’re inspired and, yes, the process can get frustrating — sometimes you do it well, and sometimes you do it not so well — but it’s a flow. And, when you’re inspired to do it again, you’re in love with the world around you.
Neil Orlowski is a Prescott-based artist. Check this story online at 5ensesMag.Com for an update with Orlowski’s forthcoming website. He also plays keyboard in Funk Frequency, who play regularly around Prescott.
James Dungeon is a figment of his own imagination. And he likes cats. Contact him at JamesDungeonCats@Gmail.Com.