Though João is feverishly preparing for "III," his solo show which opens in the Thinkspace project room on May 7th, he graciously spared some time to answer a few of my questions. If you're hungry for more background on João, you can also check out my earlier profile of him.
Erratic Phenomena: Tell me about your experience of growing up in São Paulo, Brazil. Was your childhood full of adventure, or did you spend it with your nose in a book? What gave you the most pleasure when you were a boy?
João Ruas: I only recall good things from my childhood. I grew up in the suburbs of São Paulo, in a true mixed-class neighborhood. I had richer and poorer friends, from all ethnic backgrounds, and we used to spend our days outside, flying kites and playing soccer. My interest in drawing was always present, but I didn't really focus on it until early adolescence, when I discovered comic books. My family never really stopped me from choosing art, and I am extremely grateful for that, even though at times they didn't know what I was doing, since no one in my close circle has any artistic background.
EP: Your earliest artwork was inspired by comic books. Tell me a bit about those early pictures, and how drawing made you feel when you were a child.
JR: In Brazil, there's a series of comics that's been running since the '60s called Turma da Monica ("Monica's Gang"), which every kid knows about and reads avidly at some point in their early life. It really appeals to the eyes, with a colorful pop and weird style. I was totally amazed how everything was so other-worldly, and how the characters had their own personality – it was like they were my real friends. I think that was when I realized the power of creating images had no boundaries, and it could reach unique realms. I used to draw them all the time in school. Then, one day, Peanuts was on TV and I got addicted to that. They were even more believable and fantastic.
My interest in drawing was always present, but it wasn't above the level of an average kid – I'd rather play than draw. That changed when I was 11. I found an issue of Spider-Man and actually read it... from that point on, it's easy to imagine what happened.
EP: When did you first begin to imagine the surreal universe you now depict, your own "inner myth"?
JR: I think this universe surfaced when I was working in the UK. I had a lot of fun being there, learning about another culture and its behaviors, but the fact that I wasn't really creating – just executing somebody else's idea – had a big effect on me. My personal works started to have a certain narrative. I was favoring that instead of a perfect or realistic execution.
Sketches for a triptych in his upcoming show
EP: Do you envision your paintings as moments in a constantly unfurling narrative, or are these scenarios completely independent of each other?
JR: I don't think the pieces follow a timeline, but I have to say there's a feeling they inhabit the same universe.
EP: Your "Haunted" series depicts nearly-naked girls in a variety of strangely ecstatic situations. I believe the "Haunted" paintings are about your past girlfriends, so they must have a great deal of personal resonance for you. Tell me a bit about what you're trying to achieve with this series.
JR: It relates to a lot of issues – most of them, yes, on a personal level. I am really fascinated by the fragmented moments that define a whole situation. I once heard the phrase "signature frame" – maybe it was a technical term, but for me it's a powerful idea, nevertheless. I think my memory is photographic, in the sense that it is static, as dumb as that sounds. I like it this way, though. The series shows what it was and what it could have been, basically.
EP: What significance do the arrangements of red and gray dots that frequently appear in your paintings have? Their number and placement seem to carry the weight of symbolism, although they are utterly enigmatic.
JR: I enjoy the mystery surrounding symbols and the graphic approach they add to a painting or drawing. I like to call the dots "a pair of pairs," however – when they are three, they are not. I like the significance of four and three. I'm very bad at math, though.
EP: Is there a deeper meaning behind your internet handle, "Feral Kid"?
JR: I would like to say something deep and meaningful, but it was just an in-joke between me and a couple of friends, back when I used to live in the UK. Channel4 was showing a series of strong documentaries and one of them was about feral kids. It's a theme you're not supposed to make jokes about, but we did. We started to imagine how it would be if you were raised by koalas or ducks, and then, obviously, it evolved to uber-nonsense. I enjoy nonsense – I guess it was all the Monty Python in my childhood.
Drawing for Fables cover, Issue #94
EP: About a year ago, you took over painting covers for the Fables comic books from the much-loved James Jean, who had made the series his own while working on it for 8 years. What have been the biggest challenges of working on Fables, and what have you learned in the process?
JR: Taking the Fables job was the toughest decision I've ever made, and sometimes I'm still not sure if I did the right thing by taking it. It took me about two weeks to say a final "yes" to the editor. That might sound ridiculous to most people, but I can enumerate a lot of reasons for considering and discussing it for a long time. In brief, the most important issue for me was that I was going to be marked as a James Jean copycat. To be frank, I think I have been regarded in that way by many since I took the job. I think the two of us have a very close set of influences, and we both combine figurative images and graphic design (I have a degree in design), so our work sometimes shows a certain resemblance. It would be very dumb for me to go after his look – James Jean has been in the spotlight for years. I think it's sad to go after anyone, anyway.
All I can say is that I'm trying to portray my ideals and feelings through my work, especially my personal pieces. The Fables covers are pure illustration – much as I like doing them, I need to leave space for requests, like color schemes and compositions that I would rather not choose, but which are necessary. It's my job to combine function and sensibility.
EP: One of the personal projects you've had in mind for a while is a graphic novel about Russian cosmonauts who were stranded on a space station as communism collapsed. Was this project to be called "Souvlaki Space Station," which is now the name of your blog? Do you think you'll pursue it further in the future?
JR: That was years ago... I can still see it becoming some sort of illustrated book – not a proper comic book, though. I have other, more concrete projects coming soon. One of them – and the main one – is a collaboration with Barnaby Ward. I think he may be pissed when he reads this, since the project is in the very very beginning stages, but he won't hit me since he lives so far away. Actually, I will use this space to beg his pardon, since I have not worked on it recently. Sorry, Barney.
EP: One of your greatest modern-day influences is the inimitable painter and sometime cover illustrator Phil Hale, who employs dramatic lighting and subtly surreal anatomical distortions to convey dynamic, emotionally charged scenarios. Tell me about your relationship with his work, and why you find it so compelling.
JR: For me, he has such a strong signature and his hand is recognizable in absolutely any media, and that is something that I think any artist should pursue – that touch. I had the opportunity to go to his studio a few months ago, and above all, he's a very nice person.
EP: You generally begin your work in pencil, which remains at the forefront of the final composition. Shifting into watercolor and gouache, you use a light hand, never allowing a piece to become overly finished. You've described an almost sensual relationship with watercolor, which feels literally "alive" to you in its interaction with the paper and the atmosphere. Tell me a bit more about the way you work. What part of the process excites you most?
JR: The beginning is the most exciting for sure, the possibilities are endless. I really find myself while using watercolor. However, I would like to feel the same with other techniques, since all of them have a certain charm. Watercolor is unforgiving, and that is the most beautiful thing about it.
Oil in progress for his upcoming show
EP: In your latest body of work, you've begun to explore working in oils. What sparked that decision? Does the new medium allow you to do things that you haven't been able to achieve with watercolors and gouache?
JR: Yes, you got that right. I wanted some "weight" for one of the series, and after some thinking and research, I decided to use oils for it. The reason why I really never touched it before is that I have a very strong allergy to the medium. However, I was able to try water-based oils recently, and that worked pretty well.
Work in progress for his upcoming show
EP: Lately, you've begun to employ collage elements, and are also incorporating some gold leaf, breaking up the flatness of the page with intriguingly varied textures and opacities. What inspired this choice?
JR: I want to break the flatness, like you said, but mainly my aim is to create a contrast between intricate detail and some expression through collage, almost in disdain.
EP: You deeply admire the Golden Age illustrators, and are especially fascinated with the work of J.C. Leyendecker, Arthur Rackham, Howard Pyle, Franklin Booth, Joseph Clement Coll and Ivan Bilibin. The work of these masters was lush and ornate, and had an unmatched fluency of line. Their intensely imagined fantastic subject matter would be the stuff of dreams for generations to come. Yet amongst the cognoscenti, they were disregarded for decades as mere commercial illustrators, rather than fine artists. Why do you think their work has become more relevant to us today? Is there some deficiency in our society which makes us yearn for a more craft-oriented aesthetic? Is there a void in the modern soul which orients us toward romantic and escapist imagery?
JR: I think they were the first pop artists, and people never really noticed it. They combined the old and the new, it needed to be flashy to draw attention, and they all managed it with style, hard work and a lot of will. However, they were never really taken seriously by some.
Art, like everything, is cyclic. For many decades, art wasn't about execution and thought, but about explanation and connotation, and this is changing recently, from what I can see – at least to some degree. That being said, people tend to rediscover what could fill this gap, and I think they do it masterfully. There's obviously a wall dividing fine art and illustration – however, people in the art field are taking a peek to the other side, and that is great.
João's studio in São Paolo
EP: Among your inspirations is Edgar Degas, whose paintings of women in the Parisian demi-monde are striking for their psychological complexity, unusual composition and sense of movement. A philosopher of painting, Degas railed against his contemporaries, the Impressionists, for painting their spontaneous impressions of what they saw outdoors. He said, "Drawing is not what you see, but what you must make others see." Could you explain why you find his work and ideas so profound?
JR: He was really methodical in the sense that he thought that any aspect of creation had to be deliberately crafted, even the accidents. He made reality not a subject, but a tool, and that is something I aim for in my own work.
EP: What other painters or illustrators from the past move you powerfully, and what aspects of their work do you find most intriguing?
JR: That is a hard question with an always-changing answer. I am rediscovering Andrew Wyeth right now – he is a master of the narrative in painting. On the illustration side, I would say Harry Clarke. I admire his graphic application on figurative work.
EP: If you could hang just one classic painting from history on the wall of your studio, what would it be?
JR: "The Astronomer," by Vermeer.
"Procession III," work-in-progress