When I think of how to describe Sonny Gerasimowicz to the world-at-large, it’s not as an illustrator. Or, at least, that isn’t my primary impulse. Instead, I mostly think of dialogues. Dialogues in Café de Leche, our neighborhood coffee shop, dialogues written in penned ink tattoos on my or another friend’s arm, video dialogues shot from his iPhone that he waves in my face in the morning while we’re talking about guilty music pleasures, organizing closets according to temperature, Spike Jonze, or chicks.
So, one night, when I realize that I haven’t heard anything from Sonny in a few days, I’m a little shocked. It feels kind of like that moment on a road trip when the last top 40 radio station crackles out, and suddenly your facing a silent bandwidth and your own thoughts. In other words: paralyzing.
To counteract this interactive void, I shoot him a quick series of text messages regarding (fittingly) my car radio music selection and day’s travel destinations, and my faith in Sonny’s quick wit (and possibly humanity) is restored.
ME: Why is Mariah Carey so good?
SONNY: Because Whitney Houston developed a crack problem.
ME: Why is Target so good?
[Lag in response time]
SONNY: Because Walmart developed a white trash problem.
ME: Took you long enough to answer.
SONNY: I’m drawing.
[photo by Jamison Bryant]
If you live in Los Angeles and occasionally venture out, you have a good chance of meeting Sonny. At least, that’s the impression I get when we sit down at Café de Leche for our interview. He interrupts our conversation regularly to say his hellos to various acquaintances including his awkward next door neighbor and an eccentrically-clad member of My Barbarian. As he chats with these people, sometimes he remembers how he met them, and sometimes he doesn’t. But this doesn’t seem to really faze him—throughout our interview, he demonstrates a universal sense of ease that’s one of his unique and most charming personality traits.
A Calarts drop out (“I quit because I got away with not working. I just totally bullshit my way through classes. And they were actually disappointed when I left. I was so pissed.”), Sonny’s IMDB page will tell you he was both the Art Director for, and an actor in, Spike Jonze’ Where the Wild Things Are. If you squint hard enough you may recognize him dressed as one of the film’s monstrous characters. He’s also worked various freelance jobs designing big-time advertisements, blockbuster film posters, and television pilot mock-ups (experiences he regularly refers to as “selling out”). Lately, though, Sonny has committed himself to a daring new project: turning his innovative illustrations into a full-time living.
Sonny works from a second-floor studio in his home, a dilapidated Spanish Mission property in Northeast L.A., that he’s been renovating in his free time—his trusty Maltese, Butters, lying on a dog bed by his side. He’s recently organized the space in an attempt to curb his tendency toward procrastination. His drawings are filed in drawers, and when I visit, he shows me some prize pieces: drawings that he collaborated with Maurice Sendak on in preparation for WTWTA—beautiful renderings of monsters that show both Sendak and Sonny’s eye for character development. But that’s the past. Right now, he’s [not] working on drawings for a November 20 show at Known Gallery called Empty Promises.
We start our interview at 7:45 am (because it’s the day after the clocks have “fallen back” and neither of us could sleep) and discuss a variety of subjects, some benign, others X-rated—which pretty much sums up Sonny’s personality and the various life lessons he gives me during our chat. Yes, Sonny is an illustrator, and it’s a pretty complicated profession and lifestyle:
llustration and art aren’t the same thing. Hell no. Not even close. He’s quick to remind me that his upcoming Known Gallery opening is “a drawing exhibition, by the way, not an art show.” Getting used to the divide between art and illustration is rough, he admits, but a required step in his process: “Someone asked me earlier if I had started on my show. And I was just kind of like, ‘Once I come to terms with the fact that I’m just an illustrator, I can probably start working.’”
He pauses here to take a swig out of his 4-shot latte, before continuing. In fact, he says, he sees more of a link between mathematics and illustration than illustration and art: “There was a kid next to us yesterday [at the café] who was doing straight-up fucking Good Will Hunting math problems that were sixteen pages long and he was flipping through his notebook looking at old problems like they were illustrations.”
What his upcoming show will actually be like. Maybe not a bunch of unsolvable math equations, but definitely a bunch of empty promises: “[The show’s] called Empty Promises because I flaked on a group show in Paris for [fashion designer and show curator] Mary Ping. And she said, ‘Don’t worry, next time I have a show called Empty Promises, you can be part of it so here we are…I’m drawing these huge pencil drawings that are like 9x9 feet. They’re like crappier versions of Robert Longo’s work.”
[“MOODS CHANGE: EMO. HORNY. FUN/SICK. Let them all PARTY.” photo by Jamison Bryant]
Why he reads self-help books and isn’t ashamed. Well, one in particular that a friend recommended. He’s brought it with him, and it frames much of our morning discussion: Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break through the Blocks and Win your Inner Creative Battles. “Basically, the book points out that the only secret that writers know is that it’s not hard coming up with ideas or anything like that, it’s just sitting down and writing… in other words, it was easier for Hitler to start WWII than it was for him to walk up and start painting on a blank canvas.
Because reading even tasteless pop cultural writing can pay off: “So I am getting so jazzed on this book, right? And then I looked up the writer [Pressfield] on IMDB and he wrote the four worst screenplays ever…including King Kong 2 and The Legend of Bagger Vance. So this is, like, his best work.” A major disappointment, but not necessarily a set back: “I can read the corniest book and still get something out of out of it because I read it the way I want to read it.”
It’s good to take notes. He keeps a Moleskin on hand to jot down quotes from Pressfield’s book, but the pages are also filled with miscellaneous notes regarding past and present work. Some examples:
-“What I know about: 1. Butts. 2. Maybe hair.”
-“I know what I’m doing. Everyone else can suck a dick.”
But it’s also good to keep some notes confidential, and Sonny’s careful about editing which pages he holds up to show me because, he says: “I’m only showing you the funny ones, not the real ones.”
[“GO FOR THE THROAT.” Photo by Jamison Bryant]
What he learned at CalArts that you can’t learn in self-help books: “Some girl slept in the gallery for a week—you know, ‘cause [performance artist] Chris Burden slept in his locker for a week—and I was like ‘you’re a fucking idiot.’” And then: “The dude from Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti was in my classes. I think his name’s Ariel—the guy that’s always picking his nails? One day he was just sitting in the back of the class picking his nails, and all of a sudden he pipes up and is all ‘Who cares? It’s all about fucking pussies, dicks, and assholes anyways.’ Everyone laughed, even the teacher laughed. It was the best quote from my entire time there.”
How he’s altering the way he works.
SONNY: If you have a clear workspace you have a clear head. And also it’s really important to have all your materials at your reach so you don’t have to stop once you start working.
ME: So do you engage in any rituals before you start working?
SONNY: Rituals are resistance. That’s what this self-help book is about.
ME: So are you trying to jot less notes, watch less videos and just start drawing?
SONNY: No. That’s not resistance.
ME: So doing stuff like that is like research?
SONNY: Right. Resistance is like masturbation, sweets, walking the dog, going grocery shopping… [You have to be] conscious of making the division between resistance and doing something that’s good for the thought process.
Why art is about ownership:
SONNY: I keep a small stack of work from the past, but I’ve thrown out a lot of it.
ME: Do you get rid of whole periods of your life?
SONNY: Oh, yeah. It’s freeing. Liberating. Once you do it, you realize you have complete authorship and ownership of your work.
ME: Have you ever felt like you don’t have complete ownership of your work?
SONNY: All the time. Like when artists I respect say “Dude, don’t throw that away. I think it’s great.”
ME: Do you feel like you don’t own your work when you do freelance assignments for advertisements or people like Spike Jonze?
SONNY: Spike Jonze is different, but everything else is selling out. I’ve stopped and been putting all my energy into my own drawings. It’s my only chance to be happy. Putting my energy into my own drawings.
Mediocrity doesn’t matter. “People are out there making their living doing their own stuff, and sometimes I look at someone’s work and I’m like, ‘Wow. It’s kind of awful.’ But it doesn’t matter because they’re making it work. You just have to keep working.”
What he’s doing next: “I’m going to see my psychologist at 11.”
What he’s doing next creatively: “I want to curate a show that incorporates, like, the hardest thing to draw. You know the Marilyn Monroe , Elvis, James Dean drawings where they’re all drawn at a bar together? I want to make a show where you’re required to incorporate all that.”
So, you see, Sonny Gerasimowicz isn’t just an illustrator. And he’s not just a dude in a monster suit either. You can add those to a list you should probably start keeping in a Moleskin somewhere, but do it fast. The list just keeps growing.