Interview with Glyn Smyth | By Tyler Gibson
To quote Aleister Crowley, “One must find out for oneself, and make sure beyond doubt, who one is, what one is, why one is.” You are heavily influenced by folklore and Magick. Where did your interest in the occult and transmissible entities begin? And is it fair to assume that symbology and semiotics play a role in your work?
There was definitely a fascination with what could be called the “otherworld” from a very early age. I certainly always had the sense that there was more lurking at the edges of perception, an intuitive grasp of concepts I’m only rediscovering as an adult in recent years. I started reading at quite an early age and fairytales, mythology, and folklore undoubtedly made up of the majority of my childhood library. This would later grow into a deep interest in unexplained phenomena and other “esoteric” subjects over the years.
I think, as children we “know” certain things instinctively. There is an innate grasp of our own consciousness without feeling the need to analyze or articulate it presenting a distraction. As we grow older, this innate understanding and empathy with our environment is gradually buried under language, social skills, etc. Raw intuition is replaced with a fixed material concept of “the real world,” which we, of course, need in order to survive.
Folklore and myth arguably have various functions, but they do seem designed to bridge the gap between the intellectual and the intuitive. Symbols and sigils are forms that seem to encode more information than the sum of their parts: complex ideas in a simple and intuitive form. Carl Jung’s concept of the “collective unconscious” has always made a lot of sense to me; the idea that symbols and archetypes are an innate part of our consciousness from birth. On one hand, I find this fascinating on an intellectual level; the concept that we may have access to a primal ocean of shapes and forms. Conversely, I love seeing an artwork or sigil, and experiencing an unexpected emotional response. Even better if there is a sense of recognition or empathy.
In terms of personal belief, I should stress I would lean towards describing myself as a “Fortean” – after Charles Fort who chronicled reports of anomalous events or “damned” data in the early 20th Century – rather than an “occultist” as such. Though I do believe that the act of artistic creation – irrespective of subject matter – functions in a way very much akin to “magick.” There are definitely times when these definitions become blurred, however.
How did you begin illustrating, and more importantly, illustrating professionally? How does your earlier work contrast with what you produce now?
As a child, I was always drawing pictures and writing stories. When I was a teenager, my vague dream was to be a writer or illustrator, inspired primarily by fantasy [and] horror art, and British comics such as “2000 AD.” Although I had natural ability, I definitely lacked the focus to put it into practice back then, so by the time I was leaving school, I had no clear ambitions to be honest. Although I loved graphic art, I was unmoved by my own efforts and drawing gradually fell by the wayside. I still had a keen interest in visual art, but from the age of 17 up, this was informed more by a hardcore/punk aesthetic: collage work by artists such as Crass, Winston Smith, John Yates, amongst others. I also discovered the work of John Heartfield around this time, and I dabbled with this kind of stark, politicized protest art for personal use, bands, t-shirts, gig flyers, etc. Thematically, this was very leftwing and secular in approach, largely devoid of the type of symbolism I now employ. I still had a keen interest in “esoteric” subjects, but this remained largely unexpressed and seemed somewhat contradictory to my immersion in hardcore/punk music.
By the end of the ‘90s, I was starting to dabble with Photoshop and [Desktop Pulishing] software, and this replaced scissors and paste. This eventually led to a greater appreciation of design in general. I still drew every now and then – or was sometimes asked to paint a punk album sleeve on a leather jacket – but largely, I saw myself as a fledgling “graphic designer” rather than an illustrator as such.
Fast forward a few years and I found I was constantly being asked to do layouts, posters, [and] CD covers, and figured if other people could make money from it, I might as well give it a go. So in 2005, I took the plunge, registered as self employed, and started hustling local businesses. Some of my first jobs were designing pamphlets for museums, logos for various bars and venues, as well as CD covers for mainstream type bands. Nothing terribly exciting, but it paid well enough and taught me the basics on how to fulfill a brief.
I gradually became frustrated with the work I was getting however; little of it reflected my own personal interests and I wanted to find an outlet to cultivate my own aesthetic approach. I decided to start screen printing again, doing limited edition gigposters for bands I liked touring through Ireland. This was the main turning point towards cultivating a more informed and personal approach to design; the images were still largely collage work around this time. As I gained a little confidence, I gradually started introducing more hand drawn elements, and I also made a point of looking more closely at other artists and illustrators, particularly those from the late 19th and early 20th Century. I think learning how to put myself into the artwork is the most important realization I’ve made in recent years. Trusting gut instinct and committing to the work is essential. I’m still figuring this out…
How did you begin printmaking, and what is the process of creating a print?
I had dabbled with screen printing years previously in the mid ‘90s, largely making shirts for punk bands and a handful of my own designs. But I never really thought about making posters until a decade later, after I had started freelance work. Exposure to sites such as GigPosters.com opened my eyes to the level of craft other people were investing in show posters and the potential of screen printing. At the time, I was mainly designing logos and layouts for small businesses and the like, so making limited edition gigposters for touring bands seemed like a good stepping stone to doing more exciting work; i.e. an opportunity to draw skulls! This coincided with a time when a lot of U.S. based bands started coming to Ireland more; the opportunity wasn’t really there to do anything locally related until this point. This would be around 2006, I think.
The process of making a print varies depending on the nature of the work and also the process used. Up until very recently, I had only explored screen printing, but I’ve recently started learning different intaglio processes, which is an enjoyable change of pace.
With the screen prints, the reproduction process needs [to be] dialed in exactly in advance. Everything is hand drawn, and then organized in Photoshop for separations and final clean up. I used to scan work in or lightbox sketches on the drawing table for final linework, but I now use a Wacom Cintiq for most of my drawing and inking. Unless the print needs to be printed elsewhere – for a U.S. tour, for example – I prepare all my screens, mix my own inks, and print by hand at a local communal workshop.
With other types of printmaking – intaglio processes for example – there are different methods of preparation, and the process can lend itself to more nuanced or “organic” effects. With an etching, even the way you clean and prepare the plate before you put it onto the press can affect the tone of the print. An etched copper plate will hold ink differently than an aluminum one, for example. Random marks and textures can manifest in the final print, and you can always etch the plate by hand, or use acid to add texture and deepen the impression, as well as other techniques. I’m only starting out right now, but I’m finding it very exciting. It’s forcing me to adapt my working processes, which is a good thing to avoid getting stuck in a rut, I think.
Is there anything you’ve wanted to try, but haven’t made the leap yet? As lame as it sounds, I have to ask: what does the future hold for Stag & Serpent?
I would say my priority right now is finding time to pursue various self-initiated projects I’ve had on the backburner for the last few years. Whilst I enjoy the challenge of client work, there’s a myriad of themes and subject matter I keep wanting to delve into more fully. Local folklore is of great interest to me, especially that relating to “The Otherworld.” It’s an extremely deep well of ideas and imagery to draw from, and it seems a shame not to explore it more fully in my artwork. Whilst I love taking influence and inspiration from cultures worldwide, I’ve been feeling compelled to create more work based on Irish lore and places I’ve grown up in. There’s a few very dark tales I’ve been researching the last while which I’m hoping will form the basis of an exhibition in the not too distant future. Developing these ideas in tandem with exploring various types of printmaking is at the forefront of my agenda with “Stag & Serpent.”
In the meantime, I’m planning to launch a new webstore in October, and am currently busy with a number of interesting illustration projects that will see me through into 2015. When I’m not working on these, I’ll be in the workshop printing new work, so I’m envisioning a busy year ahead.
If anybody wants to follow what I’m doing, please visit www.stagandserpent.com.