The Dirt on Muddy CloudJuxtapoz // Tuesday, 20 Oct 2009
muddy cloud | by tommy tung
“When I say, ‘Muddy Cloud,’ people usually say, ‘Huh?’ They think they don’t hear me correctly or that the two words don’t go together,” says Matt Anaya, designer of the toy in question at www.muddycloud.com.
Anonymity, misunderstanding, semantics -- these are the fringe benefits of an artist, and you may have these already, whether you wield a paint brush or a video camera, so learn what Matt learned: success is seldom a rocket and more often a cigarette, slow burning and fast addicting.
Fortunately, Muddy Cloud creators, Matt and Joy Anaya, do not smoke; they are rather addicted to freedom and sunny days; they are married; they are not millionaires; and they are unfaltering. Not every designer can operate so cheerfully, a year after the Econopocalypse. It could be that they’re not your everyday designers though. It could be that they've acquired something more valuable than a profit margin.
I sought this something.
I started with Joy, a practitioner of exuberance, mirth, and savvy. Hear this in her articulation. Observe this in her assiduity. She is a sunflower in all seasons and she will never finish growing, which is fitting for the amorphous Muddy Cloud -- a fabric koan. Touch it, squeeze it, toss it, and interrogate it -- the designer toy will not break under questioning. You decide its biography, so go ahead and name a species. List its food allergies. Write a criminal history. Stories stay awake past your bedtime, but not past your age group.
Tell me about your role in the Muddy Cloud universe -- everything that you do.
Matt and I work side by side. We’re both creative but with different sides of the brain working. He came up with the designs and I provided some input. But primarily, I’m the marketer. I’m like the agent behind the artist, I guess -- crafting the message and getting it out there, showcasing and selling.
There are a lot of successful toy designers today, so what keeps you positive about continuing Muddy Cloud and how do you keep Matt positive about it, and how do you accomplish that independent and artistic spirit in this current economic climate, in which the arts are suffering?
I think we have a balance, like I mentioned in the previous answer. And, we’re never both down at the same time; we get over the anxiety and keep looking forward. We’re realistic about the challenges facing us in this economic downturn, but we know that it will turn around, and that it takes a lot of time and patience to grow something. Yes, there are lots of great toy designers with amazing stuff, and just like them, our designs come from a genuine place.
What do you think would happen to this world, if Muddy Cloud didn’t exist? That is: why is it so important -- right now in this moment in history, in this economy -- to believe in art, to continue designing artistic toys, and to lead a life dedicated to these goals?
I don’t think Muddy Cloud has made an impact on the fate of the world -- yet! As far as believing in art, it’s a lot like believing in the human condition -- free will. Art means different things to different people, and is completely open to interpretation and has the ability to challenge the mind. And there’s definitely freedom in that. Muddy Cloud was designed with that same philosophy. There’s no limit to the imagination, so why not nurture it? It’s the act of fostering the mind to think on its own that has led to innovation and progress, which I guess is essential during a recession. Art equals innovation and progress, which equals prosperity. Was that too obtuse? I think it’s true though.
Next, I met with Matt in Venice, CA. We took a bench, bordering the patio of Beechwood, and we took drafts of pale ale and Belgian-white beer. He was his characteristic self that night -- pensive yet prone to laughter. Anyone with the luxury of his friendship would also know him as a gentleman, perhaps the last in our generation; courteous is the first thing he is; conceited is the last; and beneath the demureness, a wellspring flows day and night, inventive and thankfully uncommon.
Tell me about your history with fine art -- how you got started with what you’re doing now.
Most of my education comes from being around a family that had built everything themselves, so from an early age, I just always enjoyed being able to assemble or disassemble objects or toys. When my father was doing work on the house or around the yard, I was allowed to help out. I would play with the scraps, nails, tools. At the same time, my mom, she mended all the clothes. She had a sewing machine, so that’s where I first learned to sew. It was always just testing things out, seeing what would go together, what would fit together. I made same thing probably every other kid would make: the tree house, some type of fort.
Has it helped you keep going on Muddy Cloud -- the support of your parents and sister?
Yeah. They’re probably the proudest any parents could possibly be. They’re always the first one to announce [Muddy Cloud] to the rest of my family or friends, you know like the proud grandparent showing off photos. That’s pretty much what it’s like to them.
Sometimes I wish they were a little bit negative [laughing] because then it would inspire me more to prove someone wrong. But I feel like I’m really lucky because I do have that support. It does help, it does help, and I don’t have anything standing in my way except myself, so it’s good that they are supportive as they are.
Did you ever want to an art school or get a Master’s in Fine Arts?
I was afraid that if I went, it would just be like my undergraduate education all over again; I wasn’t practicing what I wanted to practice. The theories were all there. I didn’t want to do theories anymore. I wanted to do something that was hands-on. I wanted to get my hands dirty and do things that other people were doing. That’s what was inspiring me to create in the first place. There are plenty of people out there that have no training whatsoever and they’re just gifted with that type of talent, which are the people that I really look up to.
What about artists that inspired you? Any certain ones stand out?
I would say Kandinsky, because he’s super abstract. I didn’t know what he was doing with all those shapes or what they stood for.
Is there a difference between contemporary art -- what’s around us in the city now -- and a designer toy? Is there a relationship between the two?
I’m not sure. A lot of people take things, their surroundings in the city -- I feel like they have to incorporate that into their work, because that’s what’s inspiring to them. The things that I like to do -- I feel inspiration somewhere -- and a lot of the times they’re from my general surroundings.
I created Muddy Cloud because we kept getting all these dolls for [my daughter] Zoe and they were pets, you know, and the plush dog, the plush bear. It was the same thing growing up. I just didn’t know what to do with these when I was given one, as a kid. I just felt there was nothing interesting or imaginative about them. [With Muddy Cloud] I just wanted to do something different. I guess I was just trying to test myself because I could and I wanted to create something that has more staying power for my daughter. Growing up, I just tossed those plush toys aside. I just got sick of seeing the same doll or same stuffed toy.
So you don’t expect Muddy Cloud to end up at Norm’s [diner] in the claw machine [that fetches stuffed toys]?
Norm’s? [laughing] No. probably not.
When you meet someone unfamiliar with Muddy Cloud and you tell them what you’re doing, how do you describe it to them?
After I get past the initial shyness about it -- because I’m so critical of my work that I don’t like sharing it -- I just tell people it’s something we created out of inspiration for my daughter -- plush toys, hats, and mittens. I don’t really tell them anything too interesting, because I hope on their own they’ll look it up. Because I could tell them everything in the world and they’re not going to really care. But if they go and discover it on their own, they can make their own interpretation.
What about the phrase, “Muddy Cloud”?
For Joy and me, the meaning just meant what it was like growing up. For us, we were always outside playing and being creative in the dirt, in the wood pile, in the tree, wherever, so the name for us meant making mud pies as a kid -- those things that you remember doing -- that every kid does once or twice in their lifetime, like a rite of passage. You always had to either make mud pies or lay down on a grassy knoll or grassy hill somewhere and just stare up at the clouds and see what different shapes you can see in the sky.
“Grassy knoll.” That’s very JFK.
[laughs] I realized that after I said that -- so we just wanted to combine the two words. The name just really spit out. It came to us very easily.
When did the actual names of the Muddy Cloud characters come to you? During the refined stage? During the early stage?
I think it was when they were in the initial stage. Most of the names are Thai so they have Thai meanings, but there was Balob, which is actually just “blob” stretched out, and Tada; that’s what Zoe was saying at the time. But the other three have definitions. Beep means “pinch” because the ears are sort of pinched at the corners. Doot means “suck.”
What about Joop?
Joop means “kiss,” right?
[laughs] I was totally asking you for confirmation, like, “Right? Right?”
I’m your interviewer and your Thai American resource.
Let me tell you this, not that it’s supposed to be important. Doot was supposed to be Balob’s name, because Balob, to us, kind of looks like a slug, like it’s sucking its way forward as it moves, but then when we came up with Balob, it fit so much better. We still liked Doot [the name] so we gave it [to another character].
Are there good and evil Muddy Cloud characters or are they neutral?
Well, Tada was the first one I created and if I was to give him a personality, he was kind of like the ornery wannabe leader of the pack who wasn’t quite the troublemaker, but he liked causing problems for the other characters. I don’t know if I feel that way anymore but initially that’s what it was supposed to be, for me.
How do you think you saw his ornery nature from his shape and color?
With his bent ears, he was kind of like the speedy character that was kind of crooked, a little sneaky.
What about gender?
I don’t see gender anymore in them. Because I’ve heard so many different opinions about what each one is, I don’t really associate gender with any of them anymore. None of the names are really gender-specific either.
Do you, in your mind, have a story about how all of them relate to each other? Are some friends?
Yeah, I always see Beep being the odd guy out, Balob being the silent superstar, Doot being the shy guy. He’s the littlest one. He’s a little bit shy. His face might look like -- he might be a little unsure of himself. And Joop is kind of the tall studious geek -- I don’t know [laughs].
Do you ever see your own experiences reflected in a Muddy Cloud character?
No, not yet. I think everyday life is too rough. Muddy Cloud is just easy-going, happy-go-lucky, and real life isn’t always like that, I guess, right?
Have you spent time thinking about additional Muddy Cloud characters?
We want to do some wood dolls in the near future.
What do you think wood dolls will bring to Muddy Cloud?
Fabric is really the new medium for me. Wood is a medium that is a bit closer to my heart; everything I created as a kid was first made from wood scraps that were left over from some type of DIY job; possibilities were endless: swords, magic wands, forts, hideouts for action figures, etc. We believe these dolls that start out as a block of wood will bring a creative process that will be very interesting -- possibly something very warm and inviting for others as well.
When you’re sketching -- conceptualizing a Muddy Cloud design -- are you thinking about the color and size and shape of the doll, or are you just too focused on the pencil and paper?
I think of too much at once. That does block my thought process. I’m always thinking what shape will look nice, what colors will go well together. I try to bring it altogether at once and that’s always a problem. I should probably take it one step at a time instead of trying to incorporate color when I’m just using a charcoal pencil.
Sketching, I always felt, was an important skill. Most people say, “I can’t draw. I can’t sketch anything.” You really don’t need to have any special skill. Sometimes, just sketching things out helps clear your mind. And once you get it out on paper, you’re able to move past something you’re stuck on. You can find something that catches your eye a little bit more, an idea you hadn’t thought of before.
What’s the creation process for Muddy Cloud, from concept sketch to the first doll prototype? What do you have to do? How many sketches do you have to make?
The first time I did it, I just came up with sketches that I liked, some concept sketch with the colors that I liked, and I would move onto making a pattern. I would actually make the dolls myself to feel it, to make sure everything fit together.
What kind of conditions do you need to work on your dolls? Do you need to work on your second floor loft?
I can do it anywhere. I don’t have to have any planets aligned in order to sketch something out. You should be able to sketch wherever you are. You always hear stories about people doing it on napkins when they’re at a restaurant.
Do you ever feel intimidated by the field you’re in?
Yeah, all the time.
What kind of things do you feel intimidated by?
Maybe some of it is superficial but “Are you going to be liked? Are you going to be judged?”
And who’s asking those questions?
Myself, you know. I look up to so many different designers and I appreciate everything that anybody does creative-wise and it’s hard. You don’t want everyone critiquing your thoughts.
You don’t get Muddy Cloud hate-mail?
[laughs] Not yet. I think the worst thing that we’ve had is “Can I get a size exchange?”
Joy’s a very positive person, very upbeat. Are there things she does to help you feel motivated with Muddy Cloud?
Seeing her excitement, when we get a good article about it, or when someone says something [about Muddy Cloud] that’s positive, that really excites her a lot and to me that is exciting. I’m not an easy person to excite, but whenever I see her getting excited over it, it’s fun.
If for some reason you weren’t allowed to do Muddy Cloud anymore, like an unreasonable California proposition outlawed it, what would you do instead to be happy?
[laughs] Oh, I’d become an outlaw and still do it.
Check the Muddy Cloud forecast at www.muddycloud.com.