New Age Fabulist: A Conversation with Jesse Fillingham
Fantasy and mythology have the distinct capacity to captivate and connect, to reveal aspects of our humanity, good and bad, through imaginative ways of storytelling. Some of the most compelling tales over the past two decades, like Game of Thrones, Lord Of The Rings and Harry Potter have all used fantasy to share and find common ground in wild inventions that uncover larger truths can be uncovered, truths about ourselves and the culture we live in.
Los Angeles based illustrator Jesse Fillingham utilizes this methodology in art that employs dark fantastical imagery, figures cast in medieval armor, set amongst the vine-ridden imaginary lands. Fillingham’s stories are sometimes distilled down to a singular image, centering his subjects idiosyncratically in his own dream-like world. Beautifully composed and meticulously rendered, Fillingham bridges illustration, art, and storytelling seamlessly. Exploring the relationship between man and nature, his work is at times heavy and spiritual; at other times, humorous and mischevious. His use of negative space and simple constructions generate a powerful atmosphere that beckons viewers to fill in the blanks with their own unique experiences.
A fan of comics and visual story-telling himself, Fillingham has decidedly gone his own way, forging his own path and adding to the fantasy landscape in a minimal, contemporary style. We sat down with him this summer in his LA home studio as apart of our #westcoaststudiotour. Take a look at our interview below.
Jessica Ross: Let's start with a simple yes or no for these rapid-fire questions:
- Played Zelda? Yes
- D&D? No
- Completely scrapped a piece after almost finishing? Yes
- Been to a Renaissance Fair? No
- Binge-watched LOTR? No
- Turned down large freelance projects because they’d kill your soul? Not yet!
- Dabbled in archery? No
Now, we'll jump right in, as in, who is the recurring wandering figure? Where is he going and where did he come from?
Jesse Fillingham: He is (among other things) a doppelgänger of sorts. He enjoys my desire for open spaces and quiet, as well as an admittedly immature yearning to exist in a benevolent natural environment. There is something romantic to me about wandering about wild places without attachments or responsibilities. A low stakes picaresque existence. I yearn for that life knowing it is an impossible one.
When did your deep affinity for fantasy and medieval imagery begin? Have you ever wanted to display your works in that sort of setting, in a castle perhaps?
My love for the fantastic began when I was a child. Like most children, my parents read children’s stories to me about talking animals, sentient plants, and anthropomorphized seasons. As I grew older, I continued to seek those types of stories through novels, comic books or video games. Over the past five years or so I have been reading a lot more than ever, and the best versions of those stories have had a huge impact on the direction of my work.
I have definitely entertained thoughts in the past about doing a show in a gallery setting that is made to feel like a castle or dungeon without being so on the nose. Wispy smoke, some sound design track playing in the background, water dripping from a putrid looking ceiling into a stagnant puddle, dim lighting. Maybe someday I will make it happen.
Your studio is crawling with hundreds of zines and comics, what titles are in your current rotation?
Some books that I am a big fan of and come back to often are Anti-Gone by Connor Willumsen, Aerosol by CF, Stages of Rot by Linnea Sterte, Fugue by Matt Sheean, Hermit Crab Real Estate by Tyler Landry and Salut Marcel by Sammy Stein, to name a few.
What draws you to comics as a form of storytelling? How has your work evolved over the years in the narrative format?
I am honestly not too sure what the attraction to comics is for me. I read comic books as a kid and always gravitated to the books with the coolest artwork. That still mostly holds true these days, and if the story is good that's an added bonus. Every time that I have made narrative illustrations/comics it has always been a huge learning process and I kind of figure it out as I go and end up working relatively minimally. Comics take so much work! I would like to make more but they take an incredible amount of time for me and there are only so many hours in the day.
Seeing your work and knowing you're from San Diego, things don’t exactly compute. Were you able to explore alternative underground scenes in San Diego or did you have to find weird, artsy people elsewhere?
I didn’t explore underground scenes in San Diego at all and never even really looked for or found artsy people until I went to art school. I am certainly not alone in this but I have always felt a bit like an outsider and loner whether I was around people, whether in ‘underground’ scenes or not. I was kind of a jock in high school but also read comics, played video games, went to some LAN parties, and read fantasy books so I straddled a few different worlds without fully being an ingrained member in any of them.
“Shinrin-yoku” loosely translates to “forest bathing” in Japanese. Do you find yourself in nature often as a form of self-care and or a way to take in inspiration for your work?
Forest bathing!! Being in nature has always been important to my physical and mental well-being, and it has become even more urgent the longer I live in Los Angeles. The city feels incredibly suffocating for me these days, so every once in a while I need to get out of town and decompress a bit.
I have recently found myself marveling at the most pedestrian and invasive spurts of greenery around the city. Dandelions popping up out of a disintegrating chunk of sidewalk made me very happy the other day. I think living and commuting in this hazy metropolis for 12 years has slowly brought out a childlike wonder for the natural world that I didn’t have for most of my time living here. That childlike wonder has wormed its way into my artwork as I find I am making more drawings about critters (homo sapiens included) and their relationships to the natural world. Or I could just be getting older and more melancholic about cycles of life and death.
Who are some of your favorite illustrators and artists at the moment? This is your chance to shout some folks out!
I am always excited to see new posts on Instagram from Ram Han, Theodora Allen, S.A Mayer, David Jien, and Audrey Helen Weber these days.
Man always seems to be succumbing to nature in your work, defeated by the world around him. What’s going on here, and is there a larger message at play?
I have a deep respect for the power of nature and how infinitesimal we are in the face of it. While I am a big believer in human ingenuity, I can become quite pessimistic when it comes to our species’ destructive relationship with the natural world. I think those sentiments are sneaking into my work more and more as I become more and more anxiety-ridden about climate change and our future on this planet.
What’s coming up for you in 2020? Where can we see more of your work?
On top of the regular flow of making artwork, I am going to make some Harold Budd dad hats and also hoping to do more album covers and release a self-published book or two. I’m also in a group show at Harpy Gallery, opening November 2nd.