Up, up, and away!

Alligators. Hot air balloons. A trip around the world. Not a bad way to spend an evening, if you ask me.

Alligators. Hot air balloons. A trip around the world. Not a bad way to spend an evening, if you ask me.

aitawebfile001Well, that’s what you’ll get when stop by Lift Coffee Shop and Cafe on Broad Street during this week’s First Friday’s Artwalk. Local illustrator and graphic designer Mark Luetke will be using the space to invite Richmonders to take part in his latest adventure in the world of comics: Alligators in the Air.

Influenced by the likes of Chris Ware, Craig Thompson, Jeff Smith, and Piet Mondrian, and inspired by his son (awwwww), Mark’s work strikes an interesting balance between the whimsical and the clever. It’s accessible without being pedestrian, astute but not at all pretentious. And it’s damn near impossible to look at it and not feel at least a little… uplifted.

We had a chance to talk with Mark about his life as an artist in Richmond, his latest exhibit, and what other ideas he’s got up his sleeve.

You’re not from around here. How did you end up in Richmond?

We moved here in 2004 from Minnesota. My wife and I were both attending school for careers that we soon realized were not for us. I wanted to go to art school, and VCU was a perfect choice. I had grown up in Virginia Beach, my brother lived in Norfolk, and Jeni (despite having lived in nearly every part of the US) had never lived in or even spent time in Virginia or much of the southeast. I met the right people from the start, and opportunities started to present themselves. VCU turned out to be an ideal choice and Richmond was the perfect catalyst.

What do you think about the art scene in Richmond? Is it encouraging being around so many other creative people, or is it daunting considering you could easily get lost in the shuffle?

From my experience, Richmond is a pretty great place to get a foothold in the art world. VCU is great, there’s an amazing artists’ community, and as long as you are willing to put yourself out there, the opportunities seem to be pretty easy to come by. When we first moved here I met a ton of people really fast. Everyone was really excited about this city and working hard to make their mark. It was really easy to get small gigs just by hanging out at bars and hitting up the galleries. I’ve kind of become more of a homebody as of late and don’t really get out into the scene as much, but I know the opportunities are still there. I just listened to an interview on WRIR with the founders of Best Friends Day. When they started it eight years ago they had about 40 friends show up and were floored by how huge it was. This year it’s a four-day festival with something like 30 bands playing from all over the country. It just shows that Richmond has plenty of room for you to step up and do something, be it a huge festival to celebrate friendship or a small show at a coffee shop.

Your style is very distinct and easy to spot. Where did that come from?

It’s grown organically over time as all styles do. Although I think it really came from me avoiding things I don’t know how to draw. When I was a kid I drew an army of superhero characters with stats and trading cards and the whole works. But every one of them wore a mask because I didn’t know how to draw faces. So in an effort to tell stories without having to try and struggle with anatomy, these characters developed.

aitawebfile003What’s the story behind Alligators in the Air?

My son occasionally asks us to look at the ceiling and tell him a story. He was at the moment very interested in balloons, and a crude version of this story fell out.

You’ve decided to present Alligators in the Air in a way that’s a bit of a departure from the typical “canvas on a wall” approach to displaying art. Tell me more about that.

Alligators in the Air began as a traditional kids book, but I wanted to see what I could do to push the boundaries of comics, and this seemed like a worthy candidate. I had looked into various experimental panel layouts that could go directly onto the wall, but they seemed too distant from the comic itself. I wanted to reference the printed page and it’s conventions of reading from left to right while exploring the 3-dimensional space of sculpture. Mobiles were my first choice, but venue constraints and the impracticality of having 75 or so wood panels swinging in the breeze became too much. I have opted to go with a floating panel design that keeps the layouts from the mobiles but restricts movement. The 3-dimensional space remains, and the story is able to respond to the amazing interior design of Lift, giving the pages a flowing rhythm that references the round-the-world balloon adventure itself.

aitawebfilesleepingHow long does it take you to complete a project like Alligators in the Air?

It takes about two months to produce it but quite a bit longer if you count the journey it takes to get to come to the commitment. I worked on a number of other projects in search of Alligators.

What do you hope people get from Alligators in the Air?

Really I just hope it makes them happy. It’s a story about making friends, wind, really high heights, and saying goodbye.

You’ve got something else in the works called Up. Can you tell us more about that?

Up (picked at random from a Shel Silverstein book) is intended to be a drastic departure from the very rigid process I usually employ with my comics. I draw one page a day without layouts or a written story. I’m trying to create a continuation story with myself and others. Anyone can draw a page, actually. You can find out more about how to submit a page on my blog.

It’s a project that I’ve been thinking about for a while now. When I was in high school I played a game with friends called “Retaliation” which was a turn-based comic where each player had a character. The goal was just to defame each other with third grade potty humor and senseless violence. We made hundreds of pages of bizarre comics and learned a lot about how to tell a story with pictures.

What I hope to do with Up is expand on the collaborative aspect of Retaliation by allowing anyone to submit a new page at any point in the comic, creating multiple threads. My hope is that it would give creators ultimate flexibility and the luxury of not having to wait on another artist to finish their turn. It would also give readers a unique choose-your-own-adventure comic experience. I’d love to have guest curators create their favorite paths through the web of comics for others to read.

To learn more about Mark and his work, check out his website, schmackLab: the art and process of Mark Luetke. Alligators in the Air premiers this Friday at Lift (218 W. Broad Street) from 6pm to 9pm and will show there through September.

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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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