Q&A | Ryan Heshka

by Morgan Vickery

Ryan Heshka at opening for “FREEK”' show.

Ryan Heshka at opening for “FREEK”' show.

Ryan Heshka is the Canadian artist and illustrator with an undeniable affinity for the unique, for individualists and nonconformists. His adolescence was filled with daydreaming, sketching, building cardboard cities, and making super 8mm films. Young Heshka developed an obsession with outdated media, like golden age comics, pulp magazines, animation, and so on, later fueling his creative ambitions. While trained as an interior designer, Ryan found his calling somewhere between illustration and comic ventures. 

Fast forward to the present day, and Heshka is presenting a solo show at Los Angeles' Corey Helford Gallery with illustration acclaim and a couple of comic books under his belt. The show, entitled "FREEKS," is an ode to weirdos, misfits, and oddballs, presenting an alternate universe from which beauty and satire coexist. Until September 14th, the exhibition showcases new oil paintings and gouache works on paper, along with his first comic, "Mean Girls Club: Pink Dawn," and newly released second comic, "Frog Wife." After the opening reception of the "FREEKS” show, Flaunt spoke with the individualist, covering the evolution of his career, current exhibition, and what's to come.

“FREEKS” show.

“FREEKS” show.

How did your early affection for golden age comics, pulp magazines, and animation, inspire your artistic aesthetic?

Very, very heavily. In fact, I became so aware of these influences in my work that about eight years ago that I made a concentrated effort to pull back from those influences visually. Since then, I've been distilling those influences down to basic forms: colors, textures, lighting, etc. with the aim of developing a more unique voice and approach while maintaining the weird, dreamlike mood of old comics and film. I believe my work has grown mostly because of that choice. I still love old comics, pulps, and film, but I don't use it as a reference so much anymore. It's now filtered through an eye that takes in a wider range of sources and inspiration. Obviously, the comic book work like “Frog Wife” leans heavily on old comics like Batman or horror comics, and doing comics lets me pay homage to those influences without being apologetic.

“Frog Wife” comic.

“Frog Wife” comic.

Formerly trained as an interior designer, how did you make the switch to illustration?

I went from interior design to animation to illustration and ultimately into personal art. I have always drawn and created, and when I left interior design, I got the illustration bug. However, it took me about seven years to get my foot in the door (with illustration representative Kate Larkworthy (NY)). In the interim, I worked in animation doing character clean up and layouts (by hand). My interior design experience still plays a big role in my art in terms of special awareness and color usage.

“Mean Girls Club” comic.

“Mean Girls Club” comic.

Tell us about the theme of your upcoming show, FREEKS.

The theme that holds to FREEKS show together is that of individualism and rebellion. There is an underlying spirit in all the work that oozes nonconformity, a shifting of gender roles and identity, and in general, just sticking it to the man. I didn't intentionally set out to execute these themes overtly in the new paintings, but rather I wanted those feelings to be bubbling underneath the image. Early on, when the gallery agreed to display the entire work from "Mean Girls Club: Pink Dawn," the theme was set in my head. The development of the "Frog Wife" comic followed MGCPD in its subversive mood and stylistically as well. The new paintings that rounded out the show cemented this theme in place with its weird, grotesque and mostly nonhuman subjects and the odd, distantly retro yet modern colors.

“Mean Girls Club” comic.

“Mean Girls Club” comic.

How did you decide to break into comics with "Mean Girls Club: Pink Dawn"?

The first "Mean Girls Club" comic book was a self-published risograph (basically a fancy photocopier) comic book I did for an art installation show at Wieden + Kennedy in Portland. While the show was on, I put a copy of the comic in the hands of Sam Arthur of Nobrow Press (London). Both of us were attending ICON, a bi-annual illustration conference. The timing was right, and they published the MGC comic. A few years later, we agreed on doing a graphic novel follow up. This breakthrough happened very late in life for me, considering I had been drawing comics for my own amusement since I was four years old. But that's the way things generally happen in my life… later.

“Frog Wife” comic.

“Frog Wife” comic.

 What can we expect from your newly launched "Frog Wife" comic?

 From a drawing standpoint, it is in the same family as "Mean Girls Club." It is set in what is clearly the late 1940s or early 50s. It also subverts the 50s housewife and gender stereotypes to reflect a more modern mood. In this comic, however, my focus is the origin story of a single character, Frog Wife. I don't want to give too much away, but I consider it an Eco-Romance of the Apocalypse. And unlike MGC, the colors (all three of them) will simultaneously sear and soothe your retinas with their brilliance.

"I So Beautiful"

"I So Beautiful"

Of your new paintings included in the FREEKS show, which embodies your desire to celebrate individuality most?

That would be "I So Beautiful," the mound of hair in front of the dressing table mirror. That was a sketch I had lying around for a long time, but I was waiting for the right moment. The painting has the right balance of weirdness, celebrating one's own uniqueness, and also throws formality and taste right out the door. I almost didn't paint it, as it seemed that it might be too gruesome or sexual, but in the end, it was one of the most photographed pieces of the exhibition. It seemed to have struck the intended chord with viewers.

“Spider Pinky”

“Spider Pinky”

What's next?

I have a few smaller group shows over the next year, but I actually have not booked another solo show at this point. I need to step back, catch my breath from the last twenty years, and take a good hard look at the direction of my career. I went into FREEKS with some burnout, so I'm looking forward to catching up on some private commissions and painting for myself again. I am also working with a jewelry company out of Madrid and will be part of an artist-driven line of jewelry. There is also a small but very special comics project in the works, and I will likely try to find time to do another self-published comic, maybe more in the vein of an anthology (horror or hero).


“FREEKS” opening reception photos by Birdman Photos.