Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Jef Czekaj - Cartoonist Survey #265

Jef Czekaj is a cartoonist, musician and children's book author and illustrator who was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1969. He earned a BA in linguistics from Binghamton University. Although he loved to draw as a kid, creating his own comics and movie poster spoofs, he didn’t draw at all in college. While at Binghamton U, he worked at the radio station WHRW as the business manager and host of various radio shows. Around that time he also joined his first band, Shig Pit. Since then Jef has been a member of many bands including The Anchormen, The Tardy and Plunge into Death; and he has also been a solo performer.

After college he moved to Ithaca, New York and began drawing and distributing his mini-comic R2-D2 Is an Indie Rocker. The comic told the story of the struggling indie rock band Hypertruck and featured R2-D2 on guitar. Due to the fear of receiving threatening letters from George Lucas’s attorneys, Jef avoided copyright-infringement by renaming the comic Hypertruck.

In the late 90’s Jef moved to Somerville, MA and quickly became involved in the New England underground comics scene that included people such as Tom Devlin, Jordan Crane, Ron Rege Jr. and Brian Ralph. In 1997 he started working at Tom Devlin’s Highwater Books, a Cambridge-based independent comic book publishing company. Two years later along with Alex Pirie, Jef founded The Somerville Comics Collaborative. The Collaborative was created to bring artists, businesses, community groups and people of all ages and backgrounds together to tell stories of the city in comic form. One of the several collaborative comics that was created was the 96-page graphic novel “Fire on the Nunnery Grounds”. Published in 2000, “Fire on the Nunnery Grounds” was drawn by twelve Somerville teenagers and tells the story of the 1834 Ursuline Convent riots which resulted in the burning of the convent.

While working at Highwater Books Jef frequently attended comic conventions. It was at one of those conventions where he met Chris Duffy, who was then the editor of Nickelodeon Magazine. Chris read Jef’s mini-comic and suggested that he submit some work to the magazine. Thus began the 10-year run of Jef’s adventure comic strip, Grampa and Julie: Shark Hunters in Nickelodeon Magazine. The strip centers around a young girl, Julie, and her world-famous-scientist Grampa who search the seas for Stephen, the largest shark in the world. Grampa and Julie: Shark Hunters was read monthly by over a million children in both English and Spanish. In 2003 Jef was awarded with a Xeric Foundation Grant. The grant allowed him to publish a collection of the first three years of the strip which was distributed by Top Shelf Productions.

He has illustrated several books including, “The Quest to Digest”, “Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation”, “The Circulatory Story” and “Horns, Tails, Spikes and Claws”. Jef also wrote and illustrated his own picture books, “Hip and Hop, Don’t Stop!”, “Cat Secrets”, “A Call for a New Alphabet” and the soon to be released “Yes, Yes, Yaul!” and “Oink-a-Doodle-Moo”.

Jef still lives and works in Somerville, MA. Be sure to visit his website to learn more about him and to see more of his work. You can also follow him here on his blog and on his Facebook page. Jef makes frequent visits to schools, libraries and book stores, where he gives multi-media presentations that combine his musical and art skills. Click here to find out how to arrange a visit from Jef.

Um, before I start answering these questions, let me say that I'm not really so picky about the tools and materials that I use. I used to get really attached to one type of brush or paper or whatever and then that brush company would go out of business or I'd be on vacation and not be able to find that brush. So now I generally use whatever I can get my hands on.

What is your favorite pen to use?
I use a #2 size brush for inking. I just go to the art store and look for one that has a good point. I assume they're usually sable, but I'm guessing a lot of times they're not. Right now, I have a bunch of Winsor & Newton Cotman III brushes. For lettering I just use a Uniball.

When I'm buying art supplies, I ask myself these questions:
1. Is this the absolute cheapest thing I can buy?
2. If I needed to, could I buy this art supply on Christmas Day (presumably at 7-11) in Ocean City, MD?

Do you draw in pencil first and if so do you use a standard pencil or a mechanical one?
Yeah, pencil first. I draw with non-photo blue pencils even though I think my scanner picks up these lines anyway. Old habits die hard.

Do you do your coloring by hand or on the computer?
I color on my computer using Photoshop. Let the record show that I've had the same Wacom Pad for over 15 years.

What type of paper do you use?
Strathmore bristol, the one with the yellow cover.

What thing(s) do you hate to draw?
Wow, this is a long, long list. Cars, Horses, Buildings, Perspective, PrettyMuchAnythingThatIsNotAFishWearingATie.

I often try to write comics/books that force me to draw things I don't like to draw. For example, when I was still doing my Grampa and Julie strips I wrote an entire story arc that was based around a race just so I would force myself to draw vehicles.

Do you buy your supplies from big chain art store catalogues/websites or a local one that you physically go to?
I always physically go to the store. There are a few art stores in Cambridge, most of which are chains: Dick Blick, Utrecht, and one called Artist and Craftsman Supply. I miss the days when the cashiers who worked at Pearl (RIP) would help you shoplift.

Are there any rituals that you do before starting to draw?
Um, procrastinate for several months.

Do you listen to music while you draw and if so what genre?
I actually listen to a lot of NPR when inking. I do most of my rough sketching in coffee shops, so I'm sort of beholden to the musical taste of baristas. In Somerville, this involves way too much of Magnetic Fields and The Postal Service.

Did you read comics as a kid and if so what was your favorite?
I read comic strips, not really comic books. I LOVED Bloom County, The Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes.

What was your favorite book as a child and do you still own a copy of it?
I loved THERE'S A MONSTER AT THE END OF THE BOOK and yes I still own a copy. My book CAT SECRETS was an "homage" to that book (meaning, of course, that I ripped it off).

Did you have any formal art training and if so where did you receive it?
No formal training. Strangely enough, I actually didn't take ANY art classes in college.

Do you feel that the Internet is a blessing or a curse?
It's neither Satan nor God. I think it's honestly hard to argue that the Internet isn't a blessing, right? I mean, remember how hard it was to even get directions. However, I'm not naturally a "blogger" or "content provider" so it's mostly a pain in the ass for me from a promoting-my-work point of view. As much as I try, I just can't find it in my heart to tweet.

Did either of your parents draw?
Not really. I remember a painting that my mom had done in our basement, but it seemed like it was from some sort of paint-by-numbers kit and I think was done before I was alive. I had an uncle who does realistic animal/nature paintings. We had an awesome painting of a tiger by him in our living room growing up. Man, I wish we still had that painting.

Who in your life is/was the most supportive of your art?
My friends in junior high school. Everyday at lunch we would eat while I would illustrate a Lord-of-the-Rings type fantasy story that they dictated to me.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
Yes, though it's pretty informal. There aren't drawings of cute girls in coffee shops or life drawings like you're supposed to do. It's usually just page after page of me drawing the same picture of a fish wearing a tie or whatever it is I'm into.

Have you ever taught cartooning/drawing and if so did you enjoy the experience?
Yeah, I've taught a few classes on cartooning, mostly for younger kids. It's all right, but I don't think I'm especially good teacher. Since I'm entirely self-taught I really have a hard time explaining to people what I do and how I do it. I have a lot of enthusiasm.

Usually when I do workshops with kids I try to do something more dynamic than drawing. For example, in a couple of weeks I'm leading a cardboard fort-building workshop at the Boston Children's Museum.

Do you feel that talent or passion is more important in drawing?

Do you collect anything and if so what?
I'm really not much of a collector. I have a lot of art books and music.

If you were an animated cartoon character who do you think you would be?
MC Skat Kat

Are you a righty or lefty?
A Proud Lefty.

If you weren't an artist what would you want to do for work?
Yikes. I have no contingency plan.

In one or two sentences describe your drawing area.
Two drafting tables, one "new", one "vintage" pushed together. Ideally one is for my computer and one is for drawing, but usually 1.75 is for storing stuff that I should put away and the corner of one of them is for drawing. I have a nasty habit of not bothering to clean off my drawing area before I start drawing. Oh, and my cat is usually sitting on my chair and refusing to get off.

Do you play any musical instruments?
I play many instruments not especially well. Primary instrument = guitar. Other instruments I am somewhat competent at: violin, drums, keyboard, computer.

These days I'm a DJ for a rap group, The Big Digits.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone who wants to pursue drawing as a career what would it be?
I bet this is what EVERYONE you ask says, but just draw as much as you can. And don't worry about whether it's a "good" drawing or a "bad" drawing.

Who is your favorite artist?
Tove Jannson.

Thanks again for participating Jef!

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