An Interview with Josh Whitehouse (pt 1)
The unorthodox journey of illustrator Josh Whitehouse
The unorthodox journey of illustrator Josh Whitehouse
Who are the people in your life who energise you?
We all need people like that. People who inspire us, encourage and provoke us. People who you come away from feeling fresher than you felt before you met up. I have the pleasure of meeting up with Josh Whitehouse every couple of weeks and he is certainly such a person.
If you’ve been involved in Sputnik for any length of time, you’ll probably have met Josh. For Josh, illustration is less a skill, more a superpower. I’ve met many artists who can do things I know I’ll never be able to do, but with Josh, often I don’t even know how he is able to do the things he does. His mastery of his craft is breathtaking, but more than that, he thinks in a way that I particularly appreciate and it means that Friday morning catch ups are always highlights in my week.
On one such morning recently, in the middle of a typically involved and fascinating conversation about Japanese animation, I thought that I should really stop being so selfish and share some of Josh’s insights a bit wider. It was never going to be a particularly linear interview, but via a few Facebook messages, a chat recorded on my phone and some other conversations over coffee, I think I’ve got enough to give you a bit of a window into the world of Jowybean. Next time, we’ll go into some of the themes in his work and how he wrestles with the challenges he faces as a Christian illustrator, today I’ll let him guide you through his rather unique artistic and spiritual journey…
Josh, like so many of us, was brought up with Christianity all around him. However, that is probably one of the sole points of common ground most of us will have with his spiritual journey. Growing up, his faith was seen through a very specific lens: Veggie Tales! Such was the influence of Larry and his talking vegetable chums that, as a child, Josh found church quite dull (I mean, singing cucumbers are quite a hard act to follow) and started life with a strong feeling that there was something intrinsically sacred about vegetables!
The basic foundations were set right there- Christianity and cartoons. Working through how to combine the two in any non-vegetable related way was tricky though. Josh was prodigiously good with a pen from childhood. At 9, he got his first exhibition for Disability Art in London (Josh was diagnosed with autism at an early age) and was the official artist at the opening of Millennium Point, Birmingham, when he was asked to produce an original piece of art for The Queen.
Regarding content, he initially drew what he refers to as ‘propaganda, sort of preachy pictures’– devils getting beat up by angels, that sort of thing. However, even then, his artistic vision didn’t quite fit in with expectations. Sometimes the content would be deemed a bit scary by folk at church, but more generally his drawing was just seen as a bit of a distraction. ‘Why was Josh sitting drawing and not listening to the preacher?’ That was how he felt people responded to him in church. They didn’t get what he was doing and more than that felt that his art was somehow unhealthy, and partly because of this, he stopped going to church as a teenager. (Josh was keen for me to point out that another contributing factor to his church absence was a burgeoning obsession with Sonic the Hedgehog which was taking up a lot of his time!)
And perhaps there were unhealthy elements to his work. Josh is the first to admit his own weaknesses and his work (and the imagination behind it) has been a blessing and a curse:
‘For much of my life I felt I was a cartoon character trapped in a human body, I felt I wasn’t real- a Roger Rabbit type character…’
When I first met him, I remember talking at length about how he feared that he lived too much in the imaginative worlds he created and not enough in the real world. I understand his concern, but to be honest, having heard about some of the worlds he’s created, I’d probably quite like to live in them too! It’s always reminded me a bit of JRR Tolkien, who not only constructed the entire history of Middle Earth while writing Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but created the elvish language too.
Whereas Veggie Tales provided Josh’s Christian foundations, his route back to Jesus was through another animated series, and this is a little more surreal. Josh was brought back to faith through My Little Pony.
When I first met Josh, I discovered almost immediately that he was a Brony. Bronies, for the uninitiated are adult male fans of My Little Pony, and I do use the term in the plural, as Josh is far from the only one. When My Little Pony relaunched in 2010, its TV show ‘Friendship is Magic’ was primarily aimed at young girls, but it unexpectedly gained an eager audience among young and middle aged men (as well as women). Maybe it’s a cosplay sort of thing, maybe it’s just a strange offshoot of geekdom, but whatever it is, it’s a thing, and it seems to be the thing that God used to bring Josh Whitehouse back to faith in Jesus.
The world it was based in, the way it was told, and just the visuals- it just had this essence of heaven in there, and at some point I suddenly started hearing God again, coming through there, through the interaction between the characters, the storylines and even the catchy songs, to the point that even some of my pony pieces actually have names of Christian songs in there… And again I do feel strange even now as a Christian talking about this and saying that ponies was a way of sort of getting back into talking with Jesus but in a way that was where the faith grew.
As well as kickstarting his faith, MLP provided Josh with his widest platform as an artist. He is a renowned MLP fan artist and regularly displays and sells work at conventions across the world. But to label Josh, or jowybean to use his artist moniker, simply a Pony artist, would be a huge discredit to him, whatever you think of Hasbro’s colourful horses. Next time, I’ll divulge a little more why that might be.
In the mean time, check out his work. Perhaps his instagram is a good place to start.