An Interview with Josh Whitehouse (Pt 2)
The enigmatic illustrator shares more about his work
The enigmatic illustrator shares more about his work
So, if you caught the first part of our interview, you’ll know that Josh (aka jowybean) has a pretty standard story. Brought to faith through Veggie Tales, brought back to Jesus through My Little Pony. You know, the usual!
As well as catching up on his artistic and spiritual journey though, he shared with me something of the substance to his work, the themes he likes to explore and also how he handles the different challenges that his particular art form throws up for him as a Christian.
Two major themes in Josh’s work are juxtaposition and a love for place and one’s local environment. One of Josh’s favourite pass times is watching youtube videos taken by people driving around major cities in the world. It’s like he drinks in the different environments, architecture and people, then filters them through his world-creating imagination to create new and hybrid cityscapes. Perhaps one will be an image of London and Tokyo combined. Perhaps New York and Amsterdam. Perhaps it will be an African and European city merged together or even a Middle Eastern city, imagined 50 years in the future.
This juxtaposition can be seen very clearly in almost all of us his work as well, as he combines very diverse styles of illustration in single pieces. One of his most recent projects is Humanization.com, a series of comics in an imagined world where humans are all dead, but the internet has become alive. The main character, Cadra, is drawn with a sense of realism, whereas other characters are more influenced by Japanese manga styles, and others will have the wide eyes and podgy noses of Warner Bros characters. And the impressive thing is that these different styles all combine to create a coherent world.
As he puts it:
One of the themes I do in my art is juxtaposition and that doesn’t always mean juxtaposition of subject matter. I’ve tried doing political things but… it was something I never really got a connection with. But if I started doing whimsical things with dragons and ogres next to butterflies- just cute things next to ugly things, that’s the best way I can try to describe it- I got more of a kick out of that… I enjoyed that more..
Now, he’d see the purpose of his art first and foremost as a challenge to people’s creative horizons rather than an attempt to change people’s worldview:
Although I’m not like a deep conceptual artist… I prefer to talk about the world both in the good and the bad, but mostly in a positive light, not always to challenge people in the world but maybe to challenge them creatively. To say to young generations, you don’t need to draw Spiderman characters, or Batman looking heroes or draw Japanese girls in the same uniform to be successful- you can, but it’s better if you try to do something different with it.
But, even with this said, he definitely has the power to communicate clearly through his work. Since starting coming to our church two years ago, he would regularly respond to the Sunday morning sermons by drawing (each piece is started and completed in the duration of the sermon). We then stick these up on the church blog, mainly to encourage creativity in the church and to remind people of the sermon’s message, but increasingly, his pieces contain spiritual insights that add helpful and personal layers to what was said. At our midweek groups, he draws people’s prayers. You know when someone says to you ‘I’ve got a picture for you.’ That kind of thing, only Josh really has a picture for you!
If you have even a passing interest in animation and illustration, you’ll be aware that this genre moves away from cute pictures for children reasonably quickly. In fact, maybe as a reaction against the traditional view of comics and cartoons, there is a deliberate corruption and sexualisation of cuteness everywhere. I personally would find it very difficult to delve deeply into this culture, knowing the temptations that are real to me. However, this is the world that Josh has grown up in, and while he recognises that he has to tread carefully, there is something of an immunity he seems to have developed to some of the culture’s more twisted manifestations.
His work reflects this and if you flick through the second issue of Humanization.com you see this quite quickly. You’ve got prostitutes. Serial killers. A whole scene depicting one character’s prodigal son like descent into depravity. We’ve talked at length about these sort of depictions and I asked him how he would justify such images to a Christian who felt them unwholesome. His point is quite simply that this is the world we live in and to engage with people in this world, we cannot avoid such subject matter:
We live in an age where this is the majority of society’s attitude to material processions and the notion of love, with the wealth of information we have produced in the last decade a lot has come from very weird/dark places that have gone beyond anything you could have discovered from a play boy magazine or risky news report in the news paper. This particular page you mentioned (the aforementioned montage depicting a character’s moral slide) is just a window to highlight these issues, not glorify them or encourage practising them. I think this quote from the page will help sum up my point “But I mistook taking as living, and lived as fully as I could, takin’ what I wanted, when I wanted, however I wanted”
Whatever your feeling about that particular image (you’ll have to buy the comic for that) I think that Josh is absolutely on to something. Christian artists must become better at depicting the ugliness of the fallen world or we will fail to connect with the people who live squarely in that reality. If we simply present a hope to come, without a realisation of the grime that’s here, it will seem to many like wishful thinking disconnected with reality. This is clearly very murky territory, but I think that it’s murky territory some of us have to explore. I think Josh is a great example of someone working right on ‘the line’, and honestly working through how he imbues his art with his faith and deepens his faith through his art and uses his talent to communicate powerfully to those around him.
It is also worth noting that the world of geekdom and comics is not exactly overspilling with Christians. I asked him about this and he recognised that there weren’t many other Christians around but that people responded to the fact that he’s a Christian positively and with curiosity.
In his work itself, he’s certainly moved past the preachy images of his childhood. (‘…It would be weird to plug every picture (at a My Little Pony Convention) by telling people that Jesus loves them.’) For Josh, the best way he can be a witness in his world and work is to be ‘nice to people, do the best I can and stay very positive.’ He expresses his aim succinctly and simply, but as usual gets it totally on the button in my opinion- he wants people who meet him to go away saying:
‘That Jowybean guy, there’s something about him that was different.’
He’s come a long way since Veggie Tales and I’m very excited to see where he’s going to go next. He’s already working on the third issue of Humanization.com and is also looking to continue working as a freelancer in everything from children’s picture books to comics to animations to continuing vending at geek conventions. The project he is most excited about though is working with local historians to document the story behind towns and villages around Birmingham and further afield (building on his Bearwood Art and History Project). He sums this up like this:
I believe that this ambitious endeavour of mine would be a way of giving a spotlight, not to just me as a creative, but mostly to the unsung heroes that God has made… God has blessed me with a wacky but beautiful imagination and I know he wants me to share that with as many people… both in faith or not.
I couldn’t agree more.