October 11th, 2019
Adam Dee: DISTORTING FOR CONFRONTATION
STORY BY mae mcdermott / illustrations BY adam dee / EDITED BY tara eng
Tucked away in his dorm or in the quiet study section of the library, Adam Dee (‘22) generates drawings that are fantastical in their exploration of distortion and interruption, and uncanny in their observation of human nature. Adam is a Writing major and leaves his room for the occasional Buzzsaw meeting, where he serves as Art Editor. Adam joins Stillwater’s Creative Lab in conversation with deputy editor Mae McDermott about the need for confrontation, examination of human psychology, and surreal expression of human truth.
MM: You have your own way that you naturally approach your work. Can you describe your style? And has this style just happened naturally in that you found that your work had a certain character? Or do you try to sculpt that character?
AD: My style I would say is very bright and happy; but you can see in the shapes that there’s some underlying sense of melancholy. Even if I use these bright colors that are very eye-catching, the shapes and the forms that the colors inhabit just have this sad essence to them. There wasn’t this idea where I wanted to have the colors and the image contrast each other. I didn’t want to say, “Look, these are bright colors, but the picture as a whole makes you feel sad.” That was never my intention. I think that’s just kind of what came out. I think it’s something people do in general. I think that everyone puts a piece of themselves into their work, and so every piece of media is somewhat autobiographical in a way. I don’t think a person can truly separate themselves from their work.
MM: So much of what you create is off-kilter or contorted in some way, and it makes for such unique work. Do you deliberately complicate your art in order to create something complex, or does the complexity just sort of present itself?
AD: That’s kind of just the image I have in my head. I have these images of distorted figures, and then I put it down on paper. I don’t specifically search for it, it just kind of comes to me. Like, I wanna see this guy’s arm twisting in a weird way. And I also like seeing the meshing of human and beast. I have this obsession with distortion and specifically distortion of the human figure. If I’m taking in some other media and I see, let’s say, a mutant, and its body is twisted and its joints are in places that it shouldn’t be, I’ll find that really interesting.
MM: The end results of your labor are so intriguing and sometimes baffling, and they make me wonder how you arrive upon that final image. What is the relationship between your thought process and what you end up producing? What is your process when you sit down and produce something, both psychologically and in terms of the concrete product?
AD: I’d say that when I start drawing, I have a very clear idea of the shape I want it to have. But as I’m making it, greater details come from emotional experiences. I will start off with just a very basic stick figure person, but then I’ll start getting into these head spaces where I think about, how does this one person I know react when they are confronted with something? Or how do I interpret these emotions that other people feel? How do I tamper with the emotional spectrum that I feel? As I think about these psychological aspects, they come into play and [the drawings] become very twisted. There’s no real way for me to get my exact thoughts onto the page. So my work is mostly a bunch of shadows of the ideas I have. [It’s] kind of like the world of forms, in a way. It’s a philosophical idea that all things in this reality are just shadows of another reality where everything is perfect.
The whole process can be very draining. Whenever I work, I’m pretty much just sitting alone in a room, and I’m just scribbling and making little marks that can’t be seen from a distance unless you look up close. And when I’m alone, it’s all just my thoughts that are revolving around the process. At points I just do it, I just make the art without thinking about what I’m doing, so my thoughts just go into other spaces [and] emotions that are being tapped for the work.
MM: This process sounds extremely deliberate not only because it’s clearly visually super detailed – you don’t leave white space and everything is filled in, for the most part – but because it’s emotionally visceral and fleshed-out as well. Would you mind giving me an example of how an emotional experience might find its way into your work?
AD: At one point, I was going through this really rough patch in my life. It was probably around the fall of last year, I would say. And before that it had been a very good year. I fell into this really weird, dark place, and I started to make this series of pieces that reflected my progression through that. There was a piece that was part of this ROD series, because [in] every piece the title was a word that starts with R, that starts with O, or that starts with D. It was called Rebirth of Distortion. And I had this very basic idea for it, just a ball and something coming out of that ball. But as I got deeper into it, more details became clear to me. The way I wanted that thing to emerge from that ball, it became very… to me it was grotesque. The colors became very dark, and the shape of the main figure in that piece was very distorted and just made up of pretty much blackness. So that portion of my life was sort of just filled with trying to come to terms with the way I was thinking and the things going on around me. The piece sort of represented coming back before that shift, and how there was this return of darkness in a way.
MM: If you find that sort of emotional language with art, then how does that relate or not relate to what you do with writing?
AD: A lot of my writing also revolves around the idea of things intruding into the real world. It’s all very fantastic, but in a gritty, gross way, where human emotions are then confronted by beings that represent those emotions. And a lot of the descriptions of these characters that I use in my writing come from drawings. So when I write up a story, I’ll say, “I want to draw this character, and I want it to be an actual presence to me,” so that I can better portray it in the story, and so that I can better portray it to readers.
MM: Will you tell me about your creative artifact?
AD: I went with this idea that’s been stuck in my head for the past three years – this sort of litch character with this bone mask and antlers and it’s very tall, and the limbs and body [are] distorted and bend in ways that you don’t really want [them] to because it’s just unsettling. And when I was thinking about this idea of art sort of sending of a ripple, I thought that’s sort of like what this character represents for me because whenever I think about the character, I think, intrusion. There’s this intrusion from this creature that’s from a different plane of reality into our own world. And this was pretty much the first time I put a character into a real place. I took a picture…of the bookshelf in the library. I was like, “Oh, people are often in libraries, I’ll put this guy in a library.” He thinks he’ll be hidden among the books, but then he’s staring right out of the picture. He has this look of, “you’d better just walk away and leave me to my business.” And I feel like that’s a relationship that that character tends to have with an audience.
MM: I’m interested in this idea of confrontation of your audience and close observation of others. You generate a relationship with viewers, but often with deeply unsettling work… so the relationship does not have to be connective in a positive way. Is it accurate to say that the art becomes a way for you to not only communicate and examine your own inner workings, but to gauge and reflect on other people?
AD: Yeah. I think I show my art to other people because I want to see how they experience it as well. I want to experience other people pretty much all the time. I want to be around other people, I want to see how they feel, day to day, I want to see how their thoughts change, and how their emotions sort of bounce off the world around them. I’m always looking at people. So if anyone ever finds me just staring at them, it’s probably because they’re making a weird pose, or standing or sitting in an odd way, or I’m trying to see how they interact with the world around them. I’ll have pictures that I’ve taken of people who know I’m taking a picture. But I like my pictures to be honest, I don’t want someone to specifically pose for a picture, I want to capture them in an action. Because even though the pieces I make aren’t realistic, they don’t look like real people often, they don’t have accurate proportions, I want there to be a certain human element to it, so that people can see themselves there.
I think [psychology is] probably one of the most important pieces of what I do, because I’m always thinking about how other people think, and trying to break down their own thoughts and biases. With a few of my pieces I think there is this desire to say, “You feel this way, but should you feel this way?” There’s a way that they sort of criticize the viewer. I know one specific piece of mine is sort of a critique on people shifting blame from themselves to this unknown entity. They’ll say, “what I did that night, that wasn’t really me.” But, it was them. It’s clearly a part of who they are, and there can’t be any sort of healing done, there can’t be any improvement unless there’s confrontation. My art might not be successful in confronting people, but that’s at least my intention.