One of the first things you may notice about LA-based artist Gary Baseman is that he is almost always accompanied by his small and lovely vinyl friend, Toby, as well as at least one of his numerous sketchbooks and colored pencils. We were thrilled to not only have the chance to browse through his 148th sketchbook, but also to actually meet the man behind an impressive body of work, including many weird and wonderful paintings and illustrations, the award-winning series Teacher’s Pet, the best-selling board game Cranium, a cover for The New Yorker and lots, lots more. Our chat led us to fascinating places, from insights into his works and his upcoming projects, to stories on his first love and the details of his parents’ background. While we were speaking, we were lucky enough to witness Gary sketching away the entire time, filling his notebook with more colorful creations, with Toby by his side. For someone who describes the act of drawing as “breathing”, this comes naturally.

Artist Gary Baseman with Toby.
Gary Baseman with Toby.

 

High on Design: How did you first meet Toby, and what does he represent? Is he your friend, your dream, your alter-ego or anything else?

Gary: The original Toby was a girl that lived across the street from me when I was growing up. Her parents were Holocaust survivors, both originally from my mother’s town. She used to hang out with me, although she was four years older than me. She was probably actually babysitting me, but she was the only person in the neighborhood that didn’t talk down to me. I was in love with her and she was so cool and fun to play with. In the end, she moved to Studio City and lived in a house with a pool. Visiting her was like going to Disneyland. Many years later, the whole experience with her stayed with me and when I started drawing this cat-like character in my early sketchbooks, he was like my alter-ego and I decided to name him Toby. The real Toby ended up finding out about the character named after her and when I had my museum show in LA (‘The Door is Always Open’ at the Skirball), I gave her an official tour of the exhibition and a Toby of her own.

An exhibition view from Gary Baseman's The Door is Always Open at MOCA Taipei, 2014.
An exhibition view from Gary Baseman’s The Door is Always Open at MOCA Taipei, 2014.

HoD: Since creating almost 200 Toby’s, back in 2005, he’s traveled the world with you. He’s escaped a near-death experience at a butcher, been inside the mouth of a great white shark and has even met Johnny Depp. How did he become the star of all your travel photos?

Gary: What happened is that I was in a not very happy marriage and although my wife was beautiful and stylish, she was so insecure and didn’t want to be in any pictures. When we went abroad, I didn’t want to take pictures of just the landscape, so I used Toby as an alternative way of taking vacation pictures. That immediately turned into art. Toby has the ability to make ordinary vacation photos transform into other worldly, surreal scenarios. And having him around me all the time, I’ve learned how he can truly disarm people. Wherever we are, he comes into these other cultures and celebrates them. He’s not just some weird figure; he is who I am. He’s also made really, really well technically. Conor Libby from Critterbox oversaw Toby’s production. He’s such a perfectionist, but unfortunately he’s no longer in that field and I haven’t found anyone else that can fill his place. The last Toby I had had the s*** beaten out of him by a Tasmanian devil. I actually really enjoyed watching it – it was the cutest thing. That Tasmanian devil loved Toby – just a little too much. For me, it’s just the same as any of our relationships. When you come out of a relationship, you may not see the bite marks and the tear marks, but we all have them.

Portrait of artist Gary Baseman with Toby

HoD: Your art seems to take place in a mythical imaginary world, filled with characters that have become repeating themes in your body of work. Could you tell us a bit about your sources of inspiration and how these characters come about?

Gary: The notion of my art is that I work on a theme and it’s based on what’s going on in my life. From that theme, whether it be a mythical holiday or a personal perspective, I create a character that represents that theme. I often create my own worldview and then develop it into a world order and a whole narrative. The characters aren’t for specific people – they exist for the art and for the memory. Whatever I end up making is a manifestation of the theme and concept, so the figures I create aren’t toys – they’re art pieces or sculptures.

The Therapeutic Nature of ChouChou by Gary Baseman
The Therapeutic Nature of ChouChou – Acrylic on wood panel, 2007, 18” x 24”.
A live performance at the LACMA by Gary Baseman
A live performance starring a school of ChouChous and the “La Brea Tar Pits” WildGirls, at the LACMA, 2010. Photo by Kristin Burns.

HoD: You’ve referred to your art as Pervasive Art, meaning that it blurs the lines between fine art and commercial art. Can you elaborate on your place between those two worlds? Your work is both in galleries, on Coach smartphone cases, and in board games.

Gary: I guess for me it’s one and the same. Whether I’m working on my own body of work, or on a project for another brand, nothing is ever really compromised. The same goes for when I was an illustrator – I always drew in my own style. I never create things that I think are popular. It always comes from me. Even when I created pieces for Coach, I had a lot of freedom. Although it was edited, I created the work as if it was for myself. At the Lancaster Museum of Art and History, I exhibited Toby’s Secret Society. It was an exhibition consisting of just figures and each one was displayed under glass, as an art piece. And then you could go into the store and buy the actual piece. I found that idea fascinating. Where else can you see the art and then go to the store and actually buy it, as opposed to simply a postcard of it?

These days, instead of defining the type of art I’m making, I’ve got to the point that if I want to create an installation of a room and sounds of the triple purr of my cat, Blackie, that’s what I’ll do. I’m now working on that – ‘The Purr Room’ – for an art fair at the end of October in LA. I think about how I can create something that no one else can create. Anything I do is based on my history, my background, my personal worldview. The same goes for the story of Blackie and the red elephants (written by none other than Blackie himself). No one in the world could have written Blackie’s story – it’s absurd, but it’s very poetic and human, everyone will relate to it. The story came from something real, just like any other story that stems from the people around you, who you’ve lived with, who you’ve loved, your experiences.

HoD: You worked as an illustrator for many years. Could you tell us about your transition from illustrator to artist?

Gary: I had a hunger for many things. I started looking at my legacy and thinking ‘what am I leaving behind me’? I loved the editorial work, but it didn’t seem rich enough. I had a fear of creating my own body of work and bringing it out into the world. It always stems from a fear of failure or that people won’t be interested. But I didn’t let that stop me. While doing my editorial work, even if I had an assignment, I couldn’t stop experimenting with my own things and painting like crazy, but still always made sure to hit my professional deadlines. At the same time, I also wanted to do TV; I created two pilots for Nickelodeon that never got created in the end. I was expanding in different ways, getting bigger within the toy world and participating in exhibitions. At the time, I was gradually giving up the editorial work, so it was an easier transition.

Gary Baseman’s award-winning series for Disney, Teacher’s Pet.

HoD: You’re a self-taught artist. What made you decide not to go to art school?

Gary: Art school wasn’t for me. As a kid, I grew up across the street from the original ArtCenter. I remember thinking that I don’t need someone to teach me my style. I wanted to go to a real university. I had good grades so I was going to go to law school, but when when I was a legal intern, I realized I could be an okay lawyer, but an amazing artist. I went on to take classes in advertising concept. That taught me how to come up with a strong visual image. I interned at an ad agency, but in the course of the year, they banned me from the creative department and said they’d fire me if they saw me drawing on the job again.

Toby’s Roots – Acrylic on wood panel, 2005, by Gary Baseman
Toby’s Roots – Acrylic on wood panel, 2005, 18” x 24”.

HoD: One of the current projects that you’ve been working on for several years is your documentary Mythical Creatures that will tell the story of your family background during the Holocaust. After your father passed away, you said you felt that you were the keeper of your family’s story. What was it like for you to physically visit your parents’ hometown and how did it affect your art?

Gary: My parents told me never to go back to their town. I was the first in my family to return in 66 years. During the trip, I listened to people’s stories, trying to understand their views and writing down everything they told me about the way they saw the world in Poland and Ukraine. I met a man that witnessed the murder of Jews in my father’s town and I discovered that there were people that believed the Jews went to die willingly. They thought they died because of their sins and that it was written in the Bible.

The documentary will be a combination of live footage and animation. My goal is to introduce the place I grew up in, the Fairfax District in LA, which was quite a magical place in the ‘60s. It was a very Jewish neighborhood, and many Holocaust survivors lived there, so the main languages were Yiddish and broken English.

I’ve been using the forest as a figure or a theme in my work for a long time, dealing with my own need to escape and run away. I wasn’t thinking that it came from my dad, when in fact, the forest was what saved my dad, who was a partisan. There were so many crazy things that people had to do during that time and many of these things were never spoken about in my childhood. None of it is easy or pretty. I also recently discovered my aunt’s story; when everyone was running away, she was able to save a hundred Jews by hiding them on her roof. Perhaps this is something that reflects in my work – it’s all pretty on the outside, but when you take another look, it’s kind of spooky and creepy. Yep, that’s me.

Dumb Luck Revisited (The Partisan) by Gary Baseman
Dumb Luck Revisited (The Partisan) – Acrylic on canvas, 2013, 18” x 24”.

HoD: You’re very active on social media, specifically Instagram. How has social media affected the way we consume and react to visuals today?

Gary: A lot has changed since the pre-Internet, pre-Wix days. If I think back to the time I was being hired as an illustrator, the people that hired me didn’t know anything about me or what I looked like – they just loved the work I was doing, my voice and the way I solved problems. It’s not like today that you can look at someone’s Instagram and see how many followers they have and decide whether or not you want to hire them. Now, I have people stopping me on the beach and saying “you don’t know me, but I follow you on Instagram.” Also, people can now see me having conversations with my cat on Instagram. Before that, I possibly wouldn’t even share photos from my sketchbooks – my portfolio would just consist of the final, published pieces.

I feel that now, if you have a unique voice and share your work on social media, you won’t necessarily benefit from it. People respond to things that are more derivative. You could have spent days working on a beautiful piece of art, but will get more likes posting a selfie, a Hello Kitty, or anything else that relates to pop culture. When you manage to post something catchy, you seem to have a three hour cycle in the social media world. When I get really frustrated with it, I post a Hello Kitty-style piece.

Sketch from Gary Baseman's project with Coach
A sketch from Gary Baseman’s project with Coach.

HoD: You’ve wanted to become an artist ever since you can remember. Now that you’re pursuing your dream, do you feel like you’ve achieved your goal?

Gary: Not really, I’m so frustrated with myself. Because I feel like I’m so brilliant, that I should be so much more successful with all of my projects. I’m very pleased and grateful and I know I’m blessed, but I think I should be further along. I’m frustrated that I haven’t been able to build up my own team. But at the same time, there’s also a part of me that likes to be small, rather than being a big company. This way, I can maneuver and take risks. My dream is to have a little bit of both – to have a good business partner and a structure that has more of an economic component, enabling me to produce more personal projects that will eventually bring in income. I feel like I have so many strong images and characters that should be able to survive both financially and creatively.