The following is an interview with CJ Draden, the artist behind a line of unconventional, stunning, and edgy live art paintings on glass. In this interview, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor Barbra Dillon chats with Draden about the inspiration behind his artwork, the recent release of his debut graphic novel – The Wooden Heart, his creative process in approaching a new artistic medium, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor: Congratulations on the recent release of your debut graphic novel, The Wooden Heart, which is an imaginative retelling of Pinocchio! What inspired you to take on this literary classic, and what do you hope that readers will take away from your book?
CJ Draden: This is such a personal project to me. Like all artists, I was dealing with some problems at the time and turned to creativity to pull me through. One of the primary reasons I wrote this was to deal with my problems in a more productive way than to avoid life. I felt all things affecting me so very deeply at the time, so I decided to try a new form of therapy, telling a story. I never had a father growing up, so I loved to read dark creative stories about father/son relationships like Dr. Frankenstein or Geppetto from Pinocchio. I even followed in the footsteps of these fictional characters by creating a life-size Pinocchio, an industrial-looking puppet made of metal and wood found on the sides of highways and scrapyards.
The project started with a hand-bound journal I made of drawings designs and schematics of how I was going to build this puppet. I tried to be as true to myself as I could with this project, hence why I was scared to put that kind of vulnerability into the public eye. Letting people into a dark place that you don’t ever want return to yourself is not easy. I don’t have expectations from anyone that purchased the book. The only expectation I had from completing The Wooden Heart was the hope that upon completion, it would be the end of a very long recovery, and it was.
BD: Did you have an idea in mind for the art style of the book when you first initiated the project, or did the art develop as you worked through the concept?
CJ: An idea and a vision are two unrelated experiences. I’ve never had any experience working on a comic or graphic novel, this was my first attempt . . . so I had no “idea” of how to approach building the project, but I did have a vision of how I wanted to tell the story and the art I wanted to make for it. So much was going on in my mind when I set out to accomplish this task, everything requires a lot of knowledge, most of the time things require heart and I have a lot of that, it’s what got me through the project. My Pinocchio sculpture is the scariest thing I discovered that could exist in this place I called “safe.” It wasn’t the art that developed, it was me. I tapped into a dark place in my mind, and I let it out onto my art.
BD: Given your work as both a writer and an artist, did you find that one aspect of the creative process for The Wooden Heart was more challenging (or rewarding) than the other?
CJ: The graphic novel was definitely more challenging. As I said, it required knowledge and experience of narrating a story, which I didn’t have at the time. I was trying to create a product from a feeling. It was very difficult. Building my version of Pinocchio was the best part and so liberating. Creating a prop from the story, an artifact from a world inside my head and seeing it come to life, was a life-changing experience. I lost sense of reality; I forgot I was struggling with life and began living inside my head. Creating Pinocchio was like a drug; it made me feel what Geppetto or Dr. Frankenstein may have felt when they were creating life.
There is a point of origin or the source of true reality. Ideas, vision. All things begin as visions or ideas. If ideas are the infrastructure of our reality, and ideas are metaphysical . . . then isn’t it possible that this tangible world we exist in is an abstraction of the truth? So, I submerged to seek my own truth and no matter how far I stumbled into deep dark corners of my mind to find that truth, I saw things so much more vividly and so much more beautifully than I ever have in this place of rationality. Pinocchio was irrational; it became a portrait of myself, of whom I discovered when I was submerged. I simply quit hiding. I find that to be the most rewarding part about this project because I’ve benefited from it drastically in my life today. I don’t think I’ll ever part with that sculpture.
BD: In addition to your graphic novel, you have made quite an impression as an artist by way of your unique glass and lightbox paintings. How would you describe your creative process for those that may be unfamiliar with the medium?
CJ: My process is purely instinctual. I have fundamental training in human anatomy, traditional painting, and drawing, but none of this is conscious as I work. Think of my glass like a portal; the more I shape the forms inside the portal, the more I am opening up the door so the viewer can see the world I’m living in. With time and patience, I get better and better at creating these portals.
BD: The fall will be quite a busy time for you, with several upcoming conventions where you will be showcasing your work. Where will our readers have the chance to see your work?
CJ: I’ll be a guest artist at my absolute favorite event of the year, New York Comic-Con (Booth #519 at The Block at NYCC). The energy in NYC is intense, pair that with a Comic-Con and a few hundred thousand people dressed in cosplay and seeking out their favorite artists. Bananas. If you’re not at New York Comic-Con, you can follow our journey and posts on my FB page: The Art of CJ Draden.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
CJ: I’m currently working on a new graphic novel. It’s a very different project than The Wooden Heart. This new project is a fantasy book heavily influenced by Greek mythology. I backpacked through Greece this past Christmas and New Years to research and see the archaeological sites to prep my consciousness to begin the process. Like I mentioned in my previous answer, I dive deep into the things I want to get good information and inspiration from. With The Wooden Heart, I dove into my inner being; with this new book, I dove into Ancient Greece. It was a great experience, and the work I’m producing for this new project is some of my favorite images I’ve ever made.
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about The Wooden Heart and your glass paintings?
CJ: My website is the best way to see all my works and project in process, as well as my online store. www.theartofcjdraden.com