Humanity is fragile. We live under multiple guises that distract us from ever reflecting on the objective truths of life. The gift of life, the sensation of love and loss, and the beautiful tragedy of death are the seams of Ron’s work that lace together his questions and his personal ideologies of the purpose in life that is the unanswered or ignored questions for us all. He provides no answers in his work, only invitations to become curious beginning an introspective exploration of our own experiences and curiosities. Regardless of age, his themes are relatable to all, yet ironically it may be our youth that hold the true solutions to these quandaries and not the sages of our society.
The work of Ron Horsley is to leave reality and to enter into a world of fantasy, both visually on the page and philosophically in the mind. I had the opportunity to sit down with Ron to discuss his in progress illustrated novella Beyond the Grass Ocean, which acts as the canvas on which he paints these questions of life and death. The lead protagonist, a young girl named Nary, leaves her home to cross a rolling ocean of grass on a journey to find the answers to why the loved ones in her life simply keep disappearing; a beautiful metaphor for how we experience the loss of those dearest in our lives when the inevitability of death comes to fruition. Our conversation begins in his studio, which is riddled with doodles, sketches, and a cacophony of illustrations, on a warm autumn afternoon.
Zach Coneybeer: So it looks like you’re getting back into narrative illustration. Let’s start there. What’s your approach to illustrating narrative?
Ron Horsely: Well, I’ve done (narrative) illustrations before but they’ve always been one off pieces. So, this was my first big effort to really complete an ongoing story of illustrations. My approach emerged naturally from reading. A lot of my favorite books were books like The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, and the edition that I had , as a child, was illustrated by Jules Fieffer with these beautiful little spot illustrations throughout the pages. And then I was also informed by the more classic format structure of books like the original Baum Oz books that were illustrated by John Neil, and some of the work by, I want to say it was John O’Neil, that I believed worked with Lewis Carroll in (creating) the Alice in Wonderland books. A lot of those Victorian, Harper’s Weekly, post-arts and crafts period that had very formal illustrations.
ZC: So when you were reading those did imagery come to mind, because you come off as a very curious person, you know? You’re a cacophony of information and creativity, and you can see it in the work, so I am interested, when you read these books, does imagery come in there? Do you start visualizing how characters look or the setting in which these stories are taking place?
RH: For the most part: Yes. As I visualize them I start writing. I have an image in my mind. Sometimes, I have created them as an amalgam of real people that I like the characteristics of. There’s one particular exception where that actually got flipped on its head is where one of the creatures in the book I had not really clearly envisioned it with the exception of this idea of it being large. That’s all I really had in my mind: something large. It’s called the Behemoth, so that’s what came to mind. But as I wrote the story, you know, I kind of just threw that in there, and a lot of times a writer will write something, they will give a very vague description for the sake of seeming mysterious but they really just don’t have a clue. But what happened is when I went back to do the illustrations; I realized “Well, that’s not good enough.” If I’m going to depict this creature I’ve got to have a better idea, and actually in thinking about how it looked, I ended up having inspirations that changed the whole definition of the creature and I went back and re-wrote the creature because of how I needed to think about it visually for the illustrations. So, that’s one of the few exceptions where it when in the opposite direction where the writing normally would inform the drawing instantly, this became a thing where the drawing, the difficulty of the drawing, went back to informing the writing.
ZC: So, is it intuitive for you? You know, I have this idea of a character and then I draw it or you draw the character and then throw it into the story?
RH: I would say about 80/20 of it is “I’ve written the story, I already have the idea in my mind of what they look like when I wrote about them, so the only illustration is just the visualization of what I already (have) written. But then I have that 20% where, like the Behemoth situation, something will emerge at the last minute that really inspired me from the image to go back to the writing.
ZC: So aside from the writing, you dropped several fantasy novelists and science fiction genre references, but I’m curious where your inspiration comes from, aside from just reading and fiction or genre novels, because I know you have a rich background in comic book illustration, but where does your personal inspiration come from?
RH: A great deal is from, outside of reading and illustrations, the music of Tom Waits and Thomas Dolby. Actually, Thomas Dolby was a huge influence on this current book.
ZC: How so?
RH: Well, there is very a dream like quality to some of the music he’s performed recently, songs like Oceania, or some of his older pieces in the 80s like The Map of the Floating World, these things and the sound of it are fed into the imagery to the book. Aside from Dolby, Waits, I grew up in the 90s so I have to confess to a bit of college alternative rock vibe with Dave Matthews and Counting Crows (chuckles), but then there’s classics; I’m a real big sucker for the cello prelude Suite 1 by Bach. I love a particular piece of music like Beethoven’s piano sinata movement 3 the Pathetique. There’s just these glints and pieces: I can’t point to any one musician and say “everything by Sting.” It might be one or two bits and pieces here, I think I kind create this sort of polyglot of influences from those. Aside from music, I love the films of Truffuat, the films of David Fincher, which you would think films like David Fincher’s don’t even exactly lend themselves to influencing children’s work. They all have informed my picture of the world and how I’m trying to kind of explain that in a frame of reference that a younger audience could relate to.
ZC: I want to key in on something you said when talking about the music of Thomas Dolby being dreamlike. Do you dream? I know that might sound absurd to ask, but your work lends itself to dreaming or dreams. Do dreams influence your work or are you attempting to create a dream-like quality in your work?
RH: Yes, there is a dream quality in the work, but here’s the thing: when people say “dream-like” I think we haven’t established a frame of reference for that term. We throw that term around a lot, even I’ve done it. “Dream-like”, for many people, I think they just think of dream-like as “floating” or “anything’s possible”, maybe they are thinking the disjointed nature of how the narrative of a dream just sort of cuts from moment to moment, and that’s some of it, but for me when I say “dream-like” I think the biggest element of a dream is that I take from my own dreams to the work that I am doing, is I love how in a dream, much like in children’s literature and a lot of great fantasy literature, there isn’t a need for exposition. If something is going on in your dream you often probably don’t noticed that you’ve already got an inherent understanding of what the rules, so to speak, are. “Ok, I can take these magic beans and throw them to the dragon”: nobody is sitting there explaining to you, like you would in many stories, you just know, and I think I like the fact that in many children’s books they will explain things, they will give you some idea, because you are the reader, but much of what we would need is the nuance, the deep need for layering that we demand as adults children can just take the basic rules and run with them. They already have the internal logic, and that’s what I mean when I use the term “dream-like” in my work.
ZC: When you were a child, did you ever remember having that same sense of intuitiveness in the way you thought about dreams or fantasy or creating or that having that internal logic?
RH: Not only did I have it, I still do. One of the things that influenced the book was dealing with the first losses of family to death and illness in my life. I actually have a very long-lived family, and it’s only been recently in my adult years that they’ve started to pass away. And so, recently I’ve actually had dreams where, much I did when I was a child, there’s an inherent logic. For example, when you’re dreaming about flying, we all seem to understand how flying works in dreams, we just feel like if we could just wake-up and remember the trick of it we could still fly. But it doesn’t make sense to us when we wake-up “why doesn’t it work?” With the more recent dreams, I have that same child-like feeling except that, the family members and loved ones that I have lost, I’m revisiting them. And even though I’m consciously aware of my dreams, that they are gone, I keep getting that flight dream feeling “like, ok, I can bring you back, if I can just remember the trick of it.” It’s that internal dream logic: just remember that one trick that was what brought them back there and I can bring that back with me into my waking life and do it out here. And obviously, it doesn’t work, but that’s exactly the same feeling I had as a child. It’s just a little more tragically tinged, unfortunately.
ZC: Do you consider yourself a nostalgic person?
RH: (Laughs) Very much so! Especially for a guy that is living in the town that he grew up in and I have seen the last 20-30 years of it change. Nostalgia permeates a lot of how I feel and think. (Laughs) There’s no running away from it!
ZC: What’s kept you in Columbus?
RH: Partly the fact that it is my hometown and partly a bit of inertia. I mean, I haven’t always explored things that have given me the opportunity to leave the city. Columbus is a pretty good town to live in. It took me a few years to actually find out that we are the city most news broadcasters from all over the country come to train to lose their local accents.
ZC: That’s right!
RH: We have this no affect aspect to all of our words. Also, we’re literally the perfect cross-section for every major restaurant chain and test market in America, which explains my weight!
RH: My father was one of the first to actually test Egg McMuffins, that’s all I’m going to say! But, it’s just is just a good cross-section town and I still remember that many people also don’t have a perception of Columbus. If I come from Chicago or Los Angeles or New York, people who have never been to those cities have a clear idea what they think they’re like from popular media. Nobody really has clue of what Columbus is like. We have this great metropolitan culture that nobody really from out-of-town really knows exists.
ZC: What was growing up, then, because you talk about the family members that have passed away; did those family members have an impact on your work that you’re doing now and did your upbringing in Columbus and your family life impact what you’re doing now? It would seem that way, in my estimation.
RH: I’m the oldest grandson and for the first years of my life the only child of my family. It’s a large family, but I was an only child. I was born into a family that was barely in their early twenties. I was an “unexpected joy” to them.
ZC: That’s a nice way of putting it.
RH: (Laughs) So in a weird way, my parents were still doing all of that youthful exploration and misadventures, that I’ve done, but they happened to have a kid along with them. So, (sighs) to a certain extent, I feel like I kind of got accelerated through my childhood because I was already witnessing, and sometimes engaging in, things that were adult, you know? When you go to a party where everybody is getting drunk and getting high, no, you’re not doing it too, but you are along with people that are doing it, so you see a bunch of adults acting like children. But I benefitted from the fact that despite my parents sometimes miss-stepping due to their youthfulness, I was loved and I was raised by a great large family, and my grandparents in particular had a lot of influence. People have actually joked that my father, grandfather, grandmother, and I are almost like the time-lapse children of the same man, but my grandfather and father both are very, I’ll be polite and call them story tellers, but most people call them long-winded.
RH: But you do pick that up, and so story-telling and the idea that your life in itself is a kind of narrative that you can spin to other people in a creative and expressive way, just naturally came from that influence.
ZC: Beyond the Grass Ocean investigates adult themes, like death, so I’m interested in when you were a child, do remember how you negotiated things like death and family and the parties where people were drinking and getting high around you?
RH: Well, in a weird way, I had to re-think, I had to basically put it into metaphoric terms, the same mental structures that I came up with as a child into the book, like death. I didn’t really experience human or direct personal death until I was almost 20. My family had some friends on my mother’s side that had passed away and I had missed them all, I’ve missed family pets, but it wasn’t until 2003 that I was almost 30 that I lost my Uncle Todd. I was there. I watched him pass away. So, most of my life, I realized that up until then I really just kind of thought as people died they were just gone. Yes, gone forever, as I called it in the book “forever away”, but not really lost. Gone but not lost. And so with Todd, I felt the real loss and that created the concept of people, rather then dying, would disappear. Like, we have this world where people disappear and there is no real clarification why that is and why that has to be. And also, with other adult themes: I lightly touch on the concepts of sexuality and physical interaction with another adult. My parents never told me to not watch a certain movie or told me “Ok, it’s time to go to bed” because, you know, the adults are going to watch something on TV. I kind of fell into sexuality in the same way a lot if kids who had cable did. But there was never a need to have this big sit-down and talk about “well, this is how human reproduction works” and all. No, I think what happened is that my parents thought it was perfectly natural to explore the world around me. If I made a mistake they would hopefully tell me what it was and I wouldn’t make it again, but otherwise they gave me the freedom to learn things at my own pace. So when I wrote the book, touching on those concepts the idea was “I’m not going to give kids these concepts in explicit terms.” Just like the children in the book, they’re exploring the world. Some adults are going to hide things from them, because that’s the discretion adults exercise, but it’s a discretion not that this a bad thing, or a horrible or shameful thing, it’s simply the discretion that “look, you’re not yet ready for this and in few years you’ll have the emotional and mental capacity that we can reveal some of this to you,” and that same kind of mystery is what I wanted to put in the book that I’ve experienced. You’ll explore these things, but we’re not going to go in depth with you unless you hit a bad lull or you’ve come to the age when you’re ready to experience them.
ZC: So why do think as adults, in our culture, that we want to hide the reality of death or the reality of sexuality? There is a practicality to it, you know children on a psychological level, I suppose, take sexuality for instance, require a level of maturity to understand, because even as adults, I think, we struggle with sexuality.
ZC: But, how you view that: the deliberate barrier we put up, to use your language, that you’re not ready for this yet?
RH: Well, I mean, first off we already know from a purely objective standpoint without religion, society, sociocultural mores, that there have been past generations that existed and are no longer here. From a purely objective standpoint, we know that there are biological reasons. There are certain physically people are not ready for sexuality and dealing with those things. Psychologically, I think a good reason why sometimes people don’t want children to deal with the consequences. First off, we never really have dealt with death. I mean, the oldest adult in history, we all die. We don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen, many of us have our feelings and beliefs about that, but we ultimately we just don’t know. So, if we all don’t know the answer to that big question, but we do know that there is a inevitability and there are consequences of that mortality, I think many of us feel like we should be sparing these kids for as long as we can, because we all have that period of time where is like “look, if ignorance is bliss, and this is something you’re inevitably going to find out about, let me at least not be the one to puncture your balloon right away.” I do think there is a psychological buffer waiting period that varies from length to length depending on the circumstances, but ultimately I think any parent or guardian who make a conscious choice to not discuss that with a child they’re doing it primarily out of the desire to have to put that burden of knowledge on that kid until they really feel like the have to.
(Pauses for a few moments and looks away)
Because it’s a weighty subject! I mean, it still keeps me up at night staring in the dark up to the ceiling going “someday I’m going to die” and that scares the crap out of me! Why would I want to do that to a kid at 5-years-old? When I don’t want to do it at 38!
ZC: You know, that was going to be my next question. Have you dealt with the inevitability of death?
RH: I deal with it quite frequently. In fact, that is one of the things that motivated me. I’ve had a lot of those nights where my mind is cleared out, I’m resting, I’m laying down in bed and I’m sitting in the dark, and I look up into the darkness of the ceiling and all of a sudden I the reality sinks into me: “some day everything about me is going to end.” There is absolutely no way to escape it. Nothing is going to stop it. Millions of people before me have done it for millennia. I’m no different. And despite the sense of me in consciousness is always going to be here is not true. It causes me for a brief split second to have the existential panic attack that just clinches me. It doesn’t go away. For a long periods of time, sometimes days sometimes weeks, I’ll think about it. When I do start to think about it I have those clinching moments.
ZC: So where does that show up in the work? Aside from the narrative itself or literature, when you illustrate do those moments come up? I look at the Hideous Sad and if I didn’t know the context of that character it kind of reads as death. So would that be an example of how death shows up in the work?
RH: The Hideous Sad is a good example because of what they essential represent in the story. They represent that there’s an inevitability to certain negative feelings, certain negative experiences. However, I think where we define what differentiates from one person to another is that if we all can have bad experiences of some form or another in our lives, who gets passed it? Who let’s it inform their life going forward versus who let’s themselves get wholly swallowed up by it? So, that same free of death; I can literally sit at home in my bed rolled up in a ball constantly terrified just waiting for the day that I am going to die because I know its inevitable or I can push it aside and get on with living. The Sad represents my fear of people who, like me, can get swallowed up by it and don’t come out of that fear. So it definitely informs it. Whether I am writing work for adults or for children or for whomever, there’s an element in many of my protagonists of what defines them, as not necessarily being better than any one person, not necessarily being luckier than any one person, or more powerful, it simply boils down to who makes a choice to get passed the negativity or who gets swallowed up by it.
ZC: To take an abrupt right turn in our conversation…
RH: (Laughs) Why not.
ZC: Why illustrate your own book? Or why even tell stories for that matter?
RH: The story telling has been there my entire life. Every time I have experienced something or had an idea it usually and immediately unwinds into “what if?” As far as why I illustrate it myself? I don’t consider myself an artist as much as I do a writer. I became an artist because at a younger age I needed to draw or scrawl things out because I didn’t have the vocabulary or the language to express my ideas verbally. The writing became, for a parallel of the art, a function of how to tell a story. So when it became time to write this book of illustrations for it I could’ve sought out artists more talented to do this work, however it would feel like if I was advocating a certain responsibility. You see so many collaborations between artists that no matter how great they are and how well meshed they are together there is a certain felling of one of us has to translate this to the other under the implication that it has to be good or it to be on target for us. I did not want to have the possible small percentage of miss communication of somebody else’s idea. So as much as possible, even in my limitations of my ability to draw, I wanted to get that out directly so I felt it was my responsibility to do that.
ZC: I think your work shows that you have an extremely gifted talent for illustration and the ability to render, pretty much anything, that comes to your mind. So, I see that how from your youth leaning on drawing and scrawling to use that as your language can be seen in this work. So how do you balance the abstract work of your illustrated cubed frames with the representational work?
RH: Well, the long story short-of-it when I was diagnosed with high-functioning autism it clarified many behaviors that I have had over the years since my childhood; lack of focus, lack of talkativeness, isolation, and introversion. So, for a brief time I had a bad psychological block for a few months where I really couldn’t work on the illustrations for the book, but I did wanted to do something, to try and break the block. I happened to notice that my wife had a scrapbook which she had been scrap-booking for years of these napkin drawings and placemat doodles that I’ve done when I wasn’t really conscious of; these repeating abstract motifs of square shapes. So I went to these and thought “wait a minute: why haven’t I taken any time to wonder what these are and do something with these?” I took a brief divergence into these abstractions to explore some of the symptoms of the same personality that makes me a storyteller. The time I had spent working on these has helped to inform the illustrations that I am doing for the book.
ZC: But one could argue that they are both illustrations, both telling a story, and I think the story here, although objectively different theatres of narrative, takes us to a weird psychoanalytical description of your work. I think in a way, they almost act like a Rorschach test that you’ve made for yourself. (Ron squirms in his chair) I see you squint! (I laugh) How does that description make you feel then, me saying that?
RH: No, it raises an excellent point. The abstract work went from becoming a divergence to what is now a diversion. Although I do not want to abandon them completely, they’re not my primary focus. It was through the abstract drawings that I realizes that I had the talent but was operating out of fear using them as an avoidance tactic holding myself back from illustrating the book.
ZC: I was just reading Agnes Martin and how she described the way she found inspiration and she went without it for five months, the longest stretch of time in her life that she wasn’t inspired to make work, but yet what’s funny in your situation in the absence of inspiration you still had the ability to make. I find that interesting! Is it a different energy when you are approaching representation narrative as opposed to abstract? Is the same type of synthesis?
RH: You know, it can vary, which was one of my frustrations. Which is over the summer when I had that episode and was blocked, I was actually taking graphic design commissions. So I was never incapable of rendering illustrations; I did a 16-page comic book in 4 days! I was able to do it, but inspiration was not my input. It was someone else’s idea and story. They just needed my creative ability to render their ideas. When I came back to my work I basically got stage fright, because there’s no one there calling the shots for me. Mentally, it’s a whole different game when there are no rules being set and I am the one who has to write them.
ZC: So you’re a man that “wears many hats.” (Ron laughs) You’re a stand-up comedian, you freelance illustration, you have a rich history of the comic book industry, you’re a writer, one could argue a poet, and an artist. But aside from the superficial read of your professional practice, where do ultimately want your voice to be in everything that you create?
RH: (Scratches his chin) That’s an interesting question. (Pauses for several moments) I think the voice that I want to have or to invoke in the person experiencing my work is “that was amazing!” I want my audience to want the urge to share that experience. I am not concerned with the themes of the stories, but more with that they can take something from it to add to their lives; to get people thinking. The voice I want to express is ultimately one of “let’s engage.” Whether it be concepts of death or mortality to the speculative question of “what if”, which ever the case, I want my audience to really engage in the questions that have no answers.
To learn more about Ron’s work and his process please visit http://midnightersclub.com/blog/blog/
As part of the second-year graduates’ Thesis Projects I course, candidates were each assigned two of their cohort to review. As students begin writing their thesis papers and constructing artist statements, this review process proves to be beneficial twofold. Students not only exercise their written critique skills, but are able to read about their own project from other voices. Over the next few weeks we’ll be posting these reviews, so be sure to visit regularly for insights and photos of the second years’ progress!