Interview: Mark Ryden

words by Nate Pollard | Thursday, March 28th, 2013

Whether it’s from his work with Michael Jackson and Marcy Playground, his many gallery shows, or his covers for Juxtapoz magazine, you’ve likely encountered the art of Mark Ryden. His depictions of haunted, porcelain-skinned children have become iconic markers of his signature style, mixing fantastical realms with social satire and just a touch of Abraham Lincoln. For Ryden, a subtle sense of pristine weirdness forms the foundation for many of his paintings. And now, after years away from album art, he has returned for a new project with Odd Future‘s lead mischief-maker, Tyler, the Creator. It’s a strangely perfect pairing.

While busy preparing for another upcoming show, Mark took some time to talk about his work, music, and the importance of imagination.

Your work features a lot of children and settings seemingly spun out of lush, sometimes dark childhood fantasies. How do you personally maintain that connection to magical, childlike perspective and then tap into it creatively? What are your artistic routines?

One of my favorite quotes is by Picasso: “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” I think this is very true. When making art, children can be so much more imaginative than adults. I think a quality that defines many successful artists is that they never lose a sense of wonder of the amazing world around us. I think it comes rather automatically when one is young, but then we have to nurture and care for our imagination and creativity.

As we age it takes more effort to find our sense of wonder. I collect and surround myself with books, pictures, toys, and objects that ignite these feelings. That is where I find my inspiration. I look through my “junk,” flip through books, sort endless stacks of photos and clippings. Each morning I light a candle and some incense and invite the spirits to come.

Mark Ryden

Photo by Liz Huston,

In the past, you’ve admitted to a passion for collecting old, found objects at swap meets, especially kitschy, nostalgic pieces. You do something similar in your art, elevating kitschy objects and icons until they take on an otherworldly tone. Does working with Tyler, the Creator fit into that interest in elevating the lowbrow?

My son Jasper, who is quite the music aficionado, thought doing the Tyler album was a good idea. I haven’t done an album cover so many years, I thought, What the heck.

How did you come to work with Tyler, the Creator on his album cover, and why in particular did he interest you as a subject? How would you describe the visual mythology you created for him for that particular piece?

Tyler explained that part of the concept of his album is about going to summer camp, which is something he has never done. He wanted an image of himself on his bike (he says he loves his bike very much) in an idyllic forested environment. This was very similar background environment in a previous painting of mine, “California Brown Bear.” I simply did a similar image, swapping out the bear for Tyler.

Do you feel a personal connection to music that feeds your creativity? Do you find it rewarding to work with musicians as you have in the past?

Music is very important to getting in a peaceful creative mood. I listen to music all day everyday when I am painting. I get tired of my same old playlist! Pandora seems to repeat a limited selection of music regardless of what “station” is created. I am always on the lookout for new music to work by. Working music is very different from party music, or driving music. Working music must be calming and peaceful.

Doing a commissioned piece of art for a musician is very different creatively than doing ones own art. Each project can very quite a bit as far as it being rewarding creatively or otherwise.

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