Interview by Jenkin Au and Alan Ng
Words by Cornelius Suen and Alan Ng
Photography by Jenkin Au
Please tell us about yourself.
I am Nicholas Di Genova. I am twenty-nine years old and I have been living and working in Toronto for just about ten years now, making my art.
Tell us what got you into art? It seems as if your passion for drawing started when you were younger, and then you went to OCAD. So tell us about your process of becoming an artist.
I was born with a natural interest in drawing and I am still drawing things that I drew as a kid. I mean, I have been drawing animals and monsters for as long as I can remember, and that subject matter is still very much an integral part of my art today. There was never a point in my life where I decided I wanted to be an artist. I just continued to do the same thing that I had always done and eventually I started selling my drawings and making a living off of that. I am sure it’s the same with many artists. I guess I was just born knowing that I wanted to become an artist and I think that shows in the fact that, for the most part, the subject matter in my art has not really changed since my childhood drawings.
One of the terms that you associate with your art is “Medium Phobic”. Tell us more about the definition of this term and how it became associated with your art.
I got really interested in graffiti during my later years of high school. However, my hometown is a small city with about 45,000 people, so there was like one graffiti artist in the entire town. So, I did not get involved in it until I moved to Toronto. When I was nineteen, I moved to Toronto and I was inspired by the work of graffiti artists like Thesis, Elixir, and Derrick Hodgson. I started doing my own work and I needed a name. At that time a theme of my work was spirits of dilapidated appliances and stuff that was left around the city. So for example, there would be an abandoned fridge lying around and I would draw a fridge spirit on it, as if the spirit was leaving the body of the object. I thought the “Medium” would be a good name because I considered myself, and it was always tongue and cheek, the spiritual medium between the object and the audience. And honestly, “Medium Phobic” just exists because I needed an url for my website and “Medium.com” was taken. “Medium Phobic” is just the name of the website and “Medium” is my graffiti name that I took on in the early 2000s. Now I wish that my website was just “Nicholas Di Genova.com” because the that I am doing now is so different from what I was doing then, but it’s too hard to change your urls.
A lot of your artwork revolves around animals and you twist them to look scared, almost as if they are in a perpetual state of fight or flight. What causes you to look at your subjects this way and to draw them in the way that you do?
I went camping all the time with my dad as a kid. We would go fishing or see a moose and my dad would teach me about wildlife. That is how I got really interested in nature and animals. I even considered getting into zoology for a while. I draw what I am interested in and my interest in nature and animals remains strong with me. And as I grew up and adapted to the print style, I would say that I drew a lot of influences from the copious amounts of Japanese animation that I would watch during my teenage years. When I was younger I pretty much just drew and watched anime all the time. That style of drawing sort of influenced how I see things. And beyond that, the materials that I chose ended up reflecting anime as well, because the way that I do my drawings utilize the exact same materials and techniques that they use to make the animation cells. So I would say that the biggest influence of why I draw things the way I do is from growing up a poor teenager who watched every anime he could get his hands on. My newer work is still inspired by anime in a way but it’s inspired by Victorian illustrations. In my newer work I try to figure out a meeting point between my interests, an anime-esque style that I have developed, and the influence of classic, 19th century zoological illustrations.
Tell us about the process of transforming an animal, idea, or subject matter from reality or other established original concepts in popular culture into the world of your art.
Sometimes when I build a collage or decide to do a piece, I have a specific idea. I did a series of pieces of birds with gun heads. I decided to do that piece because I thought it would look really cool, I felt that the form of the gun fit the shape of a stork’s head really well, and to convey the message that hunting would be a little different if the animals were not completely helpless. I grew up in a hunting family and I kind of disagreed with that sort of activity. That’s one particular case of how I transported things I see in reality and culture into my work.
And I would say that every drawing comes from a different perspective. I am very interested right now in atheism and I have been researching that. I was sent to a Catholic school and I never really bought into Catholicism. So, a lot of my recent work has been focused on playful expressions of my point of view regarding atheism. For example, in one of my recent works I poked fun at specific examples that creationists would give for why a creature is how it is. I mean, Kirk Cameron, that actor from growing pains, a creationist, and an Evangelical Christian, has been going on The O’Reilly Factor and other CNN shows arguing for evolutionists to produce evidence of missing-link specimens, and saying, “Well, if evolution exists, why don’t we have these types of creatures?” So I just thought that that was so ridiculous because those things do exist. For example, there have been hundreds of recorded fossil cases showing reptiles turning into birds. So, I did a series that featured creatures that were amalgamations of crocodile, bird, reptile things on a shirt. That series was a tongue in cheek way of poking fun at Kirk Cameron’s argument and presenting a wildly exaggerated missing link specimen. In no way was it meant to be mean spirited or taken too seriously. Kirk Cameron’s argument was one that interested me and got my thoughts going, so I decided to convey my thoughts regarding that subject through my work.
You made a point earlier about not agreeing with hunting and you also disagree with Catholicism, and your view regarding these issues have been touched on in your work, albeit subtly and jokingly. However, do you think that you will start to take a stronger political or social stance and provide commentary for those issues more overtly in your work?
I would never make something that I consider political art because to me, art is something you make to express your ideas. I would never purposefully try and go out of my way to make my art political, although some of my artwork has touched on political issues and other social issues, like religion, but only because those issues were on my mind and it. If I ever became more actively interested in politics, my work would probably become more political. But what I am most concerned about when it comes to my artwork is the aesthetics of the piece and whether or not the piece will look good, because that to me is just as, if not more, important than the conceptual side of art. So, any messages or ideas that my art may contain or try to convey will always be based around the concepts that interest me. So yeah, the rejection of the hunting mentality that I grew up in and the rejection of my catholic upbringing were touched on in my art because I was reacting to the stuff going on around me.
There seems to be a division in the public eye between an institutionally trained artist and a self-taught artist, with people emphasizing the differences between the two by wondering which makes for a better artist or what path they should take to see their dreams of becoming an artist realized. What do you think is the difference in viewpoints between a self-taught artist and an institutionally trained artist, because while you always had a passion for drawing and could be considered a self- taught artist, you also graduated from OCAD and received institutional training.
I would say that there is no drastic difference and that you would have to look at an artist’s end product to judge the artist. I would never look at an artist and think differently about them depending on where they went to school or if they went to school. There are really great artists making well produced work without art school, and if people can do that, congrats. I think that some people do need the structure of an art institution to build their diligence and perseverance up and to learn how to speak about their body of work. I mean, I had an awful time in art school, it was horrible. I was there for five years and I didn’t graduate. I was a terrible artist when I went into art school and even though it was a struggle and I didn’t get along with most of my teachers there, I have to say that in my opinion, I wasn’t a terrible artist when I came out. So yeah, whatever works for you. But I would say that art school is definitely not a necessary path. I know people who make great art and who didn’t go to art school and people who went to art school and don’t make great art. I think things have changed a little bit but when I was in school in 2002, because my interests were in street art, graffiti and illustrative art, my painting instructors thought that my work looked like illustrations so they wanted nothing to do with it and asked me to exit the painting program and enter the illustration program. I would advise people going into school, if your work is illustrative in nature, you will have a hard time in the painting program. But maybe things have changed.
Where do you get the inspiration for your ideas and concepts?
I would say my inspiration comes from just living my life. Sometimes I will get a really good idea when I am watching ‘Lost’ or sometimes I will by studying and researching, trying to find a topic that interests me to force an idea. Ideas come from my naturally being interested in different things. Like I’ve said before, zoology, manga, and religious or atheistic concepts are just some things that I am interested in, and when you put me in front of a sketchpad, those ideas a transferred to the drawing.
What manga do you read?
Man, I used to read everything.
My favourites would have to be Battle Angel, Akira, and Dragon-Ball, definitely. I remember my poor girlfriend in high school had it tough. I would skip all the events and all the formals that we should have gone to together to go home and watch Dragon-Ball. Unfortunately these are the only two translated into English. I love American comics too. I was really into Spider-man. Lately, I can’t say that I have read a brand new manga. Everything I have read in the last five years are re-reads of my old favourites. My girlfriend is into comics too, specifically indie comics. Now people hear “indie” and they think it’s going to be romantic, lovey-dovey comics but no, it’s crass and it’s violent, it’s pretty cool. Check out stuff by this guy called Robert Crumb.
You have been showing your art in some of the bigger art galleries, especially in the states. Tell us about that experience.
When I was still in high school I wasn’t signed with any galleries. Half-way through my third year at OCAD, my critiques weren’t going well, I hadn’t sold anything, and I had never shown in a gallery. And then in the November of that year, a gallery in Toronto offered to sign me and then the week after that, a gallery in New York invited me to be part of a group show. So in two weeks I went from having zero success to being signed by two galleries. That was probably the most exciting time of my life in terms of my art career. After dropping out of art school I spent two years just focused solely on the production of my artwork. I was sleeping on my studio couch, sleeping five hours a night, doing whatever it took to make sure I was devoting all the time that I could to my art. I took the opportunity to build up my body of work and my name in the states in the hopes that my career would be more sustainable later on. I had my first solo show in New York and then the Whitney came and bought the centerpiece. To me, the Whitney is a name you read in a magazine. It’s never a name that you would expect to be used in the same sentence as your name. That was a huge honour and another exciting time in my career that I will never forget. The success that I have been experiencing is overwhelming and I am very lucky. Showing your art in galleries in New York is very exciting because you finally feel like an artist. It’s very cool. I still love showing my art in Toronto though. I love that it’s convenient for my family, my best friends, and my girlfriend to go and see my work in Toronto. Toronto is my comfort zone in terms of where to show my art.
Some artists want to explore other mediums in which to showcase their work. With your passion and love for anime, have you ever thought of transferring your creations into another medium?
Yeah, I mean that’s something that is always on my mind. Lately I have just been doing black ink on white paper stuff, which I love, but it seems like my whole life right now is just putting black ink onto white paper, you know? I have actually started working on some dioramas, creating little nature scenes with my fictional characters in them, with the idea being to photograph the scenes and present them as a series of photographs of “nature”. I never intend on selling or displaying these dioramas, they are just for my own interest. Also, since I am broke, I can take apart the diorama and use the pieces in another diorama, you know, like turn a tree around to show the other side. And another thing that I have in the works right now is a short film. A filmmaker approached me to ask if I would like to design a short film. We are thinking of doing some sort of mix of live action puppetry and stop motion animation to make a ten minute film, so I can’t wait to get started on that.
What is HYPE?
HYPE is the means to financial liberation.