Artist LaFon Willis has come a long way since she first started drawing Anime comics during her time in high school nearly a decade ago. She’s found herself delving into a wide range of artistic techniques including painting, charcoal, ceramics and more.
She’s also discovered some of the most frustrating parts of the creation process, along with some of the most intriguing and fun aspects. She’s done all this while learning what it truly means to be satisfied with a finished product.
After recently graduating from Louisiana State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, she plans to continue to evolve as an artist. However, most importantly, she looks forward to some of the biggest challenges that come with the territory.
I recently had the opportunity to interview LaFon and find out what inspires her and how she’s arrived at where she is now.
How did you first get into art?
Around twelfth grade when a friend and I were doing short comics together. They were anime-based comics.
How did you decide, “Hey, this is what I really want to do with my life”?
During that same time I realized that working with my hands and doing things creatively was something I always enjoyed doing. From there, I had a pretty firm idea that art was the career choice I wanted to go with.
Even though, once you get into it and everything, there’s always a doubt in your mind, “Is this really what I want to do? I’m never going to make any money.” But it’s really for the love of the profession and the passion you bring to it.
What do you find that inspires you when you’re creating a piece in the developing process?
History and reading have actually played a huge part.
Does the process work where you read something, you see it in your mind and then you want to formulate it into something visual?
There might be a description of a person or place that I’ve read about. That will spark a multitude of images in my head. The same goes for every time I study history. Architecture, especially roman history has always been a huge inspiration to me.
Any other parts of history you find fascinating?
There are a lot of different parts. Concerning architecture, it’s definitely roman history. However, painting artistically, it’s definitely German expressionism.
How has the creative process evolved for you? As in where you move from a concept towards the visual result?
It’s definitely evolved. When I first started, it was little concepts. There were quite a bit of projects assigned in my early career where I was putting a lot of thought of how it was going to look but I hadn’t applied much concept at that point. I’d be able to set guidelines but not given a whole lot of freedom. As I continued, I was given more freedom so I was able to develop more concepts and ideas. The hardest part once you have the idea is figuring out how you’re going to execute it and get as close to what you see in your mind.
How does a piece you conceive on your own differ from one that’s assigned to you through a commission?
Things I come up with on my own are drastically different from what anyone would commission me to do. I greatly enjoy abstract in paintings. I can appreciate landscapes too but abstracts and backgrounds don’t necessarily have to contain a lot of color. They can be different variations of a variety of colors. From there, you can lay abstract figures over that. I suppose I’m more drawn towards surrealism when it comes to my own work.
Are you allowed a lot of freedom during commissioned work?
Every customer’s different. Some are extremely picky and know exactly what they’re looking for. My goal is to gear my talents towards what they want. Others may give me more freedom and say do whatever you like.
What kind of art technique is your favorite?
I’d say probably drawing. Drawing is what I enjoy the best whether it’s charcoal, pen, or pastel. I’m a very impatient person. It’s whatever expedites the process. I enjoy that I know a little about all types of art. The more drawings I’m able to do with own artwork just leads to more ideas for the next big piece.
What are your favorite art pieces from your own work? Your senior exhibit was based off of a trees/human concept. How did you go about it?
I’ve always drawn this tree-like figure with kind of a human body in it. I can’t honestly tell you why but for some reason, trees kind of look like people in a way. I know that’s not necessarily an original thought but I always loved that idea. Eventually towards the beginning of 2011 I was doing this painting of a tree man thing and it just made me think, “Well, how would this come to be?” So I started thinking about all these different ideas about how a tree human would come into existence. From there, it all developed into a story, Namely, Archer. Actually, I kind of started backwards at the story’s end and then started adding all the parts.
There’s something chilling to that art collection. That’s in addition to the idea that trees can outlast humans by thousands of years.
Right, and that was kind of the feeling I wanted the viewer to have with that series. This is a man/humanoid who destroyed the only thing that mattered in his life. So I wanted to present the feeling that he is completely destroyed by this and that even his release isn’t a release because he will live thousands of years with this burden.
What are some of your favorite art pieces created by others?
Well, over history, it’d definitely be German expressionism, artists like Franz Marc, Otto Mueller, and Otto Dix. Nobody else was doing what those artists were doing at the time. These were the guys whose artwork the Nazis tried to get rid of. The Nazis alluded that their art was degenerate. They really stood out from the Rembrandts and Caravaggios. It was this group of men most of who went through World War I and whose artworks I admire. Their art was kind of depressing but it greatly reflected society at the time.
Do you let your current state of mind influence whatever you’re working on at the time?
I try not to do that and it’s only because if it’s something I feel will turn into a series, then there’s a certain feeling I want for it. So I leave my own feelings at the door. With anything you create, there’s really no way you can do that. I just wont bother working when feeling so influenced by personal emotions. I usually have an idea as to where I want to go with the art before I lay it down permanently. Even though, there’s no way of completely taking emotion out of something that you’re working on.
What are your favorite pieces from the commissioned work you’ve done?
I did a book cover for Bill Davis and Clay Monroe. That was a lot of fun. It involved coming up with a composition of a fantasy creature that doesn’t exist in real life. I really got to use my imagination on that one. I also did a landscape for Jared Svestka. That was a fun painting but mostly because I don’t do a lot of landscapes. It was only about the third landscape I’d done. Anything that’s a challenge or where I can use my imagination is what I really enjoy doing. The more challenging it is, the more I tend to learn.
What is it like when you stand back and reflect on a completed commissioned work and you say, “Hey, I’m not really happy with how this turned out..”?
It’s a personal failure and I offer to redo it if they don’t like it.
What’s the most frustrating part of the art process?
The most frustrating part is when you think you’re finished with a piece, then you stand back and realize everything that’s wrong with it, just seeing every minor detail. Then you have to go back and tweak it. There are also times when you overwork it so much that it looks like a mess. The hardest part is trying to figure out when you’re done and not overworking it.
Heading in the opposite direction, what’s the most fun part of the process?
It’s the entire process, even creating through all the pain it may cause. With everything you create, you tend to learn more about something else.
What’s the most satisfying aspect of displaying the finished product?
Having a finished product is the most satisfying thing you can experience. Even if nobody likes it, it’s still the fact that you made it with your own hands. That’s the most satisfying feeling in the world.
Talk a bit about ceramics. That’s another art area in which you’ve done quite a bit of work in.
I really like all forms of art but I really enjoy ceramics because it’s a three dimensional thing. You can touch it. It’s completely different because paintings are somewhat of an illusion. Ceramics are the real world. When you do a painting, it’s kind of like telling a beautiful lie. You’re making things look like they exist when they really don’t. Pieces of art in ceramics are real. They really do exist. I enjoy making functional objects like cups and bowls or really anything you can actually use. I really enjoy having that ability.
How do you differentiate drawing/painting inanimate objects from the human/organic form?
It’s extremely different. I always enjoy dealing with organic forms as compared to the inorganic. It’s because an organic form is more framed and forgiving. If you don’t draw a straight line on a box, it’s going to look like crap. There’s just so much more you can do with organic.
What do you think sets your work apart and makes it unique?
From what I’ve seen, there’s really no one doing what I’m doing. There are people who’ve drawn elongated figures but not with the same idea behind it. There are people who have used architectural plans in artwork, but they don’t lay elongated figures over floor plans or put them against abstracts, such as is the society series.
How about your future career? What do you see yourself doing? Do you see yourself maybe as a book illustrator or sticking with commission work or what?
I’d be completely happy with any of those. Especially where I could still work on my own things while doing something artistically as a job.
What did you learn in school from working with other students with the same goals of success as you but with such different styles?
I learned a lot of things. I learned that there are a lot of disgruntled professors in all fields of work. For example, if your goal is to become an illustrator, they shun you. But then there are a lot who will help you despite what your own personal goals are. Going to school for art is important because they push you to go beyond your comfort zone. They make you look at things differently. They help you see what does and doesn’t work. They’re there to help you.
Have you learned more in school or from taking on the challenge in your own free time?
Definitely in school. School is a huge asset to being a good artist because anyone in the world can be self-taught. They have a million DVDs out there. When you go to school for it, you’re forced to look at things in a different light. You have to paint things you don’t necessarily want to. However, once you’re done, you realize the reason.
Are there any other pieces of art you’re working on right now that have stood out in your mind?
There are a lot of pieces in the Archer and Society series. There are some I’m planning on reworking just because there are things that fall short of what my expectations are. When it comes to what I can add to them, I’m constantly thinking of different things.
Do you tend to rework concepts as they develop over time?
The Archer series came from a concept and then turned into a painting. All the images I make for it, that’s the concept developing. I wouldn’t necessarily say the concept changes but rather the way I develop the image may change. Every piece I do makes the series stronger.
Do you ever see the Archer series turning into a published book?
That’s the goal. Hopefully I’ll find a writer that will help me bring it to life.
Talk a little about what you’re working on right now. You were recently hired to illustrate a book.
It’s a children’s book about two girls who find an abandoned baby squirrel and they raise it and do all the research. What the writer wants is artwork that’s semi-realistic. It’s not too cartoony. It has realistic proportions but it’s not photorealism. All the images will be painted with acrylic paint.
Talk a bit about evolving in the future as an artist.
You have to constantly evolve. If you’re always working on something, there’s really no way not to do that. There are a few images I’m satisfied with, but there are a lot more I’m unsatisfied with. But the few that I am happy with make me want to keep going.
For more information on LaFon Willis Johnson, visit: http://artbylafon.weebly.com/