When I was in the sixth grade and it was the dreaded Science Fair projects time of the year (did everyone hate this as much as I did? Or was a just a really awful student?) my grandfather hit upon the grand idea that we were going to grow crystals in both salt solutions and sugar solutions and see which one was more successful. If I recall, the sugar solution yielded a better crop: small, but beautiful, delicate crystalline structures climbing upwards along a damp string tied to a wooden Popsicle stick, which hung across the top of a garage sale-scavenged glass mason jar. Absurdly proud of the results, I brought the project to school a few days before it was actually due, and was horrified as our classroom’s most popular girl, Mary Lisa Hopewell*, entirely unprompted by me, reached into the jar of sugar crystals, snapped off a particularly lovely specimen, and started >munching on it. I quite clearly remember her guileless face, looking at me as if she thought she was doing me a favor. Ugh! I locked myself in a bathroom stall and sobbed for twenty minutes straight and vowed I was done with science forever.
Crystals, however, I shall forever be obsessed with. And when I discovered Tyler Thrasher’s exquisite creations in late 2014, my obsession reached a fever pitch. Tyler collects deceased creatures and found objects and bestows upon them new life by growing shimmering crystal clusters on them. And I don’t know if his crystals have ever been eaten by an overzealous fan, but if he was able to bounce back, better than ever, after a devastating house fire last December– then he’s sure not going to let an eleven year-old bully with a sweet tooth get in his way.
As it turns out, Tyler Thrasher is a handful of things including artist, scientist, music producer, traveler, rare plant collector, photographer (and even just a handful, period), and I was delighted that this goofball alchemist agreed to chat with us at here at Haute Macabre. Read on for our interview about life after the fire, creation in dark times, and the importance of curiosity, experimentation, and living your own goddamn story.
Haute Macabre: First, I wanted to check in and see how you’ve been doing after the terrible fire that destroyed your home and belongings last December? I am a fervent checker of your instagram, and it seemed you didn’t stop creating, not even for a second. What propelled you forward during what must have been a pretty dark time for you? I realize that it must have been a nightmare, and I hope this isn’t a callow question but I’m wondering if through that heartache and loss, you drew inspiration for current or future work?
Tyler Thrasher: The first thing that helped during and directly after the fire would probably be my dark sense of humor. I’m no stranger to dark and pretty fucked up situations, and that sense of humor is what seems to keep me together sometimes and has in the past. After the fire I didn’t even consider a break from my work or from creating, it seemed to have the opposite effect, and looking back in my life that urge to create was birthed during one of the most traumatic moments in my life. I found myself as a kid creating and making art as a means to cope and that urge seems to have persisted over the last 15 years. I did lose all of my work. All of the music I was working on, photos I had taken and some of my favorite drawings and paintings. I was/ am currently working on my first ever artbook, “The Wisdom of the Furnace”. One thing that propelled me forward was the title of the book. Before the fire, I had shot hundreds of images for my book of work that I will never see again, and oddly enough before the fire, the book was titled “The Wisdom of the Furnace”. The next morning while I was sitting in my in-laws home I was thinking about the book and everything I had lost for it, and the title sang. It was the same title it had always been, but it had realized itself, and proclaimed its new purpose. The fire gave the title of my book some prestige, and some well earned prestige at that. The new and realized title of the book is what propelled me forward.
I know the “The Wisdom of the Furnace” is a hefty and mystical sounding title but if I could just defog it’s meaning a little bit, it might help some to understand why I was propelled forward. I chose the title in early 2016. I was thinking about old alchemical works and some of the advancements and progress that ancient study lead us to. During my research I found lots of illustrations, code, and text that would reference or highlight the importance of fire and its vitality. The flame and the furnace were so essential for the alchemist’s Magnum Opus and the art of transmutation. So much of what we know today regarding modern and practical chemistry came from the furnace. So much of what we know today regarding physics and modern science in a sense took place in the furnace. At first the title of my book had a pretty straight forward meaning. But after the fire, I realized it’s not just the furnace that gave us so much insight, but it was also the alchemist who boldly reached into it. The fire wasn’t going to give me answers, it wasn’t going to be an end result for the book or my work. The fire was just a catalyst, as most flames in the laboratory are. I realized that this book hadn’t even begun. Everything I shot before hand was empty and vapid before the fire. It would take an effort from me beyond pointing a camera and shooting, but to get up and realize this catalyst and to respect the potency of nature and the furnace. I realized that despite losing everything for the book in the fire, the book would still be the thing I pulled out of the soot and the remains. And in an essence, that sense of transformation is the vital core of alchemy.
Shit like this happens to me all of the time. I don’t think I believe in destiny, but every now and then the universe gives me a little wink and a nudge.
So many folks describe your creations as “macabre”; I’m curious though, as to if you feel that’s an accurate representation of the work that you do?
I think macabre is a fair and accurate description. When I first started exploring this theme and medium, a lot of my friends and family thought it was a little disgusting. I mean I went from drawing landscapes to submerging dead insects into chemicals. I get it. I think parts of my work are rightfully macabre. My favorite thing EVER is when people ask what I do. When I describe what I do to others, yes its macabre. Description alone, I sound like a fucked-up mad scientist. My other favorite thing EVER, is when I show them pictures, because they usually look very confused. And the response is usually the same, “OH! I had no idea what to expect! That’s so *Insert compliment here*”. And of course that always feels good! I think visually it’s not so macabre. It is a celebration of life and an homage to what nature can do with one’s remains after life. In a way, it addresses a sense of purpose after consciousness, a purpose on earth and under the laws of nature. And I love that. It’s spiritual without being too much so, and it gives nature the respect it deserves. So much of what I do is a collaboration with nature.
Your pop-up shop/show, Traveling Alchemist, occurred at Paxton Gate PDX just this past weekend (May 20th) and you have another show in June, “The Sun Rises at Midnight” at the Black Book Gallery in Denver. First, having been to Paxton Gate a few times, I have to note that it seems like the most perfectly magical venue for your crystallized curiosities. But then again, I am biased, I love Portland, and there are no doubt tons of places there where your work would be a perfect fit. But I’d love to hear how this show came to be? Secondly, your solo show, “The Sun Rises at Midnight”– that’s a very evocative sounding theme– what can you share about the creation of these particular pieces within the context of that theme?
I’m not entirely sure how the pop up shop came to be! I think one of the cool people at Paxton Gate commented on one of my photos, like, forever ago about having a show there. It was pretty casual, which is one thing I love about social media. Most of my shows so far have been decided and scheduled via Instagram comments or just DMing the gallery! Having seen pictures of Paxton Gate, I figured a pop up shop would be the best route, since I would just bring a whole lotta product and work and just stock their store up! I’ve had hundreds of people ask me to come to Portland, so I’m very excited that its finally happening.
“The Sun Rises at Midnight” is a pretty hefty theme. I’m all about overly grand themes. As you could probably assume, its alchemy based. More specifically the second phase of the Magnum Opus, or the “Great Work”. In medieval alchemy, there would be a phase where the material being heated or transformed would turn “white”. This was an indication to the alchemist that the second phase has been reached and that they were closer to successful transmutation. After medieval alchemy was debunked as being an overzealous attempt to control and understand the world through a way too grand of lens, alchemy took on a more psychological approach. Albedo, or the “Whitening phase” was and is now seen as the second phase in a transformation of self. This phase takes place directly after the blackening phase, and is the phase in which one realizes and sees their own light. After fighting and trudging through the darkness of one’s self, they see something productive, something clean. The pieces in this show reflect that. And more so, reflect that in myself and my upbringing. I didn’t want to illustrate literal depictions of my life and what I battled and am battling, but wanted to make haunting images that could be seen as beautiful outside of any dark meaning. I didn’t want the show to seem overly self important either, but this will be the first show in which I pour a lot of myself. This isn’t necessarily for the audience, but mostly for me– while providing the audience a series of images they can view and draw their own conclusions from. I will of course have several crystallized objects as well, which represent a piece of the world I made for myself after clawing through the blackening phase. Sort of an end product that came from a lot of hard and strenuous work.
The overwhelming theme of your work, even as it evolves, is “ curiosity and experimentation”–and that seems to be a code you wholeheartedly live by. I’m remarking on this having just seen some photos you posted on your instagram, a gorgeous series of nudes; your tender, graceful 2d illustrations, and after having listened in on your soundcloud channel over the past week, it seems you are something of a musician, too! Not to mention those “Raise Some Heck” tee shirts you created! (Currently sold out, but will be added back to the shop soon.) Can you share with a bit about these different passions of yours, and what keeps you focused on the true essence of your work , whatever you might consider that to be?
To put it shortly, I get bored easily. HAHAHA. I always have. I don’t know why, but as a kid, boredom was literal hell for me. Mental anguish. Maybe I’m just mentally deficient, but I couldn’t and still can’t handle boredom. I’m also fiercely protective of what I like and what I enjoy doing, as I think most people should be. I think curiosity and experimentation are just vital for being human. We can’t run away from it and I think whether or not your conform to that, we all in someway are controlled by these urges. The first thing I ever did was draw. It’s funny now because everyone knows my work by the crystallized pieces, and whenever I post an illustration, people are like “Wait you can draw?!” I don’t blame them! That’s a downside of social media, people see whatever they see first and that’s their impression. I’ve been posting more of my 2D work lately because I want it to get some light and recognition. I enjoy doing them, and at some point I would love it if those illustrations made me some money too!
Music has always been a passion of mine as well. I LOVE LOVE LOVE electronic music, specifically progressive house and trance music. I don’t know why, but I am compelled to believe they are the two most inspiring and motivating genres both mathematically and emotionally. I listen to these genres when I work out, drive, longboard. Anything that requires any type of movement towards an end goal. The repetitive elements and rhythms are just enough to shut my brain off and pull me into a zone of “get shit done”. The music I make is somewhere in this area with a little bit more “funk” every now and then. I’m still learning A LOT but I freaking love making music. I think the fact that I make sure I do so many different things and keep my mind and spirit happy by trying new things is the “true heart of my work”. There’s so much out there, so much humans have created and discovered and explored and I would be a pretty lousy human if I didn’t give my brain the drug it needs and explore and discover more than just what’s immediately in front of me. (This is just the definition for a human for myself.) I have always lived by the code of “curiosity and experimentation” and I hope this persists til I die because it’s been very good for me so far.
I saw you quoted in the Daily Dot from an article in 2016 where you stated that, “I don’t want to be working on anyone else’s story or art”. This is such a powerful declaration, and I’d love to hear more.
Well who would?! I don’t mind helping others with their story or popping in as a side character that dies off in the next chapter, but there’s not enough time to help someone else live their story and try to pop back in for my own. I won’t and cannot be a side kick in the story of “Tyler Thrasher” and it breaks my heart when I see someone being a sidekick in their own story. This doesn’t mean you should live selfishly and have a complete disregard for others. It’s the opposite. I don’t think all good stories could exist without others. We need other people, creatures, and entities to help us along and we need to help others along. Just make sure you aren’t living someone elses story and neglecting your own. That sounds a little preachy. hahaha.
Another thing I meant by this is in regards to my degree. I got my degree in Computer Animation at Missouri State University. I was wildly convinced that I wanted to be an animator and make stories. That was until my school made the tragic mistake of bringing in an animator to talk about his career and life. And it was miserable. Possibly the saddest artist I had ever listened to. We were told that animators often work 60+ hours a week on average and on projects that meant absolutely nothing to them. This particular animator mentioned how he spent most of his conscious week working on Dora the Explorer and Zhu Zhu pets and I could’ve wept for him. I asked him if he had time for his own work and with a very tired sigh, he said “no.” I knew immediately that this was a bullshit scam and I wasn’t having any of it. I declared that day that I would be a free lance self employed artist who would not work on any one else’s story. I would work my ass off if I had to in order to make sure that part of my work remained pure and untouched by Dora and her evil companions. I told my professors my goal and they gave me a very nervous look. We had an assignment to come up with a four year plan outside of school, who we wanted to work with and for and what we wanted to be doing. I didn’t even turn in the paper. I just said, “I want to work for myself.” I of course failed that assignment, but I was honest and true to myself. I didn’t and don’t want to live selfishly. I want to inspire and help those around me and I want to be inspired by those around me. I just don’t think the world needs more people working on Dora the Explorer. We’ve given her too much of our time, and I guarantee you no kids are waiting around for the newest story breaking episode. They’re not even played linearly. The kids will be ok with the same 200 episodes we’ve made already haha. I have a deep respect for the animations and projects individuals all agree to work on together and with passion. I have very little affinity or respect towards the studio or warehouse that pumps out the same empty project just to keep the artists busy, children distracted, and parents spending money.
Tyler estimates that The Wisdom Of The Furnace will be available, perhaps through Kickstarter, late this year–be certain to check his social media for purchase!
All photos courtesy Tyler Thrasher.
*names have been changed to protect the stupid