Exclusive Interview: The Cosmically Surreal Collages of Scott McGrath
It’s difficult to describe these images without getting into a nether region of surrealist lingo that leaves us all in the lurch. The thing is, it’s hard to describe things that have this much potency, so much context and colliding ideals. It feels like cultural math, a formula governed by shapes and creation, yet completely informed by a global subconscious mind that we all share.
Scott McGrath creates these digital collages with clear skill, flawlessly blending sources and imagery in a specific confluence that can most succinctly be described as, next-level. I’m extremely excited to have discovered and subsequently caught up with one of my favorite new artists. Boundaries and formulas are good for engineering.
Art should be a lot more wide open. Scott McGrath proves that it is.
EL: Your about page states that you draw ‘inspiration from literature, comparative religion, myth, his (your) own interiority, and surrealists,’ who are some of your favorite writers or artists?
Scott McGrath: So many. Among my perennial favorites–writers whose work I have loved for a long time or I always go back to in some way–are Umberto Eco, Frank Herbert, T.S. Eliot, Neil Gaiman, John Dos Passos, HD, Kurt Vonnegut and, most especially, Cormac McCarthy. I’d be entirely remiss without adding the plays of Shakespeare, the poetry of Bob Dylan and the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, as well. One really balks at readily listing the likes of those three in such places, though, eh? They seem too big to immediately and simply fit the answer to the question of favorites. But there they belong, nevertheless.
Remedios Varo and Dave McKean head up any list of my favorite artists.
EL: That’s an exceptionally inspiring list! Speaking to the spirituality portion of that last question, as an agnostic (perhaps funnily), I also find comparative religion fascinating… what about worship and spirituality intrigues you creatively?
Scott McGrath: That fascination might be leading you somewhere, you know. The Universe might tap you on the shoulder one of these days and say “I hear you’ve been looking for me.” Keep your eyes open. You’ll always find the thing you’re looking for in the place you’d most expect to find it and the place you’d least expect to find it.
I have not been among those who worship for some time, but I have ever liked the pageantry of ritual as well as the sense of comfort brought on by the repetition of it. And the imagery associated with ritual of almost any stripe–cup, sword, maze, temple, feather, censer, tallit, mask, atl atl, whatever–always catches my eye and my imagination.
My own spirituality informs my creative process quite closely. That is, the work can’t help but be about what I have and keep and see and struggle with inside. None of us can help it–I’m firmly with Jung on that score. More broadly, though, the notion of interior journey has almost exclusively been informing my work lately. I was given a very clear message this past year regarding my having let go of the undertaking of becoming. The message frightened me back into action.
EL: That’s intensely awesome, man. It also might have something to do with the fact that your work is perfectly far out. There are often geometric or technologically inspired underlays or overlays in a lot of your work as well. Purely aesthetics or perhaps some commentary on all that is?
Scott McGrath: “Far out?” Excellent.
The geometric elements are a fairly recent addition to the work. At the beginning of this year, I was coming out of an artistic dry spell and I needed some help. So, I started browsing in libraries. In one, I had read about the idea of mining a vein, as a certain author put it–that is, choosing, committing to and including in one’s next ten or so compositions such-and-such stylistic elements. The notion made sense, so off I went. One of the elements I chose was geometric shapes. I like precision and have always dug mathematical form, so that particular choice was natural. Seems so in retrospect, anyway. The idea of a higher order of thought made manifest in physical reality appeals to me.
My work has included machine elements for some time, but its presence isn’t a commentary about how integral to our lives machinery and technology are. At least, I don’t think so. Rather, the bits of machinery that show up might have to do with my tendency to see the structure of people’s shortcomings, especially my own, as machines or devices. For example, I used to picture my tendency to not let people near me as a collection of outward-facing mirrors spinning around a light. I’m also often inspired by illustrations pertaining to alchemy. Always, some apparatus there is connected to something organic or indicative of a spiritual state of being. There is an unreal strength in machinery.
EL: Very interesting, indeed. As far as how elements come together, which of your works do you like the most? Which are most popular among your fans?
Scott McGrath: My own favorite would be either Untitled 3 or Anywhere I Lay My Head. In places where I have received feedback, Untitled 5 is always the most appreciated.
EL: There seems to be a thread through all your work that certainly feels dreamlike, but is also celebratory in the same poetic way temporary yet beautiful things are. Are you a pessimistic or optimistic person? How do you see that affecting your work?
Scott McGrath: Thank you for the kind words.
In this regard, I am quite the cliché, I fear: an acerbic cynic hiding the fact that I’m a horribly disappointed romantic. But at my very core–and as carefully hidden as it might be–I’m an optimist. I’m not sure whether that affects my work, as such. A friend of mine once told me that, like a few others, I just see beauty in strange places.
EL: I’d say that’s an awesome compliment! Digital collage is one of our favorite mediums, if only for the incredibly wide range of possibilities, not to mention the fact that some of you are making utterly breathtaking work. How did you get into it? Did you also work in other mediums?
Scott McGrath: Looking at good digital collage is exciting, isn’t it?
EL: For sure.
Scott McGrath: Many of the artists out there continue to astonish not only with the work of their imaginations but with the artistry of their techniques, as well. People like Sonny Kay and Marcela Bolivar–or photographers like Jon Jacobsen and Jennifer Hudson, who have both used layering or compositing–come along and just leave us wonderfully gobsmacked. The medium and its artists are an endless source of amazement.
I had been drawing and practicing some calligraphy since I was a child, and I’m a hobbyist photographer. But about nine years ago, my brother gifted me a copy of Photoshop 7, and I got to work trying to catch up to Dave McKean, whose work I had admired since I had many years before been handed–again, by my brother–a copy of Gaiman’s Season of Mists and probably spent more time looking at the art of the issues’ covers than I did reading the stories. I never caught up to Mr. McKean, of course–dammit–but I learned a few things along the way and eventually developed my own style quite by accident.
But I still have to say this: if anyone can look at The Particle Tarot and tell me just how in the hell he made some of those images, hit me up.
EL: Love it. What struggles or successes do you find working in pixels?
Scott McGrath: The most ready success–or just call it a win–is that pixels are infinitely malleable, endlessly reproducible and totally inexpensive. In an admirable spirit of sharing, many people out there freely offer a variety of resources for artists to use in their work: stock photography, actions, customized brushes, textures, tutorials, and so on. It is nothing short of generous. Even museums are opening themselves up to digital artists now. The British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rijksmuseum all have digital libraries available online for use by artists.
Another win is CTRL/⌘-Z. You all know what I’m talking about.
The biggest struggle with pixels is that achieving seamlessness to any degree is an entirely painstaking process. Satisfying once achieved, but painstaking.
EL: Is art your full-time gig? I see you also work in graphic design… it’s a common cross over for certain digital artists. I’m always curious in how artists perceive their own goals and development…
Scott McGrath: Not my full-time gig, no. Would that that were the case, though. I do do some freelance design work, but currently I retouch and print at a local photography studio to pay the bills. While the work doesn’t feed my soul, it does afford me an unparalleled opportunity to learn more about the programs I use. My next practical goal is to learn to use Corel Painter beyond the rudiments I already have to hand.
My next artistic goal? Bigger and broader compositions that develop more spontaneously, without my feeling the need to endlessly tinker with every last detail. A more free hand, I suppose. Begin to incorporate more digital painting, as well. Ideally, I’d like to photograph my own subjects, too, but finding good, available models is not easy.
We all seem to develop in the same way, no? What we used to have to put so much time and effort into becomes second nature. We get a moment of rest, then the challenge of a new technique presents itself, and we’re back in the cycle of learning again.
EL: How would you describe your explorations into imagery?
Scott McGrath: Most recently, I have been conscious of the need to tell or at least suggest the presence of a story or a certain moment in an already-ongoing narrative. My earlier work was very iconic in the pure sense of the word. The figures hung in the middle of the compositions much as classical statues stand in a gallery. Lots of white space around. Now, the figures are more surely placed in particular landscapes. Deserts, waters and roads abound.
A good part–not all, mind, but some–of what ends up in a composition come about from playing. I retouch, cut and drop in a bit of an image and then start noodling around. Sometimes, the result is a pleasant harmony, sometimes a jarring dissonance. What feels right is when the bit finds its own gravity in the piece.
For some time, I have longed to create a Tarot deck. Those perfect little jewels of balance, composition, color and meaning are never far from my creative thoughts. Much of what I have been doing lately seems to be carrying me in the direction of a deck, although I’ve been mistaken about my own sense of direction before.
EL: Well, I’m 100% in favor of you doing the Tarot deck, for whatever it’s worth. Very interesting idea. Do you have prints available of your work?
Scott McGrath: I can offer prints, yes.
EL: Awesome, we might have to take you up on that sometime. What’s the best creative advice you’ve ever received?
Scott McGrath: “The answer to every question you’ve ever had lies within you.”
EL: Name one artist or musician/band our readers should check out.
Scott McGrath: Just one? Damn, that’s a cold cup of coffee right there, sir. However, I’ll name Everything Everything. A friend just turned me onto them and I like what I’ve heard so far. The rhythm section is astoundingly cool.
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