From rural New Jersey to busy Metropolis, legendary Eisner award-winning comic book artist, Bill Sienkiewicz, tells us how he dropped guitars (but never girls) to pursue his passion of art.
Where did you grow up and how has it influenced your art?
I grew up in rural northern New Jersey, US. It was beautiful but remote. Lots of farmland, cows, horses, pigs, crops, late summers spent baling hay. More than anything, I learned a work ethic.
What, outside of art, has most influenced your work?
Music. All kinds. In art school I got into jazz and blues. More than any other, this style of music fits my style of work and my natural way of expressing myself.
You're a child. You see a painting or drawing that changes everything. What effect did it have?
I would get a chill down my spine and a rush of adrenaline. Joy. Excitement. A desire to create something that would give me that rush again. To capture lightning in a bottle. And hopefully bring that same feeling to others.
What was your next step in art?
When I become interested in girls I had to make a big decision. I also loved to play guitar, baseball, act and direct. I remember someone saying, "You can't serve two masters". An odd thing for a kid to hear. But guitar and baseball took a back seat to art – which really was my first love – and I would do acting and directing through comics. No way were girls going to be taken out of the mix.
Name one person who helped you, and someone who tried to get in your way
At grammar school my biggest supporter, my most wonderful muse and practically a surrogate mom, was my fifth grade teacher Nell Harper. We'd do daily journal writings and I turned them into everything from parodies like Mad to science fiction and comics. She would write little comments in the margins, which were like food to a starving man. She truly inspired me.
I guess my biggest impediments were my parents. Until the day she died my mother had absolutely no idea what I did to make a living. I don’t think she cared – and if she did it simply didn't register. She was incredibly self-absorbed. My father wanted me to have a "real job" to fall back on. So I learned electrical wiring – a useful skill for collaged and constructed pieces!
What was your first paid commission?
A painting I did of the New Jersey State Art Fair, a sort of Frazetta-Adams mashup of a barbarian – and I won the highest award. I was incredibly thrilled. I sold the painting for $25 and it showed me I could make a living doing art.
What's the last piece that you finished, and how do the two differ?
A cover for DC Comics, and the biggest difference is that I’m getting more than $25 for it. But the excitement is still there, it's never left or diminished. I'm incredibly fortunate that that's the case.
What are your painting rituals?
Staying at the easel, drawing board or computer until a piece is done, would be the closest thing to a ritual.
What's the most important thing you've taught someone?
Not to take no for an answer and to believe in themselves. And if they ever find themselves asking, "Am I an artist?" then the answer is probably "No I'm not," because there is no question. You simply have no choice.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Stay in the moment. Don't listen to the voices of doubt in your head. Pay attention to life around you. Connect with people. Learn from everyone. Work on yourself as a person. Live consciously. Do that 'examined life' thing. Understand your reasons, your emotions and your motivations. They'll help both your work and your life.
Why is comic and fantasy art still the best place to be working?
In a storytelling medium, anything and everything is possible. You're creating joy, awe and work that moves and challenges people's perceptions and adds something to their lives. It's not brain surgery or rocket science, but it shouldn't be. It has its very own place of honour.
Words: Bill Sienkiewicz
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