Every so often, we like to check in with the ladies over at The DIME Store and highlight one of the makers whose work they sell in-store. This month we hear from illustrator Matthew Sallack. We've been admiring Sallack's work for a while now and have purchased several of his prints, ourselves. This interview had us pretty excited. After all, when else can you discuss fair use, the Nintendo Virtual Boy, and wompas all in the same interview? Read on to find out what drew Sallack to illustration, why he thinks Predators are so good at fighting, and his advice for aspiring makers.
Have you ever been surprised by how well a certain piece of your art has sold?
I have this one piece called “Teeny Turtles” which is my most popular design, by far. It’s an illustration of four box turtles and a rat, dressed like the characters from the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” series. It has sold really well. In fact, I feel like that piece single-handedly saved me in my Master’s Thesis review in grad school. The director of the program didn’t care much for what I had brought into the room, but he just happened to jump online during the review and see that particular image on my website. He said, “Why didn’t you just make more stuff like that?!” He was very impressed with the style and composition, saying “I just love that rat.”
And I guess what surprises me is how timeless and universal the Ninja Turtles are. They were so popular when I was a kid and are still just as, if not more, relevant. At Dallas Comic Con back in May, I was actually next to one of the artists who works on the Nickelodeon Ninja Turtles cartoon and comic book. (He was really cool, and he did this awesome Krang illustration for me.) And it’s just crazy how popular that franchise still is. And we don’t need to talk about the new movie. Let’s just not talk about it.
So what's with the "Otter" part of Otter Illustration?
When I first set up my main website about 3 years ago, I wanted to have something other than just my name as the name of my business. I wanted to have a mascot, a moniker for my body of work. And then one day I was watching a National Geographic special (I watch a lot of these) about life in the frozen tundra and there was a part about otters. They were navigating the icy mountainside with ease...basically just frolicking around. They approached the danger of the icy terrain with agile whimsy. And I just knew at that moment, that was it. That’s the spirit I wanted to portray with my work. You could say the otter is my “power animal.” Otters have intelligence, create meaningful social bonds, and exude a quirky fervor. When people ask what my style is, I reply “whimsical surrealism,” and I think that is basically what an otter is.
The other part of this answer: I think I’ve held on to that name thus far and plan on keeping it because part of building a brand is having something recognizable, memorable, and/or relatable. I doubt many people would remember my full name walking away from my booth, but they might recall, “Oh yeah, the otter guy!” The otter is a way of establishing a connection and making the mission about something bigger than just me.
What first drew (har har) you to illustration?
I have been drawing since I was 2. My mom would bring home stacks of paper, the old school kind with the holes on the side, so I would never run out of paper to draw on. I remember drawing Ninja Turtle comics in Kindergarten with letters in random order, because I definitely knew letters, but not so much actual words. And I took art and AP art classes in grade school. I have more or less been doing art since I was born.
What’s your favorite Pokemon?
This might surprise some, but I am not really that big of a Pokemon fan. I definitely appreciate the “fandom” of Pokemon. And I definitely played a few of the games. But I really like the design and variation of the characters. I initially set out to do illustrations of all the first generation, 151 individual characters. I called it “Monsters of the Pocket Variety.” I think I have gotten through 50 or 60 of them, but I just don’t know if I can draw them all.
Oh, but my favorite? I don’t know. I like the weird ones. Let’s go with Duduo.
Your work features anything from typography to movie and video game characters to dinos--- is there a method to the madness, or do you just draw whatever strikes you at the moment?
That’s a good question. There’s definitely method. But also madness, (especially when whiskey is involved.) Sometimes, I will make something special for an event, say a poster for “Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival” in which case there is a deadline. And I feel like I actually work better with strict deadlines like that. Then there are also special requests or commissions, which I will usually knock out as fast as possible.
But then there is also this long list of “elective” illustrations that I want to do, mostly pop culture stuff, but I just haven’t got to them. For instance, I want to do a few illustrations from a series of board games: Battleship, Hungry Hungry Hippos, and Connect Four. I want to do these pretty badly, and I picture what they will look like in my head all the time, but I just haven’t gotten to them yet. There is a corkboard in my room with at least 50 different illustration ideas I have yet to get to. I even will draw little thumbnail sketches and post them up there, too. It’s like the idea is waiting there for me, I just have to put pen to paper to get it out of my head. And it’s fun to get to cross things off that list. There are so many ideas: it’s just finding the time and being in the right mindset to work on them.
I think I also work better in a series. For instance, I did a whole bunch of monkey-related pieces recently, and I remember being more focused when I was working on them all as one big project rather than individual pieces.
I get really excited about working on this stuff and I think some days I just have it going, and sometimes I don’t. And it’s good to know yourself and know when is a good time to try and bust out as much work as possible and when to lay low, recharge and binge-watch Netflix.
In addition to your work with Otter Illustration, you're also pretty involved with Spiderweb Salon. What kind of work do you do with Spiderweb and how does it differ from your Otter work?
Spiderweb Salon is a spoken word and art collective based in Denton. We host showcases and produce low-run publications with poetry, prose and artwork. When I first started participating with Spiderweb Salon, I was more of a participant, showing some art here and there, playing some songs. And then in October of 2012, I made a little fold-up ‘zine with dinosaurs on it. That would become the first of many, as we went on to make ‘zines a regular part of the Spiderweb Salon output, sometimes tying them into the themes of the shows. I am currently still in charge of the design and layout of the ‘zines for Spiderweb Salon as well as getting the privilege to do the cover art, which is always fun.
Using my talents for Spiderweb Salon is special in that I am not getting paid to do this. It is a labor of love. And it is a lot of work, but I believe in the mission of community and creation behind Spiderweb Salon, which is why I have been doing it this long. What makes it different than how I normally work is that we have to have coordination with all the many arms of Spiderweb Salon: we have workshops, we have meetings, we have correspondence over email or phone, we have to make decisions by consensus. There is a lot that goes into it. This differs from the normal Otter Illustration regiment, where I am making all the decisions, executive or otherwise, by myself. I have really cherished the opportunity to be a part of Spiderweb Salon. I admire the founders for being able to lead such a meaningful creative movement here in Denton.
How did you get involved with DIME?
When I found out about the DIME store opening, I was really excited. I knew that it would be perfect to have a store like that in Denton. So in the beginning, I think I was just a fan of what the DIME store founders were doing. Then I think I was volunteering at SCRAP one day, when Shelly (one of the founders) came by and we started talking about the store and what I do, and she was so nice and interested to hear about what I did. From there, I think the first thing I did was I went up there with a little sample pack of my stuff for everyone that worked there as a gift and a way of introducing myself. I remember going in there the first time, looking around and thinking that I didn’t really have anything that I had created at that point that would really fit with the overall aesthetic of the store. But I was fortunate enough to get a spot at the Handmade Harvest show/market in November of 2013. After that I started making stuff with the shop in mind: I think the first thing they bought from me was Christmas Cards. Which led to Valentine’s Day Cards, Mother’s Day cards, Denton postcards, Denton magnets, Denton posters, etc. It has been a wonderful symbiotic relationship that we have developed, where I will go in and we will discuss stuff I am planning on working on, sometimes showing prototypes or just spilling out ideas, and we will refine the ideas and try to figure out what might be good for the store. My relationship with the DIME store has been really beneficial for many reasons and I am thoroughly grateful for all they have done to grow Otter Illustration.
Aside from the DIME Store, where can we find your work?
I’m up at the Denton Community Market pretty much every other weekend. Plus I have booths at various local shows and markets like the upcoming Handmade Harvest as well as the Day of the Dead Festival. I have also done big events in the past like Dallas Comic Con and Alternative Press Expo when I lived in San Francisco. You can also buy stuff at my online shop: www.theOtterShop.com.
You use a lot of well known characters in your art. Explain to us how the concept of fair use allows you to legally utilize those characters.
Right. I could probably go on and on about this, because I am interested in the law itself lately and especially how copyright law is interpreted. So, I’ve done a lot of research on this because I obviously don’t want to be ignorant about the matter, and I definitely don’t want to be sued. Fair use, which is covered under the First Amendment, basically lays out what is allowed in terms of using copyrighted material in your own work. It is an extremely gray legal area and much of what is and what is not copyright infringement is open for interpretation. “Fan Art” has become so popular, it really has changed what that law is all about. For me, I always try to present my work as a new interpretation of an established idea or character. If I can claim it as parody, which is usually what I am going for, then it should be protected under Fair Use. Some companies are more stingy about it, and there are other companies that embrace it, citing that it adds to the canon of the characters or work. Also they might elect not to seek legal action as it can be a PR nightmare for them: a big-time greedy company going after an individual.
You can’t make a derivative work. It has to be dramatically different than the original. If it’s clearly satire, then it’s protected under Fair Use (think MAD magazine.) A good example of people who are infringing on copyright: the people on Etsy who are making Batman logo or Mario character decals for the back of your laptop. You can’t do that without a license from the copyright holders. But even when it’s clearly copyright infringement like that, companies generally won’t go after you until you are really making a lot of noise. That’s when they might come knocking at your door with a “cease and desist” order or worse.
Your work fits into a very specific age group. Do you feel like this works to your advantage or not?
I don’t know if I agree with that statement. I do feel like there is a certain demographic that certainly “gets” my work more than others. But working my booth at the Denton Community Market, I can tell you from first-hand experience that I have people from age 6 to 60 who come up and purchase my stuff.
For instance I have an illustration called “Toads of Battle, Frogs of War,” inspired by the old NES game, “Battletoads.” It’s an image of a frog with sunglasses, a frog with spiked bracers, and a toad with leather gauntlets. And there was a lady who really liked it and bought it. She’s like, “I love frogs!” And I said, “Yeah, that’s from a game called ‘Battletoads’.” And she had no idea what I was talking about, and she was just like, “Oh, I just really like frogs.” Even if you don’t get it necessarily, you might still appreciate it on its own. Plus, I have a lot of stuff that is just generic animal or generic Denton stuff that doesn’t have any specific pop culture reference at all that seems to sell with all sorts of people.
Are there certain areas of pop culture in your art that sell better than others? What doesn’t sell that you wish did?
Things that sell well: anything with animals. Most of the pieces that reference Nintendo games do well. The Star Wars stuff does well. I definitely have some stuff that doesn’t sell well, and I can’t necessarily predict it. But I feel like I can look at the information and derive some sort of pattern in the purchasing habits. One illustration I did that I really like but I don’t think I’ve sold even one print of is called “Virtual Insanity” which is an illustration of the Virtual Boy, with the graphics projecting out of it. It's appropriate considering that the Virtual Boy itself was a huge commercial flop.
Pikachu vs a Wompa vs Predator who wins?
Ok, this is easy. The Pikachu and Wampa would essentially cancel each other out in all-out, ice-versus-electricity battle. And if either one of them was left standing, Predator would be waiting, cloaked in the corner. And then it would be up to him whether he wanted to finish things off with a ranged attack from the shoulder cannon, smart disc, or javelin. But a Predator versus a Snorlax? Now that would be an interesting match-up.