We continue our interview with Chris Kotsakis today- husband, father, Orthodox Christian, artist and founder of the professional artist show Artisticon- who in this second portion focused on his faith and his profession, and how his life has been guided by God through good times and bad. A great conversation on a great topic!
Chris: As an artist, one thing I’ve always focused on is something that St. Gregory Palamas said, “The creativity of God can never be turned off.”
Father Niko: WOW. I’d never heard that quote before. That’s wonderful.
C: The creative power of God is an eternal blessing.
FN: Since we’re on the topic now, why don’t you tell me how you decided to become an artist?
C: I was drawing from age four or five, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I think wanted to be a comic book artist always, I always wanted to be a Marvel comic book artist. Back then everybody was copying the characters, and also making cartoons from Saturday morning, and comic strips as well. How I started out, believe it or not, was I was about four years old and my mom got me a coloring book based on Greek mythology. It was a very basic coloring book but they had really nice line drawings of the characters: Pan playing his flute, Perseus on the horse, all the mythological creatures and characters, and a sticker section with this little unicorn and Pan with the pipe. The Pan picture was only about an inch high. I had taken one of my dad’s ledger pads and I would flip it over and the back was blank paper. I just eyed [the Pan] and I enlarged it, and used these China markers, they’re almost like a crayon, you unwrap the top. I brought it to my mother, and she said “Who drew this?” And I said “I did.” She asks “Did you trace that?” And I said “No, I copied it.” And I showed her the picture that I copied it from. She realized [I] hadn’t only copied it I’d enlarged it about three times its normal size. They realized there was some talent here.
My father’s two uncles were both priests and both iconographers. My grandmother at fourteen had studied with a master painter who taught her to paint reproductions of Renaissance paintings. A few of them were framed and hung above her couch (landscapes and such). So she had the talent. My aunt used to do the same kind of Renaissance art, but she used to do it with needle point, these large scale works in needle point. If you were far away you wouldn’t know they were not paintings themselves. Obviously, the talent was given as a gift of God through our genetics and passed on.
I was constantly drawing. I can’t remember a time when I was young that I wasn’t either coloring or drawing. I loved comics and cartoons. I was a kid of Star Wars when it first came out in 1977. That really changed my life! That was eye-opening. I was drawing all the characters. I liked Star Wars, I liked Marvel and DC Comics. That was kind of my upbringing. I was a geeky kid who loved to draw.
In high school, I attended the Moore College of Art Saturday Enrichment program. I took a summer life drawing class which really transformed my view of art and really pushed me into the aspect of learning fine art and master painting techniques. During that time, I took more classes on Saturdays at what was the Philadelphia College of Art, which is now called the University of the Arts. I was accepted to the University of the Arts, and received both an art and academic scholarship for four years. Talk about trial by fire! I was going to six, seven hour studio classes, plus we had humanities. I worked very hard for four years, constantly like a sponge taking in everything I could. I also had to keep my grades up for the scholarships.
I graduated from art school and started freelancing as an illustrator almost immediately. I worked in the advertising, editorial and publishing fields. I’ve done work in children’s books, I’ve done promotional work for Marvel and DC and other comic book properties. About eight or nine years later, I wouldn’t say I got burned out but the field was changing, becoming much more technologically focused. So I took a break, went back, started learning to create art on the computer. It was kind of in its infancy back when I was graduating from University of the Arts. I started training myself, I got one of the first heavy-duty Macintosh computers at the time with a large monitor, and scanner and necessary software for about ten thousand dollars back then! I put all my savings into further my education, and I really trained myself. I did illustration, some graphic design, and moved into art direction as well.
Later I realized I really needed to get back to painting which was my first love. As computer technology kept moving forward, I moved forward with it. Adobe Photoshop is how I started, and then I came across another software program I absolutely fell in love with called Corel Painter. I would look at the computer as another tool for me, but it took time to master that tool. The way I was trained to paint in art school, it took several years to learn to create that ability in the computer. I can paint traditionally, the way I do with oils, or I can use the software to mimic traditional painting.
I never became the sequential artist I wanted to be, whether at Marvel or DC. I realized I was the type of artist that looks to capture the moment. Throughout my art education and career, I studied master painters, from the Renaissance to German romanticism, to the pre-Raphaelites, to the artists of the French salon. I mean I just couldn’t get enough of it. I still consider myself a painter as well as an illustrator. To me they’re synonymous. I’ve enjoyed seeing painted art coming into comic books the last fifteen to twenty years. I was drawn to artists back in the ‘70s and ‘80s who were really pushing the gamut back then – not just your strict line drawings with inking and color. I like the traditional comic technique, but I loved seeing a lot of painters come into the field.
A big influence to traditional comic book art was John Byrne, I love his work. Bill Sienkeiwicz was one who really pushed the level of comic work. He laid a groundwork for artists to say “anything goes.” As technology moved on, you just had so many types of artists working in the field. So the whole idea behind Artistacon is to celebrate the creative process, and the diversity of style and technique. I’d been doing comic cons the last couple of years, I had gotten back into comic work, and my friend Enrico and I had done New York Comic Con, which – outside of San Diego – is the largest con out there. San Diego is geared more towards the celebrities, I’d say New York Comic Con is definitely geared more toward the creator. It is a lot of people, about 150,000 through the weekend, and the artists’ alley alone has about 1,000 artists.
In 2012, I was juried into the artists’ alley. So we had a table, I had my work out and Enrico had his. He had done sculptures for McFarlane Toys, so that was a draw for people, because you could see sculpts on the table. Dean was only fourteen months at the time, and our wives came up. It was a very unique experience. We started doing other cons. What we noticed was a lot of people that wanted to ask “How do I get into the field?” A lot of young people. We realized there was a lack of mentorship. There are some fantasy art shows that get involved and do that, but it’s strictly fantasy art. Nothing for visual storytelling, comic books or sequential art. So we said, “Let’s create something. Something where you strip away all the fan layers, and strip away the celebrities and get right to the crux of the creative process of the artist.”
The idea behind Artistacon was to celebrate the creative process and bring in these professionals whether they be comic book artists, comic book writers, fantasy artists, fine artists, or traditional brick and mortar writers. The idea is really how to maneuver your career, the business side of art, and trying to find that quality mentorship. I think we succeeded. We had… Carl Potts, who was an executive editor at Marvel, as one of our guests of honor. He’s worked with every title at Marvel. He discovered Jim Lee, in fact Jim Lee does a forward in his book. Carl wrote the “DC Comics Guide to Creating Comics: Inside the Art of Visual Storytelling.” Jim Lee does a nice forward where he says “Before we left to make Image Comics, there was BC and AC- Before Carl and After Carl.” He’s a very nice man, very down to earth, very unassuming. “Punisher: War Journal” is what he’s well-known for.
We had over twenty workshops, lectures and demos. We had talent such as Mike Gustovich, Bob McLeod, and Mark Morales as comic artists, and then Dave Palumbo, Neil Carlin and Renee Foulkes who are fine artists. The reason we did that was to show how drawing and painting are very important if you want to get into the field, whether you want to be a traditional, fantasy or comic artist. We discussed the business side of art, photo referencing for the artist… lectures that were two and three hours. It was a combination of different creative types, but what we found was a lot of the young people who came loved the casualness of it. We did have a separate room for portfolio reviews, but the artists were so friendly, we ended up having portfolios reviewed right at the artists’ alley tables.
Janet and our friend Shaun were fantastic as project managers, we had a fantastic team, folks who came from Rutgers… it became a little family for us. It was a lot of hard work but it paid off. We’re looking to expand it for next year. It was validating to hear all the positive feedback… it was great to hear that we did something right!
FN: What role would you say faith plays in your professional life?
C: It very much has led me to wherever I go. I will not do anything that compromises my faith in anything in life. I feel there are aspects of art and storytelling out there that just don’t interest me because they’re not around positivity. As my wife said today, there’s so much beauty in the world. I feel like there’s a lot of darkness focused on out there. I like to focus on positivity. This is why Artistacon was created. There’s a lot of young people coming out of art school with six-figure debt, they don’t know how to maneuver into the field. There’s so much competition. Social media’s been a blessing and a curse at the same time, whereby there’s plenty of opportunity but there’s plenty of competition. In these young millennials there’s a lot of anxiety. They don’t want to come out for things. We’ve been trying to urge more people to come out and actually be a part of it so there’s a more organic feel to a show like this.
My faith is something that kept me on an even path. Unfortunately, I’ve had people I went to school with who became drug-addicted, or became suicidal – that had deep depression. I think creative people generally have a tendency toward depression, because I think they’re using a part of their brain that is so oversaturated with ideas that when they give it their all and hit a block or something, or they’re not getting that fulfillment from their creativity – that can overwhelm them. I look to my faith, to Christ, to feeling blessed with what I have, as opposed to what I don’t have. I thank God every day for our blessings.
Thanks again for your time, Christo! Looking forward to having you again sometime soon!