Carl Medley Laughs at Life’s Absurdities [Interview]
Carl Medley will eat your pizza if you don’t want it. That’s the first thing you’ll learn about the Virginia-based art director after stumbling across his inspired website. The second thing you’re likely to notice is Carl’s wicked sense of humor, which is splashed across pins, prints, and paintings in his trademark slacker-speak.
“Truth makes me laugh,” says Carl, whose work responds to the absurdity of life with an almost deadpan glee. “I don’t believe in beating someone over the head with a joke or message or concept. I find it can reach more people when it’s relatable but people can still find their own inspiration or connection to it.” Painted with acrylic in a graphic style, Carl’s work is blunt but ambiguous, heroic yet hilariously deflated. Works like “Whatever” and “Yeah, No” emphasize the incongruity between expectations and reality with mismatched imagery and messaging. “People say and do a lot of weird things,” says Carl, who uses idioms and other common sayings to fuel his work. “Presenting them back to someone dressed up in a different way can make for fun visuals.”
Carl grew up in the ’80s, raised in a family that weathered life’s ups and downs with jokes and banter. Built on a foundation of realism, the painter’s work indulges the PG-rated pop-culture of his youth: choose-your-own-adventure books, cartoons, toys, and the merchandising that came with it. Revisiting the joys of childhood comes naturally to Carl, who now includes his three-year-old son, Oliver, in the artmaking process. “[His paintings] are currently just very colorful and full of strokes and blended colors,” Carl tells NOT REAL ART, adding that he’s excited to explore new creative territory after the tumult of the pandemic. “I plan on adding to the painting things that I feel are representative of or inspired by these last few years.”
In Today's Q+Art Interview…
Carl Medley discusses his childhood love of toys, what it was like growing up before the internet, and where you can find the best blueberry cake donut on the planet.
Humor is an important part of your work. What makes you laugh?
Carl Medley: Awkward scenarios or mundane things that people never really question or talk about are funny when you sit there and actually bring them up. Most of the best comedians just talk about very real stuff because they pay attention to things that people either don’t notice or just accept. In my work I like to use humor that is based on something someone can relate to. It helps bring people in closer, and that’s when you’ve got them and you can make them pay attention.
What’s your favorite mural that you’ve done? Which mural was the most challenging?
CM: A few years ago I got to do a mural during Pharrell William’s Something in the Water festival as part of their art walk experience. I worked with another artist, Shaylen Broughton, and we collaborated on a mural where we had complete creative freedom to do whatever we wanted. The end product was this water background, done by Shaylen, and I painted the word FEELS to look like piñata letters. The inspiration had a lot to do with the energy of the festival and the delicacy of a resort community where some people want to see change and some fear it, like how a piñata looks cool, but the whole point is to break it, even though you don’t know what you’re going to get when you break it. It was such a fun project, and I almost didn’t do it because it was the same weekend we were moving to a new house and my wife was 38 weeks pregnant.
I’ve had a few super challenging murals, but the one that gave me the most trouble was doing one on the ceiling of a children’s section of a new library. Just doing it was one of the most challenging things I had ever done, but then I had to do a lot of it again because they had changes to it. So that was fun.
How does your “day job” as a designer/art director inform your personal work?
CM: It doesn’t inform my personal work as much as it used to, but I feel that all of the design sensibilities and aesthetics find their way into my work, or the way I work, and people can tell. Things like an understanding of typography, color palettes, composition, etc. crossover a lot either consciously or subconsciously and my work is better in the end because of it. Outside of that, I think from a conceptual standpoint, the day job informs my personal work because I can do all of the things I can’t do with a traditional design job when I am creating my art. My personal work doesn’t have anyone to answer to or any metrics that it has to hit, so it informs my mental state of feeling more free, more powerful, and allows me to play in a different sandbox where I can just say “what if” and then go from there.
What was the best part about growing up in the ’80s?
CM: Everything had a toy that went along with it—cereal, fast food, tv, etc. It was like everyone got together and were like, “Ok, let’s all agree that there always has to be some kind of toy that we have attached to this whatever thing we’re selling.” I’m not going to say movies were better, but I think the expectation was much lower and every single movie that came out didn’t have to blow someone’s brains out by being the best movie of all time or be reviewed on Rotten Tomatoes while they’re watching said movie. Also the benefit of being part of a generation that had enough time before the internet to know how to live and have fun without it but then grow up with it to really leverage it and appreciate it is really cool.
What books, music, or films inspire you?
CM: I really love movies that have great art direction and little dialogue. Movies like Drive or Wall-E where you really feel something and the writing is mostly in what’s happening and not people talking. I have a three-year-old and a three-month-old, so I am reading mostly children’s books these days, but you find a lot of inspiring works there. I am drawn to authors/illustrators who can both tell a good story in a unique way and the visuals are compelling and not a blueprint. People like Jon Klassen, Bob Shea, and Adam Rex are some of my favorites right now. Music is all over the place. I can find almost any kind of music inspiring, it just depends on what I am working on or the mood I am in.
What is your creative process like, from the moment you get the idea to the completed project?
CM: Usually it starts out with keeping a list of ideas and then just scribbling down thoughts as well. Maybe variations of that thought. Then I spend time in my sketchbook working with colors that I am thinking about doing or compositions I am interested in. During that same time I will try to create references of what I am going to make, and that can either be taking pictures myself or finding things online and manipulating them in Photoshop to get close to what I will be producing. Then it’s execution time, which can be on a mural or a canvas. If it’s a mural the execution is much faster because I don’t want to take forever. If it’s a canvas, sometimes it’s quick and others I work on it bit by bit, and it could take longer. Hopefully, I am really into working on it and it goes quicker. All the while during the process is a roller coaster of liking the project, then hating it, then liking it again, then thinking nobody will like it, then realizing that I don’t actually care about that, then being confident in it.
When do you get your best ideas?
CM: Honestly I don’t know, which was frustrating when I was younger. I reached a point where I realized I couldn’t force ideas to come, so I could either be mad that nothing was coming or just carry around my phone and keep a running list of ideas. The second I have it, I write it down. But that could be any time at all during the day. For me, if I were to say, “Ok, for the next hour, I am going to sit here and decide what I want to do,” I would not be very honest with myself. I could probably come up with a bunch of ideas, but who’s to say it would be the idea I want to do for that particular project? Maybe that means I come up with my best ideas when I’m not trying to come up with them. The best part is I have a running list that when I feel like I am blocked or don’t have ideas I can go back through and look at my idea list.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
CM: I think that has to evolve over time because you learn and experience more as you practice and get older. Currently success just means creating the things I want and saying “no” to projects that either aren’t me or I don’t have time for. I have two children and I work a fulltime day job, so if I create three paintings a year or one to two murals, that’s a huge success to me. Anything after that will just feel like a big bonus. I also think being successful means staying open to opportunities and possibilities, because those can lead to big career moments and a different feeling of success.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
CM: I have actually been painting with my son Oliver, who is three. Becoming a parent, a global pandemic, my mother having Alzheimer’s and moving into a memory unit, becoming a parent again—all of it has been a blur, and I feel like enough time has passed where I can create based on it and it doesn’t feel as temporary or as trendy and more lasting and timeless. I don’t really want my work to feel like it is only relevant based on something current. I want my ideas to be able to connect with people for years to come. I feel like good creative—whether that’s movies, theater, books, albums—can last if they are good and true and not based on what is popular right now.
On your website you mention that you love blueberry cake doughnuts, which is quite specific. Where can we find the best blueberry cake doughnut?
CM: Oof. A place called Glazed in Hampton, Virginia, is THE place for blueberry cake donuts. They do them in a bunch of different ways and they always have them on the menu. It’s fun to venture out now and then with other fancy donuts, but give me a well-made blueberry cake donut and a cup of coffee and I will be very content.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist(s).
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