I have an incredible appreciation for the self-taught artist. It is a daunting task to enter a world in which everyone else can seem to have a leg up, just based on their schooling or connections. The self-taught artist is the lone wolf, the one working even harder behind the scenes to validate their efforts. There requires an overwhelming amount of dedication to follow through with your goals, and an even larger learning curve when you go at it on your own fruition. Solomon Carlson understands the value of experimentation, and embodies the work ethic of a self-motivated individual on a path for great things.
Using illustration as a starting point, Carlson pushes that skill further on a daily basis, working indiscriminately with a variety of mediums in an attempt to continue his own education. He is involved in numerous side projects, including launching a board game design, starting the Sioux Falls Sketch Squad, and creating an illustrated novel. His work is playful and intriguing, with many pieces carrying their own interesting back-story. He understands the necessity of an active community, and reaches out to the younger artistic community to add their own voice to Sioux Falls. Carlson is polite, thoughtful and genuinely interested in what people have to say. He finds value in connecting with those of similar interests, and takes an active approach to help those around him grow. Please read on, and reflect on how you push your own interests, how you are accomplishing those dreams deep within… it’s never to late to start the rest of your life! ~Amy
What is the path that has led you to where you are today?
My first interest in art [came when I] was pretty young. I remember drawing all the time, especially in class. I remember that classroom setting–drawing with all the kids huddled around me. I remember getting encouraged by teachers. I felt like I was really talented as a child artist. It was really big in my family, too. My dad went to school for art. My brother and sisters are artists.
In middle school I started to get away from art more and more. I just remember that last time I had drawings that I kept was from my middle school years. And that was the last time I did art until five years ago. Pretty much from my high school years to my early twenties I didn’t do art at all. I was working a mundane start-up job, so it was really slow, and for some odd reason I decided to start sketching on cloth and other things the company I worked at had. Strange enough, it was natural; I had missed it so much. Literally, the bug bit me, and ever since then it felt like that’s what I was supposed to do. That was five years ago, and ever since then I’ve been really passionate about it. I’m trying to make a living out of it and be able to do it full-time. That’s my dream in whatever capacity I can do it and still support my family.
Not really. I know a lot of artists, so I like to talk to them. But specifically a mentor… I would say no. Being self-taught, most of the skill that I’ve been able to gain is through an online community or assessing where I am myself. I’ve really had to be my own mentor in that way. Knowing a lot of artists, it was very easy for me to go online and visit forums and having them offer critiques. But that’s one thing I’d like to get back into, finding someone who can give me a little bit of direction. Because I’m starting to take this a little more seriously, and with that I want to start doing a few more studies and things that I know my art needs to get better.
You have a piece that was inspired by the video game “Shadow of the Colossus.” Where else are you drawing inspiration from?
Most of what’s inspired me has been my love of anything nerd: science fiction, video games, novels. I’ve been an avid gamer since I was three years old. I thought I knew too much about that world until I started to create. Then I realized I had so many ideas because of the amount of time I had invested in video games. That’s definitely where most of my ideas come from. My big dream was to be a concept artist for a video game company. That’s one thing I wanted to do my whole life. I always knew that’s what I had to do was to focus on that subject matter if I wanted to get my dream job. That’s why I draw the robots and the fantasy stuff, because that’s what I like to do myself. By far the number one thing is the subject matter of the nerd culture, but also in following the artists that do the things that I like–like the people who do the illustrations in novels, comic books and video games. I love their stuff so I’m trying to pull ideas and inspirations from those guys, as well.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Probably James Jean. My favorite artists are the one’s that I call freaks, like freaks of nature, because I just don’t understand how they’re as talented as they are. They’re my age or just a little bit older, and their stuff is just unreal. I know they work their butts off to get there. But James Jean. Craig Mullins, a digital artist, James Gurney. He did Dinotopia; he’s just an amazing teacher, and his books are full of resources to help other people to grow. Countless comic book artists. There’s just too many to name.
You started off just sketching on what was available to you. What kind of materials were you using and how have you developed from there?
One of the things for me is that I don’t have any specific medium or material that I exclusively work on. You can see it’s all over the place: cloth, cardboard, wood. For me, it’s about experimenting, because I feel like I really have a long ways to go before I have it figured out. I feel like I’m not even close to being there yet. And I don’t want to get comfortable working on one medium, because, being self-taught, how am I going to know that that’s my strongest medium? Who knows. Maybe I end up sculpting for a few years.
But that’s what’s been really fun: understanding how each medium can help me grow and impact other people. I feel like people get such a different reaction based on the medium I’m using. That’s enlightening. That’s really neat. But it also gets me to a point where I still don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing with the mediums. I’m really enjoying the process. I’m really enjoying messing with everything at this point. That’s what’s been good about being part of Exposure and a lot of these local artists that I’m networking with. They might only focus on one medium, and that’s where they’re really able to help me. I work only, like, 20 percent in each medium, where with some people, all they do is painting.
What’s the most challenging medium you’ve approached?
Most challenging…That’s a good question. One of the areas where I’ve been pushing myself is in the realm of digital art, and that’s probably been the most frustrating, because I kind of know where my skill level is at with my hands. But translating that to digital and working on tablets and in software is frustrating, because I know I can do better than what I’m putting on the computer, as opposed to what I can do on a piece of paper. So that’s been the most frustrating. It’s kept me away from that medium for a long time, but now with where I want to go as an artist, and what I ultimately want to do, I have to get the digital side down more than anything.
What are you doing with your digital prints?
Right now what I’m doing, especially in learning digital, is finding ways to complement and make my original art that I do on paper stronger through digital means. A lot of my most recent prints have been all about designing, sketching and doing whatever in a traditional medium marker-pen, then figuring out how I can make that piece stronger when I go to sell it. That’s been the focus of digital. In doing that, it’s let me learn the software at the same time. The Colossus one was the first piece I did strictly as a digital piece. I did some concept sketching with a marker, but really it became a purely digital piece when it was done. The glow effects and certain elements I would have never been able to do if I hadn’t gone the digital route. With a lot of the product that I want to get into–massive print t-shirts, playmats for board games–you pretty much need to learn digital if you want to do that stuff.
When you decided you want to get back into art five years ago, how did you try to get your name out?
The first jump into the local scene was really the Battle For The Arts they used to do at Club David. That was really that first jump into doing something at an event, which was really weird because it was live. Talk about a total shock to your system, going from being an artist in the closet to drawing in front of a crowd at a club. It was crazy. But it also taught me about dedicating myself in one thing. Because I knew I had to do a battle in two weeks and I had to come up with an idea and practice it and do it in the shortest amount of time possible. It actually helped me quite a bit in learning a lot of one thing. That also was where I started to network and really get a lot of positive feedback on where I was as an artist.
I won quite a few of them… That’s all I’m going to say. My style and my use of black just translates really well, because I was pretty much already doing that. That was my first live event and the first time I really started getting into the local scene. My first actual art show was the Art Collective. With that, someone just said, hey, this is low-key. You should do this. It’s really relaxing. You’re going to be with people on your level. So that was my first art show, and I kept learning new things at each show. The dos and don’ts, networking.
Then I actually got away from it all, though, because I got really focused on launching a board game, which is one of my great passions. I was going to start a company, I just got away from the local arts scene for about a year. Didn’t do any local art shows. I actually defriended everybody on Facebook, just because I was sick of it. I was kind of bothered by things, and I was trying to take my career in a different direction, to get away from the local scene. And then I came back. Now I am much more involved than I’ve ever been, and it’s exciting. There’s so many positives to investing your time in the local scene, instead of trying to do massive projects that consume you at every level.
What do you think about the Sioux Falls arts scene now?
There’s a lot that could change, but it’s also great where it’s at. It’s one thing to look at it now and say, “yes, it could be much better.” But if we also look at it compared to ten years ago, it’s drastically different. It’s becoming a younger scene, which I think is really important. There’s an establishment that people think exists, but it’s slowly going away from that, and you’re starting to see younger people who are really motivated to change the way people can show art. People who have been doing art for thirty-forty years who were always a shoe-in at certain galleries, that’s starting to change now. I think Sioux Falls has such a great core to start a business, to raise a family. There’s such a great foundation, and with that foundation, I think a lot of younger people are starting to realize that this is a great place to start a company. It also comes with a great environment. Crappy weather, but a great environment. And great schools. It’s probably going to keep going that way as younger people start to run the show.
As far as things I like to see, being someone who’s done a lot of murals and live art, I want to see that really expand. There’s something about being able to see people do work live and talk to the people who are doing it, while they’re doing it. Graffiti-type art is sorely lacking here. Part of what’s so strong about that stuff is the relationship with the artist you have while they’re working. It’s not all behind closed doors. A lot of artists want to showcase their work while they’re doing it. It speaks to them more. That’s why I love doing live art. The energy’s so much different from being locked in a studio. And I like to see that. I’d like to see people embrace that more, or, not necessarily embrace it, but realize that it’s not destructive, ruining our city. No, it’s not destructive, because you’re making it more beautiful.
When I did the mural off of Cliff, I became obsessive about murals as I was driving around. I couldn’t believe it. I said, “Wait, there are so many places that could use a mural.” I didn’t realize until I started working on one how amazing it would be to just look and see art everywhere. You’ve got be careful with subject matter, but artists realize that. They’re not stupid. They realize what’s accessible and what would be deemed okay as far as subject matter. Yeah, it would be so cool to look around and see [art] everywhere.
Is this the first studio space you’ve had?
Yes, as far as renting goes. Most of the time I’ve had an at-home studio. This was my first jump into paying someone for space, but I felt like I needed it. I really felt like Exposure deserved my money for what they’ve done for me. I know this Exposure is a little different from the old Exposure, but the idea behind it is essentially the same: getting people like myself, who are not big names, helping us get our foot in the door so people can see our stuff. That was one of the reasons why I did it. I believe in the cause. We support local businesses. As artists, we should do that, and I felt like this was something I could get behind. It’s been awesome, the networking, the exposure. It’s also really nice to say, “Hey, want to meet me downtown?” rather than, “Hey, want to meet me at my house? Mind the dog and mind the screaming kid?” There’s something about having that space. I feel like it’s more professional. People take you a little more seriously. But [it’s also nice] being able to escape. I’ve got a place I call my “mojo room.” My favorite color is orange, so that’s why I have this orange filing cabinet. I want the space to be calming. And I didn’t really have that before.
I love having people over. My favorite thing is when we have art shows. I just sit down, open my door and let people come in. It is so much fun. The best is when they first pop their head in, and they don’t know if they should be here. They wonder if someone just left the door open, and they have this really awkward look on the faces. But yeah, I love talking about the process and I love having kids in here. There’s a genuine curiosity with kids. It’s not like they just stumbled in here on accident, and now they’ve just got to ask me stuff. They’re real and they’re so into it. There have been kids who I’ve talked to for forty-five minutes to an hour in here, and they’re never bored. The parents will try to pull them out, but I love it. That’s probably my favorite thing about this space: connecting with people.
Do you ever create with your kids?
I have a three-year old and a two-month old, both boys. This piece here on the wall is a collaboration with my son from the art-and-wine walk. He was in here with me, and he was drawing. I took his drawing, went over with black and white and framed it. He’s freakishly talented. He’s a massive kid, so he’s probably going to be into sports when he grows up, which is great. I played tons of sports as a kid, and I still play soccer for the adult league. So I love sports and I love the positives of it, but I’d still like him to be a super introverted artist, too. Maybe he can find a balance like I did. He got an easel I got from Mathison’s for Christmas. I keep [our drawing] there [on the wall of my studio] to keep me with him, because he and my newest son are why I keep at it. Because I want to change my family tree and give the best for my kids. I want them to see that you can achieve your dreams if you really apply yourself and work hard. I’d hate for my kids to see me give up. They haven’t found their passion yet, but they will. That’s reason enough to work hard, to give them a good example of following your dreams.
Do you any advice for artists just starting out?
Absolutely. The biggest obstacle in my mind is fear of the unknown. I know a lot of kids who want to start, and I guarantee they’re not getting support from their parents, because they understand how the world works and the system’s in place. They’re probably not supported enough, and my biggest advice is that if you truly want to do it, if that’s really your passion, you just have to do it. People do it all the time. People make it, and they make it because they work harder. Ninety-nine out of a hundred people want to do something, and there’s that one person who actually does it. The saddest thing for me was, from middle school until I was twenty-five, I didn’t do any art. I think, if I would have stuck with it, where would I be now? Because I would have been gaining skills. And really that applies to everything, whether it’s art or music or performance art. Anything. If you stick with it, you’re going to get better at it. You just can’t stop. You’ve got to let it consume you. Make it your life, even as a kid. Keep the distractions to a minimum and keep at it.
Embrace technology. I wouldn’t be where I was if I didn’t have an online community to go to. I was to be afraid to go to the local scene, so where else was I going to go? I went online, and the people I connected to were a million times better than me, and they were professionals. They were pursuing the same dream as me, but they were also connecting with me. That really showed me that, a lot of these people, that’s what they care about is sharing their dream and realizing that anybody can do it as long as they’re guided through it. So yeah, keep at it. Don’t be afraid to come to local things. You start to realize that a lot of this is low pressure, very supportive. I always talk about the Sketch Squad, and one reason I wanted to start was just to get people to do such a simple thing, but consistently do it. Because I know if you consistently do it, your mind is always going to be on art, and if you’re minds always on art, you’re always going to try to get better. You’re going to come up with new ideas and collaborate and you get that because you’re constantly consuming art. You’re making that your world. It seems cliché to say, “Follow your dreams.” But you can’t make it in this world unless you work hard. Very few people get these breaks. Most of the time it’s those who work harder than the next person.
Do you want to tell us more about Sketch Squad?
Yeah. I just got done talking to Vishnu. We’re going to do Sketch Squad on Sundays (we used to do it on Fridays), but it just wasn’t working well for most people’s schedules. So we’re kind of getting to the point where we’re going to try a different day of the week. I know I’ve said I’d love it if this were something people would do two or three times per week. People can just get together and see why it’s so good to get out and focus on creating. We have the Facebook group. And even if you can’t ever make it, people post all the time in the group. They post what they’re working on at home. And it’s really neat to see other people producing because you start to feel like, hey, now I need to start producing. Not because someone else made this assignment. And that’s what I love, the accountability. Other people doing something sets a good example for yourself. So really encourage people to try it. It’s a really awesome atmosphere; I’d like to see more of a younger group start to embrace it, but that’s going to take a new direction with marketing. I use myself as an example. If I could’ve done things differently, I would have stayed with the arts. I love when kids connect with me, because those are the people I know I can affect, more so than an adult. I know what happened to me, and I regret that. And I can stop that from happening by having a younger group participate.
Who are some Sioux Falls artists that you think we should keep an eye on?
One of the biggest local names that I draw a lot of inspiration from is Shaine Schroeder. Mainly because he is someone who does work his butt off, and he’s able to do it full-time because he works so hard. He understands the world of art, selling art and it shows. He’s someone who doesn’t make excuses. To me that’s the most inspiring thing, to see someone who just keeps at it. I might see someone freakishly talented, but they never do anything new. Then they stagnate and just give up. That’s the worst. They have the talent, but they don’t to give it their all. I try to keep focused on the positives, the people who are working hard and producing, because those are the kind of people who are going to benefit me and help me grow. Kevin Caraway is awesome. I just wish he’d keep at it, because the sky’s the limit. Those are the people you want to see succeed, because they have that raw talent. But we all have things that we go through. We don’t exactly know what’s going on on the other side. Personal issues, time commitments. We only see one angle of someone’s life in their art, but it’s still sad to see [when they quit]. It’s kind of fun getting to see more as I network, coming to galleries and seeing artists I’d never heard of, because most people don’t market themselves, or they’re minimal in marketing their abilities. And then every once in a while you see someone you’ve never heard of, and their stuff blows you away. All of a sudden you go home and you want to start creating.
What was your favorite art show that you went to in 2014?
I love the Art Collective’s [shows]. Those are probably my favorite. I love the energy. It’s so different. And I told you my favorite thing is connecting with people. With certain shows, you just don’t get that. Sometimes I go to a show and I only talk to two people. I’ve never been to an Art Collective where I didn’t come home with a big smile on my face. I love how casual it is. I love how you look across the bar and everyone is talking. You’ll never see an artist sitting by themselves. Everyone’s talking. I also love the Frislie Art in the Alley stuff. Same thing. People are just willing to talk. I don’t know what it is, if the non-traditional setting just encourages people. I personally connect with that a little bit more–that kind of open-endedness you get with the alternative shows.
Any exciting future projects?
Well, I already touched on the board game. One of my passions is board games, not only playing them, but also designing them. That got put on hold because of having another kid. So that business venture is still there. It’s very much active. I’m looking to use crowdsourcing, especially through Kickstarter, as a means to raise funding. I’ve done the world building, all the Photoshop layouts. I’ve got full playable copies of the game, rules, everything. It’s my baby. It’s the thing that I’ve spent years doing, and I’m very passionate about it. It’s another way to create and take your creativity and introduce it to other people. So that’s a big project. I’m trying to get more involved with writers. I’ve been working on an illustrated novel with a writer, Dale Carothers. That’s been kind of on and off for about a year and half. But it’s still there. Reading is one of my favorite things to do, and doing an illustrated novel is on my bucket list. I have some pretty big t-shirt projects in the works. I launched my website, so now I’ve got to keep working at that. I want to get back into some mural work. That’s probably one of my favorite things I found I like to do. I feel like there’s ninety other projects I have that I’m not listing. T-shirts are big thing, with their humor. One of the things I always wanted to do is stand-up comedy. I know I’ll never do that now, but I want to introduce more humor in my art. A lot of it is, well, not serious, but definitely not funny. So that’s a big thing for this year.