by Walt Cessna
Two, One Through Eight series
is one of most unique and inspiring artists I have ever been lucky
enough to work with during my past 25 years in the fashion world. We
first met in the late 80’s when the NYC club scene was ground zero for
creative kids in search of an outlet outside of the mainstream media. I
was about to launch an alternative fashion magazine called STOP and
Tobie, who was already a friend, soon became one of my most important
and favorite contributors. From the very beginning of her career she
has displayed an unbelievably polished and signature technique. Her
work takes you into a gorgeously sublime & abstract world where you
find yourself in an elegant, almost futuristic dream. I’ve never seen,
nor met another artist with her perspective, and the passion she brings
to her work is utterly infectious. She inspires me to always move
ahead, but always in the most beautiful possible way.
photo: Billy Erb
When did you first start drawing? Does anyone in your family share your gift?
one really draws in my family but I can say they are all creative in
their own way. I started drawing as a child and never really stopped. I
loved drawing ladies in period gowns because I watched a lot of Barbra
Streisand movies growing up. I was very inspired by all the Cecil Beaton
period costumes with her sixties/seventies make up, hair, etc..I still
am. Then as a teenager I was into copying Richard Avedon photographs in
my “studio” in the basement..Then there was “Eyes of Laura Mars” which
probably put me over the edge.
Paloma Picasso for Tiffany & Co.
Did you draw obsessively as a child?
really obsessively, it was more of an escape. I loved nothing more than
to put those giant headphones on and draw…Elton John, Donna Summer,
Barbra, then Led Zeppelin, the Bee Gees, Queen, Disco….It was heaven
and that pretty much still is for me.
You’re an 80’s kid- what do you take from that period and use in your work today, if anything?
moved to NYC in 1982 to go to school. I like to think of us as the
“fortunate generation”. The true melting pot as we knew it no longer
exists in NYC…..Night clubs at the time were just so incredibly
abundant with genuinely talented people and fantastic music….it was
inspiring and a little intimidating too – but it made you push yourself
to be better, it made you dig down deep to find what was absolutely
yours and to create from that place, it wasn’t about falling into some
sort of lame standard of cool …The people I was surrounded by were
just so amazing, Sister Dimension and Billy Beyond
were some of my closest friends at the time (and still are) so I spent
a lot of time at the Pyramid on Avenue A..the performances, the
visuals, the music that I witnessed there for those years are a huge
part of my foundation as an artist…I also was spending a lot of time
in London at that time so incredible beings like Leigh Bowery and all
the characters of that moment were just blowing my mind with
inspiration…That time for me was so much about experiencing the
limitlessness of how beautiful, how expansive, how expressive you could
and should be. The eighties were great but honestly I’ve embraced every
decade (age) so far for completely different reasons.
What particular job/assignment helped to jump-start your career?
while all that was going on I was working funny enough..I would have to
say doing those black and white Bergdorf Goodman ads that ran the New
York Times every week…But my very first published piece was for the
East Village Eye..I was still a student and Donald Schneider just put
one of my drawings in there for no reason other than because he liked
it, no article or editorial, nothing, full page….I loved that..
Tiffany & Co.
Who are your major influences/icons illustrator/artist/designer wise?
Heros. I have many but here’s a top eleven. No particular order..
What inspires you in terms of music/pop culture/life in general?
well music has always been a primary “art supply” in the studio. I work
silently until I feel I am where I need to be and then it goes on nice
and loud and I completely let go into full on enjoyment..At the moment
I’m not listening to a lot that’s new. I listen to a lot of Tori Amos
because she’s so prolific and genius and gives me the rich production
value, that and my other tried and true reliables. Nature, modern art,
not so much that’s going on at the moment but I am loving the paintings
of Tomma Abts, incredible abstractions..
Do you still draw for yourself or find yourself mostly doing it for work now that you’re more established?
always drawn for myself..it has to please me or it just does not flow,
though my intent has changed over the years. In the beginning I felt a
responsibility to be a part of vitalizing the art of fashion
illustration as all our guys were dying of AIDS and Meisel was busy
catapulting fashion photography to this level that it was not before..
A lot has happened since then and there are many illustrators and
agencies out there now. I continue to draw for myself but my intention
has taken off and evolved from where I started. I think it’s a mission
accomplished in terms of keeping drawing fashion alive so I’ve
personally moved on..I now work with an intention to express a much
more personal yet hopefully universal vision of beauty that serves in a
Jungle Fowl II
Do you consider yourself an illustrator? Artist? Or both?
don’t think it’s entirely correct to call what I’m doing now fashion
illustration. I say that with huge respect for the art of
illustration…Hopefully without sounding like a pretentious fuck I can
simply call myself an artist. I think it’s really about where I feel
aligned with. I no longer work with an illustration agency or am a part
of all the fashion illustration collective publications etc….It’s
just me and my attorney at this point working for those who are in full
appreciation of where I am coming from and exhibiting in places that
resonate with the essence of the work. My assignments have a huge range
of content. Sometimes it’s fashion but it goes way outside that as well.
my editions, the “One Through Eight” series and such do have a fashion
reference. The basic structure of this work has it’s origins in drawing
the fashion figure yet transcends fashion illustration. We’re talking
about pure abstraction with this work. And abstraction at this level
has it’s roots in fine art.
Seven, One Through Eight series
People are always saying that illustration, especially fashion illustration is dead. How do you feel/think about that?
I guess we’re talking about within the fashion community now…Yes,
with these guys it is dead or just not relevant. Aside from the odd
Mats Gustavson editorial in Italian Vogue or Visionaire once in a blue
moon you’re not going to see actual fashion illustration very much in
what was once considered it’s proper arenas. I used to care a lot about
it but not so much now. It’s pointless to take it personally or to take
the bitter pill..The fashion community’s collective mind set just could
not embrace it. The idea that fashion illustration is some kind of
quaint not so relevant stepsister to photography is ingrained in their
psyche and you’re not going to get through that no matter how talented
you are, so for me this has meant a real need to carve my own way
completely, even leaving my original intent to be a fashion
illustrator. The truth is, great art is great art, it is always
relevant and will find it’s place even if that place is fashion…I
think it’s the job of an artist to protect the work, nurture what is
revealing itself and to be steadfast and clear about it’s destiny
regardless of what the world seems to be presenting…so, if you’re
asking me how I feel about these attitudes in the industry I can say it
has been a source of frustration over the years but at this point I’m
fine with it. It’s not what defines my life or my work. I’m making the
work I want to make and I am very content with that.
Six, One Through Eight series
What/who is your dream assignment?
editorials in relevant magazines, animations for retail environments
for stores like Viktor and Rolf, print with brands that are truly
innovative and gorgeous, music video for musicians I love, my version
of a “Yellow Submarine” type of film ,on and on…There’s something
really great about not hitting your peek too early…I feel lucky that
there’s so much more to come and I’m 45. The whole youth thing is so
ridiculous. I don’t think the real deal actually happens as a young
artist no matter who you are….I’m into building something
authentically and steadily, something that will last and I can do as an
Proenza Schouler, CFDA awards
You’re such a NYC fixture. Could you live anywhere else and do what you do?
I admit I have a bit of the Woody Allen syndrome. I spent a lot of time
in London at one point but never really anywhere else for more than a
little trip…Paris intrigues me but the reality of living there is
hard for me to imagine…I love my studio and the structure and ease of
my life in NY but I’m open to wherever life could take me…We recently
bought a little house in Sag Harbor and I’m just now trying to wrap my
brain around it out there..until I have a proper studio anywhere it’s
hard for me to get into it..
Dries Van Noten, CFDA awards
Give me a brief resume of your career since we met and you were helping me with STOP.
Oh God no, just look on my site, it’s all there, I can’t list all that out.
can we talk about STOP magazine and working with YOU for a second? Can
we talk about that shoot we did with Billy Beyond and Mr. Pearl in full
makeup looking INCREDIBLE with their heads popping out of a seamless
with cut outs of my drawings all around their heads? 2 good 2 B
forgotten…I love you Walter, you’ve never hesitated to include me in
whatever you were working on..so much appreciation for that..and how
fun is it to be doing this interview with YOU on Diane’s site?…it
always comes full circle doesn’t it..
How do you juggle being a mom and a successful artist?
daughter Praise is 2 1/2 now…I had her just before I turned 43. We
call her the last egg. I hadn’t really intended on being a mother. I
didn’t think it would be possible for me to pull off being an good
artist and a good mother but what happens is this incredible new
ability to say no to what does not really serve the well being of the
family and ultimately yourself, meaning something that takes too much
time and doesn’t really push things forward or earn an appropriate
amount of money gets a no….in the long run these series of no’s and
yeses to what does serve the whole picture start to add up to a clearer
more focused, very fulfilling life. I could never have imagined how
this would have fallen into place. I spent the first 7 months or so of
my pregnancy on the couch in a heap of anxiety about it. I felt like a
total Mommy impostor. Looking back it’s funny now. Everything always
falls into place. Get over it.
Infiniti Cars, advertising
What are you trying to transmit/say with your work?
Purity, Transcendence, the Divine.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
Somewhere very dressed up.
Four, One Through Eight series
With all the emphasis on technology these days how much
of it do you incorporate/use in your work compared to when you first
I like to think the final result is at the
perfect balance of digital technology and work by hand…All the
drawing and collage is by hand…I start with a sumi ink drawing and
then layer translucent color films that I’ve cut with a straight edge.
Then it is scanned and cleaned up, meaning all the unnecessary cuts and
bits of tape are removed, bubbles from the film, whatever..not too
clean but just enough..then there’s some color correcting and re
touching so the black ink is nice and rich and the color’s at it’s
best..I love the level the computer has taken my work to…I resisted
it for a long time but I realized at one point that that I was holding
the work back and it did not serve me ultimately to hand it over to art
directors etc for them to take care of…then came the animation and
having the necessity of how to integrate work on paper into the
computer….My husband Peter
is really so incredible in that he has major skills as a graphic
designer and animator and has the taste level and creativity to
collaborate with me. It’s so rare.
What’s the most satisfying thing about what you do?
nothing like the feeling of being in complete partnership with the
creative powers that be….when the work is coming strong and fast, no
editing, no deciding, no throw away, just one line after the next, one
shape after the next, it’s exhilarating really, pure pleasure, and when
I’m done I feel so grateful to have been a part of the process.
Eight, One Through Eight series