The Interview: 'Twitter Bird' Artist Simon Oxley
Japan-based illustrator SIMON OXLEY is not a cartoonist, but rather a brilliant artist with a truly comic sense of humor. He has created thousands of whimsical illustrations, yet most of the world over, there is a particular one that is iconic to millions. (And for which, we must note, he was paid a grand sum of less than seven bucks.) The image? The Twitter bird.
Oxley, who grew up in England, has created countless bright, engaging images for the stock-library company iStockPhoto, using Adobe Illustrator and "vector-based" images. Oxley, who lives with his wife, Noriko, and family in Fukuoka, recently discussed his work in far more than 140 characters:
MICHAEL CAVNA: In an original way, your work seems to synthesize various potential influences. You've cited being influenced by such designers as Olins early on, and now you've been in Japan for more than a decade -- with its dizzying mix of old (Edo woodblock prints) and new (plastic toy/manga culture). From where do you your draw inspiration?
SIMON OXLEY: The question of influences, or at least clearly defined influences, is a difficult question to answer. I am in my 40th year, so I have been exposed to a relatively diverse amount of people who themselves have passions for various activities. As a designer, I find reference points everywhere and try to always look deeper than the surface. An interest in history feeds my curiosity for what came before and sometimes helps to answer questions of why people have made the decisions they have -- where we have arrived, etc.
Relocating to another culture gave me the opportunity to be selective when tuning into media channels and eavesdropping [on] people's conversations in public spaces (which I didn't understand). In my home country, I am forced to listen and decipher anything I hear people discussing, whereas in Japan I can easily ignore chatter and concentrate on my chosen subject at any one time. This is not to say that I lead a hermit-like existence -- I just enjoy the opportunity to be a little more selective.
There is no doubt that the rich cultural heritage of Japan has directly influenced my imagemaking and attitude towards many things -- having very young children has exposed me to children's TV programs such as Dekoboko friends, Domo Kun (NHK) -- and "Zenmai Zamura,i" a clockwork samurai who defeats wrongdoers by tossing manju manju [lumpy, gooey rice] into their mouths.
Story telling is aided by interesting imagery, of course. These shows and more capture an avid audience by setting tales in familiar, everyday scenes with elements of fantasy woven into the ordinary backdrops -- rather like the iconic Godzilla, which uses regular metropolitan cityscapes everyone can relate to.
I would say that I find influential reference points beyond other people's design/illustration outcomes. The way people are, what they do, say, and believe -- these things all combine to influence either a humorous response or at best something surreal and unexpected.
MC: Your work has an international appeal -- why is that, do you think? And what factor do you think humor plays in your illustration?
SO: The locations I have settled in have given me the chance to observe the world through various cultural windows. I have visited: San Francisco, Vietnam, Cambodia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, France, Austria, Spain, Korea and lived in Bahrain and now Japan, so I have gathered a great deal of references/experiences, along the way. Travel keeps things fresh for me -- and of course helps one view places with a childlike sense of wonder. Adventure fuels the desire to tell stories in new and interesting ways -- in the hope that the image will convey enough to enthuse another to explore new ideas they have.
MC: iStockPhoto provides a real platform for the right kind of prolific artist. What's your working relationship with the company?
SO: iStock has given me a timely platform from which to broadcast my images to a massive audience worldwide. I mention the timely factor since I began contributing when the number of contributors was smallish. As the library has matured, so, too, has the level of competition -- to a point now where many very talented imagemakers are using this channel to reach out. ...
I joined the iStock community back in 2004, and began pumping images into the flow a year or so later -- at first I was hesitant to join in the stock trade, since the image I had of stock was a little negative, believing that it motivated designers to only create gray, generic images. I soon realized that like many things in life, it is only gray and boring if you make it that way. ... and there is enough space for many people to express as many emotions as they wish. iStock provides a channel for creative minds to broadcast their thoughts through and discuss the technical aspects of imagemaking, which ultimately frees people up to make whatever they wish.
MC: Your stock bird illustrations receive such high visibility via Twitter -- has that been interesting to see play out?
SO: iStock has clear rules for the usage of images and Twitter has used my bird image as a decorative element on their site -- it is not officially the logo, and they do not sell products carrying the image, so they are totally free to carry on using it. I am, of course, really happy to see it being used by such a successful venture -- the question of financial compensation is often raised. I do not harbor any negative feelings about the apparently low fee, [as the situation] being approached by organizations such as Wired.com and The Washington Post has given me exciting opportunities to step into the media spotlight for 15 minutes.
MC: What most excites you about the current stage of your career?
SO: I look forward to taking time to diversify the products I produce -- making items from wood, metal and plastic -- while reproducing images in print as books and cards. Recently, new clients have been requesting character designs, which I particularly enjoy making. ... I have made characters for BooKoo energy drinks and Oat Heads cereals. Perhaps, I will write some stories for a cast of characters to perform in someday soon.
MC: Any work or projects that you're particularly proud of or stimulated by?
SO: I like character-driven contracts. I have made characters for the RSPB (a British animal charity), logos for iStockphoto, annual reports for Sharp, Mazda, KDDI, Kyocera, Kawazaki Heavy Industries, Yamaha Instruments and Nikon. ..... Right now my focus is sourcing outlets for my note cards.
| June 19, 2009; 12:05 PM ET
Categories: Interviews With Cartoonists
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