Saturday morning cartoons. The innocent pleasure of children across golden age America and the guilty pleasure of their parents. But in the last decade, cartoons, both in-print and televised, have moved to a land of social consciousness. From “Superjail” and “Adventure Time” to “Steven Universe” and “Rick and Morty”, American animation seeks to innovate one of our most nostalgic pastimes.
At the cross section of cartoon connoisseurs of yore and the vibrant and eclectic styles of the future sits Matt Krajewski. Krajewski is an animation student in his early twenties at Columbia College in Chicago. A traditionalist at heart, Krajewski sat down with Off-Kilter to discuss his journey into digital animation and how his neo-traditionalist style, though rife with bodies that have passed through nuclear testing and strange characters with personalities of their own, is still rooted in the foundations of American illustration traditions.
Off-Kilter: How did you get into illustration, and what has your journey been in establishing the style you currently use?
Matt Krajewski: When I was 16, I was in my biology class and really did not want to pay attention. It wasn’t because of my teacher, I was just a bad student, so I thought, I need to do something to keep my mind at ease and not fall asleep. I started doodling in class. I realized I liked what I was doing, and wanted to keep pursuing it.
The next year, I took an art class, and I met my friend Brian [last name redacted] who introduced me to an artist named Alex Pardee. He has these off-the wall drawings that I tried copying for a few years. My art teacher started noticing how much I was improving even though he kept insulting my work. I used it to motivate me and prove him wrong. My senior year, he finally let up on me and got me the tools that I couldn’t afford. He pushed me to sign up for an art show, which I didn’t think I could win. Out of 5,000 kids I won second place.
When I was figuring out what to do for college, I knew I liked cartoons, so I went to Columbia College to study animation and developed my style based on the artists I studied.
OK: How would you describe your art?
MK: Off the wall, but very relaxed and happy. Indescribable, I guess.
OK: In the grotesque, uncomfortable, and surreal nature of your work, how do you hope to affect your audiences?
MK: I hope to give them some kind of emotion. I just can’t find emotion in modern art. But cartoons, you can do anything with them. There’s a lot of freedom for experimentation. I want to create emotion for my audiences using the characters I make and I want people to make up stories for my characters based on how they interpret the work.
OK: Your work also seems to be rooted in horror. Contorted limbs and misplaced mouths, it reminds me of a late-night cartoon show for adults that met Tim Burton and experienced nuclear fallout. Where do you draw inspiration for your subjects from?
MK: Thank you! I draw inspiration from a lot of cartoons from the ‘50s. That’s a time when you could experiment a lot besides the underground cartooning movement of the ‘60s. I also take inspiration from all the different shapes of people around me. Then, I can play with their shapes and emotions and exaggerate them.
I refer to comic books a lot too. I never had a ton of money for supplies growing up, but I did have money for comic books. One of my favorites, “Zot”, is reminiscent of the golden age of superheroes that didn’t take themselves too seriously. Imagine that kind of hero put into a modern world. Scott McCloud does the drawing and it’s anime inspired worked mixed with the style of “The Simpsons”.
OK: Can you expand on your interest in the cartoons of the 1950’s?
MK: I was born [in the U.S.], but my parents are from Poland and I moved back there for two years when I was young. My parents don’t like American culture that much. They hated me watching American cartoons, so they brought over bootleg copies of Polish cartoons from back when it was under Soviet control and would have me watch those.
OK: Where do you think the intersection of horror and playfulness are? I don’t think a lot of people would associate the two.
MK: The intersection is all about how the person perceives it. It’s a thin line, and you don’t know when you’ve crossed it until you get people to look at your work and react. Some artists try to erase that line completely but there’s not much you can do about it.
OK: How do you approach developing new characters? Do you wait for inspiration to come to you, or do you have any rituals?
MK: I usually rip out a piece of paper, slap it on my desk, and start scribbling, making random lines and playing around until I start to see something like a hand or an eyeball or a chin. I keep building from a line until it fleshes out. A lot of my work, I have an idea, but 99 percent of the time it doesn’t come out the way I expect it to.
OK: What should we expect from your work in the future and where do you hope to take your illustrations?
MK: I want to do huge murals, toys, and possibly a TV show. I definitely wan to work on “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”. I love the idea of mutations, which you can see in my work. I think I’d make a perfect fit for that.
OK: Any advice for young illustrators?
MK: Keep on playing, eat your vegetables, enjoy life, and be happy.