By Kerry Freek
Last week I spoke with Jeff Maus: comic artist, painter, filmmaker, and almost-librarian extraordinaire. Read on to find out Jeff’s approach to conveying movement and how jazz inspires him.
MONDO: Hey Jeff! What are you working on these days?
JEFF MAUS: Hi Kerry, great to see you, it’s been too long. Well, I am finishing up my masters degree, and I am working on some short comics, maybe someday I’ll compile them. I have about 8 new ones done, I guess when I get to 20 they’ll be ready to publish. They are typically 2 pages, some will be 5–20 pages though. I am also hoping to make a new short film sometime soon, and always working on ideas for longer ones. One I am excited about in particular is a low-budget musical. I think it could be real cool if I can get it all together.
MONDO: By now, you’re a seasoned filmmaker. You wrote a half-hour show called “Moose Factory” and created fantastic puppets and sets. Subsequently, the script was translated into Cree and aired on APTN. And you just completed a documentary on Southern Ontario rock legends Transylvania 500. Tell us about your next film project!
JM: The show was based on my thesis film called “Well Being.” They saw the short and hired me to make a kids’ show based on the main character after graduation. They needed some content to represent the Cree speaking region in Northern Ontario, so they hired me to do it for them. So it was new material translated into Cree. My next film project will be interesting I hope. Trying to combine Eraserhead and John Cassevettes’s work. Sort of fantastic, but utterly, bitterly real at the same time, something I tried to do in my comic too (reality + fantasy, comedy + drama). I think it will work real well. But, you never know, these things can sometimes end up taking forever to pull together so it might not be for awhile it’s ready to go. Then after that there’s a musical, it will be good if I can pull it off. Got $10,000 you wanna invest? I hope I can pull it off… Got $5,000? $20?
MONDO: A year or two ago, you self-published a graphic novel called Escape From Planet Crazy. What was your experience with doing everything independently? Do you prefer to work this way?
JM: It was okay. I am pretty shy, so it was a bit tough selling my work like that, trying to promote it. People can tend to confuse the work with the artist, so when I am saying “look at my work, I think you’ll like it” people may sometimes think of it as saying “look at me, and like me.” Plus, ambition tends to turn people off, so having to sell it myself, people (cynical hipsters especially) probably didn’t respect what I was doing that way. Was it on the Simpsons where some character made the criticism of another, “The whole thing smacks of effort”? That’s maybe mostly my imagination, I dunno. What do you think?
In terms of independence, I would rather have a partner, or a representative to do stuff like promoting. Plus people inspire me, most artists, too, I would think… an audience, so true independence is uncreative. There have been times where I am a member of a group of artists or musicians, that’s the most fun and creative. A critical mass. Ideas bouncing off of each other, and a source of encouragement and competition. Film school was like that, one of the greatest creative times of my life. Ottawa is a place like that too, a scene with good people.
MONDO: Hey, while you’re at it, tell us about Escape From Planet Crazy. What’s it about? Where’d the idea come from? And what draws you to the medium of comics?
JM: Like Scorsese says, “Paper is cheaper than film.” I wanted to make a film of it but didn’t have $30 million, and I thought as a comic it could find an audience a script couldn’t. EFPC is about a movie actor, Todd Masterson, adopted and raised by a casting director and children’s theatrical agent. He was whored out to a Little Rascals-type series as a kid, and then as an adult finds himself in a successful sci-fi film franchise where he is totally identified as his character — Dirk Stanley. (As if Sean Connery had made nothing but Bond movies, or like William Shatner or Adam West but for 20 years straight.) Todd is rich and famous, he is a drug addict and prone to head injuries, so eventually he snaps and thinks he is Dirk Stanley and the world is full of robots and monsters like one of his films. He ends up in a mental hospital, which he thinks is an intergalactic fortress. Tragedy and comedy married together, fantasy and reality, back and forth.
MONDO: Let’s change gears a bit. A lot of your past paintings convey the ideas of jazz and movement. What’s your attraction to jazz? How do you make movement work in a still image?
JM: Jazz is a good metaphor for creativity. I grew up reading about and studying stand-up comics and musicians. Something about putting it all on the line, live in front of a crowd. Creating, and performing live like that. You can’t really paint a comedian, and it isn’t as universal a subject, nor is it as meaningful to me as music is. Anyway, jazz is a metaphor for creating and the spiritual aspects of that. Where do the [musical, film, painting] ideas come from? A prof once told me that my talents aren’t really mine to take pride in, that I was born lucky to have them. That changed my thinking in a big way. I do work hard, but that in itself (a curiosity, a work ethic) is something I am fortunate to have naturally. So the idea of shining the light, exploring what it means to have this drive and these abilities is my attraction to jazz.
As far as movement in painting, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase blew my mind, and I never recovered.
MONDO: Speaking of jazz, you’ve got a wicked story about Sonny Rollins and your piece Saxophone Colossus, featuring and named after the man himself. Would you share that one with MONDO readers?
JM: Sure, that painting’s coming from the same thing. Sonny Rollins has a book, Open Sky, and… it isn’t a unique idea to him, John Coltrane’s poem/prayer for “A Love Supreme” was about the same thing, I think most artists (ones with humility anyway) think the same thing, Picasso wouldn’t ever have: “There is only one Picasso!” Anyway, “God” gave them the ability, so they feel a duty to do it justice, and not to waste it. In the painting of Sonny Rollins, or many of my musicians, the stage lights fill in for God (whatever God means) and the music is from him through Sonny as a conduit. We are made in his image, so we are speaking his voice, so when we perfect that voice (Coltrane would practice for 24 hours straight and pass out with his horn in his hand) we are getting closer and closer to doing him justice. In the Rollins picture, the lights and keys on the horn blend like atoms, the idea that on that level everything/everyone is the same… I tend to wonder more about some kind of collective unconscious or something than I do a specific deity.
Anyway, long story long, I sent a copy of the painting to Sonny Rollins telling him some of this, and what an inspiration he had been to me (the first jazz show I saw was him, it killed me hearing this amazing theatre-filling improvised music being created right in front of me, I still get a charge thinking of that show). So I sent it to him, and he wrote me back a lovely thank-you note. Really touching. I was happy enough thinking he might actually see my picture some day, the same neurons that made “On Impulse!” or “Way Out West” spending a second or two considering my picture was exciting, and then to get that letter from him, inspiring on even another level. An artistic colossus for sure.
Anyway, thanks for asking, that’s a nice story for me to think about. I hope that stuff doesn’t sound too flaky. Probably it is inevitable, when you’re talking about art or yourself.
Jeff’s documentary on Transylania 500 premieres at The Ford Plant in Brantford, ON this October 28th. For more of Jeff’s artwork, visit www.maus.ca.