“Mutation” indeed gets at the heart of Potter’s recurring themes; the bold layering and blending of disparate elements that lend his work to narrative is suggestive of constant transition in some form or another, often with either overtly or subtly macabre sensibilities. This sense of the macabre is often grounded in bodily concerns that merge the monstrous with the sensual, suggesting that the two are perhaps more closely related than we’d like to acknowledge. In addition to these ideas being presented in his numerous illustrations for the works of speculative fiction authors, he has also released collections of his own work that explore these topics somewhat more freely, in the form of Neurotica (featuring modeling from weird author Poppy Z. Brite) and Horripilations. We talked to Potter to get more of the story behind his work.
Weird Fiction Review: Can you tell us a little bit about your process? Do you begin with a particular goal in mind for the image you want to arrive at, or do you perhaps have a more “play it by ear” approach?
J.K. Potter: Because I use photography and because I am dependent on models my first goal in illustrating a book is finding scenes that I can actually pull off considering the limitations of my techniques. I ask myself, what do I see in this story that I can recreate using my own source material, my surroundings, models, props, etc. I am not quite as versatile as illustrators who paint and draw. I recently had a falling out with a publisher who tried to tell me exactly what scenes in a book to illustrate. I’m more flexible on covers but I have to be free to pick my own interiors. That’s just how I’ve always worked from day one. Interestingly, I had someone recently ask me where I get my source images. They were surprised to find out I take my own pictures. They thought I was buying them from some secret Fantasy-Horror stock photo archive!
WFR: What do you feel is the role of art when it comes to interacting with the story in question?
JKP: Illustrating a book immediately puts me in a coffin with the author’s name on it. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. As an illustrator I try to inhabit the author’s fictional world. All images are subservient to the writing. They wouldn’t exist without the author so they are not personal works but collaborative ones. The authors I illustrate often push me into unique worlds that I never would have found on my own. This sometimes ends up affecting my personal work in positive ways. I admit that sometime I’ve missed my cues and produced inaccurate illustrations, but one can’t always be perfect.
WFR: Do your methods differ when you’re working on your own personal projects versus working on images for a book?
JKP: There are hundreds of personal works on my website jkpotter.com. They are different from my illustrations in many ways. First, many are location driven. I am obsessed with haunted places. Ghosts are my specialty. The weird crumbling factories and abandoned places I photograph inspire me to create new ghostly and monstrous things much in the same way it does working with an author . A good example is my Ghosts of the Hotel Grim project. The whole series grew out of my experiences in an actual place in Texas whose real name is the Hotel Grim. My personal works are more rooted in reality than my illustrations. I take a lot of straight photos and they are scattered throughout my personal projects. These confuse some of my old-school fans who say to me, “Hey that’s just a picture of a girl in a swamp. Why doesn’t she have a shark-mouth or something!?” They expect more flashy effects but I like taking straight-up photos and will continue to do so.
WFR: How did you get started in art?
JKP: I started in grade school drawing pictures of certain teachers I didn’t like with nails and hatchets in their heads. I learned that the other kids would give me their lunch money for these kind of drawings. My first published work was in a 1975 issue of Nils Hardin’s pulpzine Xenophile. It was an intricate ink drawing on the cover of the First World Fantasy Convention commemorative issue. It makes me sad when other people try to take credit for what Nils Hardin did for me. Nils really discovered me and launched my career. He once generously sent me an original piece of art by Clark Ashton Smith. I still have it. Don Grant published my first illustrated book Tales Of The Werewolf Clan way back in 1979. Don gave me a second big boost.
WFR: You’ve had quite a long and prolific career. How do you think your art has evolved over the course of your career?
JKP: About 1977, I started using photography because I was the world’s slowest artist. It would take me months to finish one piece. From 1977 to about 2005 I was a dedicated film-camera, darkroom, and airbrush guy. Strictly analog. I stubbornly stayed a film junkie well into the computer age and only switched to digital when the darkroom started destroying my health. In the days before Photoshop, I was really able to develop a name for myself, and I have built on that ever since. Happily, the skills and work-ethic I developed in my darkroom days have carried over extremely well into Photoshop. Things are definitely easier now, but it’s not quite as romantic to me as it was during the film era. For some reason, I liked doing things the hardest way possible. That’s what really made me. As my career has evolved, I’ve also broadened my horizons from strictly Horror to Fantasy, Science Fiction, Steam Punk, and mainstream illustration. I’ve had a few really great editors who refused to typecast me and who helped me to grow. I’ve been very, very lucky in that regard.
WFR: Who are some of your favorite weird fiction authors? Are there any authors who have specifically influenced your art?
JKP: Besides the authors I’ve been most associated with, most of the writers I’ve been influenced by can be found listed in H.P.Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” I also love authors like Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, but I don’t want to leave out non-literary stuff like Al Feldstein in EC comics, Steve Ditko in early Marvel monster comics, Creepy and Eerie magazines… I could go on and on forever.
WFR: Who are some of your influences? Who are some of your favorite visual artists?
JKP: These days I’m into freight-train graffiti and tags, hobo art, art of the insane, old monster movies, Cramps-style rockabilly horror, pulp magazine covers, and vintage Halloween stuff. Really anything offbeat or oddball attracts me. Right now my favorite artist is a graffiti guy who just calls himself 27. You can see a few of his drawings in photographs for my Love Your Yard series.
JKP: I’ve been scanning a lot of my oldest works in preparation for resurrecting them on my website, making prints, and preparing a new art book. I’ve also been working on an illustrated essay called “Behind The Scenes: The Face That Must Die” to memorialize my first great model/collaborator Dead Joe. My latest profusely illustrated project is a small book by Tim Powers. It’s called Nobody’s Home and is published by Subterranean Press. Tim Powers has probably influenced me most out of all the authors I’ve worked with in recent years. I would also like to recommend Five Autobiographies and a Fiction by the late great Lucius Shepard. There are no interior illustrations, just a cover by me, but it is a truly mind-boggling anthology. If you are interested in weird fiction you should not miss it.