Pop culture is a bizarre creature and often creates strange intersections in media. Brooklyn-based artist Jen Ferguson has found herself standing at a cross-roads of TV, blogging, and illustration in her projects OUT OF LUCK, based on the HBO series LUCK, and in the Triple Crown horse racing previews that she’s been asked to create. Ferguson has a long history in Brooklyn and Manhattan as a painter, producing both large fine art compositions of architecture and landscape and also prints and paintings in a more illustrative style that has more than once dabbled in the comics sphere, including being featured in Seth Kushner’s CulturePOP photocomix series on multimedia arts salon TRIP CITY. Her large paintings are majestic, full of an epic pull that captures some of the more sublime aspects of city life seen above the daily chaos, and her illustrative paintings are wickedly playful, full of reconfigured fairy-tale hints that always bring out the trickster-aspect of storytelling. But alongside that work, Ferguson has always been an animal lover, and in particular, a childhood association with horse breeding and racing has inspired her. The common thread in her work is an intrinsic, often subtle, form of storytelling.
In 2009, she produced a sketchbook entitled Railbirds: My Life at the Track, conjuring the enigmatic gamblers she watched at the track when sketching, and after her visits to Saratoga Springs, NY, she suddenly found herself plunged into unknown territory. John Perrotta, a lifelong horse expert and professional racing manager, who had been a screenwriter and consultant for the HBO series LUCK , struck up a correspondence with Ferguson after seeing some of her work in the hands of LUCK director David Milch. He eventually approached her about illustrating the remaining scripts he had written for the cancelled series LUCK to be published on the major racing news site America’s Best Racing. She accepted the job, and the ongoing OUT OF LUCK has attracted plenty of attention from followers of racing culture. This led to an independent project, also for America’s Best Racing, presenting previews of the Triple Crown races in illustration format, debuting this week before the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 4th as “The Kentucky Derby Oracle”. It’s been an unusual journey for Ferguson, but one which she’s handling with characteristic grace. She agreed to do an interview with The Beat about how she found herself working on these unusual projects and what strategies she brings to her work these days.
Hannah Means-Shannon: You’ve painted and illustrated trolls, mythical creatures, and human-like animals, often questioning how they relate to mundane reality. How do you approach conveying personality and backstory for creatures like this visually? What are your strategies for conveying personality and history in your current work for OUT OF LUCK and the Triple Crown previews?
Jen Ferguson: When I’m making a piece of art, whatever the subject, I’m looking for the moment when some kind of personality suggests itself in the drawing. I’m thinking of motivations and style, but much of what happens in the work is subconscious. In the case of OUT OF LUCK, I have a great script by writer John Perrotta to work with and I’m familiar with the characters from the HBO show “LUCK” on which it’s based. For the Kentucky Derby oracle, I had video and photos to refer to, and through the process of sketching, I developed a unique look for each horse.
HM-S: What circumstances led up to your illustrations for OUT OF LUCK? What’s it like being handed a script and asked to pick moments to illustrate? How do you decide?
JF: A filmmaker gifted my art to David Milch, the producer and creator of the HBO show LUCK, and subsequently it made the rounds in the production office. John Perrotta, a head writer and consultant on the show loved my work and asked me to work with him after LUCK ended.
HM-S: How did your preview work on the Triple Crown come about? How does it differ from OUT OF LUCK in terms of goals and the choices you are able to make as an artist?
JF: Working with horse racing material has been very exciting and there’s so much unheralded drama in that world that I thought would be fun to highlight. By melding the facts with a sort of fairytale-like art, I hope people get a sense that the racing world is quite extraordinary.
HM-S: What have your live experiences sketching at race tracks been like? How has that influenced your current work?
JF: I have been going to the racetrack to sketch for many years now; there are the most fantastic people to draw. It’s easy to blend in and work uninterrupted because everyone around you is very concentrated with a pen and paper. Contrary to what people might think, it’s a very convivial atmosphere and even though the day brings an endless cycle of wins and losses, they’re a hopeful group. I’m sure that my drawing style has evolved to what is partly based on these drawing expeditions. You get to observe people who aren’t putting on any pretensions and that honesty helps when looking for drawing subjects.
HM-S: How does knowing the backstory on owners and racing rivalries influence you in your storytelling?
JF: It’s fun to relate those facts in the art and sometimes amplify them to tell a good story. You can show things in art that are unspoken and may be under the radar in a regular news story.
HM-S: What has fan response been like so far? Are horse-racing aficionados open to your creative style of illustration?
JF: Both OUT OF LUCK and my other race track art has been viewed and shared quite widely via followhorseracing.com, and I’ve gotten quite a few horse racing fans and industry people following me on Twitter. My work is definitely not what you normally see in the horse-racing world, but I hope people are enjoying it.
HM-S: You’re an animal lover. Is that part of your motivation in taking on these projects?
JF: It’s true, I’m a big animal lover but I actually started drawing at the track not to draw horses but to draw the gamblers, track workers, and other characters there. I was thrilled when my race track drawings found their way into the hands of people who are involved with that world and honored to have them on the Jockey Club’s website.
HM-S: Can you tell us a little bit about your process generating ideas and carrying out your work on the Kentucky Derby preview? What steps do you go through to generate work for these Triple Crown races? Where do your ideas tend to come from?
JF: I get a summary of all the horse racing news every day and over time I get a sense of what’s happening, which is helpful in thinking of what to create. I do a lot of research, so my work is based on some fact and then I unleash my imagination. Between the two of them I expect to come up with something to illuminate. The most important criteria for me is fun. It must be fun for me to make and it must be fun to look at.
Ferguson’s involvement in OUT OF LUCK and these Triple Crown previews brings illustration and fine art into the context of a cultural phenomenon, in an almost journalistic sense, and also creates an unusual hybrid art form. It’s fascinating stuff, capturing a world that many people see only on TV a few times a year. It pulls back the curtain on the drama and real-life rivalries behind horse racing in a way that only illustration can do, with an eye toward atmosphere and character, even in racing’s star athletes, the horses themselves. Jen, thanks for talking to us and bringing a new facet to pop culture and telling your stories wherever, and in whatever format appeals to your artistic bent. The Beat will be consulting your insider narratives to get the scoop on the unfolding drama.
You can read the latest episode of OUT OF LUCK here, her “Kentucky Derby Oracle” here, and Jen Ferguson is also now selling poster prints of her Oiuja Board Kentucky Derby preview at her own etsy shop, too. She is @artinchaos on Twitter.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.