Octavio Aragão: You had an incredible experience early in your career: to share a
studio with other illustrators where all of you worked together. Who were the other artists,
how was that experience and how did it helped you to build your style (if it helped at all)?
Michael Kaluta: Between 1976 and 1980 I shared a Studio on West 26th Street, NYC,
with Bernie Wrightson, Jeffrey Jones and Barry Windsor-Smith. The room was large, had
three huge banks of windows that looked out over Manhattan, high ceilings, wood floors
and enough space for each of us to mark out an equal large area in which to work.
Of the four areas, Jeffrey Jones' space was the most austere, but that doesn't mean
uninteresting. Large canvases were flanked by tripods mounting 4x5 format cameras,
hand crafted easels, shelves of books and supplies with an almost Oriental Art approach
to the art objects that enhanced the area into a quiet, encouraging work space.
Barry Windsor-Smith's area, up against the windows on one side of the room, had large
dark wooden filing cabinets and elegant shelving, large 4' x 8' tables with areas for print
and art storage, a huge drawing board and drawing easel and at least one large,
old-fashioned desk. Amidst this furniture were large areas of art prints, originals, lighting
and tall stools to work from. This space also included a Gibson Les Paul Guitar and
Bernie Wrightson's area against the windows on the other side of the room had more
idiosyncratic shelving, the spaces filled with skulls, bottled specimens, primitive weapons,
pieces of machinery and masonry, pelts, towers of cabinets in which no one knew what
lurked, all surrounding his very large drawing board and comfortable, if older, office chair.
This area also sported a full human skeleton hanging from the ceiling.
My space, the Michael Wm Kaluta area, had bits and bobs of everything that the others
had: guitars, though non-electric, skulls, perhaps the most books (all had books but most
were kept at our homes), buckets of brushes and other tools, toys, doo-dads, large tables,
supply shelving, art, frames and personal sound system for late night listening, all surrounding
and supporting my large and smaller drawing board. Every Space and the Spaces In
Between had Peacock Feathers, Art, Drapes, Costumes, Swords, a Dart Board, screens,
light boxes, a darkroom, etc.
Art was done in all areas, though there was only a small time of the day when all four artists
were in attendance. I was a Late Night, Over Night artist. Jeffrey Jones: an Early Morning
to Afternoon Artist, Bernie Wrightson: an Afternoon to Evening Artist, and Barry Windsor-
Smith a Later Afternoon/Evening and late night artist.
The best part about having so many really top flight artists in close proximity was how it
enhanced the urge to do work that they'd admire.
OA: Your ambitious series of illustrations about Tolkien's The Lord Of the Rings,
produced for a 1994 calendar, surely wasn't an easy task to accomplish. How long did it
take from the first research to the final rendering? And what were - if there were any -
the problems you faced in the making of this project?
MK: The Tolkien Art was originally developed to try to "get" the job of doing the 1979-
1980 Tolkien Calendar. In conjunction with my old friend Steve Hickman, then living in
Northern Virginia but working through New York City, I worked up 6 to 10 drawings to
try to get Ian Ballantine to let Steve and I do the new calendar. Steve had been called by
Ian Summers, the original Tolkien Calendar Editor at Ballantine, and told the Hildebrant
Brothers had been "let go", and that the calendar was open. Steven and I both did our best
to get a huge bunch of art together to impress the company. Had it all been painted at the
time it was shown there's no doubt we'd have got the commission: After the Hildebrants left,
Ballantine didn't commission a new artist, but rather collected finished art of varying quality
from several convention art shows and put it all together in that next year's calendar. Too
bad for everyone except the artists represented.
So, I had about 10 very finished pencil drawings with no place for them to go. I adapted
the piece that was slated for the center spread (back then the Tolkien Calendar always
had a center spread piece of art) for the wrap-around cover for Marvel's Encyclopedia of
the Conan Universe, replacing the Hill Trolls in my First Stroke of Lightning At Helm's
Deep with Conan on a white horse with some extra warriors, lengthening the legs and
shortening the arms of the Orcs so they appeared more human and painting it up. The art
as it was done for Marvel appears in The Realms Of Tolkien in its full Conan glamor. In
the 1994 calendar I had the art flopped, so Helm's Deep was in its proper geography,
and the Conan grouping trimmed off. Hence, it is the weakest of the pieces in the calendar.
In 1982-84 a publishing friend sent copies of my Tolkien pencil drawings to Jane Johnson
in the UK, the publisher that was handling the Tolkien Estate publications, in hopes she'd
allow him to do a limited run of prints. She said she couldn't license that but kept the art
on file. To my utter amazement I got a letter in 1992 asking if I'd do the Tolkien Calendar
for 1994. I said Yes and tried my best to get information on what dimensions they wanted
the art. This is all Pre Internet: calling the UK and getting hold of folks you needed was still
somewhat of a mysterious endeavor. I never got a firm answer: mostly I heard: just draw
them up: they are due by February of 1993. I used the American Tolkien Calendar as a
guide. SO: The 1994 American Tolkien Calendar, still put together and distributed by
Ballantine, looks great and shows all the art (though the first month's art is flopped...).
However: the beautifully produced calendars from the UK and Australia used a very wide
format. The UK production folks cropped the top and bottom of the almost square art so
it would fit the wider format: it makes me weep!!!! Such beautiful paper and color: the tops
of heads and the feet of characters lost to all those UK/Australia Tolkien Calendar owners.
All that to the side: drawing and painting the Tolkien art for that calendar is a high water
mark in my career!
OA: The Shadow, from all the characters you ever worked on, seems to be the one who
lives closer to your heart. What’s your relation with the Maxwell Grant - Walter Gibson
novels and what's your favorite rendition of his creation? When do you think you "got the
spirit" of the Shadow?
MK: I read what I thought were two Shadow Paperbacks when I was in Jr High School
(approx 13 years old, say in 1960). When I was asked to do the comic book, 1973, my
memory of those rather dull, tame books still lingered, but: my pal Steve Hickman had had
a really strong portrait painting of the Shadow he'd done in Luminescent paints on the wall
of his room: it impressed me enough to know I wanted to try to draw the comic book.
Like everyone in America, I'd hear about the Radio Show, though it was on the air way
before I was born. The "Who Knows What Evil Lurks In The Hearts Of Men?" phrase
is as much in the American psyche as "Hi-yo, Silver!"
As it turns out: those two Belmont paperback I'd read thinking they were actual Shadow
Books, were bogus, newly made up stories as unlike the real Maxwell Grant stories as they
could be. As soon as word got out I was drawing the comic book I began to get packages
from total strangers, packed with xeroxed info/art and stories of The REAL Shadow. Of
course, I wasn't writing the stories, but these Care Packages got me well on my way to
researching the actual pulp stories so when it came to drawing the comics, I was able to
imbue the art with the sense of the pulps.
By that time, 1973, Pyramid books had reprinted a number of the actual pulp stories in
paperback, like The Living Shadow: the first pulp story, I believe, and there were a couple
hardback collections of the seminal titles like Gangdom's Doom and The Grove of Doom,
so I had plenty of foundation material.
My favorite rendition of The Shadow from the old pulps, the covers I wish I'd done? That's
easy: The Creeping Death, January 15th, 1933, The Book Of Death, January 15th, 1942
and the cover I used from the very beginning as my template for my representation of The
Shadow: Partners of Peril, November 1st, 1936, all art by George Rosen.
The biggest surprise for me as a very young artist: as soon as I started drawing The Shadow,
he and his world leapt from my pen... it was as if I'd spent years expecting to draw the
1930's New York City. But I hadn't: I'd been drawing Edgar Rice Burroughs material.
OA: Do you consider yourself an Art Nouveau artist? If so, how this style would fit in
your graphic narrative? Any sample of how Art Nouveau concepts and elements appears
in your comics?
MK: I consider I'm very influenced by all the Art Nouveau art I've seen and studied. I'm
not a scholar on any subject, and only have a feeling from the art I've tried to absorb. It
does come out in my pictures, and really helps when I remember to try to use an Art
Nouveau approach. The style is most evident in poster art I've done, less so in Comics,
though early Carson Of Venus had some obvious usage in the title boxes, certainly. The
Nouveau and Deco styles informed all the art I did for the 2002 and 2003 Celtic League
Calendars. When the influence is subtle, it shows in the way cloth moves, water flows,
etc... organic. I could stand to use it more!
OA: How computers, scanners, the Internet and the contemporary graphic process
affected your work? What changed after you had to deal with Photoshop alongside ink,
pencils and crayon?
MK: The chief result of Computers, in the form of Photoshop, is to reinforce the
knowledge that there's no mistake that can't be undone... that knowledge frees my hand
and mind, allowing me to take a concept further without fear of wasting time if it All Goes
Wrong. In smaller ways Photoshop allows one to alter sketches on the fly to test ideas
and compositions without investing so much time in each idea that the project hangs fire.
Sending digital files instead of original art gives one real peace of mind: the art never leaves
All that said: I've yet to create any complete art on the computer... I don't have the skill set.
Pencil, Ink and Watercolor are still my media of choice. Enhancing their result with
Photoshop points the way for further investment in the traditional materials.
|A cover from Starstruck,
a piece with an Art Nouveau flavor
|The Shadow in a striking pose
|A pastoral scene from The Lord of The Rings
|Berni Wrightson, Jeffrey Jones,
Michael Kaluta and Barry Windsor-Smith
|All art copyright Michael Wm. Kaluta and the respective owners.
|Michael Wm. Kaluta
|High Water Marks and Shadows: Interview with Michael Kaluta
by Octavio Aragão
Berni Wrightson, Jeffrey Jones, Michael Kaluta and Barry Windsor-Smith
Once upon a time, in a kingdom called The Seventies, a group of talented artists banded
togheter in a group called The Studio (they could have been called The Fellowship of The
Rug, but seemed to be something wrong with the name). We found one of these wizards
and he agreed to chat with us about his days among the Studio partners and before. Dear
friends, let’s praise Mr. Michel Kaluta, the Shadowman of Middle Earth.