Giant monsters! Super-sized beasts! Mysterious creatures! Jake LaGory is a North Carolina artist with a passion for (super)nature’s big, bad, and beautiful. His illustrations celebrate the famous monsters from fiction and folklore that inspired him as a child. Now he inspires the next generation of artists as a teacher in the Asheville public school district. GR1ND caught up with Jake to talk about his Cryptozoology Coloring Book and his new digital painting series, The Aphotic Zone.
How long have you been making art?
I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. As a child, I used it as a tool to explore my interests, specifically in monsters and dinosaurs. I remember taking every opportunity to draw, grabbing a sheet of printer paper and whatever tools were available. As I grew into adolescence it waned a bit more like a doodle in class here or there. It wasn’t until late high school and college that I began to re explore and expand my skills toward attaining a career in the arts. Now I teach art in the Asheville public schools and do my illustration the side.
You are previously from Chicago, what brought you to North Carolina?
Chicago is a wonderful city with great culture, but its very large and sprawling. I grew up hiking, canoeing, and camping and felt the need to live in a smaller more natural environment. My wife (then girlfriend) and I moved down shortly after getting our degrees (about 4 years ago).
How did the change of scenery affect your art?
Being in Asheville is a constant source of inspiration, from both the community and the mountainous environment. Within 2 months of moving here, I found out about ZaPow, a new pop-culture gallery that was about to open in downtown Asheville. It was a perfect fit and I was stunned to have such a great opportunity to share my work with the community so quickly after relocating. Having a venue to show my work keeps me motivated to make more work and constantly improve. I still show my work there now. As a public school art teacher, the community support is very strong. There are so many opportunities to share my students’ work with the community. It’s a great resource.
Many of your art pieces feature giant animals, what interests you in super-sized creatures?
I guess this goes back to my childhood fascination with dinosaurs and monsters. As a kid, I also loved watching the stop-motion animation work of Ray Harryhausen, which often featured giant sized creatures. Ultimately, it comes back to exploring the natural world and wondering “what if?”, and the fact that the more I explore them as a subject in my work, the more ideas pop into my head. Giant monsters are pretty much a part of my artistic DNA at this point.
Do you have a favorite monster?
I’m most interested in aquatic monsters, whether real life or imaginary. When it comes to the psuedoscience of cryptozoology, it’s easy to maintain an open imagination about the types of creatures that could live undiscovered in the ocean. There’s just more potential for imagination when it comes to ocean creatures. They also seem more threatening- since the deep sea remains so unexplored and mysterious, you never know what could emerge and start causing havoc. These kinds of things are fun to imagine. Just look at the types of creatures that inhabit the darkest depths of the ocean. Things like the anglerfish. Very freaky looking.
You have published a coloring book of cryptids from around the world. How did that concept come about?
The idea came to me several years back, when ZaPow hosted a Cryptozoology-themed group show for all its member artists. I thought it would be cool to submit a short coloring book that put a natural spin on some famous cryptids. The project grew from there. I missed the deadline for that show by far, but ended up with book of 22 original illustrations. To talk a bit more about the guiding principle for how I designed each creature, I’ll use the example of mermaids or merfolk. Within cryptozoology, mermaid specimens are often depicted as having human (mammal) and fish parts in one organism. This doesn’t really make sense, as no other animals exist that are a combination of two such vastly different types of organisms. You’re either a mammal or a fish. One creature can’t be both. This kind of creature would need to have a magical explanation, which didn’t fit with the theme or style of my book. Therefore, the “mermaids” in my coloring book are pretty much a primate that has evolved over time to swim in the ocean- basically an ape with a body that resembles a seal. It’s still highly unlikely that such a creature would remain undiscovered in our time, but I had a lot of fun creating a book by putting famous legendary creatures through this thought process.
As an outdoorsman have have you ever had any close encounters with any dangerous wild animals?
Black Bears are pretty common here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’ve had to bang on the windows to scare a bear away from my outdoor garbage can, but that was within the safety of my home. Animals like to keep away from us.The only truly frightening experiences I’ve had out in nature have been weather related. I’ve been camping with tornadoes blowing nearby and canoeing on rivers that flooded overnight.
What are you currently working on?
I’m about a third of the way through a series of 9 or so digital paintings that depict imaginary deep sea life, named “The Aphotic Zone” after the portion of ocean that’s always in darkness. The purpose is to explore and accentuate the different ways animals adapt to lightless environments. Each creature is based on an actual ocean animal, but its light tricks are a bit more elaborate and fantastic than what is usually seen in nature. Still, the series is very grounded in science. Sort of a similar design process as I used on my book of cryptids. It’s also fun to create an illustration where the light source is the creature itself- not the usual sun, lamp, or open window.
Be sure to follow Jake LaGory’s work by checking out his website (www.jakelagory.com) or blog (jakelagory.tumblr.com). The first three species in The Aphotic Zone series can be viewed there. His Cryptozoology Coloring Book and various prints are available for purchase online and in person at ZaPow.