Horror Vacui & Filling the Negative Space: A Conversation with Artist Nick Perry

Local enthusiasts at community art events in eastern Kansas may recognize Nick Perry’s illustrations as similar to those of Red Legger Studio. Given his pseudonym, it’s fair to assume Perry is part of a collective, yet, Red Legger is a one-man-show. In 2010, fresh out of school with an arts degree and deciding how to brand himself professionally, Perry chose to model his artistic idols by abandoning his birth name in favor of a broader, more intriguing title. Like some of his West Coast predecessors who helped popularize modern printmaking traditions, Perry’s alter ego represents his Midwestern roots. But his mission is to make art for widespread audiences, irrespective of one’s Art History credentials. He says, “I love the kind of art that has something immediate, something universal, for everyone.”

A graphic designer and printmaker by trade, Perry considers himself an illustrator first. His love for drawing, which started when he was a kid, eventually led him to printmaking studios while attending college. He recalls those initial days as a student, where instructors swapped his pencils for paintbrushes and forced him to reevaluate his commitment to visual art. Despite having no prior painting experience, he bought into institutional expectations—that painting was culture; and that drawing was a method to hone one’s technical skill. He began to see art as an exclusionary practice, as a hobby of consumption for wealthy and educated echelons. Meanwhile, illustrators or laypersons were easily dismissed as unsophisticated—even unworthy, perhaps unwelcome—participants of fine arts. Criticism or fanfare of avant-garde movements were reserved for wine and cheese crowds. This pedagogical shift temporarily led him to believe that drawing was an invalid form, and that he and his pencils were cut from the wrong cloth. After all, if painting was the purest form of expression, and illustrating was a “low-brow” practice, what space could Perry and the characters in his sketchbook occupy?

Popularly referred to as “screen printing,” serigraphy originated in China before slowly migrating to other cultures and continents over several centuries. The process of making prints requires an illustrator to create a drawing and then operate a press to recreate the image over several subsequent editions. That’s what initially hooked Perry on printmaking: that the press allows for repeated celebration of an initial drawing. The practice of honoring his sketches keeps him addicted to the studio, where weekend hours can be spent free of life’s more pressing duties. Like most artists today, Perry pinballs between earning a buck to pay the bills and making art to satisfy the soul. In the gaps between working full-time for a yearbook company, Perry might be preparing small gallery showings, creating Kansas City sports fan art to shamelessly litter his man cave, or illustrating comic book projects. The negative spaces of his life are filled like the canvas of his drawings, detail in every inch, and they all serve to tell the story of the modern artist: those who walk voluntarily across life’s fiscal tightrope so they might one day operate free from distraction.

You won’t catch Perry calling himself a “serigraphist,” nor will he refer to his pieces as “screen prints.” He avoids using the term “screen printing” because it is commonly associated with T-shirt design. He cites Nirvana as an example of artists who fell victim to projected labels. As opposed to the “grunge” gods, who didn’t take kindly to their pop-cultural classification, Perry claims his titles: illustrator, printmaker, Red Legger Studio. Printmaking has been reduced by cultural misrepresentation. He strives to elevate it. His mission isn’t to make “low-brow” art spitefully, it’s to invite participation from every variety of critic: Art history degrees and GEDs. He calls this approach “straddling the line” between accessibility and deeper meaning. He says, “I don’t want to get away from the idea that anyone, even the person that isn’t into art, can walk by my work and be grabbed by it, moved by it, and get the story…”

There is much to be deciphered in Perry’s art. He saturates the canvas to represent a messy national history, obscured through textbooks and propaganda. Audiences may extrapolate any number of storylines from a single print, as Perry plays on their sense of nostalgia and wonder of the American story. The country’s successes and failures and chosen idols. Simultaneously playful and political, nostalgic and critical, his drawings reimagine American folklore through passé propaganda techniques of bygone eras. When you stop and study Perry’s work, it’s because you’ve been invited to reconsider stories that you’re already participating in.

Will Pellett: Talk about the name Red Legger Studio. What does the name mean to you?

Nick Perry: So early on, I wanted some way to brand myself. I honestly just didn’t think Nick Perry was cool enough or catchy enough. It didn’t stand out. It’s a generic name. I followed so many artists that had really cool sounding names that were attached to a studio or a press. And it made them sound bigger. Something about their names was connected to the West Coast. I was a little bit jealous of that. There’s a lot of culture there they were vibing on with their names and their brands, and I wanted that. But I definitely didn’t want my name to sound like a West Coast thing; I wanted it to sound like where I was from.

When I came up with Red Legger—the term “Red Leg” is a historical term for a militia on the Kansas side of the [Kansas-Missouri] border, during the pre-Civil War fight over whether or not Kansas was going to come into the Union as a Free State or a Slave State—I wanted something that was unique to where I was from. But I didn’t want it to be “Jayhawker” or connected to the University of Kansas or anything connected to sports, really. Red Leg was a term I knew was going to sound unique. I’ve had a lot of great conversations with people when vending and showing [my work] about the history behind the name. I’ve learned a lot, because people bring their own stories of what Red Leg has meant since its origin, as it connects to military things; it’s a term that went from those militias to being used in the [U.S.] military. People even have differing opinions on what it means in the military.

But I just wanted something that sounded cool. I kind of turned it from Red Leg to Red Legger because it sounded cool. It had a punch but also represented where I was from and where I’ve lived my whole life.

(Photograph by Jacob Gill)

Pellett: Why did you get into Print Making, specifically?

Perry: There were two paths for me getting into printmaking, that are very different, but married up at the end of college. My talent going into college was drawing. I didn’t have a background in painting, but I got sucked up into painting, because initially, it didn’t seem there were a lot of avenues for drawing. Drawing was more of a practice. Drawing allowed you to get better [as an artist] but was not an accepted way to make a finished piece of art. I was immediately painting a lot without any sort of background in painting.

Later in college, I found printmaking. Printmaking was very much about drawing. It was about making multiple versions of the same illustration and still being able to value the original edition of that initial drawing. So that was very exciting to me.

The other big thing was that a lot of art disciplines involved sending an artist into a studio and spending a lot of time alone to turn out a product; whether it’s a painting or whatever. In printmaking, because it revolves around a press, and not everyone has a press, or their own studio, it creates a sense of community because everyone is sharing this big press and these expensive tools. Everyone has to use the space and everyone has to keep the press functioning properly. It’s so much about a community and bouncing ideas off each other. That part drew me to printmaking.

That second avenue I mentioned earlier had to do with me being into concert posters, which is a less “fine art” version of printmaking. It was huge to me that posters in the music scene were screen printed. I always wanted to screen print because of that. There was some amount of legitimacy granted to a poster if it was screen printed, versus if it was digitally rendered. It gave printmaking some respect as an art form. I’ve always been into music and was seeing this whole crazy poster scene in the 90’s and fell in love with that, completely separate from my academic art world. Screen printing really stuck with me and made me want to get my own studio and find my happy medium in the world of fine art and commercial art; or that more “every man’s” piece of art that anyone can have; not that high dollar, expensive art that only some people can have. I think that’s where all my interests came together.

Pellett: You refer to some of your influences as “Outlaw Printmakers.” Do you consider yourself an “Outlaw Printmaker”?

Perry: In some ways, I consider myself an Outlaw Printmaker. But in other ways, almost every printmaker is an Outlaw Printmaker. The interesting thing about the label “Outlaw Printmaker” is that it’s not just the description of the kind of printmaker you are, it’s an actual collective of printmakers that have formed a group. They are friends who showcase their work together. There’s like some really big-time printmakers—some of the most important printmakers in the world—in this collective. So it’s not just about me saying, “I’m this outlaw,” “I’m this rebel,” “I’m this outside the box guy.” I think those descriptions define what printmaking has become. It’s a name for this specific group of printmakers, and I think over the years, it has maybe been a bit of a revolving door of artists, men and women. I think there’s a really nice blend of appreciation for fine art and art history, along with contemporary pop culture in this group of printmakers.

Pellett: That’s fascinating. So you identify with this collective but you’re not formally a member of the Outlaw Printmakers?

Perry: Yeah, no. It’s more of a thing where I fall in line with these printmakers and these are the people I look up to. They are much more accomplished and famous than me. So it’s not me trying to put myself in this group, but it is me trying to follow in their footsteps.

Pellett: If you think about your influences and interests, how do those things help you categorize low-brow and high-brow art forms? Do you think you gravitate to one of those forms over the other? Or is it more important to find a “happy medium” between art types?

Perry: The interesting thing about that question is the term “low-brow.” It’s a dirty word in the art community. Some of the most celebrated low-brow artists ever—like the king of low-brow, who that term was created for, Robert Williams—hate that term. It’s kind of like “grunge” being put on Nirvana. They didn’t come up with the term, it was placed on them. At the same time, I’ve always loved and celebrated that kitschy, pop-culture, American thing, we can all relate to. I really don’t enjoy the kind of art that is on the gallery wall only for the person who is going to the gallery non-stop; art that tries to be super conceptual with non-objective visual representation; like, if you don’t read the description of what it’s about, then you’ll never understand it.

I love the kind of art that has something immediate, something universal, for everyone. Where everyone at least gets that immediate subject matter, like a character or main figure. In low-brow art, I love its sense of humor. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. But I still think I’m always straddling that line of, “Do I have a deeper meaning here?” and also, “Am I just connecting this to mainstream American culture?” I’m at least trying to straddle that line. I don’t want my art to completely be a commercial endeavor, or fan art, or something like that. But I also don’t want to get away from the idea that anyone, even the person that isn’t into art, can walk by my work and be grabbed by it, moved by it, and get the story; or at least get intrigued by the story.

When I have to write about my work, it’s the most difficult part of being an artist. And I hate it, and I’m terrible at it. I always feel like I’m so full of shit. When you’re just asking me questions, it’s way more of a natural conversation, it’s more honest. I feel like we’re getting somewhere, as opposed to me trying to contrive paragraph answers.

Pellett: Right. I totally know what you’re saying. This is coming from a place where I’ve developed questions because I’ve reviewed your work; without you being able to hinder my perceptions of you as a person or artist. Now, you’re clarifying rather than “contriving,” like you said.

Perry: Yeah, for sure. It’s like if you’re a writer, and after you write something, you have to draw a picture to explain what your writing is about.

Pellett: Exactly! And that would fucking suck.

Whatever line you’re straddling, it’s obvious to me, in all your work, that your attention to detail is relentless. Your work isn’t always busy, but your work keeps the eye busy. Do you know what I’m saying?

Perry: Yeah.

Pellett: Even in a sparse or negative space piece, there’s so much to take in. Or in a piece that is occupying a lot of space, there’s so much time for someone to—if you will—stand in your gallery and interpret your images or to take pleasure in their stories. All that to say, how do you think your attention to detail plays a role in your work? Do you think about it consciously? When do you know that a piece of yours is finished?

Perry: I have this phobia, and I can’t remember the name of it, but it’s one of those big words that ends in phobia, and it’s the fear of negative space. It’s me wanting to cram as much detail and narrative into every inch of a piece. Some of it is really important to the overall story and theme, and some of it is just complimentary. Sometimes, those little symbols are more random. I really just want every inch of a piece to be interesting and fun and cool and doing its own thing. Like, sometimes in the background, I don’t want there to be just clouds and some blue sky. Maybe I want the background’s own story happening there that is separate from the story of the main character. Sometimes the two are connected, but other times, there’s a rolling story while I’m working. In the negative space—in my work, I consider it negative space, even if it’s full of information—that’s where the theme and purpose of the piece evolves. It evolves the whole time I’m working on it, because if I have a main character in a piece, then that was decided upon in advance. But in those rolling areas that could be flatland or blue sky, where I’m cramming information in, a lot of the time, I’m evolving the story at work. Sometimes by the end of working, I’m filling space with things that were not even close to what I started with. That is the fun of keeping the piece fresh and interesting while I’m working on it and not getting bored with the subject matter I started with. I’m trying to wow you with every inch, and I’m trying to keep it interesting with every inch.

As far as when a piece is done, a lot of times it is done when that space is filled. It would probably be useful to go back and edit and change some things, but there’s a freshness and liveliness that comes from free flowing through the process. Sometimes I like the idea that certain details might not support the narrative or theme, because each piece evolves. From start to finish, I might not end up with the same perspective on the subject matter I started with, and I like that. I think it keeps the whole thing exciting.

Pellett: That’s interesting to me, because I think a lot of writers would say something similar. Not necessarily about the negative space aspect, but certainly about the evolving story and the changing perspective. I know it’s one thing to have a lot of excitement when you’re starting a project, it’s another thing to be discouraged while you’re in the middle of working, and it’s something else to make a breakthrough after a period of struggling to write. So the evolving story, as you’re drawing, is oddly pertinent and aligns with writing in a lot of ways. It’s interesting how so many artistic approaches are very similar, when deconstructed.

Of course, there’s differences. It’s awesome that you have this idea of finishing something, and it’s by filling space. I don’t think writers necessarily think that way. We’re constantly thinking that nothing will ever be completed—even when we send out a finished draft and get it out of our hands. In our minds, the writing is never done.

Perry: When you say that, is it related to the idea that you could be saying more? Or how much of the thought process of writing involves worrying about editing what you already said?

Pellett: I think it’s the latter, normally. Like, you could always say things differently and you could always say them better, right? And so it’s not necessarily what is said, it’s how you’re saying it. And I think that’s what writers are fixated on; sometimes to our detriment and sometimes to our better impulses. I guess that’s the difference.

Perry: Sure, sure.

Pellett: Is being approached to do work a big part of your creative life? How do you choose where best to focus your creative efforts? Simply, what makes you happiest as an artist? How do you balance your time between life, contracts, and your own passion projects?

Perry: Artists devote a certain amount of time to work on their passion projects—whether collaborating with someone or working individually—simply because they want their art to exist, void of outside expectation. Then there’s projects where someone approaches them to do work. And artists, like anyone else, have to pay the bills. So commissions take up a big portion of creative time. And like you alluded to, a balance between creative efforts is very important. You can never completely cut out your own passion projects, but I also don’t get enough commission work to where I can turn opportunities away. I wish I did. That would be a pretty good problem to have.

The best contract jobs are when the commissioner is familiar with your work, likes what you do, gives you small direction, and wants to see what you can produce in your own style. Even if they don’t envision what the final product will look like, they know what you do, trust what you do, and want to see you complete the project on your own. I’m working on another project, right now, where the employer saw something I did and liked it, so they wanted me to reproduce it, but with a slight twist to fit their desired aesthetic. Those commission deals where it’s like, “You do cool stuff. Can you do it more like this?” are the best for an artist. The best jobs combine your creativity with a sustainable market. But there’s nothing like the satisfaction of working on your own voice and your own passion project, where you don’t have to ask for anyone’s opinion. Those [passion projects] aren’t easy to commit to, and sometimes they stay in your sketchbook. But a balance of all those things is really important.

Pellett: That makes sense to me. And I just want to say that question comes from a place where, for artists, of course the dream is self-sustaining work. The idea of you not being able to turn work away is something a lot of writers relate to. Everyone would like to reach that place. You’re a talented artist, and for artists everywhere, people may not realize there is a lot of sacrifice and time and effort that goes into work that you don’t necessarily even want to endure. So having to find silver linings in those things we have to grit our teeth and get through, I think it’s just a part of every artist’s journey, especially today.

Perry: Yeah, totally.

(Photograph by Jacob Gill) 

Pellett: How does classical advertising fit into your influences from by-gone eras of Americana and pop-culture?

Perry: I’m a very nostalgic person. Some of it is an appreciation for the way letters were crafted in a certain era; the way they were designed by hand. It feels like letters will never be designed that way again. It’s also how the letters were being applied, like when they were hand painted onto signs or windows. There’s a whole thing there—that will never be again—that I’m very attracted to.

The other thing with advertising, is in propaganda and in the way art has been used to tell a story that was not necessarily for the benefit of the viewer; whether that be propaganda from Big Tobacco or from the government or from any industry whose goal was making money over the betterment of society. There was a lot of really interesting ad campaigns over the course of the twentieth century—specifically the early part of the century—that were very much disingenuous and flat out lying; and were really crafty. I’ve always been really interested in that part of the American story. Like, the whole jump from men smoking, to how the tobacco industry realized they were missing out on an entire half of the population by not getting women to smoke; then, using women’s liberation and the suffragette movement to say, ‘We’re just as good as the men, we can smoke too.’ Big Tobacco, I think, hired a bunch of actresses to march through Times Square saying exactly that. Basically, [it was] just a ploy to get the entire population smoking. That whole thing with propaganda—the underlying message and the in-your-face message—and what those things mean, seems separate from lettering, but to me, they go hand-in-hand. I’ve been really interested in both of those aspects of advertising for a long time.

Pellett: Do you feel any sense of duty to reproduce work from past subcultures out of fear they will fade away?

Perry: That’s interesting. I think nostalgia is part of my brand. I feel like I’m always celebrating things I’m nostalgic about. But I’m also always sort of perverting them. Like, at the same time I’m very nostalgic, I also know that in almost every great American institution, there is also a great lie. As much as I will celebrate any great brand or icon, I also know that it’s not as great as the story goes. And I want to tell both of those stories.