Dan Edwards is an artist and illustrator based in Bridgton, Maine. I talked with him about Tiki-a-Day, his year-long illustration project where he is—well—illustrating a new tiki drawing every day. The exercise is serving as a lead-up to Edwards’ followup to Mr. McFrawley’s Traveling Show, a children’s book he published a few years back.
Dan is also an animator, and I have known him since I moved into what was then his Portland-based production studio / colony over ten years ago. He has worked with Kevin Smith (which we touch on below) among many others. Here he discusses the origins of the Tiki-a-Day project, something called Monster Fight, and his appreciation for the optimism of kitsch.
How did Tiki-a-Day come about? What is it that draws you to Tiki style?
The whole tiki thing had surged in the 1950s. People had come back from the Second World War and had actually seen some of the world—and there was actually a middle class—and these people wanted to explore and experience other cultures in a way. But my tiki thing is as much about real Polynesian art as say American Chinese food is “real” Chinese food. It is that American hotdog version of things. I am kind of fascinated with that and with the primitivism of it. The way that people are fascinated by real Oceanic art, I am kind of fascinated by the kitsch of it. And there is something about it… I have read far too many books about Oceanic art and we somehow fundamentally respond to primitive art. My way of reflecting that is through these stupid, little cartoons.
You know, some part of the whole project actually reminds me Buddy Christ [from the movie Dogma], and not just because you have done work for Kevin Smith in the past. It’s like you are at once recognizing and representing this important, culturally significant art while also paying homage to its kitschy, commodified form. You’re clearly doing so with much more respect than George Carlin’s Cardinal Glick was doing in that movie, but it still has a similar feel.
I think the only part of it I can genuinely say displays respect is that when I threw myself into it, I wanted to treat it as if I were writing a thesis. I sat down and read essentially every book I could come across about Polynesian art. I wanted to find what pieces of it bleed into my thesis and I discarded the things that did not. I am coming from a very genuine place and don’t want to come off like I am making fun of it, but it definitely reflects the American 1950s sensibility more than it does true Polynesian culture.
I have people who follow me on Instagram for the Tiki-a-Day series who will call bullshit on certain ones that I put up. One guy was like, “Okay, I am with you, I like the drawings but that is not tiki.” I was able to go to a book that I had and showed him the mug that was the model for my drawing. A reflection of the reflection. But people seem to have fun with it and taking it seriously on some level.
I am curious about what about the kitsch elements of tiki also stick out to you? Why is that a thing that resonates?
I think part of it is cultural. There was a different “rah rah rah” mentality at the time. Things were different for better of worse. Obviously we can point out a million different ways that life is better today, but there is something about that optimism… and about how some of these people really did think that they were bringing a cultural elements of the world to the fore. I appreciate that not solely from an ironic perspective, but somewhat. There is also the good times element of the lounges and the tiki drinks that is certainly appealing as well.
The funny thing is that the people I most model my work after are not even necessarily people who are Polynesian artists. A lot of them are more researched and more aware. Through this crazy Internet community, you find people who are carving in Maui right now and stuff like that. The main guy that I fell in love with in the beginning is this guy Wayne Coombs, who carved tiki on Cocoa Beach.
What else are you working on at present?
I made a children’s book about four years ago called Mr. McFrawley’s Traveling Show. When I was done with that, I decided that my next goal was to do a tiki book. I had been doing tikis forever and I had a story in mind. I wanted to do it and I wanted something that was a form of research and practice for putting that book together, which is where this series comes from. These drawings were to never go in the book, but they served as visual development for it.
Because the book is independently published, I want to do a Kickstarter for it and so the drawings serve as something like a sales piece. And the series gives me something to put up online every day and hopefully it gets people interested in what I am doing.
I had also been working on a Monster Fight series, where every week for a long time I was releasing two monsters drawings on Facebook and having people vote for the winner. I would then enter them into a March Madness-style bracket. I had finished my book and wanted to do the tiki book the next year. The year came and I hadn’t made the book. Then another came and I hadn’t made the book. So I decided that series could be a way where I would sit down and draw something and that something would eventually give me a body of work so that while I am producing for other people, I could also be producing for myself.
Unfortunately—and fortunately—when I released my book I had 50 new images in my portfolio and I started getting work like crazy. It was great, but it definitely kept me away from my new book. Through doing the Monster Fight series, I drew 80 monsters that I am going to put together as part of some big encyclopedia some day. Through Tiki-a-Day, I wanted to get the output up to one per day. The end result of this is that I will have 365 and somewhere along the way. I will need to color them at some point as well and the process is getting bigger and bigger as my ideas tend to do.
And you’re still animating.
That is what I am doing most of the time. I have been doing some stuff for Kevin Smith for a couple of years now and I am continuing that work, client work, and my own stuff. It is kind of crazy but this is my way of staking my own claim to my time for at least a few hours a day.
What is it you’re doing for Smith? I recall seeing you last year before you headed to Comic-Con for a project with him.
I animated a 5 minute piece of Plants vs. Zombies vs. Jay and Silent Bob and it premiered at Comic-Con.
Well, I have always appreciated the fact that you certainly put in the work. You’re not just saying you’re doing this stuff, you’re actually doing it, and doing a lot of it.
I am certainly not a sniper. I am spraying wildly. I am making this tiki book and so the first thing I do is go, “I’ll draw 365 unrelated illustrations to potential build the way towards my book.” But I do it. I am actually doing it, it is just now always… It is like where Gonzo from the Muppet Movie goes to Bombay to be a movie star.
“You don’t go to Bombay, you go to Hollywood!”
“Yeah, if you want to do it the easy way.”
That’s totally my life – the path of most resistance, but I like having the work to back it up.
It is an interesting way to get there. You’re taking the scenic route.
IMAGE CREDIT: All images come by way of Dan Edwards.