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Interview with Joseph Vargo, Artist & Musician
Posted By Flames On September 18, 2006 @ 3:03 pm In Artists,Interviews,Musicians | No Comments
I’ve always had a fascination with dark, gothic subject matter. Vampires, ghosts, witches, werewolves, skeletons, gargoyles…you name it, I was constantly drawing these sort of things as a kid. I loved watching horror films and the old Dark Shadows tv series. I collected and assembled all the classic monster models and was always drawing my own versions of them. My parents were very cool and encouraged my artistic talent, even though it leaned toward the dark side.
After high school, I attended the Cleveland Institute of Art with the hopes of becoming a professional illustrator upon graduation. This was the first time I ever ran into any negativity about the topics I was drawing and painting. It was a very stifling atmosphere, and most of the teachers scoffed at the fantasy art industry. I left after one semester and worked at various other jobs while I honed my skills as an artist on my own. After a few years, I had amassed a large amount of gothic fantasy paintings and I began sending out portfolios of my work to all the book publishers and record labels. I met with a lot of rejection, but there were a few art directors that offered encouragement.
I decided that if I wanted to pursue this career seriously, I was going to have to make it happen on my own, so I established my own business, Monolith Graphics, in 1991. I began by producing a few t-shirts and posters, framed prints, calendars and stationery, which I mainly sold at local shops and Renaissance fairs as well as through mail-order. I also did cd cover art for a lot of different bands. Most of my work at the time was a crossover between traditional gothic themes and classic fantasy art. As the years passed, my work took a much darker turn and I was invited to appear at various gothic and vampire gatherings.
In 1992 graphic designer Christine Filipak came on board, and Monolith has grown steadily ever since. My artwork appeared in a few magazines in the U.S. and overseas. One of my paintings, “Gargoyles,” was featured in the art annual, Spectrum III. Having my posters and t-shirts in national chain stores like Hot Topic and Spencers did a lot to help promote the company as well. We built and ran a gallery called The Realm which featured fantasy art in 1997 and the Monolith website was launched in early 1998. Since then, we’ve created and produced a wide assortment of products, including books, music cds, fortune-telling cards, calendars, writing journals and magazines. It’s great to be able to create and produce whatever my mind dreams up, but it’s also a lot of long hours and hard work to run your own company.
It’s always a challenge to put an original spin on a familiar subject matter without straying too far from a gothic mood. Sometimes elaborate settings are required, while other times it can be as slight as a subtle facial expression. I always try to make the characters that inhabit the shadowy world of my paintings interesting in their own way. Sometimes they’re monstrous, sometimes they’re sexy, but I strive to make every image as haunting as possible. I think that the art should be mysterious and inviting and stay with the viewer long after they look away. To me, the best fantasy images create a mood, establish the characters and set the scene, allowing the viewer to fill in the story line.
I’ve used oil paints, watercolors and pencil to create various pieces, but my favorite medium over the past ten years has been acrylic paints. I love to use oils, but they take much longer to dry, and I have some very tight deadlines, so the majority of paintings are done with acrylics.
We’ve run into every problem imaginable with the various printers and manufacturers we’ve used over the years. From book pages inserted upside-down to calendars with missing months to T-shirts printed with the wrong colors. After we printed the first run of The Gothic Tarot, we had one manufacturer who refused to cut the card sheets because they deemed them to be “evil.”
As far as pre-press is concerned, some of my paintings are very dark, which makes it hard to get a clean photo or scan. Many times I have to tweak the image in the computer because the scanner picked up too much detail of the canvas or brush strokes. When creating a work of art that will be reduced to the size of a cd cover or tarot card, you have to make sure that the detail isn’t so miniscule that it won’t get noticed. Too much detail is also a concern when creating a piece of art that will be silkscreened onto a t-shirt. If the artwork isn’t contrasted enough, a lot of the detail will be lost. Okay, this technical stuff probably sounds really boring, so I’ll just end this part by mentioning that I mix all of my paints with the blood of virgins.
No one has ever said anything like that to my face. I think that the people who would deem my work “evil” would probably be afraid to. If someone thinks that they’ll be cursed to burn in the fires of Hell just by gazing at an image that’s painted on a piece of canvas, then I feel sorry for their simple minds. I’ve painted angels and I’ve painted demons. Much of my work depicts the balance between light and dark, order and chaos, and the eternal battle between the forces of good and evil. If someone chooses to focus solely on the negative side of something, that’s their problem. I like to explore the beauty in darkness, but some people are too afraid of the dark to venture anywhere near the shadows.
The Gothic Tarot consists of 78 cards including both the Major and Minor Arcana. The entire collection itself represents over ten years worth of my artwork. I had considered doing a Tarot deck as early as 1981, but I just didn’t have the patience to commit to such an extensive project back then. As the years passed, and my portfolio of work grew, I began thinking that a lot of the images that I had created could be used to create a tarot deck, and since my forte was gothic fantasy art, it stood to reason that my tarot deck should embrace the dark side.
Once I began discussing the deck with my friends, everyone seemed to love the idea. A lot of them kept after me to begin the project. Occult author Michelle Belanger is a good friend of mine and she really prodded me about creating a deck based on my gothic artwork. She even shared some of her concepts about the Major Arcana based on some of my pre-existing paintings. If it wasn’t for my friends and fans pushing me to do the project, The Gothic Tarot may have remained in the development stages for quite awhile. Once it was decided, the project took about eight months for Christine and myself to put together. Originally, I had planned on only creating illustrations for the 22 cards of the Major Arcana and to utilize repetitive design elements of the four suits to illustrate the Minor Arcana. However, the more research I did into the symbolic representations of classic Tarot decks, I decided to commit to a full-scale project of creating individual illustrations for each of the 78 cards. In some instances existing paintings were altered to fit the concept of a specific card, but in other cases new artwork had to be created to express the card’s traditional meaning. The Gothic Tarot was first published in 2002 and has since become the top-selling Tarot deck for Diamond Comics Distributors. Including what is sold directly through Monolith, we’ve sold over 12,000 decks to date.
The book project was conceived early in 1999 after my writer friend James Pipik suggested having various authors pen short stories based on the characters in my most popular works. I wrote the main story with James, then outlined a series of stories and worked closely with the other writers to maintain continuity throughout the book. In addition to creating the artwork, I also wrote and co-wrote several of the stories. As time went on, the responsibilities of editing this project fell upon Christine Filipak and myself as well.
The 13 gothic tales of vampires, ghosts and other things that go bump in the night are set in and around a haunted gargoyle-encrusted castle known as the Dark Tower. Each of the 13 stories stands alone, yet they all fit together, weaving back and forth throughout the centuries to create the saga of the curse that overshadows the Dark Tower. Tales From The Dark Tower, which was released in 2000, is now in its third printing, and we are currently working on the first of two sequels, Beyond The Dark Tower.
This will be the second book in an eventual trilogy. Continuing the mythos that was established in Tales From The Dark Tower, the second book will offer a new collection of stories that will take the characters deeper into the shadows of the Dark Tower in addition to explaining some mysteries from the past. We’ll also be exploring the histories of several key characters that were briefly mentioned in the first book.
Nox Arcana is my musical project. It’s a two-man group consisting of William Piotrowski and myself. We both write and perform all of our own music. We’ve released five full-length cds of dark gothic orchestrations and haunting melodies. We love exploring the full spectrum of gothic themes, from the hauntingly beautiful and seductively sinister to the creepy, ominous, dramatic and horrifying. We also like to utilize a wide variety of authentic instruments and musical styles from different regions and time periods. Our first cd, Darklore Manor, was released in 2003. It took listeners on a musical journey through a haunted Victorian mansion with a dark and sinister history. Since then we¹ve released four more cds that explored the themes of Transylvania, a creepy old-time carnival, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos and the ruins of a haunted cathedral.
We start by choosing a topic that we’re both intrigued by then we begin to develop a story line. Once we have a concept and outline, we start to compose various melodies to convey specific moods of the story. We select specific instruments that establish the setting and period of the story. We work on everything together in the studio. It’s a great collaboration, and as we develop the songs, they begin to take on lives of their own. Once the songs are composed, we add chanting, narratives and sound effects to enhance some of the pieces.
To convey the mood of an ancient fallen cathedral on Winter’s Knight we utilized gothic pipe organs and Gregorian chanting. We also used a lot of bells, piano harpsichords to capture the solemn feeling of winter, and even had two medieval minstrel songs with acoustic guitar and haunting vocal harmonies. William and I both love Bram Stoker’s Dracula, both the novel and film. This was the main inspiration for our Transylvania cd which combined brooding horror with a romantic European flair. We basically told Dracula’s story through music, then added some original elements like the ominous warnings from sentinel gargoyles and witches.
Once the music is composed, we begin assembling the cd booklet to accent the album. Christine works her magic with the layout utilizing my artwork, the accompanying text, and band photos. When it’s all done, we have a full-blooded concept album that tells a story, complete with words, pictures and music.
I consider H.P. Lovecraft to be a true genius and innovator. He invented an entire dark mythos and changed the face of horror fiction. I’ve read all of his work several times, and each time I get something new out of it. After Lovecraft’s death in 1937, his friend August Derleth continued to write and publish stories based upon Lovecraft’s concepts. As time went on, other writers followed in his footsteps and wrote their own tales that were inspired by the Cthulhu mythos, putting their own spin on things. Over the years, many of Lovecraft’s original concepts became blurred by writers who had taken too many liberties with his mythos. There’s even a large number of people who believe that the Necronomicon is real, when in reality it’s a fictitious book that Lovecraft invented and used as a plot device in several of his stories.
I wanted to pay homage to Lovecraft’s original concepts of the Necronomicon and the sinister mythology that it contained. Actually, I was amazed that no one else had done it before. It’s such a wealth of ideas and dark inspiration. The cd gives a rundown of the various monstrous deities, ancient rituals and dark prophecies of the Cthulhu mythos as if someone were reading it from the Necronomicon. All of the text is based on Lovecraft’s original ideas, ignoring the embellishments of later writers. There are narrative intros to some of the tracks that explain the specific roles of each of the Great Old Ones, as described by Lovecraft. The music ranges from mystical Arabian pieces to dark Egyptian chants to powerful gothic orchestrations.
We’ve gotten alot of great feedback and reviews from Lovecraft fans all around the world. The reviewer from Fangoria actually called it “sexy.” The Necronomicon cd is also carried by Chaosium games and is the top selling soundtrack for their Call of Cthulhu audience, and it’s been called the official soundtrack of the Cthulhu Mythos.
The major influence was Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. The idea of a diabolical circus that rises from the shadows to tempt human desires was a tribute to his Dark Carnival concept. We were also inspired by The Circus of Dr. Lao, which was the basis for the old film The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao. Once we had the groundwork for this concept, we set out to put an original twist on it. We’ve gotten several letters and reviews of Carnival of Lost Souls that say that the album would’ve made a great soundtrack for Something Wicked This Way Comes. Things like that always put a diabolical smile on my face.
Some of the original inspirations like the gypsy fortune-teller machine, the living dolls, and the spellbound puppet show came from a Halloween party that I put together several years ago. Other concepts like the “Theatre of Sorrows,” the “Soul Stealer” and “The Devil’s Daggers” were conceived specifically for this album. We had the cd release party for Carnival of Lost Souls on 6-6-06. It was a wild event that tied in nicely with the idea that this sinister carnival, The Circus Diabolique, rises from the shadows every one hundred years. Hopefully, we’ll inspire someone to continue this tradition in the centuries to come.
We are continuously so busy creating new works that we have very little time to promote ourselves, yet we’ve been approached by the producers of several interesting projects. Some of our songs were chosen by a company that produces gothic bellydance videos to be featured in their upcoming DVD. In addition, dancers will be performing to our music on their national tour. We’ve also been hired to score a dark adventure game titled Inherent Evil 2. The project is perfect for our music and should be a lot of fun.
I almost never take a break from work. Most of my projects are labors of love, so I am constantly feeding off of the energy from the creation process. Occasionally, we take a few hours off on weekend nights to go out to one of the local rock or goth clubs and drink a few beers with some good friends. I’d love to get out to more conventions to meet our fans, but I still have so many more projects that I want to finish.
The goth culture has become more of a part of the mainstream in recent years. What began primarily as an underground movement is now much more widespread. Goth fashions are sold in national chain stores and goth bands like Lacuna Coil, HIM, and the 69 Eyes are being played on the radio and selling out large venues with their concerts. I think that’s great, but unfortunately, this has also led to a lot of so-called Goths who don’t even know what the word “Gothic” really means. It irks me when I hear one of these posers trying to claim that traditional gothic things aren’t goth, when they themselves have no clue as to the origins of the genre. If you don’t wear black, you don’t like vampires, you don’t have a brooding dark side, and you aren’t into literature or the arts, then you’re not a “goth,” so don’t try to redefine the parameters in order to fit the label.
Regardless of modern trends, It doesn’t influence my art or music at all. I created gothic work before it was popular. It’s just part of who I am, so I just keep doing what I’ve always done
Lovecraft and Poe are my favorite gothic authors. I also really enjoyed reading the Death Dealer series by James Silke. The tales are based on the paintings of Frank Frazetta and they’re great sword and sorcery fantasy stories along the lines of Robert Howard’s Conan series, only darker. As for musicians, I have hundreds of favorites, ranging from AC/DC to Lorenna McKennit. It really depends on what kind of a mood I’m in on any given day.
We are currently wrapping up our sixth cd, Blood of the Dragon. It’s a majestic sword and sorcery epic that centers around an ancient quest. This is our most powerful cd to date, but there are still some surprises. The music ranges from Conan and 13th Warrior style anthems, complete with gothic chanting, to mystical minstrel pieces and haunting harp melodies. We’ve been looking forward to doing this album for quite some time and the compositions are just pouring out of us.
We also just finished recording an album with our friend, Michelle Belanger. She has a beautiful operatic voice. She performed as a guest vocalist on our Winter’s Knight album and she’s worked with various other bands as well. William and I came up with an idea to take a one-week break from working on Blood of the Dragon to write and record an album with Michelle. We invited her down to our studio and worked together for a solid week of 16-hour days to mold some rough, basic outlines into a full-length cd. It was a real challenge, but the results speak for themselves. Both Michelle’s album, Blood of Angels, and the new Nox Arcana cd, Blood of the Dragon, will be released later this fall. Later this year, we’ll begin working on another darkly romantic concept album that will pay tribute to a true master of gothic horror. In the meantime we are working on a companion book to the Gothic Tarot, as well as a new book titled Beyond The Dark Tower, which is the first sequel to Tales From The Dark Tower.
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 MonolithGraphics.com: http://www.monolithgraphics.com
 NoxArcana.com: http://www.noxarcana.com
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