MK Northum (2017)

It turns out that Texas Frightmare Weekend is just the gift that keeps on giving. While I was there, wandering in between delightfully confrontational Udo Kiers, adorable monster babies, five dollar Stella Artios, and enough amazing artists to make my dried up little soul sing, I stumbled across this:

You know that feeling when you look across a crowded room and lock eyes with some beautiful stranger and you just can’t look away? This was better.

Look at this-- of all the crazy, sexy, gorgeous horror movies to spawn legions of art, Suspiria is the bloated, fecund mother of them all (nice image, I know) and this stood out. If I had a dime for every piece of Suspiria homage art I’ve seen, I wouldn’t need CineDump to keep me in caviar and Everclear. The bold colors, the simple but forceful composition, and printmaker’s eye for balancing shape and carefully layered lines... it was all I could do not to steal the thing.

And I might have... if MK Northum, the artist herself, hadn’t been sitting there hand painting another masterpiece while I contemplated larceny.

MK Northum is just one of the amazing artists Frightmare hosted this year, but even among the moody Pittides prints and Mondo’s irreverently fun stuff, Northum’s work sparkled with the right kind of wrong vivacity that makes horror the most giddy way to spend a Saturday night without breaking the law.

MK was gracious enough to chat with me long enough at the table to convince me I shouldn’t rip her off, and then she granted me an interview. You thought Kafka mixed bugs, beauty and angst? My dear, just scan through the rest of the article, enjoy MK Northum’s take on the intersection of art and our nightmares, and check out her site HERE. That twisted part of your brain that keeps you here will thank you. I promise.

Pennie Sublime: I got to look at some of your prints, and I loved all of your bug imagery, and the things you said about incorporating insects into your art… can you talk about that a little?

MK Northum: Well, it really started out as, whenever I was first using bugs and creepy crawlies in my imagery, it started out with, “I’m experimenting with different imagery like different borders to put around subjects. And it kinda evolved into this idea for me that I wanted to have this juxtaposition of beauty and disgust and things like that, that related to each other. It’s not like the most brilliant idea that’s ever been had. Lots of people do that with their work, they create some sort of contradictory imagery in their work. And then, from there, it kinda grew into this idea of evolution, like how do things evolve, how do we adapt to our surroundings. And I kinda went with that for a while with most of my printmaking work, and it was just using that medium in and of itself—printmaking—was very cathartic, because I used linoleum. I was a linocut printer. And I thought—whenever I first got into college, I was going to college for art, I thought I was going to be a painter. And once I found printmaking, I was just—“Oh. Oh. This is it. This is what I actually want to be doing. Because printmaking is very bold, it’s very graphic, it was a medium I really connected with because of that. Because of what I could create.

PS: When I was in college I worked for a printmaker, and his wife was a painter. She once told me that there are diametrically opposed personalities between printmakers and painters; do you agree with that?

MN: Totally. People who paint, I feel—I mean, I don’t think there’s a definite personality, I don’t think, “Oh, you’re a painter, you’re a printmaker”—I just feel like, once you find a medium you are comfortable with, you can really shine and really let your personality and style come through. Because I feel like, whenever I was in my second or third year of painting, I was wanting to do more graphic stuff and less painterly. Because I tried doing the surreal approach but my work was just not realistic enough and I was not spending enough time developing my layers with painting. Because I did a lot with oil. And I fell in love with oil. I loved using it. But I just felt like what I wanted to do was just not coming through for me, personally. Now if you are a surrealist painter and you’re able to accomplish that, I applaud you. Because that is really difficult (laughs). I don’t know. I just feel like there’s—there’s not really a definite personality type, it’s just whatever helps you evoke your own style, emotion, personality, all of that.

PS: A lot of your work has elements of the horrific or grotesque, but it’s quite beautiful. How did you get into doing horror-themed art?

MN: Honestly I don’t really know! It all just started out with me doing that one print of the girl and having a centipede around her as a border. And then once I did that one border with the centipede it became an obsession. And I was using beetles and centipedes and gross imagery in all of my work. And I feel like it isn’t necessarily so much as horror, because I feel like if I was doing horror I would want to incorporate something worse, even grosser, or more disgusting. Like have people’s eyeballs falling out. Actually, I started a piece that I never really finished, it was a self portrait of myself gouging my own eyeball out. Which, it was fun, because I used myself as a reference—I use myself as a reference all the time because I have a camera on my computer and it’s free (laughs). So like if I ever see something that I want to do I’ll try to recreate that image in my head. It’s always been a part of how I am, wanting something to be different, I guess you could say. I’m not very good at explaining this!

PS: The elements of the grotesque, I see, but the stuff you had at Frightmare. Like, Suspiria, uh, what is it, Stranger Things—how did you get into making those?

MN: Before I moved here, my friend Hope Harrell told me about Texas Frightmare Weekend, and how she’d gone there for as long as it’s been around, and she has been very, very involved in horror. And so I had been into horror and I liked horror, mainly like J-horror, like Tetsuo the Iron Man, and like Battle Royale. I don’t know if you can call that horror but it’s gross (laughs). She got me even more into the genre by focusing more on western horror, slasher films, and things of that nature. But I really, like, before going into TFW, I had to do a lot more research because I wasn’t really aware of what was going on in western horror as much as I was following stuff that was coming from Japan. I was already really obsessed with Stranger Things, so that print, not the one of the Demogorgon but the one of 11 and Will floating in the background, I felt I probably had the most fun doing that one because I was able to sort of translate my printmaking style to digital art. It started off kinda difficult because when you’re working with printmaking you have to work backwards. So you have to carve out what you DON’T want to be there. With digital art, you just have to make what’s supposed to be there, like a regular drawing. But sometimes you can go reverse. I haven’t tried this yet too, too much. I have experimented with it. But, like, just starting off with just a black background and then erasing everything, sorta like you would with printmaking. Making the stranger things print was just a whole lot of fun for me, and sort of getting a lot of my inspiration from like old movie psoters, old pulp fiction covers, stuff like that. I really drew a lot of my inspiration for the Stranger Things print from Vertigo. A lot of people actually got it, and that was a good feeling for me because people understood what I was trying to convey, which was really, really good.

PS: I like that you talk about your interest in J-horror because the Japanese have such a history of printmaking, and I really saw that in my favorite piece of yours is the Suspiria, and that looks very much like a Japanese style block print. Can you talk at all about the creative process behind that?

MN: Oh, sure! That one was a whole lot of fun to do because I feel like the Suspiria print gave me so much freedom to explore with color, with style, with my own style. Because whenever you watch Suspiria, it’s very vivid. Everything is super bright, and that’s what I love about it so much, because it’s a very beautiful, very visually beautiful film, and I wanted to sort of capture that in my own way using very bright colos. Whenever I use certain color palettes for a print or piece of art or anything like that I really like looking at other images and sort of deriving my color palette from those images. My color palettes are derived from Japanese print making. The color palette is usually white or cream, black, and red. And I love that sort of simplistic palette. But whenever I was doing the Suspiria one, it just left so much room for discovery, and it was just a really fun time, like, figuring out “Okay, how can I play with this color? I want her to be pink but how can I tone that pink down?” I feel like my Suspiria print actually got the most positive response out of all of them. It made me feel good and it made me feel super humble to have a lot of people come by and respect what I did and want to talk to me about it. Just because I had kinda been going through a lull of not really creating much, but when Hope had me come on to do the con with her as her artist that she was supporting, it really lit a fire under my ass and made me want to do good work that I appreciated and it just made me think about things even more and sort of calculate, okay, how am I going to make this a good image that people will like? Or that I will like personally? Because I am so, so hard on how my work looks, on how others will perceive my work, and I just feel like that’s common for, like, anyone doing anything creative. “How do I make myself better? How do I make work that’s interesting to a huge facet, multiple facets of different people?” But the Suspiria one I felt like was really a turning point for me, because, it was one of the last ones I did. But it was just really, really fun to work on.

PS: So what do you feel is next for you?

MN: That’s a good question. I’m wanting to put a lot of my focus into this comic that I’m going to be doing. I’ve had this idea for two years and I’ve never put a lot into it because I’ve either been in school or I’ve been trying to work my ass off at a job and be stable, but now that I live in Dallas I have a great job- thanks, Hope!—and I have all these good things going for me, and I can kind of tune into that because I have always drawn comics. Forever. I started out as a kid drawing things in a comic book style. And it just sort of led up to me doing comics in college, and if I ever post something to Facebook, Instagram, whatever, as a comic character, narrating something that happened to me that I thought was interesting or funny, people are like, “where is more of this? I want more.” I need to hone in on, you know, making comics again.

PS: Does it have a working title?

MN: Right now we’re calling it “Room Service.” I just pulled that out of my ass. It was a joke, I was like, “What if we called it ‘Room Service,’ ha ha ha?” She was like, “That’s awesome. That’s brilliant.” Really? Whatever. But then I thought about it, and it really is a fun title. It leaves room—haha, room—it leaves room for play-on-words, stuff like that. Keeping it fun.

PS: Any advice to aspiring artists?

MN: Oh, yes. I absolutely love talking to people about if they’re ever interested in even just starting art, if you’re in your 20s, your 30s, whatever, just do it. Just do it. It doesn’t matter how old you are. I seriously—I didn’t really get… good (laughs)... this style established until I was in college. I was drawing really crappy anime, really bad anime, really poor art in high school. But, if you keep working, and you keep striving to make yourself better, that’s the best thing you can do for yourself as an artist. Never stop practicing. Whenever people ask me for advice, I can talk your ear off for an hour. Because I love seeing people get involved in it. It’s very cathartic for me, so if it’s able to help someone with anxiety, depression, just do it. But when you’re starting out it’s going to be hard to separate yourself from comparing yourself to others. I’m really bad about that and I’ve been drawing my whole life. But just don’t compare yourself to others, but, draw inspiration and sources and research from other artists. I cannot stress this enough: Research. Look at life. Take pictures. I try to understand, okay, if I draw this, how does it relate to the negative space? And I feel like making shapes and sort of understanding how things work and how things look realistically can help you make your owns style that’s not realistic. But, seriously, I could talk about this for hours. I love talking about getting people into art, getting people to do their own thing. Like I said, it’s so cathartic for me, it could be so cathartic for you-- making something that you appreciate that you did creatively. There’s no better sensation than that, honestly.