Off-roads, missteps and moments of Light: Interview with writer, illustrator and strolling theorist David B. Metcalfe

Interview by Willi Paul

What is an alchemical and mythological element (i.e. – building block)? How can we implement these things in a story?

I think that an alchemical or mythological element is something that strikes a universal chord. In this I’m not speaking in a cliché, I think that these things actually sound something in us that brings us back to the full flow of reality. There is a long tradition of artists who have understood the act of creation as a ritual that mirrors the act of Creation; seeing the artistic process as a meditation and fulfillment of a process that helps us better understand the hidden relationships that surround us.

These elements or building blocks are the sign posts that helps us see this relationship. One of the things that makes pop music so ubiquitous is that it hits on certain specific images, ideas and relationships that hold true for our understanding. When I listen to R&B music I hear sacred songs that have been re-contextualized to fit a secular setting. There is a long tradition of sacred songs masked in secular language and I often find myself listening to pop songs in the same way. It seems to me that most genres are categorized by how they approach this process. There are some artists, usually found on the margins, who are able to knowingly complete the circle and reinvigorating the secular or popular forms by hitting at their sacred roots.

How do we implement this? It seems that at the most basic level it starts with the artist themselves. Each artist needs to find their place in the universal drama, the story that carries everything along. By struggling with this the artist finds the elements that can be put in place in their work. Their understanding of this process is what defines their art.

There is a form of meditation that moves up and down the levels of creation, from atom up to the unnamable. Basically I think that art becomes a reflection on what point in this meditation the artist is coming from. For artists who see the drama as mainly social, the process develops into social myths, political activism, this can move into reflections of a people, art that reflects longer struggles of a group.

An artist like Goethe is working on all levels of the ladder, or Dante, they are using secular stories to encompass universal ideas. Faust or the Divine Comedy can be seen as stories about individuals, about societies or about universal processes. This, to me, is the most complete form of artistic expression. Beyond this lies the domain of the Holy and those that enter there find their expression in existing within that.

Each part of a story can house alchemical or mythological elements if the artist is aware of these relationships. So a simple story about a mother can come to be a mediation on the creative principle of existence, a story about soldier can become a meditation on death, it all balances on how adept the artist is at conveying these universals through archetypes, characters and symbols.

When do you have a realistic (or final) idea of the illustration? Does it pop into you r brain or does this process take many iterations?

I never really come to a final idea for an illustration. My process is very fluid, or at least has been up to this point. Working with Terry and working on illustrations for others has required me to focus a bit more on creating pieces that have a predetermined subject and form.

It takes months to fully render an idea for me. I sketch and doodle constantly, little bits here and there and eventually, as time permits, I find these elements coalescing into a whole image. When I have to do something immediate I fall back on standard forms that I’ve already worked out. Within this process I might come up with a number of drawings that I’ll post, but to me these aren’t really finalized pieces. I’m fascinated by the ability to reuse elements of a drawing through digital copies; taking one drawing and either adding elements digitally or simply seeing how it changes depending on where it’s posted.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with illustrating reactions to something or someone I’ve encountered online. With real time communication I’ve been challenging myself by creating things that I can post quickly as part of a conversation. My collaborative work with the poet Zac Odinn has been a form or this, and I’ve been wanting to do more dedicated pieces for folks I’ve met and appreciate, or who’ve affected me.

I worked up for Lynn Chaikoan, a poet who runs a community website for Kickapoo Valley, Wisconsin. I had posted a sketchy sort of thing that I thought looked similar to one of Antonin Artaud’s later drawings so I titled it “Angel for Antonin“, Lynn responded to my post with a joking “What about an poetry ghost for Lynn…” so I figured, yeah, what about that and quickly sketched something out.

The way I’m working right now with illustration is based ideas of immediacy, co-creation and collaboration. A finalized version would be fully rendered and carefully measured, what I’ve been doing is sort of working with elements that would eventually find themselves in a finalized piece, but using digital means to give them context beyond just being sketches. It also works in collaborating with others who then add additional elements that move towards a more finalized whole.

With the original illustrations for The Eyeless Owl, the ones that lead to the first animations that Terry Hahin and I put together, I was interested in seeing how a drawing is given meaning by words and vice versa. Snipping a bit of copy from Forbes changes the meaning of a piece, and likewise what appears innocuous in a business publication can become strange and esoteric when put up against an evocative image.

Serendipity plays a big role in my artistic process. I work with found materials a lot, and try to use things that everyone would have on hand. So I use soy sauce, sharpie markers, white out, ball point pens, basically office supplies and raw material from around me.

Helping out with some communications stuff for Yony Leyser’s William S. Burrough’s documentary, A Man Within has given me the opportunity to look more critically at William S. Burroughs creative experiments. It’s also introduced me to other artists and caused me to look more attentively into process and craft.

What is the new animation? How do you vision pieces with Terry Hahin?

We’ve got a couple of projects going right now. They’d be going a bit faster if I wasn’t currently embroiled in a vicious spurt of computer trouble.

The first stuff we did was a revelation to me on this idea of digital contextualization. Seeing the drawings online changed how I viewed them, then seeing what Terry was able to do in making them move, adding sound elements and reinterpreting them, really opened up a lot of possibilities.

One of the things we’re interested in right now is translating live interviews into animations. We went to a bar and filmed some folks talking about their relationships with bars and cut the footage down to about 4 minutes. This was a test to work out a process and see how the live element translates into an animation.

While he and our friend Mike Hobart did the interviews and filming, I spent time talking to the folks that were already interviewed to get an idea about who they were that will hopefully translate into the drawings. I didn’t want it to be about drunks, I wanted it to be about people and how they relate to each other, and to me that means getting to know the people directly. We also included ourselves in the interviews, so we’re not sitting over the whole thing like puppet masters.

That experiment is going to lead in to an animated sequence for the Magazine’s Open Myth Source project. Once we’re comfortable with translating live video we’re going put it to work putting Willi Paul into the realm of animation!

For the first animations I already had the images and the words when a friend of mine offered me the opportunity to participate in the Chicago Fringe Artists Networking Night. Since my illustrations for The Eyeless Owl were done in a fairly raw style I wasn’t sure that tacking up a bunch of random drawings would be suitable for a gallery showing, at least not without some purpose behind it, and at the time I was preparing for the first TEDxNaperville so I didn’t have a lot of free mental space to figure something out.

Terry had worked on a test animation for an earlier Eyeless Owl sketch and I approached him with the idea of doing a longer piece. We figured about 5-8 minutes, but once we dug into the material we ended up with over 20 minutes of footage.

Our process was very open. Since I already had the illustrations I sent those to him and basically let him work. He used the text I’d included on the website as a starting point, but basically interpreted them as he saw fit. Since I was busy with TEDxNaperville and didn’t have a lot of time to commute out to where he was working, we worked separately. We met once to go over the initial rough edits and again at the end to listen to the rough edits with the music. When I saw the final animations it was a big surprise.

Sean Mills and Terry got together to record most of the music. Dominique Dupre and I did some Fruity Loops tracks that were included too, and Terry and I had done a bunch of sound samples and rhythmic samples using office supplies that ended up being used to tie it all together.

Terry’s professionalism adds a lot to the process. He’s very focused on planning it out, story boarding and all that. I’m much more haphazard about it.

Are heading back to being sun worshipers?

The sun is a potent symbol. Within the hieroglyphic monad, however, it is still secondary to the stage beyond light. Sun worship brings me in mind of the empires that came under the banner of a unified light. I hope we’re moving beyond that into a more complete understanding of unity.

Why should someone join TEDxNaperville? What values join the members there?

There is a history of technical innovation going back to the Manhattan Project in the Naperville area that hasn’t really been addressed. Both Argonne National Laboratories and FermiLab are nearby, and there are a number of major corporations that have their headquarters in Naperville. Arthur Zards, the curator for TEDxNaperville, created the Silicon Prairie Social to try and unite the suburban Chicago technology sector and this is a more refined opportunity to continue that vision.

At the first TEDxNaperville event we were fortunate to have speakers that included Charlie Catlett, the CIO of Argonne, Bryan Campen, from the LongNow Foundation, Robert Wolcott, from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and a number of other speakers who addressed topics like the slow food movement, climate change and the process of innovation. Moving forward we’re working on setting up smaller meet up groups and bringing even more to the next big event.

I’d say the thing that brings everyone together is the hope that our conversations, collaborations and through learning from each other we can work towards fostering a better society. There is definitely a sense of being students in all of this, each of us learning how to walk forward into a very questionable future. With the rapid changes taking place I think everyone is in a state of shock and looking for places where they can discuss and adapt to what is going on.

When Willi Paul speaks to the Sustainability Age, what comes up in your mind? This is 2010, right?

I envision people coming to an understanding of life that moves beyond abstract ideas. To me the Sustainability Age speaks to our need for personal responsibility, local solutions, immediate action and foresight into how our present decisions affect the future.

We’re currently living under too many abstract principles. When something like the Gulf oil spill happens and the immediate response isn’t one of responsibility there is something wrong, deeply wrong. Any society that is built on something that could lead to that kind of environmental damage is a broken society. Any society that in the face of that kind of tragedy reacts through the glassy eye of mass media with finger pointing, stale bullet points and offensive rhetoric is a broken society. When something like the Gulf oil spill can be used to further propaganda and abstract political maneuvering something has to be reassessed.

The Sustainability Age speaks to a time when we each take responsibility for our part in the community and environment, no longer relying on anything outside of cradle to cradle solutions to fix our problems.

How are the music interviews going for Alarm Magazine? Can your subjects explain the synergies between alchemy, mythology and rock music?

They’ve prompted me to start messing around with home recordings. It’s incredibly inspiring to talk to folks who are working with the medium of sound and sculpting with it. Doing these interviews has been a series of lessons for me.

I enjoy listening and learning from talented musicians. It helps me understand my drawings differently, sculpting, the whole creative process. Talking to Michael Gira, and spending a week or so researching his craft, was very revelatory.

There’s another piece I’m working on regarding the history of “Audible Color” that has been a crash course in music theory. I’ve gained a whole new understanding of sound and spoken with some interesting folks, including Bryan Michael (Alka) who provided the interview for Magazine on digital art and alchemy.

“Companies are encouraged to run through their “vision” and “mission” statements to make sure that they align the organizations’ goals with its operations. Every community has its own “vision” of itself. For communities to be fully sustainable, businesses need make sure their “vision” and “mission” statements are not only internally coherent, but also maintain coherence with the local and global community.”Parasite or Provider
Is cutting jobs, reducing community events and services a “vision” or just running scared?

It’s ridiculous and shows just how abstract our society’s economy has become. Things are no longer connected directly to the needs of the people living in the community. We have all sorts of abstract motivators that step in between us and the reality of how we are living.

Community events are necessary for people to feel a sense of place. They should represent the flavor of the community. Maybe its better that the budgets are being cut, because it will mean communities need to come together to create their own events. That’s where myth savvy artists are necessary, they need to come in and stir things up. Less hired bands, more local talent for festivals, business owners should host cultural events, it all needs to come directly from the community.

We should be offering each other services. If there’s a silver lining to the failure of the current social organization it’s that we’re all getting hard lessons in self reliance, cooperation and sustainability.

What is sacred to David?

Life is sacred, communication, the struggle to humble ourselves before existence and open ourselves to the straight path ahead. The off-roads are sacred, the missteps and moments of doubt.

* * * * * * *

David Metcalfe Bio –

Digital theorist, illustrator & writer David Metcalfe focuses on developing communication models that inspire connectivity and cultural relevance. As Connector for TEDxNaperville David is helping to coordinate and organize the first TEDx event in the Chicago Suburbs.

A number of electronic publications have featured David’s illustrations including The Absurdist Monthly Review, Down and Dirty Word, ThreatChaos, and David’s own e-journal, The Eyeless Owl. In February 2010, illustrations from The Eyeless Owl were used as the basis for a collaborative animation experiment featured at select venues in downtown Chicago.

David is Digital Media Coordinator for the critically acclaimed independent documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, Digital Media Coordinator for XNet Information Systems, hosts of the Silicon Prairie Social, the Chicago suburb’s premiere technology networking event, and a freelance writer for Alarm Magazine and Magazine.

Willi Paul, founder of Magazine, and David are currently developing the [ open myth source ] project, building a space for the exploration of mythology and alchemy in the 21st century.  [ open myth source ]  hosts interviews, essays, articles and artistic expressions that reignite the nurturing  fires of myth and alchemy, guiding us into an age of greater sustainability.

Connections –

David Metcalfe
Davidbmetcalfe at


About [ open myth source ]

The [open myth source] project gathers conversations, symbols, songs, visual art and stories. Building a house for Myth in the Sustainability Age.
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