You might have seen Kirk Demarais’ work on your birthday card, at the toy store, or in the book Life of the Party: A Visual History of S.S. Adams Company, Makers of Pranks and Magic. He is a painter, filmmaker, writer, a jokester and more.
Catherine Orchard: The range of your work is quite wide—packaging your own toy products, signage in movies, the Life of the Party book, electronic greeting cards! Can you talk a little about various projects and how you divide your time?
Kirk Demerais: [Just to clarify on the question, those toy products themselves weren't my own, just the packaging. The pranks and magic tricks were made by the S.S. Adams company, and the "bobble head" was produced by FunKo based on the short film I helped make.]
My creative life has been the product of a domino effect that started when I tore down my satellite dish and forced myself to learn Photoshop and how to build a web site. (My Psychology degree didn’t equip me with these skills.) I filled my site, Secret Fun Spot, with stuff that inspires me like old toys and novelties, spooky things, roadside attractions, and mid-century graphics, along with my own artwork. At the time I didn’t realize I was drawing up a blueprint for my career.
The existence of my web page helped earn me a job as an animated e-card designer for
DaySpring, a subsidiary of Hallmark that caters to Christians. I was there for nearly a decade and while the work was meaningful and reflected my own spirituality, when I was off the clock I continued to create based on my more frivolous interests.
When I learned how to use the program Flash to animate e-cards I applied the know-how to my own site and made some crude web cartoons. About that time some friends and I discovered that we all shared a filmmaking dream and one of my web-toons provided a story for us. Our film is about a boy named Flip who lives in the 1960s and tries to determine the perfect mail order novelty to spend his birthday money on. The cheap products that were peddled in comic book ads is a theme that has saturated my work.
A lot of the pranks and magic tricks that were hawked in comic books were produced by a company called S.S. Adams, so ever since childhood I’ve been an Adams loyalist. I realize most young people don’t care who manufactures their fake vomit but I understood that Adams pioneered the commercial prank and magic industry by inventing classics like the Joy Buzzer and the old snake in the can gag. I thought the owner of Adams might appreciate the film that my friends and I made so I sent Flip to him. Surprisingly, the DVD cover I’d designed caught his attention and soon I became their sole freelance designer. I gave their packaging its first update in nearly thirty years. This was literally a dream come true; I was drawing my own prank catalogs when I was eight.
So in just a few years I had ping-ponged from web to e-cards to film to package and catalog design; the next thing was a book. When the Adams company turned 100 they asked me if I’d like to create a 200 page visual history book from scratch. I enthusiastically accepted and found myself blissfully rummaging through the company’s century-old archives. Life of the Party as it’s called, has connected me to several of my cultural heroes including graphic novelist Chris Ware who volunteered to write the foreword (after my arch enemy, magician David Copperfield slithered out of the job.) The book was also used as a reference by the art directors of the 2007 version of the movie Hairspray, and one of my illustrations was even used in the set design.
Secret Fun Spot and Flip also caught the eye of Mike Becker who founded the world’s greatest bobble head company, FunKo. He invited me to co-create a film with him, which turned out to be Foot, an animated short about Bigfoot, which was packaged alongside a Sasquatch Wacky Wobbler. This was another tremendous thrill because I was an avid collector of Mike’s products.
When a break between projects finally came I started to realize how much I missed one of my earliest passions: good ol’ drawing. Right about that time I saw an art show that was put on by Gallery 1988 in L.A. in which every piece was inspired by movies with cult followings, and I noticed that many of the films were among my very favorites. I wanted to be a part of the show so badly that I created two colored pencil pieces on spec. My concept was to place fictitious film families in the context of Olan Mills style family portraits. I accosted the gallery owner with my work and miraculously, he let me in the show. The idea was well received and the series continues to grow.
Working in a variety of formats has come naturally, although I’m not sure that it’s such a great practice career-wise. Given that we humans are so into categorizing, I think I disappoint a lot of folks who track down my work based on one particular project, only to find a hodge podge of creations. I often wish that I had multiple lifetimes so that I could dedicate each one to actually mastering something, but this short life makes a dabbler out of me.
CO: How do you land on solid greeting card ideas? It seems like many could be a tough sell. Do you have any unpublished gems you wish had been approved?
KD: The paper cards that are sold in stores have a rigorous approval process. I was occasionally involved with that, but most of my work went straight on the web site. Since the investment and risk was much less in the digital realm I had tons of freedom to come up with my own concepts. But the truth is, most of the time I ended up choosing to adapt existing paper cards for two reasons: 1. I could utilize product that had already proven itself in the marketplace and 2. I could save my creative energy for the fun stuff.
I did learn that in the case of DaySpring the key to a best selling/sending card is the message. They have an editorial team that’s great at what they do, so I knew that my best bet was to build off of what they started. The customers would buy an ugly card if it says what they want to express, but nice looking art isn’t a sure sell. Of course the ideal is to have both.
CO: The common denominator in your work seems to be humor. What do you find funny?
KD: Given that this has been the world’s driest interview it seems strange to proclaim my raging sense of humor now, but yes, I do love funny. Most of my daily laughs come from my hilarious five-year-old, and that’s not just bias, he can slay most anyone. Here are some of my secondary laugh providers…
WFMU’s The Best Show with Tom Scharpling
Internet nonsense from sites like Reddit, Fail Blog, Funny Or Die, and Everything Is Terrible
People like (but not limited to) Paul F. Tompkins, Steve Martin, Kristen Wiig, Andy Kaufman, Christopher Guest and co., Andy Samberg, and Alec Sulkin’s twitter feed (@thesulk)
Sketch comedy i.e. SNL, Human Giant, and Mr. Show
Comfort television like The Office, The Simpsons, and Seinfeld
And of course I will always love novelty items, the current masters are Archie McPhee of Seattle.
CO: If I understand correctly, secretfunspot.com is an archive of bizarre ephemera, “retro-culture galleries.” What’s the criteria to be included?
KD: The idea was to showcase just about anything that I like to surround myself with and be my own dream client with no regard for a marketing department and no worries that a lot of people hate sites made in Flash. As I said it was one of my first pet projects, and truth be told I haven’t touched it in about six years. The thing is, sites like Flickr have made my one-man web gallery concept obsolete, but I let the Fun Spot sit there on the web where folks can still discover it.
CO: Any new projects you’re looking forward to?
KD: I’m currently working on a book that reveals what actually arrived in the mail when kids ordered things like X-Ray Spex, 100 toy soldiers for a dollar, and giant remote control ghosts out of comic books. (Yes, I’m going back to that well.) It’s slated to be in stores in Fall of 2011.