Milan Jaram is an artist specializing in alternative, SF, and surreal illustration. His work has appeared on the covers of Plasma Frequency, Bastion, Episodic Content, and anthologies by David Kristoph. He provided art for this week's story, "By Degrees and Dilatory Time" by S. L. Huang. His portfolio can be found at milanjaram.com. This interview was conducted by email in April 2015.
Tory Hoke: Your realistic Muppets went viral last year. How was that experience?
Milan Jaram: I would often post new works to Reddit just to keep some traffic flow to my site; I never went viral before but I have found commissioned work this way. I submitted first my “Bert and Ernie,” which reached the front page (in Reddit terms, making front page exposes you to millions of people for a few days. Where it goes after that, who knows?). This motivated me to continue on with all the other Muppets. So I finished a few more, around five or six. I submitted to Reddit and got another front page post. Finally, a week or two later I finished twelve of my favorite Muppets and posted that—again, front page. I'm glad they were well received. Lots of my personal (not for payment) work hardly gets an audience.
I found some articles, saw myself on my Facebook feed, and lots of other mentions. Some of the original imgur links have well over one million views. It was fun to get that attention, as I am usually quite an introvert. This experience prompted me to move from my Tumblr website to something more professional.
Tory Hoke: That makes sense. Your current website must have been quite a leap from Tumblr!
Milan Jaram: It was pretty easy, and there are some similarities actually. My ultimate goal was to have the art easily viewable with no extra clicks.
Tory Hoke: You work in a variety of styles and media—including polymer clay. On a new project, how do you choose which approach to take?
Milan Jaram: For personal projects (like my Muppets, some other sculptures I've done, and so on) it really depends on my mood. I have gone years without touching clay, and I have gone months without painting on canvas. Much like "writer's block," we artists get it too. Then suddenly one day I will wake up with this amazing idea, whether it be clay or paint or digital, and spend days, weeks, or months until I've completed it. For nothing but personal gain. There are obstacles where I will be unhappy with it and leave it for days or weeks and come back to it. When I have completed it, I get an amazing feeling of accomplishment—even though there are no deadlines or numbers attached to it.
Tory Hoke: Is that feeling of accomplishment what spurs you on?
Milan Jaram: Yes, exactly. The problem is knowing when to stop. The Muppets started as Bert and Ernie but the feedback was overwhelming. I could still keep going, and I just might one day!
Tory Hoke: What's your process for a new project?
Milan Jaram: For personal projects, I'm not sure, but the ideas usually come early in the morning. I mean, I get ideas all the time, but certain ones will just stick and linger. At that point I will often sketch them out until I've gotten it close to how I pictured it. From there it is just refining details and moving colors around until I'm happy with it.
The process for paid projects is a little different. There is some back and forth between myself and my client, but I will not commit to a project unless I have near full creative freedom. Doing it this way brings me joy while I work, and I am not hampered by little details or trying to achieve something in a very specific format. That is when "work" isn't "fun" anymore, and I like to keep my hobbies fun. I like to be expressive in my work and put an unusual twist to things.
Tory Hoke: Like your Muppets, and your reinvented fairy tale “Ms. White”? The sneeze face you gave Sneezy is unforgettable.
Milan Jaram: I wanted to take something we all connected to our youth and bring them to a more gritty, R-rated dimension. These were results of that, and I've got some more childhood memories I'd like to tarnish in the future.
Tory Hoke: I got a kick out of your streetwear designs on RAGEON. What attracted you to design for clothing? What are the challenges?
Milan Jaram: RAGEON reached out to me, actually, because they saw the Muppets on Reddit and they offered me my own brand with their shirt store. Having my own brand meant that I got paid better than the one-timey artists. The idea was to make a clothing lineup of the Muppets I did. RAGEON clothing is full print (front, back, side to side and seam to seam, much different than other T-shirt places).
The Muppets didn't sell well at all, so we tried some other things; I tapped into the culture of their following and catered to a lot of fan requests. I have full creative freedom there, and being a niche market I can be really expressive, zany, or twisted with the designs. If they sell, good. If not . . . I don't lose anything 🙂
As for challenges, mostly getting a design that is a "hit." We have thousands of followers on Facebook and Instagram which are both updated with new designs. You can sorta gauge how well something will do by how many likes/favorites it gets. What I do have on my store is actually what sells. There are dozens of other designs buried for nobody ever to see!
Tory Hoke: What other artists inspire or interest you
Milan Jaram: Oh, where to begin? I am inspired and love Frank Frazetta—a famous old SF/fantasy artist who had some serious talent with oil paint. There is no undo button with canvas and real oils, but he always made such masterpieces. Using little reference as most of his works were aliens, mermaids, and mythical beasts. He could literally paint his dreams into life.
My other favorite artist would be someone not that well known named Eli Stone. I had the pleasure of working with him in the late '90s. He was the creator of the New England Comics The Tick which is, if anyone has read it before, hilarious and over the top with amazing art.
And finally, Tim Burton. While some of his movies were hit or miss, I was more inspired by his set pieces and use of costumes/colors, and of course his insane, original, and creative material.
Tory Hoke: What would you like to see more of in contemporary spec-fic art?
Milan Jaram: I would love to see more retro-futurism. I have begun studying some methods that some of the older artists used—mainly on old B movie posters and marketing material in the old days. It always had this grainy but clean look to it. Since it is such an old art form, it rarely exists anymore—and rather than watch it die, I would love to revive it in any way that I can.
Tory Hoke: What posters would you say are stars of the form?
Milan Jaram: Mostly these come from classic '50s, '60s and '70s SF movie posters, such as Barbarella, The Brain That Wouldn't Die, Children of the Damned, The Day the Earth Stood Still. These are just a tiny handful of a plethora of gems out there, often overlooked due to their age.
Tory Hoke: What's your dream project?
Milan Jaram: My dream project would have to be a creative director of sorts. I'd like to oversee an entire department of like-minded creative folk and bring something to life. Whether it is some sort of artist collaboration, a movie, a game, it doesn't matter. I have 15 years of senior management experience in a heavy corporate environment, and my art experience. Combining those two would be an amazing feat and the perfect "dream" project.
Tory Hoke: What's next for you?
Milan Jaram: Next for me? Well, I currently have a few book covers on the go, a serialized magazine and even just starting some cute illustrations for a children's book featuring a pygmy hippo. I don't have any plans with my artistic ability, as long as I am always creating.
I think of it like a chef who cooks. I don't make my art for myself (aside from the sense of accomplishment) but I love to hear what people say when they see it. If I made something awesome and nobody saw it, there is some kind of sadness to that. Like a chef who made his best meal but nobody was around to taste it.
Tory Hoke: I completely understand. Keep cooking. May your restaurant bring you a line down the street! Thank you for your work and your time today, Milan.
Milan Jaram: Thanks for the kind words, and I look forward to all the ongoing issues of Strange Horizons.