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COMING SOON.
Sy Blake
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Can you tell me a bit about the work you make?

For my day job, I work for a studio doing kid’s animation - currently I’m working on a new show for Netflix. Then for my own personal work, I make stylized characters - you can see a lot of them on my Instagram. The main themes of my work center around diversity and inclusion. Other themes are sci-fi, futurism, portraiture… yeah, I guess that kind of encapsulates what I do.

How did you get into what you’re doing now?

I’ve always, always been into creative stuff. When I was younger, I was adamant that I would be an artist. To me “artist” just encapsulated everything, and I could do whatever. Then it changed to architect. Then I went to school to study product design because I thought that was what I wanted to do. And then that kind of merged into what I do now.

Initially, my passion for comics and the Marvel universe got me into rendering images of Storm from the X-men (she’s my favourite Marvel character). I started modelling her because I didn’t see her represented in the way that I wanted to see her, do you know what I mean? It was kind of like a childhood fantasy that I wanted to fulfill. So, I was making images of her that I really liked, how I wanted to see her represented, and that was in 3D. Then from that it kind of went on to other characters, and when I realized that I could do this thing, I kept doing it. And that kind of just led me down this path of creating characters digitally, and I started posting on Instagram more frequently, and people were seeing my work and being really encouraging and leaving really positive comments and what not. A particular studio that one of my friends was working at reached out to me, and eventually I applied for a job at that studio and I got it. That was my first studio job and that’s where I’ve been ever since. The career part kind of just took over. I had no plan, no intention, it was literally just that I enjoyed doing this thing and—boom, boom, boom—it just happened. I’ve been working in animation now for just over three years.

Were you at all taken aback when you realized that you could be paid for the kind of work you were making?

Yeah, honestly. Growing up in the way that I grew up and where I grew up, I didn’t connect the dots. I’d loved animation, I’d loved cartoons, I’d loved any kind of digital art, but I didn’t know that there was somebody behind the scenes getting paid to create all of it. So that’s one of my biggest things–trying to express that to other people like, “Hey, there’s this career that you can actually jump into and create your own version of whatever it is that you want to see.” Once I connected those dots, I was like, “This exists, cool, I’m going to do it”. Obviously being able to get paid for something that you thoroughly enjoy is the goal for most people, so the fact that I get to do that every day, perfect…

Tell me about your experience at art school.

I went to Central St. Martins, where I did a Bachelors of Product Design. I actually don’t remember much about the experience, I did feel very isolated at the time because, number one, there wasn’t much diversity in terms of Black students, there were only three of us, and we made friends automatically obviously. But other than that, it was predominantly white students and international Asian students. So, a lot of the time I didn’t really connect with a lot of people in university, so it felt very isolating, but that was where I found a passion for digital creation, and yeah that’s where it started.

What’s your process?

I really just come up with an idea or I have an idea in my head, and I jump straight into the computer. I don't do any preliminary sketches, I just kind of go with a base idea, and then it grows and develops over time. A lot of the time, the ideas take me a long time to get to the final—each one changes from point one to point two, and point two to point three, etc.—each one really goes through so many different changes.

But it’s all digital.

All digital, yeah.

Has it always been like that?

Yeah, because I can’t draw (laughs). A lot of people don’t believe me when I say I can’t draw.

What motivates you to make your work? Where do you draw inspiration from?

Its’ really that I am creating something that I don’t see enough of. So, it’s more out of a necessity than it is solely for a desire. So yeah, because, when I look at Pixar movies (Pixar is a good reference because it’s kind of where I fell in love with 3D work), and I look at the characters, there is kind of like a generic-ness to the characters. There is a bit of diversity, but not in the way that I would like to see it. One of the best bits of advice that I got was “Be the change that you want to see,” so I was kind of just like “Okay, well, I’m going to create a character in kind of like a Pixar-esque world, but in a way that I would like to see them,” so that’s what drives me and motivates me. As long as I don’t see it, I’m like “Okay, I’m going to do it”.

Do you feel like animation has gotten more diverse or progressive?

For sure. Some of the cartoons and animation that’s out now, I don’t think I would have ever dreamed of seeing them when I was a kid. It’s such a cliché, but we still have a long way to go. I want to see a queer character on the screen that literally comes out and says “I am queer” in those words, do you know what I mean? Not just alluding to it, but actually saying it.

I’ve heard there are a lot more queer kids cartoons these days.

There are. Absolutely, there are. Steven Universe is one that I can definitely reference in terms of how they pushed the needle, like super, super far. But again, I think at the time it was able to just allude to and suggest certain things without actually saying them, and while there is a power in that, I think there’s also a power in just saying “I am queer I am here” do you know what I mean?

Yeah, especially if that hasn’t been done before.

Yeah exactly. So, I think once we get to that stage, that’s when I’m going to be able to sit back and be like, “We’ve arrived,” you know?

100%.
What’s your most important artist tool or something you couldn’t live without in your work?

I guess I would have to say my imagination. My imagination first, and then it would be the software. I think that’s where it always starts though, with imagination, and that can be inspired by a bunch of different things – just the way you live your life, walking down the street, whatever. Physically, like the technical aspect would be my computer. Even my sketches are always digital. I’m such a millennial in that I really embrace digital technology. I’ll rough out an idea on my iPad and then go onto using my computer. So, everything is literally digital based from beginning to end.

Can you describe a bit about how your practice has changed over time?

I think I’ve gotten a bit more definitive in my process, number one, and also what I want to say in my work. In the beginning, I more just went with what I thought looked cool, and I still have an element of that, and I think there’s still definitely space for that, but at the same time, I do kind of feel like I’m growing into a bit more of my own process in terms of technology, and how I explore things like lighting, texture, and mood in my pieces. The latest piece I did was inspired by the Alvin Ailey documentary that I went to go and see. I was sitting in the theatre and snapping pictures with my phone for different moods and different vibes or whatever. So yeah, it can come from anywhere, but being able to kind of capture those moments and then translate them into a piece is really kind of the basis of the process that I go through. So yeah, it’s changed in terms of how I’m inspired, and how I refine that into what it is that I put out.

"I find that my best pieces come from really natural kind of influences - places that I didn’t expect."
How did lockdown affect your practice?

Lockdown allowed me more time to explore physically creating stuff, not just digitally. I bought myself a 3D printer, and it meant that I could create something digitally, 3D print it, go through the process of sanding it and refining it and all that kind of stuff. That definitely changed the way that I see things and the way that I work. Holding something physically and seeing it digitally really changes the relationship you have with it. If something is going to be 3D printed, the decisions that I make will be slightly different from if it’s going to be just digitally based. I might want to enhance a crease, or make something a little bit sharper so you get a nice light hitting it when you turn it around in your hand, etc. Also, it gave me more time to really think about what I’m doing. Obviously, I spent a lot more time at home, so I spent a lot more time just thinking about my process and thinking about how I can refine things. So, I take a lot longer now to create a piece than I did before.

Are you working on any personal projects right now outside of what you’re doing at your day job?

Yeah, for sure. As soon as I finish my day job, I’m like straight onto my freelance stuff. But I think it’s out of necessity. Like in my day job, I’m getting paid specifically to create characters that I may not necessarily have a deep connection to, whereas in my own personal work, I’m the inception of these ideas, so there’s another kind of connection that I have with these characters. So I feel like it’s a need—I have to get these things out. And then, with the freelance work that I do take on, I only take on stuff that I have a connection with. So, the projects that I’m working on now are either with someone who I very much respect, or their creation is just absolutely perfect and I’m like “I have to be the person to do this” do you know what I mean?

Can you tell me a bit about any of the freelance stuff you’re working on right now?

Yeah, so everything that I’m working on right now is going to end up as a physical product, so I’ve worked with a guy called Freddy Carrasco in the past, and I’m working on something else with him now - it’s a collaboration with Felt USA, which is a company in the US that does clothing and they’re kind of branching into collectibles now, so we’re working on something for that, and that’s super, super exciting. And then I have something that I’m working on personally which is just for me, like an idea that I’ve had, and that’s going to be my first line of toys that is my own.

Amazing, I can’t wait to see them! Where can we find them when they launch?

I’ll definitely announce it through Instagram.

Do you have a piece that you felt was a turning point in your work?

I would actually say my last two pieces were that for me. There was a difference in the process, I took a lot longer with them, I was a bit clearer on what I wanted to say or show or express, and they both came from very random sources of inspiration. The last piece I did, as I mentioned before was the Ailey piece and that came from watching the Ailey documentary. The piece before that was a centaur woman and that came from a dream. I find that my best pieces come from really natural kind of influences - places that I didn’t expect. Sometimes I’ll see something and think “I want to create a version of that” but those pieces don’t end up being as strong. But when it comes from a very natural place, I find that those are the pieces that tend to give me the end result that I’m looking for. I’m still figuring stuff out as I go along though. I don’t think as an artist, I’m ever going to achieve “there” so figuring out what my inspirations are and what works best for my creativity is still something that I’m working through.

It sounds like you’re already doing a lot of dream projects, but do you have a specific dream project that you’d like to do in future?

Yeah, I am doing a lot of my dream projects for sure, but, I’m a big dreamer… Any kind of way that I can get my characters animated. Doing a feature length would be an absolute dream, I think that’s a dream that’s far down the road because there’s a lot that I want to explore before I get there. But, definitely that’s one. I’ve also started on another dream project already which is a short that I’m working on with a friend of mine, based on West African folklore. It’s the story of Anansi, a character in West African folklore which is translated to the Caribbean character Anansi. So, that’s something I definitely want to breathe life into. That’s definitely one of my dream projects. And then a bunch of other stuff—definitely animation, seeing my characters animated with stories that I want to tell.

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