If you’ve ever felt like you’re being watched even when you’re alone in a room of inanimate objects, you’re not alone. Blake Jones, Chicago-based muralist, illustrator, and champion doodler, finds faces everywhere. In the world he creates, pencils have eyes, houses smile, coffee cups make faces, bunnies, cats, and scoops of ice cream all have unique personalities. It’s a magical—and goofy—landscape, when just about everything is alive and even organic shapes smirk with bugged-eyed expressions.
Blake has been a lifelong doodler, taking a sketchbook with him no matter where he goes. His art has popped up all over Chicago in the last few years as his distinct style makes for memorable and surprising murals. But why the drive to give life to everyday objects? We connected with Blake before his art show at All Star Press to try and see the world through his character-creating eyes. Find out what inspires his strange, playful designs and more.
Your design style is colorful, strange, and surprising, but also free-form and organic. Have you always been a drawer? What are your earliest memories of creating and what kind of art did you make then?
As far as I can remember, and I think my parents will begrudgingly agree, I’ve always been into just “making things” whether it’s drawing, painting, making puppets, or just gluing random toys together. I’ve always just made things and tried to never slow down. As for memories, one of the earliest I can remember pretty vividly is getting a Bugs Bunny plush from the movie Space Jam from McDonald’s and looking at it and drawing a few hundred times and trying to sell the drawings at school and getting in trouble for taking kids’ lunch money in exchange for these terrible 8 year old drawings.
You’re originally from Houston, Texas. How has your style changed since moving to Chicago? Any noticeable shifts maybe from the city vibes or neighborhood you’re living in?
Since moving from Houston, I don’t even think I’ve really noticed a stylistic change in my work but I know I’ve got more well rounded and noticeably sharper in areas. I think the biggest thing that brought this on was moving here and noticing how much just actual work the other artists in the city put out. There’s CRAZY talent in both places but there seems to be more competition in Chicago. I’ve always considered myself a hard worker in that aspect but coming here really knocked me on my ass and got me to switch into some different gears.
You’ve drawn and painted some crazy cool murals in a variety of interesting locations (a restroom in Threadless’ new HQ being just one of them). Do you have a favorite? What’s the most challenging location and what was hard about it?
Honestly, every mural I end up doing becomes my favorite until the next one because with every wall I paint, I learn a little something new. Like, ok this does this, this paint acts like this. I can use this thing to do this. Some have spots where I think I technically did better or made less mistakes but I think it’s just best to apply that lesson to the next one.
As for challenging spots, the first mural I ever did is easily the most frustrating one. It was for a bookstore called Brazos Books down in Houston. We had the idea of painting on the outside of the window, but they needed to be able to take if off the glass in a few months. So my dumbass goes and buys Tempra (hey, Tempra is temporary right?) and I sit there for 2 straight days painting these 2 ft x 8 ft windows for it to storm for 2 straight days. Well yes, the whole mural basically washed away. So I go back, repaint the whole thing with acrylics. It storms again like 3 ft of water to where I can see a water line on the windows. Well even acrylics don’t react that well to that weather. Not only does it wash away again, but water gets in between the paint and the window, so I have water balloons hanging off the window. The next day or two razor blading the paint off and finally repainting the whole thing for the third time. It wasn’t even remotely fun.
What’s your process look like for designing and executing a mural? How does such a large format alter the topic or art overall?
So really I’m at a point where I’m pretty comfortable with doing digital mockups, drawing on top of a photo etc. and conversing with the client. It’s actually very rare that I use a projector or any type of transfer because the idea of freestyling it is so much better of a skill to develop to me. As for scale, I can definitely mess up sometimes.
You’ve worked with a bunch of commercial clients. What’s one of your favorite commissioned projects?
I would say one my favorite all-time projects was a skateboarding event I did with Mountain Dew x Green Label. They basically had me design like 10 stickers, all revolving around goofy creatures and skateboarding. The goal was also to design some of the stickers to have blank areas, so people could customize them. The whole event ended up being a blast with Mountain Dew renting out a skatepark and giving me a tent where hundreds of kids came to grab free stickers, make their own, and slap them directly onto their helmets and boards. Such a cool event for the community and it showed kids how to really get into a DIY spirit.
The title for your solo show at All Star Press on September 28 is “Inanimate.” What inspires you to bring life to otherwise inanimate objects with your art?
So the actual idea for the show was created by the owner of All Star Press Zissou. He thought of this idea and we kinda pitched it back and forth—it kind of became this whole mythos of my characters coming to life and invading the gallery. There’s also a whole section of the exhibit that features collabs with some of my favorite Chicago artists, which just pushes harder into the idea of what would happen if my team started peeking and crawling into these other artists’ worlds and seeing what would happen. It also let me really play and explore new ideas and styles, and grow to be versatile, just by something as simple as me trying to seamlessly blend my world with another artist’s world.
What room in your house has the most personality? What objects inhabit it and what do they remind you of?
Honestly, my whole house is basically a shrine to everything I love. I get pretty obsessive about certain artists and even friends’ artwork. Every single wall has stuff on it. Hundreds of toys on display, even a few toys and paintings sitting above my toilet.
Of your many bug-eyed inanimate, animal, or human characters, do you have a favorite?
I used to be super gung ho about creating like 4–5 new characters every day because I think I was just unfocused and kind of had artist ADD and didn’t want to repeat myself, but as of lately, I’ve really been crafting a few repeat characters and changing them every now and then, letting them evolve on their own. My main guy right now is this bunny character I’ve been repeating in a lot of ways on stuff. Toys, shirts, drawings, hats, etc. This character is like stuck in my brain and just kind of flowing with me. Sometimes, it’s mean looking or sad or goofy as hell, sometimes it’s pink, blue, green, whatever. It’s all the same guy/girl just changing and flowing.
On any given day, what does your artistic process look like? How do you decide what form your work will take for the day? Do you find yourself moving across projects, or deep diving into one pursuit for extended periods of time?
I’m very much a person that likes to constantly stay busy ALL the time. I go really stir crazy without a few projects to work on. While paint’s drying, I’m drawing this thing or while waiting for an email reply, I’m writing notes and mocking up ideas for this. I’m a constant mess.
How do you balance what inspires your art and what you feel drawn to create?
Really, I like kind of trying everything. I can see something that is 100,000% not my style, but if it’s interesting looking or even created in an interesting way, I just wanna do it and apply my style to it. It has definitely led to interesting things and processes I never saw my self fitting into—sculpture, 3D work, designing stuff in virtual reality, giant woodcuts, and even murals. I never saw MY work fitting onto the side of a building, but once I saw other artists like Barry McGee and Swoon doing it, I was like, “OK, how do I do this, I want this.”
What do you do to refresh your artistic passion when you’re not feeling inspired?
The best thing, I think, to refresh myself is to do two things. One is to go see new art in person. There’s something so enlightening about seeing stuff in person rather than on a small screen. Seeing textures, lines, angles—everything—seeing people’s strengths and even imperfections is so inspiring to me. The other thing is really just learning to take breaks from stuff. Take a few breathes, take a vacation, take a few days off, learn to relax (which I’m admittedly terribly at) and re-energize.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming artists?
SHOVE YOUR WORK DOWN PEOPLE’S THROATS. People aren’t going to knock on your door and ask to see it—you need to shove it into people’s faces. Do graffiti, do gallery shows, do murals, post online. Go to where people are and show them your stuff. Yes, it’s annoying, and yeah, some people won’t like your stuff, but that’s kind of the game. SHOVE IT DOWN PEOPLE’S THROATS. Also, just be nice to other artists.
Describe your perfect Chicago day (include any notable features, people, tastes, or smells that make it special).
Honestly, I like waking up early, going downtown or close to the water and just enjoying the noise of the city. Any day I get to go to the beach or to the noise and just hear, smell, and eat snacks—pretty much anything without doing art is the best thing for me sometimes. :D