Brutally dark and unapologetically twisted; Crack delves into the mind of Richard ‘French’ Sayer.
The ABOUT section of Funeral French’s website describes him as ‘a fellow of many contradictions’. The very fact that this, a section where most artists would indulge in a spot of creative self- fashioning, was written by a third party (his trusted colleague Joe Allen) is the first example of the intriguing conflicts presented by both French and his work.
Through our conversations with him, French has revealed his creative process to be a singularly personal one and yet the finished products are able to be plastered across high street shopping bags. Over the years French has produced work for, amongst many others, Uniqlo, Vans, Real Skateboard and Mishka, as well as his own company Witchcraft Skateboards, started with some friends. He vehemently rejects an overly analytical view of his work and sees a clear distinction between fine art and the art that he makes in the ‘real world’. The highly detailed and incredibly skillful images he produces for both commercial briefs and gallery exhibitions, sit alongside large-scale installation and A/V pieces to make up a diverse, sprawling, impressive body of work.
The characters of French’s works are sometimes blackly humorous, sometimes hauntingly chilling, all recognisably figured in his distinctive style and specifically a part of his world. This is a world imbued with a very real notion of violence, as seen growing up in an army town, combined with the jocular violence of your skating buddies and, of course, the more posturing menace of metal bands of the 80s and 90s. French’s drawings are at once intensely private and yet vitally part of a clear collective identity, and it is this that perhaps explains his worldwide appeal. You can imagine the direct, no-bullshit attitude he applies to his work being the same one that drove the ten year-old version of himself to practice kick flips on the curb for hours until he mastered them. It’s this attitude that has garnered him recognition and respect from his peers and fuels the creation of work covering skateboards from Australia to Aldershot.
Your drawings are painstakingly detailed. How long do you spend making pieces?
How long’s a piece of string? It really depends on the detail, size and when it’s needed.
Do you see your process of making your works as cathartic?
Not really, it’s just fun to draw and listen to music.
How did you develop your style?
I drew all the time, new and different things, and gradually it developed. It was more of an organic thing than a planned response.
In regarding your current practice, do you still refer back to your study of Fine Art? Do you feel like that study gave you a solid grounding and understanding of what you now do?
Yeah, sort of. I studied Fine Art, so I guess I approach illustration from an angle that’s more ‘art for art’s sake’. But it’s no way as conceptual as the stuff I had to make at uni, and I’d like to think I’ve developed my skills greatly since 2002. I can see that in my work and style of working. Study was good for me – it meant I got three years to spend making work – but it taught me fuck all about the real world of making art for people or companies, how to sell it or charge people to make it. I think I should have studied a course more directed at illustration, but it worked out pretty good.
How do you think the transition from free hand drawing to computer graphic work will impact on your practice in the future?
Computers are tools, like pen and ink are tools. So they are a positive help when developing work. But I’ll always draw the whole thing in pen, pencil and ink, especially when it’s for personal work.
Deep down, would you love to actually be up onstage in a metal band, or do you enjoy feeding off the music and the imagery to make art rather than actually making music yourself?
I wouldn’t want to be in a band; for a start you have to deal with, like, two to four other people’s shit and try and organise them to play. There seems to be a lot of politics in bands. I’d rather just listen to what I’d like and draw pictures.
Things like the Satanist shrine in your Sydney show and the wooden shack in Melbourne; do you have fun creating these installations, and is the idea to create a bit of context for your work? Along with the larger scale works on the wall, do you think they help make a French exhibition more of an immersive experience?
I just really want to use the space the best I can. When I got the Backwoods gallery in Melbourne I’d intended to build a small shack or church, but the ceiling was so high I decided it would be way radder to make it 13 feet tall. These things are just an extension of my drawing practice. I guess I do want people to feel like they’re inside one of my drawings, or in my world a bit more than they would from just looking at my work. It started cause I made one shed / church in my studio as part of a project for Scion, and it worked so well that I wanted to extend that further. It’s just not very often that I get a space the size of a gallery to work with. I guess that’s part of being a visual artist, that you want to make things a little different and extend and develop your work. Drawing will always be my main focus, but at every chance I’ll make it a little different. I would have built something at the show in London (the recent Let Us Prey exhibition at Beach London), but we just didn’t have the space. I guess the larger drawings on the wall are just trying to break it all up a little and give a more powerful effect to the drawings. It’s definitely fun to make a massive drawing from one that was originally A5.
Do you have links out in Australia? Are there any differences in reception to your work in that part of the world?
Joe Allen, who runs a project gallery called Gallery AS, pretty much hooks me up with shows and work out there. He used to run the Monster Children Gallery and we’ve worked together on loads of different projects. I think I’ve been out there four or five times due to Joe organising or involving me in projects. We even managed to have a sort of skate trip / exhibition road trip when I created artwork for Dustin Dollin’s shoe on Vans. Joe managed three shows for me at three galleries and I was in Australia for two months; travelling, skating, drinking, making work and putting together exhibitions. Through Joe I’ve met a lot of people, made a lot of friends and managed to get a really good amount of work. Joe’s the man. He’s actually one of the only people I’ve ever met, work wise, that I can trust 100%. If Joe says it’s worth doing and he can get it for me, then I trust him and it happens.
Is there any explanation for how you came to call yourself French?
I don’t call myself French. It’s my nickname, I’ve been called French since I was 12 and all the older guys I grew up skating with gave me shit for having an Etnies shirt, cause originally they were a French company. It’s one of those stupid names that just sticks. If I was to start asking people to call me Richard three quarters of the people I know wouldn’t have any idea that was my name.
In a previous interview, you said that when composing a piece you’ll look at lots of different source images: are there any particular places that you go to for source material?
Books, the internet and photos.
Your work embraces a range of genres, like horror, gore, sci-fi and fantasy. Do these things merge naturally for you, or do you make an active effort to bring them together in your work?
I think the themes within my work just come naturally, they’re what I’m interested in. I’d like to think that my work has a lot to do with me, my direct interests and personality. I think for artwork, especially drawing, to be credible and believable it has to have a personality and honesty to it. I hope that comes across from the themes in my work.
What are your favourite films?
I actually really like 90s action films, anything with Arnie, Van Damme, Seagal, Lundgren, Stallone. I’m really into Escape From New Yorkand Robocop at the moment.
With the aforementioned work for Scion, how is it making work for big corporate projects as opposed to more personal work? Which do you prefer?
When you make work for someone else, you have to draw what they need for the job you’re doing. They’re paying you to create something for them, which can be really fun, but when you make personal work it’s all about exactly what you want to make. So it’s totally different – except personal work you might get paid, and professional commercial work you’re gonna get paid. I think both together is a healthy way of working. It keeps your ideas, skills and work in check.
Which collaborative project are you most proud of? Are there any companies or bands you’d really like to collaborate with that you haven’t yet?
I think working for Vans, Creature and Independent Trucks have been the raddest things. Just cause that’s who I dreamed of doing work for as a kid.
Do you feel that there’s a difference between the images you make specifically for t-shirt prints or skateboards and those you make for gallery exhibitions?
Yeah, of course. When you make work for a shirt, it’s for that space, that company, brand or whatever, and needs to work in the confines of the space of a shirt. If it’s just art on a t-shirt, it just won’t work. The work for an exhibition works the opposite way, it just has to work for me and the show it’s intended for.
Is tattoo culture something you find your work crossing over with quite often? Do people ask you to design them tattoos, and are you into any particular tattooists or styles of tattooing?
I find a lot of people ask if they can get my work tattooed on them. Sometimes it works out rad and some look terrible. I’ve seen a few where the detail and line have been too much and it’s bled out loads and looks like a ink splat. But some are insanely good. Usually they’re the ones where the tattooist has changed and adapted the work to make the tattoo work on the skin. I don’t often design tattoos, as people don’t often ask, but I would. I’m not really into a lot of tattoo stuff, but I do like the super realistic tats you see; my friend Biko is really good at those and realistic fantasy stuff. A good horror / zombie tat is always nice to see.
Where does your preoccupation with the macabre come from? Is it just linked to your interest in metal imagery or is there more to it?
I’ve just always listened to metal music and been into things of that kind. That and all the artwork on skateboards I was into when I was a kid was sort of dark. I just find it interesting, maybe it comes from being from a town full of soldiers and war machines? Dunno, I reckon it’s more to do with playing war and seeing all the Warhammer stuff my brother was into as a kid.
An idea you’ve certainly taken on from death/black metal is in the extremely elaborate, indecipherable style of writing names. Do you have fun making them as dramatic and unreadable as possible?
If you can read it, it’s not worth it. I just like developing it as a piece of artwork in itself.
One design you did for Carhartt is called Holy Diver. How bummed were you when Dio died? We were really bummed.
It fucking sucked, I actually have a ticket for a show he never managed to play. Dio was rad, in Elf, Rainbow, Dio and I really liked him in Sabbath as well. I know he’s not Ozzy, but he was a different part of Sabbath’s life. Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules are both really good records. Dehumanizer kills it as well. I never liked seeing any interviews with Dio, he seemed like a total nightmare, but he was one hell of rad singer and great showman.
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Words: Celia Archer