There is still something to be said about magic. How we all stop to look at a rainbow. Or a shooting star. Or a sunrise. Or an eclipse. How we come to appreciate this life beyond the confines of our bodies or our age or our bad days. Occasionally we need to be reminded that we were once children who came to know colors and shapes and blanket forts and ideas and — hopefully — ourselves.
This is maybe where Dallas Clayton comes in — a writer slash illustrator slash street artist slash motivational answerer of questions (you’ll see). For adults and children alike his work reminds us of our humanity, our strengths, our promise, and often serves itself up as the exact affirmation that is needed in a given moment. The strength of his art lies in the communication of universal messages that ultimately conclude with the viewer recognizing that none of us is alone while inhabiting our tiny place in the universe. Big picture, little picture.
When Clayton’s son was born he recognized that there was a shortage of modern day children’s books, and so he set out to write his own. When it came time to illustrate An Awesome Book, Clayton decided to draw the images himself, the result is a minimal style that performs a perfect union of essential colors and shapes — just enough to communicate his ideas. Vividly.
Honestly, this write-up should just be a beaming illustration of a unicorn riding a rainbow through the cosmos on his way to convince a field full of horses that they are each a cartwheel of promise waiting to be fully actualized into the actual shape of actual joy.
Drafting the questions that follow felt a lot like making a coloring book; black and white outlines waiting for imagination and expression and wonder to take hold. And boy do they ever. We are beside ourselves with the ability to present this interview with Dallas Clayton…
[we asked Dallas to fill in the blanks] My name is dallas clayton, I am not good at filling in blanks so I will leave these spaces open for you to imagine the answers. I am % dreamer and % doer. I would describe myself as and I am most inspired by . I dream of and I will do that by .
Dreamers & Doers: What came first, the writing or the painting? How did one shape the other?
Dallas: I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, it was something I could always play. Art has been a more recent journey which began after writing my first book An Awesome Book and realizing there was no one else to draw the pictures but me. I’ve been learning to draw ever since then.
D&D: At what point did the author become the street artist?
DC: I was a vandal in my youth – not an artist by any sense, but I painted on buildings and other things and because of this, inside me there’s a lingering appreciation for that part of my life. Likewise there is a lot I appreciate about that universe – the immediacy of making art in a very public way, without asking permission. Just showing up and saying “Hey, I had an idea and I think it’s important and here it is!” But as an adult and a father it’s harder to reconcile ruining someone’s property, or someone’s work simply to justify your artistic voice. So even though I don’t want to ruin people’s things anymore I still have these desires to just “shout!” and then walk away. Writing books is a solitary endeavor for the most part, and I am not a solitary creature. I want to be involved in the world. So I began trying to thread the needle – how to make public immediate art that also didn’t ruin things. Uplifting people without their permission but also without ruining anyone’s day. That’s when life became much more dynamic – murals, chalk, signs, installations, engaging people in a very real way.
D&D: Could you tell us about The Awesome World Foundation, your recent tour, and the things you hope to accomplish beyond the writing and the art?
DC: The foundation began as a way to tour schools. After I’d written An Awesome Book I knew I wanted to read it to people and I knew I wanted to give books away to kids who couldn’t afford them, so that’s what we set out doing. After a while it became apparent that the mission was bigger than this – making art, encouraging literacy, inspiring. Now my tours are much larger and spread outside of just schools. I haven’t toured much this year, because I haven’t put a book out, but I will next year and with that I really want to consider how to reach the most people in the most personal way.
D&D: Do you have a creative process? Are there places you go to seek inspiration?
DC: I try to stay away from formulas and process. I like to be outside. I like for places and sights to be new. I try to be able to write wherever I am, this way I’m not hindered by technology or precedent.
DC: Ha! Good question. Hundreds I’m sure. I don’t even know what day it is most of the time, let alone what I’m going to do with it. I like to treat everything with as much of an improvisational lens as possible. It’s liberating this way.
D&D: Your artwork moves effortlessly from print, to wood, to walls, and even digital, which do you prefer? Is there a medium you gravitate toward?
DC: Painting on a piece of glass has a tactile sensation that is second to none. But I like any medium that allows me to share ideas. Ideas and themes drive me – big questions, big answers.
D&D: How do you go about choosing locations for your street art?
DC: I just draw where I am. Take a long walk and find your way to a place that people are, and think about how it might feel to be those people and what they might need or want to hear at that moment. I guess I think of locations the same way I think of mediums – secondary to the message. Write the thing that matters most, draw the thing that matters most, never mind where it is, put it anywhere, put it everywhere.
D&D: Your work delivers palpable sentiment that comes from a genuine place, how did you come to combine your art with your message?
DC: Well since I started writing kids books the pictures were part of the program, the colors and the design that keep a child engaged. Fortunately I’m not any kind of technical artist – photo realist, or portrait artist – so I can be very loose and free and can change styles and directions without too much concern for whether or not I’m using the tools correctly. Perhaps this youthful naivety is what allows me to be genuine. I don’t write things I don’t believe and I try not to draw things that aren’t fun to draw.
D&D: From the first time you ever drew a set of hands reaching to the sky with the words “stand here and think about someone you love” to now… What has the journey been like for you?
DC: I don’t know really. I can’t remember exactly when that was, the first hands. Everything in my life is much more organic than that. Small bits of expansion each day. Like watching a child grow. From the outside maybe if you’re a grandmother or an uncle and you don’t see that kid for a few weeks or a year – when you see him, he’s grown so much, completely changed in so many ways. But as the parent, or as the kid yourself – it’s harder to see that growth, even though you know it’s happening. I know that my work is spreading, I know it’s growing and taking different routes – animation, products, live performance, etc – but it all just feels like I’m the kid growing up, just making what makes me feel good.
D&D: You post photos of tattoos that are based on your work, what does it feel like to know that people connect with your art on that level? Are you at all surprised with how your work has resonated?
DC: To know that what you do lives beyond you, that’s probably one of the top goals of most people, not just artistically or commercially but biologically. To make a human being and raise them up with as much of goodness as you’ve been able to salvage, or to inspire those around you. To encourage. To progress. These are feelings each of us has. Perhaps these feelings for you are exhibited in how you play, or how you learn, or how you work – what you create. I try to put as much of who I am as I can into what I create and although making work that lives beyond me is interesting, more important is the hope that this work can be re-imagined in ways I’d never dreamed. That it can be re-purposed to inspire and uplift people years after I’m gone. I don’t consider what I know and what I do to be the final word because these words aren’t truly mine to own, I’ve collected them from all the others that came before me. I consider all of what I do a collaboration. Whatever you can make of it – a tattoo, or a shirt, or mural at your wedding – I support it. And I consider myself lucky to be a part of the conversation. It’s a joy.
D&D: What do you think it says that so many adults have responded to works that were initially intended for children?
DC: I suppose it speaks to the idea of theme. My writing almost always starts from a theme. A big theme like love, or hope, or gratitude or dreams. Themes that I feel are timeless, classless, race-less – devoid of as many boundaries as possible. This way I can write something as big as I want it to be, put as much emotion in as I want and it can resonate with the largest group of people. I want to make art that celebrates our differences by acknowledging how similar we all really are. We were all once naked vulnerable helpless creatures who somebody, somewhere, loved enough to allow us to get this far.
D&D: Are you ever inspired by your own work?
DC: I’m inspired by making it, yes very much. By reading it out loud to audiences as well – which goes toward what I said about the art being alive, not ending with me. Making it and delivering it are two ends to that equation. Where is it before I write it? I can’t say – floating around in the air maybe, all chopped up in tiny tinys bits I’m collecting – who knows, but one day it’s there. Then it’s out the pen and on to the page, then it’s printed or shared with people in written form through the delivery device of their choosing, then some day I’m out in the world reading it out loud to them and the reaction that they give is in some ways like a passing of the torch, like “Hey, I know I’ve written this down already, but while we’re here together I really just wanted to read it to you to let you know you’re important, and there’s love in the world.” That’s an inspiring feeling. Electric. But if you’re asking if I read my own work and it fills me with direction, I think a better answer is that it keeps me honest. A certain portion of what I write is aspirational. Goals, or guidelines, or virtues that I admire. On my good days I think I am those things, but not always – no one always is, but I try just as everyone else. And for me, writing and drawing these ideas all around me – it helps me gain clarity on the things that I feel matter most. A north star.
D&D: Are there artists you look to for inspiration? Who is your Dallas Clayton?
DC: Wow, what a weird way to phrase this question. Reading it actually made me shiver, like I’d just met a clone. Ha! I think I find inspiration more in life than art at this point. I still take in art daily, old and new but I think it feels sometimes like exercise. A thing I know is good for me and I like doing but I sometimes would rather be sleeping, or sometimes I am sleeping – sleepwalking through it. But life – life is so… alive! It’s always there, always on and so real – so much joy and sadness and hope and triumph on a small scale and on a massive one. Watch an ant carry a breadcrumb across the grass some time – that is an epic journey in the most classic sense. It’s like reading the Odyssey. In a way it’s the job of the artist to make sure everyone is paying attention to these parts of life – the big and the small, and to make sure we are truly feeling them. Often I find myself at art shows wishing I was actually experiencing those life feelings rather than looking at drawings of them. This of course I consider a victory for art, it’s done its job so well that it’s made me a permanent fan of life. Art as a whole makes me crave life.
D&D: What are some of your future aspirations? Do you have any goals you’ve set for yourself?
DC: I try not to. It’s more fun just to wake up and be.
D&D: What advice would you give to a person who doesn’t know what they want to be when they grow up?
DC: Don’t worry, most people don’t really know what they want to be and even more are simply pretending by being the thing that was closest or easiest to be. To find a thing might take years, decades. It might take many attempts and failures. It may take traveling the world. You may have to be many small parts of many large things, and even then it’s possible that you might not find a purpose that feels as real as those purposes you’ve been told you are meant to aspire to. But take comfort in knowing that all those attempts, and all that growth and all that work is a part of who you are. How you handle it, how you help others, where you spend your time, how you act when no one is looking. Those moments are just as much you as your job or your accomplishments. Your life is yours to lead, but remember it is through the collective whole that we prosper.
D&D: How much of your life are you living right now?
DC: As much as I can.
D&D: Are you an astronaut?
DC: We are currently in space, but I picture myself as more of a stowaway.