Artist S.britt proves the value of
erasing the fine line separating
innocence and savvy
By Rachel Leibrock Bee Staff Writer
(Published June 3, 2000)
They line the shelves of thrift stores everywhere -- dusty, forgotten children's books filled with charming line drawings, whimsical cartoons and seemingly unsophisticated illustrations that practically sparkle on the page with a blissful innocence.
S.britt remembers these pictures.
"I would just stare at them for hours and think, 'This is what I want to do,' " says britt. "I never wanted to do anything else."
These days britt is himself a working artist, and although his audience is mostly 20- and 30-something adults, he creates the type of art that appeals to our childhood fancies. With an animated circus of curious, quirky characters -- coy kitties, little purple aliens and snaggletoothed gremlins to name a few -- S.britt, illustrates a world where the lines between adulthood and childhood are blurred in Day-Glo colors.
Britt's work is familiar to fans of the Sacramento punk-pop band Groovie Ghoulies, both locally and around the world. Since 1995 he has worked as the Ghoulies' primary illustrator, creating cover art for the band's last four CDs and designing artwork for vinyl singles, T-shirts, candles, posters and stickers.
The Ghoulies' latest disc, "Travels With My Amp" (Lookout! Records), features an elaborate foldout album cover depicting a points-of-interest map of the United States complete with a rather ghoulish-looking Statue of Liberty and a monstrous Mount Rushmore lineup.
The effect is at once sweet and clever. Like most of britt's work, it combines elements of kitschy pop culture with classic storybook imagery. Visions from the '50s, '60s and '70s are compressed into a kaleidoscope of color and design. A love-struck zombie serenades his graveyard girlfriend; Bigfoot chases a schoolboy; a lonely astronaut sings the blues sitting by a campfire on a remote, distant planet.
For Ghoulies fans, britt's artwork is nearly synonymous with the band's music -- bright, merry and sometimes comical. His admirers pay tribute by mailing in their own renditions of britt's illustrations. Some fans have even gone as far to get tattoos of his Ghoulies characters.
"I think it's really weird," says britt of the tattoos. "I just think it's funny that someone would look at my pictures like that."
Aside from high school and university extension art classes, britt, who spent much of his childhood in Colorado, is largely self-taught. Favorite books by Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak and Richard Scarry provided the inspiration, while his mother provided the art supplies.
"I would go to the library and check out the limit -- I think 15 books was the limit," he remembers. "My brother would be into superhero comics and science fiction -- cool stuff -- and I was into Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, anything like that. "
When he did spend time in art classes, britt -- content to "just doing stuff out of my head" -- found school largely uninteresting. Bored with whatever assignment the class was given, britt often let his imagination take over. He remembers one figure-drawing class where the students were instructed to sketch a representation of a nude male model kneeling before them.
"Everybody was drawing this naked guy exactly and I (thought) it's just so weird to see this naked guy kneeling right there in front of you," britt says. "So I drew him with a big Afro, smoking a pipe."
After high school, britt lost interest in drawing altogether. Having moved to Northern California a few years before, he went to work in the data department at Woodland-based Valley Records (now Valley Media Inc.). It wasn't until he caught sight of a Groovie Ghoulies show flier on the break-room bulletin board that he thought about picking up a pen again.
Britt asked a co-worker who knew Kepi -- the Ghoulies singer-songwriter, who was working at Valley at the time -- to pass along some samples of his work. Kepi agreed to let him try his hand at a flier. That was in 1995. A single, more fliers, T-shirts and candles followed. Combining computer graphics with hand drawings, britt fine-tuned the band's monster motif into a series of lighthearted drawings. By the time the band signed its deal with Lookout! (the Berkeley-based indie pop-punk label once home to Green Day) britt was well established as the Groovie Ghoulies' signature artist.
"There's a very fine line when you're dealing with monsters -- it could come off looking like a heavy metal record or looking too serious," explains Kepi by phone from the band's latest tour stop in Toledo, Ohio. "To me a record is the opposite of a book; you should be able to tell what you're in store for, and britt's done a good job capturing the Ghoulie essence."
Britt's work with the Ghoulies has served as a constant career and artistic launching point.
Before working with the band, britt says, he "didn't really know anything about computers." "If you look at the 'World Contact Day' up to 'Travels With My Amp,' you can see how they progress and how I've learned more with my computer and become more patient with my drawing," he says.
A collection of Groovie Ghoulie posters hanging in his cubicle at work led to britt's current job as the graphics designer for Valley Media Inc.'s various in-house and industry publications. Another poster hanging in another Ghoulies fan's cubicle at MacAddict magazine led to a gig designing a calendar for that publication's July issue.
In addition to the Ghoulies, britt's artwork can also be found on CDs for other regional bands. There's a collage of colorful dancing feet for the Decibels and a comical sketch of a bike-riding bear for the Punch the Clown cover. A series of retro-styled line drawings outfit the artwork for "And a Whole Lotta You!" by Berkeley's mod pop band the Hi-Fives.
Lucrative as the offers may be, however, britt is unafraid to turn down work if the artistic designs don't mesh with his own creative vision. Over the years he's turned down offers for comic book work ("I don't think I want to do the same character over and over again") as well as CD work featuring racy, suggestive images.
Recently, the artist, who says his biggest dream is to one day publish a children's book, turned down an offer to illustrate a story because its myriad New Age themes would exclude children of other cultures and faiths.
"I don't want to set different religions aside," britt says. "Even if it were like a holiday-type book, because then certain kids wouldn't be able to read it or it wouldn't be accessible to them."
Britt's own Buddhist faith is a strong influence in his work. If art wasn't his career, he says, he would probably want to travel or study Zen Buddhism in a monastery.
In addition to children's books, britt is also developing his own Web site (www.sbritt.com) where fans will be able to find -- and purchase -- prints, postcards, T-shirts and clothes with original, exclusive artwork.
The goal, britt says, is not fame. If anything, he's content to place his work alongside all the artists, many whose names are long forgotten, that inspired him as a child.
"My art is simple and that's the kind of artwork I liked growing up," he says. "I'm always trying to please the kid inside of me and make that kid happy with what I used to like."