Sep 14, 2020

WolfSkullJack: The So What! Interview

Michelle Harvey, aka WolfSkullJack, is deeply driven by the rhythm of the forest and lupine energy in life and art. Steffan Chirazi is intrigued.

Michelle Harvey, aka WolfSkullJack, travels this Earth with the trick of light and cover of shadows. She is most comfortable not being noticed by people, and whenever she’s asked about her divine motivations, Michelle will calmly explain that her DNA is at one with the serene soil of the forests and the animals who inhabit it. Her work reflects the wonder, respect, and impregnable, tangible bond she feels with nature, not that she projects misanthropy. No, not at all, in fact Michelle is a bright, sunny, and cheerful spirit on our phone call. However, the fact remains that she is happiest engaged in her art, walking the forests near her Cotswolds, UK, home, and visiting (volunteering) with her beloved wolves at the Wolf Watch UK rescue center. Michelle’s energy and spirit pulsates through her work. Pieces such as The Mage and Liliths Brethren depict elements of her inner-self, and as evidenced by the popularity of WolfSkullJack’s work through collaborations with the Anchorage Brewing Company and Metallica, it is an energy and spirit whose tribe is vast. Whilst we did, as mentioned earlier, have a chat on the phone, the following interview was done via email as Michelle felt it would lead to better, more developed answer to my questions. Michelle is – without question – WolfSkullJack.

Steffan Chirazi: First of all, your work wanders into what I would call very “connected” territory in terms of collective conscience, albeit in your depictions with animals. Does that resonate with you?

WolfSkullJack: Absolutely. My work is an exploration of mankind’s relationship with the natural world and how we have forgotten we are animal. If life started with a single spark, then we are all born of the same blood and bone and therefore connected with every other living thing. We share the same DNA with fish and insects and plants, which could be why some of us have natural pulls to the sea, mountains, or lakes. For me, it’s the forest that feels most like home, and it’s a home I’m trying to understand better.

SC: Do you believe that as a race we have greatly diminished a seventh sense, which would be the ability to “read/communicate” with animals in the sense of electrical exchanges/vibes?

WSJ: I think we’ve lost many of our “senses” as we’ve evolved. I found out recently that tiny muscles in our ears automatically try to pivot when responding to sounds, an evolutionary throw back to our ancestors, which is the sort of thing I find really interesting!

SC: What is your starting point for a piece of work? What is usually the catalyst? How long does it take from a catalytic moment to final production?

WSJ: My work is often an expression of what I’m feeling at that time and can act as a source of therapy. However, there are some days where I just want to perform the physical act of inking without any real idea in mind. Inking can almost put me into a meditative state where my lines and strokes aren’t conscious and you kinda wake up and you have a drawing in front of you!

SC: I saw from a photo that the scale you work in appears huge. Is that always the case, or do you work in various mediums?

WSJ: Oh, those were probably for the Cheltenham Paint Festival! I don’t draw to that scale on the regular, if at all really. Oddly enough I’m doing something this weekend on a massive board at the train station as part of the festival, which has been a yearly event for last three or four years now. I was down to take part in it last year but ended up cancelling it to see the S&M2 show in San Francisco!

I mostly draw digitally now as digital work can be easier to modify for client and commercial work, but I do have a soft spot for traditional art. I quite like the little mistakes we make with ink and paint and can’t go back on, and having those mistakes being an unanticipated beauty in a piece of work. I think “unintentional ink splatters” in people can also make them beautiful.

SC: Are some of your pieces expressions of inner emotions in the sense of the snarls of some of the wolf creatures, or the specter of a corvid? Are they loves or demons to you?

WSJ: Creators of any medium will put themselves in their work, consciously or not, and with my art this is a certainty. The wolves are the ideal self: strong, capable, and one with the environment around them. Their howls are a call back home to the forest whereas the humanoid/werewolf creatures are a struggle with being human and the conflict between being an animal in such a strange shape. The crows are messengers, but their alarms of intruders in the forest can be mistaken for anxiety and panic which is something I do struggle with from time to time. Art can help me make sense of things I struggle to put into words.

SC: I am interested in your own artistic influences. I mean, Goya? HR Giger even? Are they also sometimes photographers too?

WSJ: Other visual artists do play a role. I’m mostly influenced by the artist community online as, for the most part, it’s a lovely and supportive place. However, it’s my love for animation that plays a biggest part in my work for sure. I remember loving art so much as a kid but the internet wasn’t a thing then, so I would hunt down gaming and tattoo magazines just for the art even though I didn’t own any gaming consoles and was certainly too young to get tattoos! When I was in year seven in school, a boy in my class gave me a tape of Ninja Scroll that he had taped off the TV and I was hooked. Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Studio Ghibli movies became a HUGE source of inspiration. Princess Mononoke blew my mind as I feel that the environmental messages were something I had been trying to express since I was a kid but didn’t have the capacity to do so. Also, it has giant freakin’ wolves in it, so of course that was going to appeal to me!

SC: And literature for that matter, Lovecraft seems right there? And film, and music…you see where I’m going here hahaha…

WSJ: Oh, monster horror movies for sure! The Thing has some incredible animatronics and monster designs which are disgustingly delicious. I’m not great with slasher movies but give me a monster and I’m all over it, but I’ll most likely faun over their design! A couple of recent movies that I’m loving are The Witch and The Ritual which capture a wonderful, spooky forest atmosphere that I dig. As for music, Heilung’s live album can also help capture that dark forest vibe!

SC: Do you anthropomorphize animals? Beyond that, do you assume that we all share the same pattern of thought and logic?

WSJ: I anthropomorphize everything; I saw a shopping trolly upside down and felt sorry for it because it looked like a sad turtle!

I think it’s very easy for us to accidentally anthropomorphize animals, and I probably do this all the time. At the wolf rescue they had a wolf called Callow who was one of my favorites and she had lost her mate quite suddenly. She slept on her ground where he had fallen for weeks and her howls were the saddest thing I had ever heard, almost bringing me to tears. This may be me putting in human emotions, knowing what I did about her history, but animals absolutely feel grief and joy and fear, and when a wolf pup was placed with Callow, her sad howls stopped. Could be that she was happy again? I don’t think we will ever be 100% certain of what’s going on in an animal’s mind.

This latest limited-edition poster from WolfSkullJack will be available in the Met Store on Thursday, September 17 at 1PM PDT.

SC: Looking at the “Moth” piece, it is at once pagan, ritualistic, forbidding yet ultimately very earthy and spiritual. It could be taken as dark in one sense, but in a whole other it could be seen as “rebirth.” What’s your reaction to that? Are there any shared emotions in that statement? On what scale was this done in and using what materials?

WSJ: The piece was done digitally, and I wanted to make something that was obviously referencing Metallica’s music as well as something that screamed “me.” In every piece I’ve done for Metallica, I’ve included four skulls who represent the band members, and the halo on fire is also a reference to their music. “Moth Into Flame” and “Halo On Fire” are both songs which are in the S&M2 show which I have great affection for as it was my first job of that size and significance!

The Forest God and cleansing with fire could be seen as a reference to a painful rebirth and metamorphosis. The shapeshift is often painful but will lead one to their ultimate form.

SC: Wolves are seen as lone. You seem to live in a lone sense whenever possible. What about the pack aspect of wolf life, and your life? How does that reconcile with the solitude aspect?

WSJ: Wolves are social animals and despite my desire for solitude and the love of the quiet, I do have my own “pack” of self-made family who I do hold very dear to me. The thing is we are all introverted weirdos, so although we may not physically see each other a whole lot, we are still very much there for each other.

SC: Aside from wolves, are there other mammals which carry as much resonance for you, and what about insects?

WSJ: Wolves have always had a number one spot, but pretty much seeing any animal in person gets me excited. Foxes, squirrels, pigeons, you name it. I love just to watch and take in their behavior, and seeing them go about their day brings me joy.

There’s a bit of a joke online where I am a bit of a cat magnet. I think it’s my “you can sit on me and I’ll apologize to you,” non-threatening energy I seem to have. When I was living in ground floor and basement flats, I had several cats causally break in, and one in particular was called Barry (I think) and was in need of help. He had been adopted from the shelter and ran away from his new home and found himself lost. Out of all the buildings on the street, he found my gate and was meowing for me to take him inside. We got him home safely! I like to think that animals have a sense of who can help them!

As for insects, I don’t have a specific draw to them but I can certainly appreciate their design and will always try to safely move them out of my flat under a glass should I discover them squatting without paying rent.

SC: What lessons are there to be learned from nature? What are we not learning (besides the obvious of good stewardship and respecting it)?

WSJ: Our initial “conquer over nurture” attitude towards nature is devastating, and as a dominant species we have a responsibility to protect our natural world. Over population and our inability to coexist with other living things is something we should be taking seriously as a species, as well as climate change. There’s a debate over if wolves should be reintroduced to the UK, and despite my love for the animal, I cannot imagine a more disastrous introduction, and I would fear for each of those wolves’ safety. If we cannot live with foxes and badgers in the UK without wanting them dead, how can we possibly introduce a big predator like wolves?

SC: Where have been your favorite, healing forests? Which was the first forest you remember emotionally reverberating with you?

WSJ: The woodland at Wolf Watch UK is by far, the most magical place I’ve ever been to. I discovered Wolf Watch about three years ago and booked a visit in the cottage on the grounds, and for the first day we didn’t see or hear a single wolf. Which is fine, and preferred that the animals are only seen or heard on their own terms.

There’s a platform at the top of the valley and my now husband and I walked up the hill in the dead of night and let out howls. One by one, every wolf in the centre answered back and I cried tears of joy. I feel like I’ve been calling out for wolves my entire life, and for the first time, they answered me. A collective howl has never happened since.

I’m now a volunteer and handle some of the online admin and try and visit as a guest whenever I can. It’s a place of recharging and connecting.

SC: Finally, and here’s an easy one… is there any Metallica music which has driven a piece of work besides this Moth piece?

WSJ: Metallica was first introduced to me when I was 14 and I was hooked. Although I can’t think of a piece in particular which has been directly influenced, Metallica was the soundtrack of my life from the ages of 14-19 pretty much daily, and all through art college. Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, The Black Album, and of course, S&M, were listened to on the bus to college, with the S&M album being a firm favorite, making the whole S&M2 poster job extra weird for me!! I’m not sure if I believe in fate, but it certainly was a strange twist in my life to know the original album so well and get to do the artwork for the anniversary tour!

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