Igor Karash, an illustrator based in Saint Louis, Missouri—originally from Baku, Azerbaijan, does dramatic and emotional work, including picture books, classic literature, novels, poster art and editorial. For each project he creates a unique yet identifiable visual language that is fetching and explosive. His work has been recognized by numerous prestigious illustration competitions including the Book International Biennale in Slovakia, House of Illustration & Folio Society, and AOI Awards in London and also featured in Lürzer Archive’s 200 Best Illustrators Worldwide, American Illustration, Graphis, Creative Quarterly, 3×3 Magazine, and in the Society of Illustrators annuals. What a treat it is for me to learn about Karash’s work and discuss his process and inspirations. (Thanks to Mirko Ilic for the introduction.) Feast your eyes. . . .
When did you come to the U.S. And what were you doing back home?
I came to the U.S. in 1993 as a young illustrator. My educational background consisted of a few years of architecture university in my home town of Baku, Azerbaijan and 5 years in the graphic arts department at KSADA (Kharkov State Art & Design Academy) in Kharkov, Ukraine. The program at KSADA was diverse—poster art, typography, illustration, book design, print, and on top of that methodical courses in drawing and painting… we were exposed to it all. For my thesis project I illustrated t he book Family Secrets by Chingiz Huseynov, an Azerbaijani writer who addressed corruption in Azerbaijan through modern storytelling. I was always interested in things that are dark and mystical but with a social component. Kharkov was also the place where I met my future wife Svetlana—an art student in our group. After graduation we moved back to Baku, where I held a position as a Junior Art Director at an arts book publishing company, and was a theater set designer for a number of productions at the Russian Drama Theater in Baku.
All this was happening against a fairly dramatic background—the deep stagnation and later collapse of the Soviet Union. We had to flee from the unrest in Baku, and settled in Kimry, a small Russian village 100km away from Moscow. Even though living conditions were rough, my professional career benefited from the close proximity to Moscow where I had the opportunity to work on book illustration projects with the publishing company Kniga , and later, with Detskaya Literatura (a premiere children’s book publisher at the time). My first large project was “The Legend of the Flying Dutchman,” which received an award from BIB’95 in Bratislava. This was my last illustration project in Russia, I submitted my final work right before we left for our new life in the U.S.
Your posters are politically motivated, can you tell us the meaning behind them?
I just mentioned the dramatic changes at the end of the 80’s and beginning of the 90’s in the former Soviet Union. For many of us, the new political reality had some promise of democratic reforms, freedom of expression and press, and hopes for a better economic system that would be open for enterprise. Unfortunately, from the start, there were many failures in any attempts to change the system. On one side of the sinking boat there was a small group of progressives and reformists, and on the other—a much larger group of old ‘apparatchiks’ (people from inside the system including the KGB). This stagnation in the early phases of reform played a major role in our decision to leave Russia. Now, even though we live comfortably in America, part of me is still there and I very much disagree with the course my home country has taken—its deep corruption, government control over media, lack of succession of power, and the small and big wars Russia is engaged in now.
I am not extremely political and most of my illustration work is more focused on mystical and imaginative worlds, but what is happening in Russia now has provoked me to create more politically motivated work like my poster series “Kremlin Theatre of the Absurd.” Because of my background in the theater I was motivated to create fictional theatrical posters. The ‘show’, however, is very dark, and is ‘written and performed’ by a very recognizable figure—Putin and his little ‘putinoids’ who play different roles from well known Russian plays and books: “The Dragon” by Eugene Schwartz, and “The Dog’s Heart” by Mikhail Bulgakov. I have also created a concept for an animated satire entitled “Swine Lake,” based on the ballet “wan Lake”by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. In Russia “Swan Lake” became a symbol of Soviet collapse because in August of 1991 during the anti-democratic coup, all TV channels were showing “Swan Lake.”
“The Lake” was also the name of Putin’s enterprise in mid 90’s. Many of his friends involved with “The Lake,” now hold prominent positions in the government. So, I think my “Swine Lake” premiere in the “Kremlin Theater of the Absurd”is a way to mirror the absurdity of Putin’s regime and the destruction of democratic reforms in Russia.
What does the GULAG action figure series represent?
This series is an extension of my political work, but here I am trying to connect the present day with the past. I was invited by Serge Serov, the founder and president of the Golden Bee Biennial to participate in this international poster competition in Moscow. I selected the GULAG category which was established by the competition to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the book “Archipelago Gulag” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Here, again, I have chosen a satirical way to address the tendencies in modern Russia to downplay the Soviet regime’s bloody past, to humanize Stalin’s figure, and re-write his historic role. What triggered the series, is that I noticed that there are many contemporary instances of dressing-up in Stalinist era secret police (NKVD) uniforms for major holidays, and dressing up kids in this kind of military gear. To me, it is equivalent to wearing a Gestapo or SS uniform. So, I have created a set of toys/boxed action figures. Each toy has a name: Commissar Kolya, Loyal Citizen Manya , Gulag Guard Vasya , etc…
They look attractive, energetic and happy, but my message is on the borderline of laughter and tears. This series was included in the winning selection of the Golden Bee Biennial , and I am most proud of the fact, that it was included in a poster exhibition at the Gulag Museum in Moscow.
Your work is dark yet exhilarating in their artistry. Who were your influences and what was their impact on you the person and artist?
There are so many people and events that have influenced my creative path… I grew up in the old city of Baku, and my earliest memories and impressions of its architecture and urban character were quite dark. Partially, because of the nature of the city’s historical sites, partially because of the negligence and poor maintenance during Soviet times. But I also loved the surreal and theatrical drama of Baku. I should also say that from the time I began to have an interest in art, I always paid more attention to graphic works and ‘dark’ artists: I would be more interested in Goya and Bosch than in Rubens or Renoir… same with literature—Gogol, Dostoevsky, Kafka and Herman Hesse formed my taste for literature and for my perception of reality. I can also say that a big part of my interest in dark and mystical worlds came as result of an inner protest against official art established by the Communist regime which included exclusively positive, happy, and upbeat imagery. Another strong influence came from the theater and book illustration in the 80’s and 90’s. For some inexplicable reason theater arts and book illustration in the USSR weren’t as indoctrinated as other cultural niches. The work of Alexander Koshkin, the early work of Gennady Spirin, and the animations of Yuri Norstein, were quite sophisticated and maybe even too complex for children and made a strong impact on my artistic choices. Later in design school, my inspiration was coming from the masters of the Eastern European school of illustration— Albin Brunovsky, Marketa Prachaticka, and later in the U.S. I learned of the amazing work of Peter Sis.
Lastly, I am a Beatles fan, and I wouldn’t dismiss their impact on me through their music (which was largely banned in my youth). Their later work was very much marked with sadness, and a touch of mysticism. This multilayered Beatles fantasy world made me work really hard on trying to find a visual equivalent. I wouldn’t say that I found it yet, but I am sure my interest in working with many painted nuanced layers came from there.
In addition to these posters, you’ve done considerable number of book illustrations. What is special about how you interpret, say, “War and Peace”?
I do consider myself to be a professional book illustrator above all else, and my approach to book illustration is rooted in the approaches I was first exposed to at KSADA, mostly by my favorite professor, Alex Blyakher (who lives in New York now). He introduced me to the ‘associative’ method of illustration. When I am illustrating a book, I am most interested in producing visuals that not only help to visualize what is happening at certain moments in the narrative, but creating a metaphorical, artistic context for understanding deeper layers within the text. With “War and Peace,” I had to find a balanced approach between the literal and symbolic. So, I have merged the more cinematic visuals (representations of reality, historical events, etc.) and visuals that are metaphorical in nature, poetic, and deal entirely with feelings, memories and premonitions of the main characters. I was also very much interested in things that were perhaps overlooked by previous illustrators including several dreams in the book. The general concept and the way I thought of the book metaphorically is as a “river of life” and musically, I would say a “symphony”. This informed the color system with a few important accents: gold for aristocracy and power, red for war, blue for peace and soul searching, and black for death. The exterior of the book in my mind is a bold graphic representation of the entire concept.
You’ve been in the U.S. for more than twenty year. What is your current goal?
I am in the process of reinvigorating my illustration career after years of working in the design industry. This process started in 2012, when I won a book illustration competition established by the Folio Society and House of Illustration in London, and resulted in the published illustrated book The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories . Folio Society then commissioned me to illustrate one of the greatest pieces of classic literature— War and Peace that took me a year and a half to complete. Lately, I have been focused on a number of self initiated projects including a political poster series and warning tales in the form of picture books and graphic novels. All this material has one underlying motif—an anti-totalitarian, anti-authoritarian message dressed in a dark, yet intriguing visual fantasy. My ultimate goal is to find a platform for publishing this work, and to continue working addressing such important themes.
I am also open for collaborations with publishing companies (especially those who develop exclusive, sophisticated illustrated books for children and adults), and would like to do more editorial work. Ultimately I hope to make a meaningful contribution to the art of illustration.