Artisan's Avenue is a place to showcase fantasy, horror, or sci fi artists and their creations. As you may have guessed, the name pays homage to Artist's Alley and the wildly talented people I've met at various comic cons. I am continuously fascinated and impressed with their creativity and imagination and I hope our readers feel the same.
The Qwillery's first guest to Artisan's Avenue is Kfir Mendel, the amazing artist behind CaveGeek. I recently met Kfir at the Walker Stalker convention in New Jersey and was completely captivated by his work.
Trinitytwo: Welcome to The Qwillery. Please tell our audience a little about your creative background.
Kfir Mendel: Well, I come from a family of creative people. My mother has been an artist for as long as I can remember. Painting, drawing, sculpting... she does it all. And my father is an avid photographer. So I guess it was natural for me to want to create stuff too.
I've always liked working with my hands and creating new, unique things. I love taking natural materials and bringing them back to life by making them into something beautiful and interesting again. It's sometimes a problem, as I end up with a massive collection of sticks, rocks, and various animal parts. There's something very satisfying about having a “vision” in your head, thinking “I wonder if I can make this”, and then just going for it and seeing it come to life.
TT: How did CaveGeek come about?
KM: Primitive technology has been a huge part of my life since I was first introduced to it in 2000. In fact, over the last decade I've taught primitive skills classes in general, and the process of making traditional brain-tanned buckskin specifically. So I was used to working with natural materials such as hide, bone, etc.
When the first Hobbit movie came out in 2012, the idea popped into my head to try and make a “primitive” map of Middle Earth. I had already begun working with wood-burning at that point, and had the idea of combining that technique with primitive ones, along with natural materials, to create a unique map.
I had a hide and some natural pigments, so I set to work. Two weeks later, I had a map of Middle Earth in front of me. It was so cool I could hardly believe I had made it myself.
To cut a long story short, the map was sold that winter at a Tolkien art show in Los Angeles, and that experience encouraged me to continue exploring my art.
Since I'm half caveman and half geek, the name itself was easy to come up with.
TT: Please briefly describe the process.
KM: When it comes to my pyrography work, the leather I use is called “Brain-tanned buckskin” and is probably the oldest form of leather. The oldest artifact made of it that I'm aware of is a 10,000 year old moccasin found in a cave in Armenia. All of us have ancestors that used to make it and wear it. To this day, the methods of making it haven't really changed much. It's still made entirely by hand and is some of the highest quality leather on Earth. Every skin is different, and has slightly different qualities. They also bear different scars and scratches from the deer's life. So I try to pick a piece that will fit well with the art I have in mind.
Then I burn the image onto the skin using professional pyrography tools (What most people refer to as a “wood-burning” tool). I'm basically drawing with a really hot pen.
Like any skin, when the deer hide is burned it shrivels, and this allows me to create a 3-Dimensional surface. It takes some careful planning, but it's fun, and the results can be quite striking. This is where the magic happens, that makes the piece “pop” out of the background.
The next step, which is optional and depends on the art piece, is painting. I use 100% natural, non-toxic, powdered pigments that I mix with a base to adhere them to the hide. As a “brush”, I usually use a piece of deer leg bone from when I first started doing this art three years ago. Sometimes, when there are large areas to paint, I use my fingers. And when really small details are needed, I might work with a feather quill.
Once the image is finished, the last part of the creative process is figuring out presentation. This usually means selecting the right color combination of matting for it. The matting makes it easy for most people to frame and hang on a wall like any normal picture. But sometimes I feel another form of presentation is better, such as nailing the piece to wood, or hanging it from something such as a bow, or large bone.
TT: What inspires you in regards to your creations?
KM: In today's world, us geeks don’t lack for inspiration. It's everywhere. Books, TV, movies, comics... it's everywhere. I see something that speaks to me and makes me think “That will look great in 3D on leather!”
If the image is another artist's work, I approach them to get their permission to recreate it. It's important to me to develop relationships with other artists based on mutual respect and collaboration. I'm often inspired by art I see while walking down Artist Alley at a convention, and I've made quite a few new friends collaborating in that way.
TT: Please tell us about your current collection, favorite pieces, stories behind a favorite piece.
KM: It's a pretty eclectic collection. Since I'm a fan of so many things fantasy and sci-fi, I enjoy creating pieces inspired by many different subjects. Currently, I have various characters from Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Lord of the Rings, quite a few recreations of classic comic book covers (those are a lot of fun to do!) and of course maps, which are my favorite pieces to work on.
My favorite piece currently has to be a tie between my own personal map of Middle Earth, and the “Barn Door” tribute to Hershel's barn from The Walking Dead. Both took many hours to make and create the displays for, and they are both milestones in my work as an artist, in their own way. The “Barn Door” especially has come a long way and taken on a life of its own, with Sophia's eye and hand that I had another artist sculpt for me, and all the autographs of Walking Dead actors that I've collected on it.
TT: What's new for 2016?
KM: Well, as far as art goes, I need to remake a couple of pieces that I've sold, because I think I could do a better job the second time around; pieces such as the Westeros map and the “One-Eyed Willy” map. But I also want to create a lot of new things, like maps of Skyrim, Krynn, Hogwarts (Marauder's map), and a few others. There are also a lot of comic covers I still haven't gotten to, and I've had an Alien project in my head for a while now.
I'm also planning on doing quite a few new cons. I'll be at the Philadelphia Tattoo Convention in February, for example, and that will be a new experience. Other new cons are Heroes Con in Charlotte, Dragon Con in Atlanta, Baltimore Comicon and a few others.
TT: Ask and then answer a question about your product or designs that I haven't asked.
KM: Many people are squeamish when they hear about the materials you work with (skin, bone, eyeballs)... have you had any negative responses to your work based on that?
Actually, I am continuously surprised at how overwhelmingly positive the vast majority of the response to my work has been. People seem taken by surprise when they hear about how it's made (especially the eye-ball juice part), but I think they then realize that the materials were used to create something beautiful and unique.
Every once in a while I get a person who will walk away from my table because they are vegetarian or vegan, but they're few and far between. If they stay long enough to talk about it, I'd point out their leather shoes (in a few cases) and also tell them that the materials I use are all sourced ethically, meaning the deer were not killed for me to use their skins or eyes. They were killed for food, and the parts I use normally go to waste. The methods used to tan the leather are traditional and all natural. I see creating art from these deer as a way of honoring their life.