Visionary artist Chris Sickels excels in 3D illustrations, stop-motion animation, and motorcycle maintenance. As the owner and operator of Red Nose Studio (a one man barn in Indiana), Sickels is a puppet master who crafts memorable and signature characters in front of magical backdrops. Like if Geppetto read more sci-fi and lived around more corn. Having illustrated four books (one of which he authored) and with a fifth on the way, I spoke with the inventive Hoosier about the importance of persistence, as well as Elvis, cardboard, and KEXP.
How has 2018 been treating you?
The last couple years have been trying, work was slow and that’s when the doubts kick in. Jennifer, my wife of 22 years, pinned a note on my wall that says ‘STOP DOUBTING’. 2018 has been great, I was commissioned to create a zoetrope for an advertisement. It forced me to see animation in a whole new light and is probably my most challenging project to date. I was fortunate to work with Stephen and Edward Chiodo of Chiodo Bros Productions along with a film crew that rose to the challenge. I was also able to wrap up the illustrations for an upcoming picture book called Elvis is King!
Can you speak a bit on your upcoming book with Jonah Winter, Elvis is King?
Sure, I never considered myself an Elvis fan, he overdosed when I was 3. However, when I read Jonah’s manuscript I was intrigued by Elvis’s childhood and how he purposely changed his appearance to become what he wanted to be. That determination is a note that kids need more than ever today, especially when schools are seeming to be putting kids on career tracks before they hit puberty.
You worked with Jonah Winter on Here Comes the Garbage Barge in 2010. Was it an easier experience the second time around since you were already familiar with the author's literature and vision?
Jonah has a knack for taking interesting, historical subjects and using his prism to shine a light on them. Interestingly though, our publishers Schwartz & Wade encourage each of us to pursue our specialties separately. So there was literally no dialogue between Jonah and I until after the work was completed. Having a level of trust from the writer and publisher to allow me to run with it is something I don't take lightly. Granted there have been revisions and challenges, but each of them has helped strengthen the book as a whole.
You've provided the accompanying art for a significant amount of children's books. What becomes of the figurines following submissions for the book?
Occasionally the puppets are sold but most of them reside in the archive (which is really just overcrowded shelves).
On top of drafting, illustrating, and sculpting, you're also providing sets and backdrops. Is one wall of your studio a blank curtain for the shoots?
Most of my sets are table top size, and the backdrops are strung behind the sets, i can accommodate 2 sets easily in my small studio. Sometimes I can do 3 in here, but then it becomes a maze of light stands, cords, tripods and rigging. I do have an open garage below the studio that I use for larger animation sets that need to be up for extended periods of time.
What are some studio essentials?
My process is ridiculous in the amount of materials required, but the essentials come down to drawing tools, paper, cardboard, Sculpey, wire and coffee.
I read that you live in Indiana and grew up on a small farm. While not residing in a metropolis, does your work demand travel? Or are you often able to work remotely?
I do travel some for work but most travel is for lectures, school visits, conferences and workshops. As a freelancer I am fortunate that 95% of what I do is right here in my garage.
I found out about your work through Jeffrey Alan Love, who I interviewed late last year. You both seem to reside in the same world, but while his art is a bit more dark, yours is magical and uplifting. Does your work reflect your personality and life philosophies?
I admire the work and life philosophy of Jeffery Alan Love and although I have yet to meet him, I do feel a kinship. Yes, I would agree that my work reflects my personality and attitude on life, most of this stems from my family life and knowing that our time is so very short.
Outside of your own art, what have you been enjoying recently?
I have found renewed interest in reading, this years it’s been A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman and All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque along with the regular reading of motorcycle service manuals. Currently looking for my next book to read.
Last album purchased was Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. His lyrics about the brevity of life and the difficulty of dealing with anxiety struck a chord with me.
KEXP continually streams when I'm in the studio.
I enjoy riding my old motorcycle through the rural Indiana countryside.
Any final thoughts / words of wisdom / life advice?
When I get asked “What do I know now that I wish I knew as a student?” I like to say the fact that I was naive enough to think I could make it as an illustrator was what allowed me to stick with it. Freelancing isn’t a sprint, its an ultra-marathon and I hope to keep moving forward.