Art in the Creator’s Image

By   •   February 10, 2009   •   Topics: ,

Don Clark is an artist and musician who is gaining notoriety and influence thanks to the artwork that he creates for bands across the nation. He and his brother Ryan run Invisible Creature, a design firm based in Seattle. They also play together in Demon Hunter, a Christian metal band that pulls no punches when comes to sharing their faith.

Don was recently nominated for a Grammy for best album packaging (which he sadly lost to the team who designed Death Magnetic for Metallica) for Hawk Nelson’s 2008 album, Hawk Nelson Is My Friend.

Hawk Nelson will be joining us for Rock the River, so it seemed like the perfect time to chat with Don via email.

Jeremy Hunt: How/when did you first get started doing art/design?

Don Clark: I’ve been involved in art as long as I can remember. From early childhood and throughout my school years, it was a big part of growing up. As I look back, I think I felt like all other classes or subjects in school were just barriers in the way of actually using my imagination. When I wasn’t in art class, I was usually doodling in the margins of history books or math assignments. We (my younger brother Ryan and I) lived and breathed it – and my parents encouraged us along the way, which I am very thankful for.

JH: Who first inspired you in that direction?

DC: My grandfather (Al Paulsen) was a very prolific illustrator and was a huge inspiration to us. My answer to the famous “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question was always: “I want to be an artist – like my grandpa”. He worked many years for NASA and created some amazing projects during his time there. He had a unique approach that was definitely part of that great mid-century character illustration style, but he added his own touches – little ways of setting his work apart. He was a true master of his trade. Something I highly respected back then – and even more so today.

My father is also a skilled and talented woodworker who places a huge importance on attention to detail – something that Ryan and I have always tried to convey in our own work. His projects are absolutely stunning – from cabinets and tables to toys and guitars. He is an extremely gifted luthier – his acoustic guitars are truly one of a kind and need to be seen (and played) to fully appreciate. Our work ethic definitely comes from him.

JH: When did you become a Christian?

DC: That’s another “since I can remember” answer. While we were growing up, my father was also a pastor, so we were blessed to have Jesus in our lives at an early age. We had an extremely full and joyous childhood. I did, however, make a personal commitment to the Lord at the age of 14. I feel extremely grateful to my parents for putting my brother and I on the right path as children – something that stayed with me into adulthood and is now part of raising my own little ones. They gave us a great template for life as a Christian.

JH: You’ve also played music for a while (Training For Utopia and now Demon Hunter). What first got you into music?

DC: To make a long story short, we found out about hardcore music in the early nineties. Christian bands like Unashamed, Strongarm and Focused made it cool to be a Christian … and these were bands that were friends with – and played with – non-Christian bands like Snapcase, Earth Crisis and Unbroken, which were bands we also loved. At that time, it was a small and unique music scene that was really attractive to us. Here were these tattooed guys singing (well, screaming) about Jesus, set to heavy guitar riffs and breakdowns. And they were playing clubs – not youth group rallies and church events. We were hooked. In 1995, Ryan started a band called Focal Point, which were signed to Tooth & Nail Records in 1996. In 1997, I started a band called Training For Utopia – and we were signed to Tooth & Nail that same year. Focal Point ended in ’97 and Ryan quickly became our singer.

During all of this, we were also following metal bands like Machine Head, Tourniquet, Pantera and Fear Factory. It was our dream to someday start a well-produced and polished metal band – with more structure and choruses than most in the genre. After a few years, Demon Hunter was born in 2002. Once again, we signed to Tooth & Nail. We’ve done 4 national tours and have released 6 albums so far.

JH: Demon Hunter is a band that’s pretty outspoken about their beliefs, even within the name of the group itself. Is that an easy process to be so vocal about your beliefs whenever you play or write?

DC: In our previous bands we were more concerned with pleasing everyone than being true to ourselves. The lyrics were somewhat abstract and personal – a safety net if you didn’t want to be labeled “a Christian band.” We were young and wanted to be accepted – and truthfully – a bit scared to take that “Christian band” leap. As time progressed, we realized that if we were going to start another band, we were going to be bold and refused to ride the fence. This way of thinking was solely brought about by growing in our relationship with Christ – and just plain growing up as people. We matured.

Demon Hunter was born out of a need. We needed to be bold. We needed to proclaim the truth – but we also needed to be real. We wanted our lyrics to deal with real life situations – but told from a Christian perspective. Not a warm fuzzy (and false) Christian perspective, but one that had merit with our listeners – things that everyone faced. There wasn’t a ton of that in the Christian metal scene at the time and I think we filled a pretty decent sized void when we came out.

The irony of it all is that if you don’t have much integrity in your music, you gain respect from no one. As soon as we started producing quality music (that just so happened to be about Jesus), we started getting respect everywhere.

JH: How have people (Christian or not) responded to that openness?

DC: Again, the response has been remarkable – across all fronts. We’re now friends with so many bands that we grew up listening to – Christian or not. We’ve been able to say ‘Hey, lyrically this is what we believe to be the truth, and it’s real to us – oh, and we can write some decent songs too.’ Christians, atheists, agnostics … and even Satanists have all approached us – giving us respect – whether they like the message or not. We’re proud of the way we’ve been able to reach across the table like that. It’s been a true blessing to see the band grow and the people that we’ve reached with our music. We’d be nowhere without the fans, they truly feed us.

JH: How about when you put on your Invisible Creature hat, when you do the art for a band? How do you see your faith playing out in that arena?

DC: Being a Christian changes your entire worldview. It’s your compass for life. So naturally that affects everything I do. My goal is to create the very best art that I can – to put my all into everything I do, and I think that’s a direct reflection on Christ. I want to be in this world as much as possible without being of it. I want to recognize that the ultimate inspiration is the creator, the God of the Bible – whether you acknowledge it or not. I’ve had an incredible journey thus far – meeting ALL kinds of people with ALL kinds of beliefs, ALL around the nation. I can only hope (and pray) that I am an example of Christ in those circumstances.

JH: Speaking of IC, where did the name come from? Is there a story behind it or was it just a cool name that came to mind?

DC: As we were contemplating names at our morning meetings, we were flipping through a dictionary, a thesaurus and a Bible. We had a few names written down that we liked, but didn’t love. At one particular meeting, I was flipping through the book of Revelation (which obviously has all kinds of cool themes), and I found ‘Living Creature,’ which sounded really cool and pertained to what we were doing. I wasn’t in love with ‘Living,’ so we came up with a few other adjectives. ‘Invisible’ popped into my head and we both loved it. I think it suits us perfect, as we often feel like that ‘invisible’ third party.

JH: Where do you draw your inspiration for the album art that you create?

DC: 1940-1970 album artwork, Saturday morning cartoons, Sunday morning comics, Book covers, vintage movie posters and cereal boxes, furniture, architecture, Walt Disney, Alex Steinweiss, Storm Thorgerson, Stefan Sagmeister, Jim Flora, Paul Rand, Herbert Matter, editorial typography, fashion advertising, estate sales, thrift stores and everything else.

JH: Can you walk me through the creation process behind the Hawk Nelson Is My Friend artwork? And how many times have you been nominated for a Grammy?

DC: The band actually came to me with the idea of creating a board game of sorts. They sent a few examples of vintage games they liked as inspiration and I just hit the ground running. It was right up my alley and I was looking forward to developing a fully illustrated CD package. I came up with the theme and the object of the game – and how to play it using the foldout artwork and the CD face itself.

We’ve actually been nominated for 4 Grammys in a row. My brother was nominated in 2006 and 2007 while I was nominated in 2008 and 2009. It’s been an enormous privilege to get nominated by our peers for 4 consecutive years.

JH: So which do you enjoy more, the creation of visual art or the writing of music?

DC: At this point in my career, I’d definitely have to say visual art. As time goes on, priorities, interests and goals change. That’s been something I’ve fought over the last few years and I’m now just finally learning that it’s healthy to have new chapters in life and I’m happy to embrace that.

JH: You’ve worked with bands that run the gamut in terms of size and fame…all the way up to guys like the Foo Fighters, Chris Cornell, etc. Is there someone out there who remains the dream gig? A band that you would absolutely love to create for?

DC: That one is easy. U2. After working with the Foo’s, I really felt like I had accomplished what I wanted to in music packaging … but man, U2 would definitely be the icing on the cake.

JH: Any cool projects in the works?

DC: Yes, thankfully. Currently, we are creating all of the in-store and retail art for Nike stores in Asia and Australia. We’re also doing some really fun illustration projects for Target, as well as editorial pieces for Wired and Esquire Magazines. And, of course, more music packaging. We feel very blessed with our current clients and projects.

JH: Last question. You’ve got what some people might consider the dream gig: music and creative design. Any words of advice for a younger Christian who’s trying to figure out their calling?

DC: Often times I feel like I’ve taken the long way around in regards to career and life situations. Sometimes I think of the paths that I could have taken or the paths that I should have taken.

But I can honestly say that I’ve never given up on hearing from God. He’s chased me for 33 years, and I’ve tried to understand his will my entire life. After all these years, I still have a child-like awe and adoration for Jesus. Even though I sometimes think my path choices could have gone a bit smoother, I know one thing: it’s all in his hands and it’s all in his plan.

There will always be times where it’s difficult to discern God’s will, but my advice would be: never stop listening.

To see more of Don and Ryan’s work, visit Invisible Creature.