Rediscovering Retro Culture – Interview w/ Author and Artist Kirk Demarais
Born the daughter of a coal miner… wait, that’s not right… born in 1973 today’s special guest is a strange kid of the highest order. In fact, with a passion for vintage collectibles and artistic tendencies that became a part of his DNA at the tender age of 6, he could be considered a sort of Obi-wan to the nostalgia community at large. His name? Kirk Demarais.
As the man behind Secret Fun Spot, Demarais has spent the better part of his life collecting and cataloging all the cool things that strange kids like us enjoy; from mail-order novelties and toys to artwork and other assorted pop culture paraphernalia. His love of these things even goes so far that he’s written two books: Life of the Party and Mail-Order Mysteries (due out September 2011). So just how did Demarais go from collecting pop culture to becoming a part of it? Read on to find out!
Blogger, Author, Animator, Director, Artist… where to start?! Were you always this creative growing up, Kirk?
As a youth I was more like a sponge that soaked up other peoples’ creativity in the form of movies, TV shows, comics, video games and the like. I enjoyed drawing a lot, but mostly in class. Eventually I discovered the joy of productivity, and that great feeling you get when you climb into bed knowing you’ve used the day to accomplish something. Although these days when I sit down to work, the struggle to stay offline is tougher than ever. I’m afraid I’m regressing towards my younger self.
In additional to all of that you have a degree in Psychology… does that mean you can read my mind?
Let me see, one moment please… [leans over and vomits.] Yes.
Err… let’s keep that thought between us. So what inspired the interest in nostalgia, in particular novelties?
Even when I was a kid I liked to reminisce about my life. I was a seven-year-old talking about the “good old days.” I’ve always taken a lot of pleasure in revisiting memories; I suppose they’re another thing for me to collect. Also, I’ve always liked the idea of keeping them alive and using objects, songs, photography, etcetera to commemorate the good times. It’s weird that we’re never aware when we lose a memory but rediscovering them can be a tremendous rush. I love it that a lot of my work can reunite people with happy recollections. Complete strangers write me long, euphoric emails sharing details of their past, and I know exactly how they feel.
I also enjoy looking back to times that occurred before I was born, particularly the 1950s and 60s which happened to be the heyday for cheap, plastic novelties. When I was growing up I could only find that stuff in the wacky souvenir shops we’d visit on vacations, or in the back of my comic books, or the catalogs that my mom used to get in the mail from outfits like Lillian Vernon and Spencer Gifts. The fact that they were so appealing yet inaccessible gave them an air of mystery. So, when you add all of that up, novelties are these toy-like, mysterious objects that I associate with fun times and my favorite period in history. As you can see, I have no choice but to adore them.
As a collector is your interest more from a historical perspective or is it a way to capture these childhood memories?
I’m a collector for tons of reasons. I guess foremost I have to acknowledge my biological wiring as a gatherer, but this world has confused it, so rather than stockpiling food and supplies for my tribe, I end up with a box in my garage full of twelve-inch dolls based on celebrities like Boy George and Vanilla Ice. There’s also the thrill of the hunt, the thrill of the score, the historic aspect, and the aesthetic value of collectibles that gives me a little charge whenever I walk past the stuff on my shelves.
I’ve always been a natural collector, probably because both of my parents were. My dad collected coins, stamps, and arrowheads, and my mom collects vintage hats, miniatures and dollhouse things. Since childhood I’ve had a tendency to keep my stuff in good shape, and to organize and display it. I was always building my collections which included trading cards, Slurpee cups, magnets, posters, comic books, video games and so many toys. Now those collections serve as a connection to my childhood, and more importantly my son’s childhood.
So what’s your most prized collectible (currently)?
Either my Hugo, Man of a Thousand Faces puppets or my Weebles’ Haunted House.
You admiration for S.S. Adams seems to have played a big part in your decision to pursue an artistic career. Is that also how the idea for your short film, Flip, came about?
Flip was inspired by the one collection that I was forbidden to have— the stuff I saw advertised in my comic books. My folks wouldn’t let me “waste” my money on any of it. Many of those items were produced by S.S. Adams, so it’s all connected.
Collecting novelties is also the basis of your upcoming book, Mail-Order Mysteries, right?
Yes, just like the character in Flip, the internet gave me a second chance to get my hands on those elusive comic book novelties, so I set out to track down as many as possible. I wanted to see if the stuff is really as lousy as my dad made it out to be, and usually— it is! However, these days I kind of enjoy playing the part of the sucker.
As you mentioned, a lot of those vintage ads were incredibly misleading for kids who got suckered into buying them. Who/What is one of the worst offenders you’ve found so far?
As a rule, any time a “life-size” monster, dinosaur, or ghost was offered, it turned out to be a balloon or a poster. That would have been the biggest letdown to me.
Your interest in pop culture and nostalgia has made its way into your artwork as well. How did you become involved with Gallery 1988?
The short answer is that I was nuts about the art shows they were doing like I Am 8-Bit which is a tribute to early video games and Crazy 4 Cult which is a show inspired by cult films, so I decided I had to at least try to get into one. I drew my first piece on spec and approached Jensen the gallery owner out of the blue at the San Diego Comic Con. It was the most nerve-wracking encounter of my life, but he welcomed me in right away (I give a much more detailed account on my blog… Secret Fun Spot). That was in 2008 and since then I’ve participated in a half dozen shows with more on the horizon.
The colored pencil drawings you’ve done are mostly family portraiture. How important is family to you?
I was fortunate enough to be blessed with great parents who gave me a childhood worth reminiscing about. I realize that’s not the case for a lot of folks. Still, when I was younger part of me thought that when people said “family is the most important thing” they were just trying to sound good. Now that I’ve got an amazing wife and son of my own I know that it’s absolutely true.
Aside from the new book, are there any new films or art shows planned for this year?
In May of 2012 I’m doing a two man art show with Dave MacDowell at Gallery 1988′s Venice Beach location. I’m really excited but I’ve got a lot of art to make.
Time to spin the wheel, Kirk…what’s the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?
Let’s see, I placed Bibles around the garage to see if ghosts would move them. I peed my pants while playing the video game Defender because I was doing well and didn’t want to waste the quarter. I heckled a magic show. I was the vice president of the official Starcade Fan Club. I went on an unauthorized hunting trip near my neighborhood with real guns. When I was about nine I decided it would be funny to put my two dogs on the roof of our house, so I climbed up on their dog house and after some fuss I managed to lift them both onto the shingles overhead. As I stood there shirtless, balanced on a dog house, reaching up to pet my surprisingly apathetic dogs, I looked over the neighbor’s privacy fence and through their window I met eyes with a family of four, gobbling food at their dinner table, riveted by me, the strange kid next door.