||When I first stumbled across
Joe Lester's website, I was simply amazed. He not only can
sculpt as well as any professional I have seen, he can design, draw,
photograph and paint with the best of them. When I emailed him
for the first time, I was greeted with a very warm reception.
He's a genuine and humble person that is willing to help you out and
he has so many tips and secrets up his sleeve, you want to just pick
his brain for a good hour or two. He is also raising the bar
on masks with a few new designs offered through
Darkside studios that are so detailed and full of
character, you can't help but buy them.
How did you get into
been interested in old classic horror films almost since before I
could read. One of the first famous names I ever learned was Lon
Chaney. When I was 5 or 6, I would turn my room into a “haunted
house” attraction and invite people to tour it. It contained a track
made of wire from the ceiling corner to the opposite floor, upon
which I would roll this toy ball that had glow-in-the-dark liquid in
it, and that would be a “meteor” crashing to earth. Man, that was
fun. Along with that, I made “monster movies” by placing my toy
rubber monsters on an antique overhead projector, and showing that
on the walls. It was a weird cross between a film and live theater.
By the time I was ten or so, I was a huge fan
of Ray Haryhausen’s films. My grandfather was a painter and wood
carver, and he showed me some Sculpey (the polymer clay). Well, that
was all I needed! I then started to recreate my own versions of all
of Haryhausen’s creatures, as small Sculpey figures. It was
intoxicating. (The experience, not the smell).
When I was eleven, “Clash of the Titans” came
out, and for the next year or so, it was my biggest artistic
influence. The following year, “Dragonslayer” came out, featuring a
new animation technique, Go-Motion, done by Phil Tippet. Soon, that
film became my obsession, also introducing me to the work of music
composer Alex North. I was beginning to realize that film was the
ultimate artistic medium.
In school, I kind of got
out of the habit of sculpting for various reasons, and eventually
went to college for filmmaking. But one day, in a screening I just
happened to sneak into, for a class I wasn’t even in, I saw a short
film utilizing makeup prosthetics. I knew all about Rick Baker and
Dick Smith from when I was younger, but for some reason, I never
felt I had any chance of doing anything like that, it seemed silly
to even attempt it, perhaps. However, seeing the short film, by a
“mere film student”, using those same techniques I’d grown up
reading about, sent a major shock through me. All of the sudden the
gap between what the “pros” did, and what I was capable of, seemed
much narrower. The student was Vince Verdi, and I spoke to him, and
he was very nice. He’s a quiet guy, and I really bugged him for
technical info. The experience greatly inspired me to get back into
sculpting, and building up my portfolio. Through Vince, I made some
other contacts, including Mike Pearce, and I got into doing
freelance commercial sculpting. Vince and Mike have both gone on to
work on quite a number of major motion pictures.
a natural at sculpting, or did you have some rough beginnings?
I suppose you could say
that I was a natural when I was very young, since it came pretty
easily. Of, course when you’re a kid, you’re not really stressing
out over it, you’re just having fun, making wacky little faces in
clay at every opportunity. Plus, I didn’t know any other sculptors,
so I had nobody to compare myself to. It wasn’t until I was older,
and started to compare myself to other’s work, that I realized that
I had to stay competitive, artistically.
In college, I’d given up reading Fangoria and things like that for a
while, so I wasn’t up on what was going on. After that, came the
time when I got back into it, and I visited my friend Luis’s house,
and he had these Fango posters up everywhere, and it kind of came as
a shock to see all this great work I hadn’t been keeping up with.
It was then that I realized that I better brush up on my skills, and
fast! There was a time there, where I definitely was unsure of
myself and wondered if I was any good. So, yeah, there were some
rough spots there. And then, when I tried to teach myself mold
making, I almost gave up on the whole thing any number of times.
it your day job? If not, what is?
just about everything I do is freelance work. I’ve been a commercial
and portrait photographer, photo-retoucher, graphic artist,
sculptor, etc, etc. I’ve had some interesting clients like the Frank
Lloyd Wright Foundation,
Design Toscano, The Chicago Architectural Foundation, Facsimilies
Inc. and others. One time, I not only created a product for a group
from Czechoslovakia, but created the box design and layout,
including having to do all the lettering in their native language. I
just hope I got the punctuation right.
ever have a steady 9-5 job since college?
Well, if you really want to know, I did
have regular, real life type jobs as well. I did landscaping for
the Park District, was a flower salesman, worked as an industrial
floor installer, worked in a library, worked in a graphic-arts
supply warehouse stacking boxes and filling orders, delivered
packages for a mail order company, telemarketed for a home repair
company, and that sort of thing. Oh, yeah, I also made molds and
prepared displays for a gift shop.
I’m sure you didn’t want to know all
Any pros you
admire and why?
boy, are there! Sometimes I see their stuff and am inspired, and
other times I just realize I’ll never be that good. The best guys
out there are Greg Polutanovich, Steve Wang, Miles Teves, Joel
Harlow, Jordu Schell……and about three or four others, some of them
British artists, whose names I can’t remember at this very moment.
The ultimate masters, though, are Rick Baker and Dick Smith, of
Any amateur artists you admire?
are plenty of amateurs I admire, but, what precisely is the
definition of “amateur”? I suppose it’s if they are not regularly
receiving a paycheck as artists and sculptor. If that’s the
criteria, even some of the “Pros” would qualify. As far as the
amateurs go, there’s a lot of talent out there, but I don’t want to
name names, for fear of leaving out the rest. Let’s just say that
certain readers and contributors to this site (and The
Monster Lab.com) are among those unknown talents, with some really great
LMC: You sculpt a lot of varied work, what do
you like to sculpt the most?
I go through different periods of
being obsessed by things. There was a time when I was really into
caricature. That’s when you take recognizable features and take them
to the extreme, like a political cartoonist. One of the best
cartoonists to do this is a guy named Bill Plympton. He does
animation, too. Before I sculpted my more realistic Mark Twain, I
first did him as a caricature. It was a lot of fun, and a good
exercise in seeing how far you can stretch somebody’s face and still
make them recognizable. When I’m just playing with a ball of clay
and making a little face, it’s always really wacky and humorous.
Then I went through a phase where I
was obsessed with zombies. I read everything I could find on George
Romero, Tom Savini, etc. I liked to imagine the woods at the end of
my street to be populated by the walking undead. You know, when it’s
October, and there’s the smell of burning leaves all around, and the
air is nice and crisp, you just like to visualize some nice,
atmospheric, zombies out in the neighborhood. What could be more
fun? The wonderful work of John Vulich and Everet Burrell (Optic
Nerve Studios) in such films as “The Dark Half” and Savini’s “Living
Dead” remake in 1990 inspired much of this.
Well, that lasted about six months,
and burned itself out. I still love a good zombie or rotting corpse,
but during that time, I was OBSESSED with them. They’re still a rich
subject that I want to explore in the future.
Wrinkled skin is a texture that I
absolutely love. Sometimes I’ll sculpt wrinkles on a piece of clay
even if there’s no character there. I’m weird that way.
Humor is another thing that has
grown on me a lot. I used to try to make everything really scary and
nasty looking, but lately, issues of character, personality, and a
sense of humor have been creeping into my work. It’s probably most
evident in The Seven Deadly Sins I did. They’re not available in
latex, but if there’s an interest, I might do them that way.
My ultimate obsession, however, is evil clowns
and jesters. I have no idea why, but it’s a subject I will always go
back to. I think it’s because they both frighten and fascinate me. I
am not going to psychoanalyze myself and figure out what the deal is
with this interest, I’m just going to work it out in my art. It
seems like the safest thing to do.
do commissioned pieces?
yes, I …..I do. (Beginning to blush).
I have actually been known to do just that. Just let me know what y’
all want, and if I think it’s something that little old me will be
able to tackle, then out come the sculpting tools. All it takes is
an agreement on some fair recompense.