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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.


·       LMC: How did you get into sculpting?

JL:  I’ve 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.

LMC: Were you a natural at sculpting, or did you have some rough beginnings?

JL: 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.

LMC: Is it your day job? If not, what is?                                        

JL: Actually, 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.

LMC: Did you ever have a steady 9-5 job since college?

JL: 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 that.

LMC: Any pros you admire and why?

JL: Oh, 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 course.

LMC: Any amateur artists you admire?             

JL: There 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 work.

LMC: You sculpt a lot of varied work, what do you like to sculpt the most?       

JL: 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.

LMC: Do you do commissioned pieces?

JL: Why, 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.

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