The Dean Of Art Speaks: A Conversation With Roger Dean At The San Diego Comic Convention, July 23rd, 2004
This July the San Diego Comic-Con held its 35th annual comic and pop culture convention at the San Diego Bayside Convention Center. Growing substantially from previous years, the "Con," as the attendees like to call it, has grown to fill the entire Convention Center, filling hundreds of thousands of square feet with countless artists and dozens of film, animation, toy and publishing companies. Fans of pop culture jam the hall resulting in barely controlled chaos, as nearly 90,000 people fill the convention center over the course of four days.
Actors, artists and celebrities of all kinds draw huge crowds, as thousands throng to them in search of autographs and professional critiques of their own work. Among the big names attending this year were Val Kilmer, Keanu Reeves, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Stan Lee and, well known to fans of progressive rock music, Roger Dean.
On Friday July 23rd I attended a morning panel discussion which included Roger and he was gracious enough to talk with me for a short while following the panel. The comments that follow are drawn from both the interview and the panel discussion.
Roger Dean was born in Ashford, Kent, England in 1944, the son of an British Army Engineer. His father took the family abroad, so Roger spent much of his childhood living in Cyprus, Greece and Hong Kong. It was in Hong Kong that Roger, an avid hiker, found the inspiration that would mark his work to this day. The mountains that you see in so many of Dean's works are a reflection of the towering peaks that are found in Hong Kong and much of southern China. He states that he was always impressed by the spire-like mountains, often shrouded in mist, which he saw as a youngster. Roger tells me that the mountains of the "Dragons Garden" series were inspired by his boyhood days spent climbing in the former British colony. His love of nature and hiking continue to this day, and he has spent countless hours walking through countrysides and seashores throughout the world. His well known trees, the bent over giants that we see on Yessongs, the Magna Carta Yes tribute Tales From Yesterday, as well as many of his non-album cover works including "Floating Islands" are in reality the rare Monterey Cyprus, which he first saw at Pt. Lobos in central California.
Returning to England in 1959, Roger pursued a number of interests, including silversmithing, furniture design and landscape architecture. He has made his name mainly by producing album cover art, but this was mostly the result of a fortuitous accident. While designing the interior of a jazz club in London a record company executive saw his ever present sketch book (he continued to draw pencil sketches throughout our entire conversation) and commissioned Roger for his first record cover. This work, for the British rock trio Gun in 1969, brought Roger to the attention of the music world and more commissions followed quickly. His first widely known cover was the debut LP for the band Osibisa, which displayed the style that he continues to be known for to this day. That cover in 1971 gained the attention of the band Yes, and the rest, shall we say, is history.
How often, I asked, did you actually hear the music from a release before producing the image for the cover art? "Only about half the time," Roger replied. Furthermore, he states that, "I feel I have only one client, me. I can only do what I do well, and I let people choose from among the things I do." What about band logos then? He is equally well known for his imaginative lettering. Who, when they think of the band Yes, does not imagine the Yes logo with its sensually curving letters, flowing together as the music it represents flows? Logos are different than cover art he says, "I let people influence this to reflect who they are, what they think they are." I asked whether he had produced the entire alphabet in the scripts he created for bands such as Yes or Budgie. "No," he said, "sometimes I create entire scripts, but usually not for a band's logo. Sometimes I don't like the way a particular letter looks, but?"
Every product, such as music or art, gets a label attached to it; Roger Dean's label has been "fantasy artist." What does he think about that? "Well, fantasy art is determined by the level of delusion that any particular artist suffers from. The art world is schizophrenic. It does not understand itself, but it understands one or two labels, one of those being 'fantasy illustrator' and that label puts you at the bottom of the ladder." He rejects the idea of any label, saying "I am just an artist, that's all." Succinctly tying his work in design to his art, he says "a designer makes something that does not exist and he hopes it will someday. Fantasy artists design something that does not exist and everyone hopes that this vision will not come to pass."
Inspiration for his work comes from a variety of sources but between the concept and the finished work stands the artist himself. "Inspiration requires that the artist get out of the way. You can't let your plan get in the way of its execution." His main source for his breathtaking, surreal landscapes comes from his background as a landscape architect but he notes the work of the great landscape artists from China as influential to his work for Yes and a number of other bands.
Addressing progressive rock music directly, I asked his opinion of using an image, cover art particularly, to help interpret the music of Yes. Mincing no words, he says "they have nothing to do with each other, but the connection is inevitable." I mentioned that, while listeners may argue what is or is not progressive rock, I thought that most fans of the genre would probably agree that his work is what progressive rock "looks" like. Giving me a skeptical look, he said, "Interesting, but remember, I did art for many bands that are not progressive. Bands like Uriah Heep for instance."
Roger preferred the days of working with a band directly, rather than dealing with a corporation's art director, saying "working in the music business is great because you work with non-expert clients rather than an art director. With an art director, that is like driving a car down the street at one hundred miles an hour while blindfolded, and someone else is steering, and then you find out that they have earplugs on as well." Working with musicians may be fun, but being a musician entails endless hours of practice. Isn't the same true for artists? Roger says that an artist also must train themselves constantly. "I carry a sketchbook with me all the time. You have to draw or paint every day. Practice trains the body, the hand, and in turn eventually the hand will train the mind."
Watching Dean talking with a fan who had just bought a poster and then writing some notes in a small book after making a sale of a poster, I couldn't help but ask him if he was following in the tradition of former Yes drummer, Bill Bruford, who had carried a book with him everywhere he went, recording every pound he earned and every penny he had spent. He looked at me quizzically, and I found myself in the odd position of explaining a tidbit of Yes-lore to someone I thought would surely know everything there is to know about Yes. When I told him about Bruford's penny pinching habit, he laughed and said that he didn't know first hand about this story, but "that definitely sounds like the Bill that I know."
With our time running out, and still on the subject of Yes, I asked if he had spoken to the band about doing the art for their next release. Yes and no, he said. There had been no talk of an upcoming CD, but he has been speaking to Jon about another Yes project, a movie!
Sorry, but there are no details to report. There has been no specific plan outlined yet, probably just an idea floating through Jon Anderson's mind.
And with that, I took my leave, drifting away from the dean of album cover art.