J.T. Yost is busy, busy, busy. The Brooklyn Heights-based illustrator and his jewelry designer wife, Karen, are expecting their first child next month. The recipient of a Xeric Foundation Grant, a prestigious award given to comic book and graphic novel self-publishers, Yost started his own publishing company Bird Cage Bottom Books. His comic “Old Man Winter & Other Sordid Tales,” as well as his mini-comics, “Losers Weepers” and “Tales of Good Ol’ Snoop Doggy Dogg” have earned him national attention and a cult-like following. When he’s not busy with self-publishing, he’s a freelance children’s illustrator, does some editorial work on the side, and works on a series of both traditional and “peculiar” pet portraits. It’s easy to see how he spreads himself thin… but it’s clear he’s enjoying himself every step of the way. It’s hard not to get sucked into his whimsical world, and even with his darker graphic work, you can’t help but want to see more.
Brooklyn The Borough enjoyed a raucous chat with the Yost, where we found out more about his work, his move to Brooklyn, and why the mural he’s been working on for his soon-to-be born daughter features a pigeon and an everything bagel. Trust us, it will all come together.
Brooklyn The Borough: Where did you grow up?
J.T. Yost: The prestigious Roswell, Georgia. Also home to fellow Jew David Cross.
BTB: Haha! So, map your Southern Jew arrival to Brooklyn…how did you end up here?
JTY: The whole sordid saga started when I lived in Austin, TX. I flew in to NYC to attend an illustrator convention. The idea was that illustrators set up a table with their portfolios and promo cards and whatnot. Then art directors walk around and look at everybody’s stuff…
So, I know that I’m going to be sitting next to whomever I sit next to for about 8 1/2 hours. I want to choose wisely. I spot Karen with a totally insane table setup. She had built a gigantic arch of fake flowers over her table. Keep in mind that this was a professional atmosphere. She had a matching fake flower covered outfit, but she decided not to wear that. Anyhow, I thought she was cute and obviously interesting, so I sat next to her… we ended up hitting it off so well that we pretty much ignored the art directors. After the event we went to some Irish bar and sat next to the accordion player (I play accordion, so this was exciting for me). Anyhow…we started dating long-distance. She was planning to move to Austin, but her parents ended up having some serious health problems. So, I moved into her East Village apartment.
I moved there at the end of 2001, just after 9/11. We had two roommates, two cats and a dog. Fast forward to 2008. We decided to have kids, and we figured our roommates probably wouldn’t be into a screaming baby.
We were growing weary of the huge bridge & tunnel and NYU college crowds that swarmed the neighborhood every night. We couldn’t go out to a restaurant without a huge wait or go to a movie without it being sold out. These folks that don’t live in the neighborhood have no respect for the people that do. They fight and puke in the streets (I sound like a crotchety old dad already!). I started doing this thing I call “body checking” when I walked down the sidewalks. I got so sick of dodging everyone, that I’d just brace my shoulders and not move out of the way, thus “body checking” anyone who got in my way. We felt it was time to move.
BTB: The Manhattanization of your body… I totally understand
JTY: I lived for about eight years in Richmond, Virginia and always loved the look of it…colonial homes, lots of trees, etc. This neighborhood we’re in now (right between Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill) reminds me of that, aesthetically.
There are tons of grocery stores within two blocks (Trader Joe’s and Sahadi’s). We’re about six blocks from the Promenade where you can see The Statue of Liberty, The Brooklyn Bridge, and the lower Manhattan skyline over the river.
BTB: Brooklyn’s open bosom has welcomed you thoroughly. Are you finding yourself newly influenced by your Brooklyn surroundings? And what’s your general process? Do you sketch things out, write some of the story or dialogue out first, how do you generally get your ideas into motion?
JTY: Hmmm…maybe subtly. I just finished a comic featuring pigeons, and some of the building reference photos I took were in Brooklyn. My pet portraits aren’t typically in a specific setting, so they’re not affected.
Sometimes I even photograph myself in whatever poses I need, much to Karen’s amusement. There’s a heroin addict in my last comic, so she’d call me ‘Crack Yost’ whenever I’d put on a baseball cap (the b-ball cap was part of his outfit, and I don’t ever wear one, so she’d always know I was getting ready to take reference photos when I put it on). I usually come up with a concept, do a quick thumbnail outline of the page layouts and dialogue, draw the finals on bristol board with non-photo blue pencil, ink it and scan it in. I sometimes do the coloring on the computer, sometimes with watercolor and ink washes.
BTB: So your work encompasses a lot- editorial, illustration, comics, pet portraits…
JTY: Yeah, none of them pay especially well, so I spread the “wealth” around! I have a hard time focusing on one thing. I like variety. I used to split my time evenly between playing music and doing visual art, but I got to a point where I didn’t feel like I could excel at either, so I kind of chose to focus on visual art. My poor accordion is gathering dust under the bed.
BTB: What are you working on now?
JTY: I’ve spent a lot of the past year promoting my book, wrangling reviews and attending comic conventions on the east coast. Now I’m trying to build up an inventory of mini-comics in between doing pet portraits. I haven’t been focusing too much on editorial illustration, but I’m not opposed.
BTB: Tell me about King Con here in Brooklyn! How did it go?
JTY: Well, in contrast to it’s larger Manhattan-based cousin MoCCA (Museum Of Comic And Cartoon Art), it was much more laid back. MoCCA has grown exponentially in the last several years. So much so that they moved it from the Puck Building to an Armory. Lots of exhibitors fly in from around the country. In contrast, King Con is focused on Brooklyn artists. This was their first year in this comic-centric incarnation (I think it used to be a zine-focused event), so they did fly in a few bigger name artists that don’t reside in Brookyn to draw a bigger crowd. Most of these bigger names (Harvey Pekar, Jonathan Ames, etc.) were involved in panel discussions held during the convention.
BTB: Congrats on the Xeric Grant- that’s a pretty great accomplishment!
JTY: I’m trying to finish up larger projects in preparation for our new baby. I want to be able to enjoy her infancy without a lot of distractions, you know? I just finished painting a mural of a pigeon with an everything bagel mandala in her nursery… I have a huge soft-spot for pigeons. I love watching them. I just read a book all about them. They fascinate me. I have a one-legged pigeon friend that I like to enjoy an indian meal with from time to time. He hangs out in Meltzer park (it’s attached to an old folks home).
BTB: And the everything bagel halo…?
JTY: Oh, well, bagels and pigeons go hand in hand. I thought it would be funny to have one as a sort of halo behind the bird. Supposedly kids love to recognize things they see daily in artwork, so a pigeon seemed like a natural choice…
BTB: i can see how an everything bagel sort of encompasses ideas around inclusiveness in the world.
JTY: You can see it on my blog. I’m a fan of relgious artwork from the 15th Century. It’s a bastardization of that, sort of.
BTB: Kind of like buying the world a Coke… except changing it to an everything bagel.
JTY: Yes, that was my intention. Very astute. I am a Jew, after all. Can’t get away from those bagels.
(All photos courtesy of J.T. Yost)