Ken Nash - humorist, graphic designer, discusses open mic, life in Prague, and escaping the brain farm

28-12-2004

In today's edition Jan Velinger's guest is Ken Nash - a well-known illustrator, designer, and humorist whose work has been featured in publications around the world, including the English-language weekly, the Prague Post. His extensive design work has also included clients like Czech beer manufacturer Pilsner Urquell. Aside from drawing many illustrations, greeting cards, and cartoons, Ken also regularly organises the Alchemy Reading & Performance series here in the Czech capital - the open mic is something that has always been popular among ex-pats in Prague and it's what Ken discusses first. Here's Ken Nash - in One on One.

"There's been a history of English-language events- open mic - in Prague since 1992. And a friend of mine asked me if I too could get something together. I had this idea of changing the open mic to also include a feature segment in which people could perform for a longer period of time and we could bring performers to Prague, exposing the audience to new ideas and new works in progress. I think it was part of being part of this community here, something I just do for the fun of it, I don't get paid for it, but it's helping to nurture something for the community and it's important for me to be a part of that."

Do you find then that it brings together English speakers from different walks of life? You have your English teachers, business people, artists...

"Certainly a lot of English teachers! Also artists and professional writers who come: we've had some amazing people who've come, not just from around Prague, but from England, the U.S., Poland, Hungary, and so on."

Is there any performance - perhaps even your own - that sticks out in your mind?

"There have been quite a number: we had this performer from the U.K., Attila the Stockbroker, he does music and spoken word and is just an amazing, powerful presence. We've had successful novelists who came and performed; and then once in a while it's just a backpacker who shows up and just performs something incredibly moving. Those are some of the best."

It must be terribly nerve-wracking: you come up for the first time and there's dozens of people sitting around drinking and expecting you to deliver.

"Um, someone recently gave me some advice - performer friends who were passing through town - and I asked about this because I was getting really nervous and what they told me was that when you're up on stage and you are performing, you are no longer the person who created that work. You are the performer and you can not think about the editing process, you can not think about whether this is good or not, you have to think about the performance and be a performer, and learn to separate those two things."

Okay. Despite some funny rumours circulating on the internet that you were raised by Mongolian circus workers, you do come from the U.S., and I wanted to ask you how you came to Prague...

"If I tell this story it's going to sound a little bit ridiculous, and at the time I realised it was a little a bit ridiculous thing to do; but I was also at a point when I just wanted to do something ridiculous! I had been working in Chicago in advertising as a writer and producer and I liked the work, didn't necessarily like the industry, but I couldn't imagine myself working as a writer in the advertising industry for the rest of my life. And I didn't know what the next step was. And I had this dream one night that I was living in Prague and the next morning that was it! It was like 'why not?'. I knew almost nothing about Prague, but I was ready to do something out of the blue, not necessarily permanently but just something to kind of break up my life. And, I thought 'I could go to Prague'! I immediately made plans to get on a flight, put my things in storage, and headed off. It was just totally out of the blue. But, it ended up being the best thing I could have ever done."

Difficult question, but, what were the aspects of life here that helped you make up your mind to stay for as long as you have?

"One of the main things is just the 'physicality' of the city itself. There's something about the city's architecture, its streets, the lighting, the way the sun changes, that I just find incredibly inspiring and evocative. As corny as that may sound, but it is something about the physicality of the city. And the other thing is that there's just something about the atmosphere in Prague where almost anything can happen. You don't feel hemmed in too much, you feel like you can take risks here and try things, and if by chance you fail it doesn't matter, you're not going to crash too badly. It's been a good city for trying things, experimenting."

What about from the perspective of being a cartoonist or an illustrator or a graphic designer: is there, say, a healthy market for all of those jobs here? Or does it matter today, considering so much is over the internet?

"Um, it actually doesn't matter that much. I do a lot of my work over the internet, I have a lot of U.S. clients, so illustration now, over the internet is pretty universal. I do a lot of animation work for greeting cards which are viewed in Europe, in the U.S., in Japan, Israel ... I get letters from all over."

When you live in a different place as an expatriate, as a foreigner abroad, it's inevitable that that experience away also changes you; in what ways have you been changed by this country?

"I think just the experience of being an expatriate, living outside of your native land, is in some ways a little bit freeing. I remember the Polish poet Czeslaw Miloscz, who was living in the U.S. for quite a long time teaching at Berkeley, and he had said something about how it's a natural part of most peoples' lives to feel a little bit alienated, this existential anxiety of feeling like you don't quite fit in. And, when you're in your own home country and feel that way it just feels like a dysfunctional part of your mind. But, when you're living in a foreign country it's almost like it feels 'normal', it's like you have an excuse for feeling like you don't fit in {laughs}. So, I know I don't completely 'fit in' but I'm okay with that!"

Back to the illustration and the cartoons: were you inspired by design and illustrations from this region?

"From this region, yes. Especially the modernists, design-wise, yeah: Karel Tiege and Ladislav Sutnar and others. That's very inspiring for my design work and there's a lot of energy in that type of work. Um, and the humour in the Czech Republic, maybe I do identify with it a little bit. There's sort of a darkness to it which my own sense of humour responds to."

And American cartoonists?

"I would say Gary Larson was a major influence: growing up I loved Gary Larson back when everyone didn't understand him {laughs}; I thought he was amazing. I mean, he broke ground compared to where most cartoonists were at, when he started publishing nationally. He was doing stuff that was so off the wall and was darker and sometimes creepier than a lot of the cutesy cartoons that were out there at the time."

I'd like to mention some of the greeting cards that you've done that I've enjoyed and maybe you could tell me about one of the latest ones you've worked on. On your website I noticed this little story about a vampire who's kind of lonely and drinking [blood of course] - the point there being don't spend Hallowe'en alone. Have there been any new greeting cards that you've been working on?

"Yeah, I'm constantly working on greeting cards: this morning I was working on a font for a card that is non-humorous, very sentimental, I try to extend my range sometimes."

Okay. Is there a limit where you won't go?

"Um... no! {laughs}"

Let me ask you this: when you're working in design, how often would it be through a computer programme and how often would it be free-hand?

"It's both. For me it's important to be able to do both. I'll sketch out ideas, sometimes I'll draw them by hand, then scan them, and then put them up on the computer. And, I also do a lot of work just for fun, a lot of drawing around Prague. I'll take my sketchbook out and go out onto the streets and draw buildings and people. I enjoy doing that."

I'm going to round it up by returning to the topic with which we started - the open mic - apparently you've been working on short stories {some of which have been read on mic] called "The Brain Harvest". I wondered if you could give us a bit of a teaser about that that book and whether it will be published...

"Um, we will see if it will be published! The title story is about this man who works on this farm. He...runs out of money while he's travelling and he finds temporary work at a fram with a bunch of immigrants from Mexico, harvesting these crops. Which are 'brains'! And, the brains are then shipped off to universities for students to use. And... life gets really bad on the brain farm and he decides to escape one night and he takes a couple brains with him. And he travels around and he finds that the two brains he stole are actually quite useful for him to, one, be very successful in the casinos, and the other, for him to be able to foresee events a little bit into the future. That's basically how the story begins."

For more samples of Ken's work visit www.KenNash.com

Those based in Prague interested in visiting a performance can see Ken on January 3rd at the Tulip Café. More information is available at www.alchemyprague.com

28-12-2004