Smile Politely

Meet Matt Wiley: illustrator, animator, writer, and cyberpunk

The recent spree of artist profiles you’ve seen here in the arts section stems from a long-awaited passion project that seemed best suited for the lull of spring and summer months. As I’ve been working my way through a list of local arts all-stars, I’ve acknowledged the inherent risk involved. I could learn something that might diminish my appreciation of their work. But then I could also discover that I had previously only scratched the surface of their talent, intelligence, and generosity. This was what happened when I met Matt Wiley in his collab space in Urbana.

Wiley’s name first flew across my radar when I admired the Ebertfest poster hanging in the back of the Parkland College Graphic Design computer lab. When I asked about it, I was told it was “one of Matt’s. He’s probably the best illustrator in town.” 

My second experience with Wiley’s work also happened at Parkland College. This time, at the Giertz Gallery during that year’s Graphic Design Student Show, where he was selling copies of his first (and I hope not his last) print book, My Cat is Depressed.  This funny yet poignant book hit the Venn diagram sweet spot between the design student audience and the family and friends who came to celebrate their work. I was lucky to get the very last copy. 

Some 18 months later, I’m holding too much camera equipment as Wiley is showing me around his workspace at collab. We started with my original questions, but eventually spun off into the kind of conversational detours that happen when you put a curious arts writer in the room with an artist of equal if not greater curiousity. 

I started by asking about his multi-hyphens and how they might be related. His said it all came down to liking “to create content that I enjoy, or allows me to experiment with a new tool.”  And while my job requires me to help define or describe an artist or their work, Wiley admits to some discomfort with labels like ‘illustrator’ because they “make me feel like I’m reduced to what everyone thinks that role is supposed to do. I prefer to do everything.”  And he does. But more about that later. 

Growing up with a mom who, in addition to being a nurse and then a teacher, has always been an artist, Wiley was surrounded by art supplies, as well as art history and graphical textbooks.* When asked about his first memories of drawing, he recalls being “fascinated with stoplights as a very young child. I drew them all the time, my grandpa made a tall, wooden stoplight lamp that I had for years, too. I think other than being colorful, I was amazed that you could directly influence the flow of cars with them. I was that hyperactive kid who constantly hit the walk buttons to mess up traffic.”

*Fun fact: Years later, Wiley designed the cover art for a book his mom wrote and illustrated

When I asked what inspires him, Wiley shared that he “love[s] mashups and style hybrids. Examples: Movies re-edited in the style of different genres, odd song-combinations like “Crocodile Chop” by Neil Cicierega, Korean beef bulgogi quesadillas, the score to Pacific Rim and the Westworld piano covers. I also like knowing what constraints my work can exist in. It makes surpassing those an act of defiance.”

You may recognize this window art.  It’s another one of Wiley’s creations—one closer to what I hesitate to call his “signature” style.

Here’s how WIley describes his unique style. 

My current style uses strong silhouettes, bright colors, vintage sensibilities, clean layouts, and asymmetry. I’ve been working on perfecting this style for about a decade, and now it’s what everybody else is doing with the emergence of “flat design.” But it branches into all kinds of different directions based on what the project needs. I’m also impatient when I need to get an idea down, so I think about the fastest way to get a concept across and that’s become my style.

Then came the question I’d been wanting to ask ever since I picked up that book at the Giertz Gallery:  What inspired My Cat is Depressed? And the answer did not disappoint. In fact, it made me tear up a litte. 

It was based on a Post-it Note drawing of an elderly office cat at my last job who sighed on peoples desks. The title was consistently funny to me, so I decided to elevate it to a full project. I took inspiration from the rhyme scheme of Dr. Seuss books and Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back. It took a while to nail down the visual style. At one point it was going to be physically constructed environments with illustrated characters, at another point it resembled Edward Gorey illustrations crossed with Nickelodeon cartoons. The real balance was creating something that could be both endearing and an informal way to teach people that depression isn’t always something that can be cured easily, and how to act around people without popping their bubble. What I didn’t expect was for the cat to serve as an audience surrogate. Some people are relating to the cat, and it can help reassure them that they’re valid people even if they don’t always feel like hanging out. 

Self-publication via Amazon proved to be the best choice for several reasons. “I work on a lot of projects, so I wanted the ability to get it out there as quickly as possible, in a way that won’t waste my time with packing and shipping, is easy for readers to purchase, and avoid having giant boxes of inventory in my apartment. I can publish and then move on to the next project. I highly recommend it if you want an uncomplicated way to get your book on Amazon and bookstores quickly, and are comfortable promoting it yourself.”

To that end, stop by to find out more about this quietly powerful (and beautifully illustrated) story. 

And what would an artist profile be without a discussion of process.  Matt Wiley is one artist who does not struggle to find ideas. With his diverse interests and innate curiosity, his challenge is sorting out which to develop. 

I have way more ideas than I have time, but documenting them allows the good ones to simmer and develop naturally, and the bad ones to die off. I’ve been stockpiling project ideas since about 2007. Most of my stuff could take the form of a comedy skit, or a webcomic, ad pitch, or a smaller element within a larger story. Many projects that the public sees I create just to learn a skill, like lightpainting, UI design, motion tracking, web design etc. I’ll try to create as many assets as I can for a project unless I can get away with using free stock content. Most everything starts with a tablet sketch in Photoshop or a marker board brainstorm (my favorite way of working with people), and the progress is archived with a strict numbering system so I can find everything. Everything after that is pretty standard.

Wiley is one of those lucky and busy people who work a design day job they enjoy and explore passion projects in off hours. The world is full of misconceptions of what designers do or don’t do, so I was curious to hear Wiley’s thoughts on the subject. 

I think people assume that I’m willing to work on any freelance project they throw at me. I have a hard time saying no to projects, but sometimes that leads me into situations where I didn’t evaluate if the work I’m doing matches the value of the time I’m taking away from my own projects. Sometimes, I become a productivity tool instead of a collaborator. If I decide to take on projects, they need to allow me to be creative with people, not creative at them.

These days Wiley’s main focus is Light Witches —a heterotopian web comic.

Note: Far more subtle and complex than dystopian narratives,  heterotopias are, according to the authors of the Heterotopian Studies website, “worlds within worlds, mirroring and yet distinguishing themselves from what is outside.  Philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault, also defined them as “different: isolated, concentrated, incompatible, and contradictory.”  In 1980, he famously said “We must think that what exists is far from filling all possible spaces.”

(Thus ends today’s social theory lesson courtesy of Matt Wiley, my grad school Foucault texts, and the Internet).

Wiley aptly refers to the creation of this work as “world-building”  a web comic “about propaganda, holograms, and punching Nazis.” The name Light Witches is a mash-up of references to both the Nazi-fighting Night Witches and the significance of holograms in this universe.

Or, in other words, it’s a “cyberpunk political thriller about a group of activists that stage public displays to hold an oppressive government accountable, and how people with agendas use emerging technologies and social media to spread terror. It’s a 130-page web comic, with video and animated content, like commercials and TV show segments that happen within the universe. I’m going to be using this studio space to not only draw the comic, but create segments from a xenophobic Sesame Street.” 

When I first found out about Light Witches, and the vastness of its scope, I half-expected to see the walls of Wiley’s workspace covered in sheets of paper—the architecture of this emerging universe a la J.K. Rowling’s mapping out of what would become the world of Hogwarts. But I was wrong. Every surface was neat and tidy, holding on the tools required.  Instead there were spreadsheets containing assets needing to be made, custom data tools containing scene notes, and clean lists of digital folders. It was an organizational masterpiece, but with this much content at stake, there is no other option. 

Wiley’s ability to both nutshell the concept and create a comprehensive plan for the many infrastructural elements he must create for it is a testament to his diverse skill set. He was generous to share several images from his production gallery.  If you look carefully, you’ll see that he has created a unique language and system letter forms for the Light Witches universe. 

[gallery matt_wiley]

As someone who is literally creating a universe from scratch in his off-hours, Matt Wiley makes time to enjoy a few lighthearted creative projects. And in case you were wondering if there were any more talents he may be hiding, you can add voice actor to his multi-hypenated list.  

In the Thrift Store Playhouse series, which he co-created with fellow illustrator-designer-voice actor Justin Klett, Wiley showcases an astonishing vocal range—and a penchant for strange thrift store publications. As Wiley describes it, “we stage dramatic readings of the back covers of crappy teen books and romance novels we find at thrift stores. We try to find very odd books from the 70s-90s and restage the synopsis or an excerpt as if it were a movie trailer or something with waaaay higher stakes than what the high school book characters are going through. Topics of interest: infidelity, ponies, and your best friends deceiving you.” 

Learn more about Matt Wiley’s work on his website.

Follow the creation of Light Witches online and be sure to subscribe for updates. And then tell all of your friends.  

All photos by Debra Domal except image of Ebertfest poster from Matt Wiley’s website, page sample of My Cat is Depressed and Light Witches production gallery images courtesy of the artist. 

Arts Editor

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