Getting to Know… Josh Cochran
Project: Poetry for Art, Lea Mural Project
ABAD Project: Getting to Know
J: Josh Cochran (Guest Artist)
S: So Jung (ABAD Interviewer)
June 3, 2021 @ 11AM
S: What attracted you to becoming an artist and when did you know this was the direction you wanted to go into?
J: I was probably attracted to becoming an artist from watching Disney movies as a kid, I think. I grew up in Taiwan and I didn’t have much influence to western culture except through a few things that my American grandparents would send me from the states and they’d often send me Disney movies, you know like the new ones that came out. That was like a very early influence of mine. Initially, I just wanted to become an animator but then I learned that animation was extremely difficult. Then I thought I wanted to be a background painter. Then ultimately, through a series of decisions, my path kind of led me to what I do today, which is kind of similar but quite different than I thought.
S: How old were you when this was all processing for you?
J: It was very early. I think like most kids I drew a lot. My mom took me to after school art classes for little kids in Taipei. I was exposed pretty early on and my mom is also an artist, and my grandmother too. So I had art in my genes, in my blood. The only difference is that I kept up with drawing and painting. It’s something that I nurtured throughout my time at school. When I was in junior high, I would sell drawings to classmates and friends. I would trace superhero drawings from comic books and sell them to classmates too, which was in retrospect kind of hilarious.
S: That’s awesome. Junior high! That’s insane. In Drawing on Walls, the book that you illustrated, how did you experience that process and how did that inspire you to create art referencing Keith Haring specifically?
J: Drawing on Walls was a really interesting process for me. I’ve been wanting to break into doing children’s books for many years now. I did a book on my own a few years prior to getting approached to do Drawing on Walls. It was for the UK and the imprint kind of collapsed. I felt like I didn’t have a lot of options, so when Claudia approached me to do this, I really kind of jumped on the chance. Also, Keith Haring is a huge influence for me and it made a lot of sense for me to do this project. I was intimidated at first for doing the project because he’s such a huge icon, you know? So many of my peers or people that I look up to really love Keith Haring so I felt like there was a lot of pressure for me to do a good job and not sell him short, in a way. In retrospect, I put a lot of pressure on myself to do a good job on this. In the beginning, it was almost too much, you know? It felt a little bit crippling. I was having a hard time figuring out how the art was going to look at the end. I didn’t want it to look like my commercial work. I wanted it to have its own feeling, living in its own world. My studio mate, Dan Salmieri who is also a children’s book illustrator and author – he suggested I do everything by hand and paint it all. That was kind of a huge breakthrough for me because it really opened up this whole new world of mark-making and image-making that I really haven’t explored as much until this project. That really was a great experience for me. Also, I got to know Matthew, who wrote the book, and he really encouraged me to tap into my inner Keith Haring and really try to find the joy in the process. I think once I embraced that, I really let myself have fun with it and not be so pressured about it. Before I was so freaked out about doing a good job that I was almost gripped with fear. Once I let go of that, everything went pretty smoothly. That being said, the whole process took about four years so it was over a long period of time. The other part of the question about how I was able to figure out the way of working Keith’s work… he’s already been a huge influence on the way that I make my lines. I watched some videos of him drawing and I really wanted to capture some of that essence while still maintaining my own hand in the process. So I decided to make all of his lines in the book completely black. In theory, it’s kind of like that one bit in the artwork that kids or a viewer can follow along that’s pure black or pure white. So as you go from spread to spread, you can follow this snaking line that goes along the page in various places.
S: That’s where it came from! Obviously the artwork in the book turned out amazing. It’s sitting on my piano and my partner and his mother have it displayed too in their living room. Was there anything else that you wanted to say?
J: Because everything else is painted in the book, there’s a lot of nuance or gradations, color shifts, but I wanted the most simple and basic moment to be Keith’s line. So that was kind of my thinking behind making the book.
S: Wow. I’m getting into your head of how this all was created. Really cool. The next question is, what role do parents or teachers play in your opinion in nurturing creativity in their children or students? How were you impacted by the role models when you were younger?
J: One of the biggest messages from the book and probably one of my biggest takeaways was just to allow kids to have this freedom of expression and to give them the space and acceptance for who they are and what they want to make. I think that parents and educators and adult role models around kids do have a responsibility to allow kids the room to be able to express themselves fully and be able to find their own potential. I grew up in a rather strict environment and I wasn’t always able to have this. I had to kind of in a way hide parts of my personality or stifle some of my creative growth. But luckily, I did have some amazing teachers who really nurtured me and guided me along the way and kind of gave me permission to be myself and explore all these facets of my personality and creativity. A lot of those teachers were in college actually. I had a couple of really, really amazing mentors and instructors in art school that really encouraged me along the way. I was a bit of a late bloomer in this regard.
S: That’s really nice that you had young mentors. That actually helps.
J: They’re like really young and cool teachers. Unlike any teachers I had previously. They must have been in their early 30s and super cool. A lot of the cultural references felt very freeing in a way.
S: They’re closer to your age so better understanding is there. I want to move on to the Lea Mural questions. This is my personal joke of a question because I want to know. What flavor is the bubble tea supposed to be? Because it’s white…
J: Great question. The flavor that I have been getting into is the cantaloupe flavor? Do you guys have Vivi?
S: Yeah we do!
J: It’s honeydew tea with, I think they have honeydew jelly too, at 30% sugar. Also if you have the option to get it warm, I’d recommend that as well. Just a pro-tip from a long time boba drinker.
S: For me, I rotate my favorite flavors over season and over the year. For a while when I was younger, my go-to was taro because it’s the sweetest, sugary drink in the world.
J: I love taro.
S: Taro is the OG. Have you heard of Tiger Sugar?
J: The one that kind of bleeds down the cup?
S: I go to Korea every summer to teach and the last time I went, which was a year before the pandemic, I explored Myung Dong, which is the tourist shopping area. Have you been there?
J: Yeah! I have been there.
S: I went there one day and it was 90 degrees outside. I needed water or something to drink and I walked past these stores and it had a line that was down the entire street. All of these people walking out of the cafe had this cup with the bleeding sugar. It looked so good so I waited for 45 minutes. Then I posted on my Instagram story and all of my friends started messaging me asking if I got Tiger Sugar. They were asking me if I was in Taiwan. I told them I was in Korea. They told me it was the original bubble tea from Taiwan. That’s where it all started apparently.
J: Yeah they invented it in Taiwan. It’s our national pride.
S: Bubble tea is from Taiwan originally, right?
S: People were blowing up my phone and asking me where I got it. I asked one of the employees and they said they had just opened a week before. It was their first opening in Korea and everybody in Asia knows about it, so it has been busy all day every day since opening. They just opened one in Philly too this year.
J: Oh yeah, here in NY they have a bunch of restaurants like that. In Taiwan when I went last many years ago, they had these corn dogs that are essentially bits of potato in the batter so it looks really chunky. Instead of a corn dog it’s like melted mozzarella cheese on a stick. I just saw in it in Koreatown in NY.
S: With the sausage inside too?
J: It can be, but I know the ones with just pure cheese on a stick. I saw it in Taipei in a night market six years ago, and just now it’s appearing in Koreatown in the U.S.
S: It’s like a cheese dog, right?
J: Yeah it looks chunky and huge!
S: They have the corn dog breading around it.
J: Yeah! Keep an eye out in Philly!
S: I think my sister found it here actually so I’ll ask her. Our rant about food! The next question is open-ended – what can you add more about your childhood? It seems that your creativity and ideas came from your childhood and you have influences from there, too. Is there anything you’d like to talk about regarding your childhood that motivated or changed you?
J: My parents were missionaries in Taiwan and they were basically really busy all the time with the church doing stuff. There would be many, many hours of free time with my brother and I in a room in a building essentially in a church where we were by ourselves with whiteboards. I would spend hours and hours messing around on the whiteboards just trying to keep myself from boredom. Also, during the church services themselves I would be drawing all the time on the bulletins… you know, where you can tell what’s going to happen next in the service – just drawing over that while my dad was preaching. And honestly, in retrospect, that really helped me get better in a way. I was practicing doodling and also having time letting my imagination run free without being too critical about what was coming out. I was half listening and half drawing. I think that was a huge influence on me. I also think growing up in Taiwan and moving back to the states later on when I was older having many different cultural influences on me had quite a huge role in my work. I have primarily grown up in pretty big cities for most of my life and my childhood so I’ve always been interested in cramped spaces and intricate busy moments. I definitely think that’s something that crept into my work. This feeling that you’re in a submarine where there’s little shelves everywhere with stuff, everything is on something.
S: That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that because most people don’t like being cramped. But you seem to enjoy that, which is cool.
J: I think for me, doing the book, I felt the message and the attitude and general vibe of the book was so different from how I grew up, so not at all what was taught to me. It was really freeing in a way to embrace this different thing. In a way, it was pushing back against the way I was brought up and how I was raised. I think having a childhood that was relatively strict has given me something to think about in terms of this isn’t how I want to approach my creativity. I had something to rebel against in a way.
S: I know exactly what you mean. It’s giving you a reason to appreciate the things you weren’t able to fully experience growing up and being able to see it through a different lens, which is really important.
S: I’ve asked you what inspires you but this question is more about getting into your zone when you work. If music helps you, what type do you typically listen to when you’re working?
J: I definitely have to get into the zone. I feel like I make my best work when I’m not aware of the hours or time. You’re just in the flow state. I love listening to music – it’s one of the perks of my job because I can listen to tons and tons of music. I love audiobooks and podcasts. I’ve been listening to a lot of 70s soul and reggae and what else… I’ve been into more contemporary jazz like harp jazz. Harp and bass – that’s been something I’ve been into. I can send you some after we’re done.
S: I love harp. I grew up playing the violin, so I like listening to string instruments.
J: Yeah! Me too. I grew up playing piano and I also played saxophone for a while so my appreciation for jazz has always come from there. Sometimes it’s nice to have music with no words to meander and go into unexpected places and improvising. It’s all conducive to art making.
S: I’ve always appreciated the lyrics more than the tune. It’s different for everyone – some people focus on the music and others on lyrics if it’s a song. It’s hard for me to listen to music with words when I’m doing work because I’m trying to interpret. Please do introduce me to the harp and jazz.
J: I’m the opposite – I’m less lyrics and more music.
S: I want to get there at some point. This is in regards to the students’ poems – what questions or thoughts came to your mind when you were reading them?
J: I guess my thoughts that I had – I was trying to imagine what the kids were thinking when they were making their poems. I sort of wanted to imagine what was going on because a lot of the poems were very much like stuff that was happening around them or things that were going on with them. There were a few that were really inspirational and got in deeper to the inner… I felt it showed the personality of the student more. I was curious to find out more about the students and what’s going on with them with a little bit more background. It was really cool to see them at that age writing a poem, which is daunting. I wouldn’t have the attention span. I was impressed with their honesty and how free they felt kind of what we’ve been talking about. Just felt like they weren’t holding back at all. If it was going to be depressing, they were going to show that part of themselves.
S: How did the poems resonate with you? Was there anything in particular that struck a chord and why?
J: A lot of them resonated with me. The ones that were more specific were probably the strongest for me. There was one in particular – by a student named Shay who included a little animated GIF that he made. He specifically included it as a reference GIF to me to be inspired for the mural. It was a drawing or animation of a robot or some sort of video game character that was going like this, with lightning bolts shaking with electricity all around the figure. I mimicked that pose for the final mural.
S: Oh, that’s what it was based off of?!
J: Yeah, the victorious pose. The poem was also very much super confident and hopeful and positive. I was struck at how triumphant his poem was compared to many of the other ones, so that stood out to me in a way. It really inspired me. Going into the project, like many of us, we had such a hard winter, feeling beat down… I really needed to see this ray of positivity and feeling of victory in a way so that was really healing to read that and see that.
S: That’s awesome! I’m going to try and read that one.
J: I forget whose teacher had him, but Matthew and Sibylla will know which I’m talking about.
S: I’ll ask Sibylla. What do you want the students to experience, see and feel when they look at your artwork?
J: I hope that they can find a little bit of themselves in it and I hope that they can find something in there that they can identify with and they can feel like we’re on the same page. Perhaps also embody some of that victorious triumphant attitude that I got from them so hopefully that’s something that they can feel when they see it in the hallway every day.
S: I’m sure they will. I think I saw a post where they clear-coated it.
J: Oh, okay cool. I’ll have to check it out.
S: I think they did. It looked like they were doing something. I heard from Sibylla and I want to double check with you – do you put hidden figures or some kind of signature in your artwork?
J: Yeah, for sure. I put stuff in my work that perhaps only has meaning for myself. I think like the boba, for instance – this particular mural, a lot of the motifs and the icons I put in there are significant to me growing up. But that’s definitely something that I do just to satisfy my own needs, I guess.
S: Maybe Sibylla saw you putting a cat in your artwork?
J: There’s like a Garfield in there. I learned how to draw Garfield as one of the first things I learned how to draw. So I can draw Garfield really well from my imagination.
S: That’s awesome. We want to ask you what it’s like to collaborate. When you collaborate with others, what is that like for you? Do you feel more constricted? Do you feel like there are more ideas coming out of that? What did you learn about yourself while collaborating with others?
J: I learn a lot just because I’m responding to someone else and how they think. It’s really refreshing to get out of my own headspace and be able to react to someone else’s process. Oftentimes I find that shakes up my own process a bit because I’m responding to things and adjusting my own work to the other person. I also think it’s really healthy for me because in a way, it does kind of kill my ego a bit. You really have to take your ego down a few notches to give space to whoever you’re collaborating with and I think that’s always kind of a good process to do from time to time.
S: That’s a very good point. You said it very well and people can learn from that. What does it mean to you that this is a gift to the students of a West Philadelphia elementary school?
J: It means a lot. It’s really the ideal project for me. It means more than working for some multi-international tech company. It’s really the ultimate project for me. Just to do something for kids and something that can positively impact this younger generation and hopefully give them something. I think that age, and also elementary school, was such a huge time of my life and so impactful for me becoming the person that I am now that just to have an opportunity to contribute a small thing to their upbringing really is quite humbling. I’m really grateful for the opportunity.
S: Obviously, we’re very grateful for you to have done such cool work. You’ve done a lot of work around the country and world. How does the surrounding or environment impact you?
J: It really does impact the process quite a bit. Essentially you’re creating this temporary workspace and so I think oftentimes, I have to respond to what supplies are available and what’s not available. Also who is going to be around to… sometimes these projects are outside where strangers are stopping to check it out or to comment on it and that for sure, that moment when I’m talking to them or responding to them, also changes from location to location. This particular mural was so smooth because it was all indoors and it was such a chill environment. Anything that I needed appeared. Even stuff that I didn’t ask for but was awesome like Sibylla bringing her baklava and snacks and food. All the water that I needed… It was pretty cushy.
S: That’s good! That’s interesting. I didn’t think about the outdoor/indoor environment. When people come and talk to you or comment, does that ever change the course of your artwork?
J: I think in the beginning, I would get more self-conscious about it and kind of out of that flow state and wondering if I’m doing a good job or not. But doing it more and more, I’ve become more comfortable and accustomed to dealing with the public. I find it inspiring and positive – it’s kind of amazing to make stuff that people can interact with or see on a day to day basis.
S: Every artist has something nailed down and something that they would want to improve on. Is there either of those that you can speak to?
J: Oof, that’s a tough one. There’s a long list.
S: If you can, pick one.
J: I don’t feel like I’ve nailed anything down. I think I can draw pretty quickly from my imagination and observation – that’s one thing I feel comfortable doing. To a certain level of professionalism or whatever. The thing that I would like to improve upon more is perhaps I want to get better at making work for play, in a way, or making creative work that’s for myself for fun or for my own personal benefit, I guess. That’s something that I oftentimes put at the end of my list of my day and I do want to get better at prioritizing that more part of my process and more of my day. That has been a slower build. In the past I was making a lot more work that was purely for commission and gradually I’ve been trying to shift it to, “what do I have to say, what do I have to contribute?” as well. I think that’s a creative muscle that I’d like to continue flexing or work out.
S: It’s because you’re super humble, Josh. But that’s a cool thing to want to work on as an artist. It’s an interesting perspective. Quick story: I’ve never been into art. I can do stuff but I haven’t been drawn to it. There was a phase in my life in first grade where I loved Disney – I came to the states when I was four so my parents wanted me to see the western culture and Disney was the go-to. I had a stack of VHS tapes.
J: The puffy covers, right?
S: The plastic ones too. I was obsessed with The Little Mermaid. One of my friends’ fathers was an artist and he would draw her cartoon characters on giant canvases. He did this over night and the girl would bring it in and show it off. I thought that was so unfair. I cried and went to my dad asking why he didn’t do that for me. He appreciates art but doesn’t quite have the talent for it. He told my mom about it and so she stayed up all night tracing Ariel from The Little Mermaid and hand painted it, then had my dad sign it at the corner of the drawing. He was my hero in the morning and I saved that forever. When I was in middle school or high school, they finally told me that dad didn’t draw that. It took them that long to tell me the truth.
J: Wow! The layers in that story!
S: I don’t know how to feel about it today either.
J: The fact that your mom did all of that and didn’t put her name on it is interesting.
S: She felt my pain and she wanted to do something to make me feel better. I’m so thankful, but I also have mixed feelings towards my dad. This is more for the technical stuff – when you get a request for an idea for art, career-wise, what are the general steps in making it all come to life? Can you walk us through the process from the moment you receive the request?
J: First thing I do is try to make sure that I have the time and if the budget and schedule is right, and if the project is something I want to take on because it’s interesting. Once that’s established and I agree to it, I get all the legal stuff and contracts out of the way, then I have a period of time where I’m sort of exploring. This is my favorite time, when I’m sketching and doodling, and looking stuff up on Google search. Diving into the project and doing research about it, reading about it, and getting background information – I really like that aspect of it. It requires some reading and thinking about it. I do like a lot of loose scribbly drawings to figure out what direction I want to go in. A lot of times I’m not necessarily thinking of ideas staring up at the ceiling and waiting for me to feel inspired. Oftentimes I have to draw a lot of different things – it’s almost a way of thinking while drawing. I’d draw one thing and that’ll remind me of something else that kind of looks like that and I’ll draw that other thing and that’ll remind me of this other thing. It’s like a chain of events that happen and somewhere within that process I’m like, “Oh my God! This is it!” And then I’ll submit a few different ideas usually per project. Once that direction has been picked or a sketch has been picked, then I switch into production mode, which, at this point I can listen to audiobooks or music with words in it – I can zone out and make it. It’s also fun in its own way, but that’s more of the grinding and takes more hours in the day – that’s like late nights where I’m working away. Then I deliver it, hopefully they like it, and I get paid.
S: That’s awesome. Have you ever not been able to get to the “this is it” moment?
J: Oh, yeah.
S: How does that feel?
J: Many, many times. I guess that’s the tension with what I do. I think I’m at this place in my career now when even if I don’t feel that confident with it, I still can rely on past experiences and my skills just to get it to at least an acceptable and professional level so I can go out the door. I have enough experience to know that I can rely on using certain tools or some kind of things I can pull out from my back pocket to make it look… in some projects for a variety of different reasons, it’s not always on me, but a project will fall on its face. As I have gotten older or more experienced with this, I’m learning to reduce the… I learn to spot the jobs that I can tell won’t turn out well. I’m more discerning about the projects I take on. Generally, the projects that really inspire me and make me feel excited, those are the ones I tend to do a good job on because I feel engaged and personally invested in it.
S: That’s important. My last question is simple: Do you have a favorite book from when you were a child?
J: I do. I used to read a ton as a kid. I was a bookworm – I read when all the kids were outside playing. I have a lot of books that I would read a lot but perhaps the most significant book was The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe: The Chronicles of Narnia. I read those books like countless times. 20 times maybe?
S: I’m actually surprised that you say that.
J: It was the first chapter book that was read to me when I moved from picture to chapter book. I remember my dad would read it to me and I’d get impatient because this is when I was learning how to read and I’d skip ahead as he’s reading to me and I’m on the other page. I’m impatiently telling him to hurry up. I love those books. I also loved… are we talking about picture or chapter books?
J: I’m trying to think… for picture books, Blueberries for Sal. That was a really weirdly big influence on me. A lot of picture books were read to me by my American grandmother when I moved to the States. I was really drawn to picture books that sort of showed this American kind of like, nostalgic way of life that I didn’t really experience. It’s super exotic to me because I’m from Taiwan. This kid picking blueberries in Maine is just like… insane to me. A bear wandering around? That’s definitely one of the weirdly more influential books. I have a long list that I can’t go down.
S: I think I know Blueberries for Sal. It rings a bell.
J: It’s done in ink or line drawing. Edward Gorey, Shel Silverstein, those classic picture books. Honestly, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back was really huge. I know he’s been cancelled, which is brutal in a way.
S: Dr. Seuss?
J: Yeah. I think he’s cancelled now, right? There’s a discussion about The Cat in the Hat being sort of a caricature of a minstrel back in those days. You should go back and look at these books with that framework. I was like, “Wow. This kind of makes sense in a way.” One book that really influenced me too was The Berenstain Bears. Remember those? There was one that really kind of stuck to me – it was about him and his dad or going camping with his family and that’s something I did with my dad and family a lot, too, so it was touching and relatable.
S: Wow, you’re bringing back a lot of old school books. I don’t think my sister would know about The Berenstain Bears.
J: It’s too old, yeah.
S: But The Cat in the Hat – I want to research that. There are so many rides dedicated to that even at amusement parks.
J: Yeah, I know. They were cancelled. I just like how that book gets more and more chaotic. I love books that get a little bit out of control. Especially as a kid, it’s like, “You can’t do that!” That satisfaction of them going there and they’re crazy… I love kids’ books like that. Hopefully I can work that into more future stories I make.
S: I don’t want to take more than an hour of your time. Thank you so much! This was a fun conversation. I’ve done interviews for work before but this was a lot of engagement and fun.
J: We could have chatted for a really long time.
S: I hope that we do! Hopefully in NY we can meet up.