Alexander Hellene

Interview: Manuel Guzman

By Alexander Hellene

This is an interview I did with my friend, artist Manuel Guzman, back in January of this year. You might know him as Lolo, the cover artist for The Last Ancestor and The Second Sojourn. Manuel also created the gorgeous fully illustrated storybook In Search of Sacha (available here). Manuel will also be doing the cover art for the anthology I am putting together, Pulp Rock (back it here). My questions are in bold, and Manuel’s answers are in plain text.

AH: Thanks for agreeing to talk to me Manuel! Before we get started, how about some of the basic facts.

MG: I’m Manuel Guzman or Lolo as most my friends and family call me and I’m in illustrator from NYC. Well, now I guess I can include author to that description.

AH: When did you start drawing/painting and what got you really into art in the first place?

MG: I became fascinated with visual art because my father drew and painted as a hobby and I was blown away by what he was able to do. At around the age of seven or eight. I made some friends that also liked to draw and that is when I decided to take it more seriously and competed with them on who could make the more impressive drawing. It was around then that I knew this would be a part of me forever.

AH: I have to say you have a very unique style, even with your digital art and the more sci-fi oriented work it has this very ethereal almost watercolor-like quality to it. What were/are some of your biggest artistic influences?

MG: Early on I was very inspired by American comic book art, specifically Marvel. I loved to draw Spider-Man, The Hulk and Iron Man, among others. But in my teen years in the mid-1990s I became more exposed to Japanese Anime art and that grabbed such a hold of me that I began trying to emulate that in my work more and more, until my last years as a teenager. That is when I became more aware of great American illustrators like Frank Frazetta, J. C. Leyendecker, and N.C. Wyeth. These were the legendary artist that helped me mature into a painter, and continue to do so. Of course, then there are all the great renaissance masters and the great impressionist artists that have affected me deeply as well, but thematically I will always resonate with what these American legends were doing. As for the watercolor look to my digital work, well while I very much enjoy the aesthetic of water colors I can’t say that it is necessarily intentional. I don’t really know why so much of my digital work has such a quality, it doesn’t happen when I work with oils. Then it just looks like oils. And while I really like to do water color art, I haven’t made much of it in the last few years.

AH: Okay. Very interesting. That could just be my lack of knowledge of materials/techniques speaking.

MG: Not at all, I’ve heard it many times that my digital work looks like water colors.

AH: It’s interesting you mentioned the American masters like Frazetta, Wyeth, etc., because it’s a lot of these qualities that caught my attention and made me think you’d be perfect to do the covers of my books. Have you always been a fantasy/sci-fi fan yourself (comics aside), or is it more that you appreciate that aesthetic and vibe? And if you are a fan, what are some of the fantasy/sci-fi books, movies, etc. that you’re into?

MG: While I have been a big fan of these genre’s I wasn’t ever a big reader. I mostly kept to the animation and film variations of this expression. And yes, I resonate a lot with this aesthetic because I believe that somehow the stories told through the fantasy/sci-fi genre can speak more closely to the truth of life. I think that the fantastical elements or futuristic/technological aspects of these genres add the proper emphasis to issues that we deal with as people. By adding that bit of escapism that these genres provide we detach enough from reality to then be able to analyze the themes covered in these stories. The archetypes of legendary heroes and monsters never grow old and help us understand what we are dealing with in life.

AH: That is a very interesting way of looking at it, and explains why so many of these tropes can still feel fresh and exciting. I see a lot of that in your book In Search of Sacha. Which tropes/archetypes did you want to focus on in ISOS?

MG: With In Search of Sacha I wanted to focus mostly on coming of age or maturing by way of love or heart break. I had dealt with a heart break around the time I started writing it and it baffled me how much such a thing can upturn my life. I couldn’t make heads or tails of what to do next with myself for a while there and so I wanted to write about it. I wanted to express the darkness one can easily sink into and with Sacha explore the darkness. But because I extended the creation process for ISOS over such a long time I found myself coming back to it over the years to expand on other themes. Later, as a married man and father, I was better able to portray parenthood and the sacred institution of marriage with better understanding. And though it is shown in something of an idealized state, the relationship between Elysia and Amar, Sacha’s parents, are what I like most about ISOS. Even though those interactions are brief, there is a nuance there that I hope people pick up on.

AH: One thing I enjoyed about ISOS were the subtle religious elements. There was nothing explicitly stated, but it seemed like Elysia and Amar, and by extension Sacha, were almost like emissaries of heaven. Was this intentional, or am I reading too much into it?

MG: It was intentional. I’ve always been a person to lean on my spiritual life to understand reality, but in the last couple of years of the long sporadic thirteen years process of writing ISOS something happened to me. I had accepted Jesus Christ back into my life as my Lord and Savior. I had left the path around the age of 18 after I came across hidden information and conspiracy theories. This was 1998, well before the internet was readily available, and so I turned to the New Age spiritual relativism you find so many people stumbling upon when they feel detached in the modern world. But even after so many spiritual sojourns, via rigorous meditation, into a vivid dream world I was lead to atheism twelve years later. As an atheist I convinced myself it was all delusions of my psyche but could never shake how real and solid some of those dreams felt. Even though this phase lasted seven years of my life I never felt I could communicate my spiritual explorations and the relief of prayer to my fellow atheist at the time. They always looked at me confused and didn’t understand how I could call my self an atheist. In 2016 God started to chip away at those notions and finally revealed himself anew to me in 2017, praise be! This is when I got a new shot of inspiration and knew I had to go back to ISOS and revitalize it with the Holy Spirit. And though it is subtle, I am glorifying God and Christ in every page.

AH: That is awesome. I love seeing these spiritual themes reflected maturely and thoughtfully in works of art. It’s important for believers to get these messages out in a way that is not off-putting but inspiring. Your personal transformation is very interesting as well. A few questions here about that:

1. What helped guide you back to Christianity; that is, were there any particular people/works that aided your return?

2. Where do you think we are as a culture and how can the arts help, if at all, in providing spiritual guidance?

MG: Seeing what’s happening in culture, the division and the dysfunction, and the ramping up to violence and destruction in the streets should wake most any person up. When I thought about what could be the true cause and solution to this all it became very clear. The degeneracy embraced by the progressive left has one root cause and that is the complete abandonment of God. And within my atheistic world view I had to acknowledge that there was a contradiction of framing what I knew about the world and people. I realized that we cannot escape serving a master. And even though a Libertarian/An-Cap would be hard pressed to admit it, he too serves a master, and it isn’t God, the Almighty. And I know they will argue voluntary vs involuntary here, or legitimate authority vs illegitimate authority, but truly I’ve found it makes no difference. Authority is authority and we get the rulers we deserve. Once I had found myself in that humble place and with my guard down, God did his work within me to reveal with simple logic his existence and love. An eternal father of truth, love and order/beauty cannot be denied.

As for the personalities that inspired me, there are many. But probably most inspiring was watching Owen Benjamin’s and Roosh’s transformation on their streams.

We are at the end of a line as a culture. There may still be more to fall, but the draw of the dark and edgy has worn itself out. Good humor, honor and beauty are the only saving grace we can hold on to now. The arts have always helped to inspire people live with more meaning, but when so much of it has been focused on meaningless relativism and sensual pleasures, it’s no wonder that society has gone down this fallen path. The arts should reflect and emphasize what we value most about society, and that isn’t to say that dark and horrific themes should not be explored, just that we keep our eyes set on what matters and what gets us out of the darkness. Those things are in this order: God, family, & community/nation.

AH: If art isn’t serving the good, the beautiful, and the true, then what IS it serving? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way, because like you said, we all serve A master. The question is: which one?

I like to think we can create something new and good from the wreckage of the old.

That’s where people like you come in. What were some of your recent projects, and what do you have brewing in the future?

MG: I recently worked with James Fox Higgins on his latest music album LOGOS RISING. When he first reached out to me I just knew he was working on something epic because the times are calling to be epic and I had prepared myself to try and match that level that I was anticipating from him. When I finally heard the demos I was blown away and so I set out not to just give him one or two pieces but a whole extensive series of seven paintings to go along with the phenomenal music and he agreed. I also recorded video of the painting process for each of the seven paintings and we have set them to some of the songs from the album for some make shift music videos. You can find one of these now playing to JFH’s “This is America” song. It’s great! If you haven’t heard it yet, you should and then do yourself a favor and go get the whole album and prepare for a musical feast in glory to God.

As for what I’m working on, even though I’ve been taking notes on what my next book will be, most of my attention these days has been on working on the house I moved my family into a few months ago. We’re making a lot of improvements there and things are looking good, but it hasn’t given me much breathing room to really get into the mode required of me to produce something like ISOS. During these times I’ve done some stand-alone paintings for jobs here and there and some promotional pieces for ISOS you can see on my site, but as soon as I have something more substantial to share you’ll be the first to know.

AH: Nice!

A few more questions if that’s okay, more about the nitty gritty of art, because I find it interesting :
Your use of colors is incredibly effective and very impressive, always nailing the mood of the piece (I know it does for the covers you’ve painted for me). Do you have some sort of method for determining a color palette, or is it more of a feel thing?

MG: Thank you, I’m glad you think so! I’d have to say it’s more of a feel thing. You know, there are some colors that just work so well when placed next to each other. Like the purple and green used in the sky of The Last Ancestor cover art, Or even the yellow of the title text against that sky. But really what’s most important beyond color are the values of light and dark used. If that range and atmosphere is right you can slap almost any color on there and it will work. Sometimes I’ll make a painting completely in black and white, or monochromatic, and later simply and effortlessly wash some color over it. Even though the step of applying the color only takes a fraction of the time it takes to develop the values of the image, you would think the painting must have been designed from the ground up with color in mind, but you would be wrong. This is the importance of lighting and values.

AH: That’s pretty remarkable to see, which is one reason I enjoy your profess videos so much.

On a related point, when somebody gives you a verbal description of what they’d like a piece to look like, what is your process for translating that into a work of art? I ask because you’re somehow able to take my semi-coherent requests and create exactly what I was thinking about in my head.

MG: Yes, people should check out the video of my painting process for the cover art of Alexander’s The Second Sojourn playing at like 400x times the speed. Watching about 30 hours of work compressed into about 5 minutes playing to “The Spirit of Radio” by Rush is a lot of fun.

What I do when someone gives me a description of something they’d like to see is make a few rough sketches of that thing from different perspectives. Sometimes, one of the sketches will be something the client didn’t necessarily ask for, but is close enough, and I throw it in for variety. After I’ve presented the sketches and we’ve decided on which angle to work from then I usually ask what time of day or type of lighting or mood we are looking for. With that information, I have at it and try my hand at it. With you, I think I’ve been lucky at getting it right or close to right right off the bat. Sometimes, there are clients that don’t seem to know what they like and ask me to make so many changes that it can become frustrating and I have to remind them how far we are straying from what they originally asked for. I really don’t like reaching the point where I have to tell someone that any more changes will cost them extra.

AH: It is impressive to see in action. I can absolutely understand how rough it must be when a client decides they want something totally different than what you started working on. But that’s the life of an artist I suppose.

One last question: if you had an overall or overarching theme or aesthetic for your art, how would you describe it?

MG: This is hard for me to say because there are many times that I look at my art and I feel like it isn’t where I want it to be. Sometimes it feels so far away. What concerns me about the theme or aesthetic I’d like to achieve some day with my work is beyond whether it is realistic or cartoony or something in between, but that it is something that’ll uplift the spirit. If it is stylized in one way or another isn’t so important to me, but if I can paint things that inspire awe and joy I’d be happy. With my art I’d like to incite a sense of mystery, but also a sense of revelation. I’m not there yet, but I am working to achieve it and that way I may honor my Lord properly.

AH: Awesome. Thanks so much man! Where is the best place for people to find you online to see your art, buy your books, and commission pieces?

MG: No problem, anytime! You can find a link to all my social media accounts and my YouTube page on my website, And you can find my book, In Search of Sacha, on there too. I hope folks check it out, it has a very cool trailer!

– Alexander

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