Monday, May 28, 2012

A conversation With Edgar Jerins: the man behind seven classic Savatage and Trans-Siberian Orchestra album covers

Nebraska-native Edgar Jerins, one of the leading artists in the resurgence of realism in the art world is known mostly today for his haunting, dramatic charcoal drawings of troubled family and friends.  I caught up with Edgar recently to discuss his time illustrating some of the classic album covers for Savatage and Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Dan Roth: What was it like growing up in Nebraska in the 1960’s? Was it an inspirational environment? Did you draw & paint throughout your childhood?

Edgar Jerins: Both my mother & father and most of my relatives were from Latvia. My grandfather studied at the Riga Academy in Latvia as a theater backdrop painter. So he painted his whole life and my mother did artwork, so my brothers and I did artwork all the time. We had art books on Botticelli and Munch and Goya. It was really there from the beginning. I worked all the time, I did a lot of artwork, I gave stuff to friends. And then I got lucky; I had really good instructors in Junior High and in High School. Also, I began private instruction, my brother and I and our high school art teacher would take this private instruction on Monday nights, and so I was getting formal training at age 14. I did my first nude at 14.

Growing up in Nebraska was interesting, as I grew up within a European community really. The Latvians never had a neighborhood, but it was being around my mom and dad and our cousins; it was different than just growing up in Omaha. I love Nebraska; I love Omaha. I go back there and visit every year. Where the Midwest influence comes in are my drawings, my own work. Even when I am working in New York, they end up with a Midwest sensibility.

DR: I can see that, just looking at some of the images on your website, the Midwest influence is certainly there.
EJ: And I want that, it’s not forced, not something I try to do, it’s just there.

DR: As you graduated high school, did you go right into furthering your education in art?
EJ: Yes. I only wanted to go to a figure-based art school and I ended up going to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia. It’s the oldest art school in America, and it was all figure-based, so you’re painting and drawing mostly the nude and some portraiture, but mostly working with the figure. The school I teach at now, I teach graduate level, it’s the same underlying philosophy. The underlying philosophy of studying the figure is that if you can paint and draw the human figure you can paint and draw anything. It’s the most complicated thing on the planet. So, I went straight to Philadelphia, did four years of art school, and went out into the real world.
DR: Did you find yourself drawn to any particular medium?
EJ: Primarily oil. I have always been an oil painter. The work that I did for Savatage and Trans-Siberian Orchestra are all oil, real traditional oil paintings.
DR: Growing up, was there any particular artist that really inspired you?
EJ: I think everybody in High School likes Dali. I liked every aspect of Dali, what I read, his personality, his outrageousness. Dali is one of those artists you look at, then you don’t look at, and then you come back and realize that they still hold up. I think that happens with all artists, with whatever kind of art you have. There are certain artists you go back in and revisit. I went back not too long ago and re-read Edgar Allen Poe - everyone reads Poe in High School - and the work holds up. So I loved Dali, I loved Botticelli; I was really drawn to the darker side. One of my all-time favorite artists is Goya with all his images of war, as well as his many beautiful portraits of women. And of course, I liked Gauguin and van Gogh, and once I went to art school, I was around all of these major museums and all of these fellow artists, my tastes expanded as I got to know more artists.

DR: Once you graduated, did you go right into commissioned portraits and illustrations?
EJ: Fine art has a mixed feeling about illustration. There is this idea that work-for-hire diminishes the art, that the artist should just be expressing their soul. I have always done commissioned portraits; I’ve always worked with people, with the figure. I enjoy doing commissioned portraits and I did them even in High School, so it goes all the way back. So with me it’s always been a mix. Illustration was something I didn’t pursue; I did my first illustration much later, when I was 30 years old. Even then, it was a mix; at that time I was doing nudes, doing commissioned portraits and then some illustrations.
Illustrations, like everything else, have its pluses and minuses. The plus is that you paint things that you would never paint, and if your employers are good then you have the latitude to make really good work. The negatives are when you are doing images that you’re not interested in. With all of the album covers I did, none of that falls in to place for that. All of the stuff I did for Savatage and TSO were all compelling and really cool.
DR: So how did you wind up getting together with Paul O’Neill and Savatage?
EJ: Well, at the time I was a caretaker in a really cool neighborhood, and all of a sudden (rock producer) Jack Douglas and (Aerosmith guitarist) Rick Dufay moved in to the neighborhood. I got to know them really well, with Jack, his wife Christine, and Rick coming over and looking at my art. Well, Jack knew that Paul O’Neill was looking for someone to do an album cover, so it was really through Jack that I met Paul. I wound up meeting with Paul at a recording studio in New York.
The first album I did with them was Dead Winter Dead. Paul told me the image he wanted with the gargoyle and the city of Sarajevo. Again, with illustration you are kind of compositing something, so one thing you want when you are a realist is a lot of reference. So when he gave me the assignment, I had a friend who had all of these gargoyle statues, so I had that part covered. I went down to The Strand in New York and got a great book on Sarajevo – it was happening at that time - and got all of these images. I worked up a drawing of a gargoyle with the city behind it. Then I would go meet with him, go back and forth, and play with the image. Paul is very particular; he is a perfectionist and it shows. When you see a concert, he is involved in every single flame. [laughs] I’m also a perfectionist so it works for me. Paul would bounce ideas with other people, but it really is him and his ideas. We put a lot of time in with the drawings going back and forth before I committed to color and oil. So I worked up the painting.
The one thing I did that was different from a lot of illustrations was that I worked them up in oil on linen, using all the top materials, and they were pretty big, about 24” x 36”. This was stretched on linen like a real painting as opposed to a lot of illustrations that are done on illustration board. I did them like I was doing a commissioned portrait of the president, using the best materials and making sure they were archival. So I did that painting, which Paul now owns and that album wound up going crazy well when they pulled that one song off the album, and Trans-Siberian Orchestra was built out of that, and that was the start with me with them.
DR: That Dead Winter Dead cover really captures the devastation in the city.
EJ: Yeah, and if you look closely you will see I put a lot of crosses and minarets in the background. I was looking at reference at the time and minarets were all through-out the city. That was a cool cover.

DR: Were you already a fan, or familiar with Savatage’s music before you got to work with them?
EJ: You know what? I wasn’t. I didn’t know their music. Of course I got to know it once I started working with them. I listened to a lot of music, I like a lot of metal music, I have a real wide range, I just didn’t know the band.
DR: Prior to you coming on board, the previous batch of their covers were done by an artist out of Florida named Gary Smith. Were you familiar with his work at all? Did you look at those covers for inspiration?

EJ: Only once I came on board, and then I went back and looked at his work. I didn’t try at all to emulate it though. I figured Paul hired me and I’m going to work with him but I’m going to work with my technical skills. If you look at Gary’s art, my art, and Greg’s art, there are three pretty distinct styles.
DR: How long did it typically take to create these covers?
EJ: The covers took, well some of them are more complex, but they took about a month of full time work. So let’s say I have a couple projects going at the same time, so it might be two months from start to finish. So like a month of real hard full time work.
DR: Would Paul share his storyline or give you an idea of what the story was about to give you an idea of where he was coming from?
EJ: Yeah. Well, what he would do is he would give me the theme of his write-ups. He wouldn’t give me every song or all the lyrics, but he would give me enough. We worked real carefully on the feeling and the themes. For example on Beethoven’s Last Night I read this long 3-4 pages – whatever he wrote about it. So yeah, he would tell me the underlying themes.
DR: Did you get to hear the music as it was being created?
EJ: Yes. I would meet with Paul quite a bit. Again, start with concept on each one, then I work up drawings, then he would put in ideas, or maybe like “maybe this could be smaller or bigger”. A lot of times I had worked up a whole bunch of Xeroxes of drawings, say like the size of the clock in Beethoven’s Last Night so we would have different sizes where we could sit, cut, and paste, like shift and move some parts. [laughs] I know everyone probably does it now on the computer, but I don’t. I would do it my own way, so I would be sitting and working with him but I would be listening to them recording. He would give me what he could and I would play the music while I was working.
DR: Out of the seven covers you did for Savatage/TSO, do you have any one or two that standout as a favorite?

EJ: When I have talked to my students about illustration, one of the coolest covers is Wake of Magellan, for me. It was kind of everything I liked about illustration in that I was doing something that I would never normally do. So it’s real challenging…a ghost ship with flames behind it [laughs] on these rocky seas and a Spanish galleon, and a very specific ship. I don’t know if you know, but we put the gargoyle on the ship…it’s the masthead.
DR: I see that there now….I never noticed that before.

EJ: There are a lot of really small things like that that are in the work too. So the gargoyle worked its way in there. There’s something really special about that cover. I work with artists a lot in terms of critiques, and my friend Steve, who is an illustrator, he had a friend come over from England. This friend had done all this work for George Lucas, like these books illustrating all the Star Wars war machines, and he really knew perspective. When I was doing the painting, they came over and I had him look at it. I had painted the galleon, and at that point it was a little thin. He told me how the Galleons were built like tanks, really wide and massive. It wound up being a really fun night as he was helping me work out the perspective of each of those masts in it. The angles had to be perfect and it had to have the weight of the ship, and I didn’t have that yet. It’s just a fun, cool image. 
And then, I have to say this that I did like all of them, but I also love Beethoven’s Last Night. Part of that is that it’s an artist who is there and struggling, and one candle almost burnt out and one still lit, it has all of this symbolic stuff, all the papers thrown on the floor, just the struggle for creativity and the struggles he is going through in the album. That one again I went out and got all of these books on Beethoven. And you know Beethoven was painted and drawn a lot so it wasn’t like a figure from the distant past. They had photographs of the room where he died in Vienna, so out the window in the cover - that’s Vienna. The piano is very, very specific. It had to be that exact piano, how pianos looked then. Paul made some adjustments on the room, making it a little more fanciful because the room was a little more stripped down, a little more linear, but I got a lot of reference on that one.

DR: That really is an iconic cover and I have heard from many TSO fans who really appreciate the detail and how it really shows the anguish in Beethoven.
EJ: One of the things with that cover is that it is really two colors; it’s blue and orange in effect. And I wanted it almost like good and bad, light and dark, life and death. If you look at it, its broken into two – it’s warm and cool, the two opposites. I wanted that emotion in there through the color. If you start breaking it down you’ll see there’s light and life in the warmth of the room, and then outside there’s lightning, death and darkness in a way. I worked hard on all of these, but I worked really hard on that one.
DR: Three of the covers: Christmas Eve & Other Stories, Christmas Attic, and Christmas Trilogy, feature a child. Did you have a particular child in mind when painting these?
EJ: On the first one, I used a friend of mine’s son. His name is Tyler Meester. At the time, I had a lot of friends who had young children that I was painting. It is kind of the same boy I used for the final cover, for the Trilogy. I pulled back that reference.

DR: Obviously he is older now, is he aware that he is the model for those two covers?

EJ: Oh yeah. His dad, Tim, is a good friend of mine. I painted his kids and we have known each other for years. I had him pose Tyler in an adult white t-shirt, which turned into kind of a nightgown. He was the angel for the first one.

For the Christmas Attic I used the young girl (P.J. Morrison) from the Sarajevo video that was featured in the Ghosts of Christmas Eve TV special.

DR: A question on the Christmas Trilogy cover. Is that skyline based on a certain city?

EJ: It’s Manhattan, but we moved things around [laughs]. If you look there are specific buildings but they are in the wrong place. Again that all comes down to Paul, and I’m playing and playing and I found all of these images and getting the perspective of looking down on the park and looking out over the city. When you see the real piece, it’s very luminous; it really glows. It’s a pretty cool painting. 

DR: Did you ever consider that your imagery may influence the way in which the listener approached the music?  Obviously there is the story and the lyrics and the music, but the cover can really set a mood right off the bat. 
EJ: Oh completely. I remember when I was younger and you pick up a book like Swiss Family Robinson, and you look at that cover every time you open the book. So sure, that’s a big part of it. You have that responsibility and ultimately you really do the best job possible. And you’re working with direction so like when working with the ghost ship, the sails had to go a certain way. I think I had drawn them the other way – if you look they are blowing like the ship is drifting, and I had drawn them like the ship was being pulled by them. 
DR: You mentioned earlier how you did the original artwork as 2’x3’ pieces, and obviously, that was going to be shrunk down to the 12” square LP size, and later to the size of the CD cover. How do you feel about pieces of work meant to be viewed in 12" x 12" being shrunk to CD size?
EJ: Well, that was sort of accepted. I think that’s where Paul made the posters and other things as he and I grew up with albums. Obviously as you know, most people today haven’t grown up with vinyl. Now you don’t even have album covers, it’s digital you just go to Apple and get the image. I’m sure you and me and Paul and all the Savatage guys…we were lucky to have LPs because there was a real magic to having an album cover that was that big and you pull out the sleeve and you have all the words and you have the back of the cover; we were just lucky to have it. People have it a little now; it’s a niche market.
DR: It sure is.  I know TSO have released some of their recent work on vinyl...

EJ: I have some of them on vinyl.  They have always done them,  Poets & Madmen on vinyl...

DR: I have seen a real nice picture disc of Poets & Madmen where your artwork is printed directly on the vinyl.

EJ: Yes.  That's the one I have!  It's funny; the colors on the album are a little better than on the front cover [laughs]. That was a fun image too, doing an insane asylum. That's where illustration is at it's best, where you are given these challenges and you're doing these images that you never thought you would do.

Photo courtesy: Dan Linich

DR: Were you involved with the tour shirts and other merchandise that had your artwork on them?
EJ: No. Paul knows the business. He and I would meet about the image and bounce ideas off of each other, but everything after that I wasn’t involved with. To be frank, I have these different things going on, but my primary drive is my own personal art. I never pursued being an illustrator though I had an agent for a while, but all I’ve done my entire life is pursue being a fine artist; galleries, having shows, getting my work into museums. So this was something along the way, and it was great and I enjoyed it. When Paul went to another artist, there were no hard feelings.
DR: I was going to ask about that.
EJ: I’m not an illustrator. He needed someone who could create a lot more images in a shorter time. The way I work, I’m not a slow artist, but you can see the detail. He needed someone who could work in broader areas and work faster, like do those books. Those books would have taken me forever. I could have tried to simplify my style, but the tour programs and all of those things, you can’t spend a month on every page of a tour program, and I probably would have [laughs]. So when he switched over, I was involved in so many other things there were completely no hard feelings. Even this past fall I took my two daughters to a TSO show at the Prudential Center in Newark and we went backstage and talked with Bob Kinkel and all the guys.
DR: I still see your name in the “Thank yous” in the last couple albums.
EJ: Oh Really? Man, that’s cool!
DR: You did covers for Savatage and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Have you been approached or have you thought about doing other album cover artwork?
EJ: I would do it in a second. With my work and my artwork and my career, I have kind of followed things that have happened. So at that time, working with Paul and Savatage and Trans-Siberian Orchestra, it was steady work, you know? Plus my other stuff. Then there are other periods where I am doing more portraits and other periods where my nudes are selling. Then I switched to those drawings in 2001 and I have done really well with them in terms of my career. Three years ago, I started teaching at New York Academy of Art. They wanted me to teach, at the graduate level, large narrative drawings. I really love teaching. I like to have a mix. If someone approached me to do an album cover, I would do it in a second. I love rock n roll. The tough thing, when it comes to imagery is that the only people that really use paintings are metal bands. Almost every other album cover is a photo. There are very few bands that use artwork now. You know what I mean? So many use photos of the band. But I really enjoyed my time with that. I also have a platinum and gold album on my wall, and that is something that I never thought I would have in my life!
DR: You mentioned earlier about Paul switching over to working with Greg Hildebrandt. Are you familiar with his work?
EJ: The album that was the switchover album was the one with the hand reaching in to the window…
DR: The Lost Christmas Eve.
EJ: Right. Paul had talked about the image, and I’m not sure if I had even worked up preliminary drawings, I know I had the image kind of in my head, and then he went with him. Again, no big thing. I think everyone was nervous, and I was like “I’m not an illustrator guys” [laughs]. I was glad to have been part of the ride. He is the right guy for them now, obviously. Paul is such a perfectionist; he is going to get what he needs. He needed me for a while; he got me. He’s working with Greg, and Greg delivers what he needs and that is what matters.
DR: You are well known today for your charcoal drawings. When did you start working with those?
EJ: I started those in 2001. That’s where I am known now in the art world, and I do a fair amount of visiting-artist things where colleges will pull me in and I will do lecture critiques and students will sign up and I will go and critique their work.
DR: Do you prefer working with charcoal versus oil?
EJ: I think what I like is just to have a balance. The bulk of the work I do now is charcoal, but I will still get a commissioned oil here and there, or I will just do an oil. And I work in pastel too. I will just do an oil painting of my daughter just because I like to paint too. And because the subject matter of the charcoal drawings is so heavy that I want to do stuff that is not so dark.

DR: I find the charcoal drawings are very haunting, very emotional.
EJ: Yeah. They are real people facing real adversity. When I do the lecture I talk about how each drawing came about, then I talk about each narrative and the people in the drawings. Those people are all friends or family facing difficulties, from the death of their parents to alcoholism to a real wide range of things. Those drawings really broke me out and put me into the art world, and when I lecture and teach it’s because of the drawings. I talk about my career too, so I do talk about illustration, commissioned portraits and landscapes. There was a period of time where I did a tremendous amount of landscapes; they’re pastel so they’re fast but I’d be on location with my French easel and working on landscapes. I like it all. It changes and shifts, but I had this amazing run with Savatage and TSO and it was great!
DR: If someone asked you “How do I become the next “Edgar Jerins” what would you tell them? Has anyone asked you that before?
EJ: Well, I think when you teach, especially if you teach an elective, in some ways they are asking you that. I haven’t had that asked directly, but I have had people ask about the subject matter. Just recently, when lecturing at Laguna College of Art & Design, someone asked, “How would I find subject matter?” I responded, “Just be honest and true to yourself and draw and paint what’s important to you.” My advice to anyone who wants to be a fine artist or wants to be an illustrator is work harder than anyone you know. It is hard work. I worked really hard my entire life. That’s a big part of it, just work. Learn how to paint, learn how to draw glass, learn how to do a landscape, learn how to do clouds.
The second part is follow your passions. Don’t try and make art, draw what you are passionate about, draw what is important to you. The third part is the social side. I like people, I like being around people. I like doing portraits. I worked really well with Paul and I liked being around all the guys and watching them make music and create this art. That’s a component that is less tangible; basically be a good person and be nice to people.
And that goes for everything. People understand the Olympics. These athletes train since they were a kid. When it comes to art, you have to work just as hard as someone training for the Olympics, if you want to succeed. Same with guitar, there’s this concept that you can get a guitar, sit with your friends, and play a little bit. Doesn’t work that way. You know what I mean?
DR: Absolutely. My daughter has been studying the violin since she was 4 years old so I am well aware of the work that goes in.
EJ: That would be my big thing. I had the work ethic. Maybe it was a Latvian kind of thing, I don’t know. My mom was really into us studying and working hard, so I have a strong work ethic. You won’t succeed in anything you do without that.
DR: That’s great advice.
EJ: Art is not some magical thing, as you know with your daughter, that you can pick it up and get lucky. And it’s the social thing too. I happen to get along with people. I met Jack Douglas, and he opened that door, I walked through and I was there for a while and it was great.
DR: Is there anything that you are working on currently that you can talk about? Any exhibitions coming up?
EJ: Well currently, I teach at the M.F.A. level at the New York Academy of Art. I am going to be teaching Continuing Education there. I will have one class. It is real flexible. I will have a figure, a nude. Anyone can come in; it is a 12-week course. It’s going to be a drawing course, but if they want to work on something else like big drawings, they can do that. But they can study with me.
DR: Very nice! What a great opportunity!
EJ: Yeah, and it is for the general public. The school has two sides: they have the M.F.A. program and they have Continuing Education, so this is new. It is in Tribeca so it’s a way for people that want to study with me, they can do it.
DR: Thank you so much for taking the time, this was really interesting and fun.
EJ: You’re very welcome.
Photo by Ruby Jerins

For More information:
Edgar Jerins’s official site:
New York Academy of Art:
Trans-Siberian Orchestra:
TSO Fan Site/Message Board: