Olga Potekhina, on behalf of DPRP talks to artist Ed Unitsky on "A Flying Yellow Monster", Ancient Egypt and "Business Cards" for Music Albums
The Flower Kings, Unitopia, Mandalaband, The Tangent, Starcastle, Guy Manning, Moongarden, Tomas Bodin, Oresund Space Collective, Glass Wolfe and more … – what do you think they all have in common? The “Prog” prefix or a liking for polytonal overlaps and counterpoint? No need to delve deeply into the labyrinth of musical terms – it's just enough to take a surface glance! The cover art for many albums of these bands, as well as for a lot of other disks, were created by Ed Unitsky, an artist from Belarus. The Prog musical space is permeated by his art – ranging from Prog festival logos to stage set designs – which gives you a reason to say that he inherits Roger Dean's traditions. On the bands' websites, Unitsky is often mentioned as a full member of the team of musicians. He's got thousands of completed artworks, and an audience of many thousands of people in the Internet communities where his role is far beyond that of a musical “gourmet” – he's also a guru, surprising people by new art vision and suggesting both “cosmic” and down-to-earth matters to think over. So the interest of musical audience to the person of Ed Unitsky is quite natural, especially in view of the recent release of the “Artificial” album that he designed for Unitopia... And it's also quite clear that the artists will want to say more by his artwork, rather than by media publications. And yet, fortunately, Ed does hang on to his words, too!
OLGA: On the Internet, you identify yourself as a person living in UNITOPIA, Sunny City, Universe Cook Islands: well, you've got quite curious coordinates on the world map!
ED: It's rather something like my own “Sunny City” that exists in my Soul and in my heart. To my mind, the worst thing that humans have had the knack of inventing is the borders between peoples and a lot of different languages. As commonplace as it may sound, I really perceive myself as a “citizen of the World” (you can note the international nature of many projects that I take part in), and I also hope that in the future, I'll have more time and opportunities to travel.
OLGA: The first best-known disk with your cover art was released in 2003 – it's The Tangent band and their album “The Music That Died Alone”. What did it feel like – I mean seeing your artwork on the cover of such a prominent CD?
ED: Well, I myself believe that my first full-value and successful piece of artwork was the cover for “The Flower Kings – The Fanclub CD 2002”. It's a rather prominent disk, too, given that as of the time of its release; most of the tracks had not appeared before on the band's official albums.
OLGA: ...And for TFK's “keynote” album, "The Sum Of No Evil", you created your cover art only five years later, and instead of some “cosmic” revelations, it turned to be a funny Fish Bus. How come it got caught into your “net”... of images?
ED: We'd been weaving that net together with Roine Stolt! To my mind, he's not only a unique musician and composer, but also a person possessing phenomenal intuition and a pure taste for art. Roine set a task and outlined the concept of the future album, and I was sending all kinds of my ideas to him. On his first sight of this “yellow monster”, he laughed a lot, but as you know, this appeared to be the variant he selected! He actually suggested some corrections – and I agreed to them completely – so, on the whole, this artwork was the product of our joint creative effort. That's how we “baked” our first “flower pancake”!
OLGA: Ed, and weren't your hands trembling when you were unpacking the “hot baked” disk?
ED: That's another story to tell – and it's definitely about “where dreams can lead” in reality. Of course I was in seventh heaven at that moment! When the “pancake” is already “baked” – to me, that's the real thrill I get from creativity. And yet, my nature is such that I'm always dissatisfied with what was done, and I want another chance to change everything, but, alas! – “this ship has sailed”. So what I really like is not the works already done, – I give my preference to ones that are yet to be done in the future.
OLGA: And yet, have you got any favourite pieces out of your current artworks?
ED: I'd rather say that I perceive my art (being not quite a fan of it, by the way) as a whole single concept – and see no sense in dividing it into separate fragments. These are, so to say, different frames and soundtracks of one big film that's being made in my head.
OLGA: Ed, and are there any of such “frames”, that is, your artwork pieces, that you keep at home in printed form?
ED: Sure! Of course there are some of my “materialized elephants” and ideas on the walls at home, including the pieces created for The Tangent...
OLGA: Yeah, they really call for contemplation, but their details look so small on the CD covers… As an artist, do you feel any limitations imposed by the CD format?
ED: Well, generally, I myself am “close to tears” when I see the “results” presented on disk covers that I designed. Indeed, it's all created on a completely different scale, with good tone work and a lot of details, and at high quality that may be suitable not just for a vinyl disk size, but even for a photo large wall format! I'm glad that the Internet now makes it possible to show some fragments and details of the artwork pieces that haven’t been visible to an unaided eye before. For those who care for such “details” and want to get a different view of the works, I can say that many of my works will soon be available for sale in large Print formats.
OLGA: Just confess, is today's “craze for vinyl” actually a conspiracy of cover art designers all over the world?…
ED: I'm probably not that much informed about it, but currently, I do not see any mass productions of “vinyl” in Prog Rock. Yet, one of my current projects considers issuing part of the total number of copies in vinyl... Of course the artwork designers, as well as music addicts, would be happy if CDs were made, say, the size of this table - I myself would be pleased to take hold of such a copy that's too heavy to lift! (laughing)
OLGA: You've designed the album and some video materials for Mandalaband III “BC – Ancestors”, a large project involving a number of well-known musicians. Whom did you cooperate with while creating the “visual form” for the music?
ED: Mandalaband is lead by the musician and “sound master” David Rohl – he’s the author, “parent” and mastermind of this unique project. I cooperated with David, as well as with one of the world's leading practical scientists in Egyptology, and a highly proficient photographer. We talked a lot with David, “lining up” our common ideas on what the cover art should look like: David had his own concept, and I just backed it up it with technical means and visualization. He provided me plenty of splendid photos and information, so it was quite easy for me to “plunge” into this historic and mythical atmosphere.
OLGA: I've seen your “Egyptian” clip for one of the songs; there is music from the “BC – Ancestors” album on your official website; and on the Mandalaband project website, you are mentioned as a full member of the team. Looks like you've not only “plunged”, but actually got “immersed” in some studies, eh?
ED: I've always taken great interest to the stirring matters of existence because our history and world culture are related inextricably. We must know and study our history for reaching a correct understanding of current processes and the changes resulting from them. So the thing is not only in the beauty of this music itself: I think David's venture aimed at telling us a story about the important and prominent historic events by means of his multifaceted musical language does deserve all possible respect!
OLGA: Ed, and in your artworks, do you try to “revive” any stories or plots, too?
ED: Well, apparently, the work process indeed suggests some subconscious attempt at “spiritualizing” some images. So if one believes in a material nature of thought, then it's possible that somewhere, in another space-and-time, something tangible may come to existence... – of course if one is lucky enough to “plunge” to real depth.
OLGA: I've come across the definition of your art as “astral fantasy realism”, and your artworks may create an impression that you are sort of immersed in meditation and esoteric literature, and rather “detached” from reality. Is that so?
ED: I'm not quite an enthusiast of tags… I just enjoy taking interest in a variety of matters, but without “leaving the Earth” completely, and even vice versa – in connection with it. I do not always “fly away” somewhere with my thoughts, but rather try to see and trace relations of some of our “earthly” matters and processes with what's happening right here and right now on the timescale. But I myself am completely real (here and there)! (laughing)
OLGA: Not only do you see things, but also react to them: one of your recent works is the cover art to the “relief to Haiti” - “Songs for Haiti” disk…
ED: Well, what can I say here? I guess all people, with no exceptions, have a heart in case of such situations. So when I got an offer to take part in this charity project, I gave my consent at once. In general, I always support such initiatives: who else will act if we don't?
OLGA: And tell me please, if you get fascinated by some music, do you propose creating a cover art to the musicians, or you wait till “they come themselves”?
ED: Creative interaction is rather something like falling in love: when there is a flash, and there is desire, – then it may take some effect! It happens that something in the music may “sting me to the quick” as it was in the case with The Flower Kings, and then I just express my emotions by means of a “graphic sequence”. And then, if some of my artwork pieces happen to get some response from the progressive audience, and if we find some areas of common interest with the musicians – then there comes greater desire to do something together, which may lead to mutual understanding or even to a requited creative love as it was in the case with Unitopia.
OLGA: …And then follow the “fruits” such as fame and popularity. What have they brought about for you: a new level of responsibility, or a new degree of freedom?
ED: I don't think I'm that much of a famous artist – my designs are mostly known among Progressive Rock fans only… I just enjoy communication with creative people whom I have always respected. I don't expect or pursue any praises; what I like best is this opened “window” to working together with people possessing such a high creative potential. And as you know, Pride is one of the deadly sins…
OLGA: And yet, as a “by-product”, you've got an impressive collection of “top rankings” and awards, including repeated ones – from the Dutch Progressive Rock Poll portal (for cover arts for The Tangent's “The Music That Died Alone” and “A Place In The Queue”, for the albums by The Flower Kings, and for “The Garden” by Unitopia)... Do diplomas and ratings have any meaning for you?
ED: I'm not too much focused on seeking a kind of mass recognition, and yet, as any other creator, I'm pleased to get such testimonials of the audience's positive response. I'm really interested to know what people think of my works! So, to me, the best encouragement is that someone wants to familiarize with my art and perceive it, and the best diplomas (and I mean it sincerely!) are the viewers' words of gratitude…
OLGA: Ed, and which of your artwork pieces would you take along with you to a desert island?
ED: You know, I'm not that much of a fan of my works to carry them under my arms. I'd better carry them all together in my head!.. he-he
OLGA: I'll then ask you about the works of others: could you name your Top 5 of best ever artists?
ED: I could hardly do so. I can now start talking, and talking, and talking... by going through a long and boring list of the world's famous masters, – but can that be interesting? Let’s say, I've accustomed myself to a thought that, for instance, Salvador Dali can rank first in my “chart”. But another day, I may be admiring another artist sincerely, – and my emotions won't be any less intensive!..
OLGA: How about someone of contemporary artists? I've read about your cooperation with Annie Haslam in designing the “Songs of Time” disk for Starcastle…
ED: Yes, I'm a real fan of both her music and her art! As another example, we can mention the “Hypnosis” art studio that created cover arts for Pink Floyd, Genesis and a lot of other cult Prog bands – those are all high-class works! So any attempts at arranging sort of artistic charts are something like comparing The Beatles and Elvis Presley through a tug-of war exercise: which will appear better? In this “tangled skein” of a lot of threads of art, my creativity was influenced by both surrealists and impressionists, to say nothing of the classic artists… Well, all of us appear to be thankful viewers and “successors”. I believe that at any stage of spiritual development, the person needs timely and harmonious “nourishment”. So, in the creative process, like in cooking, one wants to deal with a varied assortment of products! (laughing)
OLGA: But the influence of your own “artistic process” upon today's cover arts is already perceptible and even extends as far as the borrowing of ideas. What's your opinion about it – do you perceive it as a compliment or just as plain plagiarism?
ED: Well, if we refer to the theory of a universal information field, then there is nothing inexplicable or surprising about such “overlaps” of the images and ideas emerging, 'cause they all have the same origin…
OLGA: And yet, sometimes such “citing” appears too blatant…
ED: That may be so, but I myself take it easy: this means someone needs it, and that makes me glad.
OLGA: Ed, your works based on the well-known rock album covers are very interesting. And which are the bands and musicians whose music you would be very willing to “dress up”?..
ED: My answer is traditional: of course I'd like to somehow touch upon the music of great rock groups… It's clearly seen in my works for the “tributes” to Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, etc. For a large-scale three-hour show called “Flashback – the Mystic Orchestra Classic Rock Tour” that was devoted to the history of rock music starting from the legendary Woodstock to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, I created a series of art pieces under a common concept. I was the only artist on this project, so I had to handle all those design tasks – there was quite a lot to be done within a short timeframe… Slides and videos were projected onto three round screens on the stage, and in the centre of the hall… – a dirigible with two screens was hanging! The performance involved about thirty splendid world-class musicians who played each of the turns with true excellence. By the way, there are some demo videos of this show available from my resource at YouTube – they are worth seeing and will help you get the idea of the event’s level and drive. Currently, there is a discussion as to reviving this project for showing it all over the world …
OLGA: I've been able to estimate what an incredible amount of work you've done there! Ed, and when you start creating a new piece of artwork, don't you have the fear (so often felt by creators) of not reaching the level of some of your previous works that were particularly felicitous?
ED: You know, the “bar” has been set rather high from the beginning – I'm not even trying to discern it! And on the contrary, I like creating challenges for myself and enjoy venturing for some inconceivable idea, such as, for instance, imagining something that can only exist in a 7D (seven-dimensional) space, and trying to put it on a 2D (two-dimensional) plane! (laughing)
OLGA: And can you disclose any technical details: what kind of “tools and materials” do you use in your work?
ED: I'm a sheer extremist in my work, and I can utilize all kinds of methods ranging from “applied” ones to “digital” ones!..
OLGA: With the latter ones prevailing, as I can understand… Ed, and do you still paint anything in the old way – with the canvas, brushes, and oils?
ED: Alas! There is too little time left for “the old way”. I've got some canvases that still remain incomplete… But it's actually impossible to have time and achieve good results in different directions at once, and therefore, I have to select only one.
OLGA: You haven't studied painting in specialized educational institutions, so which were then the “universities” of yours?
ED: I've always been interested in “delving” into the creative works of artists, and if I really liked something, I did not just look through the works, but imbued my mind deeply with that. I was always viewing something, trying to copy, and implementing some of my own ideas... And probably all this store has been transformed over time into what I'm doing now.
OLGA: Ed, and what music are you listening to? And generally, what kind of music do you prefer to listen to while working?
ED: Right now? It's the Gazpacho “live” that has just been heard… So, the music I prefer is good, varied, and – loud! Yet, sometimes I would listen to a different type of music, of more of a meditational nature. The range of what I listen to is rather wide and not limited to Prog Rock. I guess I probably use a kind of subconscious “filter” and turn on what has the very vibe I need to “imbibe” while working on this or that project. No doubt, most often I get inspired by that very music for which I'm creating my artwork, but when it's still in the process of creation, I seek for something similar in the sense of spirit and drive…
OLGA: So the musicians may just tell you some parameters like “90-60-90”, and just ask you, like a fashion designer, to “dress it up”?!
ED: Yeah… It happens this way, too! Moreover, there exists some “universal clothing”, too: for instance, the music by Johann Sebastian Bach can be represented by a kind of a “cosmic corridor” that will always be suitable.
OLGA: Ed, and can you name your current favourites in music?
ED: I've been a fan of Pink Floyd for ages already – and they probably still remain on top of my personal chart. As to the others, I guess there's no point enumerating all the Prog Rock (and other) bands whose music I like: there are too many of them!
OLGA: And what do you do if some famous people turn to you for your designs, but the music they've created does not “grab” you, leaving you indifferent? Will you follow the pattern like “falling in love on your own accord”?
ED: In such cases (and they did actually occur), I just replied with a tactful refusal to take part in the project.
OLGA: I wonder what kind of music should it be to inspire you to “visualize” it?
ED: Honest and harmonious! When it's honest, you will hear that with an “unaided ear”. Such music does indeed “grab” you, calling for your emotions and conveying certain drive. The proficiency is required, of course, but the core thing about music is its sincerity, and sometimes only “a couple of brilliant notes” may come as a true revelation!
OLGA: And what if this “couple of brilliant notes” was created by some unknown young musicians? Will they be able to get through to you (in case they want it), or shall it be just like “let your manager contact my manager”?
ED: I myself take a decision regarding whom to work with – and if I really feel some spiritual affinity in the music, I don't envision any major obstacles to cooperation. All my websites and web pages are indicated and known, and any musician can contact me directly through MySpace or Facebook. And please don’t be mislead by an idea that I only work with bands that are famous already. Just take a look at the list of my works created for musicians – and you'll see, among others, a number of debut disks and albums of bands and performers that are not too well-known yet.
OLGA: You know, it sometimes happens that it's your cover art that draws attention to the music itself. So, a certain feeling of a “power over matters” is not unfamiliar to you, eh?
ED: I understand that my work is part of the process of the band's creative work on the album, and I don't think there is a need to consider it apart from the music. This should all be perceived together “as one” – as I'm just a designer who creates a “business card” for the album! My work is actually a secondary element, and the primary one is what's created by the musician or band. And when we manage to strike the right balance and match all details of the puzzle together – that's the moment when it all starts working as an organic unity.
OLGA: And yet, people judge by the cover first, and it's you who forms the first impression!
ED: My works are judged by the “face cover” first, and by the “tray card” in the end! (laughing) By the way, I do not always focus on the face cover only: sometimes, the “inside” portion of the graphics takes about the same time – if not longer. And in case of a multi-page booklet, it may be a killing job to do! And what is worse, someone may afterwards want to save funds, and due to technical requirements imposed by the industry, some things appear “cut out”, and the intended general impression is lost completely. Thus, for instance, the new album by Unitopia was supposed to come with a poster inside, – and, alas, it was transformed in the long run into a small picture on the back side…
OLGA: And will this artwork, in its actual size, be available for sale anywhere?
ED: Yes, I suppose it will be available, for instance, during the band's concerts in Europe throughout this year. In addition, we are now discussing possible distribution of some of the “printed works” directly from the band's website. I can also tell you that there are some ideas regarding a possible release of an album and DVD with my works. But it's the matter of time, and it's all currently at the stage of plans only… All the information will appear on the official websites in advance.
OLGA: Currently, the role of the Internet tends to increase, and there is a dramatic change in CD sales. Ed, haven't you got an apprehension that your work on creating cover arts for musical disks is getting less relevant?
ED: I think that people will always want to support their impressions from music by some visual images. Also note that a lot of people collect music albums traditionally, and Prog Rock has the most serious audience in this respect – these are the people loving a beautiful presentation and valuing a good quality product. I don't thing they'd switch to “bare” computer files easily. It's possible that supporting video materials will get more attention in further development, and yet, I do not exclude a need for covers, posters, slide shows… even if they all will exist in the electronic form only. So I don't envision any “apocalypse” to my activity for the nearest years – and, well, in the worst case, I can go painting fences... into all the seven colours of the rainbow!
OLGA: In that case, you'd not be limited to the seven colours, I'm sure! And what kind of music are you “colouring” now?
ED: The Unitopia band from Australia has just released a new epic work called “Artificial”, and another album by this wonderful team, “Covered Mirrors”, is coming soon: it represents quite original cover versions of rock compositions. Also, from among the coming releases, I can mention new works by such bands as Apple Pie (Russia) and La Tulipe Noire (Greece). There is of course much more, but for now, I'll refrain from disclosing secrets that do not belong to me only. I can just say that I'm working on some other projects for the teams I've already cooperated with. And you are welcome to learn all the current news from my web pages.
OLGA: Ed, thank you for the interesting conversation. Wishing you the brightest perspectives in your creative work!
ED: Thank you, Olga, and thanks to all the readers of your great website, too… Long Live Prog Rock!...