5 minutes with… Ross Murray
Ross Murray‘s iconic illustrative work masterfully captures place and time. We spoke with him about creative representation, his early artistic influences, finding inspiration (& energy) in the landscape, dream projects, and remembering to breathe.
Can you tell us about any milestones in your creative journey from when you started out to today?
Leaving my job in 2006 at an Auckland ad agency to work remotely from the middle of the woods in the Coromandel was a key milestone. Being asked to join the roster of artists at the Jacky Winter Group was another big thing and really helped me to take my work to a different level. Other milestones are mostly measured by key pieces of work: on the commercial front, my first illustration for Rolling Stone magazine, illustrating Lonely Planet’s ‘Epic’ series of books, the 2017/18 summer campaign for McDonald’s and a commission for Disney all felt pretty significant. In terms of personal work, my first picture book being published, having my comics appear in VICE, my ‘graphic novel’ Rufus Marigold coming out this year, and being asked to exhibit a collection of my travel posters at Te Kōputu a Te Whanga a Toi in my hometown of Whakatāne are all special milestones for me.
Who were your early creative influencers? Did you like art or artists when you were younger – was there someone from an early stage that might have inspired you to pick graphic design and later illustration as career paths?
My mother’s family were creative people – writers, musicians and artists – but I remember being particularly inspired by Ron Monten who was married to my second cousin, Geraldine Oliver. He was an incredible commercial artist and adman and created a number of well-known pieces of NZ’s illustration and ad culture, including the lion in the Lion Red logo. Visits to their place on the Awhitu Peninsula were always super exciting and I’d spend a lot of time staring at his art on the walls. My own artistic influences were a strange blend of things: Asterix, Salvador Dali, Rita Angus, HR Giger, Bill Sutton and Mad Magazine. I became obsessed with the visual culture of the 1960’s. 2001: A Space Odyssey blew my mind and the screen-printed posters of psychedelia had a huge effect on me. I loved the way they took pieces of a visual style from the past (Art Nouveau) and turned them into something new.
We love how you captured the quintessential kiwi-ness of summer in your campaign for McDonald’s! How did the project come about and what were the challenges (if any) along the way?
That campaign came off the back of an exhibition of personal work called ‘Golden Summer’ I had in 2017 with Greg Straight. Greg had illustrated the previous year’s campaign so reps from McDonald’s and Johnson McKay from Fly came along to see the show and obviously liked what they saw of my work. I think the biggest challenge was finding a way to combine a whole lot of different pieces of kiwi culture into something cohesive. Comics are hugely important to me so the mesh of ‘panels’ seemed like a perfect solution.
Mount Maunganui is a beautiful place to be living and working! How does the landscape inform your work?
We moved to the Mount about ten years ago and although there’s a lot of ugly architecture, there’s no denying the natural beauty. My studio is at the foot of Mauao (the Mount) so a lunchtime walk with birds & bush on one side and sunbathing seals & ocean on the other is a pretty reliable source of energy. That said, I’m equally interested in buildings, especially old, crusty ones. I’m kind of fascinated by ideas around nostalgia and consumerism. The fading glory of small-town NZ, epitomised by abandoned petrol stations and run-down dairies, is something I find quite poignant.
Your vintage place-based posters showcasing the flora, fauna and landscape of Aotearoa are also phenomenal as is your series of vehicles outside of local architectural icons. How do you go about expressing the complexity of our cultural identity while maintaining boldness and simplicity in your illustrative work?
New Zealand’s cultural identity is indeed pretty complex and I only capture very small slices of it. In terms of subject matter, there’s probably a temptation to generalise and be a bit reductive when trying to capture the feeling of a culture so I try and use some amount of specificity where I can. Whether it’s a recognisable place or a certain type of car or whatever. Then it doesn’t matter so much if you’re visually simplifying things.
You also write children’s books and comics… Do you have a favourite discipline to work with and how do you divide your time between writing/designing/illustration practices?
I do enjoy working across a range of disciplines but comics are definitely my favourite medium. As a creative framework, they offer so many possibilities. For a visual storyteller, film is the only other medium that has as much potential. However, most films require some amount of collaboration. To me, the autocracy of comics is its greatest feature. In terms of how I divide my time, it mostly follows the pattern of taking commercial illustration projects on when they’re on offer and spending my downtime on a mix of comics and personal artwork. Commercial work seems to have a natural ebb and flow but if it gets really intensive for too long I find it’s important to make time for the personal stuff. Most of my favourite paid projects have resulted from personal work and so devoting time to it is crucial.
What project, personal or professional, are you most proud of and why?
It’s hard to pick but the work I did for a beer called ‘Bliss’ by Garage Project is right up there. Not only did I get to design the can but I got to create artwork for a limited edition screenprint as well. A key part of inspiration for the beer was backyard barbecues in 1980’s NZ. As a child of the eighties, it was a lot of fun tapping into my deep love for that era’s graphic design for the can artwork and then summoning memories of backyard cricket on un-mown lawns for the screenprint.
What does your dream project or collaboration look like?
I’ve actually just completed something of a dream project, creating an officially licensed film poster for ‘Space Is the Place’ which is a mind-bending cult film from 1974 starring Sun Ra. It’s a limited edition 7-colour poster, screen printed by Tramé Serigraphie in Paris. Sun Ra was one of the greatest avant garde musicians of all time and the costumes and visuals in the film really are out of this world. It was such a buzz to work on and I can’t wait to see the prints when they arrive.
How long have you been with the Jacky Winter group and what have the benefits of their representation been so far?
I’ve been part of the Jacky Winter family since 2013, I think. As far as agents go, they’re really amazing. They have offices in both Melbourne and New York and all of the best clients. They’re so good at what they do – contracts, pricing, client service et al – and I’m always learning from them. More than anything though, they’re just really good humans. Swoon! I think another benefit of their representation is sharing a roster with such amazing artists. There’s something about being in the company of artists you really admire which makes you set yourself higher standards.
Your bio said you spend most of your spare time trying to remember how to breathe… How do you find a balance between work and life?
I have a workspace at home but my good desk and my good tablet are at my studio so I try and schedule my actual drawing hours for 9-5ish, Monday to Friday. The flexibility of working for yourself is great though. I’ll often finish early and pick my kids up from school then do some work in the evening. With a good amount of my work coming from overseas, a new brief could appear in my inbox literally any time of the day or night so it is pretty hard to ever switch off completely. Also, whatever amount of thinking behind any creative project usually takes place outside of the studio – writing, especially. Most ideas & thought processes occur whilst doing stuff like walking, driving, washing dishes and of course, late at night when I should be asleep.