We had the good fortune of connecting with Kirby Israelson and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kirby, alright, let’s jump in with a deep one – what’s you’re definition for success?
Kirby Israelson/Just Kirby The first time I saw the movie Whiplash it blew me away. The heart-wrenching finale brought tears to the audience’s eyes as they mourned the tragic figure who futilely pursued the dream of becoming a musician under the fists of an abusive tyrant; but as the last notes of his drum solo echoed in my ears, only one thought was going through my head: of course he would ruin his life to be the best. So would I.
You see, success and I have always had a tumultuous relationship. My family says I was born with innate talent. For everything. Be it sports, music, theater, or my chosen profession, art, everything seemed to come naturally to me. And when it didn’t, I worked hard until it seemed like it did. I was always hungry. Hungry to learn more, do more, be more, and it never seemed like anything was enough. And so I never stopped.
When I was a student, it drove me into AP classes and extracurriculars. When I was in college, it forced me to strive for top marks and excellence awards. When I became a creative professional, it made me work multiple jobs and open my own business, all at the same time. The terms workaholic and overachiever—even wrecking ball—all became synonymous with my name because I was constantly seeking an elusive concept: success. But, in my never-ending state of continuous motion, I never once stopped to consider what success actually was. Our world is full of “successful” people telling you how you can be better. That if you wake up at dawn, meditate every morning, eat healthy, exercise consistently, practice yoga, stand in the “Superman pose,” keep a to-do list, drink butter coffee, eat an apple before breakfast, take multi-vitamins, keep a dream journal, create a vision board, eat eggs, don’t eat eggs, and do everything just like them you will be a success. But would you? I once read a quote that (to paraphrase poorly) said too many people equate success with happiness. You actually shouldn’t do what makes you happy, you should do what makes you great. And let me tell you, that was not a healthy thing to hear when you’re someone always striving for perfection. Because the more I chased what I thought was success, the more exhausted I became. And the more exhausted I became, the more I felt like a failure. Because who has time to be tired when you need to learn more, do more, be more? So I kept going until I couldn’t. I kept working until I finally had to stop. Until I realized the image of perfection I was striving for was not success. In reality, success is a much smaller—and much larger—thing that I ever realized.
Success is waking up and going about your day. Success is finding comfort in a guilty pleasure. Success is laughter. Success is tiny sparks of inspiration. Success is loving someone. Success is watching the sunset and feeling even the tiniest bit grateful. Success is surrounding yourself with people who bring you up, not pull you down. Success is people coming to you for help because they know you can be trusted. Success is coming home after a long day of work and feeling satisfied, even if you’re tired. Success is being greeted by the people you care about with a smile. Success is finding room in your heart for kindness, even when it isn’t deserved. Success is taking a deep breath when everything seems like it’s about to overwhelm you.
Success is making the right choices, whatever they are for you. Success is using your talents to make some else’s life better, no matter how trivial. Success is finding your passion and using it to make the world a better place. Success is whatever you want it to be. Success is you. And me. Success is all of us. Every day I struggle against the almost overwhelming desire to push myself too far to be the best. It’s always a battle to keep myself from working too many hours, from going too far, from being too critical. But when that feeling rises toward the edge of my chest and threatens to spill over, I take a step back. I take a deep breath and I try to remember each and every way that I am a success. And there are many.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
Welp. I don’t even know how to tackle that question. Too many answers, too little time, too much to talk about… Seriously, how does someone answer that without writing an essay? Are there character limits to these things? Let’s answer some of that, instead. I don’t know if there’s anything that sets me apart from other artists, honestly. Essentially, every artist is simply a person who can channel emotions into an aesthetic. That’s all it is. Art is the representation of feelings that cannot be explained with words alone. It’s taking what’s in our hearts and giving it form, whether it’s on a canvas, in our movements, or played in a musical score. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Art is hungry. Art is alive and never still. I’m just one of the people who helps give it form when it grows too large to be ignored.
Personally, as an artist, I’m highly adaptable. One of my curses/talents (differing opinions) is that I don’t truly have a style of my own. Born with a brain that never likes to be bored and hands that never stop, I’ve chased almost every form of artistic medium that I could find. Armed with this artistic arsenal, I never developed only one style—instead, I crafted many. That isn’t to say that my work isn’t recognizable. The controversial themes, the disturbing concepts, the harsh edges hidden behind bright colors, and an ever-enthusiastic appreciation of the macabre allows my audience to always find me. Even when they don’t want to. Essentially, my art allows me to take life’s most disturbing elements and turn them into something beautiful. I want my viewer to be pulled in by something comfortably pleasing before the gut-punch of reality. There’s the adorable teddy bear picking flowers (that are sentient and bleeding as we slowly destroy our planet through self-absorption and greed).* The vibrant illustration of a pair of cherries (that come with a notice that chewing cherry seeds can lead to cyanide poisoning as each pit contains harmful levels of cyanogenic glycosides).** Even the adorable high school student hiding behind her algebra homework (who is stuck in a never-ending maze of school shootings).***
All art is feeling, and critique, and a desire to change the world. Do I portray it differently than other artists? Probably. But are we all trying to do the same thing? Of course. And as long as none of us stop feeling hungry, the art will keep on coming. *See Mah Bears, a character series by Just Kirby that features teddy bears suffering from mental disorders to raise awareness and bring humorous comfort to those suffering. **See Adorably Vicious, a Just Kirby watercolor series where each piece of art is something beautiful yet deadly, with all paintings featuring a “fun fact” of how the subject can kill you. ***See Activity Books by JT Steiny/Hive Gallery, an annual collection of interactivity featuring dozens of artists. Previous Just Kirby submissions have tackled topics such as the sad economic reality of millennials, school shootings, and rape culture.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
As an enthusiastic homebody, I would hate to disappoint you by stating a week-long trip with my best friend would simply include hanging around my apartment—but if I’m being honest, that’s exactly what it would be. With a gaming station complete with 100+ games and 6 consoles, plus 8 floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, food delivery, and (of course) access to the internet, I’m sure I would have no problem keep us entertained. But that answer is not fun for everyone.
So, let’s say we actually did venture outside. What would I want to do? In no particular order… Brunch at Beachside Restaurant (because breakfast enchiladas are life). Comic book and graphic novel shopping at Pulp Fiction Comics and the Comic Bug. Lunch at Mitsuwa Marketplace’s food court, plus boba and fresh mochi for dessert and a quick perusal of their mini Kinokuniya gift/book shop. Window shopping at Little Tokyo, plus actual shopping at the full-size Kinokuniya. Visiting MOCA, the Hive Gallery, the Wiltern, and/or Pantages Theatre (if there was a good show in town). High tea at Chado Tea Room, or the Huntington Library. Krav Maga sparring at the park. Book shopping at The Last Bookstore (or Barnes & Noble, or Goodwill, I’m not picky as long as there are books). Dinner at Mr. Ramen (where I would reminisce about the first date with the love of my life while eating a bowl of ramen larger than my head). Ube ice cream and Boon Uh Bbang at Somi Somi, quickly followed by pineapple upside down cake ice cream from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams (my newest obsession). Sing louder than humanly possible at Max’s Karaoke with the famous Karaoke Larry (a.k.a. my father). Anything else, as long as good people—or good food—are involved and I can be in bed by 11 p.m. (What? I’m not a spring chicken anymore!)
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Thank you to each and every person I’ve met throughout my life that has encouraged my personal brand of weird. Seriously, that’s it. That’s what is most important. It isn’t always about financial security or teachers saying they believe in you (although those do play a role).
It’s about being told it’s okay to be as weird as you want to be. It’s about parents that smile when you make a snowman out of butter and powdered sugar at a fancy restaurant. It’s about siblings that take your ratted, old teddy bear to college because you told her it would keep her safe. It’s about lovers who buy you nerf guns you don’t need, alien statues you no longer have room for, and your 50th pair of crazy socks.
It’s about friends who call you a community treasure in the same breath and they say you’re a hot mess (from a place of love, of course). It’s about never being afraid to show who you are, and who you want to be. The world is a scary place, chock full of criticism and censure, with every commercial, billboard, and advertisement telling you that you need to change into someone else. Into someone more amenable, more beautiful, more normal. But normal is a flawed, failed concept. The world doesn’t need normal. The world needs weird. The only weapon we have against this barrage of the conventional is the tiny spark of weird that lives within us. So, to those who turned my spark into an inferno—thank you. I wouldn’t burn so bright without you.
Mike Harriel Photography, TWE Solutions