Rad Women Who Make Rad Art: Mackie Osborne
by Interviews

Tonight we continue our series called Rad Women Who Make Rad Art, a string of interviews with some of the most exciting female visual artists that have connections with music, today. This segment features the delightfully dark, Mackie Osborne.

Mackie Osborne is a living legend when it comes to designing art for music projects. She's done art for Jello Biafra, Tool, Melvins, Wayne Kramer, The Offspring, All, The Vandals, Melt-Banana, Mr. Bungle, Fantomas and more. Her art shows both adherence to convention as well as a reckless disregard for it. She makes pictures of rabbits doing stick-ups, round headed beasties, and cute little field animals slicing off their own hands. Oh yeah, she made the famous Social Distortion skeleton.

Lately, she's been making some rad pieces for the Melvins, created by using an 1800's letterpress. Due to the nature of the machine, each piece is unique and looks awesome. You can click read more to see features editor John Gentile's conversation with the inimitable Mackie.

What got you interested in the visual arts?

I was always drawing as a kid and I'm a visually oriented person but my neighbor was the first person I knew that chose graphic design as a career. Before that, I wasn't really aware of the possibility that you could make a living doing art. I had never looked at art as anything other than a hobby. So, when the neighbor changed his major from architecture to graphic design it got me thinking that maybe there was some way to make a living doing something with my artistic talents. At the time, I was in school in Missouri studying Biomedical Engineering. Honestly, Graphic Design sounded a lot easier. So I transferred to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and changed my major to Applied Art and Design. They had a great Graphic Communications department there where you learned to set type and work on different presses and get into a lot of the technical aspects of design.

How did you first get involved making covers for bands?

It all started in the early 80s. I was living in Fullerton, going to all the punk shows and friends with a lot of the bands so I ended up doing art for my friend's bands.

It seems to me a good deal of your work likes to put very cute creatures in horrendous situations. Why does this theme interest you? Also, what do you think this theme says about you?

I guess I like feisty cuddly creatures and dangerous situations. It's always interesting to see cuteness and destruction juxtaposed. If you want an intellectual explanation, it's meant to represent how radically varied states of consciousness can, and do, exist simultaneously within each of us at times. And that growing an understanding that our experience of extremes is a microcosm of the macrocosm of the universe on a minuscule scale, can help give us an objective outlook on our lives. It can remind us that nothing is permanent, and not to take anything too seriously. That recognizing our existence as an ever changing, ever evolving adventure, or an exciting story, can give us perspective on our lives which can help us through tough times.

Lately, a lot of your work has revolved around the use of an antique printing press. I assume this is quite labor intensive. Could you tell us a little bit about what attracts you to this format?

The letterpress printing is very labor intensive. It's challenging physically because my press is a treadle press so it's powered by my feet and fed by hand. It's also challenging because it's really old and like an old car there are often mechanical problems that come with an old machine, so some of the work involves fighting the limitations of a pretty primitive machine with a crescent wrench and a sledge hammer among other things.

I love the process and the product though, and it's really great to get away from the computer and get messy working with the press and it's challenges. There's something special about the handmade quality of letterpress packaging and how the form (the part that you print with) makes an impression in the paper. It's so tactile and each print is unique which is so different from the standard music package, where every one looks identical.

You often juxtapose phrases against unusual images, such as the great "Make it a cheeseburger" design that has a rabbit holding a gun next to the phrase. Do you usually have a direct meaning for your combinations, or do you like to leave it up to the viewer to make his/her own connections?

Most of the time the phrases have a meaning to me, but I like to leave it up to the viewer to make their own connections. I also collect quotes and words and I like to throw them into my work if I can.

There is a good deal of conversation about whether it is difficult for women to exist in the music community. Do you think that it is easier, harder, or the same to be a woman in the visual arts?

I have no idea. Never having been a man in the music community I have nothing to compare to. I think being a human on the planet is pretty hard sometimes. Other times, everything flows. I prefer those times.

I've never really spent much time thinking about what might be different if I were a man in this business. I'm existing alright. I get jobs. I work. I get paid.

The music industry is a challenging industry to grow up in, since the values required to be a grown up productive member of society aren't generally held in high regard in that realm. It's mostly populated by characters who think it's a good idea to live like there's no tomorrow, who think the world owes them a living, who don't want to work hard and think their ideas are the only correct ideas.

That being said, more of the bands I like are fronted by men than women, and at the same time there are some women that do way better than just existing in the music industry, there are those that totally RULE!

Both the music industry and the visual arts business offer so much opportunity for creativity and freedom of expression, unfortunately there's also a lot of hidden rules about what's okay and what's not okay to believe, or look like, or sound like and it takes serious courage and commitment to find out who you really want to be and hold on to that in the middle of a lot of other people's opinions.

Have you ever had to deal with unauthorized use of your work? If so, what did you do?

Once someone took the Melvins’ Stoner Witch art that I designed and made snowboards with it. They ended up giving us some snowboards. Other than that, I'm not chasing people with tattoos or bootleg shirts or anything like that. When we find out about online merchants selling bootleg shirts we send someone after them…

You've done cover art for Jello Biafra, The Melvins, Bad Religion, Rancid, Tool, and many others. Many of these pieces have been collaborative with the recording artists. Have you found it easy or difficult to deal with recording artists when working together to make visual art?

The work with the Melvins is mostly my thing, so that's really easy. Working with Tool is mostly Adam's thing. My job is to make his thing happen and make it look good. I love working with him. He's got great ideas and I like his aesthetic. Other bands - it's always different. Sometimes it's easy and fun, sometimes it's the biggest nightmare you could ever imagine. Sometimes I want to… (never mind) Some bands have great ideas and that's fun, some have no idea and trust me which is great too. Sometimes bands want me to work with a painting that their neighbor's kid did. That's a bummer. As of this year, I'm declining those kinds of jobs.

Have you found the art world to be competitive, supportive, or both?

I don't really have much to do with the "art world." I've got a few friends who I consider artists in the art world. They all seem to work really hard alone and come out for a little while after they've done a show. The commercial art field, which I guess I'm in, I'm not really involved in that much. I kind of do my own thing, don't really hang out with other designers much. I mostly hang out with people who like to eat or watch movies or do yoga or swim or walk dogs.

You designed the Social Distortion skeleton, which is one of the most famous punk rock symbols. Was that the result of hours and hours of labor or was it a quick process?

It was pretty quick. It was actually something I designed for my Happy New Years card and Mike sort of stole it then told me later. They were supposed to pay me at some point if they ever made any money. So far, I haven't received any money for it. I guess they must not be making any money yet.

What do you have in the works?

I'm redesigning my website and about three other sites. Plus working on something for Tool and a bunch of different stuff for the Melvins. We're going to sell some stuff on there that you can only get there, in very limited quantities. Christmas is next. Then I think we'll do one for Valentine's Day… maybe Groundhog's Day… not sure.