Today on The Muppet Mindset, we have an extremely special interview with my very good friend Dave Hulteen, Jr. If you haven’t noticed, the Mindset has a brand new, supremely gorgeous, holiday banner headlining the site. This banner was designed by the one and only Dave Hulteen, Jr. Throughout the years he has done some other incredible Muppet artwork–even designing my famous Gonzo avatar on Muppet Central–which will be linked to and showcased throughout the interview. (Click any images to see them in their full glory.)
Interview conducted by our ever-mysterious British Correspondent.
BRITISH CORRESPONDENT: Dave! Hi! It’s been a while since we caught up with you last, what have you been up to? Tell us something about yourself! (Probably not your deepest darkest secret…just some basics will do — name, background, height, hair color, credit card details.)
DAVE: Well, I’m a professional graphic designer and illustrator who’s been working for The Salvation Army’s Eastern Territorial Headquarters in New York for five years now, and I’ve been married to my beautiful wife Niki for about six. I’m Jersey born and bred and despite such responsibilities, I still read comic books, play video games, and of course am emphatically obsessed with the Muppets. Lately I’ve been creating Muppet art like a raging storm for ToughPigs, The Muppet Cast, and even here at the Mindset.
BC: So, you are known as Vic Romano over at Muppet Central Forums. When did you start fancying Muppets?
DAVE: Oh, I was born into the Muppets like a religion. My family were huge fans of all things Jim Henson, and I just followed suit. My dad and grandmother in particular made sure I was constantly surrounded with Muppety goodness. Most kids first security was a blanket or teddy bear, mine was a Kermit the Frog plush (which I still proudly have). It was a daily ritual to watch Sesame Street, and a weekly one for The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock. I’m significantly more enchanted nowadays with The Muppets then my family is, but they’re all too aware of what’s going on and are still big enough fans that they notice little things like if Steve doesn’t perform Kermit, and set their DVRs for “Dancing With The Stars” appearances. I’ve made a pretty hardcore fan out of my wife too who proudly shows off “our” Muppet collection to guests who come over to our house.
BC: I remember your Muppet Art really came to light when you created a thread called Vic Romano’s Weekly Creative Muppet Visuals, which was filled with parodies, cartoons, and photo-manipulations of the Muppets. Did you start out drawing Muppets or were you already an artist before you took them on?
DAVE: Coming from a family that adores the Muppets means I come from a relatively creative family as well. My great grandfather made his bread and butter when he came to America from Norway by painting. My grandfather also did a lot of portrait and landscape paintings on the side, and my dad gets commissioned to do artwork too, so I come from a long line of illustrators and was encouraged to do so ever since I was little. When I was about ten or eleven years old, my family really started to see I had a knack and passion for this and might be able to make a living out of it, so they really encouraged me to draw and helped train me and get me in the best possible programs and schools. They always believed in me.
BC: Do you remember, what was the very first piece of Muppet art? (Meaning your first piece of Muppet art…apparently the very first piece of Muppet art was a cave-drawing of a Snuffleupagus…)
DAVE: I would always draw Kermit. I had a very specific look for him that was modeled after this bean bag plush I had of him as opposed to what Kermit actually looks like. He looked more like a tongue depressor with gastroenteritis then Kermit, but my first art teacher in Kindergarten used my crude Kermit illustrations to teach me the basics of anatomy, depth, perspective, and even shading. A short funny story that’s a good footnote to that was when I realized as a little boy, that most of the Muppets like Kermit, Fozzie, Rowlf, and Sam, were naked, so to be consistent and believing the Muppet designers had somehow made an error, I did a project where I drew Miss Piggy naked as well, and got in a LOT of trouble.
BC: What’s the usual artsy process for you? — By ‘artsy process’ I mean what mediums to you use? Pencil, ink, programs, magic?
DAVE: I use the computer more then anything now, but that’s just because of the technology available. I use a WALCOM tablet to draw like most digital artists today. It’s the exact same process as when I used paper, only now it’s a matter of looking up at a screen while my hand sketches down on the desk. It took a while to get used to, but it’s completely natural now. I do everything from there in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. I love Adobe products, I can’t understand how I lived life without them. That’s not to say I don’t break out the sketch pad, colored pencils and crayons often. My nephew loves to draw and is always asking me to teach him stuff, and I love doing that because that childlike excitement where everything is new really gets my creative muscles to stretch. He just had me show him how to draw a robot bear doing karate. How inspiring is that? A Mac computer is my artistic nirvana, but you’ll never be able to replace a pen and piece of paper.
BC: I have to ask, who has had really been a big influence on your art?
DAVE: For my art, it’s always been Jim. My dad and grandfathers are master painters. They can recreate the illusion of life on canvas. When I was a kid, I thought that made their art better then mine because I’ve never been able to do that. I remember first seeing Jim’s doodle for Big Bird and promotional art for The Muppet Show and being so drawn in that it was so simple, yet so expressive. Jim made me understand that art didn’t have to just be fancy to be good, but creative and whimsical. “I don’t know art, but I know what I like” is my mantra, and my goal ever since has been to create stuff that makes people go, “Hey, that’s clever! I never would have thought of that!”, rather then evoke “Oohs” and “Ahhs”, although that’s nice too. Jim made me realize artistically that it was more important to express myself then to emulate others.
BC: Maybe a more important question, who has had an important influence on your life?
DAVE: Every aspect of my life has been influenced by my father. My mother died when I was nine months old, so despite tons of help from my extended family, for the most part, it was just me and my dad for awhile. He encouraged me to be as creative and unconventional as I could, and I know it wasn’t always easy to do that, because the job market over here in New York and New Jersey has always been richly saturated with all types of artists, and to stick out and make a living in that field is very very hard, and I know he was worried about that and may have hoped I had a back-up plan, specifically the military. But he always encouraged me and gave me the confidence that I could in fact do it.
BC: Have your influences changed through the years? Is Lady Gaga going to become your new muse?
DAVE: I know a lot of fans think she’s weird, and make no doubt about it; she is, but what a great celebrity to have on our side! She brought Kermit to the VMAs! Whoever thought we’d see that? Plus I dig that “Bad Romance” song. Ha ha! I wouldn’t cite her directly as a muse though. I’m a big Howard Stern fan actually. Clearly I acknowledge I’m alone in the crossover category of “Muppet AND Howard Stern fans”, but I admire his ability to be creative and witty on a daily basis. That’s super hard to do. I also just recently finished reading Neal Gabler’s biography on Walt Disney and it changed my life. I always admired Disney, but his determination to always do everything better really spoke to me. Every project I do now, whether I love or hate it, I put every drop of passion I have into it. As for other artists I admire, “Liberty Meadows” creator Frank Cho has always been at the top of my list, Disney Legend Marc Davis, “MTV’s The Maxx” creator and comic book artist Sam Kieth was a huge influence in my art as well as “Tank Girl” creator Jamie Hewlett, and a slew of others like Scotty Young, Humberto Ramos, Ed McGuiness, and J. Scott Campbell.
BC: Do you have an all-time favorite Muppet?
DAVE: Not to ride that bandwagon off the pier, but it’s always been Kermit. He is the penultimate model for charm, leadership, bravery, wit, and demeanor. How could he not be everyone’s favorite Muppet? When I need to listen to my conscience, that voice of reason in my head, it is his voice. He’s my avatar on every site that allows me to have one, his effigy sits all over my office and home, he’s been around my whole life; he’s freaking Kermit the Frog.
BC: And an all time favorite Muppet moment?
DAVE: When Kermit has his epiphany under a starry sky in the desert in The Muppet Movie that his only option is to keep his promise to himself and lead the gang to Hollywood. The Muppets really make me laugh, but it’s when they have these zen moments of wisdom that blow my mind. Wow, now THAT was a serious fanboy moment.
BC: Now, mixed in with Muppet craziness has always been a wonderful depth of heart. I know that’s true of your Muppet art too. Some of your most beautiful pieces have been tributes to the Muppeteers and writers of the show. How did you feel about making those?
DAVE: Those are my favorite. I enjoy doing those the most because it’s really saying, “Hey look, you like what I do? Here’s the reason why I do it.” I suppose most anyone could draw Bert and Ernie doing something funny, provocative, avant-garde, or even erotic and it’s going to get a response. When I do something obscure like a caricature of Richard Hunt though, I feel like I’m proving that I’m a real fan and generating genuine interest in him, and that’s important not just to me, but the memory of Richard too. Plus there’s always that hope that the performer or his family might find it online and feel that love and respect in a real warm way.
BC: Do you have a favorite piece of your own Muppet art? (I’m just going to start calling it Muppart soon and hope no one minds.)
DAVE: I just did a piece for Steve Swanson over at The Muppet Cast for Christmas that is Jim in a Santa suit placing a teddy bear Fozzie down while Kermit is in the foreground looking back to see it happen. Aside from just being pleased with the quality, I was kind of enjoying the view on my high-horse that I made an obvious connection between the bearded Jim and Santa Claus. I also learned some new tricks in the creation process which is always very rewarding.
BC: Can I ask what sort of time do you put into each piece, and which piece of Muppart has taken you the longest to create?
DAVE: Some pieces I can bang out really fast, like 2 or 4 hours if I’m really enjoying working on them. That “Santa Jim” piece moved fast because I was so excited about it. Of course, once the initial concept is hammered out, inked and colored; I tend to fuss too much about placement, lighting, and stuff like that. Other things can take months, and even years because I’ll abandon them and then come back to them later, or just realize that some pieces are so important to me, they deserve a lot of time to refine them. I did a piece that recently appeared on Tough Pigs of the original top five Muppeteers I called “Inspirational”. Obviously, I started with Jim, but the original intention was always to include Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Dave Golez, and Richard Hunt. It took about two weeks to finish Jim, and when I was done, I considered making the piece solely about him simply because it had taken so long. But then I decided that if I was really going to put that kind of effort into it, it was going to have everyone. I spent the same amount of time on everyone because I wanted them all to be as complex and perfect. Some of them went through four or five drafts before I settled on their final appearance.
BC: Tell us about the Thanksgiving/Christmas fan project that you worked on a few years back.
DAVE: Oh man, you know, it’s important to grow as an artist and look back at what you’ve done and see how far you’ve come. I know that’s probably the most popular piece I’ve done, but it looks so terrible to me now! I do however, still love the concept and feel of it though. I was watching “A Muppet Family Christmas” like I do at least every two months, and I was so sad at the realization that all of Jim’s creations have just been splintered into so many different companies that will most likely never crossover again, and I just felt that that wasn’t appropriate, so I decided to put them all together. I wanted to make something huge for everyone at Muppet Central to really faun over too, and it just seemed the best thing to do was go big… really big. My favorite part of that whole piece though was the implied infatuation Red Fraggle has on Scooter. That seems like a fantasy couple to me. I tried to pair up a lot of Muppets I thought would interact well like Bert and Sam the Eagle, and Wembley and a Skesis. Like I said, I’m still very fond of my concept on that one, but I look at it now and say to myself, “Oh man, I could do that so much better now”. Who knows, maybe someday I will. A few fans listed a bunch of other characters they’d like to see, so who knows.
BC: You’ve been a Muppet fan for a long while, how do you think they’ve changed in that time? (I am so sorry…did I just call you old?)
DAVE: Ha ha! I dig getting older, and I like when people tease me that I’m in my thirties. I won’t lie, when Jim died, I believed it was over, and for a while, I felt they were really just dragging my poor Muppets through the mud. I didn’t like any of the immediate post-Jim stuff. It took me a very long time to accept Steve as Kermit, and it drove me up a wall that Frank was gone and they decided to keep Richard’s characters quiet, but no one else’s. Then Bill Barretta started doing Jim’s other characters like Rowlf and Dr. Teeth really well, and Steve just settled into Kermit so nicely. I can’t tell the difference between Eric Jacobson’s characters and Frank’s, so I started to become more optimistic, but I still kept my reservations. Now all of a sudden we’re getting hit with this cosmic Muppet meteor of stuff that Disney is clearly putting a lot of blood, sweat, and tears behind and it truly is becoming a Muppet renaissance! I say with all honesty that what I’m seeing now is what I believe Jim would be doing if he were still here and I just love it. It was a long and dark road, but it is a pretty awesome time to be a Muppet fan. I’m certain it’s the reason for my recent inspiration for all the latest Muppart I’ve done.
BC: The two old guys in the balcony (what WERE their names again?) always seem to find fault with the Muppets. Have you ever encountered criticism of your work, either Muppart or otherwise?
DAVE: You cannot be an artist or designer and not have tough skin, because if someone is paying you to do something for them, you better believe they’re going to voice even the slightest dissatisfaction over it. I suppose I welcome it, because after the initial cussing inside my head subsides about how they don’t know anything; it makes you think and realize that maybe your particular approach can be improved. If there’s one thing that always gets me, it’s not the criticism about what I did, but what I didn’t do. “You didn’t add so-and-so”, or “You should really draw what’s-his-face.” That’s when I feel like saying, “Well then why don’t you just go and do it?!” The real taste of humble pie though, is when they say that and you realize you really should have added so-and-so and drawn what’s-his-face.
BC: Music has always played a massive part in Muppet films. (Miss Piggy also played a massive part, no matter how tightly they laced her corsets…) Do you listen to Muppet music while you work?
DAVE: I used to. I have a decent library of Muppet music that I listen to often, but I’m finding in my old age that I work better in silence. I just get into a zone, and I don’t hear anything anyway. So when I’m not creating, I’m singing “Dance Myself To Sleep” at the top of my lungs, but otherwise everything else becomes a distraction.
BC: Alright, where do you want to be in five years time? Will we ever get to see your designs on t-shirts? (And if so, will I have to relinquish my Lady Gaga t-shirt to get it?)
DAVE: The dream always has, and always will be to work for either Disney, Sesame Workshop, or The Jim Henson Company. The difference is that I’m ready to do so now. My goal is to someday create a new Muppet Magazine. Something really fun, but totally trendy and maybe even informative. The Muppets ARE design, and if Rachel Ray can have her own publication, I honestly see no reason why the Muppets can’t. I think it would be the perfect roof to cover all Muppet/Henson related families without having to cut through miles of red tape. I’ve actually done some concept work on the idea, and I’d like to get an electronic version (PDF) out on the web someday soon to see what kind of reaction it would get. Want to write some articles for it?
BC: When was the last time you laughed so hard it hurt?
DAVE: Well, this is probably completely inappropriate, but I make my wife tell me stories about people, um… well, “pooping their pants” because she’s so apprehensive to do so, but at the same time so good at it. I’m just very immature, and she knows how to exploit that and make me laugh. Ha ha, sorry, I know that’s terrible.
BC: Will we ever see Angus McGonagle the Argyle Gargoyle headlining in your work?
DAVE: He’s like the Disco Stu of “The Muppet Show”. That might be fun. I will accept your challenge, sir!
BC: As always, it’s been lovely to chat to you. I’m a massive fan of all your Muppart, and we wish you all the luck in the world with the future. (Right, is this thing off now? Can I get you to sign my copy of Jungle Frog?)
DAVE: Just dance… it’ll be okay!
A huge amount of special thanks to our very good friend, and my favorite Muppet fan artist, Dave Hulteen, Jr. Be sure to check out all of Dave’s art on his official Deviant Art page, his Muppet Central Deviant Art Page, his Muppet Central thread, featured at ToughPigs, and featured at The MuppetCast!
Thanks is also in order to our British Correspondent. So… thanks.
Keep an eye on The Muppet Mindset for more from Dave in the future!
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier.