Interview: Illustrator Stuart Kolakovic Creates “Herman Inclusus”
There can be two of you.
One, internal. Two, external. Work. Play. Illustrator Stuart Kolakovic took this concept and splintered himself — Stuart Kolakovic, the commercial illustrator, and Herman Inclusus, the reclusive monk crafting iconography of a dead religion.
What Kolakovic tells of his illustration career is a struggle common to those that attempt a life in the arts. You move forward until the pieces fit or they don’t. For Kolakovic, they didn’t, so he moved towards more personal work and created the pseudonym ‘Herman Inclusus.’ Inclusus has his own email address. His own website. His own body of work and vision. Inclusus is an artist unto himself.
As an introduction to Herman Inclusus, Kolakovic wrote, illustrated and designed the comic book Dismal Incantation, a narrative following a degenerate monk on his journey to revive the lost master of his dead religion through a series of horrific rituals.
Inclusus is an inspired creation by an artist willing to push beyond the norm and take a risk on something honest and true. To the world of commercial illustration, Stuart Kolakovic is dead. Only Herman Inclusus remains, the storyteller of Kolakovic’s deranged odyssey.
“The Death of King Arthur” Wrap around book jacket, Penguin Classics Edition by Stuart Kolakovic
CJ: Your commercial work feels a close relative to your work as ‘Herman Inclusus,’ especially when looking at ‘The Death of King Arthur’ and the Marks & Spencer tea packaging. There is definitely a consistent style between your two voices.
SK: Any stylistic link between my old commercial illustration and my Herman Inclusus work may be because they were both initially inspired by my family heritage (my Grandfather was Serbian, my Grandmother was Ukranian). You can see the earthy palettes and flat colours of Eastern European folk art in my early illustration and there’s a very obvious influence of Byzantine / Greek Orthodox Icons in my Herman Inclusus work.
But things have been moving painfully slow since making the decision to stop working as an illustrator; mainly because of a death in the family which has meant I’ve had to put everything on hold until the estate, and it’s seemingly infinite amount of problems, becomes manageable. Which is quite ironic considering all my work is about Death.
“Sow Nor Reap” by Herman Inclusus
What prompted the splintering of your personal work off into the ‘Herman Inclusus’ name?
I didn’t enjoying working as a commercial illustrator. I was making too many compromises to appease art directors and to maintain my employ-ability. So I started to create artwork under the Herman Inclusus pseudonym mainly as a way to vent and let off steam. I was hoping to keep my commercial illustration and my personal artwork completely separate, but there was a period of time where the boundaries of distinction became blurred, which made me very uncomfortable.
I always remember Bill Hicks telling an audience, “If there’s anyone here who is in advertising or marketing… kill yourself.” And although illustration isn’t exactly the same thing as Marketing & Advertising, it’s certainly in the same ball park. So I finally decided to take a risk; I stopped working as an illustrator to pursue creating Herman Inclusus artwork exclusively.
“Naturally Caffeine Free Tea” – Three artworks for Marks & Spencer by Stuart Kolakovic
So you’re 100% out of commercial illustration these days?
At the moment, yes. And to be honest, it’s probably going to be a few more months before I can go back to concentrating on producing new Herman work due to the aforementioned problems that are taking up a lot of my time right now.
Was that just a common career path for artists so you took it, or did you think it was going to work out?
No, I had fullest intentions of becoming an illustrator as soon as I graduated from University back in 2007. I was eager and willing to work on anything as long as I could draw for a living. But it just wasn’t as fulfilling as I’d of hoped. In many ways I was spoilt as I was represented by one of the better agencies in the UK. But I didn’t enjoy working for clients full stop.
Do you think that world will be something you’d ever go back to?
I hope not, at least not in the near future. I couldn’t relate to the vast majority of the clients I worked for, be it newspapers, magazines, publishers, supermarkets or whatever. It was all stuff for civilians / the masses, so it always had to be palatable, tasteful and safe. And boring.
“Gallows” from the book “Dismal Incantation” by Herman Incluses
It’s interesting to take the pseudonym ‘Herman Inclusus’ as part of the craft – a creation to enhance the overall experience for the viewer. Do you see your personal work continuing under that name? If you were to get the itch to do art based on modern sports for instance, would Herman Inclusus continue?
If I’m ever forced to start working as an illustrator again, then it certainly won’t be under the ‘Herman Inclusus’ moniker or style. I want 100% creative control over my own personal artwork; it’s not about trying to work with clients. I’ve had my fill of that.
As far as the choice in the pseudonym ‘Herman Inclusus’: I accosted the name of a 13th century Czech monk credited with the creation of the world’s largest known medieval manuscript. The Codex Gigas, as it is known, is physically massive; it takes like 3 or 4 people just to pick up. Various myths and legends have grown up around the book, namely that it was created via a pact between a Monk, walled up alive as an act of penitence, and the Devil.
There’s probably some truth to the tale; many scholars think the monk served penance by writing the manuscript in solitary confinement as indicated by the name, which translates to ‘Herman the Recluse.’ I felt ‘Recluse’ was highly appropriate as I’m usually on my own drawing and festering…
page from “Dismal Incantation” by Herman Inclusus
When it comes to your book Dismal Incantation, would it have been a different beast altogether for you or the audience if it had been attributed to ‘Stuart Kolakovic’ versus ‘Herman Inclusus’?
Realistically, no. But to me it’s important; I’m trying to distance myself from my old commercial illustration work and I want to start afresh. Dismal Incantation was self-published; there’s no way I could convince anyone to publish it even if I wanted to.
Your book Dismal Incantation has a clear vision, from packaging to story. Is your starting point for a project like that in the short story format, or do the visuals come first and a story built around that?
The story comes first. That has the priority. It dictates everything from the format to the artwork. Then it’s a case of figuring out how I want to tell the story.
I’ve been struggling for years to find the sort of horror comics that I want to read, and with the exceptions of artists such as Jason Karns, I’ve had to quench my appetite by reading old pre-code and ‘70s reprints. I suppose Dismal Incantation is my attempt at trying to draw the sort of comic that I’d want to read without having to resort to drawing a vintage-kitsch pre-code rehash. Problem is, it’s not necessarily the sort of comic that anyone else wants to read.
The protagonist in Dismal Incantation was heavily influenced by the character Ambrosio in Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, and Father Schedoni in Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian. I wanted the book to have a distinctly creepy Gothic feel, so I tried to incorporate a lot of features usually found in or associated with medieval manuscripts.
“Unto You Shall Return” by Herman Inclusus
‘Unto You Shall Return’ depicts a brilliant sentiment that can be summed up as: a person experiences greater changes in death than they will experience in life. It can be read many ways depending on the audience. For me, I see it as saying that once a person is alive, they will always be ‘alive’ in some capacity. Physical death is just another level in existence.
There is a biblical sense to your illustrations — a leaning into the Christian / Catholic visual cues of holiness and angelic versus living beings. What’s interesting is that you are not satirizing religion or spirituality, but using that artistic genre to tell your own story. You use that Fra Angelico fresco style with ease. Did you grow up in the Church, or is that a world that you’re naturally attracted to, purely visually?
No, I’m not spiritual in the slightest, nor was I bought up in the Church. But I am morbidly fascinated by religion in general. I regard Christian icons or Islamic miniatures in the same way as the weirdos who collect prison paintings by serial killers. I don’t want to directly poke fun at Christianity, but I am clearly borrowing many of the aesthetics used in traditional icon painting, not because of their implications relating to that specific religion, but just because I find them so beautifully depressing. I want to create my own faux religion; a whole backstory and history. In my head, I see Herman Inclusus as a deranged monk wandering the vast plains of Eastern Europe, concocting his own death-cult rituals whilst stealing the grand aesthetics of the churches he stumbles across.
The common theme that links all religions together is Death. It’s mankind’s inability to deal with the one inevitability. That’s great you can put your own interpretations in my work, but I see Death as the end. But of course, it might not be… Maybe that’s the reason why I spend my time drawing instead of believing in a God or an afterlife?
I grew up in a 500 year old Mansion, listen to Death metal / Goregrind and love classic horror / gothic literature, video nasties, gore and Giallo films. I think all of that plays an important role in what I do and why I do it.
Framed altarpiece for the V&A “Memory Palace” Exhibition by Herman Inclusus
Framed altarpiece for the V&A “Memory Palace” Exhibition by Herman Inclusus
As a commercial illustrator, have you seen your style change overall? Looking at illustrations like ‘Social Media in the Business Place’ for Harvard Business Review / Turkey, there is a sense of lineage to what you do as Herman Inclusus, but at the same time it’s a far cry from your framed altar piece for ‘Memory Palace.’ Are each of these styles in your toolbox per se, or have you evolved beyond being able to do what you did years ago?
Both of those illustrations were tied to a specific brief; neither of which I enjoyed creating. The altar piece you mentioned was commissioned by the Victoria & Albert Museum. I was paid to interpret a specific section of a lame story written by the novelist Hari Kunzru in my ‘gothic style.’
“Dismal Incantation” by Herman Inclusus
“The Abbey” by Herman Inclusus
“The Abbey” (emboss detail) by Herman Inclusus
“The Abbey” shipping package by Herman Inclusus
Your Herman Inclusus prints have an incredible level of quality to them, from the illustrations to the final print and packaging. Are you printing any of yourself, or are you acting as your own art director when it comes to putting these packages together?
At the moment, I’m trying to do everything myself. The wooden icons are extremely time consuming; I’m afraid most people won’t recognise the amount of work that goes into finishing each print. The Douglas Fir Pine Needle Tea I’ve started to produce is equally as time consuming. I just can’t compete with all the other amazing artists selling better and cheaper screenprints and giclees online. I want to try and create something different or unusual or at least something I’m stoked on before I go broke and have to resort to getting a real job.
I’ve recently started using Instagram. It’s a big step for me, because I despise “Social Media”. I don’t understand it. I’ve seen a lot of other artist’s work on there and they all seem to have beautiful white studios with wood floors or hot wives/husbands helping them “process orders.” I just turned 30, I have no girlfriend or job and live with my Mum. In short, I’m a dork.
When moving from commercial to more personal work, did you already have an existing audience for your prints or did you trust that that would happen later once the work got out there?
The first chance I got to really explore my own work was when I was offered a solo show in 2011 at Nobrow Publishing‘s now defunct gallery space. (I was lucky enough to work on some of the earlier Nobrow publications which really helped kickstart my illustration career.) That solo show the first time I used the “Herman Inclusus” moniker and I converted a wooden shed into a decrepit church to house a large set of prints. I don’t think it was generally well received… which I found encouraging. I remember watching some interview footage of Chuck D when I was a kid where he explained how he recognized how good a track was depending on how much his girlfriend hated it. I’m not optimistic; I don’t think I have a large audience willing to pay much for my work.
Your catalog of work shows you as a storyteller at heart — even in your commercial work you lean towards illustrations that can express large ideas. Are you finding clients come to you specifically for those jobs? Are smaller pieces like logos or text treatments things you wouldn’t necessarily find rewarding?
Clients don’t really have the time to explore longer narratives. Everything seems to be about speed; the speed in which you create the work and the speed in which the audience can receive it; there seems to be no place for longer narratives in commercial illustration. The visual communication has to be instantaneous. But storytelling and my love for comic books is what got me to study “illustration” to begin with.
When you yourself are the intended audience, you tend not to care what anyone else thinks. Herman Inclusus is fully self-indulgent! When working with clients, it’s not necessarily the outcome I find rewarding, but rather the purpose. I recently drew a skateboard graphic for a friend I grew up skating with; it was his first pro-board. That meant a lot to me. Friends and skateboarding mean a lot to me. Seeing my work in a newspaper next to a pointless editorial piece does not.
Board graphic for Lewis Threadgold’s debut Pro model on Heathen Skateboards by Herman Inclusus
Read more from Chris Jalufka at EvilTender.com.