Ted Kim has no formal art training. His lifelong interest in drawing stems from the comics he read as a child. He carefully refers to himself as an "illustrator" rather than an artist.
Yet his current exhibit of drawings, "Good Drink," now on display at Middle Way Cafe, presents an uncommon showcase of both compelling concept and exquisite technique -- a combination generally synonymous with high art.
"For the past 10 years I've wanted to do a graphic novel," he said. "I have a children's story I totally made but never did anything with, and what kept me back was my lack of being able to write. Then I thought: I don't really need to write. I'll just draw. Now I have this idea that I can make a book without any text in it. It's given me freedom. I think I'm just kind of flowing way easier."
The "book" now wraps around the walls of the cafe in a series of 45 small drawings, serene in composition, frantic with detail. Each implies its own story. Cumulatively, they suggest an epic. Motifs -- goldfish, bamboo, pack animals loaded with improbable baggage and seats -- are repeated. The energy level in given drawings ranges from calm respite to explosive.
Perhaps the most eye-catching thing is the manic, mind-boggling replication of minutiae: leaves, grass, cans, chain links. "I draw for eight hours at a time," Kim said. "And it hurts."
A time-lapse video of Kim in action has received more than 260,000 hits on YouTube. It shows his hand over a blank piece of paper drawing hundreds of blades of grass, then a small mountain of tin cans, two trees swarming with leaves and a woman and child walking by in front of a mountain backdrop. Each element is individually rendered, leaf by leaf, and the background is colored by miniscule loops or bubbles.
Kim says the number of views has to do with controversies that have arisen concerning whether or not the video is a computer trick. "It's all hand-eyeball work," he affirms.
He works freehand, sometimes over a pencil sketch, sometimes taking ink straight to paper. Since he got an iPhone, he said, he's been more inclined to use it for reference, as in depicting the tiger, elephant, rhinoceros and other animals shown laboring under impossible burdens.
"People say work animals are happy," he said. "But when I draw them, I don't think they're very happy."
Kim was born in Hawaii and moved to Anchorage at the age of 2 when his father took a job with Reeve Aleutian Airlines. He graduated from West High School and tried college briefly. "Basically, I dropped out. Skateboarding was taking over my life. Then, when I was 25, I blew out my knee from skateboarding. Then I started drawing more than ever."
You might not think that skater culture has much in common with art, but Kim found a creative community in his boarding buddies. His friend Travis Milan, now in Portland, started making a line of clothes with Kim's images. With other friends, he created four skate videos, some shown at Loussac Library's Wilda Marston Theatre. A fifth is due to be released this spring, edited by Brendon Hupp, another Alaska-grown videographer/skater.
"Making skate videos is what we all love more than anything art-wise," Kim said. "I feel like skateboarding is our biggest passion and so many things come from that creative energy."
That collective creativity is behind the name of the current show. "Good Drink," Kim explained, is not about an alcoholic beverage. "It's just a generic name for soda." It's a symbol for "my friends and everything we create together."
The cans that litter his drawings have the "GOD" logo of the imaginary product, and in some cases they serve as a signature.
"It just started out as doodling, but I never liked signing my art. So I just drew a can. Good Drink was me."
He only started signing his work, somewhat reluctantly, when he started selling it.
Nature vs. machine
Among the most repeated images in the "Good Drink" series are children. "I have two daughters, 7 and 3 years old. I get a lot of inspiration from them," he said. "And a lot of times my drawings are from my own childhood."
Toward the start of the line of drawings, which wrap around the cafe, children are often seen gazing through a window in what seems to be a treehouse; the treehouse is later the setting for cats and a panda. The children, perhaps seen at different ages, appear in casual clothing that morphs into aviator gear from World War II and space suits from science fiction. The abused pack animals transform into machines.
"I hate to use the phrase 'post-apocalyptic,' but a lot of this takes place in a whole other society that happens after the present one has failed. The story that kind of goes behind what I'm thinking all the time involves environmental issues."
Nature takes the surreal forms of wooden automatons, children who are part tree, and those gazillions of leaves. The final pairing (patrons will find it on the purple wall of the cafe) contrasts a girl surrounded by botanical themes arrayed in a geometric pattern with one surrounded by mechanical gizmos in the same pattern.
"There's a lot of recycling in my drawings," he said. "But there's also the idea of industry coming in and repeating what's happened before, a question of whether it will fail again."
The 45 drawings at Middle Way Cafe are hardly the biggest show Kim's ever had. An earlier exhibit at Snow City Cafe included more than 180.
"I like that idea of just covering the walls with pictures," he said. "I have all these drawings that aren't in the show. A lot of them are odd sizes that would have to be custom framed."
But he was happy to see as many as could be appropriately shown. Hanging the work at Middle Way on Dec. 11, he remarked that it was the first time he'd actually seen any of them on a wall.
"I haven't had them hanging in my house," he said. "They're just stacked up in my closet."
The closet may contain more "books."
"I've always been interested in the idea of a book that appeals to both adults and kids. Not super-gnarly, nothing heavy," he said.
"What would be cool is to have a coloring book that the adults could read and then the kids could color."
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM