Ron English is easily one of the most well-known and respected artists working today. English describes his unique style of art as “POPaganda.” That word refers to how English has made a career of mashing together contrasting imagery. That mash up usually involves combining something from popular culture with something more socially vital. He has created a multitude of original characters for various pieces of renowned artwork. His piece entitled “Abraham Obama” combined President Lincoln and President Obama into a single artistic image. That piece was not only visually stimulating but it also was thought by many to have an impact on the 2008 presidential election.
We talked to Ron English about his childhood, thoughts on his craft and his relationship with Converse.
What did you dream of becoming as a kid?
I thought being some sort of artist would be pretty cool.
Do you remember the exact moment when you realized your art had the ability to connect with people?
I remember when my art kept me from being robbed or beaten up. I was bused to a junior high school where all the bussed kids were shaken down for their lunch money or beaten up on a daily basis. The bullies were so intrigued by my drawings that I was able to trade them for protection. As much as I liked being spared from violence…I was a lot more delighted that those kids dug my art.
What were some of the things that you experienced, or enjoyed, during your childhood that you believe helped to shape the artist you are today?
Probably having a lot of freedom to explore the world and make things myself. Kids were pretty free range back in the day and didn’t have a lot of store bought stuff. We built our own go-carts, skateboards and created elaborate sets and costumes for our 8mm movies.
Much of your artwork is pop culture inspired. Why do you seem to gravitate towards that style of art?
I think art is most interesting when it serves another purpose. It gives you a metric for its success. If you are in advertising you pretty much know if your art works or not. I like advertising, package design, and branding—anything pop culture. It’s our shared language. I use the same strategies as Madison Avenue but for other purposes.
How do you view the current state of popular culture?
Popular culture is moving pretty fast now. Maybe it’s hard to notice when you’re in the middle of it but this is a very important cultural moment.
You have taken your artistic ability and applied it to several different medias—including toys. Does your mindset change depending on what medium you are creating for?
It’s more about asking what medium best serves the idea.
Does one creative achievement of yours stand out from the rest in your mind?
Creating my characters stands out because they facilitate many more ideas.
You have found a lot of success with art. How do you balance being a successful businessman with being an artist?
Art is a business—or maybe it’s just giving people the business.
Did you wear Converse as a kid?
I got a new pair of Converse every year growing up.
As an artist—why do you feel the Chuck Taylor style of sneaker has been able to remain so timeless and beloved?
It’s the distinctive profile that makes the shoe iconic. Show someone a silhouette of a Coke bottle and they know instantly what it is. If you can recognize something by its silhouette then that something is iconic. Probably doesn’t hurt that an endless string of iconic individuals have sported Converse.