Interview Transcript: Ray Caesar in conversation with Nick Knight

published on 27 December 2021

From one image-maker to another, Nick Knight had the rare opportunity to ask the notoriously private artist Ray Caesar a series of questions about Caesar's unique digital artworks, delving into the characters, unsettling childhood memories and creative process found throughout.

From one image-maker to another, Nick Knight had the rare opportunity to ask the notoriously private artist Ray Caesar a series of questions about Caesar's unique digital artworks, delving into the characters, unsettling childhood memories and creative process found throughout.

I created worlds of my own I could go into and that became windows into a safer place.

Nick Knight: Would you say that primarily your images come from dreams, memories, or desires?

Ray Caesar: My work is mainly about bringing together aspects of my conscious and subconscious self. My work is a map or a design in the process of self-realisation, discovering one's meaning and purpose in life, and actualising who one really is and capable of becoming. Dreams, memories and desires all play an important part in this process, but they are more the material I use to bring about that idea in the same way I might use colour or pigment, shape and composition. My main creative working method is intuitive, and I simply let my hand draw without thinking about what is going to happen.

NK: How much have you been influenced by your own childhood and the relationship you as a child had with the world and your family?

RC: I grew up in a council house in South London in the 1960s and to say my parents were volatile and challenging would be an understatement. I developed coping mechanisms by dissociating from reality. I had conversations with people who supposedly weren’t there although I remember them very well. I created worlds of my own I could go into and that became windows into a safer place.

I ended up spending more than a decade in psychotherapy and using art as a way to heal a fragmented and damaged personality. After art school I ended up working for 17 years in a children’s hospital in the Art and Photography department documenting abuse, surgical reconstruction, and animal research. After work I went home and painted the difficult situations I witnessed at the hospital and then I put that picture away in a closet and closed the door. But with continual exposure to the trauma of working in a children’s hospital, my difficulties caught up with me and the coping mechanisms that worked so well as a child became very problematic as an adult.

Most of my work deals with archetypes and especially the Jungian archetype of The Child of the Soul as a symbol of innocence, rebirth, and salvation. While we want to believe we’re conscious of most of our thoughts, feelings and actions, behavioural evidence suggests otherwise. We are, in truth, mostly unconscious beings. It may sound strange, but I loved my childhood because it was also a time of wonderful unusual experiences balanced by difficult episodes of trauma that are fundamental to who I am. If I had a different life, it wouldn’t be me at all; my life would belong to somebody else and I am not sure I would like him very much.

NK: I have always been struck by how there is such a strong sense of refinement and elegance in your images. The fashion that is in them is exquisite. Where do the clothes the people in your images wear come from? Do you ever look at fashion collections for inspiration or reference?

RC: I look at fashion collections all the time and from all periods throughout history. I am fascinated by the quality of different fabrics. If I had to choose one designer, it would be Jacques Fath. I am very interested in what Iris van Herpen is doing with 3D printing and also by Simone Rocha.

Strangely, my paternal ancestors all worked as tailors for the London [theatre] stage, and I have often wondered about genetic memory. The skills we learn today and over generations may indeed be ingrained in DNA. As a child I used to have dolls and found ways to dress them in a strange variety of materials. I coated parts of them with plasticine and tin foil and collected small pieces of fabric to cut and make embellishments. I remember melting wax from a candle over the face of a doll and then rubbing the warm, cooling wax to create a translucent skin.

I do not have to design for the real world as the only person wearing what I design is a digital avatar who I can mould and reform as needed. If I create a pair of shoes, they can be made in any way and of any material I choose. I am certain though that whatever we create fundamentally has to come from not following the rules of the so called ‘real world’, but to let our inner creative subconscious mix with reality.

I am certain though that whatever we create fundamentally has to come from not following the rules of the so called ‘real world’, but to let our inner creative subconscious mix with reality

NK: You work digitally and create your images as 3D renders, would you mind explaining your process? Following on from that, do you ever paint and draw onto paper of wood or other surfaces? Now that animation is possible is movement something that is exciting to you?

RC: I work with Autodesk Maya and have done so since its inception in the 1990s and worked with older software prior to that as far back as the 1980s with Alias and Stratavision. Now I model figures in 3D and use my own skin to texture the surface. The eyes are textures of my own eyes, and the lips are my lips. I create a skeletal system of joints that can move the figure and bend fingers and toes. I paint on 3D surfaces with procedural software like Substance Painter. I use cloth simulations and I am able to cut digital clothing the same way a tailor cuts and drapes real cloth and stitch it together, I can even create dynamic real world properties of how that digital cloth may drape in various materials as silk or burlap or rubber. I have specialised applications that can grow trees, hair and flowers that also react in dynamic simulations of how they move. I render in something called Arnold that has all the facility of a photo studio that bounces light and sub surface scattering of skin and reflected HDRI environments. I can also use software like Mudbox and Meshmixer to create seamless 3D printed sculptures. I do all this with help from Belinda Chun at Gallery House and my wife Jane.

In the past, animation was something I just didn’t have time to do as animating by hand is extremely time consuming. Motion capture has now made animation a possibility and I am on the cusp of getting a motion capture system from a company called Rokoko. I am 63 with a bad hip and a dodgy knee but I will be wearing a black spandex motion capture suit and recording my movement with sensors the way people record sound. Also new GPU cards have made it possible to render out high resolution 4k images in seconds that previously took hours, so animation of my work is much easier now. It will take time to get all the various aspects working seamlessly as I already spend one half of each day doing tutorials.

I draw a lot and it occupies most of my day. I paint quite a bit, but I mostly paint textures or elements to place on a 3D model and scan and digitise them into Photoshop or Substance Painter. I am quite fond of liquid acrylics and painting more often as I make 3D printed sculptures. I often use glazing techniques on wood panel or canvas with small translucent gels of colour to brighten certain hues. The theory that light passes through a tinted glaze hits the surface below and bounces back through the tint and makes reds, blues and skin more vibrant. I see the computer as a tool, but it has never stopped me from using other more traditional tools. Back in the 1970s I used oils and acrylics and even spent may years using an airbrush very similar to the work of Paul Wunderlich, but it wasn’t very healthy so I am glad I no longer do that.

My work is covered in my own skin, but part of my mischievous intent is to get under yours.

NK: Your colours are incredibly emotional in your pictures, sometimes visually piercing and vivid, sometimes muted and melancholic. Would you describe yourself as having synesthesia?

RC: I often feel the combination of colour and image has an odour. A beautiful smell with underlying hints of something truly tainted. I see the combination of colour, composition and image content like a questionable perfume concoction that sits on skin and creates a pungent waft that can sometimes be subtle and other times challenging. A good perfume is usually unique to that person who is wearing it.

In the same way, a work of art can be a mirror to the person viewing it. I am mischievous; it’s my one truly naughty indulgence. I will put tainted and questionable things in my work that make you feel guilty about liking it or hating it. A little ingredient like taboo or vanity or melancholy. Even a soupcon of evil can go a long way and make someone wince just a little. My work is covered in my own skin, but part of my mischievous intent is to get under yours. If people don’t find my work ‘questionable’ then I think I have failed in some way.

NK: I know you are shy and keep yourself very private, but if you don’t mind my curiosity, do you find the world frightening and desperate, or does it feel joyous and inspirational in its beauty and complexity? Are you often moved to tears by life?

RC: Absolutely! I see tears as strength and the fuel and power to get up and try again. The greater the horror of this world, the greater the possibility of joyous ecstasy and amazing wonder. This is a complex world, and we are a complex species. We are capable of such pain and horror, but we can also rise to the challenges of existence. We can fail and fall to our knees and then stand again. I am brought to tears by seeing people stand together for what is right and what is good, but a little tiny bit of horrific terror can bring a sweet innocent smile to my face as I think that a bit of balance is good for the soul.

I find pure joy in very simple things. The absolute gift of pure love for my wife Jane for almost half a century, whom I met and fell in love with at the age of 15. All the wonderful dogs I have had the sheer privilege to care for. I have a little garden and love to watch things grow. I will often put my head directly into a small area of my garden and experience the tiny microworld of existence. It is an endless aromatic humid jungle of undergrowth that can seem like an enormous alternate reality if you get right down to a micro level and see tiny insects and flower stems as large as tree trunks.

NK: In the new work, am I right in feeling there is a new character? Persephone appears to have a different set of values to a lot of the people we see in your earlier work. If I am correct in this observation, can you tell me what has formed her in your imagination. She seems to be a little resigned to having to live in a world which looks not quite post-apocalyptic, but certainly feels post-traumatic in some way.

RC: There are several characters. The one you are referring to is in my new solo show titled things you should know before I go taking place at Gallery House, Canada. The work is titled Queen of Line 1 and the subway station actually exists. It’s called St. Patrick Station in Toronto on the Yonge-University line. St. Patrick is the main station on Hospital Row in Toronto which I used frequently when I worked at The Hospital for Sick Children. I have always felt people don’t see the upside to the apocalypse as I am sure it will have its own fun style and panache….it’s not like it’s the end of the world.

I started working on this piece during the midst of the pandemic. That was a difficult time as Jane and myself were full time care givers to her mother who has advanced dementia, so I am sure if the apocalypse does happen it will seem like a cakewalk compared to the last two years.

In this piece, the goddess of the underworld Persephone is awaiting the arrival of those coming to the underground station of Elysian Fields. The realm of Elysium is the part of the underworld reserved for the Blessed, the Heroic and the Good. The work is about the pandemic and Persephone being the goddess of spring; new growth is a symbol of hope after a hard winter. The promise that spring and growth will return and that all seasons have cycles is central to the myth.

NK: Do you see her as a vision of the future or the past?

RC: I think she is firmly planted in one of my alternate realities where time isn’t linear. I have always loved mixing the past, present and future into a visual window of another dimension. I believe fashion does this all the time in the way it reinvents the past to fit a concept of a beautiful future. All creativity is built on what has come before, and in order to reinvent things, we must use negative and positive energy as a clay to reform what is old into what is new.

NK: Is this how you feel about yourself or indeed humans?

RC: None of us have the ability to control how others define us and no human has ever been able to control that. What control we do have is the ability to work at how we define ourselves, and how we define ourselves leads into how we ourselves define others. I believe in the idea that we can make darkness into light, and we can make a hell into a heaven by will and choice, by facing the complexity of who and what we are within. We can either destroy and hurt things and be cruel in life or we can create and heal and be kind. I don’t think there is any other real choice we have as individuals, as a society, as a species. One is a dark dead end and the other has light and hope.

NK: You have entered the new world of NFTs which must feel exhilarating. Like all the characters in your images, the figure Persephone is a strong person; not a victim but somewhere she, and they feel damaged but have risen above and overcome against all the odds, to go on.

RC: My piece Persephone was created to commemorate last summer which, for lots of reasons, was unlike others. I partnered with Hendrick’s Gin on the brand’s ‘G&NFT’ exhibition and charity auction to raise money for Saatchi Gallery Learning. It was my first foray in creating an NFT and my first time creating a hologauze animation for the exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, which was a lot of fun. Above all, I was pleased to give back to the arts community in the UK following a difficult time for the creative industries.

The story of Persephone from Greek Mythology has always intrigued me as she took what was forced upon her and made the underworld itself into a heaven for the blessed on Earth. Her story is one of empowerment and making the best of a bad situation. The very concept of making a hell into a home was created by Persephone, and instead of waiting to be rescued by some hapless hero, she turned hell itself into a heaven by sheer will and determination.

Persephone is sometimes depicted as the ruler of the underworld and sometimes as the wife of Hades, but it’s obvious in any version of the myth, exactly who was really in charge. Persephone, who was known for her gentle kindness had Hades on bended knee and had him create light and hope in the land of darkness and death by simply having a vision of kindness. Poor Hades, he simply had no idea of what he was getting himself into when he brought light, love, hope and kindness into his dark realm.

NK: I notice Persephone has a beat box, what do you imagine she is hearing? Is sound important to you in your vision of the characters in your pictures? What do you listen to as you work? Do the people in your pictures speak to you ?

RC: I love putting anything musical into my work, radios, phonographs, and record players. I especially like those old records that were bright colours. I don’t really listen to music as I work as I have this tendency to talk to myself as I am working, and I have to hear myself talking back so we both know if we are on the same page.

For most of my life I have had what I like to call a gentle ‘haunting’ or ‘visitations’ during periods of sleep paralysis and lucid dreams. If my alter egos speak with me it’s in this subconscious paracosm they are the most active. In these waking dreams, I am unable to move and they can be intense, persistent, very graphic and theatrical. They are called hypnopompic and hypnagogic dream states, and occasionally they can be very precognisant.

An amazing psychotherapist I saw for many years explained it as a form of my dissociation, and at $200 for a 45-minute hour, I wasn’t about to argue. I just moved on to other unsettling problems like how a rational person believes 45 minutes can actually be an hour.

NK: What would your avatar be?

RC: I would love to have an avatar that looked like Emma Peel from the old TV show The Avengers from the 1960s. I remember as a child thinking, that’s who I want to be when I grow up, and that was my first realisation of my gender variance. She wore leather outfits in high heels and was a sculptor, worked for MI5 and had no scruples about kicking a naughty person where he least expected, in the name of Queen and country. My avatar would be dressed to kill and have a 1960s slinky leather catsuit with occasional miniskirt ensemble smartly fitted out with a Beretta 950 Jetfire pistol which I would use to shoot the cork out of a bottle of Bollinger.

NK: Finally, could you explain the background to some of your works?


The Quiet Room, 2020

The Quiet Room is about rumination and dissociative aspects of my personality. It is a response to all those voices in my head speaking at once and my ongoing struggle to unify those fractured elements of my subconscious reality. She is claiming all the chairs in the room and learning to think as an individual, as it is her territory in a realm of her own time and space. The Quiet Room was also a revered place during the years I worked at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. This was a sacred room where parents took their last view of a deceased child. I passed this room every night as I left the hospital, and it was anything but quiet. I always imagined an angel sitting quietly to take those children to the next world.

The Thief of Milk, 2021

I had two older sisters and one has gone to the next world now. On the rare occasion we pilfered a shilling or sixpence from my father’s coat pocket and went out to get ice cream when the van with a big cone on top dingled its way on our street. This one sister convinced me that rather than getting two small ice cream cones, we should buy one super giant big one and split it and still have some money left over for her ciggys. I was fine with this as one big ice cream sounded better than two “teeny tiny ones”, as she put it. When she got the large cone with an extra giant swirl of white icy cream, my sister broke off the tiniest bottom of the cone and scooped up a bit of ice cream with this and said, “There’s your portion.” To my own shame I agreed to this questionable split on several occasions, I suspect I was rather naive. Has anyone else noticed that when expensive bottled water first came out it was called Evian, which is ‘naive’ spelled backwards?

It’s hard to imagine now but there was only one ice cream flavour in olden times, and we didn’t even have a name for that flavour until someone invented chocolate, so we had to name the other nameless flavour. I am pretty sure it was just cream and sugar, so they had to put vanilla in it just to get the name.

Charon, 2021

I see Charon as a bit of a mischief with a carriage of flies. She is offering passage for payment and will take you wherever you need to go as long as it’s a one-way trip over the river Styx. Coin is Charon’s payment and I have to smile at Charon dealing with any member of my family crossing over into Hades. My older brother always used to flip a coin to bargain for something when we were children. He would say 'Heads I win, tails you lose', then flip the coin and say, 'It’s Heads, I win.' I would naively say 'best out of three' and he would flip again and say, 'sorry little scruff. Tails, you lose!' I still haven’t figured out how he always won but I am sure it involved a trick coin.

Chariot, 2021

Plague, pestilence and pollution are now part of our life. It’s a carriage we will have to pull through our future, and if we don’t do something about it, that burden will increase and be the tainted gift we leave future generations. We tend not to look behind and see that increasing baggage of pestilence and swarming flies is becoming larger each year.

Interview by:
All images courtesy of:
Ray Caesar/Gallery House



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