CJ Draden has navigated the comic convention scene for more than a decade, bringing an unconventional form of artistic expression that has set him apart in an arena saturated with sameness. Fans from all over the world gather in their shared passion for pop culture; they wander amidst celebrities, cosplayers, collectibles and an endless array of artists. It is CJ’s ‘cutting edge’ creativity though that has established him as an unforgettable artistic tour de force.
I’ve had the pleasure to meet some fascinating individuals throughout my journey the past few years and it was in 2016 that I crossed paths with Mr. Draden. Earlier this year I was able to spend some time learning more about what powers his passion.
Linda: Were you always artistically driven?
CJ: Every kid in high school has a schedule or something like that, I’m not going to get that cliché, I think that’s ridiculous. What I will say is I never saw myself as a painter or an artist. I mean, when you think about childhood and high school and thinking about what you want to do, it’s all a blur. I don’t remember shit. I think anybody who says that kind of stuff is either one, lying or [is] a unique and interesting individual… to say I remember that far back that I wanted to be an artist.
Maybe I’m just crazy, but I can’t ever think of a moment in my childhood or my young teen years when I said this is exactly what the hell I want to do. It was all just vicariously living through concerts. … I was a high school kid playing video games. There was no grand vision about what the hell I wanted to be or who I wanted to be. This is all a recent revelation over the last 10 years. I still struggle with it. I don’t even know if I want to be an artist. I think that’s the point of being an artist is to always be questioning if you’re on the right path or if you’re thinking the right way or if you need to go in other areas. That’s part of the journey. I’ll always be an artist and a painter but I guess you could say the credence that “I’m on the right path” is that I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.
Linda: Fair enough.
CJ: Without that sense of self-awareness, I think that’s where people start to lose direction. I’m self-aware enough to know I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going. What I know, the path that I’m walking on is through the paintbrush. Does that make sense?
Linda: At what point did you decide to do this for a living?
CJ: Well, I did go to college for art at Ringling College of Art and Design. I have mixed feelings about it, I wasn’t ready. This goes back to my last point. I wasn’t ready to be in college at 18 years old. A lot of this comes from a horrible family [life], like an absolute devastatingly broken home. When I went to college it was an absolute emotional chaotic mess because I just wasn’t ready for it.
I look back and think okay I did go to college for art, maybe this was just always meant to be, this was my destiny to do this and I’ve just been fighting it every step of the way. However, I feel like going to school for it, getting out and always being in a state of questioning whether or not I still want to do this is a really odd predicament to be in. I still feel that shit today. Like is this something I still want to do? That’s terrifying. I just kind of went with the way the universe was manipulating the wavelengths and I just rode the light. So, was any of this my choice? Was any of this a preconceived notion of what I’m going to be or who I’m going to be? I don’t even know. I don’t even know if this was something I even chose, I just felt it chose me and I just was dragged all this way kicking and screaming. Not because I didn’t want to, but because it was a struggle to comprehend why it was happening in the first place.
“This path of being a successful painter was an absolute risk because I never thought this would ever be my life. I’m grateful. I’ve got to see the world, I’ve got to travel the world and see things.”
I’ve developed a lot of myself in such a deep way that I’m even able to explain this shit to you. That’s how much I understand it now, but in the last 10 years, I would’ve never been able to express what I’m thinking in this way.
I have no idea how I got here. I have no idea why I came here. It just fucking happened. People ask me how do I do this [or] how do I get into this? It’s like, I’m the last [person] to ask because you don’t want to do it the way I do. Life is like an axis grid of X and Y and you may think that this is the direction you want to go or this is where you’re going to end up, but no matter what you’re trying to do to get to the other side of that grid, maybe you’ll always end up on the opposite end.
No matter what you try to do, there’s going to be some influencing force this universe presents to you that’s going to keep nudging you in the opposite direction of what you think you’re going to go and what you think you’re going to be. So, I guess I just let the cards fall out before me. Now I’m at this point where I’m questioning myself again. As you get older, I’m in my mid-30s, and as you get older, it gets harder and harder and harder to deal with the question, “Am I making the right choice?” Because I’m not in my 20s anymore when it felt like time was infinite.
I’ll be 40 in five years, so it’s only going to get shorter and shorter and shorter. You start looking at other things like what you’ve gained out of all this, how much money you’ve got in the bank, do you have health insurance. You’ve got to start looking at all that shit now. Is there going to be anything that comes out of this? There are so many other influences that are now affecting the way the universe is pushing you. So now, it’s not just me aimlessly riding a wavelength of where these ebb and flows are taking me, unconsciously and consciously, by making decisions along the way. It’s also all these other systematic life choices that have to be pre-planned out and pre-ordained like an adult that has control of your destiny, whether it’s retirement or healthcare, whatever. These are big things that come into the picture.
CJ: You can’t just ride the wave like you used to. You could and just say fuck it all, I’m just going to enjoy the ride, but I mean, not looking at the other end … not being able to foretell what’s going to happen with the choices that you make can lead to devastating consequences like not being able to pay your rent, not having a place to stay, not being able to take care of yourself or just being able to do simple things like go to the dentist. So, these things have to be taken under consideration while also allowing the process of the arts to flow. These are not synonymous lifestyles. You’re either going to ride the length of one, ride the length of the other or try to merge two and if you try to merge the two, you’re now getting into a territory that I call absolute insanity because it’s very hard to comprehend.
So no, I can’t justifiably say, bringing this full circle, that I had any idea that I would be here or what I’m doing or where I’m going. It’s a very hard thing to rationalize because, again, I’m not in my 20s anymore. It’s very abstract and anecdotal, I understand, but these are the ways that I’ve understood it.
Linda: Do you regret any decisions?
CJ: I can’t regret something I don’t feel I made. I felt like I was kind of chosen for this particular part of existence. If anything, really that I can say is a concrete piece of evidence that really made me want to be an artist, is the movie Unbreakable. The character, Mr. Glass, his entire existence was [to] understand purpose. This is something that I have tried to just continuously revisit in my life with every decision I make. This is the only thing I feel is an absolute conscious decision, as an artist, is every decision I make whether it’s a painting, a place I travel, all the places I’ve backpacked around the world, Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America… Am I going to find something else about myself?
Ultimately, the known unknown of what you’re going to gain by going on these destinations, whether it’s implicate or explicate, I mean traveling or just spending a lot of time reading and understand self, it will ultimately allow you to see yourself in a light that you probably never would’ve been able to.
“This is the only thing I have been absolutely conscious of is trying to find out more about who I am.”
I realize now that the last 10 years of unconsciously going this route, I feel like it wasn’t exactly the wrong direction, but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I’ve been an artist full time for 10 years, which has been fucking amazing. It’s what I know I want but where I’m going isn’t what I want. I want different things.
Maybe it was because it was paying my bills, maybe it was because I saw I was making money or whatever it is. But, when people sit here and say, “Oh this art looks amazing”, I have no idea why they’re saying it because I’m not happy with half the shit I do. I feel very passionate about a lot of the things I do, but when people say this makes me feel things I’ve never felt before, I am absolutely mind blown and bewildered and dumbfounded because these are things in my mind and heart and experiences I’ve tried deeply to undivulge. It is somebody else’s truth that you found truth in, as well. So, I guess, going back to the last thing, one last comment is this whole road, getting on this whole road just seemed truthful. I just followed it.
Linda: I’d like to talk to you about your artwork specifically. Your process is quite unique. Using a razor blade on glass, how did that develop?
CJ: I call it a portal because it’s … in a sense, people are like what style is this? It’s not a style. It’s a vision from someplace that I feel is truthful. The more I travel, the more I learn self and the more I learn about myself, the more I attach those things that give me that knowledge. It is mostly ancient cultures, ancient history, cave drawing, different pieces of knowledge that may have been lost in the sands of time.
I find myself drawn to this stuff and trying to, I guess, uncover certain things in my own heart and mind based on these ancient musing from the masters of painting and the masters of philosophy because it helps me process. It helps me think creatively and it helps me uncover personal truth that is a universal truth around the world that we all co-exist in. The more I do that, the more I have visions about the way that I see the world. The reason why the glass and the razors work for me is because it is the most sincere form of revealing the self in this tangible manifestation of reality that we exist in.
“It literally is the purest act of transcendence of anything I’ve ever felt in my head that I could see in this plane of existence.”
The more I find myself learning ancient history, the more I get intrigued and the better person I become. I can use that to improve my artwork and the better [an] artist I become. I get so much more distance from this type of reality that we’ve built for ourselves, which is this marketing, brainwashing, mind-numbing nonsense that has zero-depth in it. The reason why I get more bitter about it is because it offers me nothing to be better or grow. That’s why I feel like I’m caught in this place of it’s time to get out of this scene because I’m just genuinely not happy anymore.
Linda: Could you talk a bit about your Zero Mirror Project? How did it start, where you are going with it?
CJ: I’ve always been fascinated with Greece. I think deep down inside, a lot of that infatuation comes from the fact that this is literally the cradle of Western Civilization, from theater to drama to tragedy to language, writing, literature, politics … it’s all the spawning ground for everything that we have today. At least nine of the United States was a combination of Rome and Greece. So, republic and democracy, but in terms of art and language and all these different things, it is like the foundation of it all.
For me, because of the path that I’ve always been on, understanding purpose and self-awareness and placement and where we live and how we co-exist here, it just seems like one of these places that can offer you so much awareness of who you are in the grand scheme of things. So much knowledge has been lost that we’ll never understand.
“This idea of going on a road less traveled, on a journey less traveled, finding hidden things that can give you some kind of secret to the world that we live in is absolutely fascinating.”
It’s like the modern-day … it almost feels like it’s just a natural way of being a treasure hunter. You’re searching not for tangible treasure, but for secrets. Isn’t that what people play video games for? Finding secrets, finding code, right? This is just ingrained in us, to understand secrets. I’m just not doing it in pop culture, I’m doing it in the real world. I want to find these things. When you go to Greece, you see all these little hieroglyphs, their language, like the circle with the symbol … it doesn’t look like an F, but … It’s the Greek letter for F, a circle with the P or whatever it is. You see that, too, on the ruins. It’s like ancient knowledge and shit. It gives me chills. I have friends in Greece and it’s like basically they don’t even know 15 to 20% of their history. It’s lost and that’s so fucking amazing to me, the fact that we have no idea who the hell we are or where we came from. I think a lot of that is conspiratorial, they don’t really want us to know.
So, yeah, there is this conspiratorial side to it which makes it even more fascinating ’cause it’s like I want to know what they don’t want us to know. I want to know what has been lost. As a human being, finding those things out gives you a sense of journey and purpose, right? To be, especially as an artist, have a sketchbook and have all the time in the world to just stay in a place for a month or two months and just backpack through with your journal. Drawing and writing and seeing things. As I started to go there, I knew that I wanted to tell a story about this kind of Greek lore. The first time I went, I was just mind blown. It was amazing. I will never forget the first time I went there. I couldn’t believe that I was finally there and every year I’ve gone back. Every year I’ve gone back since then.
So, how did the story come about? I knew if I was going to write a story about this kind of stuff like lore and ancient knowledge, it had to be… one of the lessons I learned after the first book, The Wooden Heart, was legibility and having a bit more of a coherent vision of what you’re trying to do ’cause it was a very abstract project based on a poem and a feeling. It was very artsy which tends to be why things aren’t successful because, again, you have to cater to people that necessarily aren’t on a higher calling of a journey, right?
They’re looking at this kind of shit as entertainment. That is where the dynamic of being a true artist and surviving as an artist has to try to co-exist or you’re going to be fighting yourself every step of the way. I don’t want to do this, I want to do this. Then you’re going to get back to that thing I called insanity. So, when I started this project, I felt … what did I learn from the first book? Legibility and being coherent, If I want to write about this kind of shit that I’m seeing and feeling and love, that makes me feel alive as a person, I need to structure it in a way that is fun for people to read. When you go to do a project, you want to sell it or market it, you have to think to yourself would I read this?
So, take the things that you love and make it fun for people to read. So, what I had to do was take a comic book that I actually did love, which was Sandman, because it had a lot of these tropes and theme and archetypes that I have actually adored, probably one of the greatest comics ever written, and used that as a springboard to fill in the dots of the kind of things that I would want to do. Morpheus is a sentient, kind of god-like figure on this journey through a universe and he has his own missions and his own purpose. It’s similar to my story, so I kind of structured it off that. Not story and direction, but just the idea of the platform of making something fun to read.
A big thank you to CJ for taking the time to speak with me, always an enlightening conversation. Although he has announced his retirement from the convention circuit CJ will continue to pursue his artistic passions and I wish him success and fulfillment in all future endeavors.
“I will not quit being an artist, I’ve dedicated my life to this and I will never give up what I love so much. The knowledge and experiences I’ve gained from this journey helped me grow and I know more of my self and what the next step of my life is and I’m ready to move on.” – CJ Draden
Don’t miss your chance to catch CJ Draden in action THIS weekend at New York Comic Con! Check out more of his incredible artwork and keep up to date on CJ’s latest projects by following him on social media… Facebook: @theartofcjdraden Instagram: @cjdraden