Hi there! Thanks for having me. So first off, my name is Ivan Potter-Smith, and I’m an illustrator, designer, and 3D artist. I love to explore the ways in which physical and digital spaces blend or overlap, so I create my artwork digitally and then bring it into the physical realm through 2D and 3D printers. Most of my work takes the form of painting and collage, while 3D is in more of a learning and exploratory state. I look forward to being skilled enough in the technology to create larger pieces of work. My most well-known work is a series of paintings called Neon Fever Dreams Inc. I like to describe it as a series looking into a future that is beautiful and unsettling. Neon Fever Dreams blends the styles of Art Deco and Cyberpunk, exploring urban cityscapes dripping in neon and filled with questionable characters.
I’m deeply inspired by the ways in which technology affects society as a whole. This is truly where my fascination lies. I’ve always been a big proponent of technological growth and innovation, but I see it as a double-edged sword which we need to consider with great intention. Ray Kurzweil argued that technology is an extension of biological evolution, and I agree with that (check out his book The Age of Spiritual Machines). That being said, our political process can’t keep up with rapid innovation, so greed and corruption are the law of the land when a new technology emerges— for now, anyway. Ted Kaczynski famously feared that technological innovation would lead to a version of automation that would force humanity into the role of being domesticated like animals. While I recognize this fear, I am optimistic and have the opposite view, at least in the long term. I see automation as a force of liberation, allowing us to truly live life on our own terms while our basic needs are provided for. I ultimately want us to create a harmonious world in which automation allows us to live our lives with intention, focusing on our health, our relationships, and our goals as opposed to a constant hustle to merely survive.
Ultimately, my artistic intention is to inspire critical thinking and help guide us into a place where we use technology intentionally, embracing this inevitable evolution and simultaneously being the masters of our destiny. We have untold challenges in front of us, so I hope art like mine can inspire a conversation that allows us to consider these issues before they arise.
There’s so much detail is in your work, and while it is very beautiful and visually appealing, it’s also clear that a lot is going on behind the scenes, so to speak. Your work reads less as a static painting and more as a scene; there’s life, movement, and the sense of a world that continues outside of what we can see in one painting. So, I wonder how much storytelling you’re doing when you paint? What can you tell us about the world where your work is set, and how important is it to understand this world versus simply appreciating the painting on a visual level?
Oh yeah, there is a ton of storytelling going on in each painting. If you zoom in and explore (or go through my Instagram page, which has detailed views— @neon.fever.dreams.inc— I know I’m shameless), you can see multiple characters and stories in each piece. While I use bright colors and flashy composition to draw a viewer into my pieces, those are just parlor tricks. I fill my work to the brim with detail to force the viewer to sit and linger and really consider what they’re looking at.
Every Neon Fever Dream exists in the same world. You’ll notice companies, characters, vehicles, buildings, and more all overlapping between paintings to help build the universe. A couple of my favorites are Mona’s Mirrorshade Emporium and the band Alien Skreem Kweens. I also love to give fun little nods towards the artwork that inspires me. Anyone who’s seen Blade Runner will immediately chuckle when they see the nightclub named the Tannhäuser, for instance.
Your work has a futuristic or science fiction-y angle, but it also feels very influenced by current events. How do you see the present affecting your work, especially in light of the pandemic and recent social and political movements? How important is social commentary in your work? Do you feel as if your approach to making art has changed in the past two years?
My artistic approach hasn’t changed in the past two years all that much, but the focus on social issues has become more intentional. Although it’s always been there — I have works that deal with gentrification, medical insurance, the commodification of religion, and more, for instance. One of my pieces even features the depressed and lonely heir of Jeff Bezos, but you have to look closely to figure it out. Last year I painted a clash between protestors and police that was very cathartic. The fancy tower behind the police had a logo of an orange with an iconic swoop of hair on it. Admittedly it’s a bit on the nose, but you can find subtlety in my other works.
I find that the best science fiction is a warning, and Neon Fever Dreams is all about exploring the potential future where technology has run rampant and corporate control (fully) overshadows government regulation. When someone looks at my art, I want them to recognize how the issues we grapple with today can become further exacerbated due to complacency within our current systems. I want my world to feel beautiful and foreign, yet hauntingly familiar and uncomfortable.
I would actually enjoy painting some of my utopian visions at some point, but the dystopian visions, if I’m being honest, are simultaneously fun and deeply cathartic.
Can you talk a little about working as an artist in a capitalist society? What is the artist’s role in today’s world? How do you see the commodification of art affecting your work?
Oof. That’s a good question. I’ve noticed an interesting contradiction. Many of the most (commercially) successful artists I’ve seen are the artists that make art purely for themselves, yet most artists don’t find commercial success without compromising their art in some way that makes it more marketable. Although I consider my audience and try to make work that follows good design principles (the golden ratio is all over it, for instance), I do primarily make Neon Fever Dreams for myself. Commercially, I put my design and illustration skills to use as a freelancer, but all of that is in an effort to buy me enough downtime to create the art I want to make for myself. Having as much time and space as possible to make art is the goal. After the initial few months of shock and horror, the pandemic actually did a great job of providing me with this space. I had a few very prolific months. I try to keep art as a commodity different from my personal work, but it’s not so easy because the ultimate (and lofty) goal is to monetize my personal artwork and be able to make it all the time, always. To do that, I fear my work needs a certain marketable appeal. Finding that balance is often a struggle, and I still don’t have any good answers.
Can you choose a favorite piece or two and talk us through them?
Absolutely. This is one of my earlier pieces, Night on the Town. It’s a piece primarily focused on gentrification. The piece features several sharp divides to emphasize this. On the left side of the piece, we have a run-down yellow building. It’s dirty and unkempt, both inside and out. Through the windows, you can see the individuals who live inside the cramped and overfilled apartments. Directly across the street is a high-end nightclub— the aforementioned Tannhäuser. Every story of the club is spacious and packed with dancers. Most of them are having a great time, but on one floor, you can see a guy who’s had a bit too much leaning against a window, about to puke, and on the level above that, a fight is breaking out.
On the bottom left of the piece, you can see some corporate bros enjoying a meal around a fancy table on a blue neon balcony. The line of the neon sharply divides them from the homeless man sleeping on the street below. This man’s pose was specifically inspired by a homeless man I saw when I lived in Brooklyn who was huddled up similarly amidst a downpour. He’s always stuck in my mind and shows up in a number of my pieces. I never actually met him, but I hope he’s doing ok.
Finally, in the center of the piece, a pink neon railway cuts across ÆTHER Medical, this world’s biggest hospital. The city is multilayered, so the street level we see here is actually raised from the ground. The hospital, however, extends from a lower level of the city. It’s inaccessible to the people on the street level, but there is a flying car tunnel visible going into the building. So you can get there if you can afford to fly!
As this is an earlier piece of mine, there are a few things I would change if I were to redo it. I would make the hospital more clearly a hospital and the flying car tunnel more obvious. I would also emphasize the multilayered nature of the city further by bringing the “camera” back so that there’s more breathing room, and I could better highlight the depth of the city. The claustrophobia of the piece was intentional, but I feel like it ultimately makes it harder for me to get some of the points across.
I would like to do more pieces focused on this world’s medical industry because that’s such a massive issue in modern America. I do have another piece titled Medical Clinic that shows a street-level spot run entirely by robots, but I want to revisit ÆTHER before long.
Thank you so much for having me! I really enjoyed answering all of these questions and reflecting on my work with you.
Bio: Ivan Potter-Smith is an Illustrator, Graphic Designer, and 3D Artist whose work focuses on vivid neon colors, dense detail, and gritty textures. Ivan has worked as a full-time freelance artist since 2016, prior to which he was a theatrical scenic artist. Ivan has created everything from responsive web design and branding to custom illustrated advertisements and book covers for a variety of happy clients. Located in Winston-Salem, NC, Ivan provides remote services to his clientele. You can see more of his work or contact him on Instagram: @neon.fever.dreams.inc or through his website: www.ivanpottersmith.com