For Melbourne-based cartoonist and illustrator Oslo Davis, the joke is all that matters
There’s a well-known trope about people who are accomplished in a particular field: they showed interest and ability early on, kicking balls or plucking strings almost before they could walk and talk. This is not the case for Oslo Davis. The works of the “semi-famous” illustrator and caricaturist appear regularly in age, The monthly and other Australian media, and last year he illustrated the Large format recipe book, Home madebut he “didn’t really like to draw when he was a child”, he says Large format. “I was not one of those children who drew a lot. I was not very good at art. I didn’t like the art teacher in high school,” Davis says.
The 49-year-old illustrator lives with his wife and two teenage daughters in Footscray, Melbourne’s west. It is Mediterranean Revival red brick, with neat lines of gray concrete pillars on the fence and porch. In the back, there is a quiet, tree-lined courtyard with weathered wood furniture. From there, it’s a few steps to Davis’s studio, a self-contained granny flat not much wider than a hallway. Almost half of the floor space is taken up by plastic archival bins filled with clippings, sketches, notebooks and other ephemera. The remaining space holds a drawing board, a long swing-arm lamp, and a shiny iMac planted on an ink-splattered desk. His chair is a Herman Miller Mirra 2, snagged in Gumtree for $350 – “It makes me feel better, more professional than I am,” he says. Pencil stubs and dried up paintbrushes crowd the opposite corner.
Despite his great wealth of work and success, he remains possessed by an endearing brand of Larry David-style neuroticism, where failure, disgrace or worthlessness always seem imminent, even inevitable. But in true Larry David style, this anxiety is another eagerly exploited subject for comedic material.
“I need a backup. I need skills. I have to be good at something,” he says, half-jokingly, half-seriously. have professional skills. I mean, what do I do? Just make up jokes and scribble on a page. It’s not a skill.
The thousands of readers who laughed at Understooda single-panel gag that appears weekly in age since 2007, would disagree. Davis documents the absurd, pretentious and hilarious comments he hears on the streets of Melbourne. He has now published over 700 of these plays and in 2017 turned the best entries into a book, Heard: the art of eavesdropping.
Every five or six weeks, he takes his sketchbook and spends a day prowling tram stops, construction sites, supermarket car parks and other places where you can hear people talking freely. After the subjects involuntarily say their word and leave the stage, it takes a photo to remember what it looked and felt like.
Back in the studio, ideas are often simulated on an iPad before being finalized in pencil, charcoal or watercolor, depending on the client and the work. He tends to work between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., while his daughters are at school. And sometimes on weekends, but not much more than that. “I have no structure,” he says. “I just do the job when it comes, when I have to. If I’m done, I’m done. As long as I get everything on time and people are happy, and I do my best, I’m fine.
Davis realized long ago that he didn’t have the temperament to be an “artist-artist”, working for months at a stretch towards a faraway exhibition. It’s too vague and self-contained for his taste. He prefers working with clients, who set his ass on fire with deadlines and challenge him creatively, even if that sometimes means compromising on his original ideas.
“That’s how it is,” he said with a shrug. “I’ve done a much better job with art directors who know what they’re doing and how to improve and push me into new areas. It can be a very good thing.
This push into new areas is important to him. Although he did opinion work and had great respect for his peers such as Cathy Wilcox and Jon Kudelka, he never wanted to specialize in political cartoons, or any other type of cartoons, striking the same drum week after week. It’s too limiting.
“I want to experiment with pencil, then do some watercolor work, then something pretty and cute, then something naughty and weird.”
As long as there’s a joke in there, it’s fine. And in fact, that’s really all that matters. Without formal training, Davis never sought recognition as a “fantasy artist” admired for his fine linework or shading.
“I don’t think I wanted to be an artist,” he says. “I think I just wanted to tell jokes. And I didn’t think I’d be very good at stand-up, comedy, TV or film. So it was an outlet. I didn’t really care if the designs looked good. The main thing was the joke. I think that, fortunately, it allowed me to get out of it. (In 2016, he published a book on the same subject titled Fun Drawing: A Guide to Making Your Creepy Little Cartoons More Fun.)
This child averse to drawing has metamorphosed into the man of today who draws constantly, slowly and involuntarily. In her early years, Davis studied English literature and teaching, briefly teaching others. Later he worked in arts organizations such as Craft Victoria, Abbotsford Convent and Asialink at the University of Melbourne.
In his twenties, while traveling and working in India, Vietnam and Japan, he began keeping a visual journal and saw his latent passion emerge.
“Eventually the drawing became a big thing,” he says. “In my early thirties, I drew almost all the time, but I still had to hold down part-time jobs. But the balance eventually shifted, where it became the main gig.
He’s considering formal training, but he feels like he’s outgrown it now. This lack of education, along with the rickety career path, seems to support his belief that the house of cards could come crashing down at any moment.
“Things miraculously continue to appear. That’s the scary part of the job,” he says, clearing his throat and shifting his posture in his Herman Miller. “It’s not regular and you just hope the email hits your inbox. And it might not be someday. And it won’t be someday. That’s what when I will have to become a fishmonger or sell herbs at the Footscray Market.
Illustrating the cover of the book and a few dozen recipes from Home made was one of those unexpected projects from a client he had never worked with. Davis’ playful lines gave Large formatThe undeniable warmth, humor and charm of the fourth cookbook. For example, Shane Delia’s “showstopping” baked salmon is lounging in a dish, smiling maniacally and taking a selfie like a showbiz star. Victor Liong’s drunken pippies teeter on a bar stool, sucking booze from a straw. We loved these visual one-liners so much that we turned some of them into limited-edition framed wall prints.
Despite the innocuous, mostly apolitical bent of Davis’ work and no trace of controversy in his career thus far, he still fears being inadvertently “cancelled”. He cites the example of cartoonist Michael Leunig, whose reputation has slowly declined since his titanic heights in the 1980s.
“Already, my teenage girls line me up on pronouns,” he says. “I sweat over some things I sent, that when they come out in the paper, they will be read the wrong way.
“I’m going to get old – I’m going to be an old man. And one day my old man opinions are going to be thrown out of whack with what’s going on, and I probably won’t see it coming. I’m fine now, aren’t I? »
Home made features 80 diverse recipes for home cooking, sourced from Melbourne’s top cooks, chefs and restaurants. Published by Plum, the book is available for $49.95 from shop.broadsheet.com.au.
Find out more in our Studio Tours series.