Steve Casino is not your everyday artist, this guy can do it all and it ways you couldn't even begin to imagine. I've been following Casino for a few years now but I found him when I saw a video of him making a sculpture of Freddy Mercury out of a peanut... yes, I said a peanut. So obviously I had to dig a little deeper and found a huge body of work (in numbers, not in size) made up of these peanut sculptures; celebrities, pop culture icons, full stage set ups of bands. These things are incredible. It was a pretty easy follow and since then I've been delighted to watch Casino progress and experiment with his work in all sorts of different ways. I admire Casino so much for constantly keeping his work fun and exciting, I think a lot of artists get caught in doing the same thing over and over these days, and he's always very open about his process and what he's doing so you, as the viewer, feel involved and engaged in his work. Casino is an artist who isn't caught up in the allure of being an artist, he's just having fun making what he makes and I love it, I'm sure you all will as well. On top of all of that, he's relatively new at making art and I think the success he's had early on is only indicative of huge success to come. I was extremely excited to get to chat with this guy about his work and get a little insight on why a guy would want to paint a tic tac or sculpt Michael Jordan with a peanut. His work is a lot of fun, painted excellently but loose and fun when it can be, and he gave some awesome answers. This was a very exciting interview for me as I'm a huge fan and I hope you enjoy!
1. Let's start off with your background, what brought you to art? Any education? Big inspirations (we'll dive into that later)? What makes or made you the artist that you are?
Ahh, many questions disguised as one! My grandmother was my babysitter from age 1-5 and she totally encouraged me to draw. Her son Jules Casino (my uncle) had graduated from the Art Institute Of Pittsburgh and was a professional artist for Westinghouse. So the idea that you could do art for a living was always floating around. He could draw anything and it was the most fascinating thing in the world to me. After that I really got into comics first through the Peanuts strip followed by comic books. Was really into toys too. We didn't have much money but I would study the Christmas catalogs and toy commercials to the point where I nearly had every toy memorized. I knew the function and play pattern of each toy, even the dolls. This is pre-internet. As I grew up my interests never really wavered so the idea of becoming a doctor or a lawyer sadly never arose. You know, a respectable career. I didn't really apply myself in high school except for art so that pretty much sealed my future. Luckily my SAT scores were pretty high and I got into Rochester Institute Of Technology. Studied Industrial Design there which I really had no interest in, but it gave me a well-rounded set of skills.
2. The first thing I want to talk about, art wise, is what brought me to your work, the peanut sculptures. How did you get the idea, or start sculpting these miniatures with peanuts? How have they progressed? Are they continuing to progress?
The idea of sculpting with peanuts is crazy, but awesome to me that I just want to hear all about it!How it begins is that I love peanuts. Especially in the shell. They've always been my favorite snack for some reason. So I eat them often and they're always around. One day at work I was eating some at my desk and completely out of the blue it occurred to me that the shells look like armless/legless little people. Thinking quickly, I found one shaped roughly like me and doodled my features on it with a marker. It made me giggle maniacally so I showed it to my co-worker Neil. "Neil," I said. "I found a peanut that that kinda looks like me!" He turned around expecting to to see a peanut shaped like me but instead saw it with my glasses and stubble. He howled with laughter. After that I found ones shaped like other coworkers and drew them on it. Equally funny reactions. I suddenly saw the possibilities that I could make anyone from a peanut providing it was the right shape. Even celebrities. That first night I made a list of all the ones I wanted to make. Joey Ramone was first. Batman and Robin followed. With each one the process got more refined and my skills grew. I didn't even know that I could paint in miniature but somehow was rendering faces smaller than my fingernail. And it never gets old when a good likeness is achieved. Along the way I introduced sculpting to the process and it's fun to see that grow. The only drawbacks to getting better is that they hardly look like peanuts anymore where the early ones were clearly so. I have to consciously try and keep the peanut shape intact.
3. Probably my favorite series of works that you do are the wooden toys, how did you start making these? What goes into deciding what is depicted and how? Is the sculpting process more engaging when you're working with kinetic elements?
So that love of toys I mentioned before led to a career of inventing them and collecting them as a hobby. And some of my favorites are the old wooden Fisher-Price pull toys. There's an innocent genius at work in the best of them, and it occurred to me that it could be harnessed in different ways. My skills had gotten to a level with the peanut art that it felt like time to try something else. It started with reimagining one as Bruce Lee with twirling nunchucks in one hand and a chopping action in the other. This is the first painting that I've ever done other than on a peanut I used the existing mechanism of a bear with a xylophone on that one. The next one was an original design featuring Jimi Hendrix wailing on his guitar with a dancing amplifier. I began to see the potential and understand what the appeal was. It was childhood turned upside-down. At this point I started making horror versions starting with the Evil Dead followed by the Shining and The Exorcist. That tapped into a whole new genre and they really took off. AMC hired me to make one of Rick from The Walking Dead for a commercial. That was a blast. I generally just make them of subjects that appeal to me or make for funny toys. It's fun to figure out surprising, simple actions that could have been done 50 years ago.
4. Going back to your ingenious use of objects in sculptures, I wanted to ask about the monster sculptures made with products like coke bottles and deodorant sticks. What inspires these and makes them different from your other work? For the most part, this is your only series that doesn't have heavy pop culture influences, so where do these monsters come from? Is there any significance to them beyond just being fun? Those sprang directly from the peanut art. After a few years of only making celebrities on the outside of peanuts, I thought it would be fun to make something INSIDE one. So I sculpted a little eyeball and a brain peering out through a crack in a peanut shell. It felt really good to get out of the constraints of pop culture and celebrity likenesses for a change. I happened to have a lot of empty Altoids tins around the work space that I kept drill bits and screws in so I tried the same thing with them. It was really fun, making ugly monsters like I used to in elementary school. I tried different containers like deodorant and 9 Volt batteries, wondering what sort of little creature would be inside them. It's completely therapeutic to make them. Every time I finish a bunch, I post them and sell them.
5. Recently I've been seeing you work more and more with more illustrative wood sculpts/paintings and paintings on tic tacs. Is perusing new avenues in your work important? Has the more illustrative, loose feel of the new wood sculpts been a nice break? And is painting tictacs as infuriating as I imagine it is?
There are just so many fun things to do that I want to try them all! The simplistic wooden sculptures came from my love of primitive toys from the early 20th century. There was an artist from Uruguay name Joaquin Torres Garcia who created designs for the French co. Aladin Toys. I'm crazy about his stuff. What started out as an attempt to imitate him turned into this different type of caricature that really doesn't look like his work at all. But I'm happy with the results. Painting Tic Tacs is actually the easiest thing I do. It's a matter of instantly editing out data in your brain so only the necessary goes down on the "canvas." The steady hand comes with thousands of hours of practice. Peanuts used to seem tiny to me but after Tic Tacs they're HUGE.
6. So we've talked about the sculptural processes of your work, but the painting is just as important in your work. Painting is hard enough without adding in a smaller and smaller scale, so how did you decide that you wanted to start painting miniatures? Did you start large to hone the craft then work down or just start small and figure it out? How have you progressed in your own eyes? Any plans to go big ever? I sort of covered this before but I just started painting small from the get-go. First came the idea to paint on peanuts, then came the requirement to learn how. My first attempts were really terrible but somehow I trained these sausage fingers to paint that tiny stuff. And my eyes don't require any sort of magnification which is weird because I'm very near-sighted. I am doing some bigger stuff for a show this fall but nothing huge. Not that it's out of the question but it's all time, money, and opportunity. But when unusual opportunities arise, I'm always game (within reason). 7. Pop Culture is present across a whole lot of your work, how important is that element of your work to you? Is it all personal passions or do you like to explore it all in your work?
One of the earliest things that I gravitated to as a kid was caricatures. The idea that you could draw a funny likeness of someone famous blew my mind. So I would practice drawing famous people and managed to impress everyone early on with that ability. I wasn't an eloquent chap but I made friends because of those skills. So pop culture played an important part from the beginning. Still really hard to break out of since it's the way I'm wired.
8. You've got a vast body of work, that goes down all sorts of different avenues, do you have a favorite thing to do? Or is it all exciting in its own way?
My favorite thing is definitely making toys. They take the most time but are so satisfying when they're finished. As a collector, I would totally buy my own toys if they were made by someone else. And I'd be jealous that I didn't make them. It's the first time in my life I've felt that way.
9. What's next for you? Exciting new projects? Any new work avenues, or ways you plan to push what you've been doing?
It's all exciting but my favorite part is coming up with new platforms that I haven't done before. It's the inventor in me. I'm working on something now that's completely new and has little to do with anything I've done before. Could be a flop but is fun to try. I've only been making art for six years now so hopefully there will be many more ideas.
10. Finally, plug yourself! Where can people find your work? Any shows coming up? Anything and everything that can promote your work to the reader!
I post regularly on instagram as @stevecasino and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. When there's stuff to buy I post it directly on there. No time currently to maintain a store. If you see something you like, ask and it might be for sale. Commissions are open but be forewarned there are always 10-15 jobs on the waitlist. I've illustrated a book (with wooden sculptures) coming out in Sept. called "Vintage Geek Quiz Book" by BBC film critic Marshall Julius. I have an upcoming solo show in LA on Oct. 25 at Gallery 1988 on Melrose. A LTD edition version of my AXE Deodorant Monster is being produced by Bottleneck Gallery.