Photography by Corey Miller
Pareidolia. The tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful, image in random or ambiguous visual patterns; like, seeing a face in the clouds, or a monster in a shadow. To some it is the result of daydreaming, but to Phoenix native Sam Hundley, it is the muse that creates his art.
Hundley, 62, spent 39 years producing beautiful designs and layouts for newspapers, including almost three decades with The Virginian-Pilot. These days the happy retiree spends his time working on his own art. From a cozy workshop behind his Ocean View home, Hundley fashions amazing pieces of what he calls “scrap art,” found-object creations inspired by everything from current events to family history.
And recently, he has expanded into new mediums, designing the cover and sleeve for the 2019 Meat Puppets album Dusty Notes, and creating his first children’s book, Gifts of the Magpie. The book, scheduled for release by Capstone Publishing in 2021, features Hundley’s art and writing. We sat down with him to talk inspirations, motivations and the problem with working for a paycheck.
What was high school like for you?
I was always the outsider. Not a popular kid. A loner. I had a handful of friends, you know, and I really got into art and just started working on projects on my lonesome. I worked on the high school newspaper and I was interested in cartooning and editorial cartooning and animation and that kind of thing.
How did you get into newspapers?
I went to college at University of Arizona, in Tucson. My junior year, there was a portfolio call at the local newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star. I did a bunch of drawings and managed to get the job. So, I was going to college and working 20 hours a week at the newspaper. This guy took me under his wing. My very first day when I walked into the newsroom, he showed me my drawing table, which was across from his, and he gave me an illustration assignment. Like teaching a young kid in the 19th century how to swim. He just like threw me into the pond. But then my grades tumbled because I was spending all of my time at the paper. The art director left and they offered me a full-time job as chief artist, so I dropped out of college and never looked back.
It was a means to an end. You achieved what you sat out to.
Well, that’s what I told my mom, who was very disappointed. And I said, look, the only reason I’m going to college is to work as an artist. This is it. And it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, really. And that was like 1978 or 1979.
And after that?
From there, I went to the Everett Herald, which in Washington state. It had one of the nation’s greatest design staffs. And I was the one-man art department there. I learned how to do layout, photo layout, page design, informational graphics, all that stuff. And at the same time, I was working on my illustrations. So, I was there for a couple years. Then I went to the Denver Post.
And that was a bad experience, right? You left there after five months and came to the Pilot. How was that?
It changed my life because at the time, this place was the greatest newspaper in the country, as far as I was concerned. It fostered innovation, creativity. They bosses didn’t want the same thing that everybody else was doing.
You were known at the Pilot for your artistic page designs. How did you transition from that into doing your own art?
I got into the game late. For years I felt challenged enough creatively at work that I didn’t really feel the need to do the weekend watercolor thing. I had a lot of friends that did, and I envied them. I just never had the passion to create something for myself until I turned 50. But even though I was not doing art for myself, I was collecting stuff.
You know, just picking junk up off the street: Flattened aerosol cans, a baseball cowhide with the stitches in it, a smushed, leathery toad. And I kept all these things. There was something beautiful about that stuff, to me. I collected that junk for 20 years with no idea what I would do with it.
When did that change?
A colleague at the Pilot, Janet Shaughnessy, a long-time artist and editor, super talented, brought in this found-object illustration from a street fair. It was a guy walking a dog and it was just beautiful. I loved it immediately. And then I saw the work of this guy, Mark Fisher, a Massachusetts dumpster diver like me, a Yankee long-bearded guy who makes metal faces like simple African mask, out of junk. He calls them Metal Men. I saw them and I had an epiphany, you know? I just said, “Oh my God, I can, I can start using these things and put them together to make simple artwork.” It was like a spigot just opened. I ran out of all my found objects within six months. That was in 2009.
I guess you have heard of Pareidolia?
Ha. Yeah. The act of seeing, I guess it’s not only faces, it’s seeing objects in other objects or something of that nature. You know, uh, I’ve always been a daydreamer. In school, I never paid attention. I was always looking outside at the trees and stuff and I didn’t know it was called pareidolia at the time, but I practiced it constantly. I remember being at home sick as a child and staring at these beautiful backlit floral drapes and, I don’t know, I may have been fevered, but those roses and plants and leaves turned into a menagerie of wonderful beasts and faces and things like that.
We’ve all had the childhood experience of watching a shadow become a monster.
Yes. And you know, I do workshops for schools and young children. And they just get it immediately. I did one a few years ago at a gallery, and I had this table with found objects for the kids to experiment with and this 4-year-old boy comes in and starts messing around. I guess his father was a motorcycle nut, or something. The kid hears a motorcycle rumble down the road and he looks at his father and says, “I’m going to make a chopper.” And he ends up making the coolest motorcycle.
Is there a sort of unhooking of your jaw artistically that enables you to go back to childhood and just embrace the wonder?
Ha. It doesn’t take much, you don’t have to unhinge. It’s just, it’s already there. It’s already opened up. And what’s weird for me, is that I just picked these things up, because I loved them. The surfaces of the metal, the color of the rust, the texture of the paint that’s peeling and all those things.
What comes first: Do have an idea of a piece and then find the parts, or do the parts inspire the piece?
Well, I don’t think I would be doing this if the object didn’t come first, you know. The piece of junk just has its own innate beauty. It’s weird, I know. But you can see that in my work.
Is there a rule to the number of items you can use?
Not really, but I rarely use more than seven things, because I want the viewer to see both the parts and the final piece as close to simultaneously as possible. When I make a dude with a flame thrower, I want people to see the thing I see, the final vision, but I also want them to see the old caulk gun that I used to make it.
What about the shape of the objects? Can you alter them?
I will move heaven and earth to make the thing work. I’ll reshape it, bend it, break it. I’ll cut it in two. Occasionally,
I’ll paint it. I don’t really do outdoor big sculptures and things like that because I don’t weld. I keep telling myself, I need to learn how to do it. I think that’s the next evolution.
Are your pieces inspired by outside events, or are they personal?
Both, really. I’ll start working on something and then I’ll notice something in the culture that must have gotten lodged somewhere in my mind. But I also do personal things, like I am working on a series of family portraits
What do you like most about doing your own art now?
Well, working for 40 years as a staff artist, your boundaries and your filters are just paramount. You’re doing something for the masses. You don’t want anyone offended. You don’t want one person to not get this thing you are creating. But when you work that way, there is no sense of discovery. There’s no surprise. This is totally different. It’s like, my mind is clear. I have no preconceived ideas. I look at this crap, this junk, and I let my mind wander. And that really is my subconscious sort of coming out and selecting an image or whatever. And, so, I’m constantly surprising myself
– Condensed and edited for space by Clay Barbour.