Jan 14, 2015

An Interview With Peter Mohrbacher & Eli Minaya of Angelarium

A couple weeks back, I had the tremendous opportunity to speak with Peter Mohrbacher and Eli Minaya about their collaborative, crowd-funded project Angelarium. A personal passion project of Mohrbacher for over eight years, the visual universe of the heavenly host has since found new life as a Patreon-backed art series featuring its own superbly bizarre canon of towering deities and lesser demons unleashed every Thursday for supporters to see.

If you could sum up Angelarium in one sentence, what would it be?

Peter: Angelarium is essentially "a world for angels". A compendium of paintings and poetry inspired by the names and aspects of heavenly entities as interpreted by Eli and myself. I started it back in college in 2004 and I've been updating it ever since. It's a core part of my online identity because its the body of work I'm most proud of as a digital illustrator.

We're currently portraying angels tied to our interpretation of the Tree of Life, but we have a lot more in store for the near-future!

What was the name of the first angel you ever painted for the project?

Peter: That would be Suphlatus, the angel of dust. In terms of popularity, Azrael the angel of death is chief among them. He was posted relatively late in the original series and kept on getting requested. Before that, I had just been doing minor angels like "the sky" or "memory" and he was an opportunity to create a figure that was larger in the mythology, not just within Angelarium but for those who were already fans of the popular Abrahamic mythology.

Suphlatus, Angel of Dust
How did the two of you meet?

Eli: Fight Club. *laughter* No, we met last year at Comic-Con actually. Pete had a booth in Artist's Alley and I was there representing my college (Ringling School of Art and Design) to talk about the school and life as an artist, etc. He was touring the main floor while I was setting up. I introduced myself because I was already a fan of his work for some time now and that was pretty much it.

Peter: Yeah, I saw Eli's business card and I had already been thinking about what I wanted in a collaborator for Angelarium. I wanted an artist who was really strong with expressive ink work and had a strong idea of what I hoped it would look like. I knew he was the artist I was looking for just from the little bit of work on his card, so I immediately started pitching him on the project.

Eli: Yeah and it worked out because the core concepts of Angelarium are just something that I've already been invested in for awhile. Symbolizing concepts, these abstract primal forces; it was just a great project to want to jump on and it's been pretty cool so far.

Keter, Eli Minaya
Seeing the stylistic juxtaposition within this one project is really interesting where Peter's work is more digital, fleshed-out and prototypical fantasy, Eli yours emphasizes fluidity of form and motion; a raw abstractionism that captures a compelling spectrum throughout Angelarium. How do you two work together?

Eli: Agreed, it's creating this interesting dialogue between our works. I'm doing some of the writing for the project and the different perspectives on these different figures has charged the way I depict them in this new medium. It helps to divorce my writing approach from the images I've already made. It's a definite fit for my work process and I always look forward to doing more.

Peter: The reason I really wanted to work with Eli was because when i saw his work, I recognized immediately that behind the differences in our finish we had a similar approach to how we thought about design, the core of the work, and where it was coming from. There's been a central understanding in our conversations of what the goal has been for these pieces. It's been kind of surprising how similarly we think about our work despite having really different modes of making pictures.

Keter, Angel of Hidden Things
The primary subject of the project thus far has been what you call "The Tree of Life" which could refer to two separate concepts; The Jewish Kabbalah concept of the Sephirot or the World Tree Yggdrasil of Norse Mythology. Does Angelarium grow off of one specific discipline of religiousity, or is it a confluence of all of these disparate disciplines?

Peter: Well, where it really started had everything to do with the concept of angels. It's a very common concept. It's fundamentally polytheism; the idea of taking the fundamental forces and concepts of the universe and personifying them is something that all religion does. But the particular odd flavor that comes out of Abrahamic religion I think is really compelling to me and to a lot other people, so that's where I've always felt that this project needs to stay focused.

The Tree of Life that is so central to the Kabbalah is a perfect description of what I want to do with Angelarium; To create archetypes that people can understand and relate to and relate their own personal experiences to. It's rich territory for visual metaphor. Norse Mythology is already so fully described and mythologized that I don't feel like there's a lot of room for us to interpret the same way we can with the more archetypal, ephemeral concepts that come with the Abrahamic religions. It's a space for us to create our own symbols without having to rely on thousands of years of repeated imagery.

Eli: It was really easy to break loose and conceptualize some of these Sephirot. My involvement with Angelarium so far has just been the Tree of Life and there's so much conceptual real-estate to play in. They're not concepts that have been commonly depicted before and I find that really exciting.

Binah, Angel of Understanding
The astuteness of your answers is very intriguing. The concept of Angelarium invites contemplation on how the popular visual language associated with Abrahamic religions in regards to the spheres of Heaven, the strata of Hell, and the hierarchy of the Seraphim is, for the most part, apocryphal. 

Peter: It's literally apocryphal because there are descriptions of it, but they're all in apocryphal books. A lot of it comes from the Book of Enoch, but that got edited out of the bible so there are very few Abrahamic religions practicing those rituals and depictions to this day. It's of course been picked up by popular culture, and that ties back to what I was saying with Azrael. But for the purpose of this project, we're trying to make our own unique cosmology of heavenly entities.

Malkuthm, Angel of Earth
Angelarium's aesthetic almost feels like a heavenly counterpoint to the works of Wayne Barlowe and Zdzisław Beksiński, known for their macabre and ephemeral depictions of Hell and the subconscious. Were the styles of those two artists an influence on developing the project's visual language?

Peter: Both of those artists are definitely influences on me for this project. Particularly Beksiński, though the two are in many ways opposites. Barlowe is a very detail-driven painter known for world-building and creating a codified depiction of the Inferno, and on the other hand Beksiński didn't even name his own paintings. While there are visual similarities and common interests, the goal for me is between the two. I want to create the kind of depth and impression that Beksiński is able to create, but I do want to incorporate a kind of systematized cosmology that Barlowe was able to. I actually don't own a copy of the Barlowe's Inferno, so I can't say I'm intentionally trying to make a counterpoint to it. But I do want to create something that is as memorable and has just as much impact as Barlowe's has. He's an important actor on the influences of Angelarium, but certainly not the starting point.

Eli: I actually have not heard of Barlowe until just this moment *laughter* though I will look him up now. My influences in general are deeply rooted in fantasy art, but for this project my influences draw from the works of Saul Bass. I draw heavily from the works of graphic designers because my approach behind the Tree of Life illustrations is to create illustrative symbols, so I'm looking at how they interpret concepts and ideas into single images, actions and objects. My work is more conceptual and less painterly and grounded in realism.

Messanger, Eli Minaya
Let's talk about the writing alongside Angelarium. The poetry is very ominous, prosaic, and impactful. Who primarily does the writing for the poems that accompany each member of the Tree of Life so far, and who are your literary influences?

Eli: Well, I wouldn't say I'm the primary writer, but most of the poems that have been released so far have been my own. Pete's got years of creative investment on this project. I appreciate that my writing is able to create such an aesthetic reaction. As far as writing influences? Mos Def, The Roots, rap music in general. Particularly stuff from the nineties. Writing was actually my first creative calling in high school before painting. I've maintained my creative writing as a skill alongside illustration and I'm glad that this project has given me the opportunity to flex those muscles again.

Peter: For the first fourteen angels, I wrote a bit of poetry for each of them. I can't say why exactly, but it always felt necessary to do them. With Eli having lead the charge on a lot of the research, I thought he ought to be doing some of the writing as well. Our heads are totally in the same place, as far as the visual descriptions of these characters, so I trust Eli one-hundred percent on his side of the writing.

Eli: We were definitely on the same level of understanding as far as concepts, so it's been easy to pitch the writing and create writing that we both believe in. It's been a great fit. Even though my involvement on this project has been fairly recent, I feel at home with it and I believe in it. I still feel like I'm making authentic work even when I'm not spear-heading the project and that's great.

Peter: The format for the writing is the same for the paintings. Two different mediums for the same basic idea; to boil down this simplified rough sketch of a much larger concept through use of metaphor and rhythm. Whether working with images or words, it feels like the same mental creative exercise. It was a pleasant surprise to find that Eli was capable of doing the exact same process. When you get involved in creative work, you go through a lot of personal revelations, and it's comforting to find a partner who's on the same page.

Da'at, Angel of Shared Wisdom
Who has been your favorite angel to paint? and which angel are you looking forward to depicting the most?

Peter: The character who I know is going to be an absolute fan favorite is Azazel. I haven't drawn him yet, but I know that when I do it's going to be a reference point for the whole series for it's lifespan.  I'm dying to draw him, but I'm being more deliberate and patient in the pacing of this project as opposed to ones that I've done in the past. It's all a matter of steps and right now we're focused on the Tree of Life, so I've got a lot of painting and business ahead of me before we reach that point. I want to figure out how that character fits into the larger cosmology as a whole. I'm really excited to express what's going on with that guy.

Eli: On my part, I've completed all of my Sephirot. I have a favorite, and it's name is Da'at. As far as what I'm looking forward to, I'm doing some acrylic paintings of the existing Sephirot. What I planned for the angel Banal is really exciting and I'm looking forward to releasing her when it's done.

Peter: I'm actually on my third version of painting Da'at because I feel very strong about that character too. I want to make sure that one is one of the best out of the series and most unique looking among them.

Peter's final rendition of Da'at
What does the future of Angelarium look like? Can we expect a compilation of the paintings in book form at some point?

We've created a section on the website where originals and prints of the project will be for sale. As pieces become revealed, we'll put them up for purchase. After the entire series of emanations is released, I want to compile Angelarium into book-form, so there will be a campaign for that. Right now the project is supported through Patreon, so there's a handful of people who are supporting me month-to-month with a small donation to see this project to fruition.

The hope is that this will carry the basic operations of Angelarium into the future, but at different intervals in the project we'll open up or refocus tiers to accomplish specific goals within the project. When it feels complete, I hope to release it as a series of books and perhaps other assorted memorabilia. I don't want to do anything that's bad for the project. For now, I'm focused on the work and in a couple of months then we'll move into the more serious business of creating things that people can hold in their hands. So if you want to see a beautiful coffee table book of Angelarium to show off to your friends, consider backing the project on Patreon!

Thank you guys again for taking the time out of your day to talk about Angelarium! Good luck guys. If you're a fan of the project, hop on over to the project's Patreon account and toss a couple bucks their way. Backers get first access to finished paintings, wallpapers, and exclusive behind the scenes sketchbooks and assorted creative snippets!

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