Art upstart 

It was the late '70s when graphic artist Gary Panter made his initial foray into the world of design. He started off as an illustrator for punk mags Slash and Raw, and, over the years, he achieved an industry reputation as "the king of punk art." But despite the fabulously underground beginnings, Panter is probably best known for his Emmy-winning set design on Pee-Wee's Playhouse, the most intentionally bizarre children's show in television history.

Panter comes to Detroit this weekend to speak at CPOP Gallery's Artist Survival & Self-Defense seminar.

Sure, his varied credentials are more than enough proof that he knows how to strike a successful balance between underground and commercial art, but he's more than happy to offer some advice on how to make it happen for you. "Personal art is a luxury," Panter says. "Commercial art means solving someone else's problems. Take your ego out of it, and try to make it creative. Steal time for your own stuff."

Born in Oklahoma and raised in Texas, Panter says his interest in art was sparked at a young age by monster movies, kitsch and Marvel Comics godhead Jack "the King" Kirby. He would eventually go on to study art at East Texas State University.

"I was never any good at mathematics," he says, "so running a cash register was out of the question. Art school was my only choice."

Upon graduation, Panter moved to Los Angeles, where he quickly found himself immersed in the early days of the West Coast punk scene. This would help him to synthesize his signature style.

"I think I saw half of all the Germs shows ever played, but I never really felt like part of the scene. It was just a new flavor of bohemia."

But one thing Panter did adopt from the punk scene's DIY philosophy was a no-holds-barred approach: Over the years he has excelled in a vast spectrum of media, including but not limited to puppetry, light shows, animation and comics. His latest effort, 2004's graphic novel Jimbo in Purgatory, is an oversized, quirky (not to mention ultra-dense) adaptation of Dante's Divine Comedy.

Seems nothing's too ambitious for this guy.

Panter explains, "Just jump in and learn as you go. Leave time for burgers and bowling."


From 9:30 a.m.- 4:30 p.m., Saturday June 10, and Sunday, June 11, at CPOP Gallery, 4160 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9901.

David Acosta is a freelance writer. Send comments to

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