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Interviews of Prog

Ed Unitsky
Ed Unitsky

Ed Unitsky – Mr. Designer on "Cooking" His Art:

OP: Since I took hold of an album by The Tangent, life has become more beautiful, and listening to music feels now much easier. The thing is that, once again, I have started judging discs by their “clothes”, as I used to remembering the Yes albums designed by the artist Roger Dean. Well, the present-day works by Ed Unitsky, an artist from Belarus who has created cover art for albums of cult bands as well as for lesser-known bands and musicians, have already become a distinctive clue in the Prog Rock world. You, too, may have enjoyed the “look and feel” of discs by The Tangent, The Flower Kings, Unitopia, Mandalaband, Starcastle, Moongarden, Guy Manning, Tomas Bodin, Oresund Space Collective, Glass Wolfe… The eye-catching “wrappers” depicting whole worlds and a myriad of vivid images guarantee a “tasty” musical content, so, after some time, many of us start “scanning” for his pictures and distinguishing them from other cover art. And, when new works are released – such as “Artificial” by Unitopia – they come as a pleasure of meeting an old friend again. It's all the more so because we've got plenty of opportunities to see Ed’s art: festival logos and radio station emblems, performance setting designs and website artwork. Musicians and bands regard him as a full member of their projects, and the collection of the top rankings earned by his works is impressive in its “geographical” span – from Dutch Progressive Rock Poll to Melodic Revolution Records and Italian Prog Awards. And actually, the “Ed Unitsky” name itself has already turned into a remarkable “prog brand”. That makes it even more interesting to have a talk with Ed. He managed to patiently withstand the journalist's “fair attack”, without giving the slightest indication that I was probably distracting him from creating another masterpiece.

OP: Ed, your start in the Prog music industry is associated with The Flower Kings: could you tell me how that life-changing contact happened?

EU: In the beginning was the Music! When I first got acquainted with The Flower Kings' work, it came as a sort of positive shock on me: it seemed incredible that someone could create an organic whole out of that many genres that I love! It's no wonder that I found myself among the fans of this great band, and, at the same time, I was absorbing everything that was going on in Neo Prog – and Transatlantic’s music in particular. Under the impression of what I heard at that time, I conceived certain artistic images and ideas, and I was very willing to express them and show them to those brilliant musicians. Actually, to my great surprise, I received a reply to my message from the band's leader, Roine Stolt, and its “think-tank” – and it was positive! That was the first time I “had my day”!

OP: After you sent your work to Roine Stolt, how exactly did you get a reply about his interest in them – was there a call, a message, a telegram, or a carrier pigeon?

EU: It was delivered by “deer express” (laughing)! Well, I think it's a no-brainer to guess what can help people establish contacts nowadays – of course we made friends with Roine through the Internet. It might be no surprise to anyone now, but, at that time, it was not that accessible and widely developed, – which often caused some technical issues. For instance, it was a problem to send messages with large-size graphic files attached...

OP: Ed, what exactly was it that you attached?

EU: To begin with, we posted some of my works on The Flower Kings' fan website, making them available as “wallpaper” for the fans. Later on, the long-awaited moment came for “elephants to materialize”: Roine suggested that I design the cover of their first fan club release – “The Flower Kings Fan Club CD 2002”. So, I can say that the creative process was getting to“mature” like good wine!

OP: It's even more so, given that for The Flower Kings' “keynote” album, you created your cover art no sooner than 2007… And isn't that funny yellow Fish Bus any relative to The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”?

EU: Hmm, well I cannot exclude that – we need to test its DNA to be sure! Anyway, the time when this idea emerged and was expressed somehow coincides with a surge of interest in the Hippie movement and pop culture in general during the following years, and I'm glad that such interest hasn't yet ceased. To my mind, the Hippie movement is one of the most remarkable and positive phenomena that shouldn't just be lost in history completely. And it probably helps purify and unite our hearts and souls too…

OP: Andy Tillison once mentioned in an interview that he and Roine Stolt sought by themselves for a visual solution for the cover of The Tangent's first album, but neither of them liked what the other one proposed. Then another artist was brought in, and, in the long run, the musicians turned to you…

EU: As far as I remember, the first artist involved by The Tangent was a very famous artist known by a number of great cover arts for cult bands – so, it was an even greater honour it was for me to gain that “tenure”.

OP: Ed, and did you manage to satisfy both of those artists right away, becoming sort of a common “artistic denominator”, or was it the result of a long process of adjustment and adaptation?..

EU: You know, musicians of this kind may be changing a couple of minor notes over and over again to achieve the desired sound… They strive for the best results only, so their scrupulousness requires plenty of patience on the part of everyone involved in the process - but are there any simple guys among creative people at all? Yet, I was lucky in that respect – it so happened that I, Andy and Roine got hooked on the same vibe, and they accepted most of my ideas with great enthusiasm, though some of the preliminary variants for the basic edition cover were rejected. Anyway, I gave them a wide range of choices.

OP: The plots of your cover arts for music albums range from rather terse images to whole worlds presented in a lot of detail – like those found in the album art created for Guy Manning. Could you tell me whose ideas were expressed there?

EU: In that case, Guy Manning came up with his own textual narrative concept, and of course wanted me to keep as close to it as possible. And it was not limited to some abstract, general ideas: it was rather specific, prescribing the use of certain images, some important details and symbols... So we worked in a well-coordinated and rather thorough manner, materializing some of his scenarios in the light of my artistic vision and perception of the world.

OP: The outcome is very interesting! Which is easier for you, working with specific concepts or rather with abstract ones?

EU: Frankly speaking, I like to be given free rein in my creative work. And, in most cases, such an approach does indeed yield better results.

OP: Has it ever happened that someone just told you: “Ed, I love your work – so you can do what you want!”?

EU: Sure! Moreover, in some cases, it was just enough for me to read the lyrics to grasp the underlying ideas… You see, for music that is not finished yet, its creation still in progress, I need at least to see the lyrics by all means, or otherwise we might get “sleeves” that don't match the “waistcoat”. We need to work towards obtaining an integral and self-sufficient concept as a result!

OP: …And doing all that within a strict timeframe! Is it hard to work with your imagination and stick to the schedule at the same time?

EU: Yeah, right you are… Sometimes, the schedule may be rather drawn out, then the concept of the picture may undergo a lot of revisions and transformations, and is built without haste. By the way, such a process does have certain drawbacks, too. Sometimes, instead, there is a need to “bring something forth” in a frantic rush, and at the same time not to abase myself… “injuring my face against the cover”!

OP: Do you work 24 hours a day?

EU: Well, I could say that sleep is a very relative concept for me: I haven't got any strict routine, so I'm used to working a lot and at any time. Yet, to tell you the truth, such situations tend to occur more often than I wish.

OP: What if several musicians turn to you at the same time: say, David Gilmour –a person you would certainly be willing to work with; Roine Stolt – the one with whom you've got an established creative relationship; and another musician, unknown yet, but really very interesting? Would you try to tackle all that at the same time, or would you set any priorities?

EU: Oh I'd summon the spirits to help me (laughing)! You may laugh, but it actually did happen that I had to reject some cover art projects – and that was not based on whether some names were well-known or not, but rather to sheer lack of time. Of course, I have sometimes regretted the missed opportunities, but, anyway, I couldn't afford not being at my best.

OP: Ed, do you feel you've got certain obligations to the music and to the audience as well?

EU : Yes, for sure. Serious things demand more attention, and the cover art should always be in line with the state, mood and concept of the music it is intended for. My humble graphic art created for music is just of an “applied and decorative” nature! Heh-heh…

OP: It's clear with the state and mood, and yet, aren’t you afraid of disappointing some expectations related to your work?

EU: The purpose of art created for music is not to cater to the listener, but rather offer my vision. Tastes differ, of course, but I’m not going to make my pictures “sweet” and retouch them in order to please everyone.

OP: And what do you do if your impressions from music form into a distinct image, but the authors of the music say something like “Ed, can you draw a crimson dinosaur here?”

EU : The thing is that I myself come from the Crimson Ice Age, and I've already faced some requests like these while working with musicians! In such situations, I feel free to object, as well as argue on behalf of my ideas. And the ideas themselves appear worth it (as time does tell), while the “imposed” images turn out to be not that appealing.

OP: What's your attitude to the fact that you are often referred to as “the second Roger Dean”?

EU: I don't know the source of this tag that got stuck onto me, and neither do I know why people would say so. I myself do not think that my works have too much resemblance to the art created by one of my favourite artists, Roger Dean. It looks like someone just felt like comparing us once, and – here we go, others followed! I also enjoy the work of Storm Thorgerson and the entire “Hipgnosis” art studio. They've designed plenty of famous album covers, and, if one wants to compare my manner to someone else's, then it should be to this team rather than Dean. Certainly, these artists had their own ideas, and I have expressed my own ones, but in their work, too, you can feel some influence of the ideas of the Salvador Dali school, as well as some subconscious vision of other planes and spaces that cannot be made out by an unaided eye…

OP: I won't – that's for sure!

EU: Ah, that's the case where common eyeglasses would be useless. What's needed is to activate your brain's subcortex and the third (inner) eye!

OP: I did! And what I've noticed is that, instead of the dragons and voluptuous ladies that are traditional images for contemporary fantasy art, themost frequent and prominent image in your pictures is human, a thinking man…

EU: Well, I don't think I'm the only one adopting such an approach, – I simply want my pictures to convey some of my own thoughts, rather than just be based on the beauty of an attractive model. Of course, I wouldn’t object to depicting a beautiful, feminine human body, – I would even say I'm all in favour of that (laughing)! And yet, I take more interest in revealing deeper spaces of humankind’s inner world, of my inner self, and this is probably what’s reflected in those “human” images. I just invite the listener to “jump into” the character I have created, and observe the process from my angle. I hope that my art may encourage someone to start their own process of research, reflection and discovery.

OP: One of your works – the one featuring an extraterrestrial landscape, flowers and the huge face of a sleeping baby – reminds me of the plot of “Solaris”. Wasn't this created with Stanislaw Lem's novel in mind?

EU: It's got a different title, but if you think so – then it'll be “Solaris” for you! What you see is what you get… Nevertheless, “Solaris” was among my favourite novels and films, too, so I do not rule out the possibility that some associations and influences of what was absorbed may eventually show up in my work.

OP: Ed, some of your images, such as Rock Angel, “migrate” from one picture to another, changing the landscapes and colours on their way… Is it pursuit of the Ideal – or just sort of a “What if...” game?

EU: It's the Ideal's intrigue!... Well, not quite that... Most often, these are some shelved versions of pictures that I rescue from obscurity, and at times, such “archived” versions appear more interesting than the conventional ones. It also may happen that I make alterations to some previous works – if my fingers itch too much to do that. And in other cases, these are just elements of a single concept comprising a series of art pieces... Referring to “the Angel with the Boy”, I can say it's an integral concept that I created for a large-scale “live” on-stage rock show called “Flashback – the Mystic Orchestra Classic Rock Tour”. This three-hour musical program was devoted to a glimpse of the history of rock music, from Woodstock to the legendary music of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. My idea was to introduce the story of the Rock Angel who taught the boy about the history of the immense, boundless world of rock music. I was the only artist on this performance project, so my tasks included creating the concept, on-screen graphic slides, ideas for video screens, booklets, T-shirt designs, and much more. The project also involved a legendary photographer, Carl Dunn, whose original photos of rock stars have graced lots of music-related publications for over 40 years…

OP: Even from the demo video that's available from your resource at YouTube, one can judge the scale of this rock show and the amount of work you did for it. Tell me please, did you “direct” the concert yourself?

EU: I was invited, but I actually was a “remote” participant. Yet, there are currently some plans to re-launchthis project for worldwide distribution – so I hope I'll have another opportunity to “direct”. It was a top-notch show, indeed: it involved great musicians (about thirty world-class musicians took part in the performance), as well as grand visuals and technical solutions. To mention just one thing, there was a dirigible with two screens hovering in the centre of the hall, and those screens showed what was happening on stage!

OP: Currently, thanks to the Internet, there are more opportunities for cooperation, and musicians from different countries or cities collaborate virtually to create albums together. Is any co-authorship of this kind possible for artists?

EU: I've got the experience of such cooperation with Annie Haslam (Renaissance): the member of Starcastle invited her as a friend to take part in creating artwork for the “Songs of Time” album. By courtesy of Annie's, the project got the picture she had created in memory of the late band member Gary Strater (the whole album was dedicated to his cherished memory). On the album cover, you can see my artwork conveying the general idea of this musical story, and Annie's work (a highly spiritual, astral picture that I love so much!) is found on the tray card and on the CD itself. You might know that Annie is such an all-embracing personality interacting with the world and space on some subtle vibrations, – well, there is a lot one can learn from her. I was really very pleased to work with her on such an important project!

OP: Just confess, did you get any words of praise from Annie?

EU: Yeah… she praised the final outcome – she was very pleased with this work as a whole. Later on, when the album was released, Annie Haslam took part in the performance at RoSfest together with the Starcastle musicians and Oliver Wakeman on keyboards.

OP: There is one more “general outcome” that's available to please the visitors of your official website: its new Flash version is accompanied by the music from the “BC – Ancestors” album that you designed for MANDALABAND III. Why have you selected this particular piece of music?

EU: I've been a fan of Mandalaband’s legendary projects for a long time already. So when I heard the brilliant samples on their MySpace page, I just couldn't remain indifferent! I spoke up right away with my sincere compliments, and got a very positive response from David Rohl… – that's how our friendship started. What followed was, of course, my willingness to take part in this mega project, which was then transformed into real and harmonious cooperation. David Rohl, the author and mastermind of this project, is not only a brilliant musician, but also a highly proficient photographer, and one of the world's leading Egyptologists. I myself have always taken interest in matters related to the origin of our civilization and the beginnings of history and culture… So, we “got a feel” of all that somehow! As to myself, I'm still a fan of this project as before, regardless of my participation in it. It's because this is truly a work of genius – it would be even worth sending into outer space as a human message from the Earth to other civilizations! I'm sure that, after a while, some things may be forgotten, but this music will surely remain in the annals of our world's culture.

OP: Ed, we can see that you often support charity projects: the Relief to Haiti album has just been released, and I've recently learnt that your works relating to Christianity are in fact part of the design for the Christian Rock Opera in Cleveland.

EU: To put it more correctly, it's a musical performance involving a lot of people and dedicated to a traditional Christian subject matter. I have a very respectful attitude towards many religious movements and beliefs, but I was born to a Christian family and identify myself as a Christian, and I've always had strong feelings about that. So, when I received a kind offer regarding participation in this charity project, I didn't have the slightest doubt! The series of Bible-based works was intended for stage settings; some of them were printed in a large-scale canvas format, and a DVD with my cover art was also released… I guess we've not seen the end of this project yet: the author, David J. Fox (aka Angel Rising) has got a lot more ideas, so the project will probably be continued.

OP: And how do you express your own ideas? It's been mentioned that you're using a “mixed technique” comprising a variety of methods such as drawing, photo collage, computer graphics… What and how exactly do you “mix”?

EU: You know, when the hostess offers a plate of tasty “borsch” to a guest, she'd better refrain from burdening him with all details of the recipe, and ingredients, and the cooking process, because such details might interfere with his appetite. Besides, it's not quite what may interest everyone. For instance, when you’re visiting a museum, you would hardly demand to be shown all the brushes, pencils and other means that were used for creating a given work of art: you will only perceive the outcome. So I guess that the details of my creative “cooking process” are not that important, – it's the final product that is worth enjoying! I can only add that the technical means are varied, and they progress together with the age in which a person lives. There was a time when drawings were scratched on stones, and music was played on whalebone… Nowadays, there are plenty of techniques and means of expressing creative ideas.

OP: I always feel impressed by your mastery in “cooking” those products, especially given that I've read that you are a self-taught artist…

EU: I'm a “self-crafted” one (laughing)! You know, I generally don't feel like reading all those tips and instructions. For instance, I mastered the computer in my day “from scratch” without any books – just by experimenting (the “hit and miss” program, you know). I like getting to understand everything by myself; moreover, the process of experimenting and research may often result in achieving some original solutions and finding methods that differ from conventional ones.

OP: You once cited Jon Anderso, who said that the use of computers in the creative process could be compared with an axe that may appear in the hands of a carpenter building a ship, or in the hands of an executioner as well… Could you share your opinion as to which category prevails in today's computer graphics – the carpenters, or the executioners?

EU: I really like this saying of Jon's – it's very vivid and to the point! Ah, besides that, I've got a wooden mouse, too! (I'm kidding, of course). Well, jokes aside, I can say that I find the work of young artists quite interesting: many of them are rather advanced in the technical aspect, and there are even some real “wizards” of graphic design among them. I'm glad to see this movement progressing, but in this avalanche of artwork, I'd like to observe a greater number of works conveying deep thoughts, rather than some of the horrifying things that now tend to prevail for some reason… It's actually not necessary to develop certain “shock tactics” – there are concise artistic solutions and images that can convey a lot! As to my own humble design art – well, I'm probably a “pop guy” in part, and my cover artwork can be regarded as “kitsch”. Indeed, it is somewhat overloaded and a bit too busy… I always feel short of space on the monitor screen, and I want to place as much detail as possible there. I'm aware of all that, but I can't help doing so – that's my “oversaturated” nature!

OP: Ed, just keep it up! And pleas, unveil the secret of what it's going to be like – what kind of projects are you currently working on?

EU: I've just finalized the big task of the cover art (for both the standard and DigiPack editions) for the album “Artificial” by Australian band Unitopia. Also, another album by this wonderful team, “Covered Mirrors”, is coming soon: it features very original cover versions of well-known rock compositions. Besides that, I'm currently working on designs for the new works by such bands as Apple Pie (Russia), La Tulipe Noire (Greece), and other projects (some of them are for the teams I've already cooperated with before). But these are “secrets” that do not belong to me only – in due time, they will all be disclosed in the news, including my web pages.

OP: Well, thank you so much for this excursion round your “art lands”! Ed, we wish you prosperity and further creative development accompanied by the world's most beautiful music!

EU: Thank you for your attention to my art… Wishing you a nice progressive day!

Thanks to Alexandra Ischenko for translating this article, and to Raffaella Berry for editing it.

OP=Olga Potekhina, June 21, 2010

Related Links:

Ed Unitsky

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