For people who are not yet familiar with your work, who is Otto Dettmer?
I prefer to be known as ottoGraphic, or simply Otto. It works as a palindrome, and has graphic potential.
How did you get into illustration and screen printing? What are the milestones of your journey?
I wanted to have some kind of artistic study after school, so I enrolled for Communication sciences in Berlin, which was the only course I was accepted for. It turned out to be far too theoretical and less about design, so I left after a year and did an art foundation course in Stuttgart. While on a drawing holiday in Cornwall, I passed by Bristol Polytechnic and was lucky to be accepted for a degree course in design/illustration. The man who was very kind and got me the place was called Derek Crow. Sadly he died that same summer, so I never saw him again. The course finished in 1991 and I immediately started working as a freelance illustrator with limited success. Some years later I enrolled for an MA in Illustration at Kingston University, hoping that it would increase my chances of getting illustration work. My tutor, Brian Love suggested I use screen printing and put a book together to present a series of illustrations. That’s how I got into making books. The screen printing method also started to inform my illustration work, which at that time became digital. Subsequently I made hundreds if not thousands of illustrations for newspapers and magazines during the late nineties and well into this century. Now I make very little as the industry has been declining and I have become too busy making books.
Tell us a bit about your interests and inner necessities. What is inspiring you right now, and how do you emulate it through your current work?
I usually make work about issues that interest me, or my experiences, journeys, adventures. I am not sure if it is an inner necessity, but I would rather say it’s my job. Being an artist is the only way I know how to make something for a living. It’s either that or filling shelves at Morrisons. I lead a fairly adventurous life spending a lot of time on boats and on journeys, so I usually have subject matter to make work about.
How would you define the connecting thread or underlying ethos that ties together your work?
I believe it is important not to make work for selling. I keep art and business strictly separate. So I make work that I really want to make and I do it as good as possible. After it is finished I put on a different hat and think about marketing it. Quite often it turns out that other people find it interesting as well, and are prepared to pay a little for it. But not always of course, so I just have to make a lot of books to turn the odds in my favour.
What would you like a viewer to walk away with from your work?
I personally buy books or prints that I find fascinating because of their elegance or otherwise successful solution. Usually it’s something I couldn’t do myself, or I hadn’t thought of myself. I assume that’s why other people would want to buy my work.
You also give talks, run workshops and write. What motivated you to become an educator and what do you aim to equip your students, audiences and readers with?
I am too impatient to be an educator. I only do talks or workshops, if I need to promote my books, or as a favour to friends. Similar with writing, I only do it as a necessity, to support my images. I have collaborated with writers, but that takes time and can be complicated.
Do you feel any ethical responsibility as an artist?
The only ethical responsibility I know of is to be authentic and truthful, so I make narratives that I believe in or that have actually happened. Those can be responses of the imagination as well as physical facts. I use fictional devices in my storytelling only to form coherent narratives. To some degree the same applies to commercial illustration, but of course the financial reward is also a motivation.
What is more important to you, having strong beliefs or deconstructing them?
I try not to have any beliefs. I see myself more as an observer and a scientist.
Do you see any dangers for artistic freedom?
Artistic freedom is unlimited, that’s why I like it. Distributing the work is another matter of course, and if it upsets other people they might try to stop the artist. In my experience I haven’t felt the need to make work that offends anybody (yet), so it hasn’t come up as a problem. Also I wouldn’t consider my books as political, I see my role more in sharing experiences and entertaining.
What are three questions you don't have an answer for?
Apart from how to make screen prints I don’t really have an answer for anything.
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future? How do you see yourself evolving as an artist?
The way I see it, being an artist is not really a career with a plan. The causality is the other way around: I don’t have a direction for the art, I want the art to show me the direction. Having said that, to become a successful publisher of screen printed picture books would be nice.
And finally, can you recommend us:
A book: I find books on science most inspiring, like Chaos theory or Quantum physics. Can’t remember what they are called.
A song: Latin music demonstrates how the layering of complex rhythms forms a convincing unit. In that respect it is similar to screen printing.
A film: films by Werner Herzog have been very influential for me.
Thank you, Otto for the lovely company and inspiring conversation.