Monsters aren’t scary — they’re just like humans. They get sad, they have aspirations, and they’re quirky. At least, that’s how local illustrator Daniel Davis, aka Steam Crow, sees it. The 44-year-old Peoria resident makes his living drawing endearing monster creatures for prints, books, buttons, and more, and has amassed a national fan base from appearing at conventions such as San Diego Comic-Con and at pop-up stores from Portland to Denver.
Besides founding Steam Crow, Davis started Tiny Army, a community of local artists that meets once a month each first Wednesday at various locations. You can find his art in local spots MADE, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, The Record Room, and Lulubell Toy Bodega, in addition to his site. This Saturday, September 28 and Sunday, September 29, he and his wife (and Steam Crow partner) Dawna host Keen Halloween, a Halloween event at Sano Fitness Studio in Phoenix, where patrons can check out cool art from artists around the country, as well as attend workshops on everything from costumes to decorations. Head West this November to Disneyland, where he’ll be a featured artist at the park’s WonderGround Gallery. Keep reading for Davis’ monstrous inspiration, as well as to hear five reasons why he loves living in Arizona.
What brought you to Arizona?
I’m from Spokane, Washington. I was in a creative rut and had friends who were artists but who weren’t necessarily good for me. I had a job opportunity to move to Arizona. I didn’t really want to live here, but I needed to get out of my comfort zone. Also, my wife Dawna’s family lives in Tucson. We moved in 2004.
How did Steam Crow come together?
We moved here and thought it was a terrible mistake. It was July and 117 (degrees). We had a massive commute. We decided to go to San Diego Comic-Con for fun. We went and had a great time meeting all these independent creators, which was really interesting, because we’d meet artists from Pixar, and they’d be like, “Oh, that’s just my day job. This is what I’m passionate about,” and they’d show you their book.
Then thought, well, maybe I don’t want to work at Pixar and should just skip that, since they were trying to skip that, too. My wife Dawna told me I could be one of the booths at San Diego Comic-Con, too, which is a huge gift she gave me.
I stopped playing video games and watching TV and doing freelance, and invested all my free time into our creation. A year later, we had a book, Caught Creatures, we went to San Diego Comic-Con, WonderCon, the Phoenix Comicon and started making fans. Our very first show, WonderCon, somebody said, “This is my favorite thing here.” That blew my mind.
What’s your first memory of being interested in art?
I always loved to draw monsters, probably from watching Godzilla movies. I was also interested in Dungeons and Dragons and loved Halloween. I love these things that aren’t normal. These monsters are kind of defective people in a way, and I feel like I’m kind of weird in my own way, and that uniqueness is what makes people feel special.
How do you characterize monsters?
The monsters I like to make don’t want to destroy humanity. They’re like invisible friends. They have fangs and horns, but sometimes they’re emotional and sad about their situation. Sometimes they’re happy. Sometimes they’re broken.
What inspires your stories?
Sometimes it comes from what the creatures look like. A lot of it is about being a kid. Being a kid is a really magical thing, and I try to preserve that “kid-ness” in myself as much as I can. I feel like kids hurrying up to be adults are going to miss out on a lot of great experiences.
How can adults keep that sense of being a kid alive?
Laughing. Trying new things. Making things. I think kids are really vessels for creativity and invention, and I feel like we become afraid to take those risks as we get older.
Do you have to do anything special to get into the creative zone?
I will try to get inspired sometimes, but it’s just a huge waste of time. I just need to pick up a pencil and start drawing, and then it starts. It’s not like I look at Pinterest for inspiration — I’d spend four hours doing that, and then be right where I started.
What will Keen Halloween be like?
It’s us getting together our favorite local and out-of-town creative artists that share their goods and art in our Monster Market, and then helping people get more out of their Halloween. We have workshops for Halloween crafts and makeup, and we have entertainment like The Mission Creeps, a goth-y, surf-y band that’s going to headline on Saturday. We fill Keen Halloween with as much good stuff as possible.
How did you come up with the name Steam Crow?
Here’s a little lesson for people starting their own brands. Our brand was called “Secret Creatures” when we first started, and I thought that was a great name, the url was available, and it fit everything we were building. We were about to send the first book to press, and we got a cease and desist from the lady who had a trademark for “secret creatures.”
The first thing I should have done is a trademark search, but we hadn’t. She offered to sell me the name for 10 grand, but we said no thank you. I thought about the stories I had in my head and the characters, and one was this mechanical scarecrow — a steam crow — that I always loved. It was a weird name, and I liked that. It turned out to be a great thing.
What are your goals?
Initially, it was to work for Steam Crow full-time, and I achieved that two years ago. The next goal is for Dawna to work for us full-time. I don’t want to get giant or be in Target, but some day, it might be really cool to have a commercial workshop where we make things, teach classes, and have a little retail space. That’s our dream.
Would you really say no to Target if they offered to carry your stuff?
I don’t know. Getting your stuff into Target makes it less special. I’m not motivated by money. Being millionaires is not our end goal. My goal is to make our patrons into a cult who really believe in what we’re doing. We don’t want to get into every store because we’re the best salespeople of our stuff — our passion is tough to duplicate. We’re building Steam Crow as a long-term brand/art project. Opportunities that shorten our half-life for quick cash aren’t that appealing to us.
For people who are interested in becoming professional artists or business owners, what advice would you have for them?
Don’t wait for everything to be perfect in your life to start. Learn from the situation you’re in now. If you have a job, learn from the different people you work with. Learn from the accountant, talk to the advertising manager if you have one.
You have to be willing to make sacrifices. You’ve got to be willing to give up consuming media to make media. You have to be willing to work harder than all of the people around you. Some people want to rely on their talent, but that’s not enough. You have to make running the business an important part of what you do, and you can’t have someone else do that for you. For me, the better I can get at the business side, the more time I can spend doing art.
What are the biggest benefits of opening up your own business?
For the first time, I’ve been truly proud of what I do. I’ve had design jobs for almost 20 years, but I was never that proud about what I was creating. I never really used my creative skill. Now, I’m really pushed to my limit and challenged on all fronts. Be as creative as you can, and also be creative about how you approach the business. To me, the job satisfaction is a million things higher than ever before.
Why would you tell people they should check out your art?
My job in life is to try to make people happy. Also, we find that some of what we do is inspiring other people. We have a print I’m really proud of called “Create Be Interesting,” and it’s a scarecrow encouraging people to get involved in their lives and not wait for something. I want to encourage people to find some creativity in their lives, too.
Another print I have is, “Invent Tomorrow Today.” There is no “right time”. If you want something, you have to identify it, and go after it. I waited a very long time — I should have started a decade earlier.
Do you have a favorite character you’ve created?
Really, the last character that I made is the one I’m really in love with until I make another one. I’m very invested in what I’m doing right now.
Who are your favorite local artists?
We have a ton of great artists in our local scene. I’m into Mike Maas, Madame M, Landon Armstrong, Rachel Bess, Jason Gonzalez (Gonzo), Sebastien Millon, Eric Torres, Jon Arvizu, Ben Glendenning, Tony Parker, Ryan Quackenbush, Jerry Salinas — there are a lot of great folks here in Arizona. I can’t even begin to name them all.
How did Tiny Army start?
We wanted to be able to meet other creative folks, so we started Tiny Army, where local creatives can talk about different projects, share information, and help each other out. We have guest speakers who talk about anything from using Photoshop, to pricing your art, to what to expect from comic book conventions — a lot of different aspects on how to be more successful as a creative. It’s casual, it’s friendly, it’s free, there’s no membership, it’s open.