The ‘Dark Arts’ of SF Art Duo: Ransom and Mitchell
The “Artist You Should Know” series highlights Bay Area artists who are doing incredible work, it’s our way of supporting the creative community and helping to keep San Francisco a strange and wonderful place.
There is surrealism and a dark edge, to the art this duo makes. Their subjects often appear as mythical characters, suspended, grasping, transforming, even murdering at times. Ransom and Mitchell blend several mediums and techniques, from encaustic painting to digital art and photography, with a dose of the ‘dark arts’ mixed in too. The results are modern, gothic, potions that often feel both ‘movie quality’ and horror ready. Starting with real-life subjects, their portraiture is then gradually transformed into the paranormal, fantastical, creations you’ll enjoy below.
Meet the San Francisco artist team Ransom & Mitchell, Artists you should know:
Artist Name: Stacey Ransom
Artist Name: Jason Mitchell
Medium(s): Photography, CG, Digital Art, Encaustic, Sculpture
How do you guys team up to make portraiture? Who does what?
Jason Mitchell: We are fortunate to have skill sets and interests that are quite complimentary through the range of creating a project. We started off in photography where I would handle the camerawork, lighting, and interfacing with talent. Around 2014, Stacey started working in CG with Zbrush to sculpt additional sets and props that were way too difficult and costly to build in real life. Then I began working in Maya to create more robust architectural spaces and complex lighting design. The pandemic in some ways pushed us into adopting digital humans and all that goes with that, opening up more surreal options for our subjects as we did with “Love, Death.”
Stacey Ransom: In pre-production, I do the initial sketches that help focus our agreed upon concepts. We BOTH have to be on board with an idea for it to even make it this far. After we have the idea worked out, if it’s a photo-driven concept, I will lead the set and color design, as well as art directing the hair & make-up artists, and the wardrobe stylists.
In post-production (and sometimes on-set), Jason and I will do rough processing and compositions to make sure we are capturing everything we need. If there is CG work, Jason works in Maya to build the compositions, I focus on Zbrush which is more appropriate for creating decor and props, and we both use additional CG programs like Character Creator (modeling custom humans), Marvelous Designer (design and ”sew” CG clothing), and Substance Painter and Designer (customized texturing, and painting). I handle the final retouching and compositing in photoshop, and then it goes back to Jason for printing.
Who has the most ‘dark influence’ on this team? Like who was the goth kid, who’s going to DeathGuild at Dna Lounge, and watching obscure foreign horror films?
Jason Mitchell: Well, I definitely was rep’ing the long hair with the undercut, multiple earrings, black fingernails, black leather jacket, and dark clothes growing up … a punk/goth vibe. I lived outside of Boston for high school, and there was a decent alternative scene with a great alternative radio station WFNX playing deep cuts. The Navy experience washed a bit of that away, but I’ve been returning to it more. I think we both bonded over art films (our second “date” was at the Lumiere). And the band Soul Coughing plays a major role in how we met. (SC unfortunately broke up soon after.)
Stacey Ransom: Wait, doesn’t everyone enjoy getting high and listening to ‘classical’ music like Joy Division, Black Sabbath, Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Pink Floyd. I have always LOVED horror! I adore schlocky B-movie monstah films. I am a stan of David Lynch, Stanley Kuberick, David Cronenberg, Ingmar Bergman, and Federico Fellini. I read a LOT, and my favorite genre is “weird,” a combo of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. The more fucked-up and surreal, the better! I read a lot of graphic novels, because they are gorgeously crafted, and they often push social norms far more than other popcorn media.
When did you arrive in San Francisco?
Jason Mitchell: I moved here in January of 1999 after a 7-year stint in the Navy as a broadcast journalist in Japan and Alaska to finish off my degree studying photography at San Francisco State University. SF was my landing spot to restart and build my next life, and State had a good photography program. I had often visited friends who had moved here in the ‘90s and fell in love with it. While I was moving from Tokyo, my mom who had grown up in Marin was back living in Sonoma. It was easier to bounce off of her and into the city while waiting for school to start in the fall. Being 1999, the dotcom craze sidetracked those plans for a couple years, but I did eventually finish my degree in cinema at SFSU.
Stacey Ransom: I moved to SF in mid ’99 to take a job as the VP of Creative at VIA, a branding firm based in Portland, ME. They’d set up an SF office with a focus on the burgeoning tech industry. It was an exuberant, vibrant time to be working in San Francisco, and I have such gratitude to VIA for bringing me here. I have lived all over our nation, and feel that San Francisco is the most GLORIOUS place to be. I heart SF so hard.
What was your first job in San Francisco?
Jason Mitchell: Page editor for ANG Newspapers (for a month) and weekend board operator for Alice Radio. I quickly left ANG (the hours and commute to Pleasanton were not socially kind, having to race to catch the midnight BART back to SF only to find the all bars had already closed) for a job at a streaming media tech company downtown to build out and manage their live production studios, all three jobs were building on skills I had honed in the Navy.
I’m a sophisticated graduate with a BFA or FUCK art school!
Jason Mitchell: It’s a mixture of weird training, really. Whomever drew my life path was fucking hammered. I had two passions in high school: acting and photography (with a little bit of radio). I chose acting and went to Carnegie Mellon for a year before I had to leave for a number of reasons (financial, familial, etc.). I landed in the Navy with a year-long print and broadcast journalism program which put me back in the visual creation realm. That really honed my scrappy skills as you had to get shit done with the resources on hand and little help. And then I was able to use the GI Bill to fund my return to finish a degree.
By the time I had to pick a major at SFSU, I had been working more in cinema, and switched into that department for a BA. Through exploring what I could do further with cinematography, I was led back to photography, now creating with Stacey on a whole new level. These days, online training — formal and youtube tutorials — is definitely how I’m continuing to expand my creative muscles. The leading edge of digital media is moving so quickly that it takes a community to help connect the dots.
Stacey Ransom: Ha! I am a fancy pants with a BFA in photography from Columbus College of Art & Design. That said, I am self-taught on every single digital program I use. I am dating myself here (gulp) – I am an ORIGINAL Photoshop 1.0 user! Back then there wasn’t youtube, one had to read the brick-thick manuals. Such a slog! We are all very lucky that now there’s a slew of highly-informative online tutorial content available 24/7.
As for set building and prop making, some of the IRL things I craft to create our works, I learned by mentorship. In the early aughts after the dotcom crash, I was floundering. I’d spent a decade plus working for the man; I was disillusioned and very unfulfilled. A friend pointed out my art direction experience in fashion and sports photography would translate to the set and costume departments on film shoots. I volunteered on a few feature films and learned “trial by fire.” My friend was right, it was amazing to work on larger film productions. Similar to photography – just MORE. Jason and I worked on a few films together and realized we were extremely like minded. That was the beginning of our artistic partnership.
What’s your most recent Ransom & Mitchell favorite project?
Jason Mitchell: We recently had a solo show at Modern Eden we called “Love, Death” that was great for us. Not only did we create work that we really enjoy, but we were able to iron out a number of workflow issues that had been bugging us integrating CG into our work. That ability to work more efficiently opened up a freedom for us to incorporate new ideas.
Stacey Ransom: I am really excited about a new series, “Coquettish,” that debuted in the “Love, Death” show. The series features images of stone females intimately entwined with metallic fauna, such as amphibians, mammals, and insects. It positions the women in flirtatious positions of power, owning and enjoying their sexuality, in a mutually fulfilling partnership.
In opposite world, I am also loving a funny new series, “Indulge,” that depicts comfort foods shaped into skulls that are occasionally held by cartoonish zombie hands. It’s joyfully grim! The most recent piece, a triple scoop of doom called, “I Scream,” debuted as a skateboard deck at Mirus Gallery in SF.
What is your favorite thing to shoot and paint?
Stacey Ransom: Creepy chicks. Bass Ass creepy, sexy creepy, or WTF creepy … pick your poison.
Any SF artists you think are particularly outstanding right now?
It is impossible to narrow down the oodles of AMAZINGLY talented SF / Bay Area artists. We are deeply grateful for the hella supportive, vibrant, and proactive Bay Area artist community. We never take for granted how lucky we are to be able to create here.
What’s the coolest gallery right now?
Our work is most often viewed in galleries showing Pop Surrealism, so of course, this subgenera is our preference. We’ve really enjoyed our relationship with Modern Eden. They were one of the first to show us, and the curators Kim Larson and Bradley Platz have really been flexing their curatorial prowess. They are in a new, dynamic space and seek out surreal narrative artists from around the world.
We just participated in Skate Deck group show at Mirus SF (whose exterior wall hosts the infamous Nychos Bat) and they are going gangbusters with their new space in LA. The show openings crush since they are adjacent to Temple Nightclub.
Many other SF galleries showing Pop Surrealism we admire are Voss Gallery, Spoke Art and the upscale sister gallery, Hashimoto Contemporary, Luna Rienne Gallery, Moth Belly Gallery, an.a.log gallery, City Art Gallery, 111 Minna, Southern Exposure, and any place Irene Hernandez aka: Wonderland SF Chillin Productions has an art event in the city.
These are not quite galleries, rather they are the essence of SF. The infamous Craig Baldwin’s Artists’ Television Access hosts eccentric indie films you’ve never seen before, and the eclectic screening room is entered through the always unique, rotating window art installations. The San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection at the top of the Main San Francisco Library, draws from an extensive collection of photographs; the curation and thematic story telling is top notch since our city is nothing but rich with roiling, delicious, provocative history.
Favorite street art right now?
In the Bay Area: Lady Henze (aka: Britt Henze), Amandalynn, Apexer, Daryll Pierce, D Young V, GATS and Zoltron. First Amendment Gallery (aka 1am Gallery) is an excellent place to discover brilliant street artists.
So like, NFTs are going to the moon, y’all have made some, are you guys going to be crypto millionaires?
One thing that’s been great is that virtually anything can be made as an NFT. That they’ve also then been able to develop and support niche markets giving legitimacy to art forms that were seen as lesser or not considered art at all. This is especially true for digital artists who, up until now had been seen mostly as corporate cogs, are getting the recognition and remuneration as the fine artists they are. What started off as a collectibles market with things like crypto kitties and Bored Apes, has now been used to springboard fine art into the community. You have a flood of new collectors who take joy in collecting and supporting artists and are able to directly interact with them in a manner not seen before. As this is happening on an international level, even a small success for an artist in some places equates to them being able to pay rent and buy food for that month or even that year. And the maturation of smaller currencies and markets have made the buy-in very accessible and removes the impact on the environment through energy usage.
We’ve been releasing some of our works from our catalog up until now. And have even found a home for series and thought experiments that had no audience through galleries or other markets. A series that Jason made 10 years ago had only one piece show in a gallery, but found a collector on OpenSea who bought half of the series for a modest sum.
The idea that someone would become an instant millionaire is blind to the efforts and work the artist put in to get to that point. And those instances are not the norm, but sound great in stories.
What’s the nft making process like? Where do you do it?
That’s as easy as it is complicated. It’s probably easier to grasp if you’ve had to deal with multiple currencies from traveling between different countries. Most of your transactions happen in that other “web3” space, so you’ll need to set yourself up with the coin of the realm and a digital wallet to hold the coin and goods on those markets. That’s the most difficult part, but there are a number of guides to help walk you through. The most important part is to figure out what markets you want to be on, and then follow through with setting yourself up with the tools they require. From there on, you’re just creating (or porting over) the works you want to put out there.
Be mindful, the work you are putting out there, you may as well be nailing a jpeg to your front door. If you want to actually sell work, you’ll need to participate in the communities on twitter and discord to interact with other artists and collectors to help raise your visibility to the point where someone will take notice who would want to collect your work. Same hustle, different market, and you definitely have a leg up if you have an audience you can bring with you. But, almost everyone is starting down at the same level, and will have to climb up from there on effort and talent.
What’s coming up for you?
We’re doing our first solo fair booth at Superfine Art Fair at Fort Mason coming up from March 3-6th. We like to do installations to help frame our work and set ourselves apart, and we have a good plan for this show. We’ll be showing a couple of new pieces along with a curated selection of our work through the years. Our booth is right next to the entrance, so everyone will pass by us twice (whether they want to or not).
We’re also part of the Local Legends show at Mirus Gallery SF opening March 4th on Howard Street. That will be another banging sampling of Bay Area artists in the contemporary/pop surreal/lowbrow scene.
Last, we are working on an exquisite corpse show put together by artist Kevin Titzer where he sent out a cast sculpture to a selection of artists with carte blanche for their direction. We’ll be doing a smashup of still life and cg art (as we do).
And we’re always big fans of the ArtSpan Open Studios. Look for us in the fall and come check all of our works out.