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Meet East Los Angeles Visual Storyteller: Justin Kohout

Today we’d like to introduce you to Justin Kohout.

Justin, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
You could say I was a creative kid from the get-go. My propensity for combining things and/or making them bigger is undeniable even then. I remember regular Clue wasn’t good enough, so I created Super Clue. I bought a big poster board and drew up a huge mansion containing every kind of room I could think of, as well as enough suspects and weapons to fill a deck of cards. Was it Lady Turquoise with the Fireplace Poker in the Wine Cellar? It took all afternoon to find out for sure… My mother recalls fondly the time I came home from some early, early grade with a water-colored undersea environment chock full of recognizable squids, eels, and fish, and enrolled me immediately in private art classes. I enjoyed these immensely.

My childhood memories are full of little successes. Considered unusually bright at an early age, I spent a lot of time in elementary school in “gifted” classes. In one of these classes in particular, in which the day would start with everyone doing some kind of logic or crossword puzzle, we were given the opportunity to design our own currency. After it was put to a vote, it wasn’t long before successful puzzlers were earning [fake] cash with my design on it. Loved that class.

Although I was often praised for my artistic and creative writing abilities, as I grew older I began to doubt the validity of either skill as a reliable profession. My first two years at UW-Madison were spent trying out everything from programming and poli-sci to theater and advertising before deciding that what I actually wanted to pursue was architecture. But by the end of my first year of architecture school at IIT, I was exhausted, terrified of power saws, and nearly broke. After a short, miserable transfer to the more affordable UIC, I ultimately found myself leaving and living in my father’s basement, wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life.

Walking through the halls of the community college I’d now found myself attending, I was drawn to some digitally-created art on the walls. Seeing me scoping out the work from his office, one of the professors encouraged me to sign up for the “Advertising, Illustration and Design” major, basically a precursor to Graphic Design, and I did. I fell in love with Adobe Illustrator almost immediately (everyone learns the pen tool at their own pace), and about 2 years later, that same professor awarded me an honorable mention for both design and advertising on my associate portfolio.

I finished my bachelor’s degree at the Illinois Institute of Art – Schaumburg and was mostly doing freelance design work for friends in the electronic music scene before I landed a job at Ty Inc., the makers of Beanie Babies. Ty was launching their Beanie Babies 2.0 project, where purchased plush toys could be turned into digital avatars with a world of their own. In Beanieland, users had digital animals to feed and you could play games with them, decorate their homes, and that sort of thing. At Ty I got a lot of practice digitally illustrating in both Illustrator and Flash, as the job required multiple vector assets–and it was fun too! I had a lot of creative freedom to explore what a Beanieland food court might look like or what furniture for a giraffe or a rabbit might look like. And in my free time, I explored what a cross between a giraffe and a rabbit might look like. The Girabbit is one of many creatures in my series, the Mutant Zoo (or MuZoo), which combines two animals into a new, bizarre animal.

Eventually, Beanies 2.0 was no more, and I found myself at a company creating a cartoon avatar widget, where I was solely responsible for creating hundreds of face and hair assets for both genders. It was this, combined with my newfound obsession with RuPaul’s Drag Race, that led me down a path I’d never expected. Season 4 of Drag race had just begun, and one day, on a whim, I decided to do a Disney villain/drag queen mashup of Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent and eventual winner Sharon Needles. I’d been on Deviant Art for about a year by the time I posted Sharon as Maleficent and was excited to see my art win a “Daily Deviation” there shortly after the post. The popularity of the post (due to the rising popularity of the show) was exhilarating, and Manila Luzon as Cruella De Vil, Latrice Royale as Ursula, and Raven as the Evil Queen soon followed. Tumblr was pretty new then, but I put my art up there, in addition to Deviant Art, and I was just wrapping up Chad Michaels as Lady Tremaine when I noticed Manila Luzon’s post on Facebook, declaring her joy that my fan-art of her (and the others) had been featured on, not to mention several other queer news sources. If this wasn’t a sign to keep going, I’m not sure what is, and in fact, I still do, most recently creating a group shot of the queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars 2. My most notable drag art is probably “Snatch Game Allstars” which has been consistently shared and reshared every year the challenge airs on the show for a few years now.

When I first started creating the Disney Is A Drag series, I was also attempting to run a small restaurant called Rewster’s Cafe with my partner, Tom Cirnigliaro, whom I married there in 2011. When Rewster’s closed in 2012, I was contracting with Riverside Publishing, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, where I illustrated test questions used for the Iowa Test and other state tests around the country. By my 4th year of contracting for HMH, I was deeply depressed by my situation. Although my stellar efforts at HMH saved me from layoffs, they did not earn me a full-time job, something my hard-work-pays-off mentality could not comprehend. The lack of artwork needed at HMH during the summer of 2014 gave me a lot of time to draw at home while I looked for something full time. Vectors, vectors, night and day. and I remember thinking, usually around 3 am, wouldn’t it be great if I could just somehow do what I wanted to do all the time?

I was getting discouraged by the job hunt when I finally decided to broaden my search beyond Chicago. I decided I’d only look for what I really wanted to do: vector art.

Turns out most of those jobs are in California, and the first job posting I came across was NationBuilder in downtown Los Angeles. To be honest, at first I wasn’t exactly sure what it was NationBuilder even did, but they were looking for a visual storyteller passionate about vectors and they offered relo. I tweeted my application and from that moment on things just kind of lined up, in a way I’ve never experienced before in my life. In a way, I can’t really explain. In a way that’s made me feel like for one reason or another, it’s meant to be. Even in spite of the snag, I hit early into the position.

NationBuilder is software for leaders; an internet technology that offers customers the tools for growing a community and leading them to action, and I was tasked with creating a visual for the website explaining how, with the community, you can create something bigger than you can create alone. Though the goal was to encapsulate this idea into the real estate of a website panel, digestible at a glance for the masses, in my mind it was something bigger. It was a story. At one point it was a flip book verging on an animation. I just couldn’t fit it in the box–so to speak.

But the beautiful thing is that instead of being fired, I was given the freedom and opportunity to create whatever it was that I needed to create. That thing has evolved from a flip-book to a comic book, to it’s current state: a graphic novel, called “Robots Don’t Dance”, a story of a girl named Martha who is discouraged from following her dreams of dancing in favor of becoming a robot and working in The Factory like her mother. Although this project is still in progress, this brings us to where I am today, living the dream in California, currently writing and illustrating a book (among other things) and I look forward to sharing it with the world.

Has it been a smooth road? What were the challenges?
Doubting the validity of art as a career, my long path through college, struggles with contract work and running a restaurant, as well as the work failure-turned-graphic-novel, were all notable obstacles.

What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
To be honest, my proudest moment is in the future, when the aforementioned graphic novel is complete and released, however, my current proudest moment is probably the moment I discovered @rupaulofficial on Instagram using the art I’d created of her and Michelle Visage to promote her single NYC Beat. Although I have never been contacted by RuPaul and I have no idea if he actually runs his own Instagram, I like to believe this post still validates he’s seen my work and liked it enough to share it with his followers.

I think I am most proud of this moment because there was many a moment prior to the creation of this piece in which I questioned what I was doing. I mean, spending all of your free time drawing drag queens is unquestionably an eccentric hobby. There was one turning point I recall in particular in which I’d just wrapped up a caricature series, (later coined the “All T All Shade Season 6 Caricatures” by Drag Official: and for one reason or another, it just didn’t feel like a success. I was growing tired of a lot of things in my life; work was dry, winter was long, Drag Race season was over and maybe I should be moving on to other subject matter. But I remember right about this time coming across a horoscope message that was something along the lines of: “You may feel a sense of defeat, or question your way, but whatever you do, don’t you dare stop doing the thing that makes you unique.” Say what you want about horoscopes, but that’s just good advice, and this particular advice at this particular time resonated with me. Ultimately, I stuck with it, and decided to explore a more geometric style, the first being “Jiggly Jubilee”and hung around for most of season 7.

Every story has ups and downs. What were some of the downs others might not be aware of?
I’m no stranger to layoffs. My employment with Ty ended in April 2009, just as the recession was setting in and plush toy budgets across America was shrinking. Later, having proven myself during the three-month grace period, I enjoyed one month of official employment at GameTheory before I was laid off due to the company relocating to San Francisco. I started to get a sixth sense about these things, and, sure enough, those impromptu all-staff meetings at HMH & NationBuilder turned out to be exactly as suspected–the catch with these two being that I was able to stay. Nevertheless, the “art department’s the first to go when things are tight” narrative has been loud and clear for most of my career.

In addition to, and in the middle of all of the above, was the year and a half of being a co-owner of Rewster’s Cafe with (husband) Thomas Cirnigliaro and close friend Heather Christie. A true start-up at an unlikely time, Rewster’s Cafe opened in January 2011 in Chicago’s Logan Square, on a modest investment from its owners, a whole lot of used restaurant equipment off of Craigslist, and secret weapon (and good friend) chef Frederick Zahm (his grilled cheese is epic). The era of Rewster’s Cafe is a long story full of good friends, chef’s dinners, music nights, community events, art shows, and even a homemade koi pond, but the point is, it was also a struggle. Myself, the 3 mentioned above, and our handy friend Jason Simon, did everything ourselves. Everything. The list of things that everything covers is too long to even begin. The cafe sold coffee and was open by 6:00 am and closed at 10:00pm, which means we were shopping for groceries at 5 and putting chairs up at 11. We were open Monday through Sunday and every dime we made went back into the cafe. Eventually, we were able to hire additional help, but it was exhausting, and heartbreaking–had to pass on a summertime family trip to Europe planned for my dad’s 60th birthday–and, yes, a struggle. I created the menu’s, logo, and other branded items at Rewster’s, but my job, for the most part, was dishwashing. In a nutshell, I’ll never regret not doing it, and I have a true respect for those who do it, but when the doors closed in June of 2012, I was done. To be honest, I’m still not quite sure when I found the time to drag the queens in Disney…

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
I’ve been in Los Angeles just a week or two over 2 years now, and although it was never on my radar initially (when asked at my interview with NationBuilder what my hesitations were, I answered, “The city of LA”), I’ve kinda fallen in love with it. I admit that some of that love is shared with the state of California as a whole, but after spending the vast majority of my life in the Midwest, the presence of mountains and oceans, as well as the complete absence of snow, has been life-changing. Careerwise, California, by and large, IS the place for me I believe. Digital illustration work, last I was looking for it, seemed almost exclusively in California, so if someone just starting out is interested in going that route (don’t do it!) then yes, I would recommend LA–especially if they hate the cold. Is LA perfect? No. It’s expensive, expansive, and boy, the traffic! An earthquake could happen any second. What do you mean there’s no train to the airport? Personally, I don’t care. Everything is new to me in California and so far the hiking, the A+ people watching, and not being cold are enough for me to stick around for a bit. I have already encouraged others to come here. They say nobody is from LA, everyone is from somewhere else, and I haven’t found that to not be mostly true. To what degree that makes Angelinos, in general, the friendly, laid-back population they are is unclear, but I suspect the warmer degrees contribute to that state of mind to a larger one. Stay warm LA. *thumbs up*

Contact Info:

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  1. Alina White

    December 4, 2016 at 14:03

    Fiercely inspiring and real story! Moved me to laugh and cry.

  2. S. Timko

    December 4, 2016 at 17:29

    Interesting article. Great artwork.

  3. Laura

    April 27, 2017 at 20:55

    Very very talented fellow. His artwork is amazing. Nation Builder is probably very happy to have him on board.

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