UVD: Would you mind telling us a little background on yourselves? (i.e. where you’re from, when you started designing, etc)?
J&T: We’re Jenn and Tony Bot, the curators of cute and creators of creatures.
The two of us are graduates of NKU (Northern Kentucky University), where our studies in Media Informatics, Popular Culture, and Cinema Studies really allowed us to shape our business. Combined we have zero formal art training.
Jenn’s experience with polymer clay, however, has been that of a long affair. She created her first miniature at the age of 8 and stuck with it until necessity allowed us to turn her hobby into a business.
Together our business model works in such that Jenn is the creator and Tony is the idea/graphics man. The two of us have been together for 12 years, which has made it very easy and relatively stress free to become business partners.
With that said, where we come from, Appalachian art rules supreme with only one local store that carries designer toys. Locally we have never met anyone who truly understands what we do and what we make. And that’s why we love doing what we do!
UVD: What attracted you to the world of designer toys and what made you start customizing?
J&T: The toy that started it all for us was a 5″ Happy Labbit, a birthday gift for Tony. Shortly after that the Dunnys, Droplets, and Vinylmation followed suit. And it has been downhill since! The collector in us would be easy to blame for our addiction to these “toys”, but the reality is we love them because we love art. Designer toys are fun, affordable, and break the stuffy stereotype that so often clouds people’s opinion on what art should and should not be.
In terms of customizing, we never intended to become customizers in the sense that we have. Initially, when we customized our first toy (a Droplet), we were just experimenting and really pushing the boundaries of what we could do with polymer clay. We were tired of working on miniatures and wanted another creative outlet that served as more of a hobby. Ironically enough, the first custom we ever saw in person was at a show hosted by Urban Vinyl Daily in Cincinnati called “They Came From the Streets.”
As we continued to tinker with these toys, and become more immersed in the community, we started to reevaluate who we were as artists and our business as a whole. And thanks to a push from Dudebox and the response from custom collectors, we moved away from making miniatures and became full-time customizers.
UVD: Are there any artists that inspire you and your work?
J&T: There are so many talented artists in the scene that it would be almost impossible for us to name all of the people that inspire us. We do tend to gravitate towards cute character driven art, often remarking how amazing artists such as Gary Ham, Jeremiah Ketner, Jerrod Maruyama, A Little Stranger, and Podgy Panda are. However, in all actuality it’s very rare that we don’t draw inspiration from an artist’s work. Art is hard and we can respect and appreciate everything that is being tossed out there whether it’s from a newcomer or a veteran toy designer. We have no personal interest in being compared to anyone, but we have no issue being viewed as a part of a whole that makes the scene so incredible.
UVD: Your process is quite different from many of the customizers in the scene. Would you mind telling us what attached you to the use of polymer clay and any challenges you had to overcome with the process?
J&T: The use of polymer clay as our primary medium was a direct result of Jenn’s experience with it. She has worked with polymer clay since she was 8 and it only seemed natural to integrate it into our work. We also wanted to stand out in the scene and felt that the colors, texture and weight that the clay gives to our pieces really make them special.
The uniqueness of them has certainly come with many challenges. Even after a solid year of making customs we are constantly tweaking our process. What you see has been the result of a ton of trial and error and more than a few headaches. It’s a common occurrence that we strip a piece clean after it has been finished due to a mishap in the oven. And yet it’s always such a rewarding experience when the buyer gets their piece or someone sees our work in person for the first time and they comment on how blown away they are by it. That alone makes all the hours–or in some cases days–that go into our work worth it in the end.
UVD: Besides making custom toys what are some of your other hobbies?
J&T: We customize toys for a living and do design work on the side, as you might expect, having hobbies is not a top priority. When we have free time, however, the pop culture junkies in us take over and consume films and television series at an astonishing rate. We also have a passion for destroying each other at Mario Kart and gambling for pennies on Friday nights with the family.
UVD: Early on I see that guys had created a series of characters referred to the ‘Bots’. What was the inspiration behind these characters and are there any future plans to bring these guys back?
J&T: We constantly debate whether or not we will ever revisit the Bots. They are the project that started it all, but also the project that almost tanked us creatively.
The Bots are very personal to us and grew from several different projects we worked on in college. In fact, we had the unique chance to use the Bots in several of our project-based classes. We have made 3D renders of them in Maya and Rhino, even going as far to make an animated commercial for them. They have been the main feature of a Flash website that we built, made into puppets for a video that we made, recreated as popular culture images for a book release, and designed for a blind boxed series. And it was all fun and games until we realized we were so invested in the Bots that our judgment and creativity truly became clouded.
Ultimately we love the Bots and were very excited by the opportunities that they brought us. However, as we grew as artists, we outgrew them. We pigeonholed ourselves with the Bots and lost control of them as they all became popular culture driven. In fact, we couldn’t get our customers to buy into any creative design that wasn’t immediately recognizable. So we cut and ran, reinvented our brand, and have never looked back.
UVD: Is there any figure/Platform you have never customized that you would like to?
J&T: There are so many platforms that we have yet to touch that we would love to customize. There are also a few that we have been asked to do that we will never be able to work on due to our process. Being that everything requires a bake in the oven, and that most people don’t own industrial sized ovens, anything over a foot is simply too large for us to work on. Therefore, no matter how badly we want to work on them, toys like Paw! Raw, Mega Munnys, or Bode Broads will never be customized with our style.
With that said, there are so many toys available to customizers and more than a few that we want to work on. Currently we have ideas and sketches for Fonzo, Vinylmation, RAAAR the Dinosaur, Hello Kitty, Swanicorn, Misfortune Cat, and MAD*L. The reality is any toy we get our hands on excites us.
UVD: One of my personal favorite pieces you have created is ‘Rocket Rabbit’. What was the inspiration behind that piece and were there any unique challenges involved with that piece?
J&T: With each custom we attempt to push our creative boundaries. Rocket Rabbit came directly out of a concept we had been toying with for a while: making our pieces “fly.” The biggest challenge we faced was how to suspend our piece with an appropriate weight distribution so that it was sturdy when displayed. Likewise, we wanted to suspend it in a way that the “trick” was not visible. The two of us spend a lot of time floating ideas back and forth on a daily basis and tested several different design ideas before we hit on the best way to hold it all together. Strangely enough, the biggest struggle we had wasn’t the suspension of the Dunny, but how to make the plume of smoke look billowy.
As for the character, we have an affinity for daydreaming about the remarkable lives of animals when the humans aren’t looking. You mean you’ve never seen a rabbit fly by your window before!?
UVD: Do you have a personal favorite piece that you have done? Or is this like asking you to pick a favorite child?
J&T: This might seem like a total cop-out but it would be impossible for either of us to choose a favorite piece. We put a lot of time into the creation of every custom, and if we were to dislike it, it would simply be due to the challenges we faced while making it. Each piece is a placeholder to us to show how we continue to grow as artists. When we look back are there some that are technically more in-depth than others? Definitely. Are there ones that are cuter than others? Sure. But comparing them or favoring them is impossible. Overall we are very proud of our portfolio of art.
UVD: Are there any future projects that you wish to discuss for the reader to keep their eyes open for in the future?
J&T: Before every New Year the two of us sit down and pitch ideas and projects that we would like to accomplish. We laugh at the absurdity of some, simply because of the size and scope, and we really dig into others with the hopes of reaching our goals. The past year for us was really about establishing ourselves, making connections, and focusing on creating art that we were proud of. This year we want to continue on that path and push our comfort zone even further.
Currently our commission list is booked until June so you can expect to see a lot more custom creatures on all different types of platforms. We are also exploring the idea of a resin release for a character that we’ve had in our back pocket for a long time. And this fall we’re planning a trip to Designer Con for our first ever booth at a convention.
UVD: What would your encouragements/suggestions be for artists/designers that are either just starting out or who are trying to get themselves noticed?
J&T: When we started customizing we were so overly concerned about silly buzzwords like style, color scheme, and brand. In reality, it zapped away precious time we should have spent creating toys and sketching. We exerted way too much energy researching and didn’t devote enough time to putting things in motion.
Also, if we could go back in history and tell ourselves one thing, it would be to not be afraid to put yourself out there. The community is there to help you, not hold you back. We haven’t met a single artist or collector who wasn’t excited to help us or answer questions. The reality is, we’re working together in an art movement, not against one another.
With that said, we’ve still had our fair share of highs and lows and it’s always smart to proceed with caution and trust your gut. There are people who have wasted our time, taken advantage of us, and not followed through on promises. We view these as lessons and always walk away from these situations with some sort of personal growth. It’s bound to happen, so don’t let these people deflate your creativity.
Getting noticed was pretty easy for us thanks to the amazing community that other customizers and collectors have set up. Be diligent about sending messages to blogs when you want to share new pieces, participate on the Kidrobot boards, join the Custom Toy Union, and set up social media accounts for your art. With any luck it will naturally all fall into place. Also, don’t be afraid to collaborate with other artists, participate in any show no matter how big or small, and swap art with other customizers.
Most importantly, keep pushing and believe in what you make!
UVD: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Are there any parting words you wish to say to the reader?
J&T: There are so many people that we need to thank for their continued support and encouragement. We have made so many amazing friends since we started customizing toys and without naming names, because you all know who you are, we appreciate everything that you have done for us. Stay nerdy!
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