Heard of Jason Seiler?

If not, then it’s highly likely you have at least seen his work. He is the 36-year-old Chicago man behind the cover of the latest issue of Time. He devoted 70 hours to a digitally created illustration of Pope Francis, the magazine’s Person of the Year for 2013.

To top it off, Time profiled Jason and his journey in illustrating the Pope.

Jason Seiler and Time coverBut Jason is hardly new to the scene, having illustrated everyone from Donald Trump to Kanye West for publications like Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, MAD magazine….oh, just check out his bio, why don’t you?

Jason, who studied fine art illustration at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, now resides in the Windy City with his two daughters, Isabeau (10 years old) and Ava (7). He graciously agreed to this interview with the American Mustache Institute in the midst of a media blizzard that has descended on him in the wake of the Time cover. 

Q: Jason, congratulations on having your work appear on the cover of Time. While it pales in comparison to this publicity you will command via the hallowed American Mustache Institute, how has this latest effort affected your life so far?

A: It’s actually been a little bit insane, sort of surreal, to be honest. When I was working on my painting, I didn’t realize it was going to have such an impact.  I never thought of this Pope painting any differently than any other painting I’ve done—I was just trying to do the best job I can. I think I’m in a little bit of shock about it. The only negative is I have a lot of work to do and with all the interviews I’ve been doing with the media, I haven’t gotten as much work done.

Q: When did you get the Time gig? What kind of code of secrecy did you have to swear to about the fact that he was Person of the Year?

A: It was a couple of weeks before it came out. I knew I was doing a cover for Timemagazine, but I didn’t know it was going to be for Person of the Year. The magazine first commissioned me to paint (NSA whistleblower Edward) Snowden. I was super-excited about that. Then, to be able to illustrate my first cover for Time magazine—that’s been a goal of mine. At the time, I had so much going on—I was at a conference in Las Vegas and was meeting with some guys from Pixar and the common sense part of me said, ‘No, I should not take on another cover.’ But how can you turn down a cover from Time?  I started sketching the Pope in my hotel room in Vegas. I got home on a Tuesday night and finished a painting for Texas Monthly that night, then got up and pretty much worked non-stop for the next two or three days on the Pope.

Q: Before you got the commission to illustrate him, what did you think of Pope Francis?

A: I’m not religious. But Pope Francis actually did get my attention. I thought he seemed to be really cool, really genuine, and seems to really care about people.  I understand that’s what a Pope should be like and he seems to be all that and more. There’s something about him that’s really awesome and I really wanted to put that into the painting. It made my job easier because I’ve done a few paintings of the last Pope (Benedict XVI) and, to me, he always looked like the evil emperor from Star Wars.

Q: What aspects of Pope Francis’s character did you want to emphasize in your portrait?

A: It’s all about capturing a certain feeling of his character; that is the biggest challenge. Of all the good references that I had of him, he had his mouth open and that wasn’t going to translate well for the drawing. I had to figure out how to do it with his mouth closed and by doing that, I had to re-work his chin structure. Same with the eyes—his eyes in my references were looking in a different direction, so his eyes in my painting are sort of made up as well.  I wanted this to be a realistic portrait, almost something like Norman Rockwell would do, very epic and kind of iconic. The top part of the painting is glowing more, and the bottom is more into the shadows, which brings more attention to his face.

Q: You took 70 hours to create the masterpiece of the Pope. That’s about 69.9 hours longer than it would take a magazine intern to upload a photograph of the Pope and call it a day. Clearly, there is a difference—but it may not be clear to some people. Please explain or, if you prefer, pontificate.

A: There’s a huge difference. I can create an image that’s not out there, that you can’t create just by taking a picture. I can use textures, brush strokes and drops, all sorts of different things that you can’t do with a photograph unless you do some weird tricks. The expression that I create is not captured from a camera; it’s captured from my mind. I have more control over the character and personality than a photographer would have.

Q: Your biography notes that you got your start after getting in trouble for drawing parodies of your high school history teacher. From there, it appears you had one cool school principal who turned this into something that helped point you along this artistic path. How did that play out?

A: I would draw on my homework, too. My dad is an artist as well and he’d get really upset with me when he found out I was drawing on my homework. I used to get grounded for that kind of thing. Anyway, the turning point happened when I was a junior in high school (in Eau Claire, Wisconsin). I was drawing my history teacher and he was really not happy with it. He grabbed me by my sideburn, which really hurt, and dragged me out of my chair.  He took me to the principal’s office and said, ‘Mr. Seiler drew me again.’ The principal said, ‘You can be dismissed and I’ll handle Mr. Seiler.’ When he left, she just died laughing. She asked if she could keep the drawing and said there were nine teachers retiring and asked if I would be interested in doing a drawing of those teachers for a party. She asked me how much I would charge and I said, ‘Twenty dollars apiece.’ That was my first commission and that got me going. I realized, ‘You can do this and make money at it!’

Q: How old were you when you first sprouted a mustache and what kind of support or opposition did you encounter at that time?

A: I never really grew a mustache until maybe about a year ago. I’ve always wanted to grow a beard but I can’t. But my mustache grows insanely fast and it’s dark. Last year I was invited to go on a mustache bar crawl. I thought, ‘Why not? If I’m going to grow a mustache, I’m going to grow a real mustache.’ I really liked it, but then I thought that my girlfriend didn’t like it, plus I think I wasn’t quite comfortable with it yet, so I ended up shaving it off. Then people would tell me, ‘Oh, man, you got rid of the mustache, that was so cool.’ I’m kind of ‘old timey’ in the way I dress, so it completes my image. Since June it’s been back. Most people seem to really like it. The best part is, kids give the funniest looks. And my girlfriend and daughters love it. At first they thought it was funny and looked goofy and then, after I shaved it, they said to grow it back.

Q: Can you speak to any parallels between mastering art’s fundamentals that you learned at the American Academy of Art before going digital and the process of growing a standard ‘stache before venturing into handlebar territory?

A: I guess it’s about having a foundation first, and then going from there. For example, I never would have grown a mustache without handlebars. It wouldn’t be me. So having the basics down really serves a higher purpose.

Q: Who were, or are, the great American mustache-wearing inspirations in your life?

A: I really like the actors from the 1920s and ‘30s. And you’ve got to love the mustaches in Tombstone. And I have a friend, Aaron Olson, who has a really awesome mustache and helped inspire me to just go for it. His mustache is very much similar to mine, and he has quite the curls happening.

Q: Do you see your mustache as a piece of art?

A: Yeah, I guess so. I’m covered in tattoos as well. When I first got tattoos, artistically it didn’t look right to me and I ended up getting more tatted up to be more symmetrical or in some cases asymmetrical. Same goes with the mustache. I wouldn’t just grow any old mustache. It’s got to fit my aesthetic, my style.

Q: As you are acutely aware, the office of the President of the United States has been bereft of mustached men since William Howard Taft was rocking facial hair not unlike your own in 1913, exactly a century ago. The American Mustache Institute has been lobbying vigorously for President Obama to grow a ‘stache, or at least to flash a soul patch after a long weekend carousing with Michelle, for crying out loud. Anyhow, we hold little hope on that front. Against that discouraging backdrop, in 2016, would you be prepared, if called upon, to accept the AMI’s endorsement of you as a Presidential candidate?

A: (Laughs). Sure, why not? I could totally take care of all of this mess.

Matt Baron, AMI Correspondent, grew his first mustache as a high school junior, though nobody else realized it at the time. His occasional mustache-and-mutton chop combo have prompted some to mistake him for an Irish mob enforcer.