Joseph Vargo is a prolific gothic artist known for his distinctive paintings and haunting music with Nox Arcana. His body of work depicts a multitude of shades, including the dark, mystical and horror in an immersive manner. Throughout this conversation, we discuss his passion for the gothic culture, art and pursuit of success by following his heart no matter the obstacles.
– I’ve been drawn to the dark side my entire life. As a youth, I was fascinated by the supernatural and anything that was strange or mysterious. I was constantly drawing dragons, vampires, werewolves, gargoyles and other nightmarish creatures. I watched horror films on TV whenever I could, and those movies were my first exposure to the classics of Gothic literature.
I loved the old black and white Universal horror films, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. My interest in Edgar Allan Poe began after watching the American International films based on his stories, “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “Masque of the Red Death”. The more frightening or sinister something was, the more I was intrigued by it.
As a young adult, I felt that my love of these things was just a youthful infatuation that I should outgrow. But once I embraced my passion, I began to create my own gothic works based on my dark interests and the ideas that lurked in the shadows of my imagination. My fascination with the dark side is still very strong and has been my biggest inspiration, continually driving me to create art, music and literature that reflects my love for all things gothic.
At a later stage in his life, he decided to pursue a degree in art, however at some point of his education, he realized that what was being taught didn’t align with his interests.
– After taking several years of art classes throughout high school, I attended the Cleveland Institute of Art to pursue a career as a fantasy artist. I wanted to learn how to paint like the masters, but the instructors encouraged much freer forms of artistic expression that required no real artistic skill or discipline.
It was a disillusioning experience. I wasn’t learning anything new that could help me achieve my goal of being a fantasy artist, so rather than waste more time and money, I left halfway through my first year. I decided to teach myself by studying other artists I admired.
I dedicated several years to honing my artistic skills with different mediums until I became adept at painting with acrylics and oils. All the while, it was a labor of love to keep creating art from the shadows of my imagination. I painted dozens and dozens of paintings before I made any money at my art.
I don’t recommend this approach to everyone, but it worked very well for me. You have to possess a lot of determination to keep pushing yourself toward your goals, but if you work hard and keep your dreams in sight, eventually they will be within your grasp.
Joseph’s visual pieces have an intricate quality that invites the viewer to dig in deeper and look up for more clues about the backstory. While his art style blends folklore and occult elements, he also enriches each piece with a unique character that brings it to life.
What inspires you to weave these aspects together and add that dark twist?
– I’ve always been intrigued by the forgotten lore of the past. So many secrets lie buried in time, hidden in the shadows of history. Numerous gothic archetypes and creatures of the night are based upon legend and lore. Witches, werewolves, vampires and ghosts all have key roles in European folklore where they are usually depicted as evil supernatural entities.
Gothic literature utilizes elements of the Christian mythos as a mystical means to battle these forces darkness. Many of the concepts for my art and writing are based upon this established foundation, but I don’t always depict the forces of Light and Darkness as representations of good and evil.
I also like to incorporate symbolism such as runes, alchemical symbols, hieroglyphs and mystical alphabets in my art. I feel it adds a subliminal layer that is easily recognizable and conveys a message of mysticism, usually forming thoughts of a specific ancient culture. In some instances, the use of occult images and symbolism is purely an artistic element, but some of my paintings actually hold hidden messages that can be deciphered by those compelled to dig deeper.
Arguably one of the key ingredients in an art piece, no matter the medium is how relevant the story is and the means applied to relate it to the audience.
What makes a good story, piece of art or a motion picture in your point of view?
There are a lot of factors involved. First, the story should be unique and avoid cliches. If you are going to write a book or make a film about zombies, don’t just jump on the bandwagon and make another generic rip-off of Night of the Living Dead. Add some original elements and twists that elevate the genre.
A good story should also have compelling characters that the audience can relate to, sympathize with and root for. The characters should have smart dialog and justify their actions. A writer shouldn’t waste a lot of time with elements that distract from the mood, suspense or main story. Some authors write entire chapters of filler material that is irrelevant to the plot. Readers tend to lose interest when the plot slows to a crawl. There’s a big difference between building suspense and just spinning your wheels with unnecessary side plots.
Art direction, cinematography and action choreography are all vital elements to making a successful film as well. If a writer or director can balance all of these elements, they will achieve a successful and entertaining result.
As for myself, I strive to capture a balance between unsettling darkness, and melancholy beauty in my work. Before I begin any painting, I think of the story that I want to tell and the mood I want to evoke. Whether it’s terror, sadness, danger or lust, I want to make sure that when people look at the painting, they understand the feelings in the character’s minds.
The background setting and color scheme are important factors too. You can give an entirely different emotional feeling to a painting just by changing the color scheme. Many of my paintings have dark, twisting forms that fade into shadows, giving the impression that much more lies hidden in the darkness. If you can stimulate your viewer’s emotions, their mind will fill in what lurks in the shadows.
Having resorted to self-teaching opened a sheer number of opportunities to express his creativity, however there was another challenge drawing near – making a name in the art communities.
Back in the day fantasy art wasn’t as popular and admired as it is today, not to mention making a living out of it. Art communities were reluctant to embracing new bold ideas that challenge the old understanding. Putting on top the lack of what internet has to offer to modern artists today, how did you manage to market yourself and make a name as a gothic artist in a society that didn’t understand or accept such forms of innovation?
– I was extremely passionate about creating gothic fantasy art, so all my paintings depicted dark, supernatural themes. After a few years, I had created more than 100 paintings in my gothic style and I began sending portfolios of my work to numerous book publishers and record labels, seeking a position as a cover artist. I also approached several local galleries in the Cleveland area, seeking a gallery showing of my art. I was rejected by all of them. But each time I got a rejection letter, I used it as motivation to work harder.
I wasn’t going to let other people’s limited taste in art make me give up the dream I had worked so hard to achieve, so I decided to find ways to market my art on my own. I created my own company, Monolith Graphics, with a few hundred dollars and began selling small framed prints and t-shirts at local shops and Renaissance fairs.
I immediately found my audience with the local scene, and realized that while my art might not be for everyone, there was still a large number of people that had an appetite for the dark side. Soon after that first taste of success, I teamed up with Christine Filipak. Her skills as an artist and graphic designer complimented my skills and we started printing posters and calendars of my art, in addition to expanding our t-shirt line. We grew the business together and kept reinvesting in our company to fund new and bigger projects.
A few years later, we opened a gothic fantasy art gallery. The Realm gallery was a great experience, although it was very short-lived. I have many fond memories of what we accomplished there. Christine and I renovated the entire top floor of an old warehouse to reflect the gothic fantasy style of artwork we exhibited, creating lancet window arches, free-hanging walls and stone columns surrounded by gargoyles.
Attendance was very good among Goths and the fantasy crowd, but the gallery was never really embraced by the media or general public. Even though we exhibited the works of artists who were world-renowned, the local press in Cleveland gave us very little coverage, due to the fact that their arrogant critics still did not consider fantasy art to be fine art.
A few years after we closed the doors of The Realm, Monolith Graphics published its first book, Tales From The Dark Tower, an anthology of gothic tales written by several writers with stories based on my gothic artwork. The next year we began publishing Dark Realms Magazine to showcase emerging talents in art, music and literature.
By this time, we were selling my art on posters, t-shirts, calendars, postcards and journals through the retail chain Hot Topic, so we had an established distribution outlet to reach our audience. We also created a website for the business, Monolith Graphics and printed the website on all our merchandise to direct customers to our other products online, such as The Gothic Tarot and Madame Endora’s Fortune Cards.
We ran the magazine for eight years, and during that time we featured hundreds of artists and bands that explored the dark side with their work. It was very satisfying to be able to help like-minded artists gain exposure.
It’s amazing what you can achieve when you set your mind to a goal and work hard, no matter how many obstacles you face. I had very little money when I started down this path. All this was possible because I kept following my heart to achieve my dream.
There are a number of factors that could lead one astray from the right path and often rejection stands on the forefront. Be it false beliefs of others, lack of support or plain and simple close-mindedness. Moreover, when you add those moments of self-doubt, it becomes even harder to move on to your desired destination. In this sense, Joseph stresses on the massive importance of persistence.
– Persistence is the key to success. It might take longer than you had planned, but stay focused and keep working toward your desired goal. Listen to constructive criticism, learn from your mistakes and strive to improve your skills. When opportunity presents itself, be completely prepared to capitalize on it. But don’t just wait for opportunity, take control of your own destiny by pursuing every possible avenue that can help you attain your dreams.
Occult practices are no strangers in our community, and given the nature of his works, I asked if Joseph himself incorporates such in his life.
– For most people, the word “occult” resonates as something pagan. It is usually associated with a dark and mysterious means of communicating with the spirit world or worshipping lesser-known deities. I have many friends who practice a variety of pagan rites, but I do not practice any religious or occult activities. All the major religions were concocted long ago by simple minds that believed the Earth was flat.
Most of them convey core messages of peace and love, but many of their concepts have been corrupted over time. They all preach varying dogmas, but none of them has proven to be more effective than the others. It’s astounding to me that people who are raised with a specific religion believe that their religion is something sacred and all others are evil. Very few people research other faiths or question their own.
Although, the Gothic movement has slowly paved its way to a broader audience, especially thanks to technology’s advancement, society still doesn’t grasp the values and mindset of Goths, leading to prejudice and wrong assumptions of their lifestyle.
– I feel that the Goth community has become more confident to freely express who they are at all times. What started as a small underground movement has become a recognized culture. Technology has made a difference over the years as well. Modern social media allows like-minded souls with similar tastes and interests to easily connect with one another.
People who were taunted or shunned by the norms of society years ago can converse and meet with kindred spirits at the swipe of a finger. Goth clubs, conventions and music festivals are more popular than ever. The world is slowly becoming more diverse and accepting of things that were once deemed taboo.
Unfortunately, Goth culture is still somewhat misunderstood by the older generation. Many people feel that those who surround themselves with such a gloomy atmosphere are sad or depressed, but the truth is that they feel empowered by the darkness. We don’t dwell the shadows all of the time, but we do feel most comfortable there. The mysterious allure of the dark is irresistible to many of us.
Darkness, taken from a general point of view, has always been associated with the unknown. Human psyche is hardwired to keep one a fair amount of distance from what’s too alien or dangerous-looking as a part of our self-preservation mechanism. Still, there is an innate curiosity about death and darkness, and with eyes and heart wide open, one could see the overarching beauty on a deeper level.
– H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” I think fear evokes a primal excitement that is mentally stimulating to many people. There is always an oppressive element of danger lurking in the shadows, but there is an undeniable intrigue about things that are mysterious, unexplored and shrouded in darkness. We avoid potentially harmful situations because we instinctively fear pain and death, but we also derive excitement from things that are dangerous.
Many of my paintings, stories and album concepts deal with supernatural entities that have transgressed death and returned to haunt the realm of the living. While this concept is frightening to most people, there are many people who find these dark archetypes strongly alluring. In this mindset, death is not a thing to be feared, it is a means to ascend to immortality and a higher plane of existence. Simply because something is dark or brooding in nature does not mean that it should automatically be associated with evil or death.
Numerous artistic masterpieces and classics of literature explore dark and tragic themes. Many of these works, such as Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame blend horror with deeply romantic elements. This formula appeals to its audience because it rouses two primal emotions: Fear and Desire. I strive to capture the essence of both of these powerful feelings in my work. I like to explore the beauty in darkness, but some people are too afraid of the dark to venture anywhere near the shadows.
What’s fascinating about the way people function is that some of the darkest and most uncomfortable fragments of their psyche are often repressed, so that one could minimize the risk of becoming an outcast. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung coined this phenomenon as the “collective unconscious” and as part of his research he outlined 12 archetypes; one of which is called the Shadow.
Why do you think people suppress the fact that each person has, to some degree, darkness within?
– In psychological terms, the “Id” or “Shadow” refers to the unknown dark side of the personality that lies deep within each of us. Human nature acts to suppress and hide these darker, primal instincts as a means to protect us from danger and disguise personal vices.
Some people openly embrace their dark side while others indulge it in secret. Some struggle to keep it hidden their entire lives. A lot of it has to do with things we were taught when we were young and how darkness has always been associated with evil.
To quote from Return To The Dark Tower: “Darkness is not a thing to be feared. It is the ancient realm of shadows and night. It gives birth to dreams and grants safe haven for those who seek its refuge. It empowers all who embrace it, allowing them to bask in its eternal rapture.”
No one can deny the beauty of the star-filled heavens at night, clouds dancing across the moon, the hypnotic shadows thrown from a fireplace or the intimacy of a dim, candlelit room. Most people have some appreciation of the dark, but we all have varying levels of interest for the mysteries that it holds.
Even though society tries its best to keep all the “taboo” interests buried deep within, they still resurge as a craving for entertainment in the shape of horror books, motion pictures and extreme activities. On that note, I asked Joseph about his thoughts on the movie industry in respect to the horror genre and its current state.
The horror spectrum has certainly become much broader over the years. There are still monster movies, ghost stories and various supernatural themes, but there are also psychological thrillers, sci-fi horror and serial killers. In many instances, shock value and graphic violence and gore have replaced elements of suspense and good storytelling.
There are very few movies that convey a true gothic mood nowadays. Films like Crimson Peak captures the look, horror, romance and brooding dread of older gothic classics like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but they really don’t make a lot of movies like this anymore. I think it’s a real shame because I think there is a huge audience waiting for a gothic revival in the movie industry.
Apart from his abundant pool of paintings, Joseph Vargo is also well known for his musical project called Nox Arcana. Before it was conceived, though, he used to take part in a few rock bands.
– I was always involved with music in one way or another throughout my life, composing songs on the piano and singing in rock bands. Finding success as an artist allowed me to pursue my other interests such as writing and creating music. Even though I mainly listened to rock and metal, I always loved instrumental music, especially horror film soundtracks by composers like Ennio Morricone, Wojciech Kilar, John Carpenter and Danny Elfman. I gravitate toward melody-driven compositions and music that inspires emotions and the soundtracks that I liked shared this aspect with the rock music I listened to.
After forming Monolith Graphics, I had produced and contributed to a few dark instrumental albums that met with some success as Halloween soundscapes, so I decided to form my own musical project. The goal was to create a series of moody, immersive concept albums of haunting melodies and sound effects that revolved around specific gothic themes. I teamed with William Piotrowski, who was only 15 at the time.
Aside from his musical skills, he possessed an amazing aptitude for studio engineering. We built our own home studio and began writing and recording every day. Within a few months, we had created the first Nox Arcana album, Darklore Manor. The haunting music was accented by eerie sound effects and ghostly narratives reciting creepy poems, sinister nursery rhymes and even spells from the black books.
Over the next few years, we released a series of albums based on various dark themes that intrigued us. The concepts of the albums ranged from haunted Victorian mansions and creepy carnivals to Grimm fairy tales, ghostly pirates and sword and sorcery. We paid tribute to some icons of gothic literature, such as Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, and even released several albums for the winter holidays. Nox Arcana’s music has been used in television, independent films and computer games, and has been performed by two different orchestras.
What led you to such a shift and dedicate yourself to creating instrumental music?
There were a few reasons. First, instrumental music is pure emotion and isn’t tethered to any lyrics that dictate a specific story. It’s much more open to interpretation by the listener. Since I had several concept albums planned, I wanted each of them to be an emotional journey that allowed listeners to immerse themselves in the experience and fill in the details of the story from their own imaginations. I wrote brief storylines and song titles to suggest what the tracks represented, but left the specific details of the story up to the listener’s interpretation.
Another factor was that I could create fully orchestrated soundscapes with the technology I was using. I didn’t have to rely on other band members to create the sound I wanted. I’m a control freak, so I don’t mind taking on more responsibilities and work if it allows me to get my project done exactly the way I envisioned it.
Nox Arcana tells stories in a personal and emotional way. If you spend long enough and open yourself to the full experience, you may feel the cold sensation and the chills running down your spine as the dark presence in each note gets intensified.
Tell us more about the alchemy that goes behind an intricate endeavour like this?
Every Nox Arcana album tells a gothic tale. While several of our concept albums were inspired by horror writers like Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, most of them are based on original ideas. In addition to art and music, I also enjoy writing and have written several books in the gothic-horror genre. I approach creating a Nox Arcana album as if I were creating a soundtrack for an audio book or horror film. The tale unfolds with each successive track, just like chapters in a book.
When I write music, I am always alone in my home studio. The room is adorned with skulls, swords, gothic paintings, gargoyles and various occult artifacts. This establishes the perfect dark atmosphere for my work environment. Since all Nox Arcana albums are concept albums that strictly adhere to one specific theme, I conjure a mindset that will capture the essence of my chosen theme and imagine what it would look and feel like. These impressions give me a feel for the soundscape of my desired concept.
I strive to capture all aspects of the gothic realm—the mysterious, the romantic and the horrific. Most tracks begin as a simple piano melody. As I add other instruments, choirs and sound effects, the composition begins to take on a life of its own. Some tracks transform into larger orchestrated pieces with drums, tolling bells and chanting choirs. I usually try every idea I have until I’m satisfied with the result.
Before we concluded this interview, I recalled to ask Joseph one particularly important question, whose answer I dedicate to all among you who are in doubt or afraid to follow your heart for whatever reason.
– Don’t fear the dark unknown. Embrace whatever fire burns in your heart. Do what makes you the happiest and do it well. That is success.
Make sure to follow Joseph Vargo and Nox Arcana on Facebook and Twitter. Also, be sure to check out Monolith Graphics’ amazing store where you can find a wide range of outstanding products, including a unique set of Tarot cards, posters, t-shirts and more.