A few minutes before I arrived at artist James Hance’s house in Avondale, he posted on his personal Facebook page how he thought I should write the lead to this story.
I entered the study. Countless books lined the shelves — many of which were in properly foreign and old languages — clearly belonging to a man of a really good brain. I heard a soft click, a secret panel slid open, revealing a man in a loosely tied bath robe, large, plastic bubble-filled pipe and over-sized koala slippers. “Good afternoon,” he bellowed, bubbles spilling from the pipe onto the floor below, which was real wood. “Forgive my slightly ruffled appearance. I have just killed a poacher with his own rifle.” He closed his eyes as if to savor the moment. “It was ironic. That’s why I did it.”
As a 37-year-old man who makes his living painting characters from ’80s pop culture (“The Muppets,” “Star Wars,” “The Goonies,” “Labyrinth,” “The A-Team” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” to name a few), it’s standard for Hance to turn a real-world situation into a wittingly spun fictional tale. His work, which he touts as “Relentlessly Cheerful Art,” is nostalgic, witty and, for the most part, uplifting.
In the famous 1932 photograph by Charles C. Ebbets, “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” 11 men are sitting on a large metal beam — hundreds of feet in the air — eating lunch and smoking cigarettes. Hance’s version, “Lunch Atop the Half-Constructed Death Star,” features those same 11 men wearing white storm trooper helmets from “Star Wars.”
In “Chester Copperpot’s Goonie Clubhouse Band,” Chunk, Mouth, Mikey and Data from “The Goonies” are dressed like The Beatles circa “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band,” while “Super Blues Brothers” features Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) as Mario and Luigi, the “Super Mario Brothers.”
“I’m heavily inspired by Jim Henson’s Muppets — pretty much anything from the early ’80s to late ’80s,” Hance says. “That was the ‘golden period.’ It captured the innocence. America and the world needed something safe and never malicious, and that Muppets spirit is still there.”
Born on July 27, 1975 in Hounslow, a borough of London located in Middlesex County, Hance recounts his childhood fondly. “I spent a lot of time with my grandparents,” he says, sipping on chai tea with soymilk — made minutes before to seem “properly English.” “I would draw on any available surface, ride bikes and go swimming.”
Although he had a natural affinity and talent for drawing, Hance spent little more than two weeks at a formal art school. “I really enjoyed art, but I knew right away that I didn’t like it. It wasn’t for me,” he says. “Now, I just wing it.”
In January 2004, Hance was at a Notting Hill Starbucks when he met a young American woman named Rebecca who was “enjoying our sights.” They quickly fell in love, married and, in 2004, gave birth to a little girl they named Madison. The Hances remained in England during this time, but on a stateside trip, Hance grew fond of the warm, tropical Florida weather and, with his family, immigrated here in 2008.
Shortly after, James’ and Rebecca’s marriage came to an end. They were young when they met and everything happened so quickly. “We’re very different people,” Hance says. “But we’re the best of friends and remain a great team for Maddy.”
Maddy, now 7, is like many little girls. She has an enthusiasm for fairies, unicorns, princesses and her dad describes her as “bouncy and full of life. Always singing, dancing and making up stories.” And like her father, Maddy deals with difficult situations through escapism — turning something unpleasant into a fairytale.
After her first birthday, Maddy had obvious digestion problems. Symptoms included chronic constipation, non-stop vomiting and stomach pain. After years of tests, medication trials and numerous hospitalizations, the diagnosis came in as mastocytic colitis and eosinophilic esophagitus. In January 2011, Maddy underwent surgery and now has a cecostomy tube in her lower right abdomen.
Every night, Maddy has 2,000 mL of saline mixed with five caps of Miralax by way of a gravity bag that goes directly into her intestines through a cecostomy tube. The solution is meant to flush her system. Every other night, she is given 2,000 mL of GoLYTELY (pronounced go-lightly), a solution used to cleanse the bowel by causing diarrhea.
“Every other week, she gets backed up and they’re [doctors] talking of removing her colon,” Hance explains. “We’re trying to find another way of getting this fixed without surgery.”
Like her dad, Maddy deals with uncomfortable situations through escapism. Hance says, “She always has a clipboard with a sketchpad attached while she’s having her nightly flush. She draws constantly, writes and sings.”
When asked why he has a decorated Christmas tree up in his living room in the middle of September, Hance says it was his weekend to have Maddy and she was feeling especially down about her medications. “I went to the garage, shook out the spider webs and set up the Christmas tree,” he says. “I told her we were going to have an early Christmas and leave the tree up for the rest of the year.”
Unfortunately, Hance hadn’t anticipated that Maddy would also be asking about presents. “I had told some friends about what I was doing to make Maddy feel better, and that day I received a text saying to look outside. My friends had dropped off a pile of presents for her.”
The pair, who are together every other weekend, are instant playmates. Hance says, “We often build forts that take up the entire living room, proper two-story deals with turrets and a tunnel to the fridge, for supplies and air conditioning.”
On this particular day, the artist is working on a project of his own — a painting titled “You’ll Be There ’Til the End of Me.” It’s a portrait of the Doctor and Amy Pond from “Doctor Who,” a long-running British science-fiction show. Hance sells a majority of his work on eBay. This one sold on Sept. 14 for $310. He sells most originals between $250 and $800, as well as limited-edition prints and T-shirts.
Hance’s work has drawn recognition from the art and geek worlds.
“When I first saw James’ work, I was struck by the duality of his imagery,” wrote Chuck Lawton on the Wired.com column GeekDad in May 2010. “On the one hand, there are pieces that seem to exist for pure comic value: Darth Vader releasing a white dove or a storm trooper blowing bubbles from a bubble wand. At the surface, they appear to be one-liners but, taken as a whole, they are reflections of ourselves as kids with a certain amount of innocence.”
“While ‘Star Wars’ imagery comprises a large body of his work, it’s far from all James does. Many of the paintings that struck me emotionally were those that caught me off-guard as various childhood memories came flooding in. In particular, his treatment of Super Grover with Superman (“The Man and Muppet of Steel”) brought me back to a time 25 years ago that I had completely forgotten about.”
How does Hance get away with making a profit by painting licensed characters like He-Man, Mr. Spock, Sarah from “Labyrinth” and Kermit the Frog? Hance says what he does falls under the umbrella of a parody law. “As long as it’s not defamatory or derogatory and you’re not claiming it to be ‘official’ merchandise, then it’s OK.”
Relentlessly Cheerful Art’s website has this disclaimer: “Wookiee the Chew is a work of parody. No endorsements by any company or person parodied is intended or inferred. The law regarding parody is based upon the ‘fair use’ doctrine under the U.S. Copyright Act. Under this doctrine, certain uses of copyrighted works, which would otherwise be considered infringing, are permissible.”
Wookiee the Chew is one of Hance’s most popular projects. It combines elements of “Winnie the Pooh” and “Star Wars” and features Wookiee the Chew, Droidlet, Owlbi Wan and Chrisolo Robin (aka Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Owl and Christopher Robin). He estimates that his first book, “The House at Chew Corner,” which he wrote and illustrated, has sold thousands of copies.
Chew had never been to the dark side of the forest before and the very thought of venturing through those thick, unfamiliar trees made him feel quite uneasy. “Bother,” he said, staring at the edge of the dark, tangled wood a few dozen hops away from Owlbi’s tree. Droidlet peeped and whistled worriedly, sinking his dome underneath his scarf a little.
“Trust your feelings, Chew,” Owlbi urged, sensing the little wookiee’s distress. But the only feeling that Chew was feeling was the hollow, rumbly feeling in his empty tummy. “Sometimes,” Owlbi said in a voice that seemed to be coming from someone bigger than he, “you have to jump into a hole to get yourself out of one.”
Last year, Maddy’s medical bills topped $25,000. With 21,000 Facebook friends and a loyal following of his art, Hance set up a fundraising campaign on GiveForward, raising more than $22,000. He’s anticipating the next trip to Boston possibly around Christmas for another potential surgery, which will cost around the same.
Peter Mayhew, an English actor and philanthropist who played Chewbacca in the “Star Wars” movies, and his wife Angie, reached out to Hance about six months ago when they discovered Wookiee the Chew. Mayhew has since written the foreword for the next Wookiee the Chew books, with all proceeds going toward Maddy’s medical fund.
“They said how much they loved the idea and were interested in me creating some art for the foundation — which I’m working on,” Hance says. “I met them at MegaCon a little while later and gave them some Wookiee the Chew books; shaking Peter’s hand was a dream come true.”
Including the brightly lit Christmas tree in the middle of the living room, Hance’s house looks more like a child’s playroom. There’s the “Ghostbusters” jumpsuit with a “Hance” name patch, dozens of collectible Muppets and “Star Wars” figurines, boxes of vinyl records and shelves of DVDs.
“Most of the stuff is from Disney [World],” explains Hance, who has an annual pass. “That’s my vice. If you ever feel like there’s no magic in the world, just walk through Disney for an hour and look at all of the children’s faces.”
Hance remembers a particularly emotional trip to Disney. It was Maddy’s 7th birthday, so her parents took her to the park to celebrate. After a few hours on her feet, Maddy was exhausted and needed a wheelchair. “We got to meet the princesses — Belle, Cinderella and Aurora — and for that one moment, my princess was with the princesses and everything was OK.”
Maddy still has a long road to travel. “We’re waiting for an appointment for her to have a muscle biopsy in her leg, motility tests and further testing in Boston to see if she has mitochondrial disease,” Hance says. “The motility test is not currently available in Florida, so it means another trip to Boston.”
As for the future of Relentlessly Cheerful Art, Hance would like to continue writing Wookiee the Chew books and creating artwork based on his own set of characters. “I think I’ve built enough of a name for myself that I’ll be able to start doing complete originals,” he says. “Maddy’s a lot like me, in that when something’s difficult, we’ll make it into a game. We’re escapists.”
Cover Art P
James Hance is selling signed prints of the original artwork he created for this week’s cover to help with his daughter Maddy’s medical bills. Prints are $20 at jameshance.com.