Episode 047 - Lucas Zellers
In today's episode, I welcome Lucas Zellers! Lucas is the podcast host and creator of "Making a Monster," and the writer and creator behind Scintillla Studio. He shares his unique perspective on art through the lens of role-playing games, and how the monsters his guests explain on his podcast share powerful truths about life. (Fun fact: this episode's cover image is the logo of Lucas' "Making a Monster" podcast!)
Get in touch with Lucas Zellers: https://scintilla.studio/
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Episode 47 - Lucas Zellers
Lindsey Dinneen: Hello, and welcome to Artfully Told, where we share true stories about meaningful encounters with art.
[00:00:06] Krista: I think artists help people have different perspectives on every aspect of life.
[00:00:12]Roman: All I can do is put my part in to the world.
[00:00:15] Elizabeth: It doesn't have to be perfect the first time. It doesn't have to be perfect ever really. I mean, as long as you, and you're enjoying doing it and you're trying your best, that can be good enough.
[00:00:23] Elna: Art is something that you can experience with your senses and that you just experiences as so beautiful.
[00:00:31] Lindsey Dinneen: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Artfully Told. I'm your host Lindsey. And I am so excited to be interviewing today, Lucas Zellers. He is the host of the Making a Monster podcast, as well as a writer Scintilla Studio, and I am so excited for him to be here because he brings a really unique perspective on art. And I cannot wait to share his stories and find out so much more about all the different ways that you've dabbled in art, Lucas. So thank you so much for being here today.
[00:01:04] Lucas Zellers: Well, it's my pleasure, Lindsey. Thanks for having me.
[00:01:07] Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah, of course. And I would love if you would just share a little bit about your background, maybe how you got involved in art and, and then started writing and hosting this podcast. I'd just love to hear more.
[00:01:20] Lucas Zellers: Sure. Yeah. So my journey as an artist is-- I always like to tell people that I'm a, I'm a chronic generalist. I started as a musician and became a writer by training and dabbled a lot in 2D design and illustration and sketching. I spent a long time in stage acting as well. So between that, a little voice acting, a little podcasting, competitive public speaking and poetry, and oral interpretation like that. Just about every way you can use your voice for fun or profit, I've done. And most recently, all of that has sort of coalesced into the-- I guess what I'd call the 2020 expression of Lucas's artistic journey-- with the Making a Monster podcast.
[00:02:04]Lindsey Dinneen: Very nice. Okay. So it's all come together. So you share with us about you're Making a Monster podcast, if you don't mind.
[00:02:12] Lucas Zellers: Yeah. And that's, yeah, it's not terribly specific. The Making a Monster is a podcast I started. It's my quarantine project. And it's one of those things that has taken on more of a life than I ever thought it would. So the show looks at tabletop role-playing games, which is a whole section of art and entertainment that might, might stand out quite a bit from the, from the other guests that you've had on the show. But I think it brings together a lot of what art is and does, and how, how art intersects with people. My angle on that was, I wanted to make that, that world accessible to people who aren't interested in the hobby, especially people who wouldn't necessarily have watched "Star Wars" or " Lord of the Rings," or be at all interested in that kind of sword and sorcery genre of fantasy. So I looked at it one monster at a time.
[00:03:07] I'm able to get ahold of people who do design work, sort of the backend and mechanical design for games like that. And I asked them about a monster of their choice. I never tell them which monster to bring on, and I rarely know what monster they're going to choose until we get on to record. And then we pick it apart. So I want to know what this monster is whether it's like a kind of a Hydra, or I think a good example-- I had a, a 10 Story Robots on one episode. I've got an upcoming episode with a teleporting alien dog that's just there to cause havoc. So it really runs the gamut of everything that you might find in, in fiction and heroic fantasy and all that sort of thing, goes along with tabletop role-playing games. But when you strip out the setting of it and get through to the mechanics, you find something really interesting.
[00:03:56] And that is a whole field of literary analysis called monster studies, which looks at the way we have encoded culture into the things that we fear into the stories that we tell about the things that we don't know or should be afraid of. So that's what Making a Monster does is take a look at these monsters that really, you wouldn't think this holds up to academic scrutiny or kind of a deep moral analysis, but they always do. And that's the heart and soul of the show.
[00:04:26]Lindsey Dinneen: Wow, how fascinating. I mean, I love it. I have not dabbled too much in that particular world, but it's fascinating to me. And I mean, I grew up watching "Star Wars," and "Lord of the Rings," and all those good things. So I definitely have an appreciation for it, but I haven't done the gaming aspect of it. So this is so interesting. So, okay. So I'm just so curious. I was really intrigued by the idea that makes complete sense, thinking about it in terms of, you know, the psychology sort of behind it, but yeah, are there any particular examples that stand out as when you kind of dove deeper you, you recognized something unique?
[00:05:09] Lucas Zellers: Yeah. Probably the best example or, or I think the moment I knew it was going to be more than just sort of a "chill, we happen to have the same hobby" kind of podcast was when I started talking to someone about Dagon and I should, I should preface this conversation by saying that we're going to get into kind of the deep lore. And there's, there's a lot that might not tie this to the average listener, but what I hope, what I hope to kind of bring out of this all is that Dungeons and Dragons and tabletop role-playing games are kind of a new home for art and artistic expression. I believe that art needs an audience and that the best audience is often other artists.
[00:05:54] So games like this tend to gather artists together at the table, artists of all different stripes, people who value a wide variety of different ways of expressing themselves and being together at the table. And when you put them all together, they tend to do some really interesting things because we get some of that reward. Some of that immediate feedback that you would have from an audience, it's the same thing that's embodied and applause, this, this sort of give and take of improv theater and fine arts and visual arts or artistic design and storytelling. And I knew all of that going in, but the thing that, that made me realize there was this other dimension to it of truth and the way that we tell it to each other, it was when I started interviewing a guest about Dagon.
[00:06:38] So Dagon, the way he wrote it was a sort of demon prince of one of the many, many layers of hell in the certain setting of this game that we were playing. And I thought that was enough. But it had come to that game as so many things due from the works of HP Lovecraft, who's notorious for having invented the genre of cosmic horror, and a lot of great work is being done in that. And it's becoming more and more mainstream. It was a primary feature of " Stranger Things." Several shows on Netflix, "Lovecraft Country" on HBO-- a lot of people are playing in this space and bringing Lovecraft's work into, to new and better ways of looking at truth and literature and design.
[00:07:20] And I thought that was it. We did this whole interview that connected Dungeons and Dragons to Lovecraft, and I was satisfied. And then I put it on the internet and the hive- mind of the internet, of course, showed me things that I had missed. And it turns out the Dagon is not just the name of a story that Lovecraft wrote. In fact, his first story that he had published, it's also the name of an ancient Palestinian deity. Now I have some work to do. Yeah. I had to find someone who was both interested in Dungeons and Dragons and was willing to talk to me, and also was able to sort of connect the dots on ancient Canaanite religion. And that Venn diagram is very slim. But I gotten connected to a friend and he was able to show me how Dagon had sort of appeared over and over again in time. He's in several places in the Bible, one of which most remarkably I think was in Jonah where he's never mentioned by name, but he is the god that was worshiped, we know from archeology, at the city of Nineveh.
[00:08:24]And that connects him back through a lot of various ways to the way in which Israel would look at their god is a God of order and Dagon then was the God of the Philistines and was therefore a God of chaos and he was tied to the sea. So it's interesting that you say "dove deeper," 'cause that was really what happened and that sort of battle of chaos against law where a monster would come up out of the sea and be defeated by, by law and order, and Shalom is a motif, is a theme, that's repeated all the way from Genesis to Revelation. So it's about as old as a story can be. And I just found it lying around in a tabletop role-playing game.
[00:09:06]Lindsey Dinneen: Wow. Yeah. Oh my goodness. That story is fascinating. It's so cool. I love it. I love that, you know, like you were saying, this motif, this theme has been around forever. Well, maybe not quite forever, but just so you know, for a really long, a long time and the idea of people taking the essence of it and bringing it into what's now a game. But it still has significance and history behind it. That's really interesting.
[00:09:35]Lucas Zellers: Yeah. Even more so now, because we all have a handle on it. It took me forever and I, I don't think I would have engaged with Dagon and all of the themes and meanings that he has along with him that go back to some of the stories that account for the creation of the world. If I hadn't had this other sort of handle to hang on it or to, to hold it with-- if I hadn't been introduced to the concept and the name in this other way. So, so that kind of work is happening all the time in Dungeons and Dragons and the tabletop role- playing space where people are really starting to think very strongly about what makes a villain and what makes a hero, and whether that should be how we should understand that. And whether our understanding of that should change from what it was in say 1974, when the game was introduced. So there's a lot of excellent work that's being done in terms of the way that we express truth to each other. And I think that's the, that's the province of really good art.
[00:10:31]Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah, I absolutely agree. And you had mentioned, you said it in a really particular way, which I am now not recalling-- but I'm sure you will-- about, you know, one of the things that's been interesting to you is discovering the way that we tell truth to each other or something along those lines that I get that kind of thing. Yeah. So, yeah, I'd love to learn a little bit more about what you mean by that, because I think that's a really interesting concept.
[00:11:01] Lucas Zellers: Sure. I think one of the ways in which this sort of taught me about truth and the way we tell it to each other was the interview that I released as the very first episode. So I did a batch of them. I did about six interviews before I launched the podcast because I wanted to make sure it would work. It wasn't the first interview I recorded, but it was the first one I released. It was about a game called "Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall," which was a remarkable little game that went through the, the Kickstarter. It was launched on Kickstarter where so many board games and role-playing games are these days. It's a game that was written by a team of American immigrants. And it focused on-- the, the setting of it is in 1920s, Chinatown, which I think was in San Francisco. And there are several other immigrant communities represented in the game as well.
[00:11:51] The titular monster, the Jiangshi, is a Chinese hopping vampire. And you'll find the aversion of the zombie in just about every culture across the world. A zombie or a vampire, we've been telling that same story to each other in many, many different ways. But this one is, it's about, so in this part, telling a vampire will feed, not on a person's blood directly, but on a person's life force, right? Or what the designer called chi, soul, if you will, being able to draw that directly out of them. And the, that story and the setting and the way the mechanics of the game work all work together to represent that drain as a drain of identity or cultural heritage or memory. So that this monster is taking all of those things out of you until you become sort of a gray featureless personality- less person that is in fact also as Jiangshi. And it's a great way of talking about cultural eraser. A lot of the things that were happening in sort of the, the San Francisco Chinatown phenomenon in the 1920s were represented really, really well by the work that she was doing. And I don't think I would ever be able to represent well in conversation, the experience of a Chinese American immigrant in 1920s, or even the experience of the descendant of a Chinese American immigrant in 2020. But I can say too, but we could play this game together. And I might ask, is racism a zombie though? And you would know exactly what I was talking about.
[00:13:32]Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah. Wow. Yeah. So the, kind of the idea of people expressing truth and their own experience, their own truth through a game, which provokes this conversation. And so that's what is so cool about all of these experiences and these people that you're interacting with it sounds like. Did I get that about right, yeah?
[00:13:59] Lucas Zellers: Yeah, and art picks up where words leave off many times, where or sort of in a loop with them. I think you, you'd be able to speak to this as well that dance expresses emotion in ways that other art forms can't. So when you go through this experience of playing Jiangshi, these truths stick in a way that they wouldn't if you had encountered them in any other way. It's why I remember Dagon fondly, not just as sort of an artifact in a museum, but as something that's a part of my personal experience and growth as a human being who understands the other human beings in the world. The same version, if I'd been able to play that game, you know, it becomes a part of my own experience becomes richer in my memory and imagination than it ever otherwise would have been.
[00:14:45]Lindsey Dinneen: Absolutely. And one of the things that I think is so amazing about art is that it can open up conversations that would otherwise be very difficult to have. But when these themes and these issues are expressed through art, sometimes that's a gentler way of opening up these conversations that should be happening, but are, are difficult, you know, rightly so. And so I think that that's just such a cool avenue for just starting the conversation that that should take place. Yeah. So cool. Well, I love that. And, okay, so obviously I need to listen to your podcasts because it sounds fascinating. I'm just so intrigued.
[00:15:29]Lucas Zellers: I spend quite a bit of crunch time on it or what the gamers will call crunch. So there's, there's a, there's a big portion of this that's of the podcast-- it's not gonna make sense unless you've played this game or that game. And I hope that that's not an obstacle to you, partly because I think that's another way of coding truth. So, you know, the, the level of like assigning a numerical value to the thing that this monster is, or does is an art form all unto itself. So that is a part of it, but don't let it scare you. And also if you're not playing these games, it's not what it was in 1974 or 1985 or 1999. It has a very different identity than it ever has. I think it's for more people than it ever was. I think it's smarter than it ever was. And I think it's way more beautiful than it ever was. So my hope is that while you're listening to the podcast, any sort of preconceptions that you have about role-playing games and the people who play them, you'll be able to sort of leave those at the door and discover something new.
[00:16:30] Lindsey Dinneen: I like that. Very good. Very good. Well, I'd also love to explore your writing a little bit, because I know that you also do that. So do you mind sharing a little bit about your experience writing and maybe what you write about?
[00:16:44] Lucas Zellers: Yeah, I'd be happy to. So Making a Monster is one of several projects that I've launched through Scintilla Studio. It's kind of my incubator. I, I built it so that I don't have to set up a separate website for everything I want to try. For a while there, I was a blogger when I thought that was still kind of the, be all end all of internet discourse. In 2018, I, I put out an album, just an EP of four songs that I recorded with some friends, all originals, which was a fascinating experience. And I do little things like that all the time. And I needed to have a place for them. So they all kind of live on scintilla.studio, Making a Monster being kind of the newest project. But the thing that ties them together is, is something else that, that sort of became obvious when I was doing the podcast. I've learned enough about that field of literary analysis called monster studies to know that one of them, the basic assumptions of that is that the monster's body is a cultural body.
[00:17:42] In other words, the monster is a product of the culture that tells it, it carries with it, all of the, the values and associations that that culture has. It's why Godzilla happened in Japan. Or, or why the jackalope happened in America on the frontier or, or John Bunyan or, or the Oz stories that are sort of uniquely American fantasy. I, I believe that that language of an ecosystem of idea and, and culture where, where stories and arts are, are kind of a species that evolve and change over time, and fit the ecosystem that they grew up in. I think that applies to creativity as well. So the kind of conceit of Scintilla that kinda pins all those ideas together is that creativity is an ecosystem. You have to build a habitat for it. Find, fill a place in your life, both your physical space and your routine for that art to live. And then you have to give it the resources that it requires, whether that's time or energy or consumables, or just attention. And then you have to protect it from poachers because there are things that are going to come into that creative ecosystem that have a right to be there. You have to make food and raise your household and sometimes take a shower. Like there are things that have a claim on those resources, but there are also things that don't, and you need to cut them out. You need to be serious with yourself about what you're allowing to grow in this sort of creative ecosystem.
[00:19:15]So step three of four then is to kind of push the snowball. I think art for most people is, not like you said, this sort of one-off thing where you might experience it as the recital or the show or the finished piece where behind that is just thousands and thousands of hours of unfinished recitals and failures and attempts and sketches. So art is not the kind of thing that you do, and then you are done. It's the kind of thing that you push and make incremental progress as if you're pushing a snowball. So you build on your past successes and experience and then finally recycle. Because I believe that's important to every ecosystem, but I don't think art is ever wasted. If you finish a project and it is not as successful as you would have liked it to be or it didn't achieve the goal that you thought, it's never wasted effort. Because all of that comes back to you. It's an expression of who you are or who you were at the time, if nothing else. So a lot of the projects that are on Scintilla are things that I might never revisit or that didn't grow in the way that I hoped they would.
[00:20:21]But they all became the compost in which I'm growing other art, the same as all of these stories that we've inherited over time, the rich loam of storytellers before us sort of laid down by time and culture that, that proceeded us in the way that Dagon did. So, yeah. Scintilla is kind of this meditation on the way art is done by the common man and sort of a handbook for the way you can do it in a way that's fulfilling and sustainable.
[00:20:50]Lindsey Dinneen: Oh, I love that. And I just really appreciated your description. I think it's so important, you know, as an artist, to not trash all your previous attempts at things, even though you might look back and cringe sometimes. I mean, we all do that, of course, but I love what you were saying about like, but it was your best at the time and, and people, and we grow and we change and we learn and we, we evolve, but it's not bad. It's just like you said. And even if you really think it was garbage, like you said, that's still compost for future things to grow. I love that. Oh my goodness. I'm going to definitely adapt that, and you know, use that with my students when I teach them the idea that nothing is ever wasted.
[00:21:41] Lucas Zellers: It's so freeing. You look back at pictures of yourself and you cringe. And I, I have a lot of charity for my past self and I wish other people would too, ' cause it's who you were and it, it also gives you this kind of beautiful motivation to be the best you can be right now. And if you're making art in that way, you never have to be ashamed of it.
[00:22:02]Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah. That's beautiful. I talk with my students sometimes, and just in general, with people about, you know, your job is to do your best every day, but your best looks different every day. So, you know, some days it's when things are tough, it's getting out of bed and taking a shower. And that was your best for the day. And that's okay, you know. And other days you're going to have these bursts of creativity and the energy. And so your best of the day might be creating this fantastic painting, but that's not, you know, necessarily even realistic for every day. So it's just do your best every day. And then, give yourself the grace that not every day will look the same, I guess.
[00:22:44] Lucas Zellers: Maybe a more typical example is that you've caught me on what I think of as a good voice day. Like my voice sounds good right now. It's, it's early afternoon on a Saturday and I like the way my voice sounds. That's not always true. Certain days, some days it's a raspy broken down tenor that I'm kind of sad to be carrying around, but that's particularly the voice, which is so sensitive to the way you treat every aspect of your body. It really reflects who you are at the time. Yeah. To know that. And then watch your voice change day by day and hour. It sort of helps you realize that you're not just, you know, one person and you're not finished. And just because you weren't good now or then doesn't mean that you're not good now. \
[00:23:29]Lindsey Dinneen: I love that. Yes. Perfect perspective. Okay. So good. Thank you for sharing that. I think that's so encouraging and I think that's so encouraging for artists who might be struggling, you know, some days and to realizing, to give themselves grace and, and it's, it's okay.
[00:23:48] Lucas Zellers: Because every voice is valuable and no voice deserves to be lost. And I hope that by giving people a way of eliminating that divide between themselves and an artist, that more voices will grow and that people will be more charitable to themselves and, you know, not paint over their own paintings or slash their canvas or, or whatever.
[00:24:11]Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah. I had a professor in college who used to say that you were allowed to throw your pointe shoes in the trash every day, as long as the next day you would come back, pick them out and I liked that. Yeah. Perfect. Well, thank you so much for sharing all of that. I just love your perspective on art and the way that you're sharing it in such a unique way. So thank you for all of that. Thank you for just being that kind of blessing to the world. I really like what you're doing and I value it. Thank you.
[00:24:42] Lucas Zellers: Thank you for saying so, and thank you for taking a chance on the D&D guy on this particular podcast.
[00:24:47]Lindsey Dinneen: No, of course, like I was sharing with you before the show, I just love art in general. So I'm happy to talk about it in any new way or anyway, anytime. Well, so if our listeners are interested in connecting with you, listening to your podcasts, reading some of your work, is there a way for them to do that?
[00:25:09] Lucas Zellers: Absolutely. Best place to go is to my website. It's scintilla.studio. That's S C I N T I L L A.studio. If you're looking for the podcast, you can tack on "slash monster" to the end or you can search for Making a Monster, literally, wherever you get your podcasts. I think I'm on 20 platforms and counting. Most recent addition was Pandora and I was very proud to be on Pandora. So I'm everywhere you want to be.
[00:25:36]Lindsey Dinneen: Perfect. I love it. Okay, fantastic. Well, we will definitely be doing that. And if it's okay with you, I ask the same three questions to all of my guests. Are you up for that?
[00:25:48] Lucas Zellers: Yeah, let's do it.
[00:25:49] Lindsey Dinneen: Awesome. Okay. So the first one is how do you personally define art or what is art to you?
[00:25:57] Lucas Zellers: Yeah. So for a while, I tried to come up with, with my own definition of this and I was sort of laboring under the impression that a definition that I hadn't written wasn't authentic. But I found one that I really liked. Elaine de Baton wrote this in his book," The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work." He said, "art is anything that points our thoughts in important yet neglected directions."
[00:26:21]Lindsey Dinneen: All right. I love that. Never heard anything quite like that. Thank you for sharing that quote, that fantastic.
[00:26:30]Lucas Zellers: It's incredibly useful to me because it doesn't say what art is, so much as what art does. And I think that's a more important way of defining it.
[00:26:40]Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. Perfect. Okay. And then what do you think is the most important role of an artist?
[00:26:49] Lucas Zellers: If we use the same definition, then the role of an artist is to tell us what to think about. And I think my experience with monsters and the study of them and sort of the practical use of monster theory is that art gives us a way of saying things that we couldn't say, or feeling things that we couldn't feel or experiencing things that we had no other way to experience.
[00:27:15]Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah, absolutely. Okay. And then my final question, and I'll define my terms a little bit, but do you think that art should be inclusive or exclusive? And what I mean by that is inclusive referring to an artist who puts their work out into the world and provide some context behind it, whether it's a title or program notes or just the inspiration for it, versus exclusive referring to an artist who puts their work out and doesn't provide context behind it, so it's left entirely up to the viewer to decide for themselves.
[00:27:54]Lucas Zellers: Yeah, it's a great question. And I think the answer is frustratingly the same as the answer is always, it depends. I want there to be art that does not hold my hand, but demands of me the attention and intensity to discover its meaning. But for the most part, I think that art should be inclusive of context at least because of the art that I'm trying to make. So a huge portion of what makes my podcast work. And the reason that I have it is that I have to go back and pick up the scattered pieces of context that are left like a trail of breadcrumbs through time by given pieces of art, by given stories that have traveled across out of their own context and into others and out of their own time and into new ones. And that investigative process is incredibly rewarding. I think there's a lot of risk when you don't make that stuff obvious to people, 'cause then you have to have someone like me come back and pick up the pieces and lay them out for you and show you sort of the journey of Dagon over time or the identity of a Jiangshi. And that's a different kind of art. Like if I have to show you that alongside the actual artistic experience, those are two different things. So it depends, but for the most part and for the art that I want to make, I think it should be inclusive.
[00:29:23]Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah. Good. Perfect answer. Not that there's a wrong answer. I think it's all subjective, but yeah, but I really like that answer.
[00:29:34] Lucas Zellers: Yeah. It's one of those dilemmas that you've set up that it's kind of a false dilemma in that these two are not mutually exclusive nor is there a right answer between them.
[00:29:45] Lindsey Dinneen: Exactly, exactly. And the whole idea behind the question is just to see what people think. So, and you're right. They're not mutually exclusive, but it's, it's fun to hear different perspectives on that 'cause, you know, just like art, there are lots of opinions as to where context is really important and where it's not needed. And I like your idea of you want some art to be demanding of you, that you you really explore it and you think about it for yourself. So yeah, I really liked your answer. That was great. Well, thank you so very much for being here today, Lucas. I just really appreciate your time and your sharing your stories, and I'm excited to check out your podcast. I highly recommend that anyone listening to this episode does so too, and yeah, just, just thanks again. I really appreciate it. And if anyone is interested in sharing this episode with a friend or two, of course, I would love that. And thank you and have the most amazing day.
[00:30:54]If you have a story to share with us, we would love that so much. And I hope your day has been Artfully Told.
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