John Debono-Cullen aka John D-C is an Australian artist, designer, toy maker, van restorer, loving father and co-owner of the ‘Sweets Workshop’ gallery with his wife, Emma Simmons aka Emma Jane.
A child of the 1980s who has spent his whole life immersed in the world of art, John’s skills, passion and personality shines through in all his creations – weather it be a painting, digital graphic, toy, apparel, fine art or design. Characteristics that have seen John gain fans all over the globe and led to him being in high demand as a commercial artist and designer.
Indeed John is such a professional that he even wrote his own into, for this very interview!
So without further ado, we present to you our Art Talk Interview with Mr. John Debono-Cullen.
Take it away sir:
“I am an independent artist, illustrator and toy maker with a background in graphic design based in Sydney Australia.
I love the process of creating a new character and bringing them to life within an illustration or art toy.
I like to fill my creative work with colourful references to popular culture taken from my many hobbies and interests – comic books, 1980’s cinema, rock and roll music, vintage action figures, 1950’s movie posters and Saturday morning cartoons.”
Name + D.O.B?
John Debono-Cullen aka John D-C
24th January 1980
City, State and Country you currently call home?
Summer Hill, NSW Australia.
City, State and Country you’re from?
Winston Hills, NSW Australia.
Please describe some memories from key stages of your life: concerts, art, toys, romance, comic books, hunting, school, politics, crime, religion… ANYTHING really!
* Age 5 – beginnings:
Toys were pretty much my life, I loved watching cartoons about toys, reading comics about toys, drawing my toys and I especially loved deep diving into my imagination to play with my toys.
My sister (who is 18 months younger) and I would imagine all kinds of scenarios.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, The Real Ghostbusters toys and Lego were huge for me, these toys had such incredible playability. I wouldn’t just reenact what I saw on the cartoons either, I can remember finding the He-Man cartoon kind of boring compared to what was going on in my imagination.
Around this age my Mum really sparked my love of drawing. My Sister and I both had a big drawing book (an old diary) that Mum would draw in for us. We’d ask her to draw something for us most days as a reward for having a nap or entertaining ourselves so she could do the house work.
The things we’d request got pretty complicated by the time we went to school but Mum loved to draw for us.
Sitting in our front yard and watching her draw are some of my fondest childhood memories.
I remember asking her to draw Donald Duck driving a fire truck which she patiently and meticulously did and on another occasion describing Inspector Gadget to her, (who she’d never seen before) so she could attempt to draw him, which thinking about it now was a pretty difficult task to undertake.
* Age 10 – continuations:
In second grade (age 7) I had a Catholic Nun as my teacher called Sister Barbara, she realized that the books we were reading in class weren’t really entertaining me or keeping me focused, though she would see me happily concentrating on drawing. She suggested to Mum that I might prefer reading comics, an idea that stuck with Mum until I was about 11 and not really progressing with reading.
Mum sent my Nanna off to the Newsagent to buy me a comic she thought I might like and she came home with Incredible Hulk Issue #378.
Serendipitously around this time the great Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Craze hit and a Comic Book store called the Phantom Zone opened up a short bus ride from my house.
I was hooked!
I also continued my love of toys. The boys from my grade moved to an all-boys school for years 5 and 6 and I made some new friends who were still as mad keen about toys as I was while most of the other kids had moved on to sports, BMX or Video Games.
Around this age I also discovered the toy hunt. My Mum knew the person in charge of the second hand toy stall at my old primary school’s fete and one year they put aside a cardboard box of He-Man figures for me. I didn’t know there was such a thing as collecting toys or toy hunting, but that’s exactly what I was doing.
At age 11 or 12 my Dad and I discovered a small model die cast car store called Sheriff’s Mini Cars. They mostly kept model cars and tin soldiers but also had a big section of old Star Wars and Star Trek stuff. I would go in there every weekend after swimming lessons and spend hours looking at everything they had.
They would occasionally get in the odd Masters of the Universe figure or superhero toy. It was here I learned that there were other people just like me (albeit they were generally a lot older) and also that these toys had value.
We got to know the owner pretty and he would always say to my parents “Why does your kid like old stuff they don’t make any more so much.”
One particular weekend they got in a box of loose G.I. Joe’s and I helped them sort out what accessories went with which figure, this is well before the internet or price guides so I was relying on my memory and got paid for my help in action figures. I really began to specialise what I collected. I still loved Masters of the Universe but reading comics got me into superhero memorabilia, most notably anything with the Incredible Hulk on it, the weirder the better.
It’s in this age bracket I also made my first attempts at toy customization and model making. My Dad went through a phase of building model sailing ships and he had a heap of hobby tools and paint which fascinated me. I really wanted a Ninja Turtles Technodrome, so Dad and I built one out of a plastic plant terrarium, a toy space ship for the eye ball holder, a toy jeep for the wheels and a rubber dog toy ball for the eye and a super glue bottle for the top cannon.
I also learnt a valuable lesson in toy customization around this time… enamel paint and a rubber He-Man figure head don’t mix.
* Age 15 – getting serious:
There wasn’t a great deal going on around this age for me. I really concentrated on my studies and school work. Art wasn’t really valued at my high school at all.
The art department was stuck in the idea of art being a painting of a landscape.
I liked to fly below the radar at my High School which was very sport focused, so while I still loved to draw, read comics and collect toys at home that’s where my hobbies stayed.
I really liked wood working and had a couple of really great Design and Technology teachers.
I built my first two models kits when I was about 15, The Horizon Hulk and She-Hulk models, gee whiz I was proud of them I even made scratch built them matching bases.
When I was 17, I got my first Summer Holiday job in the Phantom Zone, the comic store that I loved to go to, it was a pretty fun job but I spent everything I earned right back in the store so it was short lived.
Although I wasn’t really into art in school, I got really heavily into design and architecture and did work experience with a local architect whose work in the 70’s and 80’s was incredible. But by the time I was doing work experience with him, he was spending most of his time laying out office cubicles for a bank which was mind numbing and such a waste of talent in my young opinion.
I had to work on a major project for Design and Technology in Year 12 and thought it would be a great idea to produce on a magazine aimed at the teenage male something I’d never seen before, so I self-produced a one off magazine called Fix. The way I described it to everyone was “it’s Dolly or Girlfriend magazine for guys”.
This lead me to really want to study Graphic Design so I enrolled in a Bachelor of Design (Visual Communications).
It was about this time that I discovered music, like most people my age with Nirvana but quickly moved on to what I actually liked not what was necessarily popular, I loved the Beatles and Led Zeppelin when it was pretty daggy to and then I discovered Tori Amos, her early records changed the way I listened to music forever.
* Age 20 – young adult:
I studied a Bachelor of Design (Visual Communications) at the University of Western Sydney (now WSU) and I loved every second.
The campus was set up like an independent design school, we had most of our classes in the one building. I breathed, ate and slept design.
I majored in Graphics, New Media and Publications and worked on a self-published publication for my honors project called #94 Erbgħa u Disgħin.
It was a visual Biography of My Great Grandfather who was a Maltese migrant named Frank Parnis. I used photographic illustration and ephemera to portray Frank’s life journey through a series of memories. These memories help formulate the visual narrative of the book, leaving the expression, emotion and significance of Frank’s life open to the reader’s interpretation.
Through the University years I worked in a second hand clothing store in Parramatta called Mosh and really started to get into 70’s culture and music, I loved wearing flares and velvet jackets!
While I still loved reading comics and collecting this really took a back seat to music as a hobby for me. I spent most of my time going to gigs and listening to music. The late 90’s early 2000’s was a great time for seeing live music in Sydney with venues like The Annandale Hotel and The Hopetoun.
Some stand out gigs were, Augie March at the Globe in Newtown 1999, KISS Farewell Tour Sydney Superdome 2001, Young Heart Attack, Newcastle Uni 2002, Bonnie “Prince” Billy Annandale Hotel 2004, Queens of the Stone Age Enmore Theatre 2005, Tori Amos Canberra Theatre 2007.
When I was about 22 I thought it would be fun to undertake my greatest, most niche hobby challenge of all time and I bought a beat up custom 1979 Bedford CF Van that I began to restore.
I pretty much spent most of my wage and spare time through my 20’s and early 30’s working on my van and rebuilt it from the ground up.
Pretty much everything in my van is custom. It’s a Bedford CF Van with a 6 cylinder Chevy Engine and a 1977 Toyota Celica gear box, the interior is also completely custom from the 8 ball door handle, to the black corduroy curtains and crushed velvet roof lining.
When it came time for the mural of course it had to be The Incredible Hulk.
This really was a blast to undertake such a giant personal project, something I wouldn’t have the time or money to do now, I don’t even get enough time to drive it that much anymore.
* Age 25 – adult mode:
After University I took a 6 months off looking for a “real” job and started my own t-shirt label called Soap T-Shirts. I would design my own screen-printed t-shirts and I had a permanent stall a Glebe Markets and Newtown festival for 7 years.
This was my first experience with the Art Hustle.
I have to say looking back on it, it was pretty brutal getting up super early every single Saturday and some days were rewarding but others really were not.
I also used my degree and got a real graphic design job at an old school printing company, I was there for 12 years and it taught me a lot about the practical side of design, the work wasn’t too challenging but this let me have the brain space to still undertake my own creative undertakings.
* Age 30 – fully formed:
I started dating a good friend of mine Emma Simmons (aka Emma Jane) just before my 30th birthday. We originally met at University and by this time we were both pretty tired of our graphic design jobs and I was really, really burnt out from doing Glebe Markets every Saturday.
We talked a lot about opening a multi-faceted creative space where we could work on freelance graphic design and illustration jobs, while exhibiting and selling the fruits of our creative pursuits and those of other local, like-minded artists and designers.
We wanted to make the space accessible to everyone not just an “arty crowd” and be more in-line with a retail space than a high brow art gallery or grungy warehouse art space. We opened Sweets Workshop in 2010 in Summer Hill, a suburb of Sydney’s Inner West.
We really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into early on and worked some pretty crazy hours getting our business off the ground, all while working other jobs to support our dream.
We hosted close to 30 successful exhibitions of up and coming or established artists in our first 3 years of business. We also published several collaborative publications. I had a solo exhibition of my own illustrations and custom Mego action figures called “Haunted House Rock”
Around this time, I got heavily into making gocco prints and zines, I always loved self-published publications, I just didn’t know they had their own scene.
Doing zine fairs was fantastic and I got to meet a lot of like-minded people.
Emma and I got married when I was 33 Wurhoo!
We continued to grow Sweets Workshop, taking on more freelance graphic design and illustration work.
I under took my largest illustration job, Illustrating and co-creating the characters for a superhero tabletop card game called Pack of Heroes: A Superhero Card Game which was successfully Kickstarted in 2013.
This was a mammoth job for me. There were over 40 characters to illustrate and a tonne of other things to design and create.
I was a dual finalist in the 2014 Desktop Create Awards in the Illustration category for my work on Pack of Heroes and an album cover I illustrated for Sydney band The Red River Shore. I was also a finalist in the 2014 Sydney Design Awards in the Illustration and Typography category again for my work on Pack of Heroes: A Superhero Card Game.
* Age 35 – meanderings:
Emma fell pregnant with our daughter Rosemary when I turned 35, which really shook things up for us! We really had to prioritise our creative pursuits and I decided ditch my full time job to focus solely on our business Sweets Workshop.
My Dad worked heaps when I was a child so the idea of being able to have flexible work hours really appealed to me when I became a Father.
We have been lucky enough to spend the last 3 years shuffling the care of our daughter and work at Sweets Workshop, which has been wonderful. I love being able to be both Mr Mum and still be creative.
While Rosemary was young I started painting and did a series of paintings of my favourite musicians which I turned into a solo exhibition called “Face the Music”.
I also taught myself a bit of sculpting and 3D modelling and started making my own toys.
I made a custom Milk Creature from Star Wars which took on a life of its own after Star Wars actor Mark Hamill reposted it – ahh the power of social media.
I have also been part of the collaborative group called “This is Not a Toy Scene” a collection of other Australia Toy Makers and the brain child of toy maker extraordinaire Cipta Croft-Cusworth, which has been a blast and really pushed my toy making!
* Age 40 – adult meanderings:
Not sure yet, I’ve only just arrived.
Just keep creating.
When and why did you first start to make art?
… and any pivotal artistic moment(s) / influence(s)?
Watching my Mum draw for me as a child really started it all for me.
I definitely think opening Sweets Workshop and having my first solo exhibition of my artwork was a huge step for me. Putting my art out there for everyone to see was really nerve-racking.
Whilst we know you through your art and toys – care to share with those at home the details of your other creative endeavors… if any?!
I have the script for a graphic novel called Pizza Dude, three quarters finished somewhere. I’d love to finish that and start drawing that one day soon.
What do you do for a day job at the moment?
… and how does your day job impact / influence your artistic practice?
I am a freelance graphic designer and illustrator at my business Sweets Workshop with my wife Emma Simmons.
Working for yourself and being creative is always a juggling act, especially when it comes to paying the bills so paid work always takes precedence over creative pursuits, but it is so rewarding to be your own boss.
Please describe the usual process involved with producing your creations:
– your traditional art such as illustrations?
I generally always have a list of ideas floating around and when I like one enough and have a bit of spare time I start sketching.
With my illustration I spend heaps of time in sketch mode and I really have to be happy with the sketch before I go on to turning it into finished art. Until recently I always sketched with pencil and paper but I’ve started sketching on an iPad which really speeds up the process of refining a sketch for me and helps free me up and try to be more adventurous.
I really enjoy the inking and colouring phase of illustration because for me the hard work has been done. I am always working with a detailed sketch that I am resoundingly happy with so at this stage I can really go to town being creative with my inking or colour palette.
If I have time, I still like to ink manually on paper with pen and ink and then colour digitally in Clip Studio.
– your toys (some of which are digitally sculpted, and others of which you sculpt by hand)?
My toys always start off life as a drawing. It’s usually at this point that I’m thinking about packaging/marketing, whether it’s a pack in comic, a logo, collector cards, a pack in sticker set I love the marketing part of making a toy, I guess it’s the graphic designer in me.
I usually then rough out its form in aluminum foil covered in super sculpey to get a feeling for its size and shape before I either sculpt the piece digitally or by hand.
I made my first silicone mold of a 3D printed sculpt for my Rad Brains and cast them in resin for the last “This Is Not a Toy Scene” exhibition which was a real blast! I felt like my own mini toy factory.
Worst aspect(s) of the art hustle?
Especially living in Sydney, the cost of living is through the roof so generally people don’t have a lot of money to spend on buying things for themselves like art!
Best aspect(s) of the art hustle?
I love being creative and creating whatever takes my fancy and if someone else like it too that’s a great feeling.
Favorite other artist(s)?
Comic Book Artist: Mike Allred is definitely my current fave, his run on Silver Surfer from a few years ago was spectacular and he’s recent graphic novel about David Bowie called Bowie is incredible.
Toy Artists: The Four Horsemen from the USA, I’ve followed their work from the 2000’s relaunch of Masters of the Universe for Mattel. Their work just gets better and better.
There latest work for Super7 is spectacular.
Thoughts on the current status of the Australian toy scene?
The Art Toy scene in Australia is definitely in its early stages but its growing and having the “This Is Not a Toy Scene” network is really exciting.
The work on display at the recent Melbourne show was fantastic, really diverse and not trying to be Australia’s answer to Designer Con or International Tokyo Toy Show, something very uniquely Australian.
Any projects you want to hype?
I released 2 new toy ranges for the Melbourne “This Is Not a Toy Scene” art show: Rad Brains and my Pop Culture Wood Heads.
I just popped the leftovers on my online shop.
I have also quite literally just completed working on the album cover of Sydney Psych Band Frozen Planet…..1969’s upcoming album called the Cold Hand of a Gambling Man.
It’s the third cover I’ve illustrated for these guys and it’s a sequel to a concept album I Illustrated for them back in 2018 called The Heavy Medicinal Grand Exposition. It’s out soon on coloured vinyl too so I’m pretty excited for that.
If people wanted to work with you, have a chat or buy something – how should they get in touch?
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/johnd_c/
- Website: www.johnd-c.com
- Online Shop: https://www.sweetsworkshop.com/collections/john-d-c
- Email: email@example.com
Odds and Ends
If you could live in any place, during any historical era – where and when would that be? …and why would you choose that time and place?
Gotta be the late 60’s early 70’s for the music, though I did grow up in the 80’s which was the golden age of toys, cartoons and pop culture so I’m pretty content with that.
What role did toys play in your childhood(s)?
Toys just sparked my imagination. Holding something tangible and just letting your imagination run wild with play was fantastic.
Growing up in the 80’s helped I’ve said it before but it was the golden age of toys, there were so many really fun, great toy lines.
Having a 3-year-old daughter now it’s really easy to see how things have changed, we hang out at the playground quite a bit and you hardly see a kid playing with a toy anymore.
Somewhere between the 80’s and now a lot of toys just got really homogenised and most are just boring plastic hunks of junk.
Drugs – waste of time or gateway to the universe?
I’d rather spend what little pocket money I have on toys or comic books…. But they’re highly addictive too.
What do you think the Australian zeitgeist is today?
I definitely feel like the Australian Zeitgeist is in a transition phase.
I think most Australian’s see Australia as a relaxed, fun loving, inclusive country with open arms, I’m just not sure we are quite there at the moment.
Who was your 1st crush and why?
It can be an album right? Little Earthquakes by Tori Amos pretty much taught me everything I know!
Does sex change everything?
What are the top 3 items you own?
1) My Custom 1979 Bedford Hulk Van: Detailed above.
2) A Photo of Me and Stan Lee with the custom Mego action figure I made of him.
His minder commissioned me to make another custom figure for Stan’s personal archive that I sent directly to him. I told Stan that the head was based on a Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes figure, which he absolutely loved.
3) This is a very recent addition to my collection.
It’s an Alien made out of Aluminium foil that my daughter (aged 3 and a half) was inspired to make after the last “This is not a Toy Scene” exhibition. She’s definitely starting young, his name is Frebar.
Her imagination is incredible and being a Dad is such a special thing. I will treasure this forever.
In a battle between the two iconic Australian pop culture characters: Mad Max Vs. Crocodile Dundee – who would win in a fight and why?
I’m pretty sure these two would survive the apocalypse – so here is a drawing of them enjoying a quiet moment at the end of all things!
Please describe your last dream in detail…
Weird fact about me, I never really dream, or if I do I don’t remember them.
Of everything you have done what would you most like to be remembered for and why?
Oh wow deep question….. Hmmm I’m not sure the individual endeavours/projects matter to me as much as being remembered as a fiercely independent creative person, that and also a caring person.