Velhagen lives and works in Albuquerque and has created sweeping works for Magic: The Gathering, and Imagine FX magazine. He also handled illustrations for the 2018 Game of Thrones calendar. Velhagen was always an artist, but his path to success in this realm was many years coming. After 25 years of practice and in the midst of something of a mid-life crisis, Velhagen submitted work to famous fantasy and sci-fi art publication Spectrum's 17th edition. Much to his surprise, he got in. Since then, there has been no looking back.
Alibi: What attracted you to fantasy art and stories early-on in life?
Velhagen: The escapism and the adventures. This happened during my high school years. … It's a lot more fun to imagine being the muscular hero … than to sit in a classroom trying to learn math or writing. In fact, I remember trying to turn in a drawing instead of a math assignment. … Needless to say, I didn't get the grade I was hoping for.
How did your fantasy art sensibilities translate to your life as an illustrator and, later on, when you worked in construction?
It really didn't when I was a freelance illustrator. Almost all of the work I got during those years was in advertising fields. I worked on assignments for banks, ice cream companies, cars, state fair stuff, so forth and so on. I appreciated the work, it paid the bills, but it was so artistically unfulfilling that I dropped out. I needed a break from art, so I dropped into construction with my brother. Unintentionally, and very thankfully, with construction being my day job, I'd come home and draw and paint things that I had always wanted to, especially Lord of the Rings stuff. When I first got into fantasy art, I was introduced to the artwork of Frank Frazetta. At about the same time, the Brothers Hildebrandt released their 1977 Tolkien Calendar. I read the books and loved the whole Middle-earth world. After the Brothers Hildebrandt calendars, each year there would be different artists painting their artistic visions from Tolkien's written works. I wanted to be one of those artists. So, I did hundreds of sketches, concept drawings, many paintings … all in the hopes of submitting my work for consideration to be in a Tolkien Calendar. Unfortunately, before I was quite ready to submit my work to the publisher, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies came out. The only calendars that I saw afterwards were stills from the movies and no individual artistic interpretations.
The were two reasons for submitting to Spectrum 17. The first was the 12 years of construction was starting to take a toll on my body. The second was a middle-age crisis. I could see myself lying on my deathbed and thinking I should have done something with my fantasy art. Instead, I wanted to be lying on my deathbed and saying: At least say I tried. So I tried. I submitted 4 to 6 pieces to Spectrum 17 and to my astonishment, 2 pieces got in.
How did it feel to get that first recognition for your work?
Totally shocking. For 25 years and in a rather unfocused manor, I was trying to do fantasy art, so it was hard to grasp that that door was suddenly open. I must have read Spectrum's notification letter a dozen times trying to absorb the fact that I got in. But that door was really thrown open with the invitation to show my work at IlluXCon. IlluXCon is a venue for fantasy artists to show their works. It is an unbelievable collection of talent and I consider myself very fortunate to be a part of it.
What have you learned over the ups and downs of your life and career as an artist?
A lot, but the one I'd like to share is this: To be kind to yourself. It's hard. There is this self-imposed “standard of excellence" that artists place upon ourselves that many times can be unforgiving, and ultimately damaging. This "standard of excellence" is fine, but being kind to oneself is equally important.
What is your advice to young artists that would like to break into this field?
There was this sign outside of a church that I saw here in town that I love. It said: "Be yourself, everyone else is taken." What I take away from that statement is that every artist has something unique to say. Don't paint like Frazetta or Brom, or whoever you are drawn to. It's fine to learn from them, to extrapolate artistic info, but as you grow, trust and enjoy your artistic voice and sing forth. I really love to hear what every artist has to say.
More information on Bubonicon 50 is available online at bubonicon.com. Or head to the Albuquerque Marriott Uptown (2102 Louisiana Blvd. NE) over the course of the weekend to get in on the action.