Gary Ham’s Monster Toytems

Advertisements for books on ‘how to draw cartoons’ used to proliferate magazines, their tutorials commonly instructing one to begin by sketching out a character’s form in geometric shapes, a classic approach that results in clean and striking profiles.
Gary Ham's Morsels & Carrot Shake Jake Previews Solicitation

Photos: Gary Ham

And one that seemingly influenced the aesthetic of Gary Ham, whose designer toy sculptural creations almost invite viewers to mentally deconstruct them into the circles, ovals, squares, and triangles that lay underneath their surfaces. Decorated with clean swaths of color, details expressed in similarly striking shapes and lines, these tenets are exhibited in his earliest production works, like the Carrot Shake Jake and Morsels pieces from 2008, as well as the basswood creations he began handmaking around that same time. But, throughout his oeuvre, these principals are probably best exemplified within his Monster Toytem works.

Gary Ham’s Original Monster Toytem

Erroneously thought to be titled the Toytem of Terror initially, Ham created this unique Monster Toytem piece as his contribution to Stranger Factory‘s Winter Salon group exhibition in December 2011. Embracing the simplistic and stylish beauty of its geometrically shaped wooden components, Ham impeccably applied Cel-Vinyl acrylic paints to the Monster Toytem, maintaining his adorable and accessible aesthetic while undeniably rendering the heads of classic horror cinema creatures upon these forms: a skeleton, a mummy, a vampire (in bat form), a zombie, a werewolf, and the Gill-man (or Creature from the Black Lagoon). “The original plan”, the artist admits, “was to create full bodied versions of all the monsters, but time did not allow for it. My brother [Greg Ham] suggested doing only the heads in a stacking totem, so I ran with it”. And though impressive when the seven roughly 2″ tall pieces are assembled into their totem-like shape, granting them the emblematic feel of a sacred object, the truly memorable aspect is that modular element, inviting the owner to deconstruct and reconstruct this stackable sculpture into any of its 720 permutations.
Immediately recognizable to even the most casual Ham collector at the time was the influence of the artist’s Hermees creation on the Monster Toytem. Hermees had been revealed in September of 2009 as a unique wooden sculpture, which Ham would revisit conceptually over the next year, before debuting in a vinyl cast edition at the end of 2010. And the character also bore a striking resemblance to the vampire bat Toytem component, potentially making the Monster Toytem more significant to a collector of Ham’s works. But this wasn’t the sole stylistic choice on this piece to recall the artist’s oeuvre, as the werewolf and Gill-man aspects are reminiscent of two of Ham’s one-of-a-kind works from 2011: his Voolfy hand-painted version Scott Tolleson‘s Doc Von Block (2009) figure, and his Laguna Gill contribution to that October’s Gumpy Revolution exhibition at San Diego’s GUNNZO storefront. Even the top hat aspect had been utilized only months before the Monster Toytem debuted, having been a component on his Hypnotic Hermees piece for Stranger Factory’s Bewitching showcase. And by creating a singular work that alluded to a variety of his pieces from that time period, it was no wonder that this design was destined to have a production edition made from it.

Gary Ham’s Production Monster Toytem

Debuting in time for Halloween in 2012, the vinyl version of the Monster Toytem was issued in two color schemes: the Technicolor rendition and the Kidrobot exclusive edition, the latter limited to 100 sets. These were joined in February of the following year by the Classic edition, also limited to 100 sets produced, which emphasized the cinematic history of the creatures depicted by presenting them in a monotone coloration reminiscent of black-and-white movies.
Including similar depictions of a werewolf, a vampire (in bat form), a zombie, and the Gill-man to the original wood version, this production rendition omitted both the skeleton and the mummy heads, replacing them with interpretations of Count Orlok (from Nosferatu) and Frankenstein’s monster. While these additions would’ve been designed long before debuting in October of 2012, Ham introduced their likeness into his larger body of work that same month as the one-of-a-kind Count Orlock and Siamese Frankenstein wood sculptures at his Dead Wood solo exhibition. And even though the skeleton and mummy heads were never produced in vinyl, they would be resurrected in wood forms when the first vinyl Monster Toytem edition was released.

Gary Ham’s Wood Toytem Pieces

For the Monster Toytem‘s release party at Lulubell Toy Bodega, Ham created some hand-painted wood Toytem components that could be interchanged and stackable within the vinyl rendition. Featuring new iterations of the mummy and skeleton heads, the artist also paid tribute to the location he was at, creating an interpretation of the store’s four-eyed oni, or Japanese demon, mascot.
Further expanding on the Toytem options, Ham introduced more hand-painted wood iterations of the mummy and skeleton heads at November 2012’s DesignerCon event, adding a rendition of The Invisible Man as well as new high hat and fez toppers. For January 2014’s 24 Hour Toy Break fundraiser auction, Ham created two hand-painted wood Toytem pieces, one depicting the shows logo and the other inspired by the DesignerCon mascot. But these actually weren’t the first instances of Ham straying from the horror theme of his Toytem creation…

Gary Ham’s Toy King’s Toytem & Toy Titans Toytem

As one of his contributions to the The Triplets of Clutterville three-person exhibition in May 2013 at the Clutter Gallery, Ham wanted to create, as he describes it, “something to celebrate and honor some of the more recognizable mascots from the toy scene”. Thus, rather than monsters, the Toy King’s Toytem piece was constructed out of six roughly 2″ tall custom wood pieces depicting iconic mascots within the designer toy community: the Designer Toy Awards‘ Toy King (with crown topper), the blue dragon of Dragatomi, the Stroll creation of SpankyStokes, Rotofugi‘s Pirate Abe, and, the only one seen previously, the four-eyed oni of Lulubell Toy Bodega.
Based on the original piece’s positive reception, Ham contacted the owners of the five mascots and together they made a vinyl production version titled the Toy Titans Toytem. “Only 300 were made”, Ham says in regards to the edition’s limitation, and “each party received 50 pieces”. Specifically made to remain interchangeable with all previous Toytem pieces, this was released just before Christmas of 2013.

And, even though the Toytem concept remains ripe for continued expansion, the Toy Titans Toytem would be the final production edition in the line.

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