Saturday 19 July 2008

Ellen Forney interview

Ellen Forney

* Location: Seattle, WA

* How would you describe your art? Mostly comics, some commissions (mostly portraits and wedding invitations), teach comics at Cornish College of the Arts, weekly comic for the Stranger - "Lustlab Ad of the Week" (an adaptation of one of the kinky personal ads) -- I use (mostly) thick linework, ink with brush on paper, colour in Photoshop.

* Currently working on: A book collection of my "Lustlab Ad of the Week" comics, to be published by Fantagraphics in early 2008; a novel with writer Sherman Alexie for Little, Brown; a wedding invitation, and a portrait of a woman with her cockatiel; 4' x 4' paintings for the Seattle Erotic Art Festival

* Day job: Just my art (and teaching, which is pretty much my art, too)

* 3 Likes: sex, rock, kale

* 3 Dislikes: bad sex, bad rock, jetskis

* People & artists you admire: Jim Woodring, Shawn Wolfe, Alison Bechdel, Bill Watterson, Toulouse-Lautrec, Risa Blythe, Kristen Fisher, my brother, my mom, my dad, Marjane Satrapi, Kay Jamison, Megan Kelso, Tom of Finland..........

* Favourite album(s) to listen to when working: Any of the first six or live Led Zeppelin albums, the Dt's, Jimi Hendrix, Little Walter, Stevie Wonder, a couple of different independent radio stations. I don't usually listen to music when I'm working though - only when I'm inking.

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This interview took place at the end of February, 2007. All artwork reproduced with kind permission from Ellen Forney ©

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Hi Ellen, how are you? What are you up to at the moment?
Good! Catching up on emails (it's a Sunday), grading comics from my two comics classes, finishing my weekly comic.

How did you first get started with art, and develop your skills? Were you encouraged to draw from an early age?
When did you realise that art was going to be something that you could & would make a career out of?

I've always drawn, since I can remember. I took a class after school in elementary school, a couple drawing classes at college, and that was always my "thing," that I could draw. I majored in psychology, though -- didn't decide to become a professional artist until I was 23.

Does teaching art, and working as a comics professor alter your relationship to, and freedoms of your artistic production?
I ask this as I am aware that you were self-taught as a comics artist. Do you find that teaching art and comics now makes your approach to art more schooled and academic than free and instinctive?
Alternatively, do you find that working with, and sharing ideas and thoughts and techniques with students generates inspiration for your own art work?
I had mixed feelings when I started teaching comics, since I and most of the cartoonists I know are self-taught. It's an exciting class, though, and it's interesting to break the process into parts and concentrate on them. I'm careful to share what I know but also let the students develop their own styles. A two-page spread in my new comic book, "Wednesday Morning Yoga," is directly from an assignment I gave my students. The assignment was to tell a story using no words, and it was an interesting challenge, and I like how it came out. I'm an enthusiastic cartoonist and enthusiastic teacher, and the students give a lot of energy back to me. Ideally. Usually.

I once read a description of your artwork that claimed it was ‘Part art and part journalism; Part essay and part autobiography.’
Do you personally find these four descriptors accurate and representative of your work visually, politically and expressively?
Coming from an art background more than a writing background, I've had to work hard to become a better writer. I like that three of those four descriptors are about my writing. Maybe I'd weigh my art and design more equally to the writing, but eh. I've called my own work "graphic non-fiction" and "graphic essays."

You create the weekly strip for The Stranger newspaper in Seattle, depicting a Lustlab Advert (a one-panel adaptation of one of their kinky online personal ads.)
Is drawing weekly, (or daily) to various deadlines an exercise in self-discipline so that you can get your work started and finished; or do you find that as a natural story-teller there actually aren’t enough days in the week to draw all that you would like to?
I thrive on deadlines - I find it difficult to work without them. The only way (so far) that I've built up a body of work is to do the comics serially (Monkey Food, the "Lustlab Ad of the Week" collection) or in a collection (I Love Led Zeppelin). That said, no, there aren't enough days in the week, either.

Does your interest in illustrating the Lustlab Ads come from an interest in celebrating sexuality, and the diversity, variation in, and expression of individuals’ sexualities? I ask this, as I can imagine it being a fascinating job; spending time reading the ads, hunting for the perfect one to adapt and depict, etc.
Yes, to all of that. I feel very strongly about being "sex-positive" and it's a dream job, really. It's a challenge visually, too, and I use all sorts of reference material - old erotic photographs, pin-ups, Wacky Packs, album cover art... all sorts of things. And lettering, I get to play with lettering, which I love.

A lot of your artwork works on principles of humour, many strips often generating laughter through the way we are led to look at ourselves, or the characters depicted.
With the Lustlab Ads is it a fine line between adapting the adverts into an entertaining comic art format, and generating art work that could be seen to be creating
humour out of an individual’s sincere personal advert?
Is this something which you are conscious of?

I really do hope these people get laid. I try to make my images either outright sexy, or to poke gentle fun. Just gentle, though - I'm totally not interested in making their desires seem gross or stupid.

In the foreword to ‘I Love Led Zeppelin’, Sherman Alexie, discussing your strip ‘The Final Soundtrack’ (in which you ponder your own death, and what embarrassing or righteous song could or should be playing on your car stereo when you wrap it around a tree), states that whilst an obviously ‘silly’ pop-cultural strip, it poses a question that is also a profoundly religious one.
In fact, the very title of the book is both a pop cultural *and* religious one – because when pop culture means so much to us it does become a part of our lives & we kinda become devoted to it. I imagine that these comics would never have
come together had it not been for the inspiration of Led Zeppelin as you drew.
Pop cultural, and real/everyday life experiences and references ‘litter’ your work, and are part of the reason why I feel so connected to your work, and to your life and lifestyle, (as depicted in your quasi autobiographical strips), as pop-culture for me *is* to some degree my religion.
How important is popular culture to you and your art work?

I'm not a big follower of pop culture, for the most part - like, it took a while before it got back to me that Britney's bald now. (Doesn't she look cute bald??) And I don't have a TV. So while I know my work is very pop, I don't make it that way on purpose. I'm just doing what makes sense to me - which I suppose means pop culture, since that's what we're surrounded by. Here, this is a dog chasing its tail.

Karen Finley, or her alternative performance art once claimed that by circumventing the stiff, stuffy and static art gallery circuit with her art she ‘wanted to put emotion into performance, like expressionism into painting’ and to make work ‘that people could understand, that would have references to the world rather than to the history of art.’
Does pop culture, as an understandable reference to the world we live in, hold this role for you, and thus why it is so important in your work, or does pop-culture hold a different role for you?
My work is about communicating, and sharing stories and characters in a non-judgmental way. My work has been described as showing edgy, "alternative" culture in a genuine, understandable way. I suppose I'm describing our world, for those of us who are "edgy" and "alternative," and bridging a gap for some others. My general outlook is definitely "can't we all get along?" so I suppose in that way, this would fit into that "agenda."

Two main themes that your work says to me, especially in ‘I Love Led Zeppelin’, are that of challenging dominant structures, and communicating truths.
Are these themes conscious ones?
Conscious, and unconscious. That's my general outlook on life, I guess.

In collaborating with ‘experts’ or those more experienced, you have created many strips that provide education, information, and instruction – and therefore the medium to communicate important information, such as life-saving, or life-enhancing tips on subjects such as ‘How To Kick Heroin At Home’, How To Use Your Voice As Self Defence’ and ‘How To Talk To Your Kids About Drugs.’
Had you not been able to collaborate with ‘experts’ on these strips, do you think they would still have been made, or is the importance of conveying accurate material more crucial to you than the aesthetic value of simply creating a nice strip?

It was very important to me to give accurate information in those comics. I did a lot of my own research, too (I did for all of them, in addition to the interviews) - but the main material was from the interviewee. Importantly, in interviewing an "expert," I could show that the information I gave was THIS person's take on it. There's no one way to approach any of the topics I covered - no one way to approach practically any topic, really. And, I like showing the human side of the information, and drawing the character: see, this friendly doctor is giving you suggestions about talking to your kids.

Where did the idea to create instructional and informative comic strips come from? Which was the first one that you drew?
The first How-To strips appeared in the Stranger - the first was for July 4, 2001: "How to Sew and Amputated Finger Back On." I found that one FASCINATING (though I grossed out all my friends, talking about it). The editor, Dan Savage, and I brainstormed about what I might do for a once-a-month full-page strip, and we came up with this format. It was only monthly for a little while, but I did them sporadically for a few years, then also for the LA Weekly, then for Nickelodeon Magazine (very different subject material!). Someone told me that "How to Fuck a Woman With Your Hands" totally turned around her sex life with her boyfriend - and what kind of honour for me is that? Seems to fit in with how I enjoy being a teacher.

Do you see these collaborations and the strips you create as a political act? A feminist act? Both?
Oh, sure, both. Some of them are specifically about laws and the government; I'd say ALL my work is feminist.

Do you view the comics strips as a tool with which to change perceptions, attitudes, or our reliance on consumer and capitalist society?
– e.g. being able to give tips on how to kick heroin at home bypasses the dependence upon medical services, and has the potential to alter people’s attitudes towards drug users etc.
I can only hope so. From the reviews it does seem like I present subjects certain readers might have thought of as wacky or perverted in a new, more approachable light. Comics are certainly a good medium for that kind of message - they're visually seductive, intimate, and concise.

I find some of your collaborations with friends and family extremely inspiring, and challenging of hegemonic beliefs; something that I am so pleased to see and read within your work.
Some of your strips use adapted stories that friends have shared with you, or that you have witnessed friends go through. It’s this personable, realistic biography that I think lends your work the ability to challenge expectations and beliefs.
For example, your strips about friends and relatives experimenting with drag have great potential to challenge readers’ appreciations and assumptions of ‘gender’, gender roles, and gender identity; while strips such as ‘Hair In Our Eyes’, where you address constructs of feminine beauty and acceptance, your work has the ability to question and challenge ‘femininity’ and female identity.

Is providing challenges, and alternate ways of seeing something that you wish for your artwork to express?
Is it important to you that your work can be read on many levels – from a simple laugh-out-loud funny strip, to a deeper analysis where the politics involved in the strips’ narrative can be seen?
Oh yes, absolutely. The strip I used to do, "I Was Seven in '75," was all about my growing up in a liberal family in the 70's. That strip was partly a reaction to my then-stepmother's statement that I'd come from a "broken home" (my parents divorced when I was 12), and also to the prevailing dismissive attitude about social philosophies of the 70's. I really think that my upbringing was loving and healthy, and that a good lot of that came from a certain "Free to Be, You and Me" sensibility common in the 70's. But, in my comic, I just told stories about my family. It was important to me that I not be didactic - I felt my message would come through more effectively that way.

How important is collaboration to your art work? What is collaboration able to lend your work?
I like collaborating as long as I have a lot of say in the process and the finished comic. Collaborating with David Schmader was awesome ("What the Drugs Taught Me") because he's a good friend, I admire him so much as a writer, and my wanting to do a really good job for/with him inspired me to work really hard. Collaborations make me stretch in different direction (for better or worse). It's always a good exercise, if nothing else.

I love the idea of you creating custom wedding invitations featuring portraits of the couple – in fact I was going to suggest to my brother (who got married last summer) to have Ellen Forney invites, but I didn’t want to meddle in his preparations!!
Who are ‘typical’ customers for such commissions – do you get a lot of ‘fans’ commissioning invitations?

Some self-proclaimed fans, but honestly, mostly people who have been struck by my ad. So many other wedding invitations out there are really boring! A lot of people seem to be looking for a balance between doing a really indie wedding and sticking with certain traditions, and my designs seem to satisfy a lot of that spectrum. Business is good!

Your comics sure are panty dropping, Ellen! Have you received much stick from folks over your more sexual or ‘liberal’ comics and strips?
Nah - I suppose it's kind of my niche now, and it's been going in that direction for a while. I still do plenty of more conservative work, but art directors are grown-ups and they know I won't draw something inappropriate just because it's my Thing. My parents like my work, too. They check for my new "Lustlab Ad of the Week" every week on my blog.

Is it important to you to de-mystify, and un-shroud the ‘behind doors’ aspect of sexuality in order to make people more relaxed, informed and comfortable discussing, reading about, and embracing sex and sexuality?
Yes yes, precisely.

I personally love the strips such as the ‘Handy Map to the Erogenous Zones’ and ‘How To Make Love to a Woman With Your Hands’ – and have even half-considered photocopying those pages and gluing them on the back of the doors of public bathroom stalls to share the wealth of information with people!!
Where’s the most unusual place that you have ever seen any of your artwork being displayed or used?

There's a cafe in town that has one of my comics blown up and pasted to the ceiling... I've seen my work on a number of refrigerators (a place of honour!)... Another place of honour: next to a friend's toilet.

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