Monday 14 July 2008

Penny Van Horn interview

Penny Van Horn

* Location: Austin, Texas

* How would you describe your art?: A compendium of comics, cartoons and illustrations predominantly done in scratchboard. Plus: Animation using Bob Sabiston's "Rotoshop" application developed for film-to-animation; Mixed media large format pieces; silkscreened quilts and wall hangings; Miscellaneous painting and drawing; and Printing of any sort

* Currently working on: Silkscreened self portraits, digital photography and mpegs.

* Day job: Child support Unit of the Office of the Attorney General, Texas

* 3 Likes: Cats, nature walks, good company

* 3 Dislikes: Driving, overdevelopment, pollution

* Daily Inspirations: Nature is always the biggest inspiration. My daughter's unexpected quips and wisdom

* People & artists you admire: All

* Favourite album(s) to listen to when working: A Journey into Ambient Groove, Radiohead, Ween, Samba, public radio

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This interview took place in June 2006. All images reproduced with permission from Penny van Horn ©

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Hi Penny. You have recently described yourself as “a cartoonist, illustrator and animator who is temporarily out of service and working for the State Of Texas. It is nice to have a change of venue. Someday maybe I will do art again.” What motivated your current artistic hiatus? Do you still stay creative even if it’s not commercial-creativity at the moment?
I stopped doing art in order to earn some money. My current hiatus was motivated by the fact that it simply does not pay enough to work in my field. I do not have an agent and comic art is a notoriously low paying field. Perhaps I was not aggressive enough with my self -marketing or production. I was also feeling a certain level of burnout. I was tired of scratchboard, which (the way I was doing it) is a very labour-intensive medium; also very tight and sort of anal. Making my weekly comics was like doing a puzzle. It would take me a while to think them up, then I would have to sketch them getting all the words worked out and the scene, and then I would transfer the sketch and scratch it. All for 50$ a piece? Not worth it. Sure, there was a lot of exposure but I feel I have had enough "exposure" now! Same thing for the longer comics -- too time consuming for the money. Glad to have the mini-legacy I have, though!

How did you start out with art and develop your skills in scratchboard, woodcuts and linoleum printing? Are these mediums the ones you feel most comfortable working within?
I was just attracted to printing and media that involved negative space (where you remove or carve away rather than draw). It makes everything look a little better or fancier to do it this way. . .hard to explain why.

The first time I became aware of your work was your piece, Molested, which featured in the Free To Fight interactive self-defence project booklet that Candy Ass records brought out in the mid 90s. It was so important to me and really got stuck in my head. How and why did you choose to become involved with that project?
They called and asked and I was never one to turn down any offer to do art. In this case, I was attracted by the fact that it was for and about women, and I had several stories I could have used. There is also the fact that men are sexual predators in many cases, but this is not breaking news or anything.

Why is it important to you to address issues that face women within your work?
Because women have taken a back seat for so long, and because women suffer at the hands of men. Our stories are equally important and compelling and need to be heard. We really should be running the show or at least equal partners.

Upon discovering more of your work, the feeling of being shaken into consciousness, and the feeling of things being put into perspective applied to the majority of your work that I viewed; I’m still not sure whether it’s due to the stark black-and-white linoleum & woodcuts or if it’s the actual stories and narratives your work deals with, or most-likely a combination of the two. Is it important to you that your work is honest, clear and no-holds-barred – and thus immediately engaging? Do you get much feedback from people who have been affected by your art?
Thanks for the kind words. I do occasionally get fan mail and plenty of positive feedback. It's a good feeling. When people come over to visit my studio it is always a trip to watch them behave as if they are suddenly in a museum, craning their necks to look at all the art and all the objects. I like it the best when people laugh hard at my comics, and really "get it."

Your work featured in the much celebrated Twisted Sisters comic anthologies; compilations that were inspired, in part by the great work done by the Wimmen’s Comix collective (1970-91) which you were also involved with. How important do you feel collective and collaborative action is in order to promote and support the work of female artists?
It is nice to be able to see the work of a group of women just to compare and contrast the stories and styles. I have also been published in compilations with men mixed in and I don't see a HUGE difference. I think women were feeling left out of the comics business back then and got together to make a statement. I was asked to be included after appearing in WEIRDO. I was not a trailblazer or anything. However, I have curated an art show or two in which I asked only women to show their art, just because I wanted to.
We do need to catch up politically, and getting together as a group could bolster women's initiatives, etc.

Your comic, Mystical Experience or Nervous Breakdown? in which you document your experience of (drug induced? inspiration induced? life induced?) mental health problems is one of the most important and memorable comic-strips I think I’ve ever read. As its epilogue you wrote that, ‘I believe anything can trigger the sort of experience I had – including reading. The energy is there waiting, and at some point one taps into it in its varying degrees of intensity. After I recovered I began looking for “answers”. If I try I can almost conjure up the mindset that preceded my rather manic episode. Despite the fact that it can be coloured by sickness, I believe in the reality of inspiration.’ In order to be creative as an artist and to use the inspiration and energy that comes from the everyday, how have you managed over the years to balance out the fine line between being fired-up and stimulated by what you view and what you read, with the feeling of being all-consumed and obsessed by the stimulus? I ask this as somebody who has an almost obsessive-compulsive relationship to that which inspires me – almost to the point where I can become so absorbed and thus often clouded by its importance to my life.
The experience documented in that story came on pretty suddenly and like gangbusters. I think it was a manic episode of some sort. It has never really happened since but the echoes of it remain. I remember what I felt and understood at the time in snippets, here and there. It is nothing I have much control over. I have too many responsibilities now to let myself get that carried away in behaviours that might lead in that direction. I use the episode as an inspiration like you would look back at having had a beautiful dream or having visited an enchanted forest. I feel wistful, lucky and blessed...and a little crazy.

As it’s such a personal narrative, what was the motivation behind publicly creating and sharing this story? Do you find it easier to work with truthful narratives than with fictional pieces?
I was asked once again to contribute to a women's collective. My telling of this story was encouraged by Diane Noomin who was the editor of the book that it would appear in. The book did not come out as a collective because of difficult contract negotiations or something, so I asked Fantagraphics if they would publish a personal anthology. Which they did. I do like telling the stories of my own experiences because they seem to write themselves. They just come out by themselves, too. I feel a little iffy about exposing myself so very psychically, but I had the hope that it might help someone else who found themselves in the same situation. It seemed important to share this particular story since I had searched so hard for any like it myself.

What has your relationship to productivity been? – For example, how easy did you find it to produce regular artwork for newspaper columns – is working to such regular deadlines something that you are comfortable with?
It was easy when I had the time. I do not ever procrastinate. I do the work first, lounge later.

I am very interested in how and where women gain access to their own confidence, and self-belief – especially in terms of how they are able to produce and create their art work with a sense of assurance, belief and certainty. What is your personal relationship to confidence over your work?
I find that if I follow my bliss, the work really does itself and I am just its tool. So I do what I feel I am drawn to doing. It's almost like eating what you are hungry for. I have never felt anything but confidence because art is to some degree subjective and you can't put a price or a value on beauty. It really IS in the eye of the beholder. I love my own work as if it were my child or something I nurtured. Also I have always had lots of positive feedback.

What are your plans for the future, in terms of returning to art production? – are we likely to see more of your inspirational work?
Now that I have no extra time, I do not produce any work to speak of but dream and lust after having time to do it. I am sure the day will come when I either make time or just have more time to produce art. In the meantime I just gather ideas. I stopped working a 40 hour a week job when I had my daughter and I stayed home for 12 years and freelanced. I was antsy to get back in the workplace and have been working on and off since then. My girl is almost 16 now and I like to earn enough money to support my lavish lifestyle (joking). OK, I miss doing art very, very much but I cannot work every second of my life. And I need to go to the store and do household chores on the weekends as well as just relax. Is there a full time job in ART out there for me? The phone lines open in 5 minutes and I will be ready to take your calls with job offers!

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