Sunday 13 July 2008

Vanessa Davis interview

Vanessa Davis

* Location: Berkeley, California

* How would you describe your art? Autobiographical diary comics.

* Currently working on: Paintings for Apeshit, a show in San Francisco in April, and Spaniel Rage #2.

* Day job: I am unemployed and very poor.

* 3 Likes: Wind in the trees, silly fashion, dancing.

* 3 Dislikes: Commuting, debt, driving stick shift.

* Daily Inspirations: My friends, my boyfriend, my parents, other artists, sunshine.

* People & artists you admire: There are so many cartoonists I admire it is really hard to mention them. But probably Julie Doucet, Debbie Drechsler, Anna Sommer, John Porcellino, Dan Zettwoch, Trevor Alixopulos, Gabrielle Bell... Karen Sneider is a cartoonist and a comedian, and I think she is really brilliant. Kevin Blechdom is an artist I really admire. My parents. When I think of all the artists and people who inspire me I get really overwhelmed.

* Favourite album(s) to listen to when working: I love listening to mix cds that my friends make me. At the moment I am obsessed with dance music: Cut Copy, Basement Jaxx, and Daft Punk. And old 80s songs that my boyfriend dredges up and seem to speak so poignantly to me.

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This interview took place in February 2006. All images reproduced from Spaniel Rage with kind permission © Vanessa Davis.

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Hi Vanessa, how are you? What are you up to at the moment?
Hi Melanie I am fine! Lately I have been drawing and unsuccessfully looking for work in Berkeley, where I just moved. I am also trying to learn how to drive stick shift, and ride a bike, both of which I am coming along with, but don’t feel totally all set about. The current moment is a humbling time for me.

When did you first become interested in art and start drawing yourself?
I've been making art a long time, I think since I was pretty young. And I've definitely been drawing myself almost the whole time I think. I went to art school since I was about 12 years old. I think though that in high school and college I started drawing scenes from my life. And then in 2002 or 3, when I was about 24, I started drawing comics.

"Less is more in our book" "The reason there is so much clutter in rock music, in art, in the world, is that most people have nothing to say and try to hide the fact under layers of extraneous noise" >Calvin Johnston and Everett True.

One of the things that I adore about your comics is the simple, uncluttered, direct drawing style. How did you develop this drawing style?
Well first, thank you for the compliment. I've always drawn pretty "flat." I used to think it was because I was bad at drawing; I never really liked rendering or shading that much. I think I got into drawing from children’s books and comics, and those are usually pretty simple and clean illustrations.... I don’t know, I just have always liked line drawings.

Do you find such stylings allow what you have to say, and what you need to document, to come to the fore without being disguised or hidden under (unnecessary) layers?
I find that the biggest force in my own process of making art is finding a way to not get bogged down by anything, to make actual follow-through happen. So maybe yes. Everytime I've gotten caught up in any kind of heavy-handed drawing, nobody likes it. I think people who are really great at that kind of drawing have their message come through in the marks. And I just don’t need as many marks I guess.

Whilst talking of creating self-reflexive work Amy Davis was once quoted as stating, "I think that's what it's all about, 'oh, my life is valid so I have to write it down', and then in a sense it does become more valid". "It's so healthy to have that sense of your life." Is a conscious aim for you, when creating and documenting cartoon strips from your life, to grant your life's experiences a further validity?
I think that is probably a big part of it. My dad was a photographer and I think inspired me to document. I also am a forgetful person, and I want to remember things. I think documenting my experiences like this lets me have an assertive type of power, that things happened this way. Also, it's a way to not be alone.

How politically important and healthy do you think it is for women to have a creative output (and thus, a voice) from which to document their validity? - - especially since each individual has her own perspective, and is an expert in her own life, and the issues she faces.
I think it's really important--if it helps the person. It can go either way. Obviously it is so easy for it to become self-indulgent. I have found that making comics about my life has helped me see myself from different perspectives, and therefore to take myself both more and less seriously. More seriously in that it has helped me become confident in my impressions and my voice, and less seriously in that I see that my experiences are really common, no matter how idiosyncratic. So I think that if being creative can help a person, of course it's important politically. It's always politically important to take care of yourself, as you're a part of a bigger community.

"Any picturing of women belongs to an ongoing story of how women are presented and how they are invited to think of themselves" >Susan Sontag

When drawing and representing yourself, and your own image in the comics, are there any conscious elements of creative licence that you use, or is it a pretty faithful to your vision of self? In terms of creating your own self-representation and being self-reflexive about day-to-day life, do you think artwork such as yours supports Sontag's statement, about female art work being part of a discussion about female representation, and raising conversation about how women think of themselves, and the diversity of these thoughts?
I actually get hung up on that stuff sometimes. Sometimes I worry that I am drawing myself too pretty, or too ugly, and does that make me vain or too self-deprecating, etc. I think it varies, because of this, so it probably is pretty true to how I see my own image. But I definitely agree with that statement. I am personally really susceptible to images of women affecting how I see myself. I can be inspired to think of myself positively or negatively depending on those images. But they're all fleeting impressions. There's always a new image of women being presented to distract me.

You once claimed that: "Comics are kind of amazing, in the way they can transform your own personal kind of communication".

Do you find that directing your creativity into comics, (as opposed to documenting your life in more 'conventional' forms of written or verbal narrative/biography) allows you the most suitable and useful medium to liberate your expression, truths, meaning, and crucially, communication?
For now, for me, I think so. I think comics have been amazing for me in that they are the one form of communication where I feel really confident in what I am saying, and how I am saying it. It all comes out right.

You once claimed that, "The whole point of doing comics this way for me is so that I don't get bogged down by rules. I HATE RULES!" In reflection of this claim, do you find a freedom in comics and independent cartooning networks and formats?
Ha! Yes I do. Partly because "nobody's watching, and nobody cares." Obviously some people are watching and some people care, but overall it's not a heavily monitored artform. But the capacity for communication is so strong. I feel like comics are wide open, that there is so much potential to tailor them to each creator's needs.

Does carrying your sketchbook everywhere with you allow you to embrace the opportunities, immediacy and spontaneity of art?
It definitely helps.

I have recently been trying to track down the comic anthology True Porn, from a couple of years back, which I am aware you contributed to. Due to it being printed in limited numbers, I have been unable to find it. What are your thoughts on issues of access to others' creativity within the comic genre? I ask this also, partly in response to the fact that you in the beginning used to self-publish and distribute your cartoons yourself, and thus actively encourage people's access to your creativity, was this important to you to do this yourself and make your work accessible?
I think it would be great if more comics were more accessible. There are so many books being put out (both self-published and by publishers) that are so good and would be of so much interest to a lot of people, but it seems that only people who already care about comics will ever find them. In mainstream monsterbookstores there are so few actual independent or art comics that make it. When I first began making comics, I mostly cared about people within the comics community to see them, because I just wanted to gain feedback from my peers and meet other inspiring artists. But now, especially after an experience like the one with Scheherazade, where a book with such compromised presentations of so many artists' work got so much exposure, but then so many good and well-presented books will never see the light of say, Florida, I think it's a real shame. But I guess things are changing, and comics are gaining more and more exposure. And it's kind of a grassroots kind of art form anyway. It probably allows cartoonists to be so free.

How did you become involved with the True Porn anthology, and what drew you to being involved?
Truthfully I had never made comics before. I was already drawing this story about my friend, as a tryout, but then I heard about the book on a messageboard and just thought I would send it in just to see if I made it. So, coincidence.

Documenting your life on a day-to-day basis, and creating a cartoon panel for each day, does it encourage & teach you to be disciplined about your output, and your commitment to your art?
It does encourage me, though it doesn’t always work. It definitely helps. It's a really low-commitment way to keep productive. You don’t expect yourself to take on anything too big, just whatever you can get down in a day.

Sometimes have you felt, however, the pressure of keeping up to this prolific output?
I ask this in reference to some of the panels that feature you saying things like "God I hate not drawing - - I feel like I've forgotten how. I don't even know how I got to this point, how so much time has passed." & "I haven't drawn in more than a week. But that's only part of the reason why I feel like total shit".

Yes, especially now, when I have been so gratified by having kept up my comic diary, when I think of all the days lost that I didn’t draw about, I feel so much regret. Especially because when exciting or dramatic things are going on in my life I don’t draw very much, and then I feel worse. I recently fell in love and moved away from New York and I didn't draw any of it. I feel like an idiot. But you know, you can always draw it later someday, it will just be different. I try not to get too down on myself about things I didn’t do, and just try to concentrate on the work ahead of me, but sometimes I can’t help feeling bad. But hopefully it will eventually make me either start drawing more or start regretting not drawing less.

"To avoid disappearing into guess work I write my history here" >Daphne Marlatt (in: Taken)
Do you view your comics as a document of detailed memories that you'll be able to look back on in years to come, as a visual reminder of your life in all its minutiae - things that people don't necessarily or ordinarily remember about but is the stuff that makes life life?

I think they definitely record some of those details! I wish I could get everything, but even if I drew everything I wouldn’t. It's also important to actually LIVE my life and not just get caught up in recording it.

How's work going on the follow up to Spaniel Rage?
I have a lot of work to do on it and I am not totally positive on the estimated release date (summertime of 06) but I do pretty well with deadlines. We will see.

What for you are the most satisfying or rewarding aspects of being a cartoonist?
There is a lot! I love how making comics has changed me, made me more confident and happy. I always have it when I am sad, I can always feel good about my work. Some of my friends have said it's made me more funny, and that's amazing if it's true. I doubt a lot of other art forms can do that to people. Also, other cartoonists are a huge part of why making comics is so rewarding. I love cartoonists. So much. I am so inspired by so many people, so impressed and excited by their work and their minds. And cartoonists are really fun. They are just my speed. And I love when people like my comics, or feel like they relate to them. I have read some people say that my comics make them want me to be their best girlfriend or something, and that's a huge compliment.

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