New Yorker interviews Adrian Tomine about his "intimate" new work

“ADRIAN TOMINE’S NEW YORK” / New Yorker / Mina Kaneko / November 11, 2012

Adrian Tomine, who created last week’s cover “Undeterred,” just released “New York Drawings,” a compilation of his work from The New Yorker and other places. In this intimate gallery of illustrations, sketches, comics, and covers—a selection of which appears in the slide show below—Tomine explores New York’s culture and its passing moments, asking us to reflect on the city’s quirks and tenderness. We talked to Adrian about his own experience as a native Californian who has nested in Brooklyn.
Where do you get your ideas for drawings and where do you find inspiration in the city? Is it in moments you witness, the people, a certain mood?
Most of my work—including everything from my own comics to the covers I’ve drawn for The New Yorker—is the result of taking some personal experience or observation and then fictionalizing it to a degree. I’m not one of those artists with an incredible imagination who can just make things up out of nothing, and I’m not the kind of person who would throw himself into some exciting or dangerous situation just to get material. So I tend to go about my normal, boring life, and just try to look at things a little more closely. And even though I’ve lived in New York for eight years now, I still feel like a recent transplant, and I think that’s a big influence on how I see and draw the city.
What kind of place does drawing have in your relationship to the city?
Even though I’m usually not conscious of it, I think drawing has always served a sort of therapeutic purpose in my life. There’s something about the process of translating the messy chaos of real life into a clean, simple drawing that’s always been comforting to me. My wife is getting her PhD in psychology, so she’d probably have more insight into this than I do!
But I think it’s a process that inevitably makes me feel closer to whatever it is I’m drawing, and that’s certainly true of New York. I can’t put that much work into drawing something without feeling some heightened level of connection afterwards. And this is true of anything I draw, including people, buildings, even something as unremarkable as a filthy subway entrance. I’ve drawn celebrities that I wasn’t a fan of, and then afterwards, felt like, “Aw, they’re not so bad!”
What is one of your favorite things about New York?
I love having access to so many great restaurants. I’m Japanese, but restaurants in my hometown served the most sanitized versions of California rolls. I grew up eating a lot of Japanese food at home that my parents or grandparents made. And then when I came here, I’d go into restaurants and find items on the menu that I thought no one even knew about—that I thought maybe my grandma had invented. Just the idea of a restaurant serving rice balls was totally alien to me. And I’m sure all New Yorkers just think of that as a standard item at a Japanese restaurant. But rice balls were something my mom used to pack for me in my lunch, and that I’d be sort of embarrassed to pull out of my lunchbox because everybody else was eating bologna sandwiches. So then to go into these hip restaurants and be asked, “Oh, do you want salmon or plum in that? And do you want it grilled or do you want it soft?” is amazing! Or similarly, I grew up eating those dried packets of “ochazuke” that you dump over the leftover rice and pour hot water on, and I loved it—and now, I go into a restaurant and have a freshly made version of it with good wasabi and fish broth… it’s still a little mindblowing. And it doesn’t have to be highbrow. I still get a kick out of going to Sunrise Mart and microwaving their bento boxes.
Where do you find yourself spending most of your time?
I used to justify the expenses of living here by experiencing all the amazing cultural offerings this city has: shows, exhibitions, concerts—but everything changes so much once you have a kid. Now, I sort of do those things in a hypothetical way. I look at the Goings On section of The New Yorker and take some comfort in the fact that, if I wanted to, I could be attending all these events…
Since having my daughter (she’s now three), I’ve been walking a lot more. When she was a baby, I’d put her in a stroller and take a long walk, getting to know a lot of neighborhoods and their relationship to each other. I’d see that it wasn’t that far to get from Fort Greene to Park Slope, from Park Slope to Carroll Gardens. And I think all of New York is sort of like that. You get this illusion that things are farther apart than they really are because you have to go through the trouble of going downstairs and waiting for the subway, and taking the train, and coming back up when it could’ve been a ten minute walk. There are also all kinds of stuff I wouldn’t have ever experienced if I didn’t have a kid to entertain, such as going to a puppet show or the zoo (we go to the little zoo in Prospect Park all the time).
What are some things that surprised you or struck you about the city when you moved here?
Where I grew up, there’s a much clearer line of demarcation between the areas for the wealthy people and the areas for the poorer people, as well as other distinct divisions. Of course, they exist in New York too, but there’s just not enough space to have ten miles of barren land between one another; everybody is stepping on each other’s toes all the time. How people manage that can be off-putting or intimidating to me—on the other hand, it can be surprisingly considerate and helpful. It’s odd for me to even say this, but there have been more times where I’ve seen or been involved in scenarios in New York that I could describe as heartwarming, in many ways.
This one time, my wife and I were walking home from dinner when we saw a man get suddenly attacked by a group of five or six teenagers, and it turned out to be a pretty bad physical altercation. But within minutes, before I could even start to get out my cell phone, doors of nearby buildings swung open and residents came running out of their houses. One enormous guy (who looked like he should be a bouncer at a club) had one of the kids on the ground with his foot on his chest. In other cities, people might look out from behind their curtains nervously and start calling the cops, but I sense a willingness to get involved here that I don’t see everywhere else… maybe even a positive peer pressure, as though there are so many eyes upon you that you’re almost guilted into behaving properly, which is unusual.
Do you remember when you first felt at home in the city?
I have one very vivid memory: when I used to visit New York, I would come in for vacation and visit friends, and always spend the entire time in Manhattan. But when I met my wife—I actually came out from California to go on our first date—she was living in Brooklyn, on Bergen St. near Flatbush. We took the subway there, and I just remember it being so dramatic to go from the frenetic, noisy bustle of Manhattan and to come up out of the subway and be in a neighborhood that was extremely quiet and peaceful. I was taken by how beautiful the streets were: the brownstones, all the trees that were up above. I think, in that moment, there was the first glimmer in my mind that Brooklyn could possibly be a place I’d want to live after being on the West Coast my entire life.

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