The cartoonist Vanessa Davis’s work is not intimidating or exclusive; it’s inviting and comfortable. When I look at her comics, I am struck by her ability to create structurally sound, stylistically individual images that also manage to seem totally casual and spur-of-the-moment. The cliché “she makes it look so easy” is acutely appropriate for Vanessa and her work.
Her first book, Spaniel Rage, is being reissued this month by Drawn & Quarterly and will hit stores February 21. The book consists of drawings from a day-to-day diary Vanessa made in 2003 and features her published comics. I became familiar with Davis’s work through her 2010 book Make Me a Woman, as well as pieces of hers I saw online. It’s wonderful to pace myself through Spaniel Rage, peering into the making of an artist I admire so much.
One of my makeshift New Year’s Resolutions was to stop going easy on myself. On the day of Trump’s inauguration, I woke up with a to-do list longer than any I’d made in months. Faced with the impending doom of Trump’s administration, it was hard to do anything butgo easy on myself. Having the opportunity to call Vanessa that day pulled me through hours that passed at a snail’s pace. It felt absolutely fitting to consult with a creator who represents femininity in such a varied, honest fashion on Trump’s first day in the White House. We talked about accessing more of your brain, and how to birth originality from a lack of understanding.
RACHEL DAVIES: How are you holding up today? How are your news feeds?
VANESSA DAVIS: I actually had this plan that I was not even going to go online today, but then I automatically did.
I know, I know, I did the exact same thing! I was like, I’m going to have a busy day, I’ll just keep away from the news,but ended up logging in as soon as I woke up.
I was like, “I’m going to do yoga,” but ended up just doing all of this angry unfollowing.
I was so upset because the @POTUS Twitter changed hands from Obama to Trump, which I didn’t even think of as a thing that he would have to be given. So now Donald’ll be tweeting his shit from the official Twitter.
This is boring, but I got this notification yesterday from Flickr saying that the official White House Flickr was moving to Trump’s White House. Like eight years ago I used Flickr, so I was trying to log in to unfollow the White House–I used to follow it, ’cause it was like lovely to see the photos [of the Obama White House]—but I can’t log into Flickr anymore because I don’t remember the password. I’m annoyed because now I still follow the White House.
You’re like supporting the Trump pictures with a follow. [Laughs]
I can’t get into my stupid Flickr account!
I’m going to out you in this interview as a public Trump supporter via Flickr.
So, most of your work seems to intrinsically tell a story, even if it’s just a sketch or two in Spaniel Rage. I was clicking through on your Facebook to see your drawings that don’t appear in any of your books, and some of the stuff is just pattern work, or work that’s maybe more strictly aimed at being visually appealing. How does this work fit into your narrative bent?
I don’t know. I think that question is sort of about what the starting point [of any given work] is. I have this fine art background, and I’ve been inspired by a lot of design things. I love pattern making and beautiful images. When I was a younger artist, I wanted to master that. Before I wanted to be a cartoonist I wanted to be a textile designer, or a painter, or I wanted to be one of those people who mastered the way things looked. I figured I could because I was good at drawing, and I loved things that looked good. But I found that when I’m drawing comics, I’m working through a story. That’s something I fought against in my artwork for a long time because I didn’t realize I could combine those things. I didn’t realize I could combine my natural conversational storytelling, autobiographical instincts–which are probably stronger in me than my aesthetic ones. When I tried to be a designer or I tried to do beautiful things, just as beautiful things, they would fall short. They wouldn’t really do it, that isn’t where my skills lie. A lot of the stuff that you’ve seen that hasn’t been in books are things where I’m trying to work things out, [whether it’s] jokes, images, or how I draw. When I’m in the zone, I’m drawing from life, and I’m expressing a story. All the rest of the time I’m just grasping.
What’d you study in art school specifically?
It was sort of scattered. My whole experience in art school was not knowing what my niche was. I was lucky and I got to go to an arts magnet school from seventh grade, so seventh grade through high school I studied everything: sculpture, painting, drawing. When I got to college, I still didn’t know what to study. I transferred a bunch of times. I never actually picked a major. I got a general fine arts degree. It wasn’t really until after college that I considered making comics. I mostly studied painting and textiles.
Wow! Would you ever want to do a book that collects painting and textile works, or do you feel pretty set in comics?
I mean, I love painting and making textiles. Part of the reason I started making comics was that I didn’t have the room or the money to pursue those things after I was out of school. School offers you all of these facilities. You get a lot of space, and you have money and time to devote to large-scale art projects. When you’re fresh out of school and supporting yourself, you don’t. Comics afforded me the least amount of effort I could put toward art-making, and then it just took over my life. But yeah, I still love patterns, and I love painting. I’m actually taking a weird break right now because I rented a studio this year for the first time. I’d never worked outside of my house before. I’ve been doing these large-scale drawings, but I don’t know that they would turn into a book because I don’t feel like I need to pick.
Did you go to university in Florida as well?
Yes, as I said I transferred a bunch because I couldn’t decide. I went to this art high school, and I was a good student and was encouraged to pursue a “name brand” college education. The problem with me was that I couldn’t decide between going to a straight-up art school or a liberal arts school that had a good art department, which is what my parents wanted me to go to. First I went to Washington University in St. Louis, which is a good liberal arts school with a good art department, but I had a terrible attitude about it and transferred after one semester to art school, which is what I really wanted to do. I went to MICA, the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and that was cool, but weirdly the years that I attended were kind of dry. I was studying painting and textile design, and the department I was in was sort of macho. A lot of the painters in my class were, like, born again Christian landscape painters, and I had these totally nascent cartooning instincts that made my painting really cartoony. In the fibers department there, it was really [about] anti-utilitarian textiles and sort of macho-feminist, if that’s a description. I was sillier than everyone there. The decision was sort of made for me. My father died when I was a sophomore and at that point I just sort of gave up. I decided to just go home to the University of Florida. That ended up being the perfect art school to me because I had these really amazing teachers. I got really into drawing, I got really into botany. I was just sort of allowed to have a wider view of what it meant to be an artist because I didn’t have to be sequestered off in this artist’s world. You could actually make better art, and access more of your own brain by being surrounded by people who do other things and make other things. I really enjoyed going to U. of F. the most.
Do you feel like your own style is inspired more by artists who aren’t comics artists? Like, you have this really individual style that can be seen taking shape in Spaniel Rage with the comics that don’t have borders.
Yeah, I got a lot of good feedback on [not using borders]. People were like, “I love how you don’t need to use borders,” and it was like I got credited for not using borders as a point of strength, rather than a point of ignorance.
Well, I think it’s great, for sure!
Thanks! It was fun and it was [aimed at] figuring out how to spread one moment into another. It taught me how to develop my own transitions. First they were visual and design transitions, and then they became narrative transitions. There was a really weird period, maybe even the period that Make Me a Woman covers, when I decided to make comics the serious pursuit of my life. You could get jobs making comics, you could get jobs making illustrations, and every time I got a new assignment there were different restrictions. When I was asked to be in Kramers Ergot, this comics anthology, it was going to be in color. I had to figure out what to do since I didn’t have a computer, so I decided to watercolor. Then I got the job doing comics for Tablet magazine and those had to be really legible because they were for an audience that didn’t read comics necessarily. I had to make them a little more concise and less meandering. I started incorporating panels. The different assignments forced me to try different approaches toward comics that were sort of externally imposed, but then I would either adapt to them or not. When I started it just came from a place of misunderstanding.
With Spaniel Rage, you did a drawing of something that happened each day. Did you pick things based on what was visually appealing or just whatever was interesting to you in general?
Well, I had, like, a normal life. I wasn’t skydiving or anything. I was just commuting on the train, or sitting in front of a computer, or talking to someone. I think I started to be aware of whether something was funny, like some comment someone made, or a thought I had while sitting in front of the computer. A lot of times the things that stood out to me were emotional moments rather than action moments. I just used that as an exercise, or not, to make it visually interesting. So that became a challenge in and of itself.
Did you ever expect that you’d re-issue Spaniel Rage? It documents a specific time in your life so viscerally.
I didn’t even expect it to be issued the first time! I had just discovered comics. At that point it was just on the cusp of comics getting more attention culturally, and in the publishing world. Before that happened, the only people who were published were the most famous, or the most successful cartoonists. I was perfectly happy with this idea that I would continue working in the non-profit sector—I was working at a museum at the time—and that I would self-publish comics. [I thought it] would be a way to fulfill my artistic needs to make art for myself, but also to meet other down-to-earth, artsy, funky people. It’s always been important to me to be around exciting personalities. So when it was published, I was really surprised. I didn’t expect that it would ever be in print again. I’m really happy that it’s with Drawn & Quarterly, so all my stuff is at the same publishing house, and D & Q has always been my favorite publisher. It’s a dream come true to be published by them, and it feels really good that they picked it up!
In terms of it being personal…the comics are personal but life is always changing, and people are always changing. It’s, like, OK with me for something personal to be out there. They say that whole thing about your cells turning over every seven years, and at this point the person who is depicted in Spaniel Rage doesn’t even exist anymore. I mean, obviously I do, but it’s an interesting feeling because it’s at once very close to me, and so disassociated. I like that it exists as something that people can connect to personally, or it can remind them of a time in their lives, or the differences and the similarities can be examined. It’s pretty cool that can be there for that to happen.
When you finished school and moved to New York, what particularly drew you to New York? Did you get a job there, or were you just interested in living there?
Well, my family’s from New York. They moved to South Florida right before I was born, so in terms of, like, a big city to move to as a young person, it was kind of my only choice. I had a lot of friends there, who went to college there. My extended family all lived there, and I had a friend who was moving there and needed a roommate. It just seemed like the obvious choice. When I moved there, I didn’t have a job immediately. I actually worked at New York Central Art Supply in the paper department, which was a really great experience. I loved working there but just couldn’t afford to continue working there. I got the job at the Folk Art Museum, but that took a couple of months.
What were you doing at the Folk Art Museum?
I was the editorial assistant. The Folk Art Museum had–has? I don’t know how it’s run anymore–a publications department, and they published a quarterly magazine focusing on folk art. [I also worked on] all of the publications that the Folk Art Museum produced, so like invitations, signs, and all of the printed material. The woman who eventually became my boss alone handled all of the books that the museum published. I worked on the magazine. I had a little column where I talked about upcoming folk art events and exhibitions, and I helped do general editing.
That’s so cool!
It was really fun. It was a really awesome job.
Do you ever write non-fictionally about art for yourself, or do you mostly just reflect on stuff visually now?
Now that I’ve abandoned by day-job lifestyle, I’ve often thought of [the Folk Art Museum magazine] fondly. It’s fun, when you haven’t done it in a long time, to go to work and to get a paycheck. It’s fun to be in the mix, and [for work to be] not only about myself. I guess I’ve sort of forced…I mean, I haven’t done it, I’d like to do it, but I would like to do it—to write about other people.
Do you think that the Spaniel Rage project would have totally changed form if it had been done like, 10 years later? Especially now that you can draw and instantly share work with your audience on social media?
Oh, absolutely. At the time, it occurred to me as though it was my own idea to put it on the internet. Livejournal was really popular and my friend had a Livejournal. I wanted to do it but with my comics, but at the time you had to know how to code in order to put an image on Livejournal. I just decided that it was too hard. I was too early for the web comics moment. Now the closest thing I’ve come to being an online cartoonist is these comics I did for The Paris Review this past summer and fall. Those weren’t really daily diary comics. They were extended pieces. Being online affects the format because you do these things that need, like, long columns that scroll and can be read on Instagram. It affects the way you draw it. I always want to go back to the diary format. I think about it a lot. It’s always been what I do when I’m lost, and I don’t know what to do next. I’ve sort of taken refuge in it. I haven’t really seen what would happen if I did it with social media involved.
Do you make comics daily, in the style of Make Me a Woman, or do you mostly just work toward deadlines, commissions, and that sort of thing?
Truthfully, I mostly work toward deadlines for commissions and jobs. Right now, I don’t have a lot of really big projects, so I’m doing these big drawings. I’m doing these big drawings sort of like going to the gym. I had this long illustration project that ended this year. It was a really fun project but it was very time consuming, and I hadn’t actually drawn any comics in the time that I had the job. Before that I did these comics for Tablet, and I did these comics for magazines, and while they all were very personal, they took the format they needed to take for the publication. So I thought to myself, If you don’t have to do it for anybody specifically, what would you do? It was that moment, too, when I felt kind of lost. Instead of turning to the diary comics, I decided to stretch myself. I felt like I didn’t know how to draw. I did these big drawings to physically and mentally stretch out, and to just get back in touch with technique, if that makes sense.
Do you have any advice for young artists?
It sounds like a cliché, but I think the best thing to do as an artist is to be yourself, and all that it entails. Don’t worry about what painting is supposed to look like. Don’t worry about what comics are supposed to look like, or what drawing is supposed to look like. I had this very comics-y, illustrative style throughout my fine arts education that I could not kick. I practiced and I learned to draw from observation, but I always had this style–it was just in me. Finally I gave in. It was what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to be an illustrator, I was supposed to be a cartoonist. Yes, it’s a big endeavor to learn the fundamentals of art, and it helps you break the rules to learn the rules. But at a certain point you have to take what you’ve learned, and take what you are, and reconcile them. What you are is just as important, if not more important, than those fundamentals. When I say be yourself, I mean really own your strengths, weaknesses, and personality to the fullest. They’re the only things that distinguish you from other artists. Art can have a lot of trends, especially in this age of social media, when everyone’s sharing things and copying things like makeup styles, and fashion styles, and art styles. All that is fun, but in order to get to your true expression, you have to look within. You have to own and accept who you are and what you’re all about. ♦