The artist on the impact of comic books and the journey to understanding her own story.
Comic books and superheroes are a big influence on your work. What are some of your earliest memories of comic books, and why do you think they had such an impact?
When I was a little girl, I was a huge tomboy and was really into cartoons and comics. Every Saturday morning, I’d watch cartoons with my brother. I remember going to Borders Books and Music and asking my parents to buy me any book that had a collection of comics – or was about the art of comics. How to Draw the Marvel Way by Stan Lee was a favorite of mine. I’d also collect action figures and play with them in my bedroom, making up stories for hours.
I think they had such an impact on me because I secretly wished I could be one of them. But in the larger sense, I wasn’t reading any stories or watching any movies about young girls and women that I identified with. All the storylines that interested me tended to be male-driven characters and storylines. Something about drawing and copying all these typically male superheroes made me feel seen. Looking back, I realize something way more complicated was going on that my little child brain couldn’t understand yet.
You've cited artists like Tom of Finland as inspiration for aspects of your art. What initially inspired you to apply the kinds of hyper-muscled physiques of artists like Finland to female figures, and what does it mean for you to reinterpret that traditionally (in Finland's case) queer male aesthetic?
I think when I discovered Tom of Finland’s work it was like one of those brain-exploding moments. Here, I saw the same muscular male physique that I saw in the world of mainstream comics – but instead, it was totally queer. I was like, "Oh yeah, this feels closer to me. This feels more right." But I was still years away from understanding why.
This kind of ties back into the first question – I think my journey as an artist has been one of latching into other people's stories in an attempt to find and understand mine. I felt completely disconnected from what I understood it meant to be a girl – so I attached and connected with the visual aesthetics and interests of boys at the time (superheroes, comics, etc). I couldn’t understand how to depict women in a way that I identified with – for years I continued to only depict men. And as far as depictions of lesbian love or desire, I barely had any examples available to me at the time. Tom of Finland and this type of hyper-muscular, queer male aesthetic kind of stood in.
Years later, I started to realize I needed to start depicting my own experience. I pulled from all my childhood influences and started combining both masculine and feminine traits. I think through this, I am still trying to understand my relationship to femininity and masculinity. And I am also constantly trying to deal with the invisibility of lesbian desire.
How do you curate the spaces you work in so you feel your most comfortable? What are some of your must-haves in the studio that people might not expect?
I try to make my studio as homey as possible while still remaining a workspace. I have posters hanging of favorite artists, postcards from friends, and random decorative objects I find funny. A bookshelf with my collection of art books that I’m constantly referencing. I have several rugs on the floor that are covered in paint and debris. If I could, my ideal studio would be my bedroom, but it’s just not practical given the scale of the work I do now. I still try and keep hints of that here and there.
How do you think about the process of printmaking within the context of your overall practice?
I see printmaking as an integral part of my practice, as important as drawing or painting. My entry into art making was through the printed page – through art that was made “in multiple” – whether that be a comic book or a cartoon or a concert poster. It only makes sense that my work remains in dialogue with that idea, and I think printmaking is a medium that allows me to do that.
Screenprinting, in particular, feels like it has a direct connection to my earliest artistic influences. I started screenprinting about sixteen years ago when I was an undergrad at MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art] – and it’s something I continued during my time at Yale for my master's.
A lot of your work employs humor in a bold way and it feels so important to the art. How do you like to play with humor to tackle serious cultural issues within your work?
Yeah, it totally is. I don’t think I ever set out thinking, "Oh this painting or print or drawing is going to be funny." I think it just happens naturally. I also don’t think the work is laugh-out-loud funny – I think the humor is more subtle and insidious. I think humor can be subversive but also liberating. I like the idea of making a “friendly” image – one that utilizes bright colors and a visual style that feels familiar and connected to popular culture. And then I think the content of the work slowly seeps out once the initial image has been processed.
To me, humor has been something I've used to cope throughout life (as is true for many people). The rules and boundaries humans create for themselves are quite funny to me – once I get over how harmful and dangerous they are. In my work, I play with these arbitrary boundaries in regard to gender and sexuality.