A conversation between Alex Allenchey and Margot Ferrick
Alex Allenchey: Having grown up in the suburbs of Long Island and briefly attending Pratt Institute, before pursuing an art degree elsewhere, when did you know you that artmaking was something you needed to do? Was art always a part of your life and were there ever challenges with asserting it as an essential part of your life?
Margot Ferrick: I think art was always really important to me. It sounds really cliche but I remember feeling like it was an absolute need pretty early on. When I was in middle school I started to feel like there was nothing else I wanted to do with my life besides make art of some kind, though I had no idea how to actually make that happen. I think at some point my parents didn't really think I could support myself with anything art related and that became a bit of an obstacle. My mother got kind of aggressive about it, to the point where she would tell me the stuff I was making was actually bad or she would doubt and question opportunities or little awards I received. At the time this all felt extremely dire. I felt like I was desperately trying to assert this part of myself that was being squashed out and I felt like I would literally die if I didn't make art. I still feel that desperation now, to be honest, but I think my biggest obstacles are internal.
AA: In another interview you mention a formative encounter with the work of Eva Hesse. While I find the distinction between “high” and “low” artforms somewhat arbitrary and unnecessary, was this your first remembered encounter with fine art? What was it about Hesse’s work that spoke to you in such a profound way, especially considering so much of her work is sculptural? And are there any other artists who you find particularly compelling?
MF: Liking Eva Hesse makes me feel kind of silly—that almost seems like a stereotypical artist to like or something. She was probably my first encounter with fine art though. One of my high school art teachers brought a big book of Hesse's work to class. I think I probably found it all really disgusting at first but it stuck with me, I think partly because so many of those pieces seem anthropomorphic and I'm drawn to gross little characters. Sometimes I find myself more moved by sculpture than drawing or painting and I'm not sure why. Years ago, there was a show of Picasso sculptures at the MoMA and I felt really excited by the whole thing. I remember feeling similarly about this Lyonel Feininger show that included a city made up of little wooden sculptures. I guess I'm just really attracted to objects.
AA: I was perusing some early sketchbooks of yours from 2013 that are available online at 2dcloud, which seem to include hints and references to future motifs and characters. I’m curious about your creative process and how your unique story concepts are generated. Are you constantly formulating new ideas for concrete works in sketchbooks?
MF: I think I keep a lot of my ideas for future works in my head. There are a lot of sketchbooks—separate ones for different stories or characters or concepts—but I think most of it lives in my head and I just wind up telling myself the story over and over until I figure it out. Sometimes I'll talk to a couple of friends about these characters as if I'm talking about a real person and that also seems to help. I have a feeling that this actually makes it harder for me to make concrete work because it's a lot safer and easier to just play these stories out by myself.
AA: Speaking of your characters, I couldn’t help but notice how many of them are animals; not even anthropomorphized, but actual walking and talking animals. When did you first start using animals like Dognurse or Catsy as central figures, and how do you find them different to write and illustrate than humans?
MF: I used to draw mostly human characters but at some point I just stopped liking the way I drew them. They were very elegant people with elegant faces, or seemed elegant to me at the time anyway, but with stiff bodies and expressions. It was like they couldn't get over themselves, they weren't flexible enough to tell a story and they just got in the way. When I draw something simpler like Catsy or Petso or Dognurse, the expression suddenly becomes more genuine. I'd like to figure out how to use more realistic looking people at some point.
AA: The use of typography in your graphic novels is stunning, with words cascading across pages and seemingly operating on multiple levels as conveyors of mood and emotion. I’m thinking primarily of a work like Yours, but it’s of course true of other books as well. You’d previously mentioned Emily Dickenson as an influence with regards to her placement and use of words as compositional elements. When did you arrive at this particular style of artmaking?
MF: Thanks! I actually don't think I can make work like that anymore. [Laughs.] I tried drawing letters recently and it felt really difficult… That mode of work might be totally gone for me now and it's hard to even remember what it was like making Yours. Emily Dickinson was an important influence. I thought it was the visuals of her work, the placement of her handwriting, and the writing itself, but now I wonder if it was more because of whatever she represented to me as a person. Looking back, I think I made all that work focusing on letters because it was a lot easier getting a good comics-flow that way. Making comics with characters and environments has always been really hard for me because I get stuck on one drawing and wind up beating it to death. At the time, I would have said the focus on letters was inspired by medieval manuscripts and marginalia... Looking back, that's still true but I think it was more about the flow.
AA: Some of the works in the online exhibition are illustrations from your graphic novels (though I can’t quite place those five long-necked people.) My partner works with illustrators and comic artists, so I’m maybe closer to the subculture than most, but I’m curious how you regard the general public’s esteem of graphic novels, and how you see their standing in the larger world shifting, if at all?
MF: The long-necked people were made for a reading I did a few years ago. There are more than what's in the show—when you scroll through them they form a really simple animation. There was a sort of poem that went along with it, too.
It's hard, I don't really know what people in the US think of comics or graphic novels and I feel like I'm only part of a very small world. It seems really hard to make a living off of it here. I know a few comics artists who people look at and think they've “made it," but I don't think it necessarily improves your finances much. Also, it feels like readers in general still think their work is pretty confounding. It almost seems like people still get hung up on the fact that they're reading a comic. It's probably changing. I don't really have the broadest perspective on this because my sphere is pretty small.
AA: Harkening back to your novel use of typography and text as a graphic element, how would you describe the potential of the graphic novel medium? I assume there’s more room to express larger ideas and narratives over time as opposed to a single canvas, but do the traditional methods of storytelling or “classic” panel by panel movement ever feel restricting? And if so, how do you handle those limitations?
MF: I don't really feel restricted by comics, it's more like there are too many possibilities and that's what freezes me up. It feels like this skill or platform that could express everything I want to express if I could just get better at it, but most of the time I just find myself feeling lost, like I don't know how to even take the first step. I used to feel like panel structure was suffocating—that's why I did comics like Yours—but now it's something I desperately want to figure out. I don't understand the basics enough to actually be suffocated by them.
AA: Obviously we're still mired in the middle of a national pandemic, which has taken a real physical and psychic drain on everyone’s well-being. How are you holding up? I'm sure routines have changed, but do you have any surprising positive developments or tips for surviving in this new normal?
MF: I've been OK for the most part; I've been lucky in a lot of ways. At some point I really lost my grip on any sort of routine and I think things would have gone better if I had made myself stick to a consistent routine. I really regret not exercising regularly too.
AA: What projects do you have in the works? Are they extensions of earlier stories or something completely new?
MF: Right now I'm working on a couple of short comics and a sequel to Dognurse, which is a comic I made a few years ago.