Sunday, May 31, 2009

Interview: Sarah Oleksyk

From the first cartoon of hers that I saw in Papercutter #4, I knew that 31 year-old, Portland-based cartoonist Sarah Oleksyk was an artist I had to learn more about. Thanks to her graciousness, I was able to interview her about her life and her newest project, IVY, over the last few months. Enjoy.

C: How did you end up in Portland?
S: I moved to Portland in 2001, after taking a week-long trip out here to scope it out. I was living in Portland, Maine at the time and I didn't want to stay there, but I knew I couldn't afford living in NYC (where I went to school), so I was looking for a new place. When I came out here I just felt it was the right place to be - not too small, not too big, pretty and inexpensive. And here I am.

C: Do you think that living in a place full of cartoonists has affected your work? How? Has it affected your work on IVY?
S: When I got here there was definitely an artists' community, but in the 7-8 years since SO MANY CARTOONISTS have moved to town. And it's great! I end up running into people I know at most events or even just out on the town, and I always have someone I can call to go out for coffee and draw with. Certain people have had comics-themed events at their houses or at their stores, or just informal get-togethers where we're working on our projects and talking about our experiences. I've had friends hook me up with jobs, gallery shows, all sorts of things. The support and connection I get from the people in town is really amazing, and through my friends here I've met a ton of other creators all over the country, because of comics shows and traveling. Seeing other peoples' working processes, hearing their complaints and encouragement, all of that has made me both feel like a part of something bigger, and made me feel more like a professional. Plus it lights fires under my butt to get my book done, because everyone wants to know how it ends!

C: I certainly want to know how it ends! "It" is IVY, your most excellent comic about an arty teenage girl waiting to get out of her Maine hometown and famillial responsibilities. Even though the story is set in Maine, it feels quite universal. Did you set out to write a Maine story?
S: I did set out to write a Maine story. It's where I grew up, and it hasn't been mined very deeply as far as pop culture goes. Maine is such an isolated (though less so nowadays) and strange microcosm of back-woodsiness and do-it-yourself, get-off-my-land mentality. Most people only know about Steven King and lobsters. It was a spare and beautiful place to grow up - you had to find your own entertainment.

C: Is Ivy based on anyone? She and her friends are amazingly real--how did you do that?
S: Ivy started out just being my stand-in, but over time I've allowed her more dominant traits (anger, impatience, narcissism) to really come out and shine. I was really shy and submissive as a teenager - I let a lot of people walk all over me. I guess Ivy was sort of the me that was seething inside, allowed to come out in full vengeful bloom. Ha! The rest of the characters - well, a few were originally based on specific people, but as far as all my characters go, they begin to take on their own behaviors and personalities. I like to have opposing characters jut up against one another to see what sort of sparks arise. It's all that makes interaction interesting - the conflict!

C: In Chapter 1, Ivy meets a cool guy at an art college fair. They begin writing letters to each other and have a wee romance. The look and content of these letters gave me severe 90s flashbacks. How did you decide on the tone of their correspondence? Why did you make this a part of Ivy's story?
S: The letters Josh sends to Ivy are a key clue to his mindset and psyche. I actually have letters written to me from teenage boys when I was a teenager (in the 90s), and when I look at them now, I'm amazed both by how romantic and trite and juvenile they are, and also by how much they made me feel special and loved. Ivy loves Josh because he gives her attention and makes her feel important - she has someone OUT OF STATE (intriguing!) who has focused on her as being worthy of attention. I think that sense of being important to someone at that age eclipses even who that other person is. The nature of the letters themselves, being smeary and doodled-upon and shifting subject without warning, is an early clue as to who Josh is. It's a part of the story because to a teenager who doesn't have the physical presence of her crush object available to her, the letters and little gifts become as important as the other person himself.

C: In one of my favorite comics of yours, “Fifteen Variations on the First Day We Met,” love is viewed very optimistically. Optimism towards adult love seems to be missing from IVY, especially with regard to Ivy's mom. The kids are all horny and crush-y, why not give them a relationship to look up to?
S: I never viewed the love in Fifteen Variations as being particularly "optimistic", though now that I go back and look, it is. The first time you meet someone, and the ensuing "honeymoon period", is just that - idealized, starry-eyed, a rush. Hard times come later. Ivy was based a lot initially on my own home situation growing up, and while I changed the outward nature of a lot of the characters over time, the fundamental distrust of adult relationships is still there. My parents weren't together and in all honesty I didn't, and haven't, seen a lot of mature relationships that were functional and happy. Maybe it's my own lack of imagination, but I don't have a lot to draw from in the way of writing a stable, working, happy family dynamic, and so I wrote what I knew. Many books about children focus on their problems in the environment of a presumed functional, two-parent family, and I don't see a lot of narratives where the adults' relationship problems directly impacts the childrens', so here was my chance to reflect that as well.

C: Yeah, stuff written about teenagers usually falls into two camps--either super sleazy and exploitative or really simplistic. I often avoid reading stuff about teenage girls (coming of age? shudder!) for that very reason, and as a teen girl I always felt condescended to if I did. Did you think about those cliches while creating IVY?
S: I very much held all the things i DIDNT want to do in mind while writing Ivy, perhaps even more so than what I DID want to do. I think the key for me was never to think of this book as a "coming of age" story, or really any genre of story at all. It was mostly just a character study and slice-of-life tale where a lesson is learned. I remember vividly being a girl Ivy's age and not feeling much different than I do now - I was a person in my head, living in my situation, and not a collection of cliches and roles and "supposed-to"s that I feel a lot of teenage female characters are diluted down to. That expectation of what a teenage girl "should be" or "should think" is a very real force in a lot of real girls' lives, making them doubt themselves and their desires and reactions and personality quirks and all the other things that make them individuals. I wrote a story about an individual going through a difficult situation, and it just happened to be a teenaged girl at the end of her high school gauntlet. I tried very hard never to rely on cliche, just to pull out the threads of reality and weave them through each scene, wrapped in as much emotional honesty as I could remember.

C: And, for the gear heads: What tools did you use to create IVY's fluid, beautiful, B&W art?
S: I use a single Utrecht brand natural sable #2 watercolor brush. That's it, all the linework comes from that brush. I occasionally buy pencils but I find them on the street all the time (I live near a high school, those sidewalks are a goldmine for dropped pencils). All the grays are added in Photoshop with a tablet. I do all the cleanup in Photoshop as well, since it looks a lot cleaner and is so much quicker than using ProWhite.

C: Anything else coming up that you want to talk about?
S: I have a few plans in mind for shorter projects while I form the next full-length book in my head. I have two concepts for full-length novels after this, and a few mildly erotic fantasy short-stories to have fun with while I round the longer stuff out. I'm also planning to make more silkscreen prints - smaller, more affordable ones in series. It's good to have more than one thing going on so the long, endless projects don't drag you under!

AND, IVY #4 is out now and I can't wait to read it. MoCCA Ordering from her website can not come soon enough.


Sarah O said...

Thanks for the interview - but just to let you know, I won't be at MoCCA! Right now the new chapter is only available from my site, so email me for ordering information. ;)

looka said...