When Connor Willumsen expressed interest in being the 2012-2013 CCS Fellow I wasn’t familiar with his work. One visit to his website was all I needed to be convinced that he was a cartoonist who not only created compelling images but, as this brief interview demonstrates, possesses a sharp and probing intellect.
JS: When I first encountered your work it was clear you could draw whatever the hell you wanted and there seemed like a really vigorous attempt to challenge yourself and perhaps your audience. Would that be a fair statement of where you were at when you first arrived at CCS?
CW: When you say ‘draw whatever the hell you wanted’ I take it that you mean in a sort of technical or representational way as opposed to content? That is fair. I have had a tendency, which seems natural but is probably only cultural, to explore that sort of western-style technical proficiency and am really helplessly interested in available tools and format. When it comes to drawing I tend to have a sort of craft person’s perspective. I think that any of my personal challenge is a result of this approach being at odds with or even negating certain definitions of being an artist who has faculty and engages with history. Unfortunately, I am not more than vaguely aware of my audience or who they are, so any challenge of them is usually accidental.
JS: Can you unpack this for me a little? What do you mean by engaging with history? Does the relative degree of a cartoonist’s faculty impact the way they engage history?
CW: When I say “engaging history” I mean having a sensitive awareness of your surroundings, but a surrounding that is not restricted to an immediate or specific time and place. I would also include the future into this definition of history, it being a potential history. I don’t necessarily mean it in terms of a history textbook, or the history of comics, like an exclusive document of the past. Uh, I think of it as an external, non idiom-based pursuit that hopefully creates the conditions for illumination or discovery or meaning or whatever it is a person might be particular about finding. When I get a little off-track with a definition I like to hit the Online Etymology Dictionary, and in this case I think it’s appropriate to quote from the “History” entry: “….from root *weid- “to know,” literally “to see” (see vision).” Maybe to understand the history of a word, for example, is to understand it in a wider dimension as opposed to a more correct one? Thinking about it, I like to consider a cartoonist or artist’s faculty as a result of being engaged with history, as opposed to a faculty that impacts the way they engage with history. Like you become very obviously more equipped as a result.
JS: Is this just a roundabout way that drawing is a way of seeing (as history, if I understand the way you are defining the word correctly, is synonymous with seeing)?
CW: It’s nice to extrapolate enough meaning from the words ‘drawing’ and ‘history’ that they can stand in relationship. This could be a way to word it: History can be a way of seeing, and drawing is bearing the vision.
JS: I like that. Did you have specific goals in mind for your year in WRJ?
CW: I would not call them specific. The most substantial idea I had was living in a sort of mental space that was intentionally void of vision or goal-driven creative ambition by taking advantage of what I assumed would be an extremely isolated setting. I wanted to facilitate a situation where my obligations were as aimless as they ever had been, cultivate a patient boredom, and see what materialized in the vacuum. I was looking forward to a lot of reading and the arbitrary research of whatever. That’s not to say I meant to be unproductive, at all, but the idea was to play around with my priorities. I had a few books in mind that I wanted to start or continue making, but had an idea that those plans were likely to change and at this point I can’t remember what those books were.
JS: This seems like a healthy approach, letting your path organically reveal itself as opposed to having some specific project in mind. Maybe this is the difference between being a commercial artist and being an artist?
CW: Maybe so. The commercial aspect is so deeply essential in this time and place on planet earth that it cannot be removed by any method that I am aware of. Narrowing it down a little further, this might be the difference between being driven by a career and being driven by an interest that has no obvious practical merit.
JS: “Obvious” being the key word. Is it too early to glean how living among so many cartoonists and the constant stream of visiting artists impacted your work?
CW: That sort of self-reflection is a too obscure for me to deal with. Obviously it had an impact but I don’t think I’m in a position to locate it. I don’t know if I am more integrated into the tradition of the craft or if I’m having some sort of reactionary inclination. Is there a difference? It’s complicated to define yourself with a tradition. There was something interesting happening when cartoonists of a wide variety would mingle. Technical discussions would often turn into sort of emotional debates about basic ideologies. There was a lot of questioning and provocation. The constant arguing seemed more academic in that way than my previous art school experiences. I remember that the Scott McCloud talks produced an intense anxiety in the room. Everyone had something to say and the antagonizing principle seemed to be whether or not you considered technological progress to necessarily be a good thing. We were all prefacing cautious condemnations with “Is there a fear that…” which seemed to really I mean, “I am afraid of.” It got really personal.
JS: It is personal! And more than just an academic argument. As a young cartoonist, I couldn’t define who I was as a cartoonist but it was much easier to identify what I didn’t want to be and, in a general way, define my aspirations. By constantly reading comics I was looking for doors to walk through, looking for fruitful directions to explore. That anxiety you speak of is likely the fear that someone may never become the cartoonist they aspire to be. At that age, fellow students, every visiting artist, can challenge who you think you are as a cartoonist. Eventually you start defining yourself —by what you are about and not just in constant opposition to something else. This is a messy process.
CW: It seems like there is a lot of energy spent figuring out where to belong, but I think most cartoonists would hate to discover that they obviously belong to a group. I think it is a reverberative stress on the artist that one of the great traditions of art in this part of the world is rejecting tradition. Maybe the cartoonist today feels displaced from the traditions of cartooning related to commerce and pop culture, so there is an aggressive frontier attitude committed to finding alternatives.
JS: I think that aggressive frontier attitude is an essential part of any medium’s growth. There’s pleasure to be had in DC or Marvel or more mainstream fare but that is certainly not where you’d look if you wanted to get a sense of where comics are headed. You did aborted gigs at both Marvel and DC. Did it feel too restrictive?
CW: It was restrictive, but I tried not to let it feel that way and went forward as if it wasn’t. As I worked I ignored as best as I could the obvious and justified stigma those books have in regards to quality. I sensed a certain disapproval of that approach, and a lack of faith in my ability to cartoon, which I would call fair enough. I was familiar with how these companies produce their books, so I tried to cover myself by making a clear agreement of what I would be allowed to do up front, so that when I was met with opposition to this agreement I would have the option to discontinue if I felt uncomfortable. There were points in comics history where, if you were making money drawing comics, the freedoms that I tried to arrange were commonplace. Now, with these mainstream corporate projects, the validation to try anything seems like an extraordinary privilege. It’s too bad.
JS: Tell me about the project you created during your time at CCS?
CW: I made a 55-page book called Treasure Island that I had hit an easy stride with. I made it near the end of the school year and in a short amount of time. I planned very little. I think I was calm enough or had absorbed enough that I was prepared to burn through it quickly. There was comparatively little anxiety in making that book.
JS: One of things that’s so thrilling about your work is on one hand you have such great control (level of craft) but at the same time it’s clear you are willing to let the work organically develop without trying to over think it. Do you think there is a qualitative difference in your work that’s produced with less anxiety or is just more enjoyable to produce?
CW: It is more enjoyable to produce, but I wouldn’t claim that it necessarily makes the work better. I don’t think it’s the type of thing where the reader can sense the tranquility of the author. The specific anxiety that was diminished was of the career progress sort. It’s unattractive when I notice that subterfuge in my own work. That anxiety is more interesting to me as a subject than as an ulterior motive.
JS: Without my ample supply of anxiety and stress I doubt I’d have ever found my way to my drawing board. What’s next for you, Connor? Anything you’re working on now you feel comfortable sharing?
CW: I’m talking to some of these new micro publishers about having my work printed and distributed. Some of it would be new, some of it would be old, but I’ll avoid being specific about it. I’m excited to have my work in people’s hands for a change. Otherwise, I’m trying to figure how I’m going to be able to keep doing what I’m doing both in the short and long term, whether or not I’ll make any money doing it. It’s a funny time to get started with this medium and it’s easy to be embarrassed about art in general in the face of everything else, but that seems like cop out. I think a shift of expectation is required. There is that frontier quality we mentioned, engendered by the erosion of thought and the usual creative channels, and I’m hopeful to explore that landscape more than anything. I think culture is painfully starved for new images of worth and there is a lot of need and room for artists with faculty. If I have a goal, it’s to be a part of that in some way.
More information about CCS’s Fellowship can be found here.