August 21, 2014

Writing and Art Together: Summer Pierre, Cartoonist, Writer, and Illustrator

It was through this tweeted exchange about morning dancing that I discovered Summer Pierre, with her brilliant range of drawings and writings. Here, she tells more about her drive and work in illustrations, comics, including a series of book portraits. One detail, among many, you’ll find out during the course of this interview, mornings very much suit her creativity.

On being a cartoonist, illustrator, and writer

You are a cartoonist, illustrator, and writer. Is this the order 
of the disciplines you do? Is there a role you primarily 
call yourself? How does each discipline influence each other?
I think the order I would give myself right now is Cartoonist, Writer, and Illustrator. I am doing more comics than anything right now, and as a result, feel that my illustration is in a place of transition. That being said, writing fuels it all. I have been drawing longer than writing, but there is something about writing that is the taproot of all that I do.

One of my custom book portraits

How did you arrive at wanting to work in illustration and comics?
I made comics as a kid and always loved visual storytelling. As an adult, I struggled to figure out a way to put my writing and art together that was fluid. Turns out, the struggle was unnecessary! I just needed to return to my old love of comics! Illustration was similar. I’ve been inspired and encouraged by all the illustrated books for adults that have come out in the last decade. I feel like it’s a lucky time to be a visual storyteller. There’s so many good things out there, that it’s hard not to want to throw your own hat into the ring.

Can you give a tour of how an idea, for illustration or comic, 
gets real? For example, out of the many I take delight in, how did you make, step by step, your “Archival Large Cake Print”?
I work extremely well within a series and/or lists. For the cake print, I simply decided to try and draw a list of my favorite cakes. It helped that I was trying to lose post-pregnancy weight and couldn’t eat sweets. It was a blast to draw delicious-looking cakes—they are so visual and pretty. Inspired by this process, I drew a bunch of my favorite cookbooks, then American novels, then children’s books.

Lists give me clear trajectories, something that isn’t always apparent in art. I think that’s what I like about working in comics—the literal framework, the panels give great boundaries to work within. When I started doing comics “seriously,” it was simply a daily practice of putting something, anything that happened during the day in 9 panels. I often have no idea what I am going to create from, but by the time I draw out the frame, some little kernel will make itself known and a small story will emerge. I don’t draft it out first in pencil—it’s purely what comes as it comes. As a result, it can be a bit wonky, but it’s also alive and I like that.

Speaking of “out of the many,” amplified by your 
vast Flickr gallery, do you sleep? Morning or night person, 
and why the preference?
Sometimes I sleep (ha). Being a parent has made sleep a challenge and a commodity. I am a morning person. I adore the mornings and feel energized by them.

Adjectives that I apply to your work are witty and nostalgic. 
How would you describe your visual style?
Oh, I like that! I think I would describe it as imperfect, but accurate.

How do you practice drawing and writing in order to 
feel competent and confident at realizing this skills?
I do it every day. I do it when I can, with what I have. Being a parent has cut my time down, but it’s also given me fantastic boundaries and deadlines. I get a lot more done because I have to. Honestly, the thing that I learn all the time about being competent is that you learn always by DOING. Sometimes the doing is a mess, but that’s part of it.

One of my books, “Great Gals: Inspired Ideas for Living a Kick-Ass Life”

What is your vision of growth, as it relates to your career?
Stretching my sense of limits. The last 2 years have been about acting on long-held dreams. Every time I catch myself yearning and hesitating on a goal, I think, “Screw it!”, and try it out. It doesn’t always work out, but when it has, it’s blown me into a new reality.

Who, where, and/or what are your influences 
in illustration, comics, writing?
For comics, I’d say my main influences are Charles Bukowski, Dorothea Grossman, Anne Lamott, Hergé, and Lynda Barry. Bukowski, Grossman, and Lamott aren’t cartoonists, but their writings have been huge beacons of how and what I want to cover in my comics. Hergé’s “Tintin” blew my mind early on, and I still feel his influence to this day. I took Lynda Barry’s class 8 years ago and it changed my life. Her work is hilarious and profound, and while she has probably no idea who I am, I consider her a mentor. I often think: What would Lynda do? I should make a bracelet with “WWLBD?” on it.

Some of my vintage looking packaging collection

I adore vintage-inspired illustration with bold colors. I love old packaging so much and look for it everywhere (and collect it). The color in my work, and the color I look for, are inspired by two sources: “Tintin” books by Hergé and Technicolor movies. The color in “Tintin” still makes my mouth water. Old movies filmed in Technicolor look like illustrations to me. I would love to make illustrations that look as good as a Technicolor movie! I love the work of Jessie Hartland, Sarah Fanelli, and of course, Maira Kalman. Kalman’s work constantly urges me to look for delight and joy, and to draw it.

Who, where, and/or what keep(s) you going 
as a cartoonist, illustrator, and writer?
That changes all the time. Lately, it’s mortality. My mom died last year, and it really woke me up to how short our time is. Even if we live to be 100, it’s not that much time. There is so much I want to do and to tell, and I don’t have much time. So I run with it, wanting to know my life as much as I can, while I still can.

How do you get the word out about what you do? 
How do you attract people to your work?
I keep a consistent blog, a tweet, I send out an occasional newsletter and promotional postcards. I also love to write postcards and connect with people. If I love something that somebody does, I tell them as personally and as honestly as possible. I also just started going to comics conferences, and these have been fantastic. I love meeting people who love comics as much as I do.

On creativity, illustrating, working

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?
I listen carefully and I try to speak up for myself. Truthfully, I am better at listening than speaking up for myself. I am currently learning the value of integrity in conflict, instead of the knee-jerk reaction of pleasing people.

Menu-project inspired by my first trimester

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying, 
and how did you deal with it?
See above! Nowhere is this more apparent than in my negotiations around money. Like a lot of artists, I struggle with feeling strong in money negotiations. I recently had a job that I totally undercharged a client, and it taught me SO MUCH about what my time is actually worth, and how it not only set a precedent for how the client worked with me, but how I worked for the client. I decided to educate myself on pricing so that the boundaries have been so much clearer, and the work, as a result, is better.

My home-studio space

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute 
to doing the quality of work you want to do?
I have a studio space at home, but sometimes being home gets too isolating, so I go to the a café or library. It helps a great deal. When I lived in Brooklyn, working at home was great because the rest of the world was so stimulating. Here, my life is SO quiet. I need the public spaces. Every time I go out to a café or library, I overhear a conversation or a song being played, or have an exchange with someone that usually ends up in a comic, so it can be a very good thing for me.

Stack of my working sketchbooks

Recent comic in my sketchbook

What tools do you use and recommend to work: 
for collaborating, getting things done, and running your practice?
I do literally all raw work in my hardbound journal/sketchbook, made by Canson or Cachet: art, notes, planning, etc. It works as a filing system to have it all in one place. Then I have spreadsheets on my computer for submission work, accounting, and databases. Keep it as organized and clean as possible. My experience is that systems of organization and execution can be the last thing you want to set up, but are key to managing workflow and business. I thank the sweet stars all the time for my spreadheets!

How important is it for you to follow your instincts?
I think it’s extremely important. I have learned time and time again to listen to that “funny feeling” in my gut when it crops up. Sometimes it’s baffling as hell why it shows up, but I am NEVER sorry when I do pay attention to it, and ALWAYS sorry when I don’t.

If a person approached you and said, “I want to illustrate 
and make comics,” what’s your response?
“Great—now get down to it!” Most of the time I have learned that when people TALK in terms of “wanting” something, they aren’t ready to have it. They just want to talk about it, so they can feel close to doing it, without doing it. So I keep such conversations encouraging, but short. We all have dreams, but the less you get ready for them, and the more you do towards them, the better. Talk to me when you’re doing them—I’ll be so happy to hear from you.

How does the city of Hudson Valley, New York, 
contribute to your work? And what makes it special for 
I’ve been in the Hudson Valley only 2 years and I’m not even in the “cool” part of it. I’m on the other side of the river, where access to New York City is a little harder. That being said, it’s inexpensive and gorgeous. Prior to living here, I lived in Brooklyn, and while I miss access to NYC and the culture, the Hudson Valley has been a powerful environment in helping me clarify what I want to do. Here, I have felt freer to find my authentic voice that isn’t attached to ideas of “hip” or “cool.”  How I relate to the Hudson Valley is still emerging, but I can’t deny how much it affects me as an artist everyday.

• • •

All images courtesy of Summer Pierre.

• • •

Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews
with people who love making things.

Please consider supporting Design Feast
If you liked this lovingly-made interview, show your appreciation by helping to support my labor of love—Design Feast, which proudly includes this blog. Learn more.