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Meet the Artist: Kurt Ankeny – Absorb What Interests You

by Joey Phoenix

Kurt Ankeny is a graphic novelist, cartoonist, and the author of In Pieces: Someplace Which I Call Home, and Pleading with Stars. In Pieces was featured in PEN America’s Illustrated PEN, and the Best American Comics of 2017. He has also worked on countless other projects including a current collaboration called November with Matt Fraction and Elsa Charretier. 

He is available for graphic design work and commissions. #supportlocalartists – His website is www.kurtankeny.com

Kurt and I sat down before the quarantine to talk about the creative process, inspiration, and why artists shouldn’t worry so much about developing their voice too early. 

How would you describe your creative process? 

As a cartoonist, as opposed to a comic writer or a comics artist, I’m writing and I’m drawing everything, and I try to write and draw all the way through the process. There are a lot of people who write a separate script and will do thumbnails alongside that. But I find that I am more true to the comics medium by thinking visually and verbally at the same time. 

I’ve been recently trying to move towards a flexible mixed media approach. I want to be able to do everything first take and at the size it will be printed at because I feel it will have more energy in the final art. 

I painted for 10 years before I came back to comics. I still do, but my studio is too far away – in Ipswich, and painting is messy so it’s not something I can do at home. But I’ve been trying to make my process more like painting so I can just go over it again if I need to make corrections.

The medium I’m finding most useful right now is acrylic gouache because it does have that flexibility and reproduces really well. The colors are really vibrant. The other nice thing is that the manufacturers have started to notice that people are using this medium in a more serious way, so there are a lot more options for paints.

Tell me about your journey to becoming a Graphic Novelist. 

I always wanted to do comics, but when I finished college in the late 90s, comics as literature was just in its beginning stages. Jillian Tamaki was just getting started, Scott Pilgrim was only in Vol. 2. Dan Clowes was still making comics but I don’t think any of his works had yet been made into movies and Chris Ware was out there but not yet the lode star of Indie Comics. 

I realized I didn’t want to do mainstream comics and I didn’t see any serious scenes for the Indie comics yet, so I went away and spent my time improving my skills in something else. I spent a year as an apprentice for Haverhill artist Roberts Howard, who sadly passed away last year, but this is what brought me to the North Shore. 

Howard was an illustrator in mid-century advertising who had done men’s pulp paperback covers in the 80s. When I met him, he was teaching oil painting workshops and he was making his own oil paints and mediums. I spent a year with him just absorbing everything I could.

Then I spent about 10 years painting and quickly found out how difficult it was to enter the art world without an art degree and without technically being a Boston artist. Half of the galleries in Boston are legacies where they have stables of artists that have died and they’re just selling off their work, and the other half are usually full and not looking for new artists. 

It is a very small scene and a tough nut to crack unless you’re able to afford the ridiculous rents at SOMA. I also see a lot of people who are like “oh I’m a painter now, but I made my money in finance.” 

Why do you think it’s so important for artists, especially those who don’t have studios at SOMA or their work in galleries, to get paid for their work? 

Artists work, don’t they?

I don’t understand why the American mindset seems to be that because you nominally love what you do you shouldn’t get paid for it.

I think it has to go back to the initial Puritanical mindset where suffering is work. But it is striking to me, especially as a cartoonist in the United States (and it turns me green with envy) that even across the border in Canada the amount of financial support that the government provides in the form of grants to prop up those arts. 

But as a freelancer visual artist, The thing that I don’t think people understand is that the vast majority of people, and nobody wants to think this of themselves, are visually illiterate. They want something that looks good but they think they can tell you how to get there without having any expertise.

I think many people believe the myth that it’s just talent and you didn’t do anything to get there, but that’s just not true. Come to my studio and the museum of books that I have that I am constantly studying from and all of the things that I’ve spent my entire life building. 

Come look at my sketchbooks. I am drawing constantly just to keep my skills up. I’m going to antique stores to find tools that aren’t made anymore and stuff like that. If I don’t do that, and if the power goes out and my computer doesn’t work I can’t make anything anymore. 

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

I think like most artists I draw from a wide variety of places. It’s interesting because we’re seeing more cartoonists that have come up through the art world and there’s an increasing trend of having formalized cartooning education in the art schools. 

We’re seeing more of it now, but compared to most of my contemporaries, I think I draw more from fine arts and painting arts than the vast majority of comic artists of my age because they grew up reading comics, doing comics, and drawing comics. It’s nice to see a lot of people building a broader approach to comics and I think that’s healthy and good.

I try to draw from lots and lots of inputs, and hopefully, it brings something fresh to the work. It’s too insular to keep pulling from the same medium. I love a huge range of artists from the classics like Degas and Monet and amazing draftsmen like Egon Schiele. I also really enjoy the work of Euan Uglow, Ben Nicholson, and Jacob Lawrence. 

I also really like the work people like Bernie Fuchs, Robert Fawcett, and people who were part of that golden age of illustrated magazines.

And as a comic artist, I also have writing to deal with, so I’m always reading like collections of short stories. My two most recent “wow” discoveries are Annie Proulx and Bruno Schulz, who is considered the greatest prose stylist in Poland’s history.

What’s your advice for people getting started as artists or cartoonists? You have such a distinctive voice, what do you recommend for those who are trying to find theirs? 

When you’re young, don’t expect to have a voice. I frequently find that when people have a voice really young they are often stuck there and that’s all they can do. People who take more time to gather more before their voice emerges are a little more interesting sometimes. Don’t go chasing after a style, it will come.

I think the thing you need to do as a young person is to absorb whatever intrigues you and eventually bits and pieces of that will be left, and those things together will be your voice. 

It’s not something you can actively force. You can’t fabricate it you can’t cobble it together and say I’m going to be a combination of this artist and that artist, you have to just absorb stuff that interests you and even stuff that doesn’t interest you just to try it out and then the nicks and cracks and things that stick in your craw will become yours. 

What are some Graphic Novels you could recommend for anyone new to the genre?


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