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A Conversation with Eleanor Davis

In Eleanor Davis’ new book Why Art?, a group of artists channel their needs and desires into their work, each arriving at different outcomes. To the artists, the work is important: a living, a conduit, a mask. To our eyes, the artworks are generic, simplistic, sometimes even tchotchke-like. A rainstorm floods the gallery some some of them get soggy. Works made of delicate materials are put inside those made of sturdier stuff. It all blows away anyway.

The urgency and grasping hopefulness that appears in much of Davis’ work is present in Why Art? too. The shape of the story is fractal-like, art and its meaning extends both bigger and bigger and smaller and smaller. What is art and what is life? Is art the tool to comprehend life or are we ourselves the instruments of change?

The means we have to understand our world and connect with fellow humans are very humble, sometimes pitiable. Maybe we’ve become bad at it. Still, we try.

Interestingly, Eleanor says that for her, the thesis of the book no longer stands. We talk about that below.

We spoke over DMs and I’ve kept some vestiges of chat-language in the text.

-Jillian Tamaki, March 31st, 2018

Jillian Tamaki: I will start very small. The first comic of yours that really knocked me out was the one where you’re talking to Terry Gross through the radio. Chiming in, jumping to her defense, and at one point you ask her if you should go to grad school. Do you still listen to Fresh Air?

Eleanor Davis: Ahhh, hahaha. No, I don't listen to Fresh Air any more. My mind goes in and out of being able to process information; I get easily overwhelmed. When I was about 28 I stopped being able to listen to news on the radio or any kind of podcast that isn't light fluff. That's been frustrating and embarrassing!

I still love Terry Gross though! Or at least I loved her seven years ago? I was more moderate then, and I don't know how she's navigated our recent cultural changes. What kind of feminist is Terry? What does she say about BLM? Has she been an apologist for famous toxic men? etc etc

Since Trump's election, there's been a lot of discussion about the [important voice] Function of Art. I had assumed that Why Art? was a response to this, but it was actually written before the presidential election. I'm assuming your "thesis" still stands?

Actually not! I mean, I guess it could, but for me I don't need art to tell me what to do any more. It's clear what we need to do.

My thesis from Why Art? was very much from a time of uncertainty and anxiety, not knowing what was going to happen or how to make anything better. Post-election I've gotten much more appreciative of (terrified by?) how much art can change the cultural conversation, and what we call "the cultural conversation" really means: who gets shot by the police, who gets ripped apart from their kids, who gets fired without recourse, who is impoverished and how we think about poverty, who gets bombed.

Can you tell us about Athens for Everyone, the community group you’re involved in, and what you do there? [In recent years, Eleanor has become as formidable an activist as she is cartoonist.]

It's a group that grew out of Occupy - a bunch of kids sleeping in tents outside city hall turned into a mayoral run, which turned into this thing. We have 1,200 members. I think our main role is that we're a trusted leader in the community. People look to us to find out how their commissioner is doing, how they can stand up for immigrants, etc. One of the main things we do is issue endorsements for candidates. It can really make a campaign. And we because we have this power, we can help push campaigns to the left - we can push a moderate campaign to take a stance on black poverty in Athens, on environmental issues, on immigration issues etc.

Before A4E most local politicians didn't really have substantive platforms. And you know what kind of campaigns Democrats usually run in a state like Georgia. I used to think maybe the moderate Dem strategy had something to it, but post 2016 elections the scales have fallen from my eyes.

I'm the Member Coordinator. My main job in A4E is emotional labor and writing our email blasts. I do a lot of facilitation stuff.

"My main job in A4E is emotional labour"!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I just am relentlessly enthusiastic and affirmative. I'm the group's cheerleader.

Why Art? is structured around multiple artists, who create different sorts of works for different reasons and effects. It’s very decentralized, anti-auteur. You often draw many “little people” living together, or working to accomplish a common goal. Obviously it’s a reflection of your belief in community, but do you also find drawing those pictures soothing?

Yeah, and also, I just haven't figured out another way to make art about real life.

Not to be all “you're a woman, let's talk about your feeeelings.”

What else are we, besides women and feelings? I am ok with it.

“Deified male genius” is a stereotype, though interestingly your artists, or one of them, ends up acting like a god too.

I have a big problem with how the art in comics/illustration often have this flattening effect... or at least mine does. Like, how are we supposed to communicate the multiplicity of human experience without drawing a lot of different characters? One character won't cut it. The singular character is inevitably a denial of so much.

One of the main reasons to make art is to get to be a god, a god in a world you have some semblance of control over, unlike this uncontrollable real world. Don't you think?

I think the shadowbox metaphor you make in Why Art? is appropriate because making comics can definitely feel like playing in a dollhouse. The thing you say about the problem of "the individual"– I was recently talking with someone who said they tried to make their stories 'universal' and that just seemed Sisyphean... like, you can not ever strip enough of yourself away. I guess my strategy is to go hyper-specific.

Yeah I used to try to do the universal thing more, and now I think it's a toxic trap. Or, rather, you have to do both? You have to give the reader something to hook into and mask into but the goal should be opening, challenging.

Literally all my comics in my early twenties were about men for that reason. Because I wanted them to be for "everyone" instead of just "about women."

(This is untrue. I did a couple comics about women in my early twenties that I always forget to mention because they don't fit my tidy internalized-misogyny narrative - ED)

Do you ever hit a block, though, by trying to draw "different members of a community" that one can only draw their clothing, their physical appearance? Or is that representation and visibility enough in some contexts?

Yeah, no, it's the worst. When I draw women that look like me, people just think they're men. Or a young man with long hair? I can make it so clear that they're a male-identified person and people will still read them as a woman. Trying to show subtle differences in gender, race, culture etc seems to be very difficult for many cartoonists, including myself. The simplicity of comics tends toward either offensive exaggeration or offensive flattening. My problem is the latter.

"Mask into" is a nice phrase.

You can thank Scott McCloud for that one.

What's your relationship between activism and art? Or, alternatively, what frustrates you about some of these discussions around activism and art?

Art is secondary. It should be the glue, or the gasoline, the thing that helps facilitate the change. Like, so much of what I do now is "armchair activism," posting on Facebook, writing email blasts. By itself, without a goal, that stuff is worse than nothing. But ideally it's in the service of unifying and strengthening people, putting pressure, voting the old bums out, pushing the new bums to not be bums.

I fucking LOATHE the shitty smug self-satisfied idea that art is a political means unto itself. Even if it ends up working out like that, I hate the not-getting-my-hands-dirty feel of it.

Is it all one practice now? You seem all-consumed. Maybe that's from afar.

Nah, I mean, non-political art is fine too. People need that stuff. Normal life goes on. My art is for me; it's very much informed by my politics but I don't think of it as part of my political action or life. Except for the dumb graphic design I do for A4E, some occasional posters and things. I did three reportage comics for the Bronx Freedom Fund, which have been the closest I've gotten to making something like big-A-Art with a directly political goal.

Getting more clarity around politics gives me more clarity in my personal work as well, but it hasn't changed my goals or intent. The most aggressively political thing I do in my art – by which I mean, an aspect of my art which I hope might directly facilitate change – is try to put people of color and women and different body types into the mainstream publications I work for, because that shit is obviously so lacking. I think that's a net positive. But it's very small.

You're one of the few people who I would consider equally competent and skilled at both illustration and cartooning. Your voice really rings true even in commissioned illustration work. Do you enjoy illustration, or is it a way just a way to pay bills?

Oh!! Thank you. I love illustration (most of the time, when I'm not feeling burnt out). I don't think I'm that good at it? I'm OK. I let my stuff get a little saccharine & flat in a way I don't like sometimes. But as far as a job goes, being paid to draw and paint, I still can't believe how lucky I am.

You've spoken about work being pushed to the side due to your community work. I think you said you were working on a graphic novel?

Ugh, yeah, my 145-page monster. It's all roughed out! I just need to draw it!

Care to share any details?

I think it's the best thing I've ever done and it's certainly the biggest and idfk when I'll be able to finish it.

!!!!!!!

It's about a husband and wife who live in their truck in the woods because the husband is supposedly building them a house, but he just smokes weed all day.

That must feel amazing to KNOW it's good.

Well, it's easy to know something is good when it's not finished yet. By the time I'm done with it it could feel horrible and dead and stale. I've never done anything this long.

Indeed. I oscillate between "this is great!" and "this is garbage." There's a lot of mourning in the book-making process. I think the worst stage is when the book is done but before it's out. It feels totally dead until readers overlay their thing on it.

It's tricky! It depends on the book for me? Do you feel that way for every book? I liked the Why Art? book better before it came out I think.

Well... I have had generally positive experiences with my books venturing out into the world and becoming semi-autonomous things have having a life of their own. They haven't gotten themselves into SERIOUS trouble. I feel like I always learn about the book/story years later, through hindsight and other people's readings.

Your books have a lot more.... flexibility than mine do? There is more room for the reader in there, for their own interpretations. You're more generous in that way.

I do not feel generous AT ALL. I feel completely self-indulgent. I am too timid.

Your stuff doesn't expect a certain response though!

That can feel like a bit of an out. A hedging of bets. If you stick to this relative/experiential/ambiguity zone, you can't be criticized.

Yeah, but it leaves space. Do you have a conclusion you want the reader to come to? I know I do. It feels very uptight. When people don't come to the "right" conclusion I either think "I've failed" or I think "that reader didn't GET it." It's very manipulative.

Well. It's all manipulation. I have a hard time coming to conclusions in real life, let alone stories. So maybe my work reflects that.

Your stories often end "upwards." Like, an "up" or "out," if that makes sense. I think about one of your endings [from a story in How to Be Happy] a lot: the despairing, desperately sad woman whose friend says she was once like her... and it turns out it was a gluten allergy. In the last panel she's holding this loaf of Udi's bread in the most quietly hopeful way imaginable… lol

The cruelest autobio.

It's just this perfect metaphor for The Things We Do.

I feel weird about that story now, a lot of my shorts from that collection, because they feel, uh, cynical or something. Snide?

Really!

My comics often do this weird trick, where I start out feeling really vicious about an aspect of myself – the gluten-free bread desperation, or the hippie artist in Nita goes home – and I want to write critically about that. But then when I externalize it into these little characters that aren't me, I wind up liking them, and I forgive them. But the initial instinct is very self-critical and cruel, often. Sarcastic.

Is it fair to say "crisis" runs through your work? Would you categorize it that way?

I mean, I just write about myself over and over and I am a crisis-laden individual, yes.

We are told that guilt and shame is purely negative emotions but we have a mutual friend who maintains that guilt is actually very useful. Do you agree? That guilt can potentially spur reflection and action?

I DISAGREE.

hahahaha

I am against guilt. Guilt is like cutting, it makes you feel like you're doing something when you are only hurting yourself, it's the illusion of action. Sorry, I don't mean to sound judgmental. I've done both. I was a guilt addict until pretty recently.

I haven't made my mind up about guilt yet. Guilt is so joyless that in terms of engagement, it seems it could only fuel you in the short term.

OK. For me there are two options: you feel bad because you're doing bad. So you stop doing bad. The bad feeling goes away. Great! No guilt necessary. Or option two, you feel bad in a way that isn't fixable. Guilt isn't appropriate there either. What you need to be feeling is grief. Grief, or pain, or anger. Those are healthy, I think.

I think guilt implies absolution. There is a lot of shit we should never hope or try to be absolved for. We just have to sit with it.

I recently encountered the quote “Change yourself to change the world” by Grace Lee Boggs (via adrienne maree brown). I feel like your work can really inspire a similar sense of "blooming."

Well, that's very nice! I don't know what to do with or to hope for in my audience's response. It is pretty flop-sweaty for me.

I went to a concert recently, which I never do, and it was this woman pretty much performing solo for a large entranced audience of super-fans – it was like sexy fun dreamy dance songs. And her whole job was making us, the audience, feel in love with her. And she made us feel like she was in love with us too, like we had this personal connection, like we were young and extremely alive. I felt it too! I appreciated this trick she was playing on us, this funny gift she was giving us with her performance. It reminded me of what I try to do when making art, but it also reminded me of this phase I went through of having anonymous sex chats with strangers. They feel very similar.

Human beings have this ability to affect one another extremely strongly and doing that – wanting to do that – can feel pure, and manipulative, and dishonest, and true, and beautiful, and gross.

I realized that we were doing that very stereotypical "woman" thing of praising each others work while criticizing our own haha. If we we really want to be taken seriously we should be icy ice queens who just pontificate and never explain shit or express any doubt!

Oh my gosh, my mom said a very interesting thing. [I had just met Eleanor’s parents at a book festival in Arizona. -JT] When talking about meeting you, she said “It's so nice that you and Jillian can be friends while at the same time you're competitors.” But it's never occurred to me that we could be competitors! I aspire to keep up with you artistically, but as far as "success" goes, mostly I think of it being you and me and Sophia [Foster-Dimino] and Gabrielle [Bell] and all the other women against the world, against history, against this raging current that's pummeling all of us.

Oh goodness, and when you cite people like that it's like, their individual things are so rich that it's like comparing... planets. I am capable of really horrible jealousy but that's not how it manifests, anyway.

Haha me too - I think I'm just in a mood right now, like, "Competitive? Me? Never!" when really I'm violently competitive in a lot of ways. But luckily with the women artists who I think of as my crew (peers? contemporaries?), I've narcissistically chosen to consider y'all's achievements and success as also being my own somehow.

“Competitor” does suggest finite bounty which maybe... is real, depending on your definition of bounty.

Yes. Good jobs are finite. The fact that I don't have to over-focus on getting the money jobs to pay the rent means I get to glide over so much stress & pain. Ugh. Maybe a good policy is to try to Ice-Queen-It in front of the dudes/clients/people-in-power and Vulnerable-Transparent-It in front of one another/younger women?

Code-switching of a sort. Yes, for sure. It's definitely an emotional skill you have to build up. You can’t treat everyone the same way.

Do you think about what it will be like to be a middle-aged artist?

Boy, I feel like I am already. To the youngs at least. I'm just relieved that people don't talk about how much "potential" I have any more. That stressed me the fuck out!!!

Oh man, I just thought of that shit as insulting. Someone left a comment on one of my things that said, "You just keep on getting better and better!" and I thought, FUCK YOU!

Hahahahahahahahahahahaha, man, it's crazy how close a compliment can be to a real shitty insult.

God, the ego required to do this shit is insane.

"Keep at it, young lady!" "You're really getting at something there!"

“Sir, you are but an observer in my Long Game that shall span decades.”

Talk about urgency.... watching you work thru shit, everything you pour into your sketchbooks, I feel like you're running so fast all the time. It's like, "Jesus JT, can't you phone something in ONCE?"

Oh look who's talking! I just try to not take jobs that I don't care about. It just kills me, guts me, to dissociate from my work.

I love shit jobs tho. Some of my favorite work has been shit jobs. I feel like you started taking sketchbooking more seriously? Or at least you started sharing your sketches more. Now your sketches are like this whole separate practice.

I mean, I genuinely love sharing what I made. I've gotten over feeling bad about that. If I make something and don't share it, it doesn't feel complete. #healthy

Do you feel any responsibility to young cartoonists/illustrators?

I don't keep up with comics or illustration as much as I'd like – I get excited about the stuff I do see, but I know there's so much more I'm missing. I do feel responsible to young artists, especially women – or, not even younger necessarily, but just all the folks out there who are doing good work. It's important to lift one another up as best we can, when we can. Artists or otherwise, we need to take care of one another.

What does that "care" look like?

Caring for other artists is, for me, recommending new people to ADs, demanding less fucked-up lineups in panels and anthologies, asking for better pay & contracts, and signal-boosting work I like. And I try to write the folks I see at shows and events and things, check out their work & then say howdy. But political work is also lifting and care. People need health insurance. Every human being deserves a living wage, to be taken care of when we get old, to be supported when we have kids, to have equal access to education, to have clean water to drink and air to breath, to have safe homes to live in. We deserve to have autonomy over our lives and bodies and to not be terrorized by war or police or ICE. And on and on and on. None of those things will happen by donating to one another's GoFundMes, or by being "nice." If we want everyone to be cared for, if we want a just society, it's too big of a job for us as individuals - we need political power. We need to build systems that take care of everybody. That larger goal would benefit everyone, including the comics and illustration community.

It makes me kind of bonkers when people say "Oh, it's so tragic that this great artist died unsupported and in poverty" like that's worse than when all the other unsupported impoverished people die. I don't feel any more obligation to my community of artists than I do to anyone else. I just have more ability to directly advocate here.

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2 Responses to A Conversation with Eleanor Davis

  1. Iron Weal says:

    “I aspire to keep up with you artistically, but as far as “success” goes, mostly I think of it being you and me and Sophia [Foster-Dimino] & Gabrielle [Bell] and all the other women against the world, against history, against this raging current that’s pummeling all of us.”

    Against history? Against the world? But I thought the left was “on the right side of history.” It’s a little sad that they still pretend/think that they are so rebellious and against “the world” when they’ve had cultural hegemony for many decades. And the world the left has given us is one of alienation(due to multiculturalism breaking down organic communities), consumerism and globalism, depression, childlessness, and social and spiritual decline. Paradoxically, we live in a world with a combination of the worst of cultural leftism and the worst of economic capitalism.

    “Every human being deserves a living wage, to be taken care of when we get old, to be supported when we have kids, to have equal access to education, to have clean water to drink and air to breath, to have safe homes to live in. We deserve to have autonomy over our lives and bodies and to not be terrorized by war or police or ICE. And on and on and on.”

    And on and on, indeed. None of these demands sounds unreasonable, but they assume all sorts of false realities about illegal aliens, police, welfare and so on. Yet, the deeper issue is that demands for egalitarianism can never be satisfied because groups and individuals are simply born different. The reality is people are not equal by nature; nature is teeming with hierarchy and inequality- humanity is a part of this nature. A harmonious society, a society with true social justice, must take hierarchy into account- not deny it or destroy all of it. Davis confuses inequality with a lack of justice. Justice cannot be attained when we go against nature and force equity on a heterogeneous mass of humanity. This is literally what leads to the Gulag and the 100 million dead from communism. Does this sound alarmist? It could happen again, even with the best of intentions(just as it did before).

    I’ve always enjoyed Davis’ work because it was always very personal and touching, but it also centers on the spiritual decay of man and woman under neo-liberalism/left-wing globalism. You catch glimpses of it in “Nita Comes home” and that story about the people learning to cry, or the one about the folks going back to nature, or the enigmatic stories about couples having children– thought-provoking pieces! Davis has always been close to perceiving the true nature of modern society, but her liberal blinders(and I’m guessing the need for social validation) have yet to fall off.

  2. Charles Hatfield says:

    You just never know what kinds of comments an online article is going to inspire.

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