Even if you do not know Ginette Lapalme, you will recognize and be magically attracted to her marvelously decorated table at any comic show. Many visual artists work in a "cute" style, but few are as magical as Lapalme. There is something distinctive, captivating, and out of this world about her art. Koyama Press published her collection Confetti (2015). Lapalme is one-third of Wowee Zonk (with Patrick Kyle and Chris Kuzma) from Toronto. I visited her studio for the interview. It was small, but the most astounding space I have ever been to.
This is the third installment of an anthropological series on the contemporary Toronto comics scene. I want to thank the Fantagraphics interns who transcribe these interviews.
KIM JOOHA: This studio should be in a museum right now. Or I want to see how you’d produce a different space in a museum. This is amazing.
GINETTE LAPALME: Thanks. There is a lot in here. I love collecting stuff.
Is your childhood room like this?
No, I wasn’t allowed to do it. My mom was obsessed with tidying. I would have all of my little collected things hidden in drawers. That’s where the mess was but even that was not really appreciated [laughs]. I remember a few times when I would arrive home after school and my mom had dumped all of the contents of some messy drawers on my bed and I was forced to organize them. It was very frustrating. I’m better at organization now, but it’s a messy type of organization still I suppose. But I’m the only one who turns my room upside down now - which I do a few times a year to re-organize.
Repressed desire [Laughter]?
Oh, probably. Yeah, I’ve definitely collected a lot more things since moving out on my own. When you live in a large city like Toronto it’s very easy to accumulate objects. When I first moved here I lived in Cabbage Town (in 2005-2006) and there were many great vintage and second hand shops in that neighborhood back then and I visited them often. For years I was also just grabbing stuff from the street all the time, especially before I started living with Patrick [Kyle]. He really reeled me in. I was just like, “Oh look, somebody’s getting rid of an old box of moldy children’s books. I’ll take that home.” I would be so excited by finding something that, first of all, is free and unwanted, someone was getting rid of it, but also contained all these memories of somebody I don’t know. I specifically remember when I found this giant box full of old children’s stuff, that the family nearby threw away. At first I was just picking a few things from it, but I lived really close by so I ended up grabbing the whole box and bringing it home when I realized that other passersby might want these treasures too! Ha! There were a lot of interesting children’s books in it, old notepads, some doll clothes from the '70s, etc.
You didn’t collect this stuff when you were young?
Discounting toys, I had a small sticker collection and an eraser collection I kept both in boxes and pencil cases. I still have those two collections which have grown a lot more since moving to Chinatown/Toronto. I keep my stickers in this old broken briefcase and my eraser collection is neatly put away and zip-locked individually. It seems a little extreme to do I suppose but there was a hot summer where I lost a few erasers - a bunch had melted together - and I couldn’t have that happen again. I also used to do this weird thing with my collection of Barbie miniature dishes and pots. I would mix different soaps and lotions and baby powders together in these little pots and keep them in a doll house. I only realized recently I was kind of way-ahead of the slime game by doing this as a little kid. I just didn’t have a YouTube channel.
Do you make paintings here?
Yes, I either paint small works at my desk here, or if I’m painting large, I’ll usually sit on the floor.
Oh my gosh. This is so tiny.
I know. I’m also always in front of a laptop because I have either cartoons on them, or YouTube videos or something. I watch stuff all the time. I watch The Simpsons too much, or at the very least once a day, and I’ll paint here.
A lot of these drawers have work that is finished. It’s kind of a mess now, because I have been busy working on a stop-motion music video with my friend Matthew James Wilson, and also Zine Dream happened recently; since then I have not put anything away. This would normally be my jewelry drawer, of all the jewelry stuff I finished. These are little things I haven’t figured out what I want to price yet, but they’re little snakes in real eggs… I was eating a lot of quail eggs this year [Laughter]. Like collecting the eggs, and reusing them. I haven’t really used resin on anything new recently, so this desk is a mess right now and filled with stuff that would not normally be on there. Ack and these three boxes over here are all stuff I brought to the studio to make the music video, and now I’m like “I don’t know where else to put this.” Three comic boxes filled with toys, strange objects and other supplies. I’m running out of a room.
This is amazing. I think you should make this room as a store.
I would really like a store. But there’s a lot that I just would not want to sell. Like, “Oh, this is part of my collection, you can’t have this.” That wouldn’t be fun for a customer.
Where did you get those unopened toys?
From Chinatown mostly. Sometimes eBay. Just different spots. Some places have closed down, and others are still going, but I love buying weird little dead-stock stuff. One of my favorite stores in Chinatown went out of business over a year ago or so, and I bought a lot of stuff when they did.
I know. I got all of these sharpeners, over a hundred of them from there. I was "making them my own." They are little house-shaped sharpeners with Barbie stickers in the window of the house. I peeled them off, and designed and printed my own stickers of little characters peeping out of windows, I added resin to the windows as well as little bushes and minuscule butterflies. I think I only completed thirty or so of them and I’ve got hundreds more I didn’t alter yet, because unfortunately this takes a lot of work.
The whole thing is five dollars!
Now you see how hard it was for me to resist such a great bulk deal!
Do you think about what you want to make later when you buy or collect stuff? Or do you get the stuff first and try something on it or get inspired by it?
When I saw those little houses I was so excited because I had previously seen all these other sharpeners shaped like keys, and they had a dumb sticker on it. I was like, “Oh, shoot. If I just print my own sticker, I could put this on here and make it look better. And have this sharpener that has my work on it!” I didn’t do it at first, because the shape of it was too complex and, I was like, “Forget this idea. It’s too much work.” I eventually found these little house sharpeners that had these little square stickers. And I was like, “This is perfect. A square is easy. I can peel it off and replace it, put some resin on it to make it look like a window, and add some stuff to it.”
Why do you need 100,000 mechanical pencils? [Laughter]
I’m not sure why I bought these. I don’t even normally use mechanical pencils but now that I have them they’ve come in handy. I couldn’t resist it: a fucking deal. [Laughter.]
They’re extremely well-organized, actually.
Some of it is. I organized some parts well, and then I get a lot of new stuff, and then I forget how to organize for a bit. And then I have to redo everything.
Why do you collect stuff?
It’s innate. It’s like when I was a kid, collecting small things like miniatures, it was so cute, something I want and I want a lot of them. It’s like natural to be like, gravitate towards the small stuff, things that look a specific way that I have to have.
Who are your influences?
Hmmm I guess there’s a lot of people if I go through the years of making stuff, but I feel like now the bigger influences are just the weird things I find.
Like from China or –
Just weird, weird stuff that’s like, who made this? You never find out who did it, but there’s something special about it, like sticker designs and stuff like that. I love Misaki Kawai’s work, it’s amazing to me, like the use of color and just her characters, her large-scale works are pretty awe-inspiring. When I was a kid, there was Mary Blair, who was a conceptual artist for Disney, and she also illustrated a lot of children’s books and stuff. Her works are a lovely painted gouache, very colorful. And people I know now too. All my friends irl friends are inspiring artists too… !
I asked you a lot about the studio because it felt the studio is a kind of extension of your practice. Also how you decorate your table at fairs. I’m wondering if it’s natural or essential for you to decorate the space around you this unique way.
I’m a big collector and since moving apartments four or five years ago I’ve had to downsize. My home studio now is basically a quarter of the size of my last one… Sigh. So although I have much less room for all of my things I am pretty good at fitting a lot in a very tight space. Objects begin taking over whole walls very quickly though!
Did you like making art when you were young?
I did. I watched a lot of TV shows when I was a kid that had specific segments about making stuff, like crafts. I don’t know if that was strictly an Ontario thing, but I felt like a lot of the kids programming had crafts segments. I would watch one show, Take Part, that was just different people making puppets, or making stuff out of garbage, like literally paper toilet rolls and all kinds of stuff. So, yeah, when I was a little kid I remember waking up early in the morning, super-excited, and I’d go downstairs to the basement, put on cartoons, and then grab craft supplies and make stuff. That was what I liked to do.
When did you know that you were talented in making stuff?
Kind of early. I wouldn’t necessarily say I was the best at drawing, but I think people knew that I liked drawing and that I did it a lot, so I would get compliments on that, but it wasn’t until late in high school that I kind of thought, “Oh, it’s something I can actually do later.” Because I think for a long time, I just thought, “I guess I’m going to be a teacher. Maybe an art teacher.” Because when you’re a kid you’re just exposed to school, and so it’s easy to be like, “Oh, I’m going to be a teacher. I’ll be in school my whole life.” Or something. But then I realized that that would have been bad for me.
Once I was near the end of high school, I didn’t want to be in my hometown.
Oh no, Gogama is where my mom is from, but I lived in Chelmsford, which is near Sudbury. But Gogama is two hours north of where I lived, so it’s even more desolate. Gogama was like a small town of 200, 300 people (less these days), whereas Chelmsford has a population of 16,000, and Sudbury was like 160,000 or so. So it’s a small city, but I was kind of in a smaller suburb of it.
Are your parent artists, too?
No. My mom was artsy, she did kind of folk painting on wood when I was a kid. Like cutouts of Santa Claus that she would paint and then we would have decorations for Christmas and Halloween. My dad was a police officer. My mom was a homemaker, so she did crafty stuff at home, and knew how to knit and how to sew and stuff like that. She encouraged drawing for me and my sister, but neither of my parents has an art background, and they don’t really understand art stuff. Like they’re proud of me, and they’re very encouraging, but it’s not part of their life.
Do you have any artists in your family?
Not really, although one of my mom’s brothers is a carpenter. And when I was a kid, he would make toys and stuff. So definitely some creative people, but maybe not people who would call themselves artists. But since I came to Toronto to study illustration, two of my younger cousins have studied cartooning and animation. One of them is still studying and the other one just graduated from an animation course.
How did you decide to go to art school? Was it natural for you?
It was natural, but it also wasn’t something I knew too much about, because the schools that I went to weren’t art-focused. In my high school, there was one year where nobody was interested enough in the art for there to be a class. If you took art in tenth grade and you wanted to take it in eleventh grade, there was no eleventh grade art, because no one cared. I think I took a computer programming class instead which was also pretty interesting.
I don’t know a lot about applying to art school, but you need to prepare your portfolio, right?
In high school, I somehow became aware of DeviantArt. “Oh, when I’m home, and not at school, I can make artwork, and it’s for this website. I’m making it, so I can scan it, and upload it, and get people to comment on it, or also comment on their stuff.” So, it was almost like my replacement for not having art high school -- using DeviantArt and using LiveJournal for the feedback. It was through there I met some people who already lived in Toronto. I was thinking more about where should I apply for university and OCAD was something I finally became aware of. But even then, I wasn’t sure what kind of program I was applying to. I just applied to painting and drawing. I think the other schools I applied to was: a school in Sudbury where it was more focused on stage arts, for theater production, and the University of Ottawa for art history. Both programs were taught in French as well. OCAD was my first time spent in an English school, but it was not that difficult an adjustment.
Does your family speak French in the home?
Yeah. I speak French with my parents and kind of a mix of English and French with my sister.
But you do not have an accent in your English!
I think it’s just growing up in Ontario. You become aware of English pretty early. Like most of the media is English. In my high school, everybody’s Francophone, but you’re a kid, you like English music, you like English TV, because that’s what’s cool, and also what’s popular. So, if you had walked through the hallways of our high school, even though it’s a French high school, all the kids are talking to each other in English, because that’s the cool language. French is what your teachers want you to talk and how your parents want you to talk, so you rebel against that.
Is Chelmsford Francophone?
I think mostly Francophone. Sudbury got amalgamated, so Chelmsford became part of the Greater Sudbury Area, like the Greater Toronto Area. Sudbury, and all the little towns around it is like one-third Francophone. I’m not sure what it is now, but when I was growing up, it was one out of every three people was a Francophone. So, a lot of French speakers.
I didn’t know that there were lots of French speakers in Northern Ontario.
Yeah, I think most people don’t know that. What’s weird is that Sudbury, I remember reading, is the only city or municipality in all of Canada that’s officially bilingual.
When you were young, you weren’t into comics --
I wasn’t really aware of what comics could be. I read Archies when I visited my grandparents in Gogama. They would always have piles and piles of Archie Digest, because that was like –
Yeah, in English. Most stuff you just watch in English, because it was easier and it was readily available. I guess Archies was the same way: you go to the grocery store, they wouldn’t have French copies of it, they would just have English ones, and the language is not very difficult, so anybody could read it. That was my idea of comics for a long time. I knew about Spider-Man and Batman and all that stuff, but I didn’t care about it, so I didn’t read that. And maybe apart from a few Caspers every once in a while, comics was just not a thing for me. I was more into reading Goosebumps, and scary stories, and little novels.
You still love old Archie --
I still like them, but for a long time, I guess I was tired of it. It’s super-repetitive, and super-innocent, and it can definitely be boring. But I got back into it, because I’ve been watching Riverdale. And I’m kind of reminiscing about -- [Laughter.]
Yeah, yeah, totally. And also, working at The Beguiling now, I see the new digests coming out, collections of like, the best of Archies in the ’80s, or the best of the ’50s, and I’m like cool, I still love a lot of these drawings.
Did you read classic French comics like Asterix, Tintin, or Lucky Luke?
Yeah. In my grandparents’ basement, there were all these old copies of Lucky Luke and Asterix, when I was a kid. I’m pretty sure they were in French. But at the time, I didn’t like the pictures. I was like, “This is boring, I don’t like these characters, so I don’t care.” And unfortunately, I didn’t have access to Tintin books, or I didn’t think about getting them from the library, because I watched the cartoon on TV instead, and that I could watch in English or French. I think it aired in both languages a lot. But yeah, a lot of that stuff, I was just not exposed to it, I guess. My parents bought us a lot of books, but they weren’t comics.
Did you watch anime? Or manga?
I watched Sailor Moon. It was on TV. It was dubbed in Canada. I was into Reboot. I don’t know if you’ve seen that before, but it was an early 3-D cartoon about beings who lived in a computer. There were a lot of really good cartoons when I was growing up I think, so I was just way into cartoons. Apart from Sailor Moon, I didn’t see too much anime. I think I caught a few episodes of Dragon Ball Z, but it didn’t feel like it was for me.
Reading manga, I never really had any access to it. My sister was super into it anime; she was into Inuyasha and all these other cartoons that were airing when I was in high school, and I didn’t like those. Even now, I don't tend to pick up too much mainstream manga. I really like My Love Story. It is about a giant high-schooler boy who thinks that every girl that he has a crush on actually likes his best friend instead, because his best friend is super cute. He saves this girl from a subway from a sexual harasser, and they slowly fall in love. Maybe not slowly, but — At first, he has a crush on her, and she has a crush on him. But he doesn’t believe it. He thinks that she’s been wanting to be his friend to get close to his cute best friend. But, they’re actually in love. It’s super innocent. The first three or more of the volumes, they don’t even hold hands. Eventually, that happens, and they make a big deal out of it. Eventually, they kiss each other. It’s very repressed. [Laughs.] But it’s super cute, the way it’s drawn. There’s a lot of funny pages and good expressions. I was into it. It’s also drawn very simply, in a way I like. There are these weird little emoticons-type pages, but I don’t know if I can find those.
Where did you find it at The Beguiling?
I was working at Page and Panel at the time I started reading them. There are only thirteen volumes in the series so it seemed manageable for me.
Only thirteen volumes. [Laughter.]
I know thirteen seems like a lot, but I don’t know.
For manga, it’s not.
Right? There are such longer series that even if they were great, I cannot stay that devoted to it. I was enjoying the first few volumes of 20th Century Boys but when I realized how many there were I gave up pretty early, ha ha.
But it’s a weird pick. Is this the only manga you like?
It’s the only series I’ve read through. [Laughter.] So, I don’t know. I’ve read a few Sailor Moon volumes, but I never picked up all of them.
I’ve never read Sailor Moon manga. I’ve only watched anime when I was young. It was kind of a required anime for an Asian girl.
Oh, yeah. You have to watch it.
I hated girly stuff. I preferred robot fighting stuff. [Laughter.] There are other -- I don’t remember names -- Sailor Moon variants.
Like Card Captor. I liked Digimon and stuff, for a while. [Laughter.]
And Pokémon, too.
I was more into Digimon. I don’t know why.
Digimon is not cute!
It’s not as cute. But when they’re little babies, they’re pretty cute. They’re just like, these weird lumps. But then they get not cute. So, there’s a lot of them that are big angels, or a weird teddy bear, with like deers with gears or something … So stupid.
Like a hybrid.
I kinda liked it. I was like, oh, this is a little darker than Pokémon.
What kinds of cartoons did and do you like? You mention that you watch a lot of things. Are they kids cartoons? Do you get the inspiration from kids cartoons?
I feel really soothed by watching early seasons of Arthur. It was a cartoon my younger sister and I watched every morning before school when we were in elementary. She looked a lot like DW back then and she thought of me as Arthur! Mostly because Arthur ate all the chocolate cake and so did I. Ha ha. I’m obsessed with The Simpsons (nothing past season nine generally…) I really love the comedy of Home Movies and Dr Katz. A new cartoon I am really into is Steven Universe; some people might think it’s too saccharine and in some ways I suppose that is true but it is so lovely and filled with earnest emotion and is aesthetically pleasing also. When I was a kid I watched a lot of really old cartoons from the '30s to '50s. Old Disney animations. Donald Duck is still a favorite, Fleischer Studios (Betty Boop, Popeye, etc), old Bugs Bunny toons, Little Lulu… I was always more well versed on cartoons than on comics. (I only ever had Archie comics around. Even with something like Tintin I watched the cartoons rather than track down any books.) Later I got into more adult animations like the works of Rene Laloux (Fantastic Planet, Gandahar, Time Masters) and Richard Williams' unfinished masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler. I could go on forever listing cartoons I like.. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is still a top favorite film for me. It came out a year after I was born, and yet still no one has made a film that better melds photography with animation!
You said that when you got into OCAD, you were in painting and drawing program. I thought you were in illustration.
I switched to illustration second year. Wait a second, now I don’t remember. I might have switched after just one semester, perhaps. I think I was halfway one semester at painting and drawing. And I just didn’t feel like I was getting guidance so much, it seemed like a lot of the teachers were just encouraging of everybody doing anything which is a great thing, especially when you’re just starting at school, but I guess I was more wanting specific lessons, “This is how you should do something.” And when I switched to illustration, there were a lot of projects giving you a an article that you had to illustrate, right? I was thinking more strongly about how I’m communicating once I switched over to illustration, and then I just stayed in that program.
Did you like OCAD?
My reason for moving here was to go to OCAD. I’m not sure how or when I would have moved to Toronto without that impetus. The biggest plus of going to OCAD was finding this community that was already entrenched in Toronto. Whether or not you do well in school (get good grades) it’s moreso the people you meet (faculty and students) and the things you do outside of school that seem more important in hindsight. Being in Toronto, having these opportunities outside of school to learn and organize shows at small venues or to table at zine festivals etc. When you see that other people are doing stuff, and all you have to do is get a group together and rent a space, or like, print some zines together, sell them at a store. It’s just available to you to do, so long as you push yourself and gravitate toward other people who want to do a similar thing as you. I think Toronto is a great place to be for that kind of stuff. Finding an apartment pre-2010 was a lot less stressful and expensive than it is today though.
Not only for comics?
I’m more versed in comic fests but also, printmaking, and having small art shows. There might not be a ton of money in it, but there’s a lot of people who are super-passionate about it, and have created festivals like Zine Dream and TCAF, though the latter started a lot earlier. All these venues are available for people to dive into, but, then, also, if a younger generation wanted to start something new that they think is missing, I think it’s a good environment to be able to do that still today.
How come Gang Bang Bong is so good? Do you think it’s thanks to Inés [Estrada]?[Laughter.]
LOL. Because we printed them in Mexico, it was cheaper to print. And we were able to get more people involved in it. Having a bigger variety of artists makes an anthology better, sometimes.
How did it start? Did she ask you to participate?
I think it was definitely Inés’s idea to make an anthology. She approached me about it. We already knew we worked well together, and wanted to do "something." Being from two different, pretty far destinations, we’d be able to cover a lot of ground together. She was living in Mexico City at the time. I was in Toronto. We would either see each other in Toronto for TCAF or we would meet each other at CAKE or BCGF, or CAB eventually. We put out three issues that we would sell together at shows, or sell them separately in our different communities.
Did it get a lot of attention? It’s quite hard for the anthology to be this good from eight years later, especially in comics.
I don’t think that many people were aware of it, maybe, apart from the people who were in it. And I don’t even know if Inés still has copies of it. I never really had that many copies. With the first two, Inés was printing them in Mexico. When she would visit, she would bring bundles of them. So I would have some for a little bit. With every show, I would sell some. Eventually, I just had my own copies. With the third one, I think we only made maybe 100 copies. It was so limited! We gave one to everybody who was in it, and then we had very few to sell. It was not a money-making project at all. It was a lot of work for so little [money], in the long run. Not that many people could get it.
Do you plan to do more anthologies?
No. I don’t think so. I liked working on it. But at some point, you put so much effort into this thing that doesn’t make you any money and doesn’t make the people who are taking part of it any money, so you’re like, maybe I shouldn’t focus all my energy on this thing.
Also, it’s hard to make an exceptional anthology, now more than ever. Everybody’s Instagram feed is their own anthology.
What about Wowee Zonk? For the upcoming 10th anniversary?
For one or two years, we printed a newspaper zine, with a bunch of people tabling at Wowee Zonk Room. I would like to do something like that again, just to mark the tenth year that we’re curating the space at TCAF. We’re still working some ideas out. That’s definitely a possibility.
You are chiefly an artist, but your role as a curator has also been important in art comics (whatever that is), especially in Toronto. You mentioned that you want to invite more women-owned publishers to Wowee Zonk Room. Why is that important?
I’ve been incredibly lucky multiple times of just being in the right place right time I think… like with meeting Annie Koyama near the start of her publishing career and having been involved with TCAF early on…
Patrick Kyle, Chris Kuzma and I had been approached by Chris Butcher in 2009 to curate a small room at TCAF the first year it used the Toronto Reference Library as a venue. At the beginning it was just the three of us selling other people’s work from one of the conference rooms that are encased in glass on the first floor. It was kind of like a pop-up shop. In 2010 we were given a room and tables to curate on the 2nd floor which we filled mostly with other OCAD students and a few choice Toronto artists like Adrienne Kammerer and Mark Connery. The following year we began inviting people from outside of the country like Ines Estrada, Lala Albert, Noel Freibert and Zach Hazard Vaupen who all became staples of the room for many years. Eventually the Woweezonk Small Press moved more permanently in the Browsery section of the 1st floor.
It’s a responsibility I really cherish and my hope is that we have many years ahead to keep curating this space and helping people from far away (and nearby) tables at TCAF with fewer costs to worry about. For the last few years we’ve been placing a lot more importance on reaching out to people who have never tabled at TCAF before. Our room for TCAF 2019 is still a work in progress but already we have 19 artists who will be tabling at the festival for the first time. Some have never shown work in Canada or visited Toronto before. We have not invited too many presses this year thus far, but two out of the three that we are hosting in 2019 are women-owned. It is the first year that I’ve attempted to accumulate all the stats to create a spreadsheet of all the creators who have tabled throughout the years, how many times we’ve re-invited individuals, the gender breakdown etc. and it just made me want to reach out to more new people and in general more women as well. I’m really excited to reveal our list for TCAF 2019 but it is still a little early!
How did you make the book? Did Annie ask you about doing the book together?
The book came together pretty smoothly! Annie approached me earlier that year about putting together a book of a wide variety of work. I was pretty conscious about documenting my work and studio at the time (2008-2014). I used a good camera (this was before I had a smartphone and became lazier about documenting lol), I had a large sunlit home studio and used Flick, Etsy, and Tumblr so there was a lot of documented work already to choose from. There are only one or two things in the book I attempted to reshoot or rescan. Much of the work was sitting me sitting in Annie’s studio and dragging and dropping images into InDesign.
How would you introduce or describe the book?
I think I generally kind of view it as a portfolio. I guess now that I’m thinking about it I don’t really explain it too much when I’m trying to sell the book to someone at a show or anything I just see it as ‘this book is me and my work’ from a specific slice of time. A few things in the book are works I finished before graduating from OCAD in 2009! So some feel more dated than others. The work in the book does not appear in chronological order but in chapters divided by media like “comics,” “paintings,” “jewelry,” “sketchbooks,” etc.
How did you decide which one to put in the book, and which one not to?
It was mostly intuitive! There is one drawing that Annie specifically wanted in the book and it is facing a blank page per her request. Ha ha come to think of it maybe I should have added more breathing room to other parts of the book, but hm, I just like to fill things up I guess! Maybe I could have used an editor. It also would have been interesting to work with a professional photographer but we didn’t really have the budget or time for that.
Do you have any plan to do another art book? I found that although it’s been only a few years after the book, your art is quite different from Confetti, in a good way!
I don’t have a specific plan at the moment but I want to make more books!
Was your style in OCAD similar to now?
Not really but it’s still me I guess!
In Wowee Zonk #4 which I have, I can see that it’s similar --
Was that when you just graduated?
No, that one was a few years after. Wowee Zonk #2 was when I graduated in 2009. I mean, my stuff was still cartoony, but in a different way.
How did you find your style? Was it “cute” then?
I don’t know if it was as cute. In 2005 when I started at OCAD I was drawing ghosts, and unicorns, and creepy-looking kids sometimes and shit that was really popular then.
I’m wondering how did you decide this specific style. Was it natural? Weren’t you afraid of the competition? Many people make cute stuff. I know that your style is distinct, but when you started, you couldn’t have known that you were going to be different.
Yeah, it’s a hard thing to pinpoint, because I remember being at school and everybody being so worried about “Oh, am I developing a style?” “What’s my style?” Blah, blah, blah. I guess I kind of had one early on, even though it’s pretty different from now. But it comes with drawing the same thing over and over, and slowly, you’re collecting other influences, and that devolves and makes it slightly different, and every year you’re adding more stuff to it, and maybe taking some stuff out of it. Eventually, it morphs into a thing. Some artists play with that same thing all the time, and don’t make bigger bounds outside of it. I guess I don’t really know where I am now. It would be interesting to see a bunch of work to see like, “When did I stop drawing this one thing, and when did I start doing this other thing?”
What do you think made your style distinctive?
I don’t really know how I lucked out with that. Because I know at a certain point, when I was first starting making stuff, I was selling on Etsy a lot. When I first started making Sculpey stuff, a year or so later I was seeing a lot of people copy what I was doing. I don’t even know if I want to use the word “copy,” because it’s not super unique to make a plastic fruit that you want to wear, because people love fruits, everybody can own that. But at a point, you start seeing how you’ve influenced other people, or how your influences have also influenced other people, and you can feel down about it, or you can just try to keep making your thing. But I’m not really sure what sets my stuff apart.
I think color has a big part of it. I’ve been into fluorescent colors for a long time, and brightness. As to the characters and stuff, there are certain characters I’ve been drawing for a long time, and other ones that I slowly developed. I guess it’s lucky that I’ve had a bit of time making stuff where maybe not that many people were aware of it, so there’s maybe not as much -- I don’t want to use the word “copying,” but I don’t really know how else to say it. Art now is seen by everybody at the same time, and I think influences happen super-quickly. You can be influenced by somebody who has just come out of school, and hasn’t really had time to establish themselves, but then somebody else might already be biting their style, and it’s hard as an audience to differentiate, like, “Well, who did it first?” But I don’t really know how to differentiate it, or defend it. Maybe stuff is too readily available now, and so as soon as you’re done with something, you can influence somebody to copy it, and maybe that’s not the best thing.
Many East Asians think that North American ‘cute’ stuff is not cute. For example, stuffed animals or character work. But I’d say your work is indeed cute. I was talking about this ‘cute’ issue with my friends, and she said only East Asians could produce cute stuff because we are so repressed [Laughter.] What do you think? Why is your work cute even to East Asians?
[Laughter] Well, I grew up Catholic. [Laughs.] So, it could be Catholic guilt? I really don’t know. I feel like my stuff’s been getting cuter. Maybe, when I first started drawing stuff at OCAD, it wasn’t as cute it was more — it was a little bit grittier and definitely less refined. Magic Pony, the gallery that no longer exists, had a huge influence on my output. They had a lot of East Asian stuff come through the store. Also Friends with You, that aesthetic of big-brand cuteness. I don’t know if that necessarily had an effect or if I was maybe responding to that in a slightly different way.
I wonder if it’s also, I’m super into mass-produced, cheap stuff. I like weird off-brand stuff, like fake Hello Kitty and pencil sharpeners, erasers, and stuff that is almost-cute. Would be almost-cute to somebody, but to me, it’s super cute because it’s wonky or something. I’ll have to think about that. [Laughs.]
How do you come up with all these characters in your work?
[Laughter.] I don’t really know exactly where they come from. A lot the characters that I develop and keep going back to are things that I’ve done or doodled in a sketchbook, and I’ll go, “I really like that,” so I’ll keep repeating that. I can think of one specific way that I was drawing a dog for a while that was very specifically lifted from an eraser I bought on eBay that I really liked. Just, this is the perfect dog. I have to keep drawing this. Things I’ve seen or things I’ve seen and tweaked, or sometimes I don’t even remember how it happened, like the bum bear character. I feel like the sketchbook where I first drew it, I got it stolen when I went to Chicago, so I don’t even remember what it initially looked like, so that’s no good. I have a bad memory also. [Laughs.]
I see a lot of your characters show butts. What’s the meaning? [Laughter.]
Yeah. [Laughs.] Oh yeah there’s a lot of deep meanings there. [Laughter.] I don’t like explaining my work. It’s left up to the reader. But a lot of the stuff I like drawing, it’s because I think it’s cute or because I think it’s funny.
You draw, paint, and also make a lot of stuff in a variety of mediums. How do you decide which medium to work on?
It depends on my mood. It has to do with that I get bored of the thing, so I have to have a lot of stuff going. In my previous apartment, I had this huge studio set up, with different sections of the studio where I’d be working on different stuff, and I’d just move around a lot juggling things. I do less of that nowadays. I have my section where I paint stuff, a section where I do resin things. It’s just whatever I feel like doing. I like playing with clay. It’s very soothing to do different stuff with my hands. I also like having a pile of things I can do in small batches. I have to paint all these things white, and then later I can paint them characters and stuff, and later I can resin them. To have all these different things that I can juggle, I feel like I don’t get bored. Making little objects was also a way of selling art that was affordable to people because it was smaller scale and produced by me in batches.
Do you regard your work as "girly" or "feminine?" I’m asking because many people associate the "cute" aesthetic with these.
I don’t know! I suppose they are but I’m not really consciously commenting on gender or necessarily playing with femininity I don’t think… It’s a lot more basic than that for me right now haha. My work is pretty stream of consciousness at times and mostly just me playing around with characters and emotions and shapes. But also it’s fun to draw bums. I used to draw human bodies other than bum bears - maybe I will return to that some day. I used to draw more specifically female forms though…
You mentioned you love the mass-produced shitty stuff, but you make hand-made artisan stuffs. Is it the vernacular aesthetic you are interested in? Or being mass-produced? Why do you love them? Why do you produce things by hand?
It’s the only way I can do it for the most part! To be honest I would like to have mass-produced objects but it costs a lot of money upfront. I generally don’t have that many funds to devote to just one project or product. The thought really makes me anxious because... You have to order in such large quantities and I don’t know… It’s also fun to make things by hand? I like things that look weird, off or funny. The naivety of some designs are just so hilarious and I suppose sometimes it’s as if the person who makes it is maybe not that ‘talented’ in a traditional sense but there are some strange genius choices when objects or drawings look ‘off’-model. (Maybe I can find some photos of objects to better explain what I mean...)
Not Doing Comics
When was the last time that you made comics?
[Laughter.] I honestly don’t know!
You’re not the only person who once made comics and is not making comics anymore. Why is that? Why does it happen?
Quite a few different reasons, maybe. I’m very flighty with comics. I’ll start a project and then be like, “I’m bored. I want to do another thing.” A long-form project, like a book or a comic, for me, is hard to even start. Because I know by halfway I’ll be annoyed with it and I won’t want to do it. I think, also, self-confidence issues: now I am reading so many comic books and like, “Oh I don’t have a story I want to do” or “Maybe I’m not sure how to start writing a story that I want to illustrate.”
Working at The Beguiling may have affected you negatively?
Maybe a bit. I’ve been reading so many comics, also since I worked at Page & Panel for a few years before I started at The Beguiling.
When did you start working at Page & Panel?
When it opened, which was like 2014? I worked there until May of last year, so until 2017.
Why did you quit Page & Panel?
I was just tired of working so often. I was working four shifts a week. At the time I had just finished a gallery show at Weird Things, and I sold a lot of paintings. I made some money, and I was like “OK, I am going to take this time to have a break and work on stuff for the summer.” I quit my job but with the open invitation to come back, so I took off and focused on painting large scale for that summer. I think by August, when I was visiting The Beguiling, they were like “Hey, how long are you taking this vacation for? Do you want to work here?” And I was like, “Oh OK, I’ll do that.”
It worked out better for me because the store is so close. Also while I love Page & Panel, it’s not purely a bookstore, it’s a lot of T-shirts and other things that were just not what I envisioned when I first started working there. I started there before it opened and it became more of a merchandise store than strictly comics. Also, it caters to a different audience because it’s also attached to a library. So you’re selling a lot of pencils, you’re selling drinks and stuff. For me it was more like, I didn’t want to be working in that library anymore. It’s a weird zone. I think weirdos can tell I’m a sympathetic person so I just get caught up with strangers talking to me, telling me all their problems and stressing me out.
I thought I fitted you because you make a lot of stuff too, not just comics.
That’s true. But I felt like it was more mainstream stuff that was being sold there. I think I was maybe not the best person to be working there. Because a lot of people who come in — who aren’t customers, but just hang out around the library all the time and needed someone to talk to — and I just ended up being that person. So, I’d be cornered by people a lot, ranted at, and I couldn’t do it anymore. [Laughs.] These were people — sometimes people would tell me I needed to listen to my coworker (my bud Ted Gudlat at the time) and marry him or give me life lessons of stuff they knew nothing about or rant at me about conspiracy theories etc. I’m not good at telling people to take a hike.
What would make you come back to comics? [Laughter.]
Maybe you can?
If I keep bothering you? Because I love your stuff!
I need to make more comics. I just need to get over the fact that I’m not a good writer and just make something.
You mentioned that you are worried about not being a good writer and it’s one of the things that prohibit you from making another comic. But there are comics without words or narratives. What do you think? LOL
You’re totally right, Kim! I have made comics in the past that are wordless also so I’m not sure what I am waiting for… haha. I think that since I started to work in comic-book stores (Page & Panel and now The Beguiling) I’ve been reading and learning about different comics I’ve also been less ready to make comics… but I just have to ignore my anxieties about making boring, bad comics and just start making them again!
I understand you. Comics doesn’t make a lot of money.
Yeah. There’s that aspect. Part of why I took a break printing zines is that we had this old Risograph printer in our apartment, and I was using that to make zines for a while. I was making quite a few little things, greetings cards, and stuff — or, at least, I was attempting that. And the machine just conked out, pretty much. Eventually, it just became too difficult for me to use. You had to open up the machine while you were using it, and hold down a crank for it to print, and Patrick was still fighting with this machine to print zines, but I gave up with it. So, for a while, I was not making a lot of paper stuff, apart from printing stickers, and focusing on jewelry, and little things I was building with my hand. I’m hoping to get back into more zine and paper things. Maybe comics.
Recent Works: Music Video & Paintings
About the music video you did — could you explain what it’s about?
I recently did a music video with my friend, Matthew James-Wilson. We basically pitched this music video to Lillie West, who is also known as Lala Lala band. Me and Matthew went and met up, and decided we’d make it a stop-motion thing. He had just taken a cartooning animation class with Lale Westvind as his teacher and I had very little experience with stop motion...
We ended up going to Value Village to brainstorm about how we were going to do the stop-motion thing. I picked up a bunch of toys. We had filled out little recipe cards as notes/storyboard ideas. We were writing ideas of all these things we could do with these toys. We came up with a ton of scenes before Matthew went back to New York, and returned to Toronto some months later for us to actually film the thing. In the meantime, I was collecting all of these different objects to use for it, and also, I’ve just been collecting stuff forever. I had a backlog of things I could experiment with.
Our plan was super-detailed. All the scenes — we were going to do as many as possible for this 2:56-minute video. After the first day of filming, when we got fifteen seconds done within ten hours of work, we realized that we certainly couldn’t fit everything that we envisioned into the video. We really winged it.
Didn’t you make the doll by yourself?
The lamb I made. That was the last piece that I actually figured out—
The doll is the main character.
She’s our representation of Lillie. The name of the album is Lamb, so we just thought it would be a nice idea to make a lamb doll. At first, we were looking for one at vintage shops, but I think it was a lot better to create one. I made it out of a misprinted T-shirt and hair scrunchies. There’s some wire inside the lamb, so that we can make it somewhat posable. It isn’t the best-working thing, but whatever you have, you just figure it out, and make it work, somehow. We had five days to make the stop motion, so our plan was, to hopefully do thirty seconds a day,
Where did you work?
We ended up filming it in Patrick’s studio, on Queen West. Patrick gracefully gave us access to his studio for a full week. We blocked the windows. It was during a heat wave it felt like— really bad, maybe the hottest week of the summer. It was just bad planning, but that week was the only time we could do it.
No AC. We had three fans going, but, also, you can’t have a fan near the set, or else things will move and screw up the animation. It was a struggle, but I feel like we learned a lot. Just every day, we would have this plan, going in, to work on a specific scene. From beginning to end, I don’t think we knew exactly what it was going to look like. We were just building it as we went. And mostly filmed it in order that the scenes appear in the video. Editing it as we went along, as well. We were both really happy with the result, and we impressed ourselves haha. It was funny that we both went in, worried we didn’t know what we were doing, but not telling the other person that we were both worried. “How are we going to do this?”
Was it your first time directing stop-motion?
Yes. I’d done a tiny bit, before. But nothing like a full video. Just like short tests, as a kid or whatever.
How did the division of labor work? I only know that Matthew takes pictures.
Matthew was in charge of the technical aspect. It’s his camera, his laptop, and he figured out how to take all of the pictures and edit it into something that’s easy to do. It was like a shared vision of what the sets looked like. The props were things that I collected and I thought would look good together. For most of it, I was doing a lot of the movement of things. But, we would trade off every once in awhile, and also, certain scenes, we needed all four of our arms to make it work. Eventually, we got to scenes where we were like, oh man, we need like two more arms for this. How are we going to do this? But we eventually figured it out.
Only two of you guys worked beginning to end? That’s a lot of work.
Five ten-hour days.
Only shooting, not including preparation?
Yeah. But I feel like the preparation, apart from just collecting objects — the lamb took me a day to figure out and make before the shoot. It was pretty good, the fact that we were able to just bring boxes of stuff and figuring it out that morning, and then shooting it the afternoon, and then winding down at night, and thinking about the next day, and then doing it over again.
I want to ask about future projects.
People are interested in it!
I don’t know if I have any specific ones right now. I’ve been working on large scale paintings for a little while that are kind of hidden.
Where can people get your paintings?
I’ve sold a few paintings, mostly through Weird Things, but, also, I sold a few through Instagram people messaging me about specific ones I’d posted. Just message me. [Jooha laughs.] Once I figure out my new website, which I have to update, maybe I’ll have paintings on there.
Transcribed by Kassandra Davis and James Ganas.