Art In Quarantine: Brecht Evens

The view over a quiet Paris from artist Brecht Evens' window © Brecht Evens

Around the globe, artists are in suspended animation. Whether they're alone, with friends or in a family, these are unforeseen conditions. In France, you can only go out for groceries, to briefly walk a pet or visit the pharmacy. However, 8pm every night, across the country, people lean out their windows to applaud their doctors, nurses, drivers, janitors and supermarket cashiers. Curious about what this challenge might be affecting, I asked a few French creators how they're doing. We didn't talk about the big issues; just the small, daily acts of life and work. This time, I also spoke to the artist's publisher – in America. 

Belgian artist Brecht Evans lives in Paris' Ménilmontant, north of the famous Père Lachaise cemetery. Quarantine caught him at the start of a busy spring. Under the title The City of Belgium, his Les Rigoles (winner of Angoulême's 2019 Special Jury Prize),  will appear in English this September. The first months of 2020 were busy with signings – for the outsize art book, Brecht Evens. It's part of an Actes Sud series called Lontano: huge luxury BD, with unbound pages. So far, the imprint has celebrated work by Evens, Gabriella Giandelli and Yann Kebbi.

But Brecht has also been revisiting a classic, J.M. Barrie's deathless Peter Pan. His version of Barrie's Neverland, with its boy who won't grow up, is coming from the boutique press Beehive Books. Beehive was started by Josh O'Neill, also a co-founder of Locust Moon Press (Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream and The Lost Work of Will Eisner). Based in Philadephia, the imprint specialises in re-issues crowdfunded through Kickstarter. (Beehive co-founder Maëlle Doliveux, also a comics artist, has served as a Kickstarter 'Artist in Residence'.)

'Tapestry', art by Brecht Evens from "Peter Pan" (forthcoming from Beehive Books) © Brecht Evens/Beehive Books

O'Neill sees his model as a 21st-century version of 19th century readers' subscriptions. These made possible landmark publishing, notably of comics classics like Charles Philipon's La Caricature.

Evens' book, due to ship in July, is one of Beehive's Illuminated Editions. It is supposed to follow two June releases. One is animator Rebekka Dunlap's version of The Blazing World, penned in 1666 by English aristocrat Margaret Cavendish. The second is Briton Dave McKean's vision of Crime and Punishment, in the 1914 Constance Garnett translation. But their new Peter Pan, says O'Neill, is especially exciting. "Brecht is approaching it not just as an illustrator but as a full collaborator in the construction of a new Neverland. He took a profound, conceptual approach but it's one that doesn't impede on the territory already covered by the story – we never see Peter or Wendy in his drawings… He expands the boundaries and reach of Barrie's world but he's kept it tethered to the play-worlds of real children."

'Fairie Reflection', art by Brecht Evens from "Peter Pan" (forthcoming from Beehive Books); © Brecht Evens/Beehive Books

At the moment, artist and publisher are 4,000 miles apart, each in quarantine. O'Neill's experience differs from that of his artist – just as it does from that of  Beehive's Art Director. (Doliveux is in New York, America's epicenter). Say's O'Neill, "In Philly it hasn't gotten quite so bad. Except for the occasional walk or grocery run, I'm holed up with my girlfriend Tracy Chahwan. She's a cartoonist too.  So we're doing our best to turn our house into a peaceful little factory of books and art. But the phone is always pulling me down into the horror show on social media." Books and music, art and films, however, are essentials: " They remind us life is bigger and stranger than the news – and that there's more to the human experience than a pandemic."

'Ship', art by Brecht Evens from "Peter Pan" (forthcoming from Beehive Books), © Brecht Evens/Beehive Books

Will Brecht's book make it to the shelves as planned? The imprint's funky HQ, once a church tower, is mainly closed at the moment. But, says O'Neill, "I still go in once a week to pack and ship books, so the operation is up and running." Despite the fact "this has introduced a lot of chaos and unforeseen variables", Beehive is hoping to meet their production deadlines.

What is the future for their offerings like Peter Pan? "Much as I worry that, in these turbulent times, people might not be able to afford them, what they offer feels more vital than ever. We've had a surprising number of e-mails from our readers, saying our books have been a comfort in the isolation…that they've finally have a chance to get offline, explore artwork and history… delve into the worlds of Herbert Crowley or Harrison Cady. It's a small and non-essential service, but I'm glad it can be meaningful to our readers."

'Staircase', art by Brecht Evens from "Peter Pan" (forthcoming from Beehive Books), © Brecht Evens/Beehive Books

Back to Brecht, who's in his own Paris tower, up seven flights of stairs. What is the view from this eyrie in eastern Paris?

Cynthia Rose: Could you describe a little where you are and what your world consists of, at the moment?

Brecht Evens: I'm in my apartment overlooking Paris. All the windows face the same side, but at least they face the whole damn city.

I'm very lucky. The virus was nice enough to arrive at a moment where I had to go on a three-month lockdown anyway, to work on a music-themed world map for the Philharmonie de Paris. It's a huge drawing (4 ½ feet by 17 ½ feet) with endless little details that all have to be researched. If not that, I would have continued work on writing my next book. The working title for that one is "Harry Potter in Brittany"… just so that I'm sure that I don't end up using the working title. I have enough indoors work for a few years' worth of quarantine. 

More importantly, no one in my circle has been badly hit by the virus as yet.

Research by Brecht Evens, for the Philharmonie de Paris © Brecht Evens

Do you have any concrete difficulties in artistic terms, i.e. are you running out of an ink or something else you need, did you leave something vital somewhere else, etc …

I just ran out of inkjet cartridges, which is a problem for the world map research. The drawing ink reserves seem in good shape, but I'm trying to only put small quantities in the hazard area where they can be knocked over and spilled. The brushes might be getting a bit ragged. So no national emergencies here.

'Lost Boys' Pond', art by Brecht Evens from "Peter Pan" (forthcoming from Beehive Books), © Brecht Evens/Beehive Books

Can you tell me more about the "Peter Pan" project? Did Beehive approach you – did you know them already – or was it your idea?

Maëlle and Josh approached me to choose and illustrate a book that's in the public domain. Peter Pan was my first thought but I actually proposed The Travels of Marco Polo. Peter Pan seemed too well-written, too precise in the choice of what it specifies and what it leaves vague, to be well-served by drawings. But, thinking I might as well fail at something beautiful, I ended up doing it anyway. The book has a very unique, moving and funny voice. It's wonderful and very different from what people might expect based on the Disney movie and other pop culture. It's in no way limited to a children's audience. Happily my drawings are all done and sent. 

Cover of Brecht Evens, from Lontano (Actes Sud)

Has being in all the time changed your thinking about what you're doing or vis-à-vis your patterns of working?

The music world map is very straightforward work. I can listen to music, audiobooks and podcasts while doing it, which means I can spend a lot of the time in a slightly disembodied state. When I do this by day, then watch movies at night with my girlfriend, I spend most of the time in sort of a tunnel, on a high-speed train where the days zip by so fast it would be scary if there were no actual things to be scared about. My girlfriend usually doesn't live with me, but it turns out we can stand each other's constant presence very well.

Artist Brecht Evens' workspace © Brecht Evens

What are you thinking about, in terms of work but also in bigger terms?

I've spent most of the time in the disembodied wormhole. So no big, new or shocking analysis here. Hoping people will get by and wishing that climate change could also provoke this scale of we-are-all-at-war-right-now action. Hoping those two things don't seem at odds in the short term…. They are definitely not at odds in the mid-to-long term. 

Also because of the daily 8 p.m. applause and shouting from all of our windows, I can now recognize some of my neighbors. That can also feel like a nightly head count – we got worried when an old lady further down the road didn't come out on her balcony for a few nights. But yesterday she came out again and did some vigorous clapping.

Cover of Evens' forthcoming The City of Belgium from Drawn & Quarterly
  • Beehive Books still plans to ship Peter Pan this July. Lontano's Brecht Evens is available from Actes Sud and The City of Belgium is published in September by Drawn & Quarterly. All can be pre-ordered now.