Art In Quarantine: Nicole Georges

Right now we’re all anxiety and stressed out about the state of the world, about the state of business, and well, everything. We wanted to check in with people in comics to talk about how they’re doing, ways they’ve found to cope with this situation, and just have a chance to talk. I can only speak for myself, but I appreciated the chance to talk with people and just share about our feelings and what’s stressing us out and our thoughts and concerns about what comes next.

Nicole Georges is the cartoonist behind the award-winning books Fetch: How A Bad Dog Brought Me Home and Calling Dr Laura, which is one of my personal favorite graphic memoirs. We met for the first time last year – which we joked felt like a decade ago – at the Queers & Comics Conference in New York. Georges teaches at California College for the Arts and is the host of the podcast Sagittarian Matters. We skyped recently about saving a baby squirrel, isolation, and finding a new routine.

Alex Dueben: To start with possibly the hardest question to answer, how are you doing?

Nicole Georges: Today, right now in this moment, I’m doing okay. I have a home. I don’t live with anyone annoying. I have peace and quiet. I have neighbors who I make contact with. I have friends that I’m zooming with. I went through a breakup right before quarantine and that is the suckiest part. But I’m doing thus far good. Ask me in an hour and I might give you a different answer, but hour by hour, day by day, right now I’m doing okay.

We were joking before that not leaving your house is something you and other cartoonists are used to.

To make comics you have to be so isolated for so long – and you make no money. I’ve made an entire career out of chasing weird isolated opportunities that pay me. Like being a writer in residence in Richmond, Virginia where I lived in an apartment writing about my dog’s cancer for like eight hours a day. Or going to the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, which was beautiful, but as far away as possible from my friends & support space while still being in the continental United States. That’s just been my experience as a cartoonist over and over and over again. So the staying at home part of this is not the troubling part.

The staying at home and isolation are not the hard parts, but it is hard to get into the mental space to do work.

I have a podcast and I have a frequent contributor on the show who’s a consultant for artists but also a trained therapist and she kept saying, this isn’t like an art residency. This isn’t McDowell time. [laughs] There is a collective trauma happening in the world and I don’t feel any pressure to create my life’s work right now. I’ve had to really take it down to basics.

I was going to say, youre still making the podcast on a regular schedule but have your work habits changed otherwise?

For podcasters there’s a good side and a bad side. The good side is all the guests on it are all stuck at home bored out of their minds and are just sitting ducks waiting to be a on podcast. But the audio quality might not be that good. So I’ve been doing the podcast every week. I did a live podcast the other week and that was really fun. Well, as much as a Zoom can be. [laughs] Because we’re animals. Interfacing with a screen instead of with other animals whose body language you’re reading and pheromones you’re smelling or whatever is just not the same. So I’m doing that. I actually started the podcast when I was in isolation in Virginia and I needed something to do with other human beings.

I’m working on a pilot for something I probably can’t talk about. Also I’m working on a different podcast about my family. Kind of an extension of Calling Dr. Laura. The dark Covid side of things is that we can’t travel to interview family members about this secret. Also, I don’t know how many of them will make it through the plague, knowing their isolation – or lack of isolation – routines. Which is morbid to think about, but I’m trying to take the plague seriously. I’m doing a lot of phone interviews for that. I’m Zooming with friends.

I used to do this Lynda Barry diary exercise every day when I could. You have a page with four sections and you do seven things you saw, seven things you did, something you overheard, and then a question or a drawing. Instead of doing that and feeling like I’m sucking the rich marrow out of my life to make a creative project, I’m doing a worksheet I made for myself – what can you be grateful for today, what’s out of your controls what’s in your control, what are you going to do for your body, how are you going to connect socially with another human being, and then draw yourself in a calm space. When I’m at my most grounded, that’s what I do. Instead of doing a creative thing I need to ground myself on earth using pen and paper.

Nicole's current morning page exercise.

Talking to people and just from my own life, its almost impossible to keep doing what weve been doing. Its almost a necessity to change what we do or how we do it.

I’m having to be very gentle with myself about productivity and how much time I’m wiling away in puttering around. That's been a key. I’m having to still be creative in some ways to continue to make money – which is okay. It makes me feel like I have a purpose. So when I wake up in the morning, I get to have a little anxiety, which I’m used to.

It feels like most of us have spent the past three years depressed and anxious and nervous and exhausted and now I dont know what this is.

You know what changed things for me? I was waking up every day and I had the combo of a quarantine breakup which just sucks dong. I would wake up every day and my chest would be tight thinking about that and how the earth is suffering and that almost overwhelming physical heartache over what’s happening in the world. Then I found a baby squirrel in my driveway and it gave me something to think about and focus on. I broke quarantine with my neighbor and he was the first person to step into my apartment in many weeks. We formed an isolation pod where we just trust the other won’t do this with anyone else. The baby squirrel kind of reset me a little bit. We had to send it to wildlife rehab but it was a nice reset. I was able to get outside of myself which helped distract me from that physical feeling.

You mentioned residencies, you teach at CCA...what have the conversations around that been? Whats happens going forward? Or is everyone still holding in place and waiting right now?

There’s so much stuff. I’m supposed to do something at the Schulz Museum in San Francisco. I’m supposed to do something at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown this summer and Teach at CCA. Provincetown is probably going to be canceled. For the Schulz Museum we’re making alternate plans just in case. At CCA we have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D. We don’t know what anything looks like going forward because who knows what will be happening in the world in July. At CCA I go there in the summer, and then teach a distance course in the fall. If worse comes to worse, I might be teaching more distance courses. Again, as an isolated cartoonist I feel like I’ve been training for this in some way.

I had so many summer plans. I was going to go directly to Provincetown to teach my thing, go directly to CCA, have a week off, and then go to the Omega Institute to learn with Lynda Barry again. And celebrate an 81 year old’s birthday at the Lynda Barry thing. Now everything is probably going to be canceled. It’s hard with CCA because I know my students need that community. It’s nice to have that community feeling of everyone coming together over the summer. I was supposed to volunteer at the Rock and Roll Camp for girls this summer and that might not be happening. Who knows?

If youve done some distance learning, youre already ahead of the curve because I know a lot of people are struggling to get used to it.

I keep trying to help my friends who have never done it before, but I think everyone is so tweaked out about everything, but I’m here and I’ve been doing it for a while. It’s not as fun as doing it in a classroom.

I guess distance learning does echo the experience of being a cartoonist and being isolated.

I joke with my students that they need to get used to isolation and not having fun. I’ll yell at middle schoolers and say, stop laughing! There’s no humor in comics! [laughs] But I feel like to me the key to longevity as a cartoonist is being mentally healthy and well. Part of that is taking care of my body and my social needs. It’s hard. I pulled a hamstring doing aerobics in my living room and I had my full Richard Simmons nightmare scenario where I became a recluse because of an injury and all of the endorphins and serotonin I had been generating doing aerobics went away and the depression dragged me down.

With conventions and events and everything shut down, I mean the economics of indie comics were never great, but you looking at the rest of the year uneasy?

I try to take it one day at a time. If this would have happened to me a year ago or a few years ago, I would have been fucked. Completely fucked. But right now I feel fortunate. I have set up projects for the coming quarter or semester where I’m paid and can work from home. Pitching projects in animation can all be done remotely. Pitching books can be done remotely. Making a podcast can be done remotely. I’m okay right now. I feel very fortunate for that. I feel like the dice got rolled and I got a good number. Who knows what will happen the next roll of the dice, but for right now I’m doing okay.

For example, we met at Queers and Comics.

That kind of thing I miss.

Yes! And comics is so much about creating in isolation and then sometimes getting together, and what is comics without that?

I don’t know. For me I really have to have a social network. I have a queer literary network of friends and artists outside of comics because I need that release more than a few times a year. Except for Queers and Comics I no longer want to travel to things where I don’t have anything new to premiere or I’m not a guest. As much as I’m elated to see everybody, if I have to drag an 80 pound suitcase of books that I paid for out of my own pocket home at the end of the thing, it’s more crushing than if I hadn’t gone at all. I don’t have a new book this year, so I wasn’t planning to go whoop it up anywhere except for the LA Zine Fest – so it doesn’t feel that different for me yet.

We’ll see. I’m a month in. I’m not missing out on all my fun summer things like Rock Camp or CCA yet. So right now I don’t know. I do feel connected to people through the podcast and through my Patreon page. I’m connected to those people because we are in a weird conversation. Listeners resounding to episodes they’ve heard, me getting to talk to guests on a regular basis. Me getting to engage with people on a regular basis. It feels like human connection. It’s not the same, but it is me creating a little stream of connection through the year which is different from this gusher than when you’re at a show.

Making a regular podcast is more about being in conversation with people and is a different kind of interaction than making books or comics.

With books, it’s a solitary experience. I’ve historically befriended a lot of musicians and they get that immediate feedback from going on tour and playing shows and all these people listening to their music at the same time and that creating this energy they can vibe off of. As cartoonists we do get that a few times a year at conventions. That’s the only time you really get to see the faces of people who your work meant something to. It’s different than getting an email. I feel like as an author people read my books by themselves, it’s an isolated experience, and sometimes they feel so moved that they write something but for the most part, people read your book by themselves, and like it or don’t like it by themselves. You’ll never know. Covid or no.

It all comes back to isolation. People create in isolation, the work gets read in isolation.

But it’s also about creating a connection. They get emotionally connected to you and your story and they feel like they’re spending time with you, and getting something out of your story, but you may not know that. Or you may not know that for a while.

I know a great deal about you and your family because I read your books. Or maybe not a lot, but something.

More than a person walking down the street.

More than you know about me.

[laughs] True.

I am glad youre doing okay, Nicole.

I am doing okay but I’m trying to take it one day at a time, one hour at a time. A lot of this shit is completely out of my control so there’s no use in wearing down my nervous system fretting about things that are one billion per cent out of my control. All that’s in my control right now is staying in my house, keeping it clean, washing my hands seven thousand times a day, bleaching my cell phone, and trying to sustain. And just doing my fucking worksheet. It’s like I’m my own parole officer. I don’t know if you’ve ever been on unemployment, but when you are, they ask you, did you apply for jobs this week? What jobs did you apply to? Can you give us their phone numbers? That’s what I’m doing to myself. Are you going to listen to music today? What three songs? Who are you going to talk to today? I’m very specific with myself.

When the squirrel left us, I was depressed and stopped doing my daily worksheet and I’m picking it up and giving myself a pat on the back whenever I do it.

We all need some kind of daily affirmation.

What’s the alternative? Wallowing in despair? [laughs] If this is my last month on Earth, I would rather be doing as much as I can to make myself feel better over here in the meantime.