“The Moment You Try To Point To It On The Map, Your Finger Starts To Drift.”: An Interview With Owen Pomery

Practitioners of psychedelic therapy have an interest in what is known as set and setting. Set is the mindset of the person undergoing a psychedelic trip, while the setting is the physical and social environment in which one has an experience. In its attempts to guide hallucinations, what the hallucinating bunch have conceptualized is a framework that describes two aspects of any experience, acid induced or not. It is rare, however, to find narrative work, comics or otherwise, which takes the setting of set and setting seriously - human or anthropomorphic characters still regularly take centre stage.

That Owen D. Pomery gives the settings of his narratives as much prominence as the set of his protagonists is what has drawn many readers to his work over the past few years. His interest in places and how people interact with them comes from his educational and professional background in architecture (he is a member of the Society of Architectural Illustration). You can trace the effects of his architectural design in his comics: the grainy, precise lines and a keenness in portraying space through isometric perspectives.  

In 2015, Avery Hill published Between the Billboards & the Authoring of Architecture, a book composed of previously self published work and also a brief mini-manifesto called "An Architectural Approach” in which Pomery outlines how his background in architectural illustration informs his comics. Since then, Pomery has been busy preparing British Ice for Top Shelf Productions, and Victory Point, his second book for Avery Hill, both published in 2020. Victory Point follows the character of Ellen as she makes a return day trip to her hometown by the sea. It’s a much looser, more optimistic work compared to the existentialism of Between the Billboards, and boasts soft and atmospheric coloring.

This Q&A is composed of an email conversation Pomery and I had over a handful weeks in spring in 2020. We discussed incidental meetings in small towns, the influence of cityscapes, the (potential) crossover between architectural illustration and comics, and how a setting very much influences the set. 

What came first for you, drawing or an interest in architecture and buildings?

I’ve thought about this before and it’s a difficult one to answer! I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember, but at the same time I was always building things and tinkering away, so I think each one has informed the other, right back to crayon in one hand, Lego in the other. This all rather naturally led me to an architectural education, where I got to explore my ideas both physically and visually, and I think I’ll probably always have a foot in both camps.

When I think of architecture and drawing in the same context I think of those mock-ups of how a development is supposed to look when it's completed. It's a peculiar genre of image that always has this uncanny quality, and projects this sort of clean, utopian vision of urban living. Do you find your comics practice engaged with or creating friction with this type of image?    

A good portion of my time has been spent working as an architectural illustrator creating images such as this, and like other types of illustration, they very much vary depending on what you’re selling and who you’re selling it too. However, a key component is always the blurring of the line between reality and fiction and, in that regard, there are definite similarities with the comics I make. The starting point for a lot of my work is generally a place or premise that could be a reality. Convincing the reader of that, both visually and narratively, is an important part of the scaffolding I have to put in place. In doing so, I hope to create a believable and intriguing world that the reader wants to explore and this requires many of the same ‘tricks’ and techniques found in architectural illustration but often used in a different way.

I think the sense that the place being depicted could be real is definitely felt in Victory Point, you even tricked me into a dead end Google trip with that fictional epigraph! VP is set in a modernist seaside resort. There's a long heritage of architectural attempts to create urban utopias by the sea, Ricardo Bofill's buildings along Spain’s Mediterranean coast and Portmeirion in Wales are two examples that spring to mind. How did you take inspiration from your research for creating the world VP is based on, and what was your process for creating the town on the page?

You’re not the first to have told me that, and I’m quite flattered! I made a zine called KIOSK that was set in an imaginary post-colonial African state, and my book British Ice features a fictional overseas territory, both of which have led people to double check whether they actually exist. It wasn’t my intention to be willfully deceptive, but the believability is definitely an important part for me, so the town Victory Point is very much informed by various real-life examples, including the ones you mention.

One of the main influences is a place called Frinton-on-Sea, on the coast in Essex, a region of the UK, which has a very large collection of modernist houses and an abandoned masterplan to build many more. Narratively, the main inspiration comes from the gulf between the lofty ideas in the planning of such places and the quiet domestic intentions of people that actually inhabit them. Frinton, for example, was never fully realized because of lack of demand, the public was not ready, or just not interested. I find something fascinating in the friction between the ideals and the aesthetic, and the fact that a lot of people simply don’t want to live that way. I have sympathy and interest in both views, trying to understand how people choose to live, and if they have a choice at all.

Ellen's journey in Victory Point is quite determined by coincidental and incidental meetings, she picks up details about how the town has and is changing through these encounters. Is this based on personal experiences of how news in small towns and tight knit communities is distributed? 

I think that’s probably the most autobiographical part of the story, as I grew up in a small rural community and I now live in the city. I have very fond memories of my childhood, but I’m disconnected from that way of living, so I’m endlessly intrigued by the circumstances that lead different people to their current situation. Are they fine with it? Are they resentful? Have they even thought about it at all? In a small community there are many positive things, like people know who you are and look out for you, but the trade-off is a lack of anonymity. There is an element of the same story being told in a small community, which makes it difficult for an individual to create a new life for themselves, because their role is written from the beginning.

Have you seen Robert Eggers' latest film, The Lighthouse? Stylistically, it's totally different to your work, but you may appreciate the intense and rather bizarre way it depicts people who are stuck in an isolated building and at the behest of the weather at what seems to be the end of the Earth. 

I have, and I do! There’s a lazy cliché in reviewing films that feature an architecturally interesting building of saying “it’s almost like the building is a character…” and most of the time it’s little more than set dressing. A film like The Lighthouse has genuinely succeeded in binding together the physical, mental, and human space in a very powerful way, and yet critics don’t seem to have been talking about it from an architectural point of view.

Totally the opposite of The Lighthouse, VP has this very clean and crisp atmosphere. I really feel the calmness of a warm and easy day. Your lighting here reminds me a bit of Liam Cobb's work. How did you figure out how to create that atmosphere, what sort of details were you paying attention to?  

Thank you. The feel of the day was especially important to me. I think a lot of people have nostalgic feelings towards those long, midsummer days, and I really wanted to put people in that mindset, drifting back to their own childhood. It hopefully evokes a slowness, but also a hazy, rose-tinted memory feel, which I then get to refresh with the weather change of the second day. From a personal point of view, whether working in illustration or architecture, I have always been in love with shadows, and I will never get bored of how they interact with different materials and surfaces. This is informed by constantly looking at the world, looking at architectural photography and seeing the myriad of ways others have attempted to capture this phenomenon.

Returning to the incidental meeting theme, a recurring event in your narratives are people sat in cafes talking to the proprietor, it seems like your equivalent of having a character sat in a psychiatrist's chair.

I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but I think that’s a pretty accurate take. From a technical point of view, it’s a solid mechanism for allowing a character to express their inner thoughts without impacting another cast member within the narrative. I also enjoy the fact that some things are easier to confide in a stranger, and that someone who isn’t weighed down by the history of knowing you can sometimes offer oblique, profound or potentially quite uncomfortable advice. There’s also something fleeting about it too, because the interaction is only shared by those two characters, with no one else able to confirm it, it almost makes you question whether it happened at all. 

You're based in London, though the cities you depict don't seem very inspired by it. Have you drawn inspiration from specific places you've visited?

Definitely, although it’s often hard to work out what bits come from where. I really enjoy traveling, but it doesn’t have to be far afield or exotic, as long as you have your eyes open. London will probably turn up in my books in less visual ways, a turn of phrase or an attitude, but that might come paired with the aesthetic of a Croatian bar, via a Montreal street or something. I hope to create a feeling of familiarity or connection, but the moment you try to point to it on the map, your finger starts to drift. One of the most interesting aspects I’ve found about visiting other places is how it alters the perception of where you’re from. You can look back from an elevated or detached viewpoint and often see things with a clarity that’s not possible when you’re amongst it all. It’s all a mixture, informed by everything I have seen or experienced and I’m never quite sure when it will emerge or where it will be applied.

In Between the Billboards the idea of being entrapped within architecture is a little more explicit, given that the protagonist is literally living between two advertising billboards. I thought the most telling thing about that work was that you didn’t draw any adverts, fake or facsimile, on the billboards. They’re left as blank slates where the reader can easily imagine an advert; that their blankness is so easily “filled” by the reader makes one conscious of how internalized advertising culture is.

That was very deliberate. I’m sort of fascinated and repelled in equal measure by advertising, particularly the space it takes up in our lives by its omni-presence. It seemed right that the main character would be essentially clad in these ideas and messages and yet be oblivious to what he was broadcasting, as we all kind of absorb advertisements and then unconsciously project what they say into the world ourselves.

Your mini-manifesto, An Architectural Approach, speaks about the influence of your architectural practice upon your comics. You outline three points of crossover or influence between the two: communicative design, the architectural aesthetic and the design of space. Could you briefly explain how these three aspects continue to play a role in your practice?  

Absolutely, although to start with, it’s important to say that this is not a code I attempt to stick to, more a retrospective observation I had when trying to interrogate my own comics creating process. Firstly, so much of comics is communication design, and it’s the same in the paper stage of architecture. You are trying to convey a fictional space, in terms of how it is physically, but also how it feels. There are infinite visual tricks that I use from architectural practice that I bring into my comic work, although most of it is probably subconscious. The aesthetic is probably the least interesting, but there is quite a representational style of drawing that comes out of architectural education, classic drawing setups like isometric perspectives for example. Employing these techniques in comics, combined with what most people know of architecture and its aesthetic, means that I can’t help but invoke a response in the reader that my work is “architectural looking”. Lastly, I realized the “design of space” approach I used was slightly odd when talking to other creators, as I found most of them started with a character or a situation. I seemed to always start with, what is to me, an interesting space and then work out how to fill it, and who would be there and why. In doing so, it occurred to me that this was the opposite of my design process, which involved working out all the ‘stories’ that would play out and then creating a design to cater or respond to each possible outcome.

You’ve made comics for architectural zines and publications. How has the medium been taken by those in the architecture world, is this a medium that they’re response to, have some immediate bond with, or is it not necessarily taken seriously?

I’m not sure the architectural world has paid much attention to my output at all to be honest! This is a generalization, but it feels like at best it gets treated with mild curiosity. A lot of people working in the practice appear to be slightly frustrated with the industry or with their position within it, so when they see someone operating on the outskirts of it, they often react with a kind of “Well that all looks rather fun, but over here in the real world…” attitude. However, the main frustration I have is more based on peoples’ reaction to comics, whether they’re from the architectural world or not. Sadly, in the UK, comics are still viewed by most as either for “superhero geeks” or children, so if you’re trying to convey a nuanced architectural theory, it often feels like you’ve already lost the audience by choosing a medium that is so misunderstood, even if it is the best tool for the job.

Do you think that the comics page and its arrangement of panels could be an interesting way to experiment with depictions of how people may experience a space? Do you have some favorite examples of this from comics by other artists?

I do, and there are many examples of those who have used the form in interesting ways. The most tantalizing thing about comics is its lack of convention, and the more diverse it is the better, in my opinion. It means people can still come in and do something truly unique with it. In terms of creating comics that convey the experience of space, it would be impossible not to mention Chris Ware’s Building Stories, that fully dissects a building and the lives that play out within it. Richard McGuire’s Here is a pretty unique concept too, with its use of a fixed view but varying panel configurations with links back and forward in time and space. I am also a big fan of Asterios Polyp by David Mazzachelli, for its choice to render its characters as aesthetic recreations of their creative ideals, even using different lettering to denote the uniqueness of their speech. But there are so many different approaches out there. 

Anthropologist Brian Larkin’s has this notion of “infrastructure’s political address" as a way to tease out how buildings can be said to "speak" on behalf of power, namely those with the power to build buildings - which, of course, not everyone can do. VP and BtB present two quite different experiences of living amongst architecture. BtB's protagonist could certainly be interpreted as being overpowered by the physical structures around him. Has this idea of power relations in regards to people and urban surroundings something you've consciously brought into your work?

Completely. I’m fascinated by the endless feedback loop of people creating the built environment and then how the environment affects them in return. This was the distilled and central premise of BtB, and it also features in British Ice, as the concept of pushing an agenda through building language is never more nakedly clear than in colonial architecture. As such, the central (obtuse) image of that book is of a London townhouse situated in the Arctic Circle amid an indigenous population. KIOSK was set in a postcolonial African country and analyzed all the ways the country’s political and social ideals were manifested in the architecture of its various kiosk typologies. It then reveals an oblique narrative of the reality of the situation on the ground, with all its heterotopian positives and negatives. With Victory Point, these themes are there again, but a little more lightly held and as a background to all the personal choices we make regarding “how to live” and the ones made for us. It’s definitely a recurrent interest of mine.

Finally, as this interview started just before and has stretched into the COVID related quarantine, how has life indoors been for you? And in your professional field, is the architectural world asking questions about what sort of buildings people will be seeking to build or live in in a post-COVID world?  

Yeah, it’s an odd time. I worked from home before and currently work has (thankfully) continued to arrive, so in that regard not too much has changed, but I guess in terms of the potential global recession, it’s still early days... On a personal level, I feel like I am normally constantly researching by simply being in the world, so taking a step out of that has been hard. There have been some positives of looking at the world in a different way, working out the difference between what you want and what you need to live a life, and these are core questions in architecture, too. I am less directly involved with the architecture industry these days, but it weirdly still feels more like my world than illustration. Maybe I’m just very happy operating somewhere in the gap in between them. I think it’s probably too early to say how this will shape things going forward, but people are definitely speculating, and I would hope that it’s taken as an opportunity to reanalyze the core principles of what our shelter should and could be.