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The Plaza of the Mind Interview with Katy Ellis O'Brien!

Katy Ellis O'Brien will be presenting her senior thesis, Letters from Underwood (a story in pictures), at the Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington from May 10-23. I was happy that she was willing to take time from her busy preparations to participate in an interview for the Plaza of the Mind.

Ms. O'Brien also has an online gallery that you may peruse here if you can not make it to the show.

[The Plaza of the Mind quotes appear in Bold-type, Ms. O’Brien's in normal-type]

Who do you think has inspired your style the most?

Cartoons and comics are probably my main influences. My approach to drawing can be traced back to slavishly following every step in books like "How to Draw Donald Duck." My favorite book of that nature was (and still is) "Cartoon Animation" by Preston Blair. It's just a simple breakdown of how to build a cartoon character out of shapes and lines.

In more recent years I've taken more inspiration from art history, especially the Italian Renaissance. I visited Florence and Rome in 2005 for the purpose of studying art. So while the influence of Michelangelo and Caravaggio might not be obvious, I think it's there.

I was under the impression that you also do comics, or at least used to, is this something that you plan on pursuing?

I started making "comics" before I learned how to read and write. I just drew pictures in sequence and expected everyone else to be able to follow the story.

Much of my recent work is just a more self-aware version of those early picture-stories. The project I'm doing now, for my senior thesis, is a series of paintings arranged to suggest a narrative. Since there are no words to spell it out, the viewer gets to decide the specifics of that narrative for herself - like piecing together a family history by looking at pictures in a photo album.

I consider this a form of comics, even though it's hung in a gallery and not bound in a book. I think what's important about comics lies in what happens between panels - when the reader assembles a sequence of images into a story. I'm just asking my "readers" to take their imagination a little bit further, and fill in more details.

That said, I have done more traditional comics and hope to do more in the future. I will (hopefully!) have something to offer at the Olympia Comics Festival this May.

Where would you like your career to take you? The best case scenario?

I would love to be able to support myself through art, but hey, wouldn't we all? Right now all I'm going to worry about is finding a job after graduation.

Do you enjoy art school?

I'm in my last year at The Evergreen State College. As a senior in high school I decided no other school would suit me, and I was probably right about that.

Evergreen is good for artists in that it lets you plunge into something you feel passionate about, and you never have to look back. I imagine that if I told a faculty member at any other school that I wanted to spend my senior year painting cartoon rabbits, they would have been at a loss for words. At Evergreen, they said to me, "Great! How can I help?"

You have a very interesting style and it seems quite polished and tight to me, where do all the animals come from?

Thank you! I have always been fascinated with animals, and I am equally fascinated with how they are represented in art and storytelling. As a kid I slept amid a pile of stuffed animals and idolized Bugs Bunny. My earliest drawings were stick-figure rabbits.

I may have been an extreme case, but I think all children are drawn to animals. "Animal-people" in particular are embedded in our imaginations at a young age through cartoons and children's books, and those associations follow us into adulthood. I think people can identify more readily with a cartoon animal than they can with an image of a real person. An animal-person is obviously a metaphor. It's more accessible in that way.

What is the best thing that has happened to you, from an artisitic standpoint, so far?

It's hard to choose. I've been very lucky. I've stumbled upon people here at Evergreen that have made a gigantic difference in how I see myself. Teachers and classmates who took my art seriously, even before I ever did. I guess they're one of the best things that has happened to me as an artist.

Who are your favorite artists?

Questions like this worry me because I always leave someone out, so I'll try to make broad statements. Some of my favorite artists aren't really considered "artists." A lot of my favorite art can be found in the pages of comic books, or in illuminated manuscripts penned by nameless medieval scribes. I have some favorite children's illustrators, like Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak. Of course I like the usual Renaissance and Baroque masters. I also love (to name a random sampling) Jean Simeon Chardin, William Blake, Marc Chagall, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and Franz Marc.

I have to admit I'm somewhat oblivious to contemporary art, but I'm really into what some German artist/illustrators are doing, especially Michael Sowa. I think that type of art is easily dismissed because of its humor, but there's real emotional power in some of his paintings, and he's a great craftsman.

I've been fortunate enough to see some great shows in Portland and Seattle in the last couple of years, and the artists Robert Nelson, Robyn O'Neil and Marcel Dzama really stood out to me.


This time I'll try my best to do a list, but it won't be complete by any means..

Real books: Jorge Luis Borges, Kurt Vonnegut, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip Pullman, Oliver Sacks. I'm also starting to get into John Irving.

Comic books: Lynda Barry, Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, Daniel Clowes, R. Crumb, Harvey Pekar, Herge, Charles Burns, Matt Groening, Linda Medley, Craig Thompson, Jason, Alison Bechdel, Joe Sacco.

How many hours a day do you work on your images, do you keep a rigorous schedule?

My schedule these days is pretty normal. I usually get to the studio at 9 and work until 5 or 6. In addition to painting I attend figure drawing classes and critique sessions. I also meet with my thesis adviser once a week. I take one day off, usually Saturday.

How large of a school is Evergreen?

Current enrollment is around 4000. The campus is enormous however, spanning many acres of rainforest and coastline. It's very much a world unto itself, with its own unique customs and lore. I think it's hard for people to leave Evergreen and rejoin civilization, especially art students..

Have you had a public showing of your art?

Twice on campus, in a group show with fellow students. My upcoming senior thesis show Letters from Underwood will hang in the Evergreen Gallery May 10-23.

How many pieces will make up the show?

That is yet to be determined (I am still working on the last few paintings!) but probably close to 40 pieces, all of varying sizes.

Your show is subtitled a story in pictures - could you give a rough description?

Letters from Underwood is an experiment with visual storytelling and characterization. The story follows the emotional journey of three animal characters who discover a pair of human foundlings. Each painting represents a moment in their lives. They are to be arranged in sequence and "read" like panels in a comic book.

My goal is to stimulate the imagination. I hope that each viewer comes away with a slightly different version of the story in mind. In this way, Letters from Underwood is like a collaboration between myself and the viewer.

Could you describe the Olympia Comics Festival and what you would like to do for it?

I just learned the comics festival has been postponed until June 9th, which gives me a little more time to prepare something. It's a pretty small but lively local event, with a stage show, cartoonists expo, and panel discussions - see for details. This year I hope to get a table and sell comics and prints.

Your comment concerning people's ability to identify more readily with a cartoon animal reminded me of the book Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud - are you familiar with it?

It's one of my favorites. I also recommend the sequel,
Reinventing Comics.

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