In this first series of interviews with graphic novelists, I spoke with Wallis Eates, author, artist and raconteur. I’ve been impressed by Wallis since first meeting her at Laydeez Do Comics which she co-organises in London with Rachael Ball after the departure of Sarah Lightman and Nicola Streeten to allow them to stretch and fly in their own careers as graphic novelists and academics. For me, Wallis has a strong eye focused on interiority – on natural surrealism. She does not need to plunder a dream diary; she recognises the hallucinatory nature of daydreams. She is able to tap into childhood memories and the world that children construct, bizarre imaginary cities and reasons, in order to negotiate their environment and the strange characters they encounter day today. It’s a real skill and one which fine artists tap into as well, like David Shrigley.
At a time when fine artists are increasingly using references from graphic novels, comics, popular visual storytelling forms, to give a contemporary power to their work I want to look at interesting practitioners in the graphic novel form and explore what they are doing right now. Unpublished and published, I want to give the people who are pushing boundaries and producing creative solutions to today’s questions a voice within the fine art community through this series.
JCM: Who are you and why do you draw?
Wallis Eates: I’ve been delving into the world of Self Enquiry recently, so the first half of that question has seen all sorts of answers of late! The most straightforward one is I’m someone called Wallis Eates, and I’ve never directly seen my head. I draw because it stimulates a feeling I really like. I would go so far as to say that it produces a state. In that state, I can navigate thoughts and feelings through mark making and then see how they look, which is always somehow satisfying. The drawings can then act as a meeting place for other people’s thoughts and feelings too, and we can connect through that space as well as all the other ones we share. Drawing is dimensional with endless potential.
JCM: What is Like an Orange / your current project?
Wallis Eates: Like an Orange is a long-form graphic narrative that documents a creative residency I did at the East London branch of Headway, a charity that works to rehabilitate survivors of traumatic brain injury (TBI). Their art studio, Submit to Love, is located there. I spent six weeks visiting the studio, gathering stories from TBI survivors and learning about their artistic practices. Like an Orange will tell these stories visually incorporating their artwork in a variety of ways, experimenting with collaboration-on-the-page. Themes of identity, memory, crisis, creativity, learning and awareness are explored further through an autobiographical narrative thread of memories triggered by the stories I heard, presenting at once the close up nuanced uniqueness of the individual and the universality within which we share a broader framework of experience. It’s currently crowdfunding with the publishers Unbound Books.
JCM: What are some of the deep issues coming out in the project?
WE: I think depth is prevalent in everything, and that comes out in the project. As much focus is given to banter in the studio, as it is to disclosures of near-death experiences. They are treated differently visually, as they undoubtedly have different tones and qualities in how they exist experientially, but beyond how we might measure their importance or weight, there is the essence of connection – and this is the overarching theme in the project. Memory, creativity and learning all rely on interconnectedness to take form, and from there, we connect with each other. As much I may not know what it is like to lose 15 years of memory or to have a life-changing accident, or rely on a computer to speak my words, I can acknowledge at least how I heard these stories by bringing myself to them and making connections in the way that I do. Hearing/seeing can be a mutual connection that happens in the most lightest of encounters, through to lengthy conversations or diving together through an artistic process. I like that the brain itself is a network of connections. Ties in nicely!
JCM: What practical physical processes are you using?
WE: It’s a mixed pot, this one. The sections of the book that show interaction between myself and the TBI survivors in the studio is pen and pencil on paper scanned in and edited with Photoshop, and using digital colour for speech bubbles and text boxes, typing with my own font. The autobiographical sections utilise watercolour pencil with wash, watercolour or acrylic in some areas, and pencil. I tend not to draw pages out as pages anymore though. Instead, I will draw several versions of whatever items are on the page, scan them all in, then see what works and lay them out on a digital page, having had a rough idea of the composition from the thumbnails that I scribbled before I did anything. Always a double-page spread thumbnail with a few random boxes on it just to determine flow. It will always change as I get going though, and I do like to extensively dabble digitally – so things may well change size, become transparent or turn into patterns.
When it comes to depicting the stories of the TBI survivors, it depends wholly on what their artwork is like. I browse what is available online – preferably I would choose work that I saw being produced while I was there – and work it across pages in combination with my own drawings, to tell the story. This might mean their work provides the visual setting or a character, and what isn’t there I will then produce. For example, one studio member told me about seeing Rudolf Hesse. He hadn’t painted Rudolf Hesse, so I drew him, but used the eyes from one of Nick’s paintings – I chose the eyes because Nick’s story was specifically about Hesse’s eyes (they were foreboding eyes!). It’s really quite effecting as there is a sense of visual storytelling that has been created beyond either of us. It wouldn’t exist without both of us, and him conveying to me the story.
To note, use of work has been consented to by their creators under the supervision and guidance of the studio manager, and will not go to publication until a second round of consent has been issued.
JCM: What’s working / not working – in process / or ideas
WE: The combining of my artwork with that of others’ as described above is working surprisingly well. It was a risky idea for many reasons – visually, ethically, editorially – but I’m finding it opens up more ideas as I go, as well as helping me to remember the connection I had to the people I spoke with. That is very useful as it was a long time ago now I was actually hanging out in the studio. Also, their artwork is so strong, it does things to the page that I couldn’t do, so that’s really exciting. However, there is then the risk that they won’t like what I’ve done, so there is an element of uncertainty hanging over those pages. But that’s ok; it means I can’t be precious – even though I am pouring a lot of love into it. But what is love without acceptance?
JCM: What tips have you got to share with anyone thinking of embarking on a graphic memoir?
WE: Start with a drawing of the very thing that is compelling you to do it. The very interconnectedness of all things I mentioned above can be your enemy here. It is easy to become entangled as you make connections, discover new threads, and trip over knots. Then it can all become drudgy as you perhaps feel obliged to provide context and details to ‘make sense’ to the imagined reader. Forget about them for now; you’re doing this for you. Plunge in with whatever it was that gave you the spark to do it in the first place, and let your creativity do the rest. This will go through many stages.
Feel into the memories. Remember being in your body when they happened. Take a day from that period, close your eyes and pretend you’re there, point of view shot. Wonder around your room, down the street, what did you see, hear, smell, eat? Who did you speak to? Play music from that era. Find your voice in that moment. What does it want to say? Is it the same as what you want to say now? Have a conversation.
Love your homemade time machine. Go on the trips you want. Relish the visualisation of your visitations. Once the work is done, your relationship with those memories will be changed forever. This is a rich time. Listen in. You’ll know when it’s right, so don’t sweat. If it’s difficult content, you might revisit some strong feelings so be prepared, and don’t be surprised (or do, why not?) when you find yourself treating your life as material. The materialisation is generally the why. You’re getting something that is in you, out of you – and it will feel different at all the various stages of the process. If it’s happy and light content, strap yourself in and enjoy the ride!
What ideas do you have for graphic novels that you’d like to do but which have never happened?
WE: I’d quite like to explore fatherlessness in my next project. My dad is buried on the other side of the planet and has been since I was 4. He went into his grave, not knowing I’d been created, and I didn’t know he was dead until I was 28. That was when I first saw a photo of him too – he looked nothing like I’d pictured, and at that moment I learned quite distinctly the power of imagination as I then grieved the loss of the person I’d invented throughout my entire life. I was never going to meet him or the real one. Even if I’d met the real one, the imagined one would still have had to be buried, and the realisation of that was a bigger shock than I can imagine anyone would think.
Absence is hard to know; it’s a paradox. It’s only as I’ve got older I’ve been able to observe that absence by gaps in the data of my life experience based on comparison and guesswork. I have some friends who had similar circumstances and it is interesting to see our shared gappiness. But I know no-one to have had precisely the same, and that would be an aspect I’d explore in the narrative too – what it is to have no precedence to follow, no pointers in how to feel.
I’d also like to delve into my Indian heritage. So this would be fatherhood on my maternal side. A family went from Maidstone, England to India sometime in the 18th century I think, and stayed there a couple of centuries until 1947 when a bunch of their descendants packed up sticks and relocated to…Maidstone! Again, there is a theme of emptiness here as India did not feature at all in my upbringing, and I didn’t see Granddad very much. I’m half Australian and a quarter Indian but feel I’m just from a bedroom in Kent.