Each year Propel Youth Arts host a mentoring program for up and coming artists, designers, musicians and all kinds of creatives to gain valuable support and advice from those established in the creative community. For the mentee, it’s a chance to pick someone’s brain about the ins and outs of their industry, to find out all the behind the scenes stuff that goes on, as well as explore new ideas and processes. And while the mentor is there to impart knowledge and guide the mentee, they also gain valuable experiences within their field.
Let us introduce you to the two visual artists that we are fortunate enough to interview today, who are both taking part in the JUMP mentoring program. They truly have such interesting backgrounds in the arts!
Campbell Whyte is one of the mentees. He studied visual arts at ECU, before going on to do a six month residency at the San Franciscan artists lab, Million Fishes, followed by a further three month residency in Mexico! Since returning home, he has spent the last few years re-establishing the art gallery Free Range, and received the Young People and the Arts Fellowship from the WA Department of Culture and the Arts. This gave him time to do a range of mentorships, as well as a residency with the research and collections department of the WA Museum. This research helped him establish ground work for a Perth based, 300-page, graphic novel, which he is undertaking this year, which explores the history of loss within WA and other colonised spaces around the world. You’ll see pieces from this current work dotted throughout this interview.
Nicki Greenberg is an established visual artist, and for those who came along to Perth’s Women of Letters as part of the Perth Writers Festival this year, she was indeed one of the readers! She is a writer and illustrator who lives in Melbourne, and works as a lawyer in her spare time. Her first visual art book, The Digits series, was published when she was 15 years old, and sold more than 380,000 copies. Having done more work with comics, including dabbling in illustrated fiction and non-fiction books for children, she then followed that to interpret F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby into comic art form, over a period of six years. And if this doesn’t sound incredible enough, she then spent three years on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. She is mentoring Campbell this year as part of the JUMP program.
Tell us a bit about your creative backgrounds, and how you’ve come to where you are now in your careers:
Campbell: Like all children, I drew and painted a lot. I had a lot of encouragement from teachers, students and my parents while growing up, so kept going. When I was in primary school and high school I fell in love with the medium of comics. Initially it was strip comics, things like Calvin and Hobbes, Footrot Flats and others. Then American superhero comics, Japanese manga, French albums. It sort of all opened up to the point where I was reading anything I could get my hands on.
After high school, I went to art school and majored in painting. That was where I was exposed to a lot of critical theory regarding the arts and culture, which has had a profound influence on my work. I created a wide variety of gallery works in all different mediums, but always maintained a love of comics.
I’ve held a lot of exhibitions, and worked on lots of illustration projects over the years. But now I’m trying to combine these disparate interests with my recent graphic novel. Combining the form of comics with a painterly aesthetic and something maybe a bit more “story book” than the traditional “black ink and digital colours” look.
Nicki: I am a self-taught scribbler. I’ve been writing stories using both words and pictures for as long as I can remember. When I was fifteen years old I wrote and illustrated a series of children’s books called The Digits using characters based on my fingerprint. Then for many years after that, while I was studying law and traveling, I mainly drew short comics – often semi-autobiographical and sometimes involving zombies. These appeared in small press anthologies and literary journals. When I was 25 I embarked on the mad endeavour of adapting The Great Gatsby in comic form, a labour of love that took me six years (mostly done while working full time as a lawyer). I was five years into the work before it was finally taken on by a publisher, the marvelous Allen & Unwin. Since then I have also done a very large graphic Hamlet, which was finished in the nick of time before our first child was born. We now have two darling little ones, which leaves me small scraps of time to work on picture books for young readers.
How did you get involved in the JUMP artist program, and what was your motivation for doing so?
Campbell: Some of my friends have been involved in the JUMP program in previous years, and have had a really enriching experience from it. Often times arts grants give you wonderful financial funding, but what young and emerging artists really need (along with finances) is assistance in developing their professional practice. The practical elements of working in the arts. Or at least, that’s what I need right now. With the graphic novel that I’m creating at the moment, I’m trying to do something that I have never done before. I’m making something on a scale I’ve never attempted, and trying to enter the publishing field for the first time. I guess there’s lots of individual elements that I’m quite confident with and have had a lot of experience with, but not all combined in this way before.
Nicki: Campbell contacted me by email to ask if I’d be his mentor. Because my schedule is very jammed at the moment, my first impulse was to say that I just couldn’t fit it in. Then I looked at the artwork samples that Campbell had attached. His work was so beautiful, and his passion for the project so obvious that I felt it was important to make the space to get involved. I thought about how much I would have appreciated a mentor to chat with when working on Gatsby, too.
It’s now been going for a couple of months, what has it involved for the both of you so far, and what have you gotten out of it?
Campbell: For me there’s been a lot of writing, a lot a lot a lot of writing. I’m working on finalising the script of the graphic novel and getting as many people to read it as I can before I start illustrating. It’s really quick to rewrite a page of a comic, but it takes a long time to redraw a page of comic, so I want to be pretty solid on what I’m doing before I start rendering things.
I had a fantastic meeting with Nicki when she came to Perth for the writers festival. It’s so encouraging to meet with someone who has achieved such great things in the industry you want to be a part of and who is so encouraging and enthusiastic about your project. It was really energising and gave me a new coat of optimism. We’ve been shooting one another emails about the project and how it’s going. It’s nice to know that there’s someone you can bounce ideas off and who is interested in what you’re doing. It can be a really lonely profession, grinding away in your studio.
Nicki: We have met up in Campbell’s home city (Perth) and talked on the phone was well. We have discussed processes for planning and structuring the work, and I have been hugely impressed at the conceptual and structural groundwork that Campbell has been doing. It seems that we have quite a similar approach to planning and executing a long project, and will probably both learn something from the mentoring relationship.
You’re both graphic novelists, can you take us through the process of how you create?
Campbell: Everything is inspiration, it’s just whether we’re conscious of it or not. When the idea was first forming, it was really quite derivative. There were two big turning points in my development of the idea. The first was that I clearly defined a number of key “texts” that I was going to be drawing my inspiration from. These are my favorite works, not neccesarily graphic novels, it could be things like films, picture books or songs. Each one captured something that I’m trying to convey in the text. Then I went about imagining what it would be like if they all had a baby together. It sounds kind of funny, buy that’s sort of what I’m trying to do. Everything, all of culture is a remix. There’s nothing new, just new arrangements of existing elements.
The other big turning point was when I realised that I wanted the text to be autobiographical. It’s not a literal biography, but it’s heavily drawn from my life, well elements are. That conscious decision to make it personal really empowered the story and the characters and my ability to write them. To talk about my own experience, and to talk about my home town, what it means to live in this place. The history of it, the stories that run through the land and the buildings.
In terms of the illustration process, I like to do a lot of sketches. I’ve got an enormous box at home filled with journals for this project. All sorts of scraps of ideas that I keep together and pull out when working.
I work with pencil and watercolour. So my illustration process goes from script, to a small rough layout of the page. Then when I’m happy with it, I transfer it on to a large piece of thick, watercolour paper and lightly pencil in all the elements. Then I go through and block in the colours with the paints. Then I go over the whole thing with coloured pencil to give it more texture and line. Once that’s all done to a point I’m happy with, I scan the work, do any tidying up I need to in Photoshop, and then digitally place the text on top.
Nicki: My biggest projects have been adaptations of existing works of literature, so the inspiration has come from these extraordinary works themselves. In the case of Gatsby, my book was intended as a tribute, a jazz “arrangement” of the original. With Hamlet, I was really “performing” the play on the page, and it was like staging a production of this most performed of plays, but in book form. For my children’s picture books, Monkey Red, Monkey Blue and BOM! Went the Bear, the inspiration was my daughter Poppy.
To begin a large project I do a lot of research – sometimes mostly visual, and other times historical and theoretical. I did a huge amount of reading for Hamlet in particular. A crucial stage is spending plenty of time developing all aspects of the style, aesthetic and characters by playing and experimenting with the sketchbook. This typically includes a lot of experimentation with different tools and drawing/painting media, and a lot of thinking and note taking about the concepts that underpin the work – eg in Hamlet, the motifs and mechanics of the theatre. I also do a complete rough of the work, which usually happens in tandem with some of the sketchbook work, as the ideas continue to develop through the rough stage. Even when doing the final work, there are usually quite a lot of changes from the initial rough, as I continue to refine the ideas at each stage, always having to keep in mind how each image and each component works as part of the book as a whole, and how it ties in with the main concepts of the work.
My work is all drawn and painted by hand, but I do a lot of assembly on the computer – like placing the characters in front of the painted stage sets in Hamlet. It is more accurate to describe each page (and the work as a whole) as a composition rather than a sequence, because the layouts are quite complex, and work in all directions, not just in the obvious order of reading (left to right, top to bottom). So I design each page or double-page spread as a whole, also taking into consideration how each spread works in the context of the ones before and after it.
What do you hope to achieve through the JUMP program for the remainder of the year?
Campbell: I’d love to get as much of the graphic novel finished as I can, and to get a publisher on board for the work. That’s really my dream, to have the work published.
Nicki: I hope Campbell finds the mentorship fruitful and that he achieves his aims in relation to his project. I’m looking forward to interesting discussions as the work progresses.
Which graphic novelists do you admire?
Campbell: Oh, there’s so many for such a variety of reasons.
I love Alan Moore, I think his works are spectacular. Neil Gaiman, Shaun Tan, Rumiko Takahashi, Hayao Miyazaki, David Watterson, David B, Chris Ware, Christophe Blaine and of course Nicki Greenberg.
Nicki: Lots! Just to mention a few of our local Australian artists: Mandy Ord, Mirranda Burton, Pat Grant and Gregory Mackay are some of my favourites.
Wow, so inspiring! If you’d like to read more about the JUMP program, and think you might like to be involved next year, then head over to www.jumpmentoring.com.au.
As above, all of the nice images come from Campbell’s work, Home Time.