You originally studied petroleum engineering. What drew you to art and illustration? I never wanted to be an engineer, and I always knew I’d end up doing something else. I just wasn’t sure what—still not sure, to be honest. My artistic practice evolved slowly, through accidents and experiments, with no clear goals or aspirations in sight. It is still changing constantly and, hopefully, will keep changing until I die.
You’re an adjunct professor at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. How does your approach to teaching compare to how you learned the skills necessary to become an illustrator? I give my students lots of constraints and exercises, often talk about things unrelated to illustration, assign them stories and bits of found text to read and interpret, try to break them out of their comfort zones, and allow them to experiment and do what they’re passionate about, rather than do what’s in demand at any given point in time. In a way, I’m doing the opposite of what I was taught to do, and it’s enormously satisfying to see my approach inspiring the young ones with great ideas.
Your first nonfiction book, On Doing Nothing: Finding Inspiration in Idleness, recently launched. Why did you want to research and write about idleness? It occurred to me at some point that the only thing my favorite artists and authors share is a characteristic of lightness and emptiness—it’s not just doing nothing, of course, so it’s hard to sum up in a paragraph. Even the book, dense as it is, doesn’t do justice to the concept, but hopefully it at least serves as a decent introduction.
Artistic growth is a complicated process that relies on contemplation as much as it relies on hard work. I wanted to remind people of the benefits of slowing down and taking a break from their routines in order to daydream, read, research, walk and waste time. That’s where all the best ideas are hidden—between the folds of dailiness.
What in your research surprised you most about the artists, writers and philosophers you wrote about? Some of the most prolific artists are some of the biggest slackers—that’s hardly a coincidence. I myself have done a decent amount of work in my life, and I’ve yet to pull an all-nighter or deprive myself of regular meals, walks and other modest bits of comfort.
How do you measure your own productivity as a creative? It changes daily, monthly, yearly—I often have days and even weeks when I don’t create anything, and that’s fine. I’d rather spend a year writing one sentence or drawing one drawing at my own pace than force myself to keep up with any standard of artistic productivity. Some days, I draw a stack of things; other weeks, there’s nothing.
You’re a prolific author of comics. What trends in indie comics are you most interested in? I’m not a big fan of trends, good or bad. I’m more excited about artists who don’t belong anywhere and don’t try to fit into a scene. I have always had diverse, often contradictory influences—my last few comics were inspired by abstract art, manga, Soviet design and American postmodernism. I’m very grateful to live in a time when such wild mixes are generally welcomed. Same with storytelling. It’s exciting to see books that aren’t easily classified as comedies or dramas, and I hope to see—and make—more of that!
How has writing affected your illustration process and practice? It has made the business of coming up with ideas much easier—I’m convinced of that, although I couldn’t easily dissect the process. It might be that reading helps with this more than writing, but then again, writing is an extension of reading.
What do you think writers can take from illustrators and vice versa? Anything and everything! Being inspired by work outside your field is much more fun than sticking to your mentors and colleagues. I barely drew as a child or teenager, and words come to me much easier than pictures, so it probably made more sense for me to become a writer or a translator—but I often think of art as an escape from sense, so all that makes sense.
You’re a big fan of the English band the Fall. Which of the Fall’s songs should illustrators go and listen to right now? “Paintwork” is a great example of frontman Mark E. Smith’s brutal genius—he accidentally recorded a bit of TV on the tape of the song and left it in. A proper musician would have redone it, but he made it work and turned accident into design.
“Dr. Buck’s Letter” is a wonderfully strange mix of high and low—an imitation of poet William Blake next to a vapid interview recited verbatim. Again, it’s tempting to see Smith laughing at the banality of the cited checklist, but I think there’s more to it than that—a delight in language that unites words into one ecstatic whole.
“Eat Y’Self Fitter” may be my favorite song in the world, and a great example of how a Kellogg’s ad can sound sinister with the right mistreatment. And “Athlete Cured” is a strange story written in the journalese style of writing—reminds me a lot of writers James Joyce and Arno Schmidt.
Ah, there are too many—I could go on for another hour, but I don’t think I should.
How has the Fall affected how you make or approach art? It’s the Fall’s persistent antiprofessionalism, which has nothing to do with quality and style. Smith did wonderful and frightening things with the English language, and it gave me confidence that as an Armenian immigrant I too can write in English. It won’t be proper English, but the Fall is not exactly proper English either; yet, somehow, it works—beautifully!
Smith had such a fantastic ear for strangeness in words, and his lines moved me even when I couldn’t understand a single word. And that’s something I try to retain—the idea that behind all our concepts and ideas, there’s a thread uniting all languages and cultures, the need to give our thoughts voice, whether it’s drawn or written or spoken. That’s why my work often has that fragile unfinished quality; I want every line—both written and drawn—to feel like a live wire, to contain the sound of the brush and pencil scraping against the paper.