On a bitterly cold February afternoon, the light is waning along a desolate stretch of Northern Boulevard in Queens. Through a wall of windows in a former warehouse, a glow of warmth and activity reaches the darkening pavement outside. Round paper lanterns shine on a high-ceilinged room in which wide strips of newsprint are draped across every wall and floor. Painted across the strips in sweeping brush strokes is a still-developing scene: painted waves that climb from the floor up the side of a paper-draped table; a volcano and palm trees; lush jungle leaves and vines. Rising up the back wall is a pointed mountain range surrounded by frenetic sweeps of paint—the swirling mists and tempestuous clouds of a seductive tropical fantasyland. The illustrator responsible for this roomful of Bali Ha’i imagery, Wesley Allsbrook, is standing on the papered table, wearing white jeans, a white button-down shirt tied at the waist, and black-and-white striped socks without shoes. She briskly wields a large brush dipped in black acrylic, building a restless accumulation of lines.
For readers of the New York Times, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s and many other publications, those lines and their sense of pressing movement and vitality may be familiar. Whether she’s illustrating an article or creating an original comic, Allsbrook, 30, has an unmistakable and memorable style—immensely skilled brushwork combined with a saturated palette to communicate emotional power with intelligence. Since graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 2007, Allsbrook has been building a body of sharply conceived editorial work while making comics with her constant collaborator, writer Barrie Potter. The Polynesian-themed room just described is part of another personal project: a special, one-off dinner. She and Potter developed the “tiki in winter” event with chef Tessa Liebman, collaboratively bringing together a summer-tinged, multicourse meal with an illustrated menu and an atmosphere of tropical magic.
My first meeting with Allsbrook is in a wooden-seated booth in a comfortably worn bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a week before the tiki dinner. She’s nervous about getting all the preparations done in time, but excited by the project’s collaborative nature: “I like the idea of working with people who don’t do what I do,” she says. Allsbrook has short brown hair and glasses, and she projects a clear-eyed intelligence and self-awareness. Our meeting place was determined partly by its proximity to her shared studio space, in Greenpoint’s famed Pencil Factory building, and partly by the fact that said studio is currently full of boxes. The illustrator is preparing for an imminent move—one of many since her time at RISD.
Her first New York apartment after graduation was, in fact, close to the Pencil Factory. “I used to look across the street at all the people who were working there, and it was like, ‘Oh, that’s who I want to be—they’re making their own careers, it’s really exciting.’” Subsequent moves took her to New Jersey and then to North Carolina, her home state, where she tried to save money while working on personal projects. When she eventually returned to New York, she finally took the longed-for studio in the Pencil Factory, but is moving after a year. “It’s been a nice thing, but I miss being on my own,” she says, explaining her current decision to leave the space. Plus, as she recently acquired a new apartment in Queens and a new boyfriend in Bushwick, she’s in the market for more convenience and a modicum of stability: “It’s about figuring out where I’m comfortable and where I would like to be. I want a home.”
Even before her nomadic post-college years, Allsbrook was no stranger to flux. The illustrator grew up in Durham and Chatham counties, shuttling between the households of her divorced parents from the age of five. “When you live in two different houses, you don’t really feel at home in either place,” she reflects. “You live in the car, you live in the sort of in-between space.” That said, Allsbrook found familial support for her interests from an early age. She remembers writing stories as a child, then “art directing” her mother—an occupational-therapist-turned-homemaker—who created illustrations for her daughter’s tales. “Mom could really draw,” notes Allsbrook. Later, in high school, Allsbrook took up drawing herself when she saw others doing it and getting the notice she craved. “I wanted to have a magical power,” she says. “Before I was motivated to really make something, as far as drawing was concerned, from within I was motivated by competition.” At the time, realistic images gained her the most approval, and she says she still feels a desire to impress people in that way. “I don’t think it’s left me at all: the need to make something that looks like something so that someone will say, ‘That looks nice.’”
When Allsbrook entered RISD, she already knew that she wanted to be in books and magazines and do representational work. She also knew that she wanted to work in line and color, using a brush, as she still does today. Allsbrook studied with illustrator Chris Buzelli; his wife, SooJin, creative director and senior vice president for Asset International, gave Allsbrook her first paid illustration job and still commissions work from her. Says Allsbrook of Buzelli, “She’s my mentor, the person who has infinite patience for me.” The art director is equally enthusiastic about Allsbrook, describing her unique style of drawing as “loose, lively ink lines that invite you into her world with a sense of mystery.” Kate Collins, creative director at Emdash in Austin, Texas, also lauds the illustrator’s “gestural style and energy. Each time you look at a piece of her work, you see something different.” Matthew Dorfman, art director for the op-ed page at the New York Times, praises Allsbrook’s distinctive style and her dedication. “Wesley’s work has a fluidity that suggests that her images are always moving,” he says. “That same fluidity creates what I’m certain is a completely mistaken impression that those images are executed and born within seconds. It looks effortless, but I know her work ethic, so I’m reasonably confident that it isn’t.”
Allsbrook started getting assignments for the New York Times after college and was soon signed by the Loud Cloud creative agency, which still represents her. In 2013, she began contributing to The New Yorker, where her work now often illustrates pieces on music. It’s easy to see why: her image of the Flaming Lips for a 2013 concert listing kinetically ranges colorful band-member portraits across the drawing’s space, filling it with the energy of live performance. Another New Yorker piece shows just how adaptable her style can be to the subject matter at hand: her drawing for an essay on Alzheimer’s subtly employs the visual metaphor of a sunny day at the beach threatened by a dark, storm-clouded sea. Across the image of a girl and her grandmother building a sandcastle, sweeping diagonal lines suggest winds of uneasy change in a progression of violet tones that move into heavily inked black.
The piece carries a dramatic punch that brings to mind the work of illustrator Nathan Fox—no accident, as Allsbrook cites him as inspiration, along with comic artists Paul Pope and Jillian Tamaki. “More than just the way Tamaki’s work looks, I really admire the way that she’s built her career,” explains Allsbrook. Clearly, the comic artist realm that Fox, Pope and Tamaki inhabit drives Allsbrook as well. In high school, she read Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, the Hernandez brothers and others of their ilk; these days, she is exploring “the big-publisher stuff” and manga. Her interest in developing comics seems to reach as far back as those childhood stories she created with her mother. “When I think about what I’m most interested in making for myself, it always has to do with stories,” she explains.
Allsbrook got to know Potter at a party a few years ago, and since then, they have worked together on numerous comics, selling some to tor.com and Nautilus magazine. The duo’s work blends an informed pulp sensibility with thoughtful explorations of the psyche. In To Eternity, published by tor.com last summer, the main character’s inner monologue about music spins out against a background scenario of catastrophe. The team is currently shopping around their first graphic novel, Nervosa, a “horror genre piece,” as Allsbrook describes it, about a girl whose eating disorder turns corporeal. “We have really similar taste,” says Allsbrook of Potter. “I’ve never felt that anybody quite understood me or understood what I wanted to make as Barrie does.” Potter echoes Allsbrook’s sentiments: “Collaborating with Wes is like talking in creative shorthand,” he says. “We’re drawing from similar references, speaking the same language. But she’s also a separate person, and the collaborative value of another perspective is invaluable. We make each other’s ideas better.”
Allsbrook is intent on honing her cartooning chops, a process that has involved a certain amount of self-education as she has learned to think outside the parameters of editorial work. “Cartooning is all about creating a character that you can draw in a lot of different situations from a lot of different angles—that you can draw over and over again,” she says. “Up until recently, you could really tell, looking at the sequential work that I do, that I’m an illustrator who does comics. And I don’t want that to be true.”
This kind of self-analysis seems to come naturally to Allsbrook. She is insightful when it comes to the factor that can make or break any artist’s career: taste. “Sometimes I worry—and I think that I’m not alone in this—about the point at which I am no longer cool. There’s something that is distinctly not ‘zeitgeisty’ about me. It’s hard to be yourself and also keep in mind what’s most consumable.” Even though she has attained an undeniable amount of success in her career, she is unsparing of what she identifies as her deficiencies and is driven to overcome them. “I want to be able to do everything perfectly so that when I do something, it’s a decision,” she says. “I need to not be limited by skill.”
Allsbrook has evolved her process over the years, from doing everything by hand and working on a large scale—“I have a flat file full of these really unwieldy pieces of paper”—to working smaller, sketching on a recently purchased Wacom Cintiq, and using a light box to help create her final drawings. Although she still uses brushes and brush pens, she has embraced the digital side of things wholeheartedly: “It makes my process more exciting because I feel like I learn new ways to use it all the time.”
Allsbrook seems to equate making advances in her work with improving her overall experience and her world. “I want to get better and better and better and be able to draw a door and walk through it,” she says. “That’s what drawing does for me: it makes things the way that I want them.” One can almost imagine her fiercely inked lines bursting from the page and replacing a mundane reality with one that’s far wilder and far more interesting. On the eve of the tiki dinner, she brings island warmth into the New York winter with the help of friends and collaborators, painting an imagined island world around her. ca