Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Paul Pope

Washington, DC

Detail from "Rose in a Battleship," a screen print created for Diesel's fall 2007 line of women's watches and jewelry.

As a cartoonist and graphic novelist, Paul Pope’s illustrations jump off the page with a distinctly edgy, modern aesthetic. He has published numerous book-length comics, and his work has appeared in dozens of anthologies. In October 2010, he served as a Master Artist for a unique graphic novel residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. For three weeks, 24 artists-in-residence worked and studied in groups of eight under the guidance of Pope and two other Masters. We caught up with Pope via e-mail to discuss his reflections on artist residencies, and what his experience was like mentoring burgeoning artists in his field.

NEA: What is your version of the artist's life?

PAUL POPE: To be honest, it's chaotic, shambolic, often stressful and lonely, yet balanced with sudden bursts of joy and triumph and peace of mind which make up for any of the negatives. I think the artist's life has kept me preternaturally young, which is one strange unexpected side effect. The art is full of discovery, almost like a life of science or exploration. But I've also chosen to pass on a lot of the usual stuff I would imagine a 40-year-old American male would have: a car, a house, a normal nine-to-five, golfing on the weekends, and lawn mowing or whatever. Although that may have nothing to do with the art and more with my turn of mind.
NEA: How did you first become interested in creating comics and graphic novels?

POPE: It was one of the few things I realized I would be willing to do whether or not I made any money at it. It was an isolated, individualistic lifestyle, and that appealed to me. I was trained in studio arts and art history, and was less enthusiastic about pursuing a career as a gallery artist or an academic than I was about comics, although it was seen as a sort of juvenile choice by some of my peers and teachers.

NEA: You participated in the Atlantic Center for the Arts as a Master Artist. Why do you think it’s important to provide guidance to artists in this way?

POPE: I saw this as a way to continue my own education as well as to challenge myself to see if I had/have anything significant to share with younger artists. I remember how much it mattered when I was in my teens and early twenties to have an older artist or mentor there to encourage you, to share knowledge. I see the sort of residency experience I was trying to set up as being more of a symposium in the classic sense, where we had a public dialogue rather than a strict syllabus, although I provided a number of specific projects for the group. For me, it was a group discovery lab. I wanted most of all to help the group discover and refine their own individual senses of process and self-analysis in terms of developing ideas and themes in their work.

NEA: In 2010, the Atlantic Center for the Arts hosted three different graphic novelists as master teachers. Do you find that type of support unique?

POPE: Yes. In fact, we came to believe this may be the first time such a program has been attempted on such a grand scale, working with the ACA and the Arts Council. It was interesting to see how different the three of us Master Artists were in terms of what we had to offer and what we emphasized in our courses. The larger group of associates were welcome to attend any class or project outside of their immediate group, and we had many events where most of the residency would work on one specific project, such as dynamic figure drawing, inking and painting demos, film screenings, group trips to the beach, or [going] out on a Friday night. To me, it was all a sharing and giving process. There was no sense that class was out for the day. It went on 24/7 for me.
NEA: What would you say is the most important thing that an artist residency offers to an artist?

POPE: A solace, a pause, a time to step outside yourself and re-examine your art and ideas in a neutral environment, while simultaneously giving you access to a group of peers and contemporaries. It was gratifying to see a lot of the associates from all three groups hanging out and engaged in all sorts of ongoing discussions related to their art and their tastes. The associates shared a lot on their own, and many told me privately they gained so much more than they expected from the experience. It was great to hear that.

NEA: Your main role was that of teacher. Did you find that you learned anything from the artists-in-residence as well?

POPE: Yes, I find myself relaying the same lessons I learned from MY masters when I was coming up: the importance of simplifying your art and ideas, making your themes solid, learning the foundations, and being curious about art and ideas outside of your specific medium and idiom in order to stay fresh and vibrant.
NEA: What did you work on while you were at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and how did the unique environment there impact your project?

POPE: I didn't work on any private work at all. My days were very busy, from noon until midnight. I also flew in a handful of guests from related fields, who spent some time with my group and the others as well. We had scheduled a series of private consultations where I sat individually with my group members, and also a few outside my group, and discussed specific projects and problems on a one-on-one basis. We also screened a number of films as a group, which was surely social time for us but also related to the ideas shared in my associate group's weekly workload.

NEA: How did the atmosphere at Atlantic Center for the Arts foster creativity in a way that is different from working in your own studio or home?
POPE: I found myself explaining my thought process and reasons for why I do things artistically, in response to questions in free discussions we'd have in round table talks as a group. As an artist working alone, [that] never happens in my daily life. It was interesting to frame instinctive notions from the creative process into cogent thoughts and explanations. That was new.

NEA: Any last words?

POPE: It was a wonderful three weeks, and the ACA staff and creative team were wonderful, gracious hosts in every sense. It's a lovely place to work and think and I am looking forward to visiting again. I feel that, outside of earning the title Master Artist (unusual for a cartoonist), I made many new friends.

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