FORMING AND PASSAGEWAYS

A Feature on Artist Eli Howey

by Martha Newbigging

ISSUE THIRTEEN | FALL 2019

Eli Howey is a prolific emerging artist based in Toronto, Canada. Since completing a BFA specializing in printmaking at Toronto’s OCAD University in 2015, Eli has produced over a dozen comics and graphic narrative artbooks, as well as paintings, ceramics, and prints on paper and textiles. Eli’s comics are loosely narrative, assembled through fragmented scenes and poetic writing; they tell their tales rich in affect. Eli gives us portraits of marginalized youth caught within the restrictions and exclusions established by capitalist economics and colonial settlement. Their work has been shown extensively at art and book fairs and in solo and group exhibitions in Canada and the U.S.

I first came across the graphic works of Eli Howey at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF). I was immediately struck by the large format, screen-printed comic book, Forming: Issue 2 (2016), on display at their table. Graphically bold and tantalizingly tactile, Forming: Issue 2 stood out as a limited edition art book in comics format. The book was weighty, the surfaces chalky to the touch and the thick pages creaked and sighed under the stiff ink as I leafed through the spreads. Forming reveals a series of mundane events in its young protagonist’s day. Using silences and textures, isolated objects, urban landscape, and poetry, the narrative does not arc but rather follows the meandering path of its protagonist’s emotional disconnect.

This sense of alienation in the lives of urban youth runs through the comics and paintings of Eli Howey. The young protagonists navigate the margins of cityscapes as they also negotiate the complications of relationships and evolving identity formation. The drawn environments suggest the physical manifestation of containment and blockage. Visual references to concrete blocks, chain link fencing, sewer grates, drains, weeds sprouting from cracked pavement, and brick walls occur repeatedly. Eli has referred to these objects as symbolic codes used to construct a non-linear narrative in comics and that repeating such visual codes can portray the feeling of a past experience.

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"VISUAL REFERENCES TO CONCRETE BLOCKS, CHAIN LINK FENCING, SEWER GRATES, DRAINS, WEEDS SPROUTING FROM CRACKED PAVEMENT, AND BRICK WALLS OCCUR REPEATEDLY."

Passageways, 2018.

 Forming: Issue 2, 2018.

In the earlier non-narrative comic, Cinders (2015), codes such as cinder blocks, bricks, fences, and snakes appear to threaten the youthful figures pictured within. In the book’s afterword, Eli suggests these objects represent the externalization of the oppressive systems of colonial capitalism that surveil, police, and punish marginalized bodies.  These concrete and fenced landscapes manifest the unseen emotional and psychological barriers experienced by the characters. Glimpses of organic forms like leaves, twigs, and ferns soften the hard surfaces and are possibly codes for hope within the unforgiving environment.

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Cinders, 2015.

Cinders, 2015.

The materiality of Eli’s books adds to this sense of dissociation. Eli’s books are hand-printed in small editions giving them a distinctly tactile quality. Eli explains that Forming was “printed entirely analogue by screen-printing hand drawn layer separations.”  In this technique Eli draws in black ink directly onto clear film to make a separate, registered drawing for each colour of screen ink to be printed. The resulting inked surfaces are textured, lines are scratchy, and scraped areas suggest erasures. In some panels, the ink fills the negative space around the character’s body, giving the appearance of a figure dissolving into the paper surface, threatening to disappear. Textures become an active abstraction of the landscape that infer physical abrasion against the protagonist’s body – inky smudges render bruised knuckles, a jacket torn on ripped fence wire, glass shards from a broken bottle. The material quality of the hand-printed pages contributes to the sense of discomfort and tension that absorb the characters. As a reader, I become acutely aware of the vulnerability of these characters who inhabit these unsettling settings.

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"PERHAPS THE WISH TO TELL A STORY OF PSYCHOLOGICAL DISCONNECT PROMPTED ELI TO LITERALLY DETACH THE VISUALS FROM A LINEAR PLOT THAT LEADS TO RESOLUTION. THE SEQUENCE OF IMAGES SHOWS THE CHARACTER MOVING THROUGH THEIR ENVIRONMENT – THE STREET, ALLEYWAY, BEDROOM, SHOWER, ROOFTOP."

Forming: Issue 2, 2018.

Indeed it is this reverberation of feeling that emanates from reading these comics. Eli tells their stories through affect rather than goal-driven plot. Adding to the impact of the materiality of the books' construction, Eli’s fragmentation of the pictorial sequence builds and strengthens the affective payoff in the narratives. Forming opens with a poem and images of pine branches, a figure on a bicycle, a close-up of the cyclist’s head, a car, gesturing hands. The text reads, “first thing I noticed were the time skips. Some levels, different levels of disconnect.”  Perhaps the wish to tell a story of psychological disconnect prompted Eli to literally detach the visuals from a linear plot that leads to resolution. The sequence of images shows the character moving through their environment—street, alleyway, workplace, bedroom, shower, rooftop. The reader takes in these fragmented scenes drawn on the pages and constructs a cohesive picture in their mind about this protagonist’s life. This mental synthesis, which is inherent to a greater or lesser degree in reading all comics, has been termed closure by cartoonist and comics theorist, Scott McCloud. The empty space between the panels—known as the gutter—leaves a gap in the visual storytelling. McCloud explains, “here in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea.”  Comics rely on this mental process of closure for meaning to be constructed from the empty spaces between the images panels.

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 Forming: Issue 2, 2018.

Eli builds their comics to require a great deal of closure on the part of the reader. Cinders does not deliver a linear narrative at all so the closure necessary to construct a story is not possible. Rather, Cinders gives the reader a visual poem circling around themes of embodied oppression, danger, and vulnerability. In Forming, the action sequences accompany the inner conflict of the protagonist, but the events do not follow a typical narrative arc. Similarly, in Walking Gates (2016), the panel sequence portrays a sense of the timeless atmosphere of hanging out in urban back streets and alleyways rather than advancing the action. Eli’s technique of sequencing images as thematic vignettes work on a more emotional level. The panel sequences in Forming demand a high degree of closure, slowing down the reading experience and causing the reader to invest in building connections between the objects, locations, and bodies rendered in the panels and across the pages. By pulling focus off the plot events, Eli’s comics sharpen and enhance the affective experience of time unfolding with the protagonist. Cognitively forging these connections through closure causes the reader to float along with the characters, absorbed in how it feels to be there, traversing this world in that body. 

Forming: Issue 2, 2018.

"COGNITIVELY FORGING THESE CONNECTIONS THROUGH CLOSURE CAUSES THE READER TO FLOAT ALONG WITH THE CHARACTERS, ABSORBED IN HOW IT FEELS TO BE THERE, TRAVERSING THIS WORLD IN THAT BODY."

Eli’s recent book, Fluorescent Mud, is the first to be offset printed and perfect bound, containing over 100 pages of comics painted in watercolour. While this is Eli’s most linear narrative to date, the imagery evolves much further into the surreal. The book expands on the earlier stories, and the symbolic codification reinforces the psychological impact of the built environment. The colour palette has shifted to iridescent washes in blues, purples, pinks, and aquatic greens. The proliferation of trees, leafy plants, and water contrasts with the hard angles of concrete structures. At times, objects and figure disassemble. There are spiders and skeletons and ferns offering warnings of advice. The protagonist’s body floats and sometimes walks through the city headless. These hallucinatory images suggest a dreamlike state that is both perceptually and psychologically unsettling. Fluorescent Mud beautifully presents the turbulent mental state of the protagonist who seems to be trying to get away, to escape. We see them engage in social situations—talking to a roommate, meeting an old friend, exploring an empty lot with a new acquaintance, crashing a stranger’s party—but always walking away, searching for a way out, perhaps seeking solitary solace. 

  Fluorescent Mud, 2018.

Both Forming and Fluorescent Mud conclude with the same protagonist rejecting their social setting and retreating to the solitude found within a landscape decorated with plants and foliage. Tufts of fern leaves, sprigs of pine branches, green hedges, grass poking out from cracked bricks, all hint at the landscape’s potential for sustenance and nurture. Plants symbolic of the natural world can be read as codes that counter the man-made structures of concrete and metal. In each book, the protagonist is drawn toward plants as a way out. 

 Forming: Issue 2, 2018.

Fluorescent Mud, 2018.

This way out might be understood as a journey through. Eli’s most recent work is a departure from the comics format. The book Passageways (2018) presents a series of 25 watercolour and gouache paintings interspersed with ambiguously poetic text. Eli conceives a passageway as “offering potential for radical changes, a passageway creates alternate paths and opens a space for new ways of moving or thinking.”  In this book, references to codes developed in earlier comics—concrete, bricks, fencing—are scant or in decay. Chain link fencing is cut open, there are broken boards and shattered glass windows in a house that is either falling apart or abandoned partially constructed. Man-made containments are forgone to reveal a surreal world of resilient, organic forms. Plants, trees, moss, earth, stones, twigs, bark, roots, and leaves are arranged to form a new habitat for spiders, bunnies, dogs, and the human figures within. The solitary protagonist from previous stories is now joined by a small community of characters suggesting the comradery of cohabitation within these new natural settings. The pairs and small groupings of figures appear to be engaged in rebuilding this new environment, their relationships to one another, or even remaking themselves. The text suggests, “finding spaces to be formless in . . . take forms in this plane or move in another one more subtle,”  reinforcing the visualization of collectively searching for a new and more accommodating world.

 

Curiously, despite the addition of significant stand-alone text passages, Eli argues for the efficacy of images over words: “Not having to use word based signifiers which ‘characterize’ or define the situations and experiences with the connotations those terms and labels carry . . . visual signifiers allow new controls, events are communicated in a much more authentic way.”  In this passage, Eli notes that words have a singular meaning that forecloses interpretation, leaving no opportunity for alternative readings, as pictures might otherwise provide. Perhaps Eli writes in such cryptic prose to intentionally keep the text ambiguous. This opening created through ambiguity in both text and images in Passageways requires the reader’s active engagement in closure to make meaning.

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Passageways, 2018.

Dreamlike and cryptic, Passageways does not provide a linear narrative or even a straightfoward message. Rather the images and words in Passageways render an opening that invites imagining alternative directions and different ways of being. For Eli’s subjects—urban youth marginalized due to embodiments of racial identity, gender nonconformity, economic class, or mental health—these organic settings offer a metaphorical alternative space for forming themselves and being in community. By resisting closure, the paintings and poems in Passageways offer a melancholic, post-apocalyptic calm where human survival is tentative yet promising, nurtured by an environment full of beautiful and resilient life forms. Without resorting to describing what will happen in a dystopian/utopian future, Eli pictures how it might feel to begin to rebuild a world where marginalized bodies begin to have a role in shaping the world we occupy. 

Eli Howey, Artist Talk, Seneca College, Toronto, November 18, 2016.

Eli Howey, Cinders, 19.

Eli’s website

Forming, p1.

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (1993), (New York: Kitchen Sink Press), p. 66.

Eli’s website, elihowey.ca

Passageways, p5

Passageways, p15

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Eli Howey is a Toronto based artist, whose focus is on printmaking, hand-painted art comics and watercolour painting. Their most recent title Fluorescent Mud, a 110-page watercolour and gouache art comic exploring trans/queer identities, addiction, and mental health. Howey completed their BFA in Printmaking at OCADU, after which they attended a year long residency as the Don Philips Scholar at Open Studio Toronto. They have been self-publishing since 2013 and co-founded the small press Sever. They have had multiple solo shows, have participated in group exhibitions, and have exhibited internationally for art and alternative comics expositions. Howey regularly teaches workshops on risograph printing, screen printing, bookbinding, and various printmaking techniques. They are currently developing multiple long-term projects with support from the Toronto, Ontario and Canadian Arts Councils.

Martha Newbigging is an artist and educator who works in self-narrative modes of drawing, comics, and animation to explore issues of queerness, affect, trauma, and memory. Martha has illustrated over a dozen children’s books and their animations have been screened internationally. Martha teaches in the Illustration Program at the School for Creative Arts & Animation at Seneca College in Toronto. Their current doctoral research is focused on autobiographical comics-making for critical pedagogy.

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