DRAWING THE SELF INTO BEING

An Interview with Artist Sarah Mangle

by Martha Newbigging

ISSUE THIRTEEN | FALL 2019

Sarah Mangle is an artist living and working in Montreal, Canada. Her work takes the form of gloriously colourful comics and illustrations that focus on first person narratives and political advocacy. Her short graphic memoir, Crystal (2018), was recently published in Art/iculation Magazine. She is the curator of the zine shelf at Dépanneur Le Pick Up, which sells and promotes comics and zines by Indigenous, queer, trans, and POC artists as well as work by children. Sarah also works as an early childhood educator. I interviewed Sarah via email and she responded using brush and ink.

I Dressed Up to Rest, 2018

Self-Portrait onTrain, 2018

Martha Newbigging: Sarah, thank you so much for this interview discussion about your art practice and comics.  I love the feeling of spontaneity in your work. There is a delightful freshness to how you render characters and scenes in your comics. The saturated colours and patterns, the flattened picture space, all so warmly invite the viewer into these wonderfully lively worlds that you’ve created. How do you start a picture? Do you draw the scene first or paint directly? How do you choose colours?

" . . . I MAKE SEVERAL POTENTIAL FINAL VERSIONS OF EACH PIECE AND SEE HOW THEY ALL PLAY TOGETHER. 
A FRIEND TOLD ME ONCE THAT I BREATHE DEEPER WHEN I DRAW. THAT MY BREATHING LITERALLY CHANGES WHEN I'M IN THE ACT OF DRAWING IS COMPELLING TO ME.

Sarah Mangle: Lately, I have been drawing and painting standing up, mostly because when I sit down my shoulders start to hurt quickly, but I like the connection there to using the whole body (not just the brain and fine motor muscles) in the act of painting or drawing. I often have a vague image of what I will draw before I draw it, or I have an internal sense of the colors that will feel right on the page. Often I have a very particular color or colors that I am looking for. I draw in my art studio in my apartment, and although I have had shared studios outside of my house in the past, I prefer to draw in my house because drawing is very private for me. It's very vulnerable. When I am planning a poster or a comic, I draw several thumbnails, first drafts, second drafts, and then most often a final version. I map them out most often in pencil and then erase all the lines and replace them with marker. When I am working with ink, I like to go directly to the page, and instead of making first drafts and second drafts, I make several potential final versions of each piece and see how they all play together. A friend told me once that I breathe deeper when I draw. That my breathing literally changes when I'm in the act of drawing is compelling to me. Drawing is related to dancing and I love dancing.

MN: I understand that the comic, Crystal, is a graphic memoir based on your own experience of discovering you have a cyst in your brain. How does visualizing this medical condition change your understanding or feeling about it? What is the effect of sharing this story?

"THIS ALLOWED ME TO THINK OF THE CYST AS A CHARACTER, NOT SOMETHING OMINOUS, ACTUALLY SOMETHING I COULD CREATIVELY INTERACT WITH, JOKE ABOUT, HOLD AND CELEBRATE. . . "

Give it a Name, 2018

SM: When I got my diagnosis, I was very angry. I was not looking for the information. I was trying to earn some extra cash doing a video game study at a neurological research lab at a university. They were planning on doing an MRI of my brain before and after I played The Sims for 900 hours. I was very excited about playing Sims and the money I would make, and instead an awkward but kind PhD candidate told me I didn't qualify for the study and asked me if I had been having severe headaches, which I wasn't. He then told me he wasn't supposed to tell me that I had a golf ball sized cyst in my brain. Although I was the healthiest I had ever been in my life, I took this information from him, walking down the strange hospital-like university hallways and assumed the information meant I had brain cancer and would die soon. I called my friend who was studying nursing and asked them if a cyst could be cancerous and they soothingly told me that no, they could not. What followed was about a year of panic, anger, and avoidance, coupled with more MRIs and appointments. I was furious that I had this new terrifying information. I was furious that my time was being stolen by western medicine and at their convenience I needed to adjust my schedule and feel terrified in the process. All because I had this information that there was actually nothing to do about. Thinking about or engaging with the information made me feel extremely anxious. There were times when I considered not going for any more MRIs. And then, there was a turnaround moment when, for some reason, I shared that I had the cyst with my accountant. This is the first comic I drew in the series because it was a pivotal moment. My accountant invited me to consider naming the cyst. This allowed me to think of the cyst as a character, not something ominous, actually something I could creatively interact with, joke about, hold and celebrate. When I attended the Graphic Memoir workshop at the Centre for Cartoon Studies, I didn't plan on drawing a comic about my brain. I wouldn't have planned on being comfortable being that open, but there was something special about the group of people there and the incredible facilitation, and being out of my normal environment and routine that left me a little more open, and so I began to write about it. So many people are afraid when they learn that I have a doughy ball in my brain. It gives them discomfort, but that's their discomfort, not mine, and when I interact with it and claim it creatively, I can make that separation easier. 

MN: In your other comics there is an honest sincerity to the dialogue between characters. I’m wondering if the stories in your comics are based on people you know and conversations you’ve had with them. I’m thinking of the short animated comic, Roger, that seems to document a story told by your grandmother. Can you talk about where your stories come from? How does your drawing practice fit into genres such as autobiography, memoir, diary or life writing? How does drawing lived experience manifest your statement, “everyday I draw myself into being”?

SM: I think truth telling is powerful and I think a lot of personal stories have power in what they reveal, and they are also funny and sad. I love to be humorous. I also love to document the cultures I am in and the cultural moments I've witnessed, because now, being in my late 30s, I know that no cultural moment is permanent, and that makes them fascinating. I suppose I am called to tell certain stories, and often I am called to write them because I sense I will learn valuable lessons through the process of telling them. 


MN: While work like memoir fits into a documentary or nonfiction mode, you also draw from your imagination. I’m thinking of the Dream Clothes series. How does this imaginative and playful drawing relate to drawing yourself into being?

SM: I have literally found the clothes I have dreamed about, after drawing them, which is amazing! Also, as a chubby person, sometimes all I can do is dream of the clothes I want because they literally don't exist for me because my butt is larger than a size 12. I have always loved fashion, since I was a child, maximalist pattern matching, angular and oversized silhouettes, so drawing clothing and imagining clothes I could possibly wear has been so fun and energizing for me. I want to always get energy, joy and inspiration from the act of drawing itself, and I do, most of the time. Drawing in itself is both pleasing, infuriating, and invigorating for me. 

Roger, film, 2018

Dream Clothes, 2018

MN: I’m curious about the choice to make large characters out of felt in the installation piece, Safety Bear and Weary Rose. Can you describe the impetus for this change in scale and how the piece worked as installed at Le Cagibi? What is the relationship between these large soft sculptural works and the characters in your comics? Can you talk about how the size, texture and materiality of these characters changed the experience of making them? What was the experience for viewers to the installation?

Safety Bear and the Weary Rose, installed at Le Cagibi, Montreal, 2018

Coffee is Amazing, 2018

SM: I've been invited twice to do exhibitions in spaces in Montreal. One was a resto/concert venue that attracts queer 20-somethings and beyond, and the other is a bar/activist space that hosts many well known indie and experimental musicians. They're both familiar spaces to me. I didn't just want to put my drawing on the walls. I thought, with the scale of the walls, my drawing would be swallowed up. These are busy spaces. And I wanted to address the scale, materials, and activity of these spaces. Intuitively I thought about felt. The boldness of colour and, and easy warmth of the materials. I hand-sewed everything. Mostly because I wanted my own hand to effect the foundations of the creations. I also liked the slowness of the activity. There's something removed and tense about machine sewing. Safety Bear and Weary Rose was an exploration in character development. Safety Bear was a character that presented themself to me through drawing first, and then I was curious about how Safety Bear would interact with the outside world. And Weary Rose, I imagined to be its own sentient creature in the world. I was inspired by beauty salon signage, wandering around Kensington Market in Toronto, as well as my own family heritage's significance with roses, and embroidery. To me, these two very large characters came to exist on their own in the city, and they also were alive in my drawings. They were alive simultaneously in both spaces. 

Staying with Maggie, 2018

"I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED FASHION, SINCE I WAS A CHILD, MAXIMALIST PATTERN MATCHING, ANGULAR AND OVERSIZED SILHOUETTES, SO DRAWING CLOTHING AND IMAGINING CLOTHES I COULD POSSIBLY WEAR HAS BEEN SO FUN AND ENERGIZING FOR ME."

MN: Some of your work seems to focus on political action and community building. I’m thinking of your Postcards for Postal Workers series and the Comics for Climate Justice series. The zine shelf at Dépanneur Le Pick Up is also a form of advocacy work for marginalized artists to get exposure and distribution. This leads me to ask you if would describe your work as socially engaged art. How does this term relate to your I Hate Art comic?

SM: Socially engaged art: I feel resistance to this term. Trying to figure out why. It doesn’t feel like a choice whether or not to use the life I have to try to make living better for others. But yes, my art making is something I can sustainably contribute to movement building, and so I do. First of all: If it’s visual art, why are we relying so much on words to explore it, you know? I want characters and images to communicate on their own terms without the validation of words or translation to words (in an artist statement). Let the images stand alone, as images. I don’t like the preciousness of visual “fine” art. Claims in general (socially-engaged artist) are uncomfortable but I’m a scrapper, and I’m friendly but grumpy, so you’re seeing those sides of me. Whenever I do commissions, I struggle because I automatically feel restricted and it’s work to do good work and stay motivated. I really found my home with comic makers. They work so hard and stay to humble. Art. One thing I think about fine art is so often the project itself has to be obscure or heavily coded in contemporary art self-referentiality but then relies on a politically engaged, wordy artist statement to justify itself.

Comics for Climate Justice series, 2018

Comics for Climate Justice series, 2019

You Hate Art, 2018

MN: You’ve said that you choose to depict mood and emotion over realistic likenesses and that you like the potent imperfect energy of gesture and interaction and try to bring this into your drawing and writing. Lynda Barry talks about the role of motion in drawing and is interested in the way we drew when we were kids. What motivates and inspires your art making?

Postal Worker Postcards, 2014

SM: You know, lately, I've been thinking about the identification of being an artist. Mostly because I have a friend for whom the identity of being an artist calls her to ask herself, "How do I, as an artist, respond to x?" I don’t use my identifiers to direct my choices or actions, be that activism, time organization, or career. I am an artist because the definition of an artist describes what I do, but I'm not attached to the title and the title itself does not act as a compass to direct my choices. Why do I bring this up? I guess because it means this question you ask is a hard one for me to answer. I believe generally in the power of being honest with oneself and sincerity. I value sincerity above irony although I like the humour that irony provides. I value energy and movement and joy, and sadness. And I try to bring these values to all that I do, to my friendships, to my drawings, to my walks to the store, to my texts to friends. These are approaches that I apply to my life generally. 


MN: Thank you for sharing these insights on how you approach art making and life!

I’ve Decided to Get a Divorce, 2018

Collective Living, 2019

Sarah Mangle's work is peopled with beautifully flawed characters. Her work is concerned with growth, feelings, shaky lines and truth-telling. Sarah is white and queer and grew up in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada. Sarah Mangle’s bookworks, postcards and zines are sold internationally. Her large format felt works have been exhibited locally in Montreal, where she has resided on and off since 2000. Sarah Mangle's work has been featured in the Globe and Mail, Hello Giggles, Shameless Magazine, Art/iculations, The Montreal Review of Books, and Broken Pencil. Sarah Mangle is currently working on a comic about the lesbian-owned import export store in her small hometown and her teenage attempt to be hired there. It is set to be published in an anthology with Conundrum Press in 2020. She curates a comic and zine distro at Depanneur Le Pick Up  and  makes ongoing comic work about the benign cyst in her brain. 

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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