Wednesday, December 14th, 2011 | 65 Comments
Driven by an unrelenting need to discover what lies around the next corner, globe-trotting artist Tessa Hulls revels in her sweet unrest.
On your blog you document your adventures biking 5000 miles across the United States on your own, and now your journey to Antarctica working on a remote research station. Presumably there’s not much opportunity to make art while travelling that way. Can you tell us a bit about how you balance your life as an artist with your travelling?
Tessa Hulls: My short answer is that I don’t really differentiate between myself as an artist and myself as a traveler. I’m hugely reliant on a fairly constant influx of new horizons, so when I’m in active travel mode, I tend to think of myself as being out on a reconnaissance mission. With that mindset, I find it easy to content myself with working on sketches in my “field notebook,” and I don’t really miss my usual studio practice.
Years and years ago, I remember reading something about physics and stumbling upon the notion that there are three different types of equilibrium.
I drew you a picture because it works much better visually:
It’s a concept that has stuck with me ever since, and I am only happy if I keep myself in a state of dynamic equilibrium. I need my balance to be active, always on the cusp of falling off. It leads me to adhere to a self imposed project schedule/lifestyle that many people might call masochistically busy, but it’s what works for me, and I wither if I find myself in a place of neutrality or stasis.
These past few years I’ve really watched my friends struggle with the late twenties/early thirties existential crisis of “What am I supposed to do with my life? What is my passion? How do I make a meaningful contribution to my community?” and it’s made me extremely grateful for the fact that I’ve always known what it is I’m supposed to be doing. The older I get, the more I realize just what a gift that certainty is. So I feel that the very least I can do is always rearrange everything in my life to make room for art.
Finding time for art down here at McMurdo Station is actually extremely challenging because of the crazy social scene. You wouldn’t necessarily expect this of Antarctica, but I’ve never been anywhere where it would be easier to just fritter away all your free time drinking and pretending that you’re in a very icy Ke$ha video. I’ve been forced to become uncharacteristically antisocial to get work done down here.
I illustrated this for you:
Many of the characters in your series Oh, That Sweet Unrest wear skeletal costumes reminiscent of Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations. Can you describe the role of these characters in a series that seems very much about yearning, and living in perpetual forward movement?
Tessa Hulls: A lot of the imagery for this particular series came out of spending so much time biking through the desert. I spent over a thousand miles basically following the Mexican border, and passing through a landscape of such haunting isolation was overwhelmingly inspiring. I felt like the desert was full of latent stories that it wanted me to express. All those miles of canyons and plateaus came with their own forgotten narratives, and when I finally sat down to start painting, they came rushing out as these delicately hulking beasts that didn’t really know the measure of their own strength.
This series was hugely personal for me. I’d spent the last few years making myself miserable trying to force myself into a settled life that I didn’t genuinely want, and I set off on my bike trip at a point where I was feeling like I’d lost track of myself. I was wrestling with the contradictions between my longing for a sense of home and my pull towards the joy of my own forward momentum, and these creatures were the synthesis of that struggle and the whispered stories of the desert.
The addition of text into many of the paintings makes Oh, That Sweet Unrest read like a poem. For series like this, do you begin with the writing, or are the words derived from how you feel about the images after they’re done?
Tessa Hulls: When I’m at home and have all my supplies and a sane amount of time to work, text and image evolve more or less concurrently. They each gather focus as the piece comes together. But in this case, I was stuck on my bike and couldn’t start painting, so I instead obsessively focused on the text and allowed it to take the reins. That was a huge departure from how I usually work. Ordinarily, I have almost no gap between getting an idea and charging off to make it happen, so this trip forced me to slow down and focus on theory instead of practice. Delayed gratification is something that is so thoroughly foreign to me that I imagine it’s probably a good character building exercise.
Looking back over your body of work it feels like your style is becoming more graphic and simplified. The result is really striking! Do you have style influences that you take inspiration from?
Tessa Hulls: I wish I could say that the simplification was a deliberate choice, but honestly, I think it might have had more to do with the time frame: when I got back from my bike trip, I had three and a half weeks to put a solo show together. I spent my first night back in Seattle in my sleeping bag on an entirely empty living room floor, and the next morning I set up my drafting table and started painting 12 hours a day. So there was very little time to experiment and hit my stride, which definitely made things a bit more… er… sparse. I’m glad that you think it worked!
In terms of style influences, my list is pretty Northwest centric these days, just because there’s such a different level of impact in seeing work in person.
Stacey Rozich is a constant favorite of mine, and Gala Bent’s drawings (and the sources that inform them) never fail to fascinate me. Some other favorites are AJ Fosik, Evan B. Harris, Tim Karpinski, Mandy Greer, Jeremy Mangan and Justin Gibbens.
Theo Ellsworth is both a stylistic and philosophical role model for me. I stumbled upon his book Capacity at a point when I was feeling isolated from other artists and my own creative practice, and it gave me a sense of renewed artistic faith that I really needed. He has a part in Capacity where he talks about wearing an imaginary outfit over his clothes every Tuesday, and about how it’s changed the way he looks at the world. When I read that, I think I might have actually shouted out something to the effect of, “Ha! So I’m not the only one!”
I’m less drawn to looking at art than I’m drawn to looking at absolutely everything. That’s the thing about inspiration: you don’t know what is going to inspire you until it DOES inspire you. It’s a strange black box like that, and I’m always surprised and delighted to discover the weird things that set a project in motion. So I consider it my job to throw myself out into the world to experience the widest, most diverse swath possible.
We loved the photos on your blog of the roof-top mural you did in Marathon, Texas. Your work looks amazing at that scale. Are there other mediums or kinds of art you’ve been wanting to try your hand at?
Tessa Hulls: Thanks! I’ve actually done a fair amount of mural work over the years. When I was in college, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on murals and street art as community building alternatives to the traditional inaccessibility of the gallery system, and I still stand firmly behind the idea that art should be an integrated part of everyday life. Particularly for people who don’t consider themselves to be artists. Everyone starts out as an artist, but somewhere along the way they buy into the notion that they’re not, and that unnecessary dichotomy has always annoyed me.
Since getting to Antarctica, I seem to have developed an insatiable appetite for making comics. Again, a lot of that is probably just a reaction to circumstance.
I’m in the kitchen working ten hour days six days a week, and have taken on way too many projects (dynamic equilibrium forever!), so when I do eke out a moment to make something, it’s pretty quick and dirty. Which, to be honest, I am reaalllllyyy enjoying. I am definitely looking forward to exploring some more comic and graphic novel styles when I find myself with free time.
I’ve also been working on some projects lately that have reminded me how much I love ridiculous word play and absurdity, so I’m looking forward to getting back in touch with the more Edward (Gorey and Lear) influenced side of my creative practice.
You refer to The Wind in The Willows and The Once and Future King as inspirations for Oh, That Sweet Unrest. What are some of your favourite books?
Tessa Hulls: Oh man, that is an enormous can of worms. I have a lot of favorite books. Maybe even an unreasonable amount. I have fond memories of hiding under my desk at school so I could stay in and read during recess…
To name a brief few: Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami. Not Fade Away, by Jim Dodge. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle. The Necessary Grace to Fall, by Gina Oschner. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende. Capacity, by Theo Ellsworth. The Way Things Work, by David Macaulay.
I also cannot overstate the role that Calvin and Hobbes has played in how I turned out both as an artist and as a human being.
It’s been a while since I truly fell head over heels in love with a book. I’d love book recommendations. If anyone reading this points me in the direction of a book I end up loving, I will totally send you a thank you drawing!
Anything coming up that we can look forward to from you?
Tessa Hulls: Why yes indeed! I’m glad you asked, because I’m currently in the middle of a participatory project and I would LOVE to have more people take part in it. Ever have one of those moments where you say something as a joke, and then pause and realize that it’s actually an idea that really needs to happen…? Well. I’ve turned my under the bed studio into the Under the Bed Gallery, and am curating local shows out of it complete with miniature art opening food—finger sized loaves of braided challah, wine from falcon tube science beakers…
In February I’m putting together a show of work about outside notions of Antarctica, and it looks like submissions are starting to come in from folks all over the US. I would love more tiny submissions (I will fit them in somehow!), so send ‘em my way. Here’s my address. I need them postmarked by January 1, 2012.
Tessa Hulls, NANA
PSC 469 Box 700
APO, AP 96599
Other than that, I’m really looking forward to getting back to Seattle and seeing what comes out of my strange new desire to establish a sense of place. The work that I’ve been making for the past handful of years has revolved around romanticizing escapism, so I have no idea what I’ll make when I’m actually craving some measure of roots.
I actually left to come down here at a bit of an odd point in my life. I’d just met this really intriguing pack of artists, and felt like I was at this place of exciting new beginnings, and I had to leave right in the middle of it to come down here. So I’m curious to see what happens when I go back.
S&TM: We’d like to thank Tessa for taking the time to do this interview and for creating such great comics for her answers. We appreciate the time she has taken doing both while away in Antarctica.
All images © 2011 Tessa Hulls.