Interview with Ali Fitzgerald: artist, comics creator and graphic novelist

I interviewed Ali on her return to Berlin from her residency in France. I was curious about her personal relationship with her visual storytelling, how she brings together the written word and visual image, then how she passes on this wonderful knowledge as a tool for her students. I found her deep connection from mind to paper inspiring. Her ability to express honest political, psychological topics in an absurd and yet serious manner very meaningful. We talked about her character development, narrative worlds, political illustration, art therapy, sculpture, comics, online learning and more. On the occasion of her upcoming visual storytelling workshop series with Berlin Drawing Room.

Ali Fitzgerald interviewed by Elle Sinclair for Berlin Drawing Room, March, Berlin

with Ali Fitzgerald

Ok so let’s start at the beginning, how did you find yourself exploring the fantastical realm of comics, illustration and graphic novels?

When I was a kid, I really loved comics.  I loved newspaper comics, the old Sunday syndicated comics like Calvin and Hobbes, The Far side, Bloom, County, and then by the time I was eleven my mother accidently bought me this really edgy underground comic anthology.  So, I was always into this kind of alternative comic, comic-esque world.  I went to Grad school, more painting and installation, I was in that world for a while and during that time I didn’t make comics.  Then in Berlin about 10 years ago I rediscovered comics when I didn’t have a studio so had to work really small.  I had to teach myself how to build a story and to create something that was more relevant to my life as an adult.  I made dark comics that I never showed anyone for a few years, and I think around 2012 I started publishing with Mcsweeny’s a comic called Hungover Bear and Friends, that marked my professional entrance into the world of comics.

For aspiring illustrators out there where is a good place to start?  How do you approach the ever-intimidating blank sheet of paper?

As someone who conducts workshops and has a drawing club each week it’s really important to have some structure.  So, you can find different prompts online, different drawing exercises and within that structure you can really unleash some creativity.  The blank sheet of paper is even for me really terrifying, though I think it’s good to have an imposed sense of structure.  Another good thing for someone starting out is to find illustrators you like, then practice drawing their works as an exercise and then later on de-code what you like about the work, why it is effective.  When I was a kid looking at comic’s I would make notes in the margins thinking, ‘Oh I like this’ or ‘this is an effective panel’, and I still do that actually.  I think of how and when I would do my own version of that.

I am interested in your creative process and how the relationship between text and image evolves, do you start with one and does the other follow?  Are they equally important in your mind or does one medium lead the way? 

I always start by writing, not always but mostly.  I also write as its own practice, there were a few years in Berlin I was writing for Art21.  So, for me I would say they are equally important: What do I want to say? How do I want to say it?  With comics one of the most important things is editing because you have this physically finite space.  People read comics differently to the way they read prose.  A tonne of text in a comic is not always the most effective way to communicate an idea, you have to be a ruthless editor.  When I’m writing something and translating it into a comic, 90% of what I write I don’t use, and I think that’s being generous, just because of space.  It’s a forum that has to have the visuals and so after I write I do some thumbnails or storyboards.  At that moment it becomes something different because I have to adjust the text based on the images.  They have to come into some sort of Harmony or not.  From then-on the process becomes more visual but the initial start is with the text.

Moving onto character development, one of the courses lined up at BDR, can you give us an insight into your thought process and how these characters come to life on paper?

In the best-case scenario a character arrives’ and you can actually live with it a bit.  To use an example with my Hungover Bear and Friends, a comic that ran for 3 years.  When I first developed the character, it was basically just a premise, I wanted to make a sort of anti-meme.   I also wanted the character to have depth, but the depth didn’t really arrive right away, it had to occur over time. You have to think of it as a three dimensional fleshed out person in this case a bear. I outwardly asked myself questions like: “what would he eat?”, “What would be his favourite restaurant?”,” How would he react in this scenario?”.  It’s important to have, not rules, but these prompts that draw out characters because at the end a character is really effective when they are clear and specific, or maybe mysterious but in a specific way.  

So, the minor details are kind of important even if you are not using them in the actual comic, they are as important as the main idea?

Yes exactly. I mean as a visual it would be like an iceberg you see a bit of this character, but you have this backstory below, underneath.

You clearly have an affinity to nature and animals; I adore Hungover Bear and I think all the creatives living in Berlin can probably identify with them.  What draws you to the animals in your work?

It came over me suddenly this affinity for animals artistically, for so long I was drawing people.  During this time rediscovering comics, I was doing a graphic novel, it was sort of auto-fiction with people, about my roommate, about bohemia.  It felt kind of heavy in this way, and real, maybe too real, and around that time is when I started doing Hungover Bear and Friends as a kind of divergence, as something I thought would be fun and light.  As I did it and as I continue to do it, I realise that animals are really powerful as these satirical vehicles to talk about things I found interesting, but in a funny way, in a way that I think is somehow more effective to talk about social and psychological things.  I never thought I would be really into drawing animals, I didn’t think that was actually where my future was, but here we are!  Anyway, I really like animals as animals, I like looking at them, I like drawing them.  

With Character development are animals less confined due to their neutrality with regard to politics is it for you to be more neutral or does it lend itself more to the audience to approach it with less bias?

Probably both those things but more so the second, there are a lot of biases floating around especially when you are talking about politics or things that are related to socio-political ideas.  I think animals somehow cut down that barrier.  I think it allows you to talk about things in a slightly more elegant and artistic sense. I don’t really love straight up political cartoons and I have asked myself why, I don’t want to be a snob, I don’t want to judge political cartoons as inherently bad.  I think some of them are good but I’m just not that into them.  Part of the reason is that there is a certain didactic quality to just having political ideas translated one to one.  With Hungover Bear and other animals, I have ideas, but I think there is an ambiguity there, also within myself and I think I prefer that ambiguity.

So, once you have fully developed your characters how do you go about creating their stories by writing and illustrating your graphic novels? This will be your second part in the series at BDR.

Sometimes the story comes first, and the characters follow that, and sometimes vice versa. When the character comes first, I try to find out where the conflict or tension is and work towards resolving that in ways a reader might find interesting. If the character is well-developed, they will lead the way. When I write the story or concept first, I try to uncover the meaning or purpose of the story. I ask myself: “What characters and settings would best suit this story?”  Trying to uncover the purpose or meaning of the story is always helpful as you build up the narrative.

There is so much political information now available both online and otherwise?  How do manage to filter out what you need to produce such concise, direct statements with your visual narratives?

Yeah, it’s a lot, I have to limit my news reading.  It’s not great for us to have so much information all the time it’s not great for our brains or creativity.  I was just reading an article by this woman who wrote a book about solitude and how creativity requires stillness and quiet.  Especially with this year has been a constant barrage of political stuff and of things that should not be politicised like a public health crisis. I do a monthly comic for the New Yorker, which is fairly political and it’s been difficult to pick out things that I want to talk about out of this big soup of stuff.  I have been personally overwhelmed and sometimes my brain does not feel so creative in this high stress global situation.  But what I do is I sit down, try to clear my mind, and for a few hours to write down ideas, many of which aren’t good.  I try to make ideas, explore ideas that I’m actually interested in, that don’t just reflect the political situation but try to twist it and look at it in a different way.   I’m trying to think of something recent, this is all about American politics but, ‘Dr Fauci tells a bed-time story to anxious adults’, I like the idea of exploring our anxiety but making it a bit absurd.  I guess absurdity is kind of the elements I like in things that are a bit more political.

With politics in mind do you think that illustration is a tool that has not yet reached its full potential?  You have said previously that the “image has an immediate impact” I remember my father buying the Private Eye (a satirical current affairs magazine in the UK) when I was young, my sister and I would search for the ‘Cartoons’ of course we didn’t understand the political weight they carried, but it made me want to understand the satire in these funny pictures.  How do you think the image or illustration could be better utilized for political education in a more inclusive manner?

For instance, the Private Eye and the New Yorker and a couple of other places, the New Yorker has been doing it since the early 20th century, bought gag cartoons.  So, cartoons that have a gag, that were funny, the Private Eye was another one like that, there were only a few that had these gag cartoons.  People would sell them by the cartoon, and it was all white dudes, there were a few women here and there, but very few.  You mentioned inclusion, I would say that comics generally have been pretty homogeneous, pretty white dude centred for quite a long time.  There are exceptions obviously, but I would say definitely that it was not super diverse, and New Yorker for instance, the editor there Emma Allen, she has tried to get different voices because humour is not just one thing, not everyone finds the same thing funny.  With the New yorker specifically it was humour geared to men in their fifties and when it deviated from that, as it has in the last years, it has become really interesting and successful.  With Emma it’s not only the offers and cartoonists have changed, she is much more receptive to different forms.  You can do long form comics or weird stuff which they never did, it was very specific with these little cartoons and that’s cool.  I think things are changing quickly in the world of comics and visual storytelling and it is much broader with a lot more different viewpoints and senses of humour.

You have such a wide range of creative outlets including: illustration, writing, graphic novels, drawing, how do you place yourself in the art world?  Are you the same artist when you are drawing as you are when you are writing graphic novels or does each medium bring a different part of Ali out?

I would say each medium brings a different part of me out, but they are connected in some ways.  I spent a lot of time in Berlin during a “growing” period where I really separated these parts of me.  I thought of things in a gallery as being very separate from those being printed.  I think that the world is changing, comics are much more part of the gallery scene now than they were even five years ago.  I tried to change that a little bit in my own mind, part of the doubt is having some sort of hierarchy, it’s not completely constructive to have these divisions.  Having said that the process is very different.  I think if I’m drawing, just drawing by myself without a specific long narrative then it becomes a more physical sometimes meditative practice. It becomes a physical extension, being in the moment, the flow of creating something. I think that’s more likely to happen when I’m doing paintings or drawings.  With comics there are steps, having to make the characters look the same. Having said that when I ink I also experience these transcendent moments.  There is a lot of joy in putting things together and creating characters and there is a lot of satisfaction in seeing them realized.  In some ways that satisfaction is a bit deeper than doing a painting.  

Do you struggle with the lines often drawn between “fine art” and illustration and how do you deal with that? How do you break those borders?

Those are kind of eroding but when I was in grad school for instance, they were so strong.   That idea that comics and drawing and installation were completely separate.  Comics were really looked down on as a lesser medium.  But today, the lines are getting more blurred and that’s really great, you can see people in Berlin like Christoph Nieman has had big shows.  There are big shows of comic artists or illustrators and they are actually comics or illustrations on the wall treated with care.  Part of it is entangled with the history of comics and comics as a populist medium where people just threw out their comic pages on the street in the fifties or whatever. Comic pages have traditionally not been worth as much money as works of fine art.  I think because of the money stuff things have been maligned, unfairly. But I think things are moving in the right direction

When I was studying sculpture even within the sculpture realm there were divisions between the ‘concept’ and ‘process’ artist, and you yourself have done art therapy where there is this label ‘outsider artist’.  Are there divisions within the illustration world and how do you deal with all these labels?

There are tonnes of stigmas attached to different subsections of arts.  Like you mentioned outsider artists.  I mean comics for sure occupied this zone as a lesser art form for a really long time, and I think still today in some places, especially illustration.  I think illustration and comics are very different. For example, I do comics, but I rarely illustrate things, because it’s just not my thing.  Any medium that appeals to the masses is kind of lumped into this category of “not fine art, low art”.  

So, is illustration more a narrative for someone else’s writing rather than making your own? 

Yeah, more or less, or illustration can be something that accompanies something in a magazine.  An illustration is a commission, or you illustrate someone’s kids’ book.  I’ve done some of it. I’ve done covers for Greenpeace you know but generally speaking I like to write my own stuff, that’s a very different process.  I think one of the biggest differences between illustration and comics for me is that in illustrations that I have done, someone else has a lot of narrative input.  With comics I spend 70% of my time writing so the heaviest work is the writing part.

I’m a big fan of installation due to its ability to totally disassociate one-self from the world.  What inspired you to move in this direction and is there any Sculptor that given the opportunity you would like to collaborate with?

Sculptor wise, well before I moved to Berlin, I was actually making some sculptures that were kind of like 3D pop-up things, I did a lot of dioramas. I was using latex in a cake decorating thing and making these really ornate pieces.  Unlike people that are truly sculptors I had a hard time thinking completely in 3D, so I always thought in these 2D layers, but I like sculpture in general.  Some sculptors I liked at the time when I was doing that, and I still like, were Lynda Bengliswhom I guess isn’t around anymore.  People who do these really goopy organic things, obviously I like Louise Bourgeois.  I like dioramas, I used to really like Joseph Cornell.   Actually, the last show I did in Berlin I envisioned sculptural parts to it but as I continued thinking through the exhibition it became a little much.    I think I just wanted the drawings to stand alone, if I added a sculptural element to an installation there should be a reason, a real reason why it’s there.

I have seen you have done some really wonderful work with refugees here in Berlin.  Art Therapy is in my opinion an underused extremely effective medicine that eludes borders and everyday prejudice towards culture, mental health and so forth.  Could you explain why you were so drawn to teaching and why it is such an effective tool in your mind?

Yeah, I mean I have always been drawn to teaching. I have taught since I was a grad student when I was 21, so it’s always been part of my life.  In Berlin working at a refugee shelter just kind of happened, I was working with women and someone approached me and asked if I would develop a program for teenage boys at the shelter. I believe in art therapy, I think comics more specifically are a really good tool to communicate generally, to communicate one’s emotional state, to explore, it’s cathartic.  It’s also really simple you just need a pencil, a piece of paper or a pen.  It’s useful to have something that is easy to use, that is language that many people speak, the visual language. 

Could you expand on personal teaching philosophy and how you apply it while working with your students?

It differs for different groups, for instance in the shelter I think people were looking for a way to communicate that didn’t involve words.  In that case it was really important for me to facilitate, foster and open a non-judgemental environment.  If anything, that’s part of my general teaching philosophy.  I think drawing is something that gets bogged down with a lot of baggage emotionally or psychologically starting when we are kids and then it becomes so hard for us to access this part of us although it’s a really useful tool to express ourselves.  We erect these kind-of walls and I think part of my teaching philosophy is to elicit things from people without them feeling judged and not to fear this blank page.  Using prompts, looking at different hopefully inspiring images and artists.  Having a structure but at the same time having it open enough so that they can explore what they want.  For me it is important I try to understand where people are coming from and help them on their very specific journey.  You know, if someone wants to do a graphic novel about a carnivorous plant that I have never heard of then I want to be able to help them be able to do that and not push them into a direction closer to what maybe I would prefer them to do.

Art therapy for mental health is so valuable and I read you struggled with melancholia whilst moving to Berlin, something I think affects a multitude of aspiring creatives (and non-creatives) all over the world, how did you motivate yourself to pick up the pen and carry on working and not compromise yourself for the art industry which can be pretty brutal for creatives to depend on? 

It was really hard and when I think of that melancholy time in my life, I have talked to so many people that have experienced that specifically in the winter.  Berlin winters are so Brutal.  Part of what helped me is that I just made stuff.  I couldn’t make paintings, which is what I was doing before, that was too much pressure for me.  I was very disheartened by the gallery scene, I don’t want to say brutal, I mean it just felt sort of closed and opaque.   So much of what was attached to my paintings were these kind of like negative things about guilt or about failure.  So, what I had to do, and I think this is useful for anyone that is experiencing that kind of depression and difficulty doing stuff, is I just had to pivot and do something different that had less pressure. And this case was comics for me.  Those comics are things that I never showed anyone; they are still in a folder on my computer labelled ‘sad comics’.   Because part of me knew that I was never going to show them to anyone I relieved a little bit of this pressure on myself. And, because I did not know anything about the professional world of comics, I didn’t think so much about, before when I was making painting’s I was thinking: “what sort of galleries should I be looking at?”, “Should I be trying to hussle and be in group show?”.  All that was in the back of my mind when I was making paintings.  Sometimes when you switch mediums your brain does a recalibration of things and becomes a little easier, a little.  I also did physical things which I would recommend to anyone that is depressed, you know I started taking more German classes, I started roller-skating in Templehof.  I did really physical things that took care of the things that were affecting me.

What do you think the freedom to be creative has given you on a personal level, in other words what has illustration taught you? 

I think it’s a really useful skill no matter what career you are in to be creative.  I think it’s helpful to think outside of the box.   When I was thinking about some government responses to this pandemic, how helpful it would have been if people had been a little more creative.  My partner’s idea was “do everything outside, give people free picnic baskets or thermasis, have a completely outside culture”.  Creativity can be applied to any aspect of one’s life or career.  For me it’s lovely that I can be by myself and still find joy in stories, and maybe the creativity was fostered because I was by myself a lot as a kid, I don’t know which came first.

This year teaching art I imagine has changed a lot due to the lockdown and working online, has this affected your practice and your tuition and in what way?

I had some experience with teaching online because I taught English online a few years ago, I had never taught workshops online.  I think it’s difficult to not be in the same room together when someone is drawing, the moments where I talk during a workshop are the same because it’s just me talking.   There is also a certain energy when you are drawing with people in a room that’s hard to recreate.  But I have actually been surprised that that energy I referred to still exists.  People need it more than ever, having a purpose, having a reason to draw.  Something new in this monotonous slog that we are in, so I think that the joy is the same.  I guess in general it has not changed as much as I would have predicted.

Do you think that online learning could actually give us more freedom and more opportunities for the less physically able or those overworked whom thought they had no time to get to a studio in the future in a hopefully corona-controlled world?

Oh yeah totally, I saw some tweets by people who do identify as disabled, and they were talking about how they weren’t able to go to these events that are now being held online.  I think that’s great, and I think in the future a hybrid-learning situation is really ideal.   I also think from an environmental standpoint it’s great because last year I had to turn down a few workshops because I didn’t want to fly to Mississippi or San Francisco, and those are things I wouldn’t have to turn down now.  I generally think that aspect of things could provide some inclusivity.  For some people that might not physically be there for some reason, I think it’s important to provide an opportunity for those people as well.

Your final module in the series of workshops for BDR is on creating a narrative world.

  What is a narrative world and how do you build one?

A narrative world is something you build up over time.  It’s where your stories take place. To create this space, you ask yourself questions about the atmosphere, the characters, the aesthetics and the relationships. Slowly these aspects become more real and defined. One of the joys of being an artist is making things up and living in artistic alternate realities. In the final module, we’ll flesh these alternate realities out, making a more complete graphic story.

For those participating in the entire series what do you hope the students will take from the experience?  And what would you like to learn from your students?

I would like people to be excited by the possibilities of visual storytelling generally.   With comics and graphic novels.  I would like to make people aware of how open, how fun, how exciting this aspect of visual culture is.  I would like to help people on an individual level accomplish their projects, that’s an important aspect of this I think, especially when you are working with stories or narratives it’s nice to see them get built.  I think it would be good to help people have the tools to do that.  So, that’s what I want them to get out of it.  For me I just have a lot of fun, I have taught two classes there and both have been really lovely.  It is something that is all around us, visual storytelling, and excites me.  I always learn, both from the students and constructing these workshops tinkering with different exercises, which works best, fine-tuning the timing of it, seeing which ones awaken from these ideas and occasionally which ones don’t, sometimes it’s too much pressure or too unspecific.

There are endless stories of misery surrounding Covid-19 but I would like to finish with something positive you have taken from the experience to share a bit of light with people!   Maybe a piece of advice?I think it brings a very stark and harsh clarity to things and clarity to some things and I think clarity can be a very transformative thing.  I think for me personally I discovered nature everywhere, I bought binoculars and I started really birdwatching and have my bird book and look up which bird it is. I never thought I would be like “a birder”.  During the first lockdown in Berlin, I was in my house near Volkspark and I watched all these ducks grow up.  I would walk to the duck pond every day.  Just being able to appreciate these little things.   Getting a little bit of clarity about what you actually want to do.  I think being in a high stress situation does not necessarily make me more creative. It doesn’t for most people. I have to focus my interest on things that I really actually want to do, I have less interest and tolerance to do these side projects. Luckily, I’m in a position where I don’t have to do everything, but it’s been really helpful to get clarity on you know, “I just want to do this right now”, and I’m only able to because my brain is just not able to do ten things at once right now.  So, I would say nature and clarity are things that I have gotten over the last year.  I am looking forward to the summer, I have a cautious optimism right now

An online workshop series focused on developing a comics practice.

Learn about the vibrant and changing world of visual storytelling through comics, storyboards, illustrations and graphic novels. 

Explore the art of building stories through text and image during this series of online workshops. Each workshop includes creative drawing prompts, class discussions and tailored feedback. Together, we will look at the construction of graphic narratives–from woodcuts to webcomics–developing our own projects along the way. 

Learn foundation skills visual communication, as well as special comics techniques, through:

  • live demonstrations
  • step by step exercises
  • hands on practice
  • time for individual style and expression

Visual Storytelling Workshop Series consists of different modules, each focused on a different aspect of developing your visual language. 

The teaching develops organically with each module over the course of the year, but if you start mid-year you will be guided into the overall process.

Individual tutoring and specific exercises will respond to the goals, struggles and needs of each student. Complete beginners are welcome and you are invited to join at the start of any module, or leave and come back. This workshop series is for anyone that is developing their own comics series or graphic novel or just wants to explore different aspects of visual storytelling. For those further along in their creative journey, this can also be a place to get feedback on long term projects.

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