The Compulsive Artist: An Interview With Julie Doucet

Julie Doucet is still often associated with her award-winning comics work of the ‘90s. As Carpet Sweeper Tales demonstrates, however, she’s been doing a lot more since moving on from comics.

Carpet Sweeper Tales

Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
Length: 184 pages
Author: Julie Doucet
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-03

Those who haven’t been following Julie Doucet’s post-comics career have been missing a lot.

The Montreal, Canada-born and -based visual artist is still associated by many with her groundbreaking and now iconic alternative comics. When she burst on the scene, it didn’t take her long to win one Harvey Award (Best New Talent, 1991) and nominations for several others, particularly for her earliest series Dirty Plotte (which started out as a photocopied fanzine produced while Doucet was in art school before it was picked up by publisher Drawn & Quarterly) and My New York Diary (which won the Firecracker Award for Best Graphic Novel in 2000).

She’s since moved into a wider range of other artistic styles. Her latest release, Carpet Sweeper Tales, offers a superb glimpse at one of those styles: word-based collages superimposing cut-out words and sounds onto carefully selected images.

“I've been working with cut-out work for years, but nobody has seen them because it's been in French most of the time,” she laughs. “I did a few projects like writing my own autobiography from zero to 15 years old with cut-out words. And I made up a language also using leftovers from that project, because I keep the left-over words and syllables, so I created words with the syllables. And I just kept on going using leftovers from one project to create another one, so that's what happened with Carpet Sweeper Tales. I was interested in writing with made-up words -- if you can call it words -- and using sounds also.”

The distinctive art on which the cut-out, made-up words are superimposed are culled from ‘fumetti’ -- Italian photonovels from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

“I figured maybe just doing it only [as] writing was not a very good idea, so I decided to add pictures. I had all these fumetti magazines that I cut out. I just picked the pictures I liked and I recreated the stories. It's totally improvised.”

All told, the project took her about a year. The whimsically titled pieces in Carpet Sweeper Tales offer an intriguing form of abstract storytelling that Doucet describes as “lightheartedly absurd stories”, but which often convey the impression more of art than storytelling. Nevertheless, the abstract nature of the work leads the reader to seek and imagine multiple layers of meaning in the strange sounds and thoughtful visual juxtapositions (she advises the stories are best read aloud).

But Doucet’s work, she says, is more compulsive than theoretical.

“I'm mostly just a compulsive artist. I just work and work and work, and eventually I look back and think about what I've just done.”

Although it was as an alternative comics artist that she became famous in the ‘90s, the range of styles and mediums in which Doucet has worked since then is impressive: silkscreen, collage, wood- and lino-cuts, even animation. She's published works of poetry, illustrated the cover of a deluxe edition of Little Women for Penguin Books, and had her work featured in exhibitions around the world from Europe to Russia to North America, including the 2007 Biennale de Montréal and the 2008 Triennale Québécoise.

Collage, she says, has in recent years become a favourite style for her, although she’s quick to point out that in a year from now she’s likely to list a different favourite.

The most challenging work she’s done, she says, involved animation. She’s happy with the end result of her animation shorts, but it wasn’t easy.

“[It was difficult] because of the technique -- it's very technological -- and somehow from start to finish it's always been a battle. It's almost as if the universe is against me,” she laughs.

Despite her virtuosity in multiple mediums, it’s text-based collages that she’s been concentrating on in recent years.

“I love collage,” she says. “I stopped drawing about seven years ago. I had a burnout and after that I just couldn't draw any more. I had a mental block. It just didn't work at all. But it came back, and so I want to draw now. I love it even better.”

Art, Comics and Independence

Although she received international acclaim for her comics work, she famously ‘quit’ comics -- at least the long-form type -- in 1999. In interviews she stated that comics were too much work for too little compensation. I asked her about the decision, and she cited some of the other reasons that led her to leave the comics scene.

“At that point comics were not very open to something different, you know, not like it is today. Today you can put pretty much anything into a comic book, but it really wasn't the case at that time. So I felt trapped in a way. I just wanted to try different things. So that's what motivated me the most [to quit comics], and also I didn't really feel comfortable in that boys' crowd any more. You know, there weren't as many women as there are today… I mean it's so much better than it used to be.”

The broader art world is not always the most equitable environment either, though. I asked her whether she found the visual art world had also been improving in terms of access for women artists. Her genial francophone accent is warm and thoughtful, but she doesn’t mince words.

“Well I don't know if it's gotten worse but it's not getting better, as far as I can tell. I mean there are still no women in big exhibitions and museums, and women are paid less money in general. They earn less money. It's hard to believe. I just can't believe it myself! But it's true, all over.”

Doucet is often called a feminist artist, and she agrees that the title fits. While many would find her work politically innovative and challenging -- her content often focuses on sexuality, bodies and relationships, gender roles -- she herself is much more modest.

“Yeah I definitely think that art can be political. I wish I could do that, actually. I don't think everybody can pull it off, but I really admire that and enjoy it when that happens, when somebody can do it well. But it's very difficult. I don't have it, unfortunately. But I think it's a great place to pass [on] a message.”

Sadly, she says, really political art is just not happening anymore, and she attributes it to the growing institutionalization of the field.

“The way the art business is right now, at least in Montreal, is it's very institutionalized. When people go to school, it's like they're being domesticated. I hate to say that, about young people today, but I can see that… lots of young artists coming in now are coming directly from school, and I can see it. They’re very, how do you say it? Ambitious.”

One of her other critiques of the institutionalization of the art scene in Canada is she feels the bureaucratization of art takes the fearless and independent edge off a lot of emerging artists.

“A big difference at least from a place like America, is that in Montreal, in Canada in general, the government gives grants, a lot of grants. They have money for the artists, which is not the case in a place like the US. I think, unfortunately, people think the government owes them something and they tend to be kind of lazy, I feel. It's a big generalization, but you know people go to school and they learn how to fill out the forms to apply for grants, and there is no reflection in between. They think, "Okay, that's being an artist, you just ask for grants and the government will pay you to make art." And I have a problem with that. It's okay to ask for grants, but it's not okay to make it a lifestyle and not try to be independent, and to become somebody who just fills out forms.”

“I mean, I'm in a special position because you know I always lived from comics or different things, I never had to have a job. It's more difficult now, but you know most people do have a job and make art on the side, or get grants or whatever.”

Back to the Drawing Board

Even after moving on from the comics form, Doucet is still often spoken of as a comics artist by those who aren’t familiar with the much broader range of her work. I asked her how she would prefer people to think of her.

“As somebody who has done many different things, hopefully not only for comics. Because I already spent half of my life doing something else.”

Already an accomplished artist in more styles and mediums than many artists will tackle in a single lifetime, Doucet is determined to keep expanding her repertoire of skills. Her comments reflect the sort of openness to new things which has defined her career more than anything.

“I'm going back to drawing, but I'm really going back to the basics of drawing. I bought some anatomy books and I’m really trying to learn again to draw and create a different style. So in itself it's a whole new thing for me. And I have no idea what it's going to become. I don't think it's going to be comics, but who knows?”

The artists she’s currently following reflect as varied a range as one might expect from an artist who works in multiple forms herself. She’s particularly excited about the work of David Altmejd, a Montreal-born sculptor, as well as the comics and animation art of Diane Obumsawin, also from Montreal.

As for her own future, she has no idea what comes next. And she sounds perfectly delighted with it that way.

“I'd love to just take maybe six months or one year to explore drawing and see what happens. I have no idea, absolutely no idea.”


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