According to the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) your exhibit, Strange Dream, “inspires questions about how we look at our environment and how our environment can affect one’s subconscious”. How did the idea for Strange Dream come about?
My work is very detail-oriented. As a kid, I’d spend hours reproducing Where’s Waldo drawings, fascinated by how a single two-page illustration spread could command a viewer’s attention for so long. These drawings — made with the tiniest, thinnest black pens I could get my hands on — certainly formed the basis of how I approach my work today. I make extremely detailed drawings with an element of narrative in them, whether that exists in actual, text-based narrative (in my comics), or implied narrative within a drawing that has several characters and secret pockets that viewers notice as they stare at it for a period of time. I want to hold viewers’ attention; I want them to weave a narrative out of the visual clues I leave in the drawing.
I only recently started to work large-scale. Historically, my drawings have been the size of a single sheet of paper, the largest being around 22”x30”. In the past couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to work on a larger scale for other pieces and freelance jobs, and it sparked a bit of an epiphany; the larger the work, the more detail I could include, and the more the viewer will be sucked into the drawing.
Strange Dream was a culmination of my mural projects and my comic projects. I wanted to create a very large-scale environment that featured several hidden characters and suggested narratives. Creatures and questions pop out the more you stare. After a minute or two, secret eyeballs are suddenly noticeable; they’ve been staring at you the whole time. Where is this place? Who is the girl in the colour nest? Why is she there?
What environment has the most impact on how you’re inspired to make art?
Jill Stanton: I’m a bit of a plant nut, thanks to my mom’s early greenhouse and gardening brainwashing techniques (I love you, Mom!). In 2011, I travelled to Vancouver Island for an apprenticeship to learn how to start and operate a 10-acre market organic farm; I was there for the entire nine-month growing season, building crude greenhouses and cabins, seeding, transplanting, weeding, driving the tractor, harvesting and farming. It was initially supposed to be a break from art in general, but the natural environment and the experience of real, solid hard work was rewarding and stirring. I ended up making a small series of comics about life on the farm, and worked on advertisements, newsletters and posters for the farm and other businesses in the small town close by. [I also] painted several crude farm signs with latex paint advertising our produce. Those comics were pretty dumb and not very well drawn, but they were the impetus for all my recent graphic narrative projects, including the subscription-based comic book, Headspaces. Even now, in my tiny downtown apartment, I’ve got a small jungle of over 50 houseplants. They just make me feel better about living back in the city.
Your artwork shows a true appreciation for comics and their alternative, dream-like worlds. Often the real world can seem dream-like too — especially when you turn on the news and see all the transformative and heart-wrenching things happening out there in the world. Do political and social events ever play a role in how you approach your work?
The first major works I completed after finishing my BFA were pieces that responded to injustices related to food, food security and food politics. These issues were part of the reason why I moved to the farm in the first place — to learn how “sustainable” food production works firsthand. Food and its surrounding issues have always been a focal point for me; I’ve struggled with it on a personal and political level for many years.
I was a vegetarian for much of my adult life (farm life has since changed my relationship with animals, their environment and meat). I drew a lot of hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and melted cheese because I was fascinated with the seductive quality of these foods even though they were inherently disgusting, awful and immoral. I was drawing my way through thinking about these issues. First: Why do people want to eat these things? Why did I want to eat these things, even though I “knew better”? Did it make me a fundamentally better person because I didn’t eat factory meat or even meat in general? And then, later, on the farm, surrounded by ethically-raised meat and dairy: Is a “vegan” salad made from a head of lettuce and cucumbers produced on a poorly managed farm in China or California with migrant, underpaid workers any better than a steak sandwich made from locally produced, grass-fed beef? Worse?
Three times a day (ideally, for us lucky and privileged people), we navigate through the ethics of food politics. With each ingredient in a single meal, we have the potential to either harm ourselves (the health value of the food in question, or our financial position to choose a better option, or not), harm an animal (through animal welfare questions related to meat, dairy, eggs, etc.), harm the environment (pesticides, clear-cutting, fish farms, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, etc.), or harm someone else we are peripherally unaware of (where the food was produced, by whom, and under what variables and terms of employment). What used to be a fairly straightforward thing, even 100 years ago before such rampant globalization, has turned into a real minefield. We all have to eat, that’s what makes food questions so all-encompassing and awful.
…I still refer to these ideas from time to time in my work, though less lately since I’m feeling increasingly as though I have less of the answers I once thought I held so firmly. I still think hot dogs and cheeseburgers are incredibly interesting and powerful tropes in society, but I like them more as ways to introduce a kind of cognitive dissonance into a narrative or drawing rather than a guilt trip. It’s a constantly evolving relationship.