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An Interview with Esme Blegvad

I first encountered Esme's work on Rookie. Her comics were one of my favorite parts of the site. She made topics like death and depression digestible for twelve-year-old me, and helped me to understand my teen angst, and taught me how to play the ukulele, and introduced me to the art of Leonora Carrington.

Whereas most of the Rookie writers felt like cool older sisters, Esme felt more like a cool best friend, like she was going through the same things I was. I still visit the Rookie archives quite often, and as much as I love Rookie, I must admit that I've sort of outgrown most of the content. But when I look at Esme's comics, I feel just as profoundly affected by them now as I did seven years ago, and not in like a nostalgic, remembering how much they meant to me sort of way. There every bit as relevant to my life now as they were then, maybe even more. I started combing through her comics for Rookie so I could link to the ones that impacted me the most, but I found myself spending hours looking through her drawings and articles all over again and getting invested in the stories the same way I did when I was younger. Her carefully-chosen words really pack a punch, and everything about her work feels inviting and welcoming, I never felt intimidated by her comics, or like I had to understand every single facet of what she was talking about in order to enjoy her work. I'm in awe of how she tackles such tough subjects in such an accessible way.

My first introduction to Esme's work was via Rookie, but she's also done illustrations for Vice, bringing to life articles about everything from Daddy Yankee to what it's like to be a queer, femme K-Pop fan. Even though her art for Vice is marvelous, I still think her work shines brightest when she's telling her own story, or at least those pieces of hers are the ones that inspire me the most. Even though I hesitate to consider myself an artist, Esme's comics about her personal life have motivated me to be more honest and open about my own life in my work. After binging her comics, I stared off into space for a while, just absorbing what I had consumed, and then I was filled with the overwhelming urge to create.

Who are your inspirations?

Everyone! It’s insane that humanity even exists! My artistic inspirations are mainly in my family, as they are all either professional artists and/or very talented artistically, so they are great visual inspirations in a technical sense and also theoretically inspiring. Like my brother is not an artist but he’s hands-down the most naturally-gifted illustrator I’ve ever seen, and a great guitar player, I’m very inspired by both of those skills, they strive me to attempt to reach his levels. Coming from a family of artists I’ve always felt a subconscious and gentle element of everyone pushing each other to make the sickest thing to impress the others - like at birthdays it was very thrilling to show whatever work you had come up with for the recipient (hand-made birthday cards are a huge thing in our family) and also have a look at what everyone else was working with. In this same way, my friends killing it in their particular fields, and contemporary artists I admire are also my inspiration: I just wanna be as good as people who I think are good, and have them think I’m good too :)

What work are you most proud of?

In general I feel most proud or at least content with my non-commercial work, for instance art that I make as gifts or favours to people. As previously mentioned, hand-made birthday cards are a big thing for me and they’re probably some of the works I’m most proud of because it’s very rewarding to see someone you love thrilled by something that you made specifically in an attempt to thrill and please them. The non-gift work I’m most proud of would have to be the animated music video I made last year for my dear friends of the critically-acclaimed NYC punk band THICK: I’m very proud of it because I made it very blindly, without any previous experience or really knowing what I was doing at all. I didn’t even know how many drawings it would be or how long it would take (turned out to be literally thousands of drawings, and it took months) but I felt and feel very proud that I succeeded in this endeavour because it was really the definition of just “giving it a shot” and I proved to myself that you realistically CAN do whatever you feel like when it comes to art, schooling and experience and technical knowledge is ultimately irrelevant if you really try! And the thing that makes me MOST proud is that towards the end I had to enlist virtually everyone I knew to help me finish it off in one way or another - my best friend was eight months pregnant sitting in my room carefully filling in my font outlines, I had all THREE of my parents (my divorced mom and dad, and my stepdad) at my kitchen counter filling in frame after frame of patterns on the clothes in the video, while my brother and roommate were at different desks and on my bed doing their part to colour it - this makes me prouder than anything, of everyone who helped me and helped the video come out successfully when it could have been a disaster.

What’s been the most transformative experience of your life?

Probably taking stock of my life in my mid-twenties when I had lived a weird, chaotic, toxic and unrewarding existence for five years in New York City, and deciding to stop everything I was doing and move back to London, where I come from, with only few weeks’ notice. It was very sucky to leave my friends and the communities that I love, and somewhat unsettling to do this at the last minute, but until this point there had not truly been a moment in my life where it was up to me to seize control of an entire situation and make an actual movement to change it. I surprised myself in my ability to do this and for that reason it was a transformative experience, literally (because I live in London now) and also because it was the catalyst to what felt like an outrageous growth-spurt of the spirit, after which I felt like I knew myself and like I understood the world much more clearly.

In what ways does your background inform your work?

Hugely in many ways. Firstly most of my work is mainly autobiographical which I think comes from a background of always being encouraged to say and think what I wanted at the dinner table, even if it was controversial. I don't think I would have high-enough self esteem or a solid enough foundation of narcissism to make the weird, confessional work I try to make if it hadn’t been for this background of support and openness. Furthermore, in a practical sense my work is also undoubtedly informed by a certain amount of privilege inherent in my background - even just the idea of a career as a cartoonist as a realistic thing must have been born, on some level, of my privilege as an able-bodied middle-class white woman with the support of a family who generally hold a similar understanding of the world as me (as opposed to, say, an artist who came from a family of scientists or lawyers). I believe that context is, obviously, an inherent part of both the creation and consumption of art and therefore my background not only informs my work but is the reason that it exists at all.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Only two things:

When I was fourteen and broken-hearted and I told my dad about it on the way to school one morning, he told me the idiom “This Too Shall Pass” and at the time, and for many years afterwards, it seemed the only realistically-applicable advice for the insane range of situations I would come to find life had to throw at me.

Then, when I was twenty-five and broken hearted and I told my best friend Dan Grabowski about it at length, he very kindly but seriously bestowed upon me the only piece off advice that has impacted me as deeply as “This Too Shall Pass,” in fact maybe more, a mantra that I continue to live by to this day and hopefully for far into the future: “The ONLY PERSON that you can CONTROL”, Dan Grabowski told me again and again during this time, in a serious tone that echoes in my memory daily “is YOURSELF.”

How has your work changed over the years?

It’s gotten technically much better. I never went to art school and started illustrating for Rookie magazine and Vice during my final year of university where I studied creative writing (lol). I would make the drawings in class and scan them in the university library, and then sell them to whoever wanted to buy them for peanuts off Tumblr. Because I skipped art school it took many years of struggle and frustration to make the drawings look on paper how I could see them in my head. After ten years I have pretty much arrived at the point where I can now execute mostly what I see in my head, and this is an immense relief. Content-wise my work has barely changed remotely, as a child I made zines about my experience of the world as I saw it and as an adult I pretty much continue to do this almost exclusively.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?

That you don’t have to always tell everyone everything, that you can take a deep breath and drink a glass of water before reacting to things and that when in doubt, you should do nothing.


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