Drawing Big: Q & A with Alum Vanessa Davis

Spotlight Date: 
March 16, 2018
Vanessa Davis

Vanessa Davis graduated from the Visual Arts Program in 1996. She went on to graduate from the University of Florida, earning her BA in Visual Arts Studies. After college, Vanessa was still uncertain of what her forte in the visual arts world would be. It wasn’t until she discovered indie comics and started experimenting with inking and panels that Vanessa began to pursue writing and illustrating comics. Today, Vanessa Davis is a full-time artist and is best known for her autobiographical graphic novel, Make Me A Woman and mini-comic, Spaniel Rage, published by Drawn and Quarterly.

Q: Dreyfoos (SOA) class year?

1996

Q: Dreyfoos (SOA) major?

Visual arts

Q: Favorite Dreyfoos (SOA) teachers?

The great thing about the teachers at SOA was that they were all such characters--as much as my friends and classmates! 

I still think about things I learned from John Griffin's drawing and sculpture classes all the time--how your piece's success depends on making deliberate choices, taking responsibility for them; drawing things as they appear to me, not what I decide they are. They have ramifications beyond art-making. I loved all my art teachers: Jane Grandusky, Connie Rudy, Bill Walter, Marvin Waters, Marsha Christo, Patrick Fallon, John Griffin. In retrospect I realize they were all so incredibly patient! 

I also loved my English teachers! I still associate Nancy Marino with about 60% of my vocabulary. It was so fun (and funny) to have a middle school English teacher with such a dry wit. Theresa Beermann's English class, where we got to choose clusters of books to read and discussed their themes. I felt overall from the teachers at SOA a real sense of room and space to think and question and have silly opinions. 

Q: College(s) attended?

I wanted to go to art school but was convinced to try a liberal arts school, so I went to Washington University in St. Louis for one semester. As my plane descended into St. Louis, I decided before even getting to campus that there was no way I was going to stay there--to say I had a bad attitude about it is an understatement. I switched to MICA for a year and a half. Then my dad died in my sophomore year, and I wanted to be in Florida, so I transferred to UF in Gainesville. UF was the best. After all that pressure to go to a private school, I found that a state university provided both a dynamic and straightforward angle in to my college education. I had amazing, down-to-earth art teachers, got to explore sciences and other subjects I learned I loved, and got to really appreciate my native state of Florida.

Q: College Degree?

Because I'd transferred twice, I ended up getting a BA in Visual Arts Studies instead of a BFA in order to graduate on time. I never quite figured out my niche in college--I swung around between media but never found any of them to be quite right. Ultimately, it didn't really matter.

Q: What is the most profound change you experienced at Dreyfoos (SOA)?

I still had so much to learn (I'm still working on it!) after leaving Dreyfoos (SOA), but I did feel like I'd been through a different experience than many of my classmates when I got to college. I'd been exposed to a lot of art and history and theory that I was then being shown again, as if it was new. I already felt like an artist. It wasn't like a glamorous or unattainable thing--just matter-of-fact. 

Q: Is there something Dreyfoos (SOA) could have provided that could have better prepared you for college or your career?

I think my fine art background has really informed and distinguished my work in comics. At the time that I was in school, comics weren't taken very seriously as an art form, and I was dissuaded from thinking about them. In a way, even though we're definitely past retrograde ideas about some art forms being "serious" and others not, I'm glad I was dunked into art history and feminist performance art and all the stuff I learned about first before learning about inking and panels and all of that comics business. Comics can be a wide-open medium but mostly because for such a long time, what they were allowed to be was very limited. I'm glad I got to come to it from outside its culture. 

Q: What path lead you to your current career as an illustrator/cartoonist?

When I got out of school, the idea of schmoozing around the fine art world and trying to show in galleries sounded really not-fun to me. As I mentioned, I got all through college and still didn't know what my medium was. I discovered indie comics and it was like this whole world of people drawing and writing stories that hardly anybody knew about. I liked its lack of promise, ambition-wise! I liked all the freedom the obscurity offered me to experiment. I never expected it'd become my job because it didn't seem like any job could ever even come from it. I liked the people, I liked the scope, and I had access to the materials to make them. 

Q: You have published a few comic books and illustrated several more – what is that process like?

It's changed through the years! I first started self-publishing comics on my office photocopier at my day job and bringing them to comics art shows. I met publishers there and through the community, participated in a bunch of anthologies. Eventually my work was collected by a publisher into a book, and then I've published more with them since. 

Q: It appears many of your comics draw (see what I did there) on every day activities – where or when do you feel you get your inspiration?

Even before I knew I was a cartoonist, I only ever wanted to make art about my everyday life. I like to observe people and places to try to understand things better, and examine my own memories and conversations with people. Our differences, the ways some people do things versus how I would do them, how we interact with each other...how these things possibly express themselves through everyday things is something I like to think about. 

Q: What is your day to day life like as a working artist? 

Every day is different! Right now I'm in a good place--I am working as an editor on a new project, so it's a lot of correspondence and organization. I'm commissioning work from other cartoonists and working on my own story ideas. I also talk a lot with the other editors on my project and with my friends. I work from home. I wake up whenever I want, do yoga, and then get to work. I also like to frequently get out of the house just to freeform draw and think. It's pretty cushy right now! But it's also a little chaotic, being a freelancer. When you have work, everything's great. When you don't, you don't know what's going to happen or what you'll end up having to take on. It's humbling and stressful but also kind of energizing and fun. 

Q: What pushes you to keep growing and experimenting as an artist?

My connection to my work really shapes how I feel about myself, so when I am far away from it I don't feel great. Making a living as an illustrator has broadened me in many ways, but I also have, at times, found myself having not made any of my own artwork for months. It's like exercise; you have to stay in shape. I had some extra savings a few years ago and was able to rent a studio for the first time--I'd never had one, even in college. I didn't draw comics, I just drew these big figures and listened to music and danced around, drawing big. I just felt compelled to do it. When I did draw comics after doing my for-fun figure drawings and a really heavy stint on a corporate illustration job, I was able to access this confidence and magic in my writing that was really satisfying. I know it sounds silly--"magic"--but I really feel like that's what it is. I just have to try to get myself into that spot where I can wrangle it for a second.

Q: What has been the highlight of your career so far?

When I meet people who have read my comics and they say they've been affected by them or that they've thought of my stories in regards to their own lives. It's sort of unbelievable but really rewarding. It hasn't been easy and, I don't know how the future will go, but I feel fortunate to have gotten to go my own way so far.

Q: Have you had the opportunity to work with any other Dreyfoos (SOA) alums?

Not yet!

Q: What recommendations do you have for our current DSOA students?

I guess I'd encourage students to try new things--not to feel too much pressure to define who they are right away. Who you are is already there. The more things you try will only reveal the sides of yourself you haven't met yet.

Q: In a brief statement can you explain “What Dreyfoos means to me”?

Dreyfoos (SOA) was a place where I learned that much of the fun of life and art is in the people you get to be around when you make it.