Thursday, 20 March 2008

A Chat With...Jim Medway (Part One)

Jim Medway is a self-published cartoonist whose comics might best be described as anthropomorphic, all-ages fun. He has recently been invited to pitch ideas to the new anthology comic, The DFC. He's also a much-in-demand educator who teaches cartooning to children and adults in both formal and informal educational settings. In this interview, he talks about his influences, balancing teaching with making comics and why less is sometimes more when it comes to cartooning.

MB: You’re a working artist aren’t you? How long have you been a working artist?

JM: I’ve from a fine art background, so I’ve been exhibiting drawings and paintings since I left college in 1996. 10 years of doing that and in 2006 I found that I was getting a bit frustrated with it. I’d reached a point where exhibiting wasn’t very satisfying and although I was selling the odd artwork, it wasn’t money that I could ever rely on. It wasn’t a regular income. I was aware that I was going to have to find some way of earning a living. I‘d been framing, I’d been hanging exhibitions and doing all sorts of part-time jobs, labouring and things.

It was just exhausting and very unrewarding, so I put together an Arts Council application based on this idea of professional development, teaching myself how to make comics but also how to teach comics to fund my own creative stuff. After six months of writing and tweaking this application and bouncing it back and forwards, I got this grant that was enough to keep me going for a year. It meant that I could do things like get a new laptop and do various experimental projects with groups.

I partnered up with Manchester Art Gallery and they gave me access to their space. I went to the Centre for Cartoon Studies in Vermont to do their summer workshops.

MB: As someone who studied and worked as an artist, how conversant were you with the culture of applying for Arts Council money?

JM: I know how the applications work and the things that they’re looking for. I was quite keen therefore to emphasise the educational angle.

MB: Is Arts Council funding something that self-published cartoonists should and could be tapping into?

JM: I’m not sure. It’s hard to say. I think they like applications from people who have already established themselves to a certain point. It’s not just someone who’s going, ‘Oh, I think that I’d like to have a go at this.’ You’ve got to prove that you’ve got as far as you can without their support, but now, in order to develop your practise, you’re making this application. You’ve also got to show the benefits for the Arts Council, for audiences; things like that. You’ve got to list them. It’s quite a complicated process.

It took me about six months to get it right. They don’t usually give large grants to individual artists. They give them to organisations. Maybe applying as a collective is an idea.

MB: And things to focus on are?

JM: How your project’s good for the region, good for your own professional development, for the other people who will be involved…you can explain how it’s going to be professionally relevant. Make sure it’s not a half-hearted project.

MB: Think it all out properly.

JM: Yeah. Also, pay yourself right. That’s another big thing that they’re really quite keen on, that artists are getting paid properly for the work that they do. Whether that’s £175 a day or more, you know.

MB: So, if you are asking for money, don’t try and improve your chances by skimping on your own pay so that the amount you’re asking for is lower.

JM: Sure, sure. They’ll instantly reject it. There are different kinds of grants available. I think that there’s money for first publication. They give money to artists for overseas travel, if they have meetings or particular events that they have to go to. I’m not aware of them funding any other comic artists, but then I am from this fine art background so they knew my work from that. They knew my practice. They could see where it was going. They could see that children were responding well to my commissions and the workshops that I had run, so…

MB: Was that because of the anthropomorphic angle?

JM: Yeah, maybe. Also the fact that I try to keep the characters as realistic as I can. They’re all based on observation or extrapolation. They’re not superheroes.

MB: So, you applied for the money and then went to the Centre for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. What did that do for you?

JM: That tooled me up with loads of different exercises, skills and techniques that I could put into practise myself as an artist and as a teacher. But I’m not sure how much you’d like me to talk about making comics and how much about teaching.

MB: I’d like you to talk about both. How much does teaching comics facilitate making comics or not, as the case may be? Maybe talk about the projects that you’ve got ongoing…

JM: The main teaching that I’m doing at the moment is through Manchester Art Gallery. They’ve got a scheme called Artists in Schools, which involves seven or eight different artists. There’s dancers, there’s drama people, there’s people doing all sorts of different painting and whatever. Instead of schools coming into the gallery and exhibitions and doing activities, what happens is that the gallery lends artists to the schools for a day, two days, four days for set projects.

I’ve got a four-day project that I do with two classes, Years Five and Six, that’s 10 and 11 year olds. I work with one class in the morning and one class in the afternoon, four days spread out over a period of four weeks. On the third day we go to the gallery and we look at different ways that artists have depicted characters. What can you tell about someone from the clues in a picture, the props, clothes and body language, things like that?

MB: What are you trying to achieve?

JM: I think that a lot of kids do comic-style doodling anyway. Perhaps they sometimes get told off for doing it. I think they do respond quite well to the project, because it’s something that they can all have a go at. I try and emphasise all the time that it’s about simplicity and clarity. I’ll show them diagrams and I’ll show them in-flight safety cards. You know, why isn’t this a comic? It’s giving us information with pictures.

I show them Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, which is very diagrammatic and simple. You can’t help but read it. You stare at it and before you know it, you’ve got to the end of the page. You don’t even notice that you’re reading it because it’s so beautifully put together. Stuff like Persepolis. I show them excerpts of that. They respond well to that because the artwork is so simple. They think, ‘Oh, I could have a go at that.’ And, in a way, that works a lot better than if there’s kids that are into comics, like Spiderman or something. They’ll just sit and they’ll draw all these muscle structures and these action figures, but it’s very frustrating for them because it never looks how it should. It’s better to start from scratch.

You know, let’s try and do something that’s a bit more like, say, Charlie Brown than Spiderman. It’s a lot easier for the to get their head around designing that kind of character.

MB: Your experience then is that if kids are into comics they tend to be into superheroes and manga, which can distract them from the basics of storytelling.

JM: There’re usually one or two kids that read Japanese comics. There’s usually a couple that recognise Asterix. One or two might recognise Tintin. But the others, they’ll know The Beano, they’ll know…they all read The Simpsons Comic and Spongebob Squarepants of course. On the whole, it’s all film tie-ins, which is a bit depressing.

(Go to Part Two)

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