Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Featured Artist: Ursula Vernon

Artist Profile
Name: Ursula Vernon
Job Title: Author/Illustrator
Client List: Harcourt Brace, Penguin Dial
Education: BA in Anthropology
Years Experience: 12
Favorite Medium: digital
Specialties: small, cute, disturbing
Accepting Private Commissions? No

Contact Info
Website or Web Portfolio:
Twitter: ursulav
Online Art Communities: DeviantArt

The first time I saw a painting by Ursula Vernon I decided that she was one of the most brilliant artists I'd ever encountered. Through the last few years I've watched her grow even more as an artist and a professional, and go through hard times and good times, and through all of it her sense of humor and quirky personality has remained a constant source of inspiration for me, and a ray of sunshine.

From writing and illustrating comic books like the award winning "Digger" and children's books like (the also award winning) "Nurk", to the darker paintings of Gearworld and her collection of odd animal saints and winged phalloi, Ursula demonstrates a unique and incredible talent for finding humor in the oddest of places. I consider it truly my good fortune to have the chance to interview her and find out a little about this woman who isn't afraid to walk on the wild side.

My first introduction to your artwork was five or six years ago, over on Elfwood, where I saw a painting you’d done of a vulture delivering a zombie baby (rather than a stork). It was brilliant, and made me laugh, and the description of you waking up in the middle of the night to tell your husband about the idea reminded me very much of my own midnight insanities. Do you remember the first time you put your sense of humor into a drawing? How does it continue to inform your work?
I think the first time I recall putting my sense of humor--such as it is--in a painting was a piece about a thousand years ago, titled "Bride of the Warthog." It was a kind of classic cheeseball fantasy Boris Vallejo sort of thing, except the lovely maiden was clinging to the ankle of a large warthog. Fortunately for all, this painting has been lost to posterity, but I still recall the title fondly.

The vast majority of my art today involves my sense of humor--I always had a vague desire to be a serious, significant artist doing works of Deep Meaning. Unfortunately, what I'm really good at is hamsters and other small cutenesses. Given that's the hand I seem to be dealt, I have to treat it with a sense of's hard to do serious angst-ridden rodents for very long.
One of the things that has always stood out to me about your work is that your creatures and characters aren’t typically “girly.” Your heroes are shrews, and wombats, or little dragons and slugs. Is that a deliberate choice on your part? What draws you to atypical heroes and heroines?
Well, part of it is the aforementioned cuteness problem. (I find slugs cute.) But part of it is probably just that I hate doing what everybody else is doing--I always want my stuff to be weird and unique. There's enough big-eyed wasp-waisted heroines and studly tormented heroes out there, I don't need to add to the pile--or if we're going with animals, there's enough foxes and wolves and gryphons to wallpaper a battleship. But there's very few heroic shrews and wombats. And even when I do something relatively normal, like dragons, I try to--god help me, I'm about to use the phrase "subvert the paradigm," that's probably a bad sign--but at least make it odd and unexpected and fun.

Part of it is also, I'm embarrassed to admit, but way back in the day, random people on the internet would get mad at me for painting dragons that didn't look like their notion of dragons or unicorns that ate carrion and lived in dumps, and they would send me long screeds about it on e-mail. Ten years later, I still get a sneaking pleasure from the notion that somebody somewhere is annoyed by my work.

This undoubtedly marks me as a terribly juvenile individual, but I'm coming to terms with it.
You seem to dabble in a little bit of everything. You’re a humor columnist (EMG-zine), author and illustrator of several books for children and young adults, a comic book writer and artist, a card game artist, and you also do gallery shows and paintings of adorable phalluses. Do you have a favorite creative outlet? Is there a direction you’d like to explore that you haven’t yet?
My favorite creative outlet tends to be the one I'm not doing right at this moment. Other than that, probably gardening. Gardening is very low-stress--the only audience I need to please are the bees and the butterflies and the goldfinches, and they're generally a pretty unjudgemental audience.

I'd really like to get more into sculpture. I haven't because I'm not really any good at it, and I don't really know where to begin. Occasionally I start in that direction, but I don't have any of the skillsets, or the equipment, and I'm easily distracted, but that's a place I'd like to get to eventually.
I read in your bio that your mother is an artist, too. What kind of work does she do? How do you feel that’s influenced you, as an artist?
She does very very realistic paintings, and she's brilliant. Part of it is just attention span--she spends a month on a painting, and I get antsy if I'm working on one for more than three days. But she's definitely influenced me--I occasionally find myself throwing in random elements from her paintings, like disembodied hands--and a series she did when I was young heavily influenced a whole series of paintings I've done, the Gearworld work.

Even more than individual elements, I think being surrounded by her art helped cement my view of What Art Looked Like.
Okay, I have to ask, what’s up with the adorable penises?
Lord. It just kinda happened! My boyfriend sent me a link to some *cough* erotic chess-sets, and some of them were these little winged penises, and that reminded me of my long ago archeology classes, and I went rummaging through the internet until I came up with the ancient Greek and Roman "winged phalloi" where they'd have little penises with feet and wings and tails and sometimes even little genitals of their own, and...well...I mentioned the cuteness problem, right? And the problem with images that simple and iconic is that you can do anything with them, they become a great blank canvas. It's sort of like My Little Ponies. Except...err...with penises. With feet.

I'm not well.
How do you feel being a female artist working in this industry has either helped and/or hindered you? Do you ever get strange looks because you’re a woman drawing anthropomorphized wombat comics and blue penises in the mist?
Being on the internet for the vast majority of my career has, I think, really blunted a lot of the sexism, or perhaps I'm just oblivious to it. But since 99% of my clients know me as a portfolio and a screen name, it just doesn't come up as much as it probably would if I was going into offices and so forth. It's probably out there, but it's not something that impacts me personally.

I do catch occasional flak on the penises, but I suspect I'd catch a LOT more if I was male and painting them. You get random trolls, but I think most viewers see them for what they are--absurd and silly and kind of weirdly non-sexual in a way.

One of the things I'm proudest of about "Digger"--the wombat comic in question--is the fact that it's mostly about female characters--and that doesn't MATTER. People don't spend a lot of time going "Digger's a tough female character!" they just go "Digger is tough!" (Half the time people don't know she's female until somebody mentions it.) Probably a lot of it is that most of them aren't human, and that we fool with gender roles a bit with the hyenas, but still, I feel like the next stage after "Girls can do anything boys can do!" is to have the girls just DO whatever it is, and nobody feeling a need to comment on the fact that they're girls. And for the most part we seem to have gotten really lucky with Digger in that regard--her problems aren't that she's a female wombat in a male wombat's world, it's that she's got to deal with dead gods and crazy priests and vampire squash.

This isn't intended as a slam on comics that are about being a female whatever in a male whatever's world, because I think there's a lot you can say about that and say it well. It's just not what I particularly had to say with Digger.
Any advice for other girls out there who have oddball senses of humor and an urge to paint?
I hope they do! It's not exactly a lucrative field, but it's the best job in the world. I have more fun doing this than I can imagine having doing anything else at all.

Image Credits:
Above: "Battle Hamster Raid" ©2004-2009 Ursula Vernon
Below Left: "Phalloi in Flight" ©2009 Ursula Vernon
Below Middle: "Owl Saint" ©2006-2009 Ursula Vernon
Below Right: "Cthulu's Day Out" ©2008-2009 Ursula Vernon

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