Drawing the Soul: An Interview with JULIACKS

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Scene from Swell at Women Center Stage festival
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Art from Swell

In the vast world of comics, death, grief, and healing might not be typical subject matter. In the evolving world of graphic novels, however, anything goes. Artist JULIACKS has used the form to confront these challenging topics in Swell. The storyline follows a young woman, Emmeline, as she grieves the loss of her sister, Lucy. JULIACKS (Julia Stein) began making comics at the age of 18 with a series called The Tome of Hallow County. Swell, the final work in this series, was adapted for theater performance at the Women Center Stage Festival in New York City last spring. After the festival wrapped, we asked JULIACKS about what inspired Swell and what’s next in her world of ideas.

Your main characters, the sisters Emmeline and Lucy, have such a believable love-hate relationship. What did you draw on to create this?
Fiction is a multi-layered process. With my fiction, I draw from fantasies, observations, fascinations, experiences, and also my own personal complicated relationships of all kinds.

Before Lucy dies, she loves to visit the cemetery. What inspired you to sit with those left behind when a loved one dies?
Cemeteries function as a place of memory and death, but also as a green space of leisure that just happens to have dead people under its ground. This American phenomenon is interesting in a society without much public acknowledgement of personal loss.

The first image and idea that inspired this story was the idea of a girl moving into a tomb after her sister dies. To deal with loss often involves a self-absorbed rejection of the present, its forms and expectations. This story has been told in many ways, some overt like Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, “In Memoriam” or Joan Didion’s, In the Year of Magical Thinking, some more subtle. Walden, by Thoreau, or the mythical/religious tale of the Buddha discovering the Eightfold Path as the cure to human suffering [loss].

I can’t say what inspired me exactly, except that I wasn’t afraid to think about or deal with death, and the story unfolded over the four years that I wrote and drew it.

Why do you choose to tell stories graphically?
The medium of comics–the sequential combining of text and image–is an art form that is still on the verge of changing and growing artistically and in terms of writing and ideas. To me there wasn’t any other choice. I was always going to be making this story into a comic. The language of frames, shapes, symbols, and marks operate upon our brains and bodies differently than nominal words. Combining elements of time, space, character, and drawing in the form of a comic gives Swell power and provides a contemplative, body based dip for its reader.

What does it feel like to delve into fear and darkness and make something from it? What were you feeling and thinking as you created Swell?
This is such a long-term work that includes not only the graphic novel but also 15 instances of performance art and a few theatrical versions. Different parts reveal and question many facets of fear and darkness. I’d have to say that at different times I’ve been euphoric, ecstatic, very very sad, explosive, self-destructive, full of love, ashamed, secretive, scared, detached, withdrawing, ill and jubilant. I’ve looked at grief through intellectual, and scientific lenses. I’ve looked at mourning through social-cultural lenses. I’ve looked at loss through personal layered emotional lenses. I’ve looked at death awareness in situational specific settings. I’ve looked at bereavement through other people’s experiences and perspective. I’ve been active, organizational and open to other’s need to express their feelings. Not to be self-righteous, I’ve also been closed and rejecting of others’ pain. Not to be trite, but it is something that one moves through, and one can’t determine anyone else’s experience. Mostly I would have to say making this work has been empowering. I’m not afraid to die. I’m all about being alive.

Where did the idea come from to adapt Swell for theatrical performance, and what were the challenges in turning a graphic novel into a play?
When I began making comics, I also began doing performance art installations. They went hand in hand. After I completed “Egg Ceremony,” a complex and intellectually-driven performance installation derived from Swell in 2008 about the abstraction of memory in the face of grief and guilt, I was interested to work with theatrical director Kathleen Amshoff to have a different and objective perspective. We quickly decided to work on Swell as a play, and have the performance art and comics background feed into the play-making.

The main challenges were based in transforming the book, in which each page is drastically different from one another, into a play structure–a time-based experience of one and a half hours, a meal in one sitting. To adapt the book is and was difficult, but very rewarding. As a collaborative art form I also needed to detach from the work and my involvement in it, to see it from an outside and ensemble-based perspective. All in all the experience was somewhat unbelievable in the sense that Kathleen and I were able to work and present the full production of the play–a goal we had since 2008–as the main production in a festival in New York.

What’s next for JULIACKS?
Currently I am directing, writing, and producing a project, “Architecture of An Atom,” which is a series of performances, films, disjointed comics, one big art book, and a series of objects. It’s about group dynamics, representations of the psyche in the exterior world, and the construction of conflict. Revolving around a fantastical narrative, within the story line there are two story structures–the nucleus of which takes place in France with orbiting stories of other worlds.

To date I have shot footage in Rome, Finland, Sweden, and New York City. This past April, the film I shot in Sweden premiered at the Kulturhuset in Stockholm! And this past June, the film shot in Rome premiered at the Crack Comics Festival. In August, I will be doing a performance, “filmmaking as performance,” at the Alternative Art Fair in Copenhagen, and the film shot in Finland will premiere in September in Helsinki at Kiasma, a Museum of Contemporary Art, as part of the Helsinki Comics Festival. The main story line set in and around Lyon, France should begin shooting this August.

Swell is also going to go on tour. We are planning to present the play in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Minneapolis, Winnipeg, Montreal, and Vermont in October and November. If anyone would like to see the play in your town or help the production in some way, let us know!

Look for Swell in bookstores in New York, Princeton, Berkeley, Chicago, Hoboken, and Lyon, France. To order a copy, or get involved with “Architecture of an Atom,” visit the JULIACKS website.

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