Sunday, 1 January 2012

Interview with JKPP artist Erica Smith

Erica by Chris Dodwell
Erica Smith has already made more than 100 portraits for the party and is currently organizing a JKPP meet that will take place next February on UK South Coast. In this interview Erica talks about her artwork, her involvement in comic and zine movement of the 90's, her preferences in art and her idea of portraiture.

Zoraida de Torres: Erica, you seem a Renaissance woman to me: you are a graphic artist who also makes drawings and printworks, you've made comics and wrote about them, you make beautiful photos, you organise all kind of events... How would you describe yourself?

Erica Smith: I am a self-employed graphic designer. I live in a town on the south coast of England. I like people and if I am interested in something I will explore it. It’s nice to be called a ‘Renaissance Woman’... sometimes I feel more like a dilettante. I originally joined Flickr because I used to take photos as a ‘visual blog’, but since joining JKPP I use Flickr for my drawings. I also help organise events locally because I like to make things happen. I used to draw comics, but haven’t done that for a long time. The not-for-profit projects I work on bring me great pleasure. There is always a bit of tension between ‘money work’ and working on projects which I feel are just as valuable but are not-for-profit.

Z: You work as a freelance graphic designer. Can you tell us the difference between the artwork you do for your clients and the artwork you do for your pleasure?

E: I studied Typography and Graphic Communication, and my approach to design is ‘problem-solving’. My clients are usually small businesses or local organisations with a limited budget. I help them use their budgets as effectively as possible to communicate to their target audience. I like it, and it is creative, but also can be restrictive.The artwork I do for pleasure is more challenging... there are no boundaries except my ability as an artist. But the work I do for pleasure definitely feeds back in to my commercial design work. Last year I used my illustrations in commercial projects, and that is thanks to the practice and confidence I have gained thanks to JKPP.

Z: What is for you the difference between graphic art and fine art? What gives an image a particularly "graphic" character?

E: I think all art is part of the same spectrum, but the art I am drawn to is definitely more graphic... black and white line artwork, or work that uses strong flat areas of colour. I am not very interested in tone and modelling, or photography as a fine art. I think I became a graphic designer because I love symbols, and working out the simplest way to express an idea or an image. I am not at all interested in a lot of contemporary fine art... installation art or screen-based art. I would much rather look at a nice Grayson Perry pot which combines interesting ideas with accomplished drawing and craft.
I am also really drawn to African barbers’ signs and Mexican folk art. I love the simplicity and the colour. This appeals to me much more than Indian and Asian art which is more detailed and sophisticated.
GirlFrenzy covers
Z: You've been involved in the feminist zine movement of the 90´s. What was GirlFrenzy and why did you created it? Do you think the world has changed since the time the last issue of this zine was published?
E: In the early 90s, the name ‘GirlFrenzy’ popped into my head, and I thought it was such a great name I should do something with it. I was a bit bored with my job as a junior designer, and I was a bit bored with the lack of magazines which covered things I was interested in, so I thought I’d make my own ‘zine’. GirlFrenzy was always half articles and half comic strips, and was all ‘by women for people’. I produced the first GirlFrenzy in a vacuum, but it hit the right note and was an important part of an explosion of small press publications.
I’d like to think things have moved on since GirlFrenzy was published, but sometimes I wonder! Equality between the sexes seems to be making slow progress if you look at who still retains money and power. Even within the comic art world, it is still predominantly men writing and drawing the graphic novels, and women colouring them. Generally, I think women have more confidence and opportunity than when I was growing up, but the pressures to conform to a media-determined image of beauty are just as strong, if not stronger.

Z: I know you have a great collection of comics. Who are your favourite comic artists from past and present?
E: I do have a big collection of comics from the time I was producing GirlFrenzy, but I rarely read comics now. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Embroideries, and works by Woodrow Phoenix are the exception. I did get jaded with the comics world, because it seems to attract a kind of person who doesn’t want to grow up. I think keeping a childlike joy in the world is important, but it is also important to accept adult responsibilities. Kate Evans is an excellent comic artist who was first published in GirlFrenzy, and I love her more recent work about subjects as diverse as climate change and breastfeeding. My all time favourite comic artist has to be Jaime Hernandez. It was his stories in Love and Rockets that inspired me to produce GirlFrenzy, and I still love looking at his drawings. Similarly, Dan Clowes and Adrian Tomine hit the spot for me. And I love Caroline Sury’s art brut style work for Le Dernier Cri in France.

Z: And if we talk about art in more general terms, which would be your favourite styles and authors?
E: Within the broader art world, I tend to like the art of printmakers and illustrators over painters. I have a print by a British artist called Anita Klein which makes me very happy, and small pieces by local artists such as Katherine Reekie and Hazel Brook. I also have some lovely Cuban film posters. I recently rediscovered the work of David Gentleman, a fantastic British illustrator. I admire the work of painters like Francis Bacon, but I wouldn’t want to live with a Bacon painting, give me a Matisse or a Miro any day!
Portrait of Bill Rogers by Erica Smith
Z: You've been a Flickr member since 2006, first with the nickname "Erica Hastings" and now as "EricaStLeonards". How has been your experience with Flickr community?
E: When I joined Flickr it was just to find a place to put my photos, and turn them into html for MySpace. Now I never use MySpace and hardly ever upload a photo. I have always loved the Flickr community and have friends that I met through Flickr. Some I have met, like the fabulous photographer DJ Bass in Margate, and some I may never meet, like Bill Rogers in Tampa, Florida. It was the drawings in Bill’s Flickr stream that introduced me to JKPP. I love Flickr because it is a fabulous portal into different worlds. I have contacts who are photographers, craftspeople and artists. I love seeing the images pop up onto my home page. These days most of my uploads are drawings and most of my favourites are other people’s drawings. I find Flickr an inspirational visual resource, and the Flickr community has always been very supportive.

Z: You are also a very active member of JKPP group, with more than 100 portraits made. What is portraiting for you?
E: I’ve been a member of JKPP for about 18 months. It was curiosity about Bill’s drawings that drew me into the group. Sometimes I wonder why on earth I am drawing portraits, because it is a very hard thing to do! I think it is because I love people, and I’m very curious about them (my boyfriend would say I am nosey). There is something remarkable about drawing a portrait, because you have to really pay attention to that person. It is a very ‘loving’ thing to do. When I’ve been to the JKPP meetups and met people that I’ve drawn, I nearly always know who they are when they walk in the room, and it is always lovely to meet them. It is an extraordinary group to be involved with. I don’t actually like having my photo taken, or even looking in the mirror that much, so it’s been very interesting to have that ‘exchange’ and be both artist and model.
Portrait of Jane Sherwood by Erica Smith
Z: In a recent JKPP meetup, somebody said you were difficult to draw because there was a happy halo around you, a certain "lack of drama". Do you also think that happy people are more difficult to portrait?

E: I haven’t noticed that happy people are harder to draw, but my drawing style is quite simplistic. I have a very round face. I always think I look like a cartoon, so I think I should be easy to draw! The JKPP meetups are very special, and I can’t help but be happy at the ones I’ve attended. I don’t think I’m always so happy, but maybe the stresses of life so far have turned my hair grey rather than put lines into my face! I do think people get much more interesting to look at as they get older.

Z: You seem to be a very popular and active woman, involved in many cultural, social and political events. You've also attended all the JKPP meetups organised in Europe and are organising the next one, that will take place in the UK. How are the preparations going? Would you like to encourage our fellow JKPP members to make that meet in February?

E: I think it’s important to engage with the community you live in, and I know lots of amazing people. The more you put in to life, the more you get out! When I attended the first JKPP meetup in December 2010 in London, I didn’t know what to expect. It was a bit weird to sit and draw whilst people were drawing you. I felt quite self-conscious, but it was also a lovely event to be part of. I feel very privileged to have attended all the other events too, and that’s why I thought it would be good to host one near me.
I don't expect it to be as busy as a JKPP in a major European capital, but I would LOVE JKPP members to attend, so please spread the word! I know some of the artists from the UK, like Maureen Nathan and Martin Beek are coming, and it looks like a few artists are coming over from mainland Europe which is very exciting. It would be great to get some new members to attend too – it would be lovely to meet you – and to have some ‘new blood’ to draw!
If anyone wants to attend, please look at the thread on the JKPP discussion and contact me. If we have 14 or fewer artists, we can use my studio building, but if there is more interest then I will book a larger space, so it is important I know how many artists to expect.
The plan is to have a drawing day in St Leonards on Saturday 11 February, but we will also go to the De La Warr Pavilion in nearby Bexhill on Sunday 12 February. This is a 1930s modernist building with an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s work. I thought it would be fun to visit and we can either draw in the galleries, or use a special room next door for a private drawing session.

Z: Erica, which are your wishes for 2012?

E: My wishes for 2012 are:
1 - For the JKPP south coast meet up to be a success!
2 - To run the Hastings Half Marathon
3 - To draw more
4 - To continue to combine my artwork into my design practice
5 - For the recession to end and world peace to begin!


  1. I loved reading you, I seemed to be so close. I hope 2012 bring your wish list and much peace to us all.

  2. Very interesting interview Zoraida and Erica! It's nice to get a more detailed insight into the person that we by now all know virtually from her Flickr-photos/-avatar and for some from actually having met at a JKPP-meetup. I myself met Erica in Brussels last year and got to know her as very cheerful and heartwarming person, with an interest and passion for people and the world they live in. I must say that I wouldn't directly have connected her with a "frenzy" of any kind, but how mistaken I was … the interview reveals that she was the driving force behind a rather scary sounding "GirlFrenzy" :-). I loved seeing the comics she made for this, they're fantastic as is her other work! I hope her wishes for 2012 come true! Good luck with the JKPP Hastings meetup!

  3. great conversation between two of my favourite artists. insightful questions and insightful answers, great to read about Erica's process and inspirations. What shines through is her zest for life! See you in Hastings!

  4. Thanks for this great interview ~ Erica's zest for life certainly comes through!

    May your 2012 wishes come true for all of us .... really wish I could be in Hastings for real, but will definitely be there in spirit!!!

  5. Thank you for this interesting and in-depth interview. Erica & I had some time to talk in Brussels, so I knew a little bit about her, but it was great to find out more in-depth. I'm hoping to skype in to the Hastings meetup but we don't have it all figured out yet. Either way, I hope the meetup is a great success and look forward to more JKPP in 2012!

  6. Thank you all for your kind comments! It was an honour to be interviewed by Zoraida for JKPP! Julia, I think we should have a test Skype call at some point... maybe end of January/early February. If we use my studio space, Skype shouldn't be a problem. I am investigating other possible spaces near-by in case the meet-up proves to be very popular!

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  8. I loved reading this interview for now I feel like I know Erica better and she sounds delightful! I, too, hope your February meet up is a smashing success and a great time will be had by all!

  9. Great interview, really interesting to find out more about Erica :-) Thanks Zoraida for some great interviewing! & thanks Erica for the interesting answers :-)
    Really looking forward to the meetup now :-)

  10. Thanks all! It's been a pleasure for me to talk with Erica. I'm looking forward to the south coast meetup too!

  11. Hooray!! I'm so glad you are both coming.

  12. can I ask, what is a portrait party?? :o)