An Interview with Elizabeth Haidle
What Is It?, 2021
See more of Elizabeth Haidle’s artwork in Vol. 40.1 here.
Elizabeth Haidle lives in Portland, Oregon, and specializes in nonfiction comics. She is the art and editorial director at Illustoria magazine. Her illustrations have appeared in graphic novels, picture books, and magazines such as The Nib and The New Yorker. Of her own work, Haidle says:
"As a devotee of surrealism and practitioner of sketchbook-therapy, I like to peel back the layers of the mundane to hunt for glints of the marvelous. Art is a way of paying attention, of wondering, pondering, and sometimes solving my own problems. Often, these things happen in collaboration with other artists, which is a true joy in this life.
I’m drawn to nonfiction comics as a way to make information memorable and compelling, and as a way to highlight overlooked figures, movements, or ideas from history.
I chose the path of illustration because I wish to convey, delight, and intrigue."
In our interview, Elizabeth comments on her influences, creative career, and how her practical working life comes to support the creation of her visually diverse body of work.
Haley Laningham: One thing I observed is that the figures in your pieces are diversely in and out of sensible focus. Some are clearly human, even to an endearingly mundane degree (like in People Watching); some, one has to wonder if they are meant to be semi-human beings (like in The Empress and Strength); and some are more like spare human forms living alongside a certain shape or pattern (as in Inward and Connect). And then we have detached eyes (What Is It?), a house with arms (Home Again)… Many artists who I’ve seen produce really visually diverse work, but you seem to do so while never staying in one aesthetic universe on top of that. How did you arrive to this breadth of artistic register? Also, do you just experiment or are your changes in register responding to something internal to you?
Elizabeth Haidle: I am comfortable with paradoxes—I enjoy mixing nonfiction with surrealism, whimsy with seriousness, and a dose of the mystical alongside the practical. This probably fuels the resulting diversity in my body of imagery.
Although, I try to not look back too much or explain things to myself; better to keep my nose down and keep the momentum going. Looking back, I can easily feel critical or start to question this irregular-looking path I’ve constructed. Maybe that makes me a good surrealist? I do connect with their desire to let the subconscious have a go at the steering wheel. Which I take to mean: spend a lot of effort trying to stop yourself from overthinking.
Most of my ideas come from my daily personal practice. I write and draw every day. The length of time doesn’t matter—sometimes I make an image by putting in 5 minutes a day, over a week or two. Sometimes I might doodle a quick thing in pencil and just describe what I imagine I’ll create with more time, later. Other mornings, I’m on a roll and I’ll indulge in several hours—then push "work" later into the day or evening. It’s the momentum that matters. And the volume! For every idea that finds a place in the world, there’s easily 20 or more in my trash, or in a forgotten sketchbook somewhere.
HL: I see your more figural pieces, Inward and Connect, are both from 2019. Inward gives me the impression of isolation (due to the seated, possibly overwhelmed-looking human form inside this larger head), and a simultaneously fraught, spooky, and yet somehow positive or entertaining kind of internal resourcefulness (due to the staircases of many colors, doorways, animals, the night sky). Connect is a more sparely painted couple in an embrace which could contain, but seems more than, a romance past or present. These pieces feel very different but perhaps from the same headspace. I’m wondering what you felt making them. It’s interesting to me that you step into a figural period during that year based on the work I’ve seen.
EH: What draws me back to art-making is the practice of remaining curious, asking questions. I create visual puzzles that are the pondering of Why, What, How…on the sketchbook page. This becomes a process of responding to whatever’s happening internally and also externally—the world at large. So of course the pandemic now is nudging my themes and subject matter in various ways. Certain questions rise to the forefront: How can we self-reflect through art, in a productive way? How can we share these experiences across physical distance? What actions lead to a feeling of inner expansion, despite our external limits contracting?
HL: It’s totally apparent you’re impacted by Surrealism as you mentioned in pre-interview conversation, but wow. It really is amazing to see your work against your two larger influences within that movement, Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington. When and where did you find out about these artists and what is it about their works that speak to you?
EH: I had been collecting some books on the Surrealist movement, out of personal interest. I remember learning about it in art history class and responding with a sense of attraction and also relief. I thought, "Here is the handbook about how we grapple with reality; this is what makes undergoing 'reality' possible." It’s admitting that reality is ultimately what we piece together in our minds, and then using our imagination to spice that up, to dip into other realms and narratives beyond the surface layer.
But! Any mention of women was largely missing, unless it was a remark about an affair that had taken place with a famous male artist. So I felt drawn to this literary and visual movement on one level, while on another level, found it hard to relate to some of the figures and personalities behind it.
Leonora, I first discovered via an Instagram post (from friend and collaborator Deb Olin Unferth). There was a photo of an intriguing painting on the cover of a little collection of short stories. I began to read all of Leonora’s work and find books of her paintings, and then her close friendship with Remedios Varo was mentioned. I realized I had seen and long-admired a painting by Remedios at the MOMA, called "The Magician." It was a joy to discover more about both of them, and the way they merged art and friendship and life.
I am still researching the lives and art of Leonora and Remedios. I have a dream to make a graphic novel about them someday, but first I have to get much better at writing dialogue!
HL: You mentioned in our pre-interview conversation that you started with art by winning a book contest at the young age of thirteen—with this beginning, alongside the way you talk about your process and your strong publishing presence, I’m gathering that actual bookmaking has had a longer-standing and more consistent role in how you work than the average artist. Does this sound true? Do you work on a lot of individual pieces or are they more often part of a larger idea, and how does this influence and constrain what you choose to paint or draw?
EH: Actually I began when everyone else began to create art: as a toddler, holding a pencil. Probably the best thing my parents did—two simple things that don’t seem to occur to many people—was to give me my own desk just for art and to let me use professional (or at least good) art supplies from a very young age. My father was a printmaker in the 1980s, so he had all of his stuff lying around and was very generous about it. Other than that, I did not have after-school art classes or trips to museums or things that people assume are key to inspiration. In the 1980s, art was seen as an optional thing in the sidelines of life, so you got to make “creative stuff” at school if you happened to get a teacher who was personally into it. That was about once every three years. I would say that, instead, boredom was the key to inspiration. My family didn’t have any money to spare, didn’t go many places, and therefore my brothers and I had loads of unstructured time, our own desks, and a backyard with plants and dirt. We didn’t have vacations, other than driving to a river or a beach once in a while, so I figured that exploring ideas in the far reaches of one’s imagination was perhaps the best way to travel. Someone said, "Necessity is the mother of Invention," and I don’t know who that was, but they were certainly wise.
These days, I certainly travel whenever I can, and have learned a great deal from teachers, classes and other cultures. But on weekends and evenings, I try to find my main entertainment on the sketchbook page. Also I am lucky to have found the kind of friends who are game to continually get together to write, collaborate, and draw stuff collectively. I never get tired of that.
I’m probably using your question to go on a general tangent about "art and life," so I’ll speak a moment about the idea of books influencing art. There’s a lot of sentimentalizing picture books as this kind of ideal or ultimate project, but in reality: the pace is grueling; it’s a sluggish, lonely path and an artistic marathon that requires lots of training. Books taught me early on about the importance of meeting deadlines, and about how to segment a long-term project into daily or weekly benchmarks so I have a comprehension about whether I’m keeping a decent pace. I became comfortable researching subject matter and putting in time with early drafts and studies. Having a determination to create many iterations of things is not always a natural human instinct, but it can be learned.
HL: What are you working on right now, if anything, and how does it feel distinct or new to you?
EH: Here’s a list of things!
1. A series of online classes about developing and deepening personal art practices and experimenting with comics and wearable art—upcycling sweaters and hats with needle-felted art (illustrating with fiber feels like something exactly halfway between drawing and sculpting).
2. Creating an Oracle Deck—along the theme of transitions, to aid with changes in life, from minor to major. Guardians, companions, refuges, and modes of transport will be depicted on large format cards; these are images meant to harness the imagination in service of feeling buoyant during heavy times. (This will not be related in any way to the Tarot for All Ages deck I just made, other than the same format: booklet and deck of cards, box set.)
3. Recently out: Party of One, a collection of figure drawing/painting studies from the past five years, along with a brief narrative about why we do difficult things, what we are telling ourselves in the process. Published by Fantagraphics, as part of their Fantagraphics Underground imprint. (Purchase it here!)
4. Out next year, Spring 2023: Christo & Jeanne-Claude, Making the Ordinary Extraordinary. A picture book written by G. Neri, published by Candlewick. (Currently I’ve finished the interior illustrations and am working on the cover and endpapers this month to wrap it up--unintended pun.)
5. Art & Editorial director for Illustoria, a triannual, all-ages magazine, published by McSweeney’s. Themes from recent years have included Creatures, Maps, Myth, Music, and Senses; upcoming themes include Rainforest, Cats & Dogs, Mystery. We are planning a Humor issue and an All Comics one, next year. (See also @illustoria_mag on Instagram.)
6. Guest Art Director, Orion Magazine, Summer issue. Currently underway, I’ve commissioned 40 artists to illustrate 40 essays by writers for their art-focused issue about the Anthropocene. It’s a very exciting project, and I’m honored to be working with such talented writers and artists.
HALEY LANINGHAM is a PhD student in Poetry at Florida State University and holds an MFA from the University of Oregon. She acts as the Art Editor for Southeast Review.