March 16, 2013

Spotlight: Alex Citrin

Artist Alex Citrin gives us incredible insight on her experiences with art
(and tells us some of her favorite places in Baltimore).

When I first saw Alex Citrin's drawings, the images felt oddly relatable even though the pieces and places had nothing to do with me. When I saw the picture above, titled "Prep School", it reminded me of the questions I've faced from peers and family members over the years. In another picture, she drew a girl in a taxi looking out on to New York wondering, "Will I miss this this at all?", which encapsulates anyone's feelings about moving on from city to another. Alex could be considered a renaissance women of art – she's an illustrator but also has created her own comic book, practices photography, and is now dabbling into pattern design.  She began her formal secondary education in art at Skidmore College and studied design and lithography. In her post-grad life, Alex moved to New York to pursue illustration. While in Brooklyn, she worked jobs such as a graphic designer, band photographer, hookah bar bartender, and kindergarten teacher. After growing restless in the city, she has found herself in the Mid-Atlantic where she is studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art in their Illustration Practice program. Alex currently resides in Baltimore, with a black cat named Bear and "a lot of pens".

THE LE SIGH: How did you originally discover your talent for art? 

AC: I can't remember a time when I didn't draw. I'm one of those people who knew what they wanted to do from a very young age, but only in a general sense; my understanding of why I draw and what I need to do with it has shifted over the years. I can say definitively that I used it as a shield for a long time. I was a really shy kid and it was my way of communicating and understanding my surroundings. 

TLS: I noticed that you often draw people - is there any reason you're drawn to that subject specifically?

AC: I'm an observer. I think it actually freaks people out a little. But I'm obsessed with documentation, recording mundane things and situations that appear relatively unremarkable on the surface, and honestly there's nothing more mundane than people. If you think about the limitless subject matter you could tackle with a pen and paper, the figure starts to feel a little short sighted. But not to me. Fantasy has never interested me. Faces, specifically, are the main appeal. I have a strange relationship with my own face, and if you see me and you look at the faces I draw they look pretty much the same, which I guess is a kind of narcissism. I draw every face with big, tired eyes and giant cheeks, pretty much how I feel I look. Whether that's accurate or not is largely irrelevant. It's not a poor self image thing, anyone who knows me could tell you that. It's probably because I grew up in a really WASP-y area of Connecticut where everyone had those tiny blonde faces, like little sparrow faces. I'm an Ashkenazi Jew, it's quite obvious, and I always felt so large and clunky in comparison and that feeling became a subject of fascination for me, especially when I got older and realized that of course everyone feels that way at one point or another. I just want everyone to feel large and clunky together, and that is what my people are typically about. 

TLS: Which project of yours have you enjoyed working on the most so far?

AC: I finished a comic book a few months ago, which was really cathartic for me. I'm not sure if it was enjoyable in a conventional sense, but I do think it was important for me to do, and the gratification is enjoyable. It's always tempting to finish a labor intensive project and permanently put it to bed because it's just too exhausting to revisit. Such was the case with my comic book, which is titled "Miscarriage" and, surprise, is about having a miscarriage. The whole experience of making it was an uphill battle, and now that I've maintained some distance from it I can see clearly where it falls short. I actually want to fix it and do a second printing, which is a nice feeling because I know I can be more objective this time around. Tackling such strange subject matter was also a lesson in itself, too, because it was the first time I was ever faced with actual anger and disdain towards something I'd drawn, and frankly I was much more shocked than I should have been. But I had two well-established, older male illustrators look at it and they gave me some good old-fashioned misogynistic feedback. I probably shouldn't even be talking about this, but one of them went as far to ask me why I would choose to portray myself in such an "unflattering" light. It was pretty amazing. Interestingly enough, though, the comic sold fairly well among younger men. 
TLS: You're not just a talented illustrator, but also a talented photographer. Is there one medium you prefer to work with and why?

AC: It's funny, because I tend to consider the two extremely separate interests, but my approach to photography is similar to illustration in that I'm more interested in boring things that become mysterious out of context. To me, photography and drawing are both means by which to document, so it's hard to compare. I suppose I never take my own photography as seriously as I take illustration, so in that way it can be more fun. I also worked as a show photographer when I lived in New York, which gave me a healthy appreciation for quick, unstudied movements and strange facial expressions, both prevalent elements in my illustration work. So I guess I do enjoy photographing people's faces like I draw them, but with photography I'm more concerned with atmosphere than I am when I draw. You know when you're at a great party, and it's all dark and hazy and maybe you're a little drunk? Like that point in the night when you can see how shiny people's eyes are. Then you see those awful point and shoot flash photos the next day and it's just terrible, because that's not how you remember it at all. It's the worst. When I take photographs I try to work against that and get as close as possible to how something feels as it's happening, at least in a heightened sense. Personally I've always felt that film is the best way to achieve that.

I'm decidedly analogue with both mediums. I'm big on digital clean up, but I never draw on the computer and similarly I only shoot film. My mother is a photographer, and I use her Canon SLR from when she was in college. Incidentally, she was a show photographer when she was younger; she photographed the Grateful Dead and the Kinks, and I've gone nuts trying to find the negatives. We argue about this all the time, though, because after being forced to develop film for years she loves shooting digital, whereas I take my film and drop it off at CVS like a chump. But I enjoy the margin of error when using film. It's the same as drawing in pen without a pencil sketch, which I do frequently. I just have to run with it when I make a mistake, work with it, not around it. 

TLS: I also noticed on your blog that you have been drawing some really cute patterns - what's that for? Is there anything else you're currently working on?

AC: Ah, patterns! I got lucky. Being in graduate school, I have access to all of these great people who would probably never return my emails in real life. The illustrator Julia Rothman did a workshop with my class and spoke about her process making patterns. Now I'm hooked. I typically use geometric patterns in my work, but these deliberate, textile-like patterns are new for me, and it's exciting. I have a residual interest in fashion, which is not uncommon for most artists, but I can't sew and I'm only 5'3" so it really is just about textiles for me. I actually got one of those patterns digitally printed on silk last week, so I think I'm going to make some scarves.
Aside from school, I'm excited about my editorial work right now. I've been drawing for Nylon magazine a lot, which is really fun. A lot of illustrators I respect have worked for them and their art direction is always fantastic, so I was flattered when they started hiring me. I'm also collaborating on a graphic novel with a Brooklyn-based author, which is just starting to gain momentum and will be finished by the end of the summer. I can't talk about it too much, but the story is so bizarre and gorgeous I knew I had to take it on.

My biggest undertaking at the moment, though, is gently shifting my focus from pure illustration to art direction, which was an epiphany for me. The backbone of my work as an illustrator is all hustle; I've worked virtually every design related job you could think of, so my interest in art directing came about somewhat naturally. It also has a lot to do with the fact that I went to liberal arts school for college, mainly because in that environment, combining interests is natural and feeling out an unfamiliar situation is just another form of learning. I loved it. But also, I was not shown how to work as an artist after school. No liberal arts school will effectively teach you that, so I had to learn that on my own through many rounds of trial and error, which meant many different kinds of jobs. Now I'm getting my MFA, which I'm enjoying but is also pretty rough. There's a stigma among artist designers with graduate school. Many people think maybe it's a low-maintenance undertaking because it's not, say, law school, or that it's unnecessary in terms of getting jobs. I won't lie, it's definitely not a requirement in the trajectory of a successful illustrator; illustration is barely respected in the academic community as it is. But at the same time, it's not exactly a summer painting course, either. The people I work with are so incredibly talented, though, and the work is worth it. My program director describes it as being broken down and rebuilt, which I'm just realizing is entirely accurate. It's because of the experimental nature of my program that I even realized my interest in art direction. But the real test is going to be my thesis, in which I attempt to produce a fully realized publication, high production value and all. The good news is that I've been gifted enough talented writer, illustrator, and photographer friends in my life who I can't wait to hire. It's a borderline insane challenge, but I have to do it. I keep waking up in the middle of night thinking about it, writing ideas down for it. It's wild. I can't wait to get started.

TLS: When you're not working on art, where are some of your favorite places to go in Baltimore?

AC: I've been in Baltimore for eight months, but I'm way behind in terms of exploring and socializing, mostly because of my workload but I also go up to New York frequently. I can't stress this enough, though: I love Baltimore. It's the strangest, friendliest, scariest, most honest place and I'm lucky to have fallen in love with it because I know not everyone can. So when I do go out, I like to drink at Club Charles. I know that's a bit cliche, but bars like that don't really exist where I moved from in New York anymore, everything being so hyper stylized and all. So Club Chuck is nice. There is a Charles Manson song on their jukebox that I like and sometimes I'll play it just because it's there, even though it's not exactly party music. Club K is the best place I've gone to see a show so far, and it's down the street from my favorite restaurant, which is Nak Won. I sort of freaked out a little before moving here because I wasn't sure what the non-pizza-burger situation was like, but Nak Won is like the guardian angel of restaurants, not only because they are good but they serve food until two in the morning which means that midnight on a Tuesday I can pick up Korean food and bring it to my studio. When my boyfriend is in town we go to Gunning's Seafood, which is technically 20 minutes outside the city in Hanover. He was born here and went there a lot as a child. It's basically a sports bar family restaurant that you wouldn't ever find unless you were looking for it, but they have great crabs and these insane onion rings that are roughly the size of doughnuts. I'm looking forward to the Waverly farmers market opening again too so I can get more plants and also get coffee from Red Emma's on the way, at least before they move. The first Sunday I was living in Baltimore I went to that market and mentioned in passing to a produce guy that my fridge was broken. He actually sat me down for twenty minutes and drew out a diagram with instructions for how to fix any number of things that could be wrong with it. It worked, too. I fixed my own refrigerator because of this guy. That's basically Baltimore for you.

TLS: What do you usually listen to while you're working?

AC: Ha, usually a lot of noise. Messy, static noise that I can sort of get into the zone with, like Flying Saucer Attack and The Swirlies and older stuff from the Microphones. If it's really late at night and I'm starting to go a little insane I'll listen to Woelv yell at me in French until I calm down again, but if I'm totally energized and happy with my work I'll put on Billie Holliday or the Flamingos. I'm not kidding, I'm really systematic about what I listen to and when and why. When I was doing those patterns I wanted them to feel really kitschy and girlie, like a combination between "Saved By the Bell" and Winnie from "The Wonder Years," so I kept switching between The Ronettes and The Softies. I assistant teach a freshman drawing class and my students make fun of me because I basically live DJ the whole class on YouTube and I get really into it. Once a college radio DJ, always one. But I can't figure out Spotify, I'm not that competent. 

Check out Alex's website for more of her work here

Written by Emily Thompson