October 18, 2013

Spotlight: Cynthia Merhej


If film stills could talk.

There's something eerie about pausing a film mid-scene. Sometimes it's funny when the person on the screen's eyes are half-closed, but other times it can be a bit odd, watching them mid-speech, mid-movement, mid-murder. You remember what came before and you can picture what's coming next, but they're frozen there, perhaps cut off in the most profound moment of their character's life. Then comes a second complexity: in the drawings of Cynthia Merhej are images--frozen scenes, if you will--with captions written in the image, as though to narrate the scene, as if it's still happening despite the fact that nothing is moving.

Unlike a paused movie, here, it doesn't matter what comes next, because right now, this is what we're supposed to be looking at. That car could fly into space or that drink could be flung into that man's eyeballs--something entirely unexpected could occur but who cares? Right now, this is what's happening. To the people in that world, this is real. You probably won't get the next image and maybe that'll leave the story unresolved, but for whatever reason right now, there's a strange feeling of finality that isn't overbearing, but calming. Such a complex, yet absurdly simple idea, manifested through black and white (and everything in between) sketches drawn with immense detail. We asked Cynthia about self portraits, her favorite place in the world and the madness behind her film obsession.

THE LE SIGH: On your blog, there's a self portrait you did, with a note saying you don't often do them. Why don't you? What do you think goes into a self portrait that makes it a realistic depiction?

Cynthia Merhej: For me, I guess what makes them realistic is when they were made in a moment of genuine self-reflection. I'm already inside my own head a little too much of the time trying to figure things out so I don't feel the need to add anything visual on top of that. It's just not interesting and gets borderline claustrophobic when everything is too inward looking. I like to keep the balance and observe what's going on around me, plus I can't help it since there's always awesome crazy things going on every day in this world.


That portrait in particular was done in a very overwhelming point in my life. I had a lot of different events happening at the same time and didn't have much time to be alone and think. My brain was feeling cloudy so I thought if I could draw myself and look at it a while later I could maybe understand what I was going through at the time.

TLS: What materials do you most often use?

CM: Sketchbooks, cheap MUJI ones and Moleskines, ballpoint pens, pencils, inks, paint brushes; and I want to get back into painting again. Usually I use acrylic paints because I love that they dry quickly and feel like plastic.

TLS: You also have been doing illustrations for Rookie – a huge and seemingly ever-growing platform. How have you found this has expanded or constricted your work?

CM: Rookie has been an awesome platform and community I've been really proud to be a part of. They're really awesome and encouraging about what you can draw for them so I never felt restricted. It's helped introduce my work out to a larger audience, and it's been a great experience so far.

TLS: You grew up in Beirut and go to school in England. How have your various environments (or their changing) shaped your work?

CM: I actually just moved to Wellington in New Zealand! It's been pretty crazy and amazing living and visiting different places and I feel so lucky to get that chance. Getting to be in a new environment and seeing how different people live and interact with each other is something that will always challenge and help develop the way I think and perceive, which in turn will affect the ways I approach my work.

TLS: What's your favorite place in the world?

CM: Oh man, this is a really tough one, but I guess anywhere next to the sea or anywhere where you can just hang around and watch people. There's a corniche in Beirut which is heavenly in the afternoons because it's right on the water and you can just sit on a bench and watch all kinds of characters pass you by (and drink coffee and eat roast corn from the street vendors). But I would be just as happy to be on a bench or in a cafe on a warm day; I can stay in these places for hours and hours.

TLS: Can you explain a little more about "The Atlas Hotel" and your involvement with it?

CM: The Atlas Hotel is a personal project I developed when I was at the RCA. It started coming together when I was experimenting with film at school, and was writing about cinema in the Middle East for my dissertation. It kind of came together at my final show as illustrations, a poster series and a film script describing the story of a washed up Middle Eastern actor and his daughter Aziza. It was really fun to do because it combined the different mediums I like to work in: photography, film and illustration, and I got to collaborate with lots of different people on it, which was awesome.

TLS: The fashion drawings you do aren't your average fashion sketches, though it's probably fair to say no two fashion sketches are alike. Yours are quite animated – what do you think your techniques reveal about your subject?

CM: I really enjoy just observing people and focusing on the physical quirks that make us unique. I feel sometimes fashion is an extension of that, and there's a certain way someone will roll their jacket sleeves, or a certain way they'll mix patterns that is just so exciting and insightful and I want to point that out. Sometimes, I'm more interested in the structure of the garments themselves and the silhouettes that they bring out depending on what body is wearing them.

TLS: The colors you use are incredibly vivid and eye-popping. What's your favorite color to experiment with?

CM: Strangely, I think I'm much more experimental with colors in photography or film than I am in illustration. I really enjoy the contrasts that bright colors bring to an image, plus they make me happy!

TLS: Your captioned photos almost read like film stills. Are the lines meant to come from the subjects or a narrator? Why not just write a caption beneath the photo as opposed to including it in the actual image?

CM: I guess it's obvious from my work that I'm a bit obsessed with movies when I draw those kind of images. I'm just imagining it in my head in a really cinematic way. Everything is happening slowly and unfolding, and there's a voice in the background just explaining what's happening, kind of an out of body experience that I don't think can be expressed if you just put the caption under the photo. Similar to the self portrait, it's being on the outside looking in to try and make sense of it all. I guess it's also a technique really inspired by comic books and graphic novels, which I also grew up with and still adore.

Check out more of Cynthia's work here.

Written by Molly Morris