September 4, 2017

Spotlight: Ashley Tenn

Ashley Tenn's comics and illustrations are uplifting and politically important.

You know that girl you always looked up to as a kid? She was maybe your babysitter who put you on to Sleater-Kinney. Or the one who volunteered at your local library and slipped you a copy of Franny and Zooey. The angsty Debbies from The Wild Thornberrys and denim-vested Mollys from Arthur who have this way about them that leads us to believe they know something that we don’t. The girls and women Ashley Tenn creates exude a similar otherworldly quality that is at once desirable and comforting. I was so honored to catch up with my former classmate about what she’s been up to with her art.

The Le Sigh: Your comics are so uplifting, refreshing, and all of the other positive -ing words. It’s not everyday you see the trials and tribulations of having natural hair displayed in this format. It’s certainly not the only topic you tackle but how did you decide to reflect on hair through this medium?

Ashley Tenn: For the women on both sides of my family, hair is closely tied to a sense of identity. I grew up playing with cousins who had all these incredible combinations of curly hair. I wore my hair straight for most of high school, but hardly felt like myself. So when I started, drawing natural hair was a way to reclaim my curl while my hair transitioned back. Something about the physicality of it has always been soothing to me.


TLS: The women in your drawings possess otherworldly--FKA Twigs levels of ethereal--features, yet they feel so real and evoke the same warm feelings a picture of a close friend would. Where do they come from?

AT: I draw a lot more when I'm worked up about something. I live in my dreams for the most part, but things like politics lately really slam me back to reality. Drawing helps me transform my frustrations, especially ones that make me feel small. These women help me balance out, in a way.

untitled. click here to enlarge.

TLS: Let’s keep talking about women. Especially since it seems like a sweet chunk of your artmaking is devoted to the depiction of them. Are there any ladies, fleshy or fictional, you keep in mind while working on new pieces?

AT: Oh, tons! For starters, a lot of my inspiration comes from looking at photos on sites like Okayafrica and Afropunk. That FKA Twigs reference makes my heart so full--she's in my drawing playlist. I have a few different tarot decks, and all the incarnations of Justice and the Empress I've seen have stayed with me and come back in various forms in things I've doodled here and there. I'm also always starry-eyed over my friends' & family's gorgeous selfies. I've been wanting to do a portrait of my little sister for ages but I haven't been able to do her justice yet.


TLS: You also write. Do you ever find yourself wanting to illustrate the things you’re writing about? Or write about the things you’re drawing, painting, etc?

AT: That's actually how I started making comics. While I was finishing up a writing degree I asked to turn in the first 20 pages of a graphic novel as my final thesis. That's a project I need to return to. It was a brain workout for me, figuring out how to work my writing and drawing muscles at the same time. And I'm still working on it! I'm still extremely new to it. But there are so many great graphic novels and webcomics I love and reread as examples and guides.

TLS: I’m a fan of your #crystalbabies hashtag on Instagram. Do you keep them around while you’re in art mode? Or do they, perhaps, assist you with getting into art mode? What sparked the start of your stone and crystal collection?

AT: I keep at least one on me at all times! At work, at parties, when I'm traveling....In terms of keeping them around my art, they do a little bit of both. Most magic, crystal magic included, requires setting intentions, so I choose which ones to sit with depending on what kind of energy I hope to channel for a project, and hold them for support in those moments when I'm thinking or looking at what I've made.

untitled. click here to enlarge.

TLS: What spaces are sacred to your artmaking and sharing? Does where you make your art--or where you show it---affect your process?

AT: Somehow my supplies end up spreading out all over the place. My mom used to lay down tarp on the kitchen floor or the dining table so I'd have room to make a mess and I've never grown out of that; that's mostly how I work now, except on the floor of my bedroom. As for sharing I'm still not very good at that. I think it's the only part of my life where I get shy. I love DIY art shows where I can put my finished work up and walk away from it. I really only post snapshots of things I make while I'm making them, like once I've come out of my trance and love how something's coming out.

TLS: You have a drawing style that’s charmingly identifiable. Are there any artists you looked to while developing your unique brand of drawing?

AT: I'm blushing so hard right now! Thank you! I look at a lot of art every day and all of it influences me. Kehinde Wiley's portraiture makes me so emotional; two of my best friends got me a book of his work. Some artists I love with all my heart are Sarah Soh, Lolle (lOll3 on tumblr), Wishcandy, and Manjit Thapp. Terby Wonder's mixed media work is a hardcore goal for me. MOON is absolutely one of my favorite artists of all time, too. Mariko and Jillian Tamaki have two gorgeous graphic novels that I always keep beside my bed, and Ariel Ries's incredible webcomic 'Witchy' got me through a surgery recovery last year.

TLS: Any projects in the works that we can get excited about?? Gluttonous admirer here.

AT: Right now I'm finishing up some doodles for the AMAZING Taylor Steele's new chapbook through Pizza Pi Press. They asked me to do it while I was in a rut and I seriously owe them one; Taylor's poems are making me a more confident artist. I'm also trying to water this little seedling of a comic idea about a crystal collector who traces her magical ancestry back to its original power source. Like I said, I'm still trying to flex my muscles, so we'll see how it goes!

untitled for taylor steele at pizza pi press

Follow Ashley’s twitter musings here and you can find more of her art here.

Neyat Yohannes, who is a writer, mostly of tardy slips for Oakland school kids. She inconsistently tweets as @rhymeswithcat.