i first met jessica butler at the recent printed matter exhibit, learn to read art: a surviving history of printed matter at 80wse gallery. founded in 1976 by artists sol lewitt and lucy lippard, printed matter is a nonprofit bookstore dedicated to publications made by artists. this exhibit, which chronicled the visual history of the store, overwhelmed me with inspiration through its eclectic mix of art books, zines, graphic posters and exhibition invites. there, i bought several publications which have become bibles for me (including please come to the show, which is about exhibition-related ephemera from the moma). jessica was there working the exhibit. as she rang me up, we quickly got to chatting about her background and experience working for printed matter, our mutually favorite store. over thai food a few weeks later, i learned that jess is an exceptionally rad chick who draws as well as makes zines and comics. she's intimidatingly cool, well-spoken, laid back and confident. i'm excited to keep our inspiring convos going.
more about jessica below:
cultureisland: tell us more about you.
jessica butler: i grew up in a small lake community in northern new jersey where i had one best friend, watched a lot of movies, read, made art and did angsty teen things like blowing out my best friend’s car speakers listening to the pixies on our way to the thrift store. it’s sort of funny to look back on things like that; some of it almost feels like a caricature of the suburban angsty kid, but for me it was so genuine and real and i hadn’t been exposed to too much outside of the world i created, so i couldn’t get jaded or hyper-self-aware yet. i sort of appreciate it, though; i feel like being secluded in suburbia forced me to cultivate my own interests and really seek them out. i like that i had the internet before there were too many websites that curated amazing selections of music, movies and art. it feels maybe a little too easy now? i definitely appreciate having so many incredible resources and guides today that you can find tailored to your tastes, but there’s something to be said about spending a full day clicking through the wfmu free music archives blindly, listening to 100s of song samples and finally finding one band that you’re really psyched on.
in college i studied film history and art, with a focus on drawing and illustration. i actually went into college thinking i was going to study experimental filmmaking and mixed-media/sculpture and my path completely changed. i never ended up taking any filmmaking classes (with the exception of one animation class), though i’d really like to try it one of these days. as for art, i had signed up for a sculpture class, then in the last moments of registration realized it conflicted with a film history class i really wanted to take, so i ended up signing up for the advanced printmaking class. that was a huge game changer for me. i had never done silk screening before, and i loved the aesthetic of it, as well as the idea of creating multiples so you could give them out to your friends. not long into the class, i realized scanned mixed-media work didn’t quite translate into silk screen prints the way i wanted them to, so i started drawing again. i hadn’t really drawn since high school, and those were all more realistic graphite drawings because that’s all the teachers ever really told us we could draw. one day i got fed up with drawing realistically. while I have so much respect for that form of drawing, i wasn’t finding it fulfilling for my own practice. i have this really specific memory of crumpling up a drawing i had just finished of a well-rendered hand, quickly scribbling this goofy, completely warped looking excuse for a hand and feeling the best i had felt about a work i’d made in a very long time.
cultureisland: tell us more about your art.
jessica butler: my work deals primarily with language in relation to the nuances of existing in that crazy thing called life. in many ways my art is super personal, and can almost function as a diary for me. that said, i also hope that it can resonate with the viewer too; that they can make it personal for themselves, relate to it or find something in it that maybe wasn’t even originally intended. i often hear that we’re at a point where there can be no entirely “new” art. while in many ways i believe this to be true, i also believe that what we can do as contemporary artists is use the medium to express our personal perspectives of things. one of the coolest things about being a human is that no one is entirely identical to you. we all have our own experiences, ways of handling these experiences; our own observations and ways of interpreting these observations. even if we are aesthetically borrowing from a certain art movement, if we can convey these things that are unique to us, i think that is still new and exciting. if someone looks at my work and sees something in a way that they hadn’t considered before, then i’ll know i’ve done something right. i think the title of that john berger book ways of seeing is always in the back of my head. to be honest, i’ve started that book so many times and still somehow haven’t finished it, but the title is always what has stuck with me the most. all of that heavier stuff aside, though, even if one of my pieces just makes someone laugh, i’m psyched!
cultureisland: what is your creative process?
jessica butler: most pieces begin with a phrase, a one-liner, a series of words or multiple sentences. from there i come up with the imagery i’d like to associate with these words and what they mean for me – how i can visually convey this thought or feeling. while the text is central to all of my pieces, i don’t always choose to include it in the actual piece. more often than not i keep the text, but sometimes once i come up with the image the text can feel like overkill or can come off as contrived or corny. sometimes i’ll also come up with an idea or observation and can’t come up with words that feel right for it. in those cases, forcing a text would just take away from the piece. a good amount of time is spent perfecting the text, deciding how it should be integrated into the piece, and choosing if it should be included at all. i don’t keep a sketchbook, really, which i feel like maybe sometimes disappoints people or comes as a surprise. i just keep a little notebook full of words – these observations and phrases that come into my head, even if they don’t seem very interesting or good at first. sometimes different texts can take a long time to finally be put into what i feel is “proper use.” i had this one sentence, for example: “is it wrong that i don’t have a favorite flower?” that sort of haunted me for a while for whatever reason. i used it on its own in a few pieces, until finally it came together with this other text i wrote many months later, which eventually turned into my first mini-comic love me not.
cultureisland: how did you get into making zines and comics?
jessica butler: i first started getting into making zines after i stumbled upon the printed matter store back in high school. i remember feeling completely overwhelmed in the best way, paging through a few hours worth of zines and artists’ books and feeling like this entire new world had just been opened up for me. it was a huge game changer. since then, i’ve interned with them, volunteered at the nyabf and more recently worked at their pop-up shop and exhibition on the history of printed matter called learn to read art: a surviving history of printed matter at 80wse gallery. that was a really wonderful experience; that’s actually where i printed love me not! there was a print shop residency as part of the exhibition and i was able to use the risograph machine that endless editions loaned to print it up. i think riso printing is my favorite method of printing right now, and it seems to be having a bit of resurgence, too. anyway, my heart is really in the zine/artist book (or as my friends and i like to call them: “small flat books”). i think they’re a great way to get your work out there and reach an audience outside of your immediate realm. you can literally put anything you’d like in them, so they allow for a lot of experimentation, different content and mediums. plus, i’m pretty awful at parting from my work, so working in multiples is a great way for me to share it with others. while love me not was my first time making an actual comic, my work is largely influenced by comics both in the use of text and aesthetics. i think it’s a really exciting medium that is able to utilize text when image fails, and image when text fails. together, they’re super powerful, because i really believe there are certain things we just don’t have words for. that’s not to say i don’t love comics without any text, too! those i often find more challenging in a way, but just as powerful. they just sometimes take a bit more time to sink in for me. i don’t know why it took me so long to finally make a comic; it’s something i’d been wanting to do for a while as someone who also loves reading them. it seemed like a natural progression. it can be intimidating though; there is so much that needs to be considered, from the words and content, to the images and panels and how you want to format the panels. then there’s timing and pacing and strange positions and angles that don’t exist in stock photos. i still have a lot to learn, but i’m planning on making many more, especially since my studio space right now is a drawing table in my bedroom.
cultureisland: tell us more about your recent zine love me not (above).
jessica butler: love me not is my first ever venture into making comics – something i’d been wanting to do for a while. most of the text in the comic originally came from this experience i had where my mom had fallen in the garden and scraped up her leg pretty bad. my dad found out and bought her a bouquet of flowers on his way home from work. later, after he had given them to her, my mom turned to me and said, “your father chose such strange flowers! i don’t know what he was thinking. he knows i love roses!” that really got me thinking about the gestures of things versus the actual physical things. as i worked on storyboarding the comic, though, it began to develop a second layer of meaning for me. i became really interested in the “s/he loves me, s/he loves me not” game of plucking petals, as well as the gender stereotypes and connotations surrounding flowers and flower giving. i wanted to reclaim these and make them empowering for the female protagonist in the comic.
cultureisland: where do you find inspiration? who are some of your favorite artists?
jessica butler: i find that i’m mostly inspired by my friends and those surrounding me who are creating work – not necessarily drawing or illustration, either. two of my very close friends, livia charman and kayla ephros, keep a poetry blog called “mega bed” that is endlessly inspiring. i have found that i draw off of the excitement and enthusiasm of making things, regardless of the form. i find a lot of inspiration in comics and zines. some of my favorite comic artists at the moment are c.f., carlos gonzales (he recently came out with a new comic, scab county, that i highly recommend!), lale westvind, aisha franz, lala albert, anya davidson, noel friebert, html flowers, patrick kyle, molly colleen o’connell, brie moreno, mickey zacchilli, rory hayes, maren karlson, jonny negron and aidan koch. i was also recently introduced to moebius, which has sent me down this rabbit hole of philippe druillet and ‘70s sci-fi book cover art. additionally, i’m a huge horror movie fan (particularly ‘60s – ‘80s), so i definitely think that finds its way into my work. i collect a lot of horror/gross-out paraphernalia like garbage pail kids and toxic high school trading cards, which actually have amazing illustrations and have definitely influenced my drawing style.
cultureisland: what are your favorite places to see art in nyc/brooklyn?
jessica butler: my favorite places to see art in new york are probably printed matter inc. and the comic book store desert island. they both carry work by a ton of contemporary artists and illustrators who don’t typically get “new york gallery” exposure. booklyn, greenpoint terminal gallery, and tomato house also all put up some great exhibitions. i also recently went to the nick payne show at 247365 gallery, which was perfect. for films and video work i like light industry, spectacle theatre, and nitehawk in brooklyn.
cultureisland: what are you listening to right now?
jessica butler: what i listen to is usually dependent on my mood, the weather or season, so it’s constantly changing. right now though, i’ve been listening to a lot of odwalla88 and j.r.h.n.b.r.(both baltimore based), algebra suicide, donnie & joe emerson, suburban lawns, cranes, chicklette, liz phair (the girly sound days), ashrae fax, and the excess verbiage album by partly cloudy. i also try and see container play live whenever i can.
cultureisland: have you watched anything inspiring lately?
jessica butler: i tend to watch a lot of horror movies, but i’ve had to take a bit of a break – i think i was overdoing it a little, and have been wanting something else out of my movies lately. i’ve watched quite a few incredible films recently, including picnic at hanging rock, belle de jour, red desert, walkabout, a nos amour, fantastic planet and three colors: red. i did break my non-horror hiatus for fascination by jean rollin, which was really visually beautiful. also finally got around to seeing paris, texas and shed a tear or two, which i think is always a good sign