The act of creation takes on a multiplicity of forms. In our ongoing artist interview series, we illuminate the distinctive artistic practices, influences, and creative challenges of our Pew Fellows, who represent a diversity of perspectives and creative disciplines.
In this installment, visual artist Mark Thomas Gibson and multidisciplinary artist Alex Smith discuss why they’re both drawn to comic art, their open-ended creative processes, and the ethical, political, and historical questions they consider in their work.
Gibson’s paintings, collages, prints, caricatures, graphic novels, and other works chronicle race, class, and contemporary American culture with a historian’s eye on the past. Smith is a speculative fiction writer, collage artist, and musician who draws from influences like science fiction, Dadaism, and comic art.
When you start a new piece or project, where do you begin?
Gibson There’s no one way to begin a new piece. I wish there were. I would return to that place in a heartbeat, because the other option I have is the constant search. I know my subject, so the search isn’t completely aimless, with no guideposts along the way. There are several tools in my toolbox, information that I run through. It all slowly coagulates inside of me to begin to form the direction in which I must go. The key is to be open to all possibilities, even the possibility that you may be wrong. So as I read, research, and draw, I’m constantly trying to find the key points where things connect for me. There is a constellation, and my job is to connect the lines between those stars that seem like they’re millions of years away, so that we can see the connections and get the full picture.
Smith Wow, this is going to sound somewhat noncommittal, but it does truly vary. My nexus points for my work usually revolve around characters and the story I want to tell—whether that’s music, collage art, or writing. Essentially, I think of a concept or a phenomenon that I want to explore, from institutional racism to contemplating cosmic ephemera to examining the detritus of everyday life. I think about how these kinds of things impact me and my friends and try to figure out how we’d navigate them. “What if?” scenarios, expanded and stretched. I pull from history, from the practical magic of what it means to be queer and Black from all points on the diasporic so-called timeline.
Sometimes, though, I’ll be watching some bad show on Netflix or Syfy or Hulu or something, and I’ll be like, “Wow, I can do a hundred times better than that!” and I’ll be inspired to create—a space opera with a queer, disabled, POC crew; an Afrofuturist cyberpunk retelling of atypical gay romance comedies; a teen drama with a fat Black or Brown queer protagonist (that doesn’t focus on the character being fat to an eye-rolling degree)—all the things we are taught aren’t heroic enough for mainstream eyes (we know what that’s a euphemism for!) and that me and mine embody. I think of the Toni Morrison quote often, and extend it to all facets of my work, even my music: “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”
Your work draws influence, in part, from comic art. Tell us why that form is important to you and what elements it brings to your work.
Gibson In America, for most people, comic art typically means something produced by the two major comic houses, DC or Marvel. These stories typically relate to people with superpowers taking on major world events in a fantasy setting. The true tradition of comics, I would say, goes all the way back to the caves, the power of a caricature to expertly convey deeper emotions, power dynamics that speak to the known and unknown. The history of comics goes way beyond the mainstream understanding of the medium.
In Europe, as well as Asia, Africa, and South America, the history of comics or caricatures that I prefer to think of my work in relation to can speak to the masses. It's a Trojan horse and a fantastic way to couch opinions on subjects that would be considered hands-off inside something beautiful.
Smith Comics were some of the first places where I saw my imagination being pushed, prodded, and exploded. The first time I opened a comic book as a nine-year-old in the 1980s, I was terrified, shocked, and absolutely ruined. I was also empowered. It’s a medium where anything could happen, although to hear the zealots who wish to see the medium remain confined to telling stories about cishet white men and through that gaze only, you’d never know it. But it really is a limitless medium with an unfathomable budget—unicorns, kaiju, and mystic firmament exist on the same space, in the same atmosphere as a boy with a broken heart, sitting in a coffee shop, scrolling endlessly through Grindr. The real and the surreal, blurred together; honestly, it feels like real life. There’s a particular uncanny spirituality inherent in the genre. It requires a pen, a piece of paper, and your imagination, and because of that, despite the weird right-wing, old-guard persistence, no other art form is better for telling the story of the marginalized.
Sci-fi elements run through everything I do. My punk band, Solarized, gets our name and album title (A Ghost Across Hell From Me), from a Samuel Delany novel called Nova. The stories in my upcoming collection (that I initially self-published), Arkdust, are all sci-fi. And it is through comic books (and 1980s toy-based cartoons) that I discovered science fiction. I never read many novels as a kid, but I definitely watched M.A.S.K. and SilverHawks, and I definitely read Doom Patrol and Milestone Comics and the Authority when I was older.
POC, especially Black people, already live dystopian lives, surreal lives some would call Kafkaesque, and we’ve lived them for centuries. That we have only started to be viewed by the society at large in recent times is more indicative of an attempted erasure than some kind of origin story worth celebrating. We will exist in the future, and mediums like comics have the ability to portray that in amazing ways.
What single ethical consideration most impacts the decisions you make as an artist?
Smith The freedom and liberation of queer Black people is the sole reason I create art. Other ideas spring from that: trauma, joy, futurity, and just looking, sounding, and being dope as hell. But I feel like I don’t have a lot of time to waste words and images on anything that is too far short of liberation.
Gibson In an attempt to keep my side of the street clean, I always ask myself these three questions: Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said by me? Does it need to be said right now? In work dealing with history, race, and politics all tied up in it, you really have to stop and think about the ramifications beyond what maybe feels good in the moment. I don’t think of this as self-censorship. I think about it with empathy. I think about it with understanding that the world is complex and the people within it are as well.
We invited the artists to pose questions to one another. They responded with the following exchange.
Gibson: How have the last three years affected your art practice? Do you feel that this effect is temporary or lasting?
Smith The pandemic was supposed to open up so much time for people to work on projects and finish that novel, etc., but for me, it's just added stress and weird pressure to complete some kind of grand post-pandemic opus. That plus the “unrest” (I use quotes because it's hard, as a queer Black person, to notice shifts in political climate considering general life has always been a moment-to-moment survival exercise, a battle against constant forces in Black queer lives—ain't shit changed), I've been reclusive and bugged out. Soon, though. Soon they shall feel my full power.
Smith: I’m finding it difficult to appreciate art or entertainment even that doesn’t, in some way, contribute to the global liberation conversation, either on race or culture. How much does the current state of the world inform your practice or your ability to appreciate and understand other art forms?
Gibson I think we all make the work of our time. There will be artists that make from a position that chronicles the events of the world while others will contend with the aftereffects of popular culture. I’m a chronicler, so everything about this moment in history is of interest to me. I don’t think you can instill that in someone. It’s either there or it isn’t. Real positive change is going to come from an x-factor person or group of people who will unwittingly create the rupture forward for the rest of us. So stay open to the possibility that you may be absolutely wrong and know nothing as you declare truth to the best of your ability.
Where to See the Artists' Work
HERE YE, HEAR YE!!!, an exhibition of new work by Mark Thomas Gibson, is on view at Princeton University's Hurley Gallery October 27 through November 23. The exhibition features collages, paintings, and posters Gibson created during his 2021–22 Hodder Fellowship at Princeton.