Steven Appleby describes himself as a creative person. He is a cartoonist, illustrator, writer and painter. Splitting time between his chaotic real world in London and his imaginary worlds, Steven found time to visit Oslo in February to talk to the members of Grafill
Interview by Karen Brown
You are known primarily as a cartoonist. Why did you choose to use this medium to express yourself?
It was kind of accidental – like everything else in my career. It was a good medium for me because I wanted to write and draw and as a cartoonist I can do that. I can create my own little world that is one of the things that I like to do. I can have complete control. My experience has been that most of the time magazines or newspapers let me provide a finished piece of work. Itâ€™s quite rare for them to interfere, so Iâ€™ve got this little zone that is completely mine.
What process do you use and how long did it take you to find your â€˜voiceâ€™?
It took me quite a few years to find my voice. I struggled at art college (Newcastle Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art) with finding a style. I experimented with blotchy drawings and painterly drawings, with collage, then in the end I discovered that my natural drawing handwriting, my signature as it were, is the style that I have finally ended up using. It probably took about eight years. I then realized, looking back at school drawings, that they were surprisingly similar. I was also influenced by Robert Crumb and underground cartoonists. So I copied people for a bit then moved on.
I also had to find an ideas style which I guess must be partly natural, too. Originally I didnâ€™t intend to be funny. I wanted to be shocking or disturbing or a bit frightening, but even when I was doing drawings that I thought might be in those territories, people used to laugh at them. I ended up doing humour without gags.
My process is thinking first, then drawing. I write little scripts for a cartoon. Itâ€™s been like that for a long, long time. My notebooks are full of conversations or notes or ideas rather than drawings. So thatâ€™s my process, to have ideas first and then to draw afterwards.
Where does your inspiration come from?
Major influences were people like Philip K Dick, the science fiction writer, whose books are full of wonderful ideas about reality and inner worlds. In a lot of his books things are not what they appear to be. Somebody who appears to be insane turns out to be the only sane one or someone who appears to be human is in fact a robotic bomb. The bomb itself even thinks that it is human, it doesnâ€™t realise that it is a bomb. I loved all of that. He was a big influence in terms of ideas. Another influence was Edward Gorey, the American illustrator and writer, who produced loads of little books that are quite disturbing, strange and surreal.
Some people influence me just by reminding me that I should get on with being myself and follow my intuition… Believe in my own vision and then pursue it. People like Gilbert and George, because I love the fact that they have lived their lives as these living sculptures and I love the work that they produce. It tackles sex and death and big issues in a beautiful and brave way.
How much of your work is autobiographical?
A huge amount of it is, however weird and surreal it sometimes seems to be. Particularly some of my early work. Childhood was a huge influence, all the things one touches on as a child and a teenager. My inspiration comes a lot from the world around me.
Sometimes you can see immediately that a drawing is about families or things that I might have experienced or witnessed. Even the early weird work like Captain Star or Small Birds Singing is kind of autobiographical. SBS is sort of based on the house in Northumberland where I grew up. Captain Jim Star has been waiting for orders from mission control for 11 years and thatâ€™s how long my Mum waited trying to get pregnant before I was born. I donâ€™t know if I consciously used that. I probably just thought it sounded like a good number! And the CS characters have other connections to me. I went to boarding school and in a weird sort of way CS and his crew on their ship relate to each other like boarding school guys, quite formally and they tease each other.
Can you tell me about some of the recurring themes in your work?
Going back to Philip K Dick and the world not being what it appears to be, that really resonated with me and has become one of my themes. For example, Iâ€™ll do drawings of nudists wearing clothes which relates to that. Another theme is pointlessness. It seems to me that ultimately everything is pointless and meaningless, so I play around with that. But I always have contradictory opinions at the same time – although everything seems to be pointless and meaningless Iâ€™m always seeking meaning in the world, not necessarily religious meaning, but some sort of purpose or connection. Phew.
Do you have any philosophy or religion or set of ideas that guides you in your life?
My initial answer to that is, no I donâ€™t. But then immediately in my contradictory way I start to think of the Aleister Crowley quote: â€˜Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Lawâ€™. I believe in doing what you want â€“ or doing what you feel you have to do – so long as it doesnâ€™t hurt other people or upset…maybe it can upset (laughs), but it mustnâ€™t harm them. I think thatâ€™s quite a good approach…do what you have to do.
I donâ€™t believe in God, no, though I would like there to be some sort of guiding force that runs through the atoms of the universe. Iâ€™d like there to be something. Iâ€™d rather it wasnâ€™t God because I havenâ€™t got very much faith in Him to be trusted to do the right thing….. The only guiding principle that I can see is to learn throughout your life, keep moving forward and leave something behind you.
You said earlier that you like to create worlds. Do you see them as parallel worlds?
I really like that idea of parallel worlds. Iâ€™m not an expert in quantum physics or science in general but I believe there are various scientific theories that include parallel universes. I donâ€™t have a sense of whether they might be true or not. I donâ€™t see my creative little worlds as parallel worlds. Though the CS world, for example, is a very real world to me. It exists as a complete world of which Iâ€™ve only seen and drawn tiny little fragments. I could choose to write more books on things from that.
Do you spend time in the worlds that you create?
Not huge amounts of time. To be honest, nowadays the real world has become so chaotic and complicated for me that I find it much harder to spend time in my own little worlds than I used to. Thatâ€™s probably been bad for my creative work. The real world is so kind-of grabbing and vivid that itâ€™s very difficult to vanish off into my imaginary worlds.
Is this something that you miss?
I do miss it. I think it will be necessary in the next phase of my work to find the time to go back into my imaginary worlds.
You have written and illustrated a number of books for Bloomsbury, a relationship that goes back to 1993. How do you come up with the book ideas?
I come up with a number of possible ideas for books which are usually just titles. Sometimes they might say, thatâ€™s a bit too cultish, I donâ€™t think itâ€™ll sell except to your fans. Sometimes they say that an idea is too wacky from their practical, publishing point of view so theyâ€™ll say â€˜noâ€™ and suggest that I do something a bit more how they imagine I should work. Some books have started with me talking to the production person about what it is possible to do with a book â€“ such as adding a sound chip, or whatever.
You are working on a joint project with your cousin, the animator Linda McCarthy, based on â€˜Small Birds Singingâ€™ the cartoon strip that ran in The Times for eight years. Can you explain how that world has developed in the transfer from cartoon strip to animation?
I love the way Linda McCarthy has brought my monochrome, 2D newspaper world to life in gorgeous three dimensions. Sheâ€™s been very true to the original strips and stories but has also brought her own interpretation to them, which has given the characters new life for me. Plus thereâ€™s movement and colour and Time and soundâ€¦ itâ€™s wonderful. Linda is completely in tune with the dark, sinister humour of Small Birds Singing so her animations extend that â€“ and hopefully will bring Small Birds and its characters to a new, wider audience. Only a particular kind-of person saw the cartoon strip in The Times but the whole world can see the animations on the Internet. If we can let them know they exist, somehow…
You have exhibitions of your paintings, most recently at Arte Artesania in Soller, Mallorca. Can you explain something about the themes in this non-commissioned work?
There are definitely similar themes in my commercial work and my gallery work, but they are approached differently somehow. With the cartoons I am very specifically sitting down with a pen trying to have ideas and to find angles on something in the real world. With the non-commissioned work I almost try the opposite – to empty my mind. Itâ€™s almost what I imagine art therapy might be like. Iâ€™m trying to get into a different zone. To be intuitive and paint the stuff that wells up as things start to happen, I kind of begin to direct these subconscious thoughts. I have various obsessions, such as about secrecy – people keep secrets. The idea that no-one tells you everything about themselves. The last exhibition I had was called â€˜Icebergsâ€™. I like the idea that nine tenths of us is submerged. Personal things like my gender confusion issues that I kept secret for a long time. So I mess around with all that stuff. Unlike my cartoons, the paintings can be as obscure as I like, although a lot of the most recent ones in the â€˜Icebergsâ€™ exhibition did have words in them and were a cross between paintings and cartoons.
Do you see yourself as much of a writer as you do an artist?
I think of myself as a creative person. Hopefully with something to say, who is quite happy to work in words or pictures or photographs or animation or ceramics or sculpture… Iâ€™d be quite happy if someone commissioned me to do a mural on a building or design a set of crockery. Iâ€™ll turn my take on the world to anything. I donâ€™t see myself as just a cartoonist or one single thing.
What ambitions do you have for yourself professionally in the next five years?
Aside from surviving financially! I would like to keep in the forefront of my mind that I have to be true to my personal vision. I suspect that if I do that then the work will be more successful in my terms creatively and also that it will connect with people. I want to make good work. What would be perfect for me would be to find a patron to sponsor me for six months or a year so that I could explore the possibilities.
So what kind of work would you like to do in the future?
Iâ€™d like to do work that was not obviously commercial work, though I think it would be commercial in the sense that people would like it. I wouldnâ€™t suddenly start making very difficult, obscure conceptual pieces. I would make work with ideas underpinning it – maybe large installations which would be accompanied by books of images, pictures and photographs… and writing… maybe a novel… but a novel which would also include visual work. Despite wanting to go down my own, personal path I also have quite a strong sense of wanting to communicate with people. I think thatâ€™s partly why I ended up being a cartoonist. Iâ€™m interested in getting my work out there into the world and having it talk to people.
Which character’s life would you like to live?
I’d like to be Captain Star and journey the universe discovering new planets, naming them after myself and selling them things.
What painting would you like to have painted?
Iâ€™d love to have painted Guernica by Picasso
What keeps you awake at night?
Worryâ€¦particularly if Iâ€™ve done or said the wrong thing and upset someone. Or if I have no money.
What about you would you most like to change?
My sex. Or my age. Iâ€™d like to go back to being 35 – for 100 years – then continue aging.
– OnionMag would like to thank Karen Brown and Steven Appleby for a great interview.