Compacting illustration

Fiona Smyth talks about illustration, her distinct cartoon style and her works in I AM HERE.

Mural by Fiona Smyth for I AM HERE

Fiona Smyth, I AM HERE, 2021. Ink on paper and digital drawing. Commissioned by the Art Gallery of Ontario. © Fiona Smyth

If you took a closer look at Toronto-based artist Fiona Smyth’s mural of cartoon drawings that were exhibited in our exhibition, I AM HERE: Home Movies and Everyday Masterpieces, you may have discovered a plethora of familiar motifs representative of our collective past, present and future. Front-line workers. Protest signs. Family photos. Celebrities. Pets. Foods. By creating two essential art pieces for the exhibition, I AM HERE and From Cave Paintings to TikTok, Smyth illustrates our human impulse to document life as it happens and the capturing of everyday moments throughout history. 

Smyth is a feminist painter, illustrator, cartoonist and instructor in OCAD University’s Illustration Program. For more than three decades, Smyth has made a name for herself as a woman cartoonist, a rarity in the mid-1980s, in the local Toronto comic scene as well as internationally. In 2019, she was inducted into the Doug Wright Awards’ Giants of the North Canadian Cartoonist Hall of Fame. 

We caught up with Smyth to learn more about her artistic approach and inspirations behind her two soon-to-be-exhibited works. 

Foyer: When creating expansive works like the I AM HERE and From Cave Paintings to TikTok, where do you start?

Smyth: The fantastic I AM HERE curating team of Jim Shedden, Alexa Greist and Robyn Lew shared a list of the exhibition works with me to choose from for use in the mural. Jim envisioned a doodle art poster − the DIY colouring posters of the 1970s, something I had grown up with and I was excited to take on the challenge.   

I did some additional research of elements to add in personal stuff (like my 101-year-old gran), local history and people. It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle of images. There were a few iterations to get the mix right.

Foyer: Tell us about the evolution of the mural. What’s the process like?    

Smyth: I collaged together freely drawn images and tracings of photos − integration of a cartoon-y and a more realistic approach on tracing paper in pencil. 

I finished and redrew with additional sheets of tracing paper, scanned the best version, shared it with the I AM HERE team and rescanned the revised sketches. I then took the image into Procreate and inked it digitally on an iPad. Once done, I refined and coloured in Photoshop. 

I began using a tablet shortly before the pandemic. It’s been great using it for I AM HERE and completing the kids’ graphic novel “You Know, Sex” I cartooned with sex educator and writer Cory Silverberg. The book will be out on April 12, 2022 from Seven Stories Press.

Painting showing a lot of people busy on their phones in one room

Nicole Eisenman, Another Green World, 2015. Oil on canvas, 325.12 × 269.24 cm. Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Purchase with funds provided by the Acquisition and Collection Committee. © Nicole Eisenman, Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth

Foyer: How did you decide what to include when trying to summarize thousands of years in one artwork?

Smyth: Thankfully the I AM HERE team made the difficult decision of choosing the key moments. Most of the points in time that were chosen had imagery attached to them or symbols. Creating a legible and dynamic layout was more of a test for me. The solution began with creating a loose grid in which to include fifty-plus moments. It was similar to problem-solving comic panel grids.

Foyer: Illustration is not always included when discussing traditional art – what illustrators should everyone know?

Smyth: It’s too bad that division is still thought of. Thankfully the AGO exhibitions of cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s career retrospective and filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s collections are helping to dispel the notion of high and low art.

Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Kara Walker are all “high artists” who have worked as illustrators or created illustrations.

My favourite artists are folks who work in many forms, mediums and venues, and are usually kick-ass cartoonists. Three of my biggest inspirations are Saul Steinberg, Keith Haring and Lynda Barry.

Toronto folks can currently check out two stellar comics and illustration-related shows. Groundbreaking genius cartoonist Michael DeForge’s activist and music posters are on show at Toutoune Gallery and internationally celebrated illustrator Anita Kunz’s Original Sisters paintings are exhibiting at Iona Studio, around the corner from the AGO. These shows are a testament to the power of images travelling the world outside hallowed museum walls. 

Foyer: What’s your favourite everyday subject to draw?

Smyth: I love to draw stream of consciousness, without a goal or expectations to see where the line takes me. In the end, I always return to bodies. 

My weekly drawing blog has this kind of imagery and since March 2020, I’ve repeatedly drawn a floating sleeping woman in different ways. She is a recurring motif in my work I call the Somnambulist. 

I AM HERE: Home Movies and Everyday Masterpieces was co-curated by Jim Shedden, the AGO's Manager of Publishing, and Alexa Greist, AGO Associate Curator and R. Fraser Elliot Chair, Prints & Drawings, with consulting curator Rick Prelinger.


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