Divinatory Branding: An Interview with Suzette Smith

Joel Statz

Suzette Smith is an artist and cartoonist living and working in Portland, OR. An enthusiastic and supportive member of Portland’s independent comics community, her comics explore murky areas of personal experience and imagination with wry, defiant wit.

She will be leading a workshop at The Projects, a festival of experimental comics and narrative arts happening at the Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland, OR on August 22-25. Suzette was kind enough to take the time to answer some brief questions over email about her work and the upcoming festival.

Joel Statz: On the website for the upcoming Projects festival, you’re listed as leading a workshop called “Mything and Making: Divinatory Branding with Suzette Smith”. That’s a pretty evocative title; can you talk about what you’ll be doing in that workshop?

Suzette Smith: When I say divinatory branding, I am saying that I will work with small groups to make symbols that are either cute or powerful or outfit-matching— all of those things being occult in impetus. I will provide paints and inks but the majority of mark-making will be done by the participants. Some people will know when they have found the thing they want. Some will ask me what I like and I will ask them what they like and we will settle on a blue pattern that resembles a bird egg. Is that consulting? Is it witchcraft?

I’m a design student so I realize that the process of branding is complex and lengthy. With this short workshop I will only address symbol/logo-making. It’s a little cheeky to say that I can, in a short period of time, experiment with paints and give someone a symbol on which to focus and represent their energies, so I will encourage people to look for symbols which represent more immediate quests, like getting a sandwich (The Projects will have a sandwich cart in attendance during the day; Brass Tacks), or a lover, or paint out of their pants.

I don’t think it will take very long, and then I’ll scan the image and make the participant a button. Eventually I hope to combine all the symbols on a poster representing this year’s Projects, the people who came through and what their interests were. The Projects, to me, is primarily about making things together and the celebration of making things together.

JS: Regarding myths and myth making, a couple of your pieces have made me think about the role of myths in society. You drew a strip about Lars Von Trier’s Medea for the zine LVT: Chaos Reigns, a film which is based on the play about the Greek myth of the same name. How does mythology inform your creative process, and, also, how does it generally influence your life? What drew you to Medea when deciding what to contribute to the zine?

SS: I think that when I was anthologizing LVT: Chaos Reigns, Medea was sort of foisted on me because I’d just been through a brutal break up. People kept taking me aside, giving me soulful looks and whispering, “Medea…” I wish I were joking.

That being said, I also made the comic because I want people to appreciate Lars Von Trier’s Medea. It’s shot on video. Granted, it was shot in 1988, but I like to think it’s also specifically intended to embrace the dark, grainy texture of video film. Certainly now that things are digital, the use of video places the story even more firmly in the past. I find myself thinking, “Yes, ancient Greece… where people spoke Swedish and only had VHS recorders.”

I could say a lot about the ways myth informs my creative process but I think the most apt thing to say is this: I was at the coast recently, swimming in the water, and I found myself making repetitive motions with my hands and thinking of it as a sort of ritual. My mind just started to make it, to explain why I was doing the motion and what kind of magic it would accomplish. I then thought about ritual and myth and how easy it is for all of us to make myths. Our minds want to make them. Who knows why we agree so fervently upon some of them more than others? When I was a child I ran in the woods with other girls and played gangsters.  I didn’t like bible stories. I made the game and changed the game and then changed the game again. I’ve read a good deal of myths and I don’t see myself in myths out there. Not one character on Twin Peaks reminds me of myself. I do not have a favorite X-man. I think I write because there is nothing for me and if there was something for me I might just lazily read that and be like, “All her decisions are so good!” Life would be dull.

JS: I really liked your recent piece that shows 36 American flags with different ideas about America that are conjured when people see the flag (e.g. “Civil Unrest”, “Boy Scouts”, “Driving Fast”, “Beer”, etc.). I think it speaks to how myth-making is a large part of the ideas people form about “America”, both good and bad. Was this something you thought about when you were working on the piece?

SS: I was thinking about how I don’t like the Fourth of July. I have ideas about America, and why I love America, but none of these ideas are really expressed at all on the Fourth of July. There’s a story I tell about America and it has to do with the Westboro Baptist Church. The Westboro Baptist Church decided to protest all these soldiers’ funerals because the army of the United States condones homosexuality (news to me). In response to these very bizarre displays of hate, hundreds of biker motorcycle men took it upon themselves to form an honor guard and stand in their leather chaps with huge American flags to block out the sight of the church’s protests from the families at the funerals. To drown out the church’s chants they sang and revved their engines and at that epicenter was the thing I really like about America— its very earnest strangeness.

I made that flag comic about that epicenter, poorly or otherwise. I also made it because my mother really loves Steven King’s The Stand and often turns to me when she sees a crow and says, “Flag Flag Flag,” in her approximation of a crow’s voice.

JS: Narrative considerations are obviously a primary concern when it comes to making comics. Can you talk about how you approach the structure and rhythm of narrative in your comics? I’m especially curious about how you approach this when drawing comics based on your own life experiences.

SS: From the other comic artists that I know, I hear a lot about comedic timing, and putting a beat here, etc. etc. I should probably learn to do this comedic timing thing so I can break the rules and throw it away.

I was a writer, and then I was an improvisational noise musician, and then I became a comic artist. This is going to sound incredibly dumb, but nearly everything I make comes from my head and into my hand and I just know where it goes and how to arrange it. It is a song. I haven’t really reached a place where I want to plan my pages and beats. For now I just glomp it out and hopefully edit it well. I make thumbnails. I use sticky notes. I move things around.

As I say this, the feeling that I am making a terrible mistake weighs on me heavily, and yet I am still doing it. This is the narrative device most commonly found in my works.

JS: Besides the workshop at The Projects festival, what other things are you currently working on? Do you have any new zines or books on the way?

SS: I’m a graphic design student so I have a lot on my back burner, but right now I’m writing the sequel to a comic and short story I wrote last year called The Man Who Dies. The premise is that a man in outer space, traveling in an enormous seashell, cannot die. He hopes to find another enormous seashell that has gone missing, because there is a person on that shell that might be able to tell him why he can’t die. It’s going to debut at the Shortrun Small Press Festival in Seattle in November.

I’m also working on a web series about the similarities between cats and teens.

JS: When I first emailed you, you said you were on a train with the Von Trapp family. What was going on there?

SS: There were a good many children in straw hats— all belonging to the same family, all speaking in accents and sporadically breaking into song. One child was reading a drawn-out version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses aloud to the other children, from a tablet reader, while the others made considerate or interested interjections. In several separate instances one child called another child clever. Since I entertain the idea that archetypes occur within all of us at varying instances of heroism and possession, it seemed certain that these were the Von Trapps as the Von Trapps were merely versions of the Yang Family or the Nereids or the Twelve Dancing Princesses, who then later became the Partridge Family and, occasionally, One Direction. I was waiting for a train with these children for a good three hours but once we boarded our separate sections I missed them.

Suzette regularly posts artwork and comics on her blog, http://teamsuzette.blogspot.com/.

To find out more about The Projects festival, including schedule information and participating artists, visit http://theprojectspdx.tumblr.com/