Fluid Personal Iconography

A Conversation with Fionn McCabe

Fionn McCabe studied printmaking at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. After completion of his studies there he devoted a number of years working as a commercial printer. This proved to be quite different from his idealized vision of printing and art designing. What seemed to him a way of creative expressions designing and printing cool posters and other artworks turned out to be a 7:30 – 4:30pm job of dreadful monotony. He finally decided to call it a quit and went about his own way as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer. Fionn now lives in Los Angeles, California where he spends his time drawing, writing and being blissfully happy even while working 14 hours a day!

After completing your degree you worked as a commercial printer, in that job you were not allowed to express yourself in a creative a manner, far from the idealized vision you had of the occupation. What did you learn from this earlier phase in your career that influenced you to become a better ‘artist’?

It was a classic case of trying to make money doing something you love and it backfiring pretty severely. I came away from that job with a strong will to never work a job like that again. The first few months there I learned a good deal about commercial printing but I worked there for over two years, about forty hours a week, and it became excruciatingly monotonous. I do still love silkscreen but now I rarely make multiples, I’ll use it for texture or layering in a drawing.

Ultimately those three years were quite productive though. Despite work at the print shop being devoid of any creativity whatsoever, I was in my studio almost every day after work and most weekends. Drawing in the evenings really helped me cope during the day. I also started the Oh Nancy collective with Nathan Wellman during that time and we began organizing and putting on events. Because of my access to the printing equipment I was able to fabricate football jerseys with Nate that have since become a major piece of the project and the foundation for a number of shows.

Recently I have been working on a book of stories and drawings called ‘Back Already?’, the bulk of which were inspired by my coworkers at the print shop. There was a rotating and volatile mix of ex convicts, recovering addicts, racists and disgruntled clients to observe and interact with. I will never go back there but it was a real eye opener after attending a liberal fine art school for four years.

I try to create work that is on the one hand important and grand on the other, sad and silly. I am very interested in competing and overlapping ways of living and interpreting the world…

You often purposefully take measures to sully your drawings to enforce a sense of human mistakes, as an artist you must also strive to attain a higher level of finesse in your drawings. How do you maintain a balance in your art between these two seemingly opposing forces inside of you?

I do love mistakes and I do try to add them to my drawings sometimes, usually in a controlled way and usually as a piece is nearing completion and I begin to worry about screwing it up. Adding something careless, something goofy, something outside the lines, something sloppy and smudged alleviates that worry instantly. Once that is done I can focus and I’m not so concerned with the end product, it’s about drawing again.

It also adds a different energy than a line or mark that has intention, that has a specific purpose on the page. I try to create work that is on the one hand important and grand on the other, sad and silly. I am very interested in competing and overlapping ways of living and interpreting the world and one of the ways I try to represent that is by allowing and valuing mistakes in my work.

A Big Salty Apology, Artwork by Fionn McCabe

You draw flying eyeballs, popular comic characters, macabre faces, sleeping boys and rugby players, tigers and the list goes on, but there is an underlying thread that connects them all. What triggers those visualizations that are translated in to paintings? How much of Fionn McCabe do we see in those paintings?

The imagery in my work is a kind of fluid personal iconography. A comic character such as Tintin, who appears unexpectedly now and again, represents specific artistic aspirations I held as a child in one drawing and serves as a detective in another. The eyeballs are billiard balls, they are cells and atoms, they are the act of observation and sometimes they are just there to direct or meet a viewers own eyeballs. For an image to make it into my work in a significant way it has to resonate with me visually and connect with an idea I am trying to access. I am not overly concerned that repeated imagery mean the same thing or even function similarity (or for that matter, dissimilarity) in each drawing. Hopefully the way in which things are depicted combined with the narrative quality of my drawings are enough for viewers to sink their teeth into and find something meaningful.

You are an author too; have you always been fascinated with writing? Recently you successfully raised funds from Kickstarter to publish ‘Back Already?’ which is ‘A book of stories and illustrations about the lovely strangeness of life.’ What would be your advice to fellow artists who might also be looking for similar funding opportunities for their projects?

Writing is a fairly new thing for me, I’ve only been devoting substantial time to it for the past few years. I have always enjoyed telling stories though, my art is very narrative so writing has been a very natural expansion of my practice.

The idea to create a book of stories came out of a promotional project I finished late in 2011 called ‘Pandora’s Boxers’. It was a collection of fine art, personal projects and commercial work that I mailed out to galleries and organizations that have inspired or influenced me over the years, partially to introduce myself and also just a kind of thank you. I included a few of the stories I had been writing and decided that I was interested in developing them further. The project I just received funding for, ‘Back Already?’, is exactly that and has grown to include many more drawings and now, most recently, comics.

‘Pandora’s Boxers’ was printed using an online, on demand publishing company. I only printed 25 copies in total but it was out of pocket and one-off printing like that was expensive. I started a kickstarter for ‘Back Already’ because I needed time to develop content, I wanted the book to be produced well with nice paper etc…, and also I wanted more than 25 people to read it.

I had a great experience with kickstarter which, for anyone who is unfamiliar, is a website that provides a platform for crowd source funding various projects. My advice would be to think of it as pre-selling a product and not to fund something you are unsure of. You are really asking people to believe in you and your project. The whole process is very personal; when someone does support you it is very flattering and oddly humbling. I am working very hard on ‘Back Already?’ to make sure that this book is worthy of the trust people put in me.

Also, take the time to make a good video, if people want to show it around it certainly helps spread the word.

The book itself is drawn from your life experiences; what inspired you to take up this project and let your readers take a ride through the ebb and flow of your life?

Many of the stories were inspired by my time at the print shop but coupled with that are more mythological stories that reflect certain cultural values within society, both good and ill. My drawings and my writing are very personal and often address the middle ground or clash between what is expected of an individual and how that expectation is interpreted or reflected. By writing about situations from my own life I am able to explore some of these ideas more explicitly than in my drawings, through examples rather than through metaphor.

‘Oh Nancy’ is an art collective created by you, Nathan Wellman and Arthur Henderson, a collaborative movement which has gone on to receive much attention and participation. What are your emotions of such overwhelming response and in such myriad a manner?

The response we have had to the Oh Nancy project has been wonderful and very gratifying. Oh Nancy is a collaborative art project that stems from a common narrative. We invite artists to add to that narrative by contributing work, a painting, sculpture, video, performance, etc… Each new exhibition stems from the work and ideas of the projects previous participants so the project grows in a very organic way. Our last show had over sixty contributing artists and was our biggest to date which is very exciting.

I love collaborative projects and always learn a great deal from other artists. Oh Nancy has been a really wonderful excuse to work with people I admire.

Did you think of Charlie Landsborough’s song of the same name during the selection of the title even subconsciously?

Until you mentioned it just now I had never heard of Charlie Landsborough but I will find the song and give it a listen. The name Oh Nancy actually came from one of the central characters in the narrative, a young girl named Nancy whose father is the King of the Sea and whose mother is a crow. We added the Oh because we thought it sounded better, and because we could have business cards that said things like, ‘Oh Nancy, you’ll never guess what I’ve hidden in the pool’, or, ‘Oh Nancy, that’s a very colorful neck brace.’

Not the First Time, Artwork by Fionn McCabe
Not the First Time

Is there any project that you are particularly fond of and if yes, why? And in future how as an artist do you want to see yourself evolve?

There are so many great projects and artists out there making the world an even more interesting and strange place. Right now I am particularly interested in artist run spaces and small galleries and organizations that become a kind of focal point for art in local art communities. While I think it is obviously very important for an artist to be aware of and participating in the global art conversation, more and more I have been drawn to small peer groups and communities that are able to build a contained energy, to support and motivate itself to some extent. Some insulation from the roiling and uncertain world of the art market is important for the development of a new untried idea, at least for my own work. There seems to be an opportunity void between studio and institution for art that is not commercially marketable and many artist run spaces help to bridge that gap which is hugely important.

Outside of being great for artists I think spaces like that become important to ‘non artists’ as well, by being social meeting places or hosting events they make contemporary work more accessible and relevant. I don’t believe that all work should appeal to everyone but I do think it should not be alienating. In Oh Nancy that inaccessibility of contemporary art is something we try to address through the narrative by drawing from familiar social and mythological traditions. I plunder that psychological common ground for many of my drawings as well.

I’m not completely sure where I want to wind up as an artist. Writing has been (and continues to be) a satisfying expansion of my practice and I have slowly been teaching myself to oil paint. I am also wanting more and more to be making sculpture but the studio I had in LA just wasn’t conducive to anything large and three dimensional. I want to make more prints as well. So many things. In the immediate future I plan to finish and print ‘Back Already’ and complete a small series of corresponding prints. When that is done we will see.

Portrait of Fionn McCabe

Fionn enjoys…

I was just recently in Berlin for a month and that was a really incredible place, just, the whole entire place. The City Museum in Saint Louis is unbelievable. The Natural History Museum in Paris. Ah… there are too many (favourite place).

‘Perdido Street Station’ by China Miéville is one of my all time favorite books, really imaginative, full of bizarre cultural and historical connections and metaphors. I just finished reading ‘The Sun Also Rises’ by Hemingway and that was great too, dry and very funny. Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, Neal Stephenson, Michael Chabon… I’m not sure I have a favorite.

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ is a movie I would highly recommend, that has been on my mind for the past four or five months. I saw ‘Holy Motors’ recently and enjoyed that a lot as well.

I am currently listening to loads of Leonard Cohen and German breakfast is my favorite food… group.

Find more of his work at http://fionnmccabe.com/

Image Courtesy: Fionn McCabe