Meeting Ellen Forney, Comic Artist


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ellenforneyOn a recent trip to Seattle to visit our daughter and son-in-law, I was flipping through the local paper while sitting in a Capitol Hill coffee shop, when I happened upon an ad for one of my FAVORITE cartoonists of all time, Ellen Forney, author of one of my favorite comic collections of all time, “Monkey Food: the Complete Collection of ‘I Was Seven in ‘75’”.  Giddily, I fired off an email to see if she would be available to meet and show me her studio. As luck would have it, she lived nearby, and she agreed!

(Side note: I don’t typically stalk my favorite artists like this. Unless you count the time I called George Segal while on a trip to New Jersey in 1988, after discovering his studio was just 20 minutes from where my friend Diana and I were. He was nice enough to show us around and indulge our pretentious art student questions for a whole hour.)

A bit of background: Ellen Forney grew up in Philadelphia, went to college at Wesleyan where she studied Psychology, then moved to Seattle where she worked at a psychiatric unit before eventually realizing her destiny of becoming a full-time artist. She has published several books, has done work for lots of magazines, and and also teaches courses on comic writing at Cornish College of the Arts (lucky little punks).

bfh4uplorezEllen is an insightful, smart, funny, and incredibly talented artist who does everything from commissioned hand-drawn custom wedding invitations to tattoos, portraits, and other art not suited for readers of this rated PG-13 blog (hi Mom and Dad). She also does some really cool large-scale paintings, most recently a Big Hands series, one of which led to a commission by the city of Seattle to go in the light rail station in Capitol Hill. She says she loves hands because they are so full of expression and meaning. In her own words: 

“Hands are an extremely rich subject to draw. They have so many layers of meaning. As tools, they play a role in practically everything we do, but they have much more character and significance than that.

When we speak of someone’s hands, we often mean this as a metaphor for a person’s character. Hands are very telling. “Working hands.” “Piano player’s hands.” People fall in love with other people’s hands. Drawing a person’s hands is like drawing their portrait – in some ways hands reveal as much about a person as their face does.”
- from her blog

monkeyfood I first ran across Monkey Food  on a trip to Toronto 4 years ago. When I visit a cool city, my favorite thing to do is to spend time in the local comics shops and bookstores. (Yeah, I realize I’m a geek.) There are only certain kinds of comics that interest me: I prefer the true-to-life ones that are well-drawn, have stories I can relate to, and make me laugh, cry, or think. Ellen does all three, in spades.

fingerThe thing that makes Ellen Forney’s work so dear to my heart is the way she diagrams things. She does hilarious “how-to” guides on surprising subjects complete with step-by-step instructions, flowcharts, and diagrams so clear that it makes you think she missed her calling as a technical writer.  In “Monkeyfood,” there’s a diagram for how to comb your hair in wings, for example. And in her more mature books including “I Love Led Zeppelin,” there’s one for “How to sew on an Amputated Finger” and “How to be a Fabulous Fag Hag.” among other eye-opening things.  

Like any good cartoon artist, she knows exactly which details to include—and even more importantly, which to omit—in order to get her point across in a minimum of lines and words, and with great humor. You can’t help but appreciate her skill.

(Side note: I have always done cartoon diagrams and how-tos for unusual subjects. Among mine are “How to Clean a Fish”, “How to Avoid Studying for Finals” and “How to Do Laundry with No Money.” There’s something naturally hilarious about producing a how-to on something you’d never want to repeat.)

Ellen suggested we meet at Capitol Hill’s Remedy Teas, where she had a chance to size us up first. I brought along my husband, daughter, son-in-law, and friend Jennifer, so that she could see that I came from mainstream society and wasn’t unhinged. We talked about her work for a while, and what it’s like living in Seattle, and then she took Jennifer and me on a walk up the hill to her studio.

Ellen has a small, eclectic apartment in the hippest part of Seattle, with a REAL ART TABLE (mine has long since been converted to a computer desk), funky Japanese desk lamps, and great original all over the walls, including one of her own Big Hand paintings, a painting of a nude woman, and a signed print from fellow Seattleite Jim Woodring with whom she is friends. I can’t even tell you how appreciative and envious I was of the coolness of all this. She showed us a big binder with some of her wedding invitations and other commissioned pieces, talked about her process, and also showed us some of her other books I hadn’t seen, including:

  • mygrandmotherThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Ellen Forney. This won a National Book Club award, and actually made me weep openly on the plane as I read it on the way home. Highly recommended. Ellen’s illustrations are drawn as though they were done by the main character, a dorky native American kid growing up on a reservation. Check out this drawing of the main character’s grandmother. As Ellen pointed out, she loves doing these types of drawings, because you can say a huge amount about a person through the tiny details and call-out text. Click the picture at right for a larger view.
  • lustLust: Kinky Online Personal Ads from Seattle’s “The Stranger”In this book, which is one of Ellen’s personal favorites, she took some of the most bizarre and explicitly sexual personal ads and made them almost approachable through her drawings. From the introduction: Ellen can “make someone into whips and chains and hoods look like someone you could take home to meet your parents.”  Even so, these illustrated ads really made this southern girl blush (and then head straight for Google in search of how-to diagrams.)

I highly recommend that you check out Ellen’s work, and keep her in mind if you need any invitations or illustrations for any kind of event—weddings, anniversaries, etc. I can see her style of work being GREAT for conferences like NAMM, which draws a huge crowd of 80,000 musicians. Maybe the next NAMM t-shirt could be a “How to Look like a Musician.” (Wear all black, don’t cut your hair for 6 months.) I’m planning to commission her to do a drawing of David and me. How perfect would that be for a birthday or anniversary? Check out her site and be sure to tell her Amy Her number one fan! sent you.

2 Responses to “Meeting Ellen Forney, Comic Artist”

  1. jennifer Says:

    Hope David doesn’t read your blog…

    What a fun visit to Ellen’s apartment. You need to come again so that we can stalk another cartoonist. Did you ever google the mysterious acronyms that escaped our narrow Southern living experiences?

  2. Amy Stewart Says:

    Hey Jennifer, It was a lot of fun meeting Ellen, wasn’t it? She’s so cool. I am looking forward to our next visit to Seattle. It’s very inspiring to meet other artists, and I think I definitely need to make a point of it!

    I’m brushing up on my acronyms so that I won’t appear quite as provincial next time.

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