By Carolyn Edlund
Her bio reads, “Laura Lee Gulledge is a graphic novelist, scenic painter, fearless explorer, body painter, event hostess/producer, self-art-therapist, and art teacher who calls Brooklyn home”. Laura Lee is a prolific artist. Her drawings seem to be part of a larger story, perhaps harboring a secret, or carrying a cryptic message. In our conversation, she reveals the larger story, the story of her life. How she came to be working on her first graphic novel, and creating art in New York and internationally. . .
AS: For years you created hundreds of drawings, watercolors and mixed media pieces. How did you discover what they were meant to be?
LL: I originally started cranking out all these drawings as a personal challenge back when I was a middle school teacher. It became my own breed of art therapy, evolving into self portraits illustrating my emotions. They needed to be a book . . . somehow. The first 700 drawings were in sketchbooks, so in my gut that’s where I know they belonged. A book you can hold in your hands, interacting with the art one-on-one, it’s more intimate. Displaying them individually in galleries felt artificial, so when I’ve done solo shows I plastered the walls with an overwhelming number of drawings so they could speak collectively.
I read my first graphic novel only three years ago, and it was such a relief to discover this new medium where my art could perhaps eventually find a home. I had made 1300 drawings in the past eight years, telling bits and pieces of my story, so why not just string some of them together into a single narrative? Lightbulb!
AS: You have traveled extensively, and your work reflects the influence and inspiration of each place you visited. Could you discuss your trips abroad and how they have affected your art and your career?
LL: Travel is my favorite teacher. Besides the extraordinary people, in each new place you are introduced to a new cultural and visual vocabulary. It fills up your own mental library, so you have a richer well of images to draw from and reference.
In Iceland I drew pictures about the landscape of snow and ice. In Spain I loved the architecture, so I drew buildings by Gaudi and the Alhambra. In Ireland I copied Celtic knots and patterns. In Turkey I painted intricate designs from their pottery, rugs, and calligraphy. In Prague I let myself indulge in the graceful lines of art nouveau. In Ghana I learned batik and painted Adinkran symbols. My experience in Ghana in particular (where I volunteered teaching art in different villages) was by far the most perspective-changing. I never thought I’d find myself teaching acrylic painting without running water or electricity!
AS: Moving to New York was a big step in your life. Why did you make this move, and how did you launch yourself as an artist there?
LL: When I was living back in Virginia it was clear that wasn’t where I would find my audience. I knew if I was serious, I’d go to New York, but I didn’t even know anyone there. . . it scared the crap out of me . . . so here I am!
It was through an absurdly serendipitous series of events that I ended up moving in with a family in Manhattan who had an extra room. I spent my first year learning the lay of the land. In my second year I was planting lots of seeds and making connections. Then finally in this PAST year everything started growing at once – graphic novel book deal, painting Macy’s windows, producing/hosting events, holding two solo art shows, doing body painting, joining a comic studio, and getting a comic on Act-I-Vate.
How did I launch myself? I just threw lots of stuff out there not knowing what would stick. I presented my work to lots of galleries until I finally got my foot in the door with some group shows, went to a lot of art openings to meet like-minded people (places like at Ad Hoc and Honey Space), self-published zines that I sold in various comic/book stores (Forbidden Planet, Rocketship), got actively involved with different organizations and creative collectives (Madagascar Institute, HiChristina!), hung out in new subcultures (like street artists, bike messengers, comic artists, scenic painters, karaoke kids…), produced a lot of art and handed out a lot of stickers.
AS: Could you give us some details of your current project creating a graphic novel for young adults?
LL: The book is called “Page by Paige” and it will come out in Spring 2011 by Amulet books, the young reader division of Abrams Books. Most coming of age stories seem to tell the story of an character learning to accept who they are and growing into the person they are destined to be. I wanted to express this self-discovery specifically though the eyes of a budding artist.
The main character is Paige Turner, a shy redheaded 16-year old from Virginia who moves to New York with her family. (Yup, shamelessly autobiographical.) She starts drawing in a sketchbook, both out of her feeling of isolation in this new city and her secret desire to be an artist. Like many teenage girls with thriving imaginations, she is reserved and quiet on the surface. Her external self doesn’t mirror her whimsical internal world, which is reinforced visually through the opposing drawing styles that are used to her express her duality. But as she grows confident as herself and as an artist, her two worlds start to merge together.
AS: Many emerging artists feel unsure of where their path as an artist will take them. Yours is very unusual. What would you recommend to others who are pursuing their dreams?
LL: It’s not talent alone that makes one artist successful and another fail. The ones who accomplish their goals are those who are more driven, organized, and better at promoting themselves. It’s the ones with follow-through who get that all-too-essential foot in the door.
Most artists are not natural business people, but it’s just something we have to embrace. . If you don’t push yourself and keep yourself motivated, then no one else will! I try to have various projects in the pipelines at all times, because some of them inevitably won’t pan out. Invest your effort in areas that are totally new to you. I’ve found that in a city like New York City, different scenes are more connected than you’d think.
There’s no better way to prove your credibility than by keeping your nose to the grindstone. But you need to find a balance between cranking out your artwork in your studio and maintaining visibility outside your studio so you can further develop your network. Normally the connection that leads to an opportunity comes about because you randomly meet a person though another person at some event. You never know where your connections will lead, so be verbal about yourself and stay on other peoples’ radar.
Surround yourself with creative people who you admire, who challenge you, perhaps even intimidate you, because you’ll automatically step your craft up a notch. It’s like how when you put a small goldfish in a big bowl then it’ll grow to fit the bowl. Most of the really talented people I know don’t feel like they are qualified to be doing what they’re doing . . . they just acted like it until they fooled themselves into believing it.
Laura Lee's graphic novel is launched! Click here to see how to order.