ALTERNATIVE MOTION: AN INTERVIEW WITH VETERAN EXPERIMENTAL ARTIST HEATHER MCADAMS by Brian Blackmon

26 Feb

[The following interview was originally published in the September 19th, 2007 issue of Monmouth University’s The Outlook. It was subsequently reprinted in the fall 2011 issue of The Monmouth Review]

Drawing upon a lifelong passion for filmmaking, illustration, music, and the endless array of artistic possibilities that construct the world around us, Virginia-born Chicago-based artist Heather McAdams has sought to convey her own unique perspective through utilizing a complete vocabulary of communicative media.

            While it is beyond the scope of this article to hope to even begin to address her vast body of work, it is of particular interest to note that her brilliant, heavily autobiographical comic strips remain an important staple of the alternative press scene, appearing in such publications as The Chicago Reader (a relationship which began in 1978), and alongside the work of cartoonists like Matt Groening (Life in Hell, The Simpsons), Bill Griffith (Zippy), and Shannon Wheeler (Too Much Coffee Man) in Funny Times. A sampling of this work composed the excellent book collection Cartoon Girl, published by Longstreet Press in 1994, and served as a basis for an assortment of short 16mm animated films (created in collaboration her husband, musician Chris Ligon, who shares her desire to create revolutionary art forms).

            Experimental, and ceaselessly hilarious, Heather McAdams’ animated shorts (staring her comic strip alter-ego Hester McMarkup) continue to run on the film festival circuit, and were also a highpoint in MTV’s animation heyday during the 1990’s (running on that network during commercial breaks beginning in ‘95, and as part of MTV’s animation showcase Cartoon Sushi in ‘97). 

           Documentary and independent filmmaker, cartoonist, painter, animator, musician, performance artist, —Ms. McAdams continues to transcend classification in a career that has spanned over thirty years. It is a distinct pleasure to be able to present this interview (which was conducted in August 2007), as it allows an opportunity to showcase such a rare and genuine talent.

Brian Blackmon: How did you get your start in comics and animation? 

Heather McAdams: I lived in D.C. for a summer between undergrad (painting and printmaking at VCU in Richmond, V.A.) and grad school (at the Chicago Art Institute for filmmaking) in 1978, and there was a guy there who ran my drawings in an alternative newspaper there in Washington. When he found out that I was moving to Chicago to go to film school, he told me I should submit my drawings to The Chicago Reader, which I did. And it was like a miracle ‘cause I really wasn’t a “cartoonist,” but they started running my work on a regular basis and even paying me for it. That’s what really turned me into a cartoonist more than anything and gave me my start. 

Blackmon: How much time usually goes into producing a piece of art?

McAdams:  There is so much difference between producing a drawn strip and making a cell animated 16mm cartoon that it’s not even funny. People in interviews have asked me ‘time’ questions a lot (how long did it take me take me to do that Super 8 scratch film, how long did it take me to do that life-size needlepoint of Gene Rayburn, etc.) and I always find it next to impossible to answer because the time it takes to do art is something that is dependent on so many different things. To tell you the truth, I am not concerned with this aspect of artmaking and consequently I do not keep track of it. One of my favorite things about making art is it allows me to go into this timeless worry free place of total ecstasy where time is basically gone completely and I am totally engulfed in the work and have reached art nirvana. I am finally in heaven. Why do I want to think about time? I don’t think there is time in heaven. If there is, then suddenly it wouldn’t be heaven anymore, because suddenly you would be saying, “Oh sh*t, I gotta go to the post office and it closes in 5 minutes.” I also am praying to God that there aren’t any phones ringing in heaven. I hate talking on the phone!

To me the most challenging part of making good artwork is the idea or the concept of art. With comic strips, you want to have something to say and then figure out the best way to execute your idea. With doing my paintings and pastels, weird drawings, personal self-portraits, fine art, etc.—now these works, as well as my 16mm films and documentaries, are not “written” ahead of time at all. They are conceived and executed at the exact same time. I am creating and conceiving as I am constructing. The time questions baffle me also ‘cuz it depends on how long and labor intensive the film is to execute, how long and complicated the comic is to draw, —how much money you have could impede on the production rate, etc. I am always picking up old drawings and completing them. I have a gigantic needlepoint that is just huge and I stopped when I was 95 percent done. It’s like the guy who quits high school two weeks before he graduates.    

Blackmon: What are some of the biggest inspirations in your life and your work? Who are some of the people that made you want to get out there and communicate your inner impressions to the world through your art?

McAdams: I’m a split personality because I have two main and very different disciplines, the drawings and the filmmaking. So many people influenced my film work and some my flat artwork. My Mom has to be my earliest influence ‘cuz she always told me my art was fabulous from the get go; Dad, ‘cuz he transferred his love of 16mm film to me (we loved to run the projector backwards making Uncle Stan pull potato salad out of his mouth and offer it to the viewer. We thought that was hilarious and thought film was completely magic!); my two sisters, who are both terrific artists; MAD magazine; those early Valentines that you turn over for the punch line. I really thought Kliban’s cartoons were fun.

In late high school I discovered Robert Crumb and all that whole stack of comic books while living at Rehoboth Beach and had my head blown. Later, other cartoonists that inspired me were like Lynda Barry, Aline Kominsky Crumb, Debbie Dreschler, Art Spiegleman, etc. 

I think Joe Coleman’s illustration work is amazing. I’m awed by the paintings of Frida Kahlo. Tex Avery rules! The whole Hairy Who group in Chicago (Jim Nutt, Roger Brown, H.C. Westerman, Ed Paschke) influenced me to move to Chicago.

Certain film teachers like Tom Palazzolo (who is also a killer painter too). I was inspired by the 16mm films of Bruce Connor, George Kuchar, Kenneth Anger, Michael Snow, George Landow, Mary Filippo, Maya Deren, Robert Nelson, etc. I think Martin Arnold’s 16mm films are total genius.

I love old religious paintings, folk art, thrift shop paintings, children’s art, sideshow banners, and I think there are lots of outstanding illustrators out west right now, like now that I need to do my homework on. In addition, I must add that documentaries that can capture real life like Grey Gardens by the Melies Brothers are the best. 

Blackmon: What would you define as the single most challenging aspect in pursuing your career and would you please counter that with what constitutes the most rewarding?

McAdams: No doubt the most challenging part in the past has been trying to do art and make money at the same time. Most rewarding is having control over what I make, not having money dictate what I do with my art (i.e. not having sold my soul to the devil).

Blackmon: I’ve always thought that it’s really awesome when spouses are able to create works of art together (Madman artist Mike Allred and his wife Laura spring to mind). How has being able to collaborate over the years with your husband Chris Ligon influenced your work?

McAdams: Working with Chris is a blast and is a very natural thing to do since he is such a genius when it comes to music and sound and I am really interested in unique soundtracks for my films. Also, he is such a fabulously funny host for the live shows that we do—I prefer to stay behind the projector (drinking several drinks) and just watch Chris on stage. He has had a huge influence on my work. It is impossible to write about because he has turned me onto so many things, opened up my eyes and ears, and continues to do so. His knowledge and creativity (as well as his record collection) are endless.

Blackmon: Cerebus cartoonist Dave Sim, in talking about his place in the comic book industry, once said that “We’re all just temporary custodians,” who pass on the torch to the next generation. What advice would you offer to up-and-coming cartoonists and animators and what do you hope is your lasting influence on such dynamic industries?

McAdams: Wow. I think my advice would be to just fall in love with the process of whatever you are doing. Don’t try to skip over the grunt work to get to the carrot. Lots of people just want the fame and fortune and don’t want to do the work to get to it. They want the product and not the process. It’s like that Buddhist thing, “the path is the destination”. Something like that.

I think what I would like to think the value of my work has been is to be one of those artists who makes art, comics, and films against all odds. Reckless abandon. Like the coat of many colors that Dolly Parton’s mom made for her, I make art with little or no money, lots of love, and a real need to create. I would also like to think I may inspire in my fearlessness and refusal to follow the rulebook, by trying to create a structure all my own. So a bit of ground breaking or pioneering is going on. This helps pave new roads for future artists. That’s what I would like to think I did.

And then other people can go, “Oh, I like that because she didn’t go by the rules and that means I can do it too.” One teacher in Chicago used me as an example as to how not to make films. I like to blast thru new territory, I think that is a worthy goal to help keep things fresh and alive.

Blackmon: It is a common thread that artists often listen to music while they are involved in the creation process. It seems that music is a major part of your life, from your being an avid record collector to the fact that your husband is a musician (even running your own record store with your husband). What are some of your favorite kinds of music to listen to while you draw and how does music inspire your art?

McAdams: I listen to anything and everything while drawing (I am saving opera and Gregorian chants for another life though).  To list anything I listen to would be impossible. I love just about anything on old records, and I never listen to CDs ever. I have only put a CD into a player two or three times in my life! CDs killed the LP industry and I have it in for them for that.

I also loathe anything that threatens the threadbare 16mm film industry—my ability to obtain 16mm film and get it processed; so you will not be seeing a DVD of my latest films on the horizon anytime soon. You will however be seeing a lot more 16mm film and live music shows on the horizon as Chris and I are moving back to Chicago this September.

Music inspires my film work in that I hear music to enjoy, but I also hear it knowing I could combine it with visual images and make something new happen with it. It’s like my ears are always multi-tasking. Even sounds like geese honking overhead or the trash truck crunching up an old couch we threw out are possible soundtrack candidates. I am constantly filming and recording people and things. Sound is so much cheaper to capture than movie film. All you need is a good hand held tape recorder and you can bring that sound to the world on the big screen!  

Blackmon: What are some projects that you are currently working on? Is a new collection of your comic strips on the horizon?

McAdams: Well, we are in the process of moving back to Chicago as I am speaking (this will be my third time), which is my latest project. Chris is always producing CDs no matter what it seems and his song “Crazy Dazy” was used in that show Weeds and he gets lots of orders for that CD over the Internet. I myself am sort of just waiting to get to Chicago where the conditions will be prime for my work. I will be excited to see what my next projects are going to be, but I have been working on this 16mm documentary on my Dad for about seven years now, on and off. Unfortunately, my Father passed away this year and my Mom passed right before him, so I’m trying to recover from that and get back to Chicago—as we moved east to be close to my folks, and now it’s time to return to our favorite city where we belong. So first up is I want to finish the film about my Dad (which was just about done when the belt broke on my Moviola and halted production two long years ago, even though I continued to keep shooting things). I would like to make another book which would include self-portraits and other never seen before drawings and flat art.

Another film in the works is I have been trying to capture this odd little town of Milford, Delaware where we have been for six years on 16mm film too. Do you know that Robert Crumb went to the middle school here? Robert Mitchum also used to hang out in this town. Two of my favorite Roberts! Anyway, that’s about it for me. 

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