I’m thrilled to share this inspiring interview with Criminal Podcast illustrator Julienne Alexander. She talks about how working on varied projects helps her stay motivated, creative and productive. Learn more below:
Can you remember an instance where you first knew you were a creative person? What were you doing?
Well, I did spend a lot of time painting as a child, often naked. I lived on a broccoli farm in the mountains with my parents who were married by their guru, to lend some perspective. My mother and her mother were both fine artists–mostly painters–and so there was never a shortage of art hours or supplies, but the nudity is something I brought to the table.
Was creative practice a part of your upbringing?
Yes. The painting I mentioned, but also seasonal and daily creations–lots of flower crowns, for example, and watercolor Easter eggs, and moss villages for dead birds, and multiple lanyards for every ring of keys, etc. I think I had an unfairly wonderful childhood and was steered from many sides towards artistic expression.
Would life be different if you didn’t act on your creativity? How?
I can’t really imagine how to live any other life. Creativity, to me, is often just a matter of problem-solving, so I guess I’d be a lot more tangled up? But my daily scene would also just be much starker. For example, my partner and I are building a long wooden fence right now, which is something neither of us has ever done, and you can tell by looking at the fence that we just made it up, and I think that’s nice. But also, how can you make the various scraps of food you have in the fridge into something edible without creativity? I don’t think you can.
How did you develop your distinctive illustration style?
Most of the illustration work I do is for clients who are going to use it to sell something, thank or lure someone, etc. All of those uses require a pretty clean-cut look, and normally my goal is to see how far I can get from vectors (clean-cut, digital graphics created on a computer) before it becomes too messy to work well. Left to my own devices, I would probably make most things look like a faded, jaggy-lined woodcut. So, the style you see is a happy compromise.
Where do you “find” your ideas?
Outside of commercial work (where the ideas are, at best, jointly happened-upon and often just handed-down to me), I stick pretty close to the life around me for subject matter. I blockprint a lot of images of everyday objects, such as eggs, using everyday objects like potatoes as blocks. My thinking is that people like to look at things in 2D that they’re used to looking at in 3D. I do, anyway.
I first saw your work on the podcast CRIMINAL. Your black and white illustrations hint about the theme of each episode, and I really enjoy them. How did you get involved in this project? What is your work process? Do you hear the episodes and then create the artwork, or do you design from a synopsis? How much time do you have to create each illustration? Do you have a favorite illustration from the series?
That’s so kind—thank you. CRIMINAL is a favorite on-going client and I feel lucky to have become involved at the start. Phoebe (host and co-creator) and Lauren (co-creator) knew that visual design could be an important way of giving their audio project a more comprehensive identity, and it seems to have worked quite well. From the beginning, they knew they wanted a black and white theme, and that narrowed our scope and keeps things visually consistent and tidy.
As for the subject of each episode, we mostly just chat about the main contours of the story before deciding on a fitting graphic that will neither give too much away nor put too fine a point on one particular aspect or another. These days, they often share the work-in-progress script with me a few days out and I take a few hours (and often a few drafts) to create the little black-and-white square required.
I draw everything by hand, scan it in (or, when in a hurry, take photos with my phone), and then make corrections in Photoshop or Illustrator, depending on the treatment we’re going for.
You’ve lived in different parts of the US. Do you feel that the diverse environments you’ve inhabited have impacted the creative projects you worked on in each place?
I think so, but I couldn’t say how exactly, except that sometimes it’s helpful to see what kind of artist you aren’t when forming a style or sense of self, in general.
Why is your business named YSSRS? What’s your favorite kind of project to tackle?
YSSRS is just a placeholder for a name I like, which I haven’t found yet. That’s to say, when I started this little company, I wasn’t sure what kind of work I’d be doing mostly and so I decided that until I became a more specialized creative, I’d say “Yessirs” to most kinds of creative work—art production, illustrations, infographics, murals, etc. Turns out, I appreciate the variety more than I thought and have only been widening my “Yes” category. So I guess I’m growing into the name rather than out of it, strangely.
What challenges have you faced in your creative work?
I’m figuring out that I need two things to work well: long sessions of concentrated attention, and the opportunity to switch modes regularly. Therefore; when I have one without the other, I get into some pretty rough territory where I move too quickly and make nothing of quality. I’ll draw the same thing over and over, for example, and then lose confidence in the whole thing. This is an excellent reminder that it’s time for a change of working environment. And, for that reason, I work in a kitchen a few hours a week. It helps break things up nicely.
Do you consider yourself an artist? Do you think society supports artists?
I think I’m becoming an artist through design work. Without the commercial aspect, I don’t think I’d draw or paint or print as often as I do now. And I’m really happy that that’s how it’s ending up. That said, I’d love to get a grant to go live in a shack for a year and just paint with berries and moss or something. Most of my artist friends here and elsewhere seem to find no shortage of grants and teaching gigs and show invitations. There are even a few no-commission galleries in my town which, until recently, I didn’t know existed.
What are you working on currently?
Today (and for the last few days) I’ve been making a bunch of little animation shorts to go along with CRIMINAL’s liveshow tour. They’ll play behind Phoebe and Lauren on stage and will hopefully create a more immersive experience for the audience. Tomorrow, I’ve got to go finish up a mural-sign I’m doing on a biodiesel collection tanker. And then the next day, I leave for the CRIMINAL tour. On the road, I’ll start work due next week (illustrations for the Misadventures Magazine winter issue and Southern Cultures Magazine’s website). It’s a real circus, but I like it. (Click below to see Julienne’s animation, “A Bra Is Hard to Draw.”)
How can people keep up to date with you?
Tell us something we don’t know about you yet:
I am very good at growing tomatoes and often give myself diarrhea trying to eat them all before they go bad. Also, I teach graphic design and studio art classes in the summers in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Julienne Alexander is an illustrator and designer living in Durham, NC. In the past, she has worked in Oregon, New York, and Washington DC on a variety of projects, ranging from owning and operating an Oregon-based print and design company; designing apparel graphics for Urban Outfitters, Hot Topic, and other companies; directing and producing multimedia brand campaigns for a boutique leather goods company, a state senator, a biodiesel bus company, mobile app startups, and environmental non-profits. No matter the scope or direction, Julienne likes the puzzle-solving quality that comes with design work and production.
Past Episodes of Q&A: Creatives Speak