Friday, September 26, 2008
Late last year a message showed up in my Inbox from one Emily Jo Cureton. It read as follows:
i have begun a new tradition. everyday that i do (or attempt to do) the nyt crossword, i make a drawing to accompany. unless you object i will send you the fruit of this labor daily in lieu of actually commenting on your blog. enjoy. (and fear not my attachments. they wont make your computer sick)
Emily's uncanny ability to make art (and poetry) out of each day's grid made me an instant fan, and I began posting her drawings at my site on a regular basis. Soon people were writing me (and her) asking for more. She began by setting up a mailing list, but quickly thereafter set up a blog where her daily drawings have been on display ever since. By tournament time she was a minor crosswording celebrity, with fans ranging from casual solvers to constructors all the way to Will Shortz himself. Just this month, she decided to bring her crossword drawing project to a close. I sat down with her recently (you know, via email) to ask her to reflect on what the past year has meant to her, personally and professionally.
RP: OK, let's start with a short bio
Emjo: bio? I am 23 years old. I like to go dancing, but not too often. I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in Brooklyn, NY.
RP: What were you doing, artistically, before you started in on crossword drawings?
Emjo: Generally, I fancy myself a painter. You know - heavy oils, glass jars, palpable angst - the whole nine yards. Still, I've been going through this phase where I prefer to make small-scale, highly repetitive work on paper. Before NYT drawings I made a card game called Infected - it's basically charades but with illnesses (and some things historically thought of as illnesses) [see "Homosexuality" card, right]. Players draw an illustrated card from the deck at random and act out the affliction without using sound until someone is able to diagnose them.
RP: What first inspired you to do a drawing based on a crossword puzzle?
Emjo: Disgust. I found myself lavishing unspeakable amounts of time on solving crossword puzzles and yet I had nothing to show for it except a stack of crumpled newspapers and a vowel-laden vocabulary. I thought it would be interesting to make art that was almost instantaneously as obsolete as yesterday's news. I'm still sort of embarrassed that I became such a show-off about it.
RP: What are the tools of your trade? What kind of ink do you use? What kind of paper?
Emjo: I mostly used archival pens, 6"x9" reporter notebooks, and magic, though not exclusively.
RP: Can you describe your artistic process a little? I'm most curious about how you managed to be disciplined enough to execute a polished drawing every day. Did you draw at the same time every day? Did drawing get easier the more you did it?
Emjo: I suppose I am one of those people who exercises such poor discipline and self-control in certain areas that I overcompensate in others. When you've just eaten a whole pie or shopped at The Gap online, it's easy to shame yourself in to making something pretty. I would do the puzzle first thing in the morning on my way to work, study the puzzle on the way back from work and then make the drawing late at night. Usually I spent more time thinking about and looking at the grid than rendering the image.
RP: Some of your drawings are really unsettling - they can be very dark, or sexual, or both? (See drawings for August 1, August 5, and August 30, 2008, for example). I think part of the shock of the drawings is their origin in and juxtaposition with something as familiar, quaint, and apparently uncontroversial as a crossword puzzle. Was there a point to going dark so often? Or was each drawing a kind of self-contained event, with no thought to overall pattern?
Emjo: I suppose it may not seem like it, but I really did apply certain restrictions on myself in regard to taste, especially for the first 3 or 4 months. I wouldn't call it a breakfast test- more like an after-dinner rubric. Eventually, I got bored with censoring - I don't care how innocent they may appear - there is some appalling stuff in crossword puzzles. I'm pretty sure my mind is in the gutter because the world is in fact, a gutter.
RP: Do you always use source material for your drawings? Where does source material tend to come from?
Emjo: I almost always use source materials and they almost always come from google image results - so yes, hours upon hours of googling things was involved. I know its not very glamorous, but so it went. Once when my internet died, I had to use actual books and it took me ages. I suppose the trick isn't so much google, but what to google. Say the clues are LAWBREAKER, IN HOT WATER, and I DO TOO - well obviously, I'm looking at pictures of polygamist weddings.
RP: You seem drawn to animals as subjects for your drawings. What do you like about drawing animals (aside from the fact that you're clearly really good at it)?
Emjo: Fur, scales and feathers! These are but a few of my favorite things.
RP: This question may sound weird, but ... how does a grid tell you what to draw?
Emjo: The first things I look for are symmetry and syntax. I like to make complete sentences, or at least choose words that appear in a grammatically plausible order. This doesn't always work out. Sometimes I will just have something on my mind, like say, Tonya Harding or El Niño, and then I'll do my damnedest to bend the puzzle to my will. I think the best part about this project was that the process was a little bit different every time around.
RP: Which of your drawings are you most proud of, and why?
Emjo: I'm not really that proud of any individual drawing... I'm glad to have made so many.
RP: How has this crossword drawing project changed your life (personally or professionally)?
Emjo: Personally, I have alienated a lot of people by talking about crossword puzzles too much. Professionally, I have alienated a lot of people by talking about crossword puzzles too much.
RP: Describe your experience at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament this past February? What was it like to show off your art in that forum, and to meet so many of the people whose work you'd been ... reworking?
Emjo: It was a truly amazing experience. I really loved how smart and unpretentious everyone was and I only wish I wasn't so completely mortified by the idea of competing. I also love being flattered by genuinely cool people. So yeah, a great time all around.
RP: Are you satisfied with the outcome of the whole crossword drawing project? What will you do with the body of work you've amassed over the past 10+ months? Are you going to do any more crossword-inspired art?
Emjo: I really intended to do this project for one year and am a little disappointed that I stopped early. I wish I could sell the entire collection as one piece, though I'm not exactly holding my breath. As far as the future of my crossword art goes - I still might make the occasional drawing... and also I hope to illustrate a book about the fascinating lexicon of a successful cruciverbalist...
RP: Do you have any plans to collect or otherwise display your crossword drawings?
Emjo: Funny you should ask, they will be on display for one night only in Brooklyn, NY on October 15th at the Hope Lounge. I also hope to attend the Tournament again with drawings in tow. If any other opportunities came a-knocking, I wouldn't turn them away.
RP: You have said that you are selling your drawings. How much are they, and how can people go about purchasing them?
Emjo: Originals run $100-$200 each, depending on if I had breakfast. People can contact me directly by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) to purchase.
RP: What artists do you most admire? Which have been most influential on your own work? Besides yourself, what contemporary artists do you think deserve greater recognition?
Emjo: My favorite artists ever are probably Gerhard Richter and William Makepeace Thackeray, Albrecht Durer informed my approach to illustration, and my favorite contemporary artist is Lillian Gerson. And I'm not sure that I deserve more recognition - just lots of riches would be fine.