Tall Poppy Interview – Julia Breckenreid, Illustrator
It’s easy to find Julia Breckenreid’s work. The illustrator’s pieces appear frequently in the Globe and Mail, Chatelaine and even at a few cafes around town. But between all this illustrating she’s also managed to curate Boys Club, a group show with a dozen women illustrators. The show crams a bewildering amount of talent into Kensington Market gallery Xpace. Alongside locals like Carey Sookocheff, Anna Shipside and Katy Dockrill, are notable out-of-towners such as Rachel Salomon, Hadley Hooper, and far too many others to mention here. Their resumes are impressive and their client lists read like a who’s who of the publishing and media world. Oh, and the art is pretty darned good too.
Boys Club opens Apr. 1, 7pm and runs til Apr. 14 at Xpace Gallery (303 Augusta). Those interested in the world of illustrating should check out the panel discussion on Apr. 4.
So how did the Boys Club show come about?
I did a show a couple of years ago with my friends Carey [Sookocheff] and Katy [Dockrill] who are in this show, called Great 8. It was in the Steamwhistle gallery and there were eight of us. It was a superhero show theme, where we all came up with our own superhero and did work from that, trying to tell a story. It was a lot of fun. Afterwards I thought I’d really like to be able to do a show but with all women. I’ve never really heard of anyone doing anything like that especially in the illustration field.
There had been problems with group shows I’ve been involved with in the past, where certain women I had wanted to include in a show couldn’t be in because their work was too feminine, too girly, not edgy enough, all that stuff. I have a frustration with that because I think that kind of work is really valid, I really dont know why it’s not accepted more.
I don’t know how my work compares with men, but I’ve heard of other illustrators who have been asked to tone down the girly. To be less pink about it. To not make things so frilly, so girly, but that’s just stupidity to me. Why are you hiring them in the first place? This is obviously what they do.
Basically it came down to just really wanting to do something with girls. To have some community and have some fun, and allow ourselves to do whatever we want and not feel like we have to do something really edgy or cool.
Have you ever heard of men being asked to tone down the masculinity in their work?
No, never. I think it started in school. I noticed right away that the work that was getting put up in the hallway was the edgy work, the masculine. I noticed that the work that was a little softer, towards children’s stuff or towards any kind of feminine work doesn’t get as much play or the same attention. It didn’t while I was at school, or it seemed that way. I’ve heard that from other women illustrators as well. So that kind of sends you a message.
I don’t want to say that the work wasn’t given attention but there was a sense that it wasn’t as well received. It didnt get the same kind of excitement. It wasn’t work that was encouraged to be put into contests.
Do you think there are differences between men and women who are out there freelancing?
I really feel that the decisions you have to make being a freelance illustrator are much more involved [as a woman] than if you are a man. Your choices are different. Your assumed responsibilities are different, how you view your life, what you want. It became a little bit alarming to me at first. Two better-known illustrators I knew of who were women, who very succesful and had very long careers and are still working, Jody Hugill and Anita Kunz, neither of them had children.
I looked at their lives and thought, wow, this is very cool. Anita had her own house that she’d lived in since college that she bought with her own money. She’s done very well, but I thought, are these the choices I have to make? Does this mean that I have to focus everything I’ve got on being an illustrator and nothing else? Since then its been proven not to be true. I know lots of female illustrators that have children and they’re fine.
But I know lots of male illustrators, who do have children, but they don’t have the same kind of guilt if they don’t stay home with the kids or if they hire a nanny while they’re working at home. That’s not their innate responsibility, that’s not something theyve ever felt pressure from anyone else that they must do. The choices they can make can be completely their own. I think that stretches out further than just children. It’s just a marked difference between the two.
So how did you start illustrating?
I’ve always been someone who picks a book for the cover, or buy something because I like the packaging so much. Any book that had a character on the cover, like a novel, say the Anne of Green Gables books I read growing up, it was the illustration that helped me see the character better. Also, I’ve always been obsessed with making things look like something, particularly portraits, people, getting expressions, getting feelings, transmitting emotions.
But I don’t think I really knew I wanted to be an illustrator, it was just something I normally, naturally have always done. Everything I’ve ever done, people thought it was very illustrative. I was never quite sure what that meant.
Do you have any particular influences?
I have millions of influences. I can’t help but look at pop culture and classical illustration for a marker to my work but I try to look at fine art as much as I can. I don’t even know how to start naming who I’m influenced by.
What do you mean by pop culture?
When I say pop culture, I’m absorbing what’s around me all the time. It’s not necessarily looking at something and saying, ‘that’s what I like.’ It’s more like an inventory of things.
For me, it’s about walking down the street and seeing the way posters are on the posts, seeing a cornice on top of a building, what people are wearing, or hairstyles. It’s really difficult for me to say that I’m influenced by one thing in particular.
Of course, my work always seems to have a sense of nostalgia in it. It’s not something I try to do but I can’t help but gravitate towards it. When I was younger I was a big fan of Norman Rockwell. There was something about that work that I always liked. It seemed, I don’t want to say clean, but there was something about it that was definite. Something you yearn for, something you want. When somebody says something is very Rockwell, it’s meant to be the perfect life, the perfect picture.
It’s problematic. What’s weird is that it doesn’t make any sense the way I strive to capture that. I don’t like that connotation. I don’t like things being super perfect. I had difficulty getting work at times, because there’s an edge of depression or darkness to my work. It’s just there, they sense it. Some things look happy on the surface, but underneath it’s a little weird, a little off kilter. It’s probably the big reason why I haven’t been able to get kids work. I’ve had people say, ‘there’s an edge to it, that’s not kid-happy.’
Are there any themes or ideas you want to explore outside of your paid work?
To be honest, I don’t get a chance to do personal work that often. Part of the reason why I do these shows is so I do, so that I get into the position to do something for myself. When you’re illustrating, it’s not about you, it’s about them, about the piece, or about the writing. That can be very constraining. So if anything it’s very releasing and very freeing to be able to say exactly what I want to say. It’s just such release to not have someone tell you that it’s not really gonna suit the public, we can’t really show that, it’s a little depressing, can you make that a little lighter?
Have there been any publications right now or back in the day where the illustration has just been exceptional?
Recently, I’ve been impressed with the Walrus. They’ve been pretty open with their illustrations and what they use. They’re borrowing from other styles of magazines of course but they do have a flavour of their own. They seem to take a lot of risk.
I think their covers have been really great. They had this one cover, I think she’s a Toronto artist, where it was a wax statue of a man and woman cut in half. That one was great.
What do you think of the popularity of graphic novels? Has it helped you as an illustrator?
I’m really jealous. I’d love to do a graphic novel. The idea of it is really appealing to me. I really like Chester Brown, Seth, Chris Ware. They’re really great because from start to finish they can tell their story and tell it from whatever perspective they want. They can design the book, design the whole thing. It’s a package unto itself. I love that idea, rather than the traditional book and going with someone else’s words but using pictures to say things that can’t be said by anyone else but you.
I’m so happy that it has gained popularity with people. It’s something that needs to be put into the school curriculum especially if you’re taking illustration as a subject.
Do you have any advice for young illustrators?
Having perseverance is the thing that’s gonna get you out there. Illustration is in kind of a bad state right now. Many people I know aren’t really working right now. Stock is cutting down the industry quite a bit so it’s a lot more competitive. It’s about those who stick with it. If you’re expecting to be a full time illustrator as soon as you get out of school, you can give that up right now. Something that I wish I’d stuck more to when I left school is that you have to do the work you have to like the best. If you’re not enjoying the work you’re doing you’re in trouble. If you’re doing the work because you know the client will like it you’re screwed. You have to do the work that to creatively feeds you.