Diary Drawing at The Centre For Recent Drawing

Categories:  Features, Interviews

[Paul Gravett addresses the room. More photos of the event available on Oliver East’s Flickr set.]

The perceived wisdom is that, as a Mancunian, I’m supposed to hate London and all its fancy ways, but I’ve always been a big fan. I always say my favourite book is London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. In truth I’ve never read it but it looks good on my shelf. So with a skip in my step and some comics to hawk, I headed to our nation’s capital for the opening of an exhibition of diary drawings at The Centre for Recent Drawing.

First stop was Gosh Comics, about a twenty-minute walk from Euston Station. I’d have liked to have interviewed a clerk or a manager, or maybe even a punter, but it was orders day and everyone was very busy. They were kind enough to stock five of mine, and it looked a very nice shop, but I got out of their way and left them to it.

I didn’t have to be at the gallery until five and it was one now, so I walked up to Shoreditch to visit Bookartbookshop. After just over an hour’s walk, I arrived a bit hot and flustered, but it was well worth it. My ancient Greek’s a bit patchy, but if there was a Greek goddess of art books, then she’s alive and well and running Bookartbookshop. Anyone who can pull a chilled bottled of white wine as if from nowhere is a winner in my book. With a panel to do later on, I had to decline, but any other day I would have drained it while bending her ear about the hundreds of books in her tiny shop. Crushes aside, it’s a very impressive collection that has augmented collections at the V&A and Tate amongst others. They currently have an exhibition in their window of comics from the Camden comics stall thing. She was kind enough to by 4 books off of me outright, which meant I had more beer money for later. Score.

By now it was about two, and rather than tackle London’s sauna-like public transport system, I walked up to Islington, arriving at the gallery at three, two hours early, leaving enough time to sample Filipino food for the first time. I recommend the Ginger lamb.

After looking through the letterbox of the door across the road from the gallery for about 20 minutes, I finally found the gallery proper. I’m crap at reading names. I just scan them but nothing goes in. I knew Gabrielle Bell was in the show but hadn’t realised Rutu Modan and Miriam Katina were as well. I suppose they’re just names until you see the work to connect them to. I’ve not read Exit Wounds yet because I can’t get past the art. I’m not a fan. Students back in college drew from photographs, and it didn’t look good then, but in this show Modan was showing a long drawing hanging from the wall and carrying onto the floor that demanded your attention. And a very rewarding read it was too. It was a selection from her column for the NY Times, shown in a less than obvious manner that did it justice. Maybe I’ll read her book, after all. Paul Gravette went on to describe Modan’s practice in great detail but in a pitch which my Dictaphone’s deaf to and the only thing on Modan I pick up is a publisher from Jonathan Cape saying, “She’s an Israeli now living in Sheffield and is brilliantly funny about it.”

Sorry. Send cutting edge recording equipment to the usual address, please.

I’d been a huffin’ and a puffin, all worried about doing my first ever panel. Paul Gravett was to chair and I was to sweat and stammer my way through it. I needn’t have worried though. There was an impressive turn out in this relatively small gallery, so the panel ended up being Gravett interviewing the artists by their work, in amongst the crowd.

After Rebecca Swindle had explained her comics drawn onto cigarette rolling papers, which she then made into fags on a camping trip, and Lady Lucy had spoken about her wares it was my turn. I was showing Trains Are…Mint 4. I’ll let me explain:

It’s a unique edition of one, drawn onto the pages of a book I wrote before I started drawing a couple of years ago.

[Gravette] So it predates…

The book was published by a gallery in Manchester called International 3, to document my efforts to camp exactly 150 metres away from peoples’ houses in Norway. Because there’s a law that says you can camp any where in Norway for free as long as you’re 150 metres from the nearest house.

[People giggle a bit, I get into my stride and chicks dig a stammerer. I’m easily motherable I guess.]

Did you take a tape measure?

That, and a walking thingy [I mime a pedometer] and loads of maps and stuff. But that was published before I picked up a pencil in anger. I self-published five comic books before I decided I should probably learn how to draw. So Trains Are…Mint 4, which is what this is, was an exercise in learning how to draw.

So this predates Trains Are…Mint 1, 2, and 3?

No, no, no. Trains Are…Mint is just a catch all title for my self-published efforts, and the first three, I wanted to get them out as quick as possible because I was quite confident of the basic concept of Trains Are…Mint. So I wanted people to be aware of it as quickly as possible, quicker than I could learn to draw. So after the third one came out I took a deep breath and thought ‘I better learn how to draw’.

What do the numbers in the book mean?

The numbers are the amount in metres that I camped from people’s houses that night.

So you broke the law sometimes, because this one is less than 150 metres?

I didn’t get exactly 150 metres but I got closer and further away. But the point of it is that once I’d made the decision of where to camp, it’s taken out of my hands, it gives me time to meditate on other things.

You rely on written notes rather than sketches, is that right?

I make a point not to do any sketches and not take any photos because, knowing the kind of person I am, I’d get back to my studio and obsess on making the drawings look like what they’re meant to look like. So I do the walk or whatever, then leave it a couple of months so my memory’s hazy, then do the drawings.

So there’s no written notes or…

Written notes on stuff I’ve thought or things that happen, but what things look like? No.

I don’t want to crap on about myself for ages; it’s just that a combination of poor acoustics and a cheap Dictaphone mean that I’m really the only person that I can hear well on this thing. But to cut a self-obsessed artist short, I waffle on for a bit more, explain to an American lady what ‘mint’ means, flirt outrageously with anyone and everyone and generally, cotton-mouth aside, pull it off quite well. I explained the work well, people laughed; I was faux self-deprecating. It was all good. Then onto the next artist. Phew, thank God.

A publisher from Jonathan Cape was there to speak on behalf of Modan and also Mio Matsumoto, whom he is publishing My Diary for in July. I’ll let him explain, in his very impressive booming voice:

“She’s Japanese and did illustration at Kingston and then at The Royal College of Art. I said to our art director, ‘do you know anybody who’s doing anything?’ as it were, and Mio came in with this book absolutely fully formed, she did it for her MA at college, and the story is that she discovered what she thought was a boil on her tongue and it turned out she had cancer. She went back to Japan for treatment and she wrote the book while it was going on, so it was therapeutic a much as anything else. I hated Cancer Vixen and I bought it as an antidote to that book, which a lot of people think is the cat’s whiskers. Cancer Vixen is like Sex and the City, but this is like what it is like if you’re young woman who’s suddenly got cancer of the tongue. So she’s worried about will she be able to kiss her boyfriend again, and she falls in love with one of the doctors and it’s incredibly funny. The writing is wonderful because it’s half English and half not. Editing it was incredibly difficult. I edited by e-mail and every time she corrected one word, she’d misspell another, but we got there in the end. It’s wonderful and she’s fantastic.”

The book is very impressive. I was pleased to be in such good company. After committing yourself to the world of comics, you quickly see exhibition opportunities float away. I’ve gone on record as distrusting diary comics, but the standard of stuff on show here proved me very wrong.

It was, however, the first opening I’d ever been to with no free booze, and this proved a distraction while the last couple of artist spoke about their work. With an hour to go before I had to leave for my train, I nipped off to the pub for a quick pint, before returning to schmooze for half an hour. This is the point I usually hate, and the main reason I don’t go to openings anymore. You get a load of career-minded artists looking over your shoulder to see if there isn’t anyone else more important they should be talking to. But there was none if that, just a room of slightly sweaty, sober people with a shared interest in drawing. But what was this? Sparkling wine! Get in! So while I milked that I was interviewed for some magazine/flirted with some journalist and got on handsomely with the gallery’s owner and one of his resident artists. More news on that to come.

Good day all round was topped of with some of Marks & Spencer’s delightful little pre-mixed Gin & Tonics, before the train home where I bumped into a friend who leant me his iPod charger so I didn’t have to listen to the lady in front eating crisps (sorry, chips)

My last drunken notes of the day read:

Some woman on the phone saying:

Who’s on telly now?

Who’s on telly now?

Yeah, yeah but

Who’s on telly now?

–Oliver East