Artist OTW Interview: Esme Blegvad


by owen burrows

This month we interviewed Esme, an illustrator and cartoonist from London, who also makes paintings, animations and memes. 

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What was the inspiration behind the series?

I wanted to make something about being in the house that omitted a concept I’ve heard a lot about during quarantine, of being specifically trapped, stuck or bored in the house - while this response to our crazy times is obviously natural, and valid, I wanted to depict the house more impartially, without necessarily attempting to comment on how it felt to be there. While making these paintings I came to think of them as just little visual dispatches recording a given hour of the day in my bedroom. The idea didn’t extend too far beyond that; essentially I had nothing better to do, that stuff was sitting there, so I drew it. 

More inanely, I guess the other point of these paintings is that they felt very soft and comforting to make - I feel it speaks to the debate floating around lockdown of what role is art has to play in this crisis - I can really only speak for my own work, but when it comes to that, I’d say that the role it has to play here is virtually none. When lockdown first began I was still making little laugh-or-cry sarcastic comics and paintings of my own nudes, but quite quickly my enthusiasm for my regular subject matter kind of fizzled out because t’s just seemed kind of irrelevant. In the face of a global crisis, this didn’t affect my compulsion to make art because art-making happens to be my personal and inherent impulse under most circumstances, it’s just that art-making quickly became much more a thing about exercising a muscle to feel good, still deeply masturbatory you could say, as art always is, but in a much less showy way than usual. It’s become very much about making and doing whatever feels nice, regardless of it being interesting or relatable or even very “good” in whatever way. 

It’s been disheartening to see artists on social media presenting work they have made in lockdown specifically against a foil of the so-called basic stuff that the general population is currently up to. Like baking sourdough and doing yoga; as in “thank God I got something more out of this”. I tried to make a satirical joke about it the other day in an Instagram caption and a bunch of people commented being like “yeah! fuck baking!” but really, baking and yoga and also doing literally nothing are totally reasonable responses to this global crisis and its endless, microcosmic psyche effects; there is no way to quantify what constitutes a waste of time during a crisis. And to produce artwork in the mindset that it’s valid by virtue of it being ‘more than’ the things other people have been doing in order to just get through a freaking global crisis is I guess fine but to me, it seems sinister and delusional. I think the role of art in a crisis is limited to being a comfort to the person who felt compelled to produce it - so to long-windedly arrive at my point, the most real inspiration behind these paintings was that it honestly just felt good, time-consuming, anxiety-recusing and therapeutic to sit and paint a bunch of shadows on the boring magnolia walls of my bedroom. The fact that these paintings may also generate a relatable warmth because the cosy quiet nothingness of a day inside the house is now a universally-relatable concept, it’s kind of a fortunate by-product of the project, and is what made me think they were appropriate for the Limbo residency - but essentially, they’re all a big nothing, and if quarantine has taught us anything so far it must be that nothingness really can be valid. Am I right?

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How long have you been illustrating and how did that come about?

Well, my granny and grandpa were a painter and a children’s book illustrator respectively so everyone on my dad’s side of the family is very artistically-inclined with a strong emphasis on drawing - I didn’t think so consciously about being an illustrator when I was a kid but I think the idea was definitely shopped to me consistently throughout my life as a reasonable and straightforward-seeming career, although I ended up getting an English degree instead of going to art school. In my final year of that degree I decided for sure I just wanted to do comics and illustration so I just started drawing all the time and posting my work to like 8 followers on Tumblr, and cold-emailing publications I wanted to draw for. The first proper job that made me think I could do it for real was with Rookie Magazine who invited me to become a staff illustrator after I harassed them about drawing comics. After I was done with school I moved to New York and basically just drew all the time for Rookie, Vice, a bunch of zines and friends’ books and magazines and virtually anyone else who needed stuff drawn, which was kind of like a mini Art School in itself because my drawings kind of really sucked at first, but the big secret is that pretty much anyone can learn to draw to a satisfying standard, you just literally have to do it all the time and repeat yourself again and again and practice to death. So I did that through various jobs until my work started to look more and more how I saw it in my head, which I guess is akin to the point of art school, and I just kinda went from there. 

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What/who inspired you at a young age?

Well in terms of drawing style or like the whole bag of wanting to draw I think I was obviously pretty inspired by my family but mainly my grandpa, who was an illustrator for his entire life. When I was a kid I actually kinda thought his little intricate realist line-drawings were twee and a bit meh because I really liked violently-drawn, hysterical-looking cartoons like Cow and Chicken. But I do see a lot of what I guess is an attempted emulation of his style in the way I draw things now, particularly like, still-life drawings of little objects. He could basically just really draw a thing the way it looked, which is pretty much all I’m ever striving for. He was a great grandparent and a super-close friend of mine until his death and I remember he was simultaneously extremely supportive & vocally thrilled about me wanting to be an illustrator; while also being a ruthless critic who once said to me “your enthusiasm is wonderful to behold but couldn’t you try to make the drawings a bit less ugly?” This was all very inspirational because it provided me with a belief in myself which was based on his firm belief in me, but then also inspired me to want to kinda one-up him in a positive, hearty sort of way and knock his socks off with my “ugly” crying-girl cartoons, like OK old man, lemme show ya. 

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Who has caught your ear recently? 

I like listening to techno when I have to really focus on work without being distracted by any lyrics or talking in the background and for that mood, I never look further than the sublime mixes of notorious international Dj collective Hot Desk (@hot.desk). Lately, for cleaning the bathroom and related chores, I’ve been listening to a lot of Mike Francis and other gentle 80s Italo-pop. I’ve also been blessed to properly discover during lockdown the work of living guitar legend Haruomi Hosono and his associated acts, mainly his band Happy End who made a bunch of bizarre, super-pretty albums in the 70s that are basically Japanese interpretations of American country-rock. It’s as corny as it sounds and I literally fucking live for it. I can’t get enough of them, I find them extremely charming and dreamy and comforting to listen to on repeat for sometimes six or eight hours at a time. 

Thanks for speaking with us Esme, its been an absolute pleasure!