Thorns and Flowers

As well as finishing my graphic novel this year, I’ve also been involved in designing a booklet, Thorns and Flowers, for a research project by an all-female team from Cardiff and Aberystwyth Universties. Their research explored the infertility experiences of Black and Minority Ethic women living in Wales, and it was funded by Welsh Crucible. You can read and download the booklet here.

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The team used my comics about fertility and childlessness to prompt discussion in an art workshop attended by nine women at Women Connect First in Cardiff, whose charity is a partner on the project. It was interesting for me to discover their responses to, and interpretations of my work, especially differences in understanding due to varying cultural backgrounds. My intentions for certain pieces did not speak to everyone. For example, my use of the sun as a visual metaphor for hope (see comic below) was interpreted as a symbol of infertility – it represented dry barrenness to some women. They suggested rain as a more appropriate metaphor, because rain would represent the possibility of new growth and replenishment.

Mother, or not? 2

Mother, or not? 2

There was also a basic drawing class, after which the women produced their own artwork about their feelings around their experiences of infertility. I attended the workshop and was so touched to see such personal and beautiful artwork being produced. I also knew immediately which image I would use for the centre spread! Many of the women were not trained artists, but, for me, this means that the work is often more honest and raw. Without the shackles of trying too hard to make something look perfect, and the self-consciousness of line that that brings, the immediate emotion is laid bare on the page and the images are all the better for it. It is my opinion that anyone can draw.

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My job was to bring together the artwork, research conclusions, and quotes from the women, in an aesthetically pleasing presentation for a printable booklet. This meant adding colour to some of the women’s drawings and illustrating one or two images. At first, I was wary of doing this on such personal work, out of a sense of respect, and because I didn’t want my ‘hand’ to show too much on their work. For this reason, I chose to use felt-tip pen as a medium for colouring the work – many of the women had used felt-tips in the workshop, and I felt that this would keep the aesthetic look of the booklet coherent and authentic. I did my own felt-tip colouring, but added it digitally so as not to change their original pieces of artwork.

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I went to the booklet launch in Cardiff earlier this week, which was part of Women Connect First’s AGM where they were outlining their community projects. I was glad to meet the woman whose image I’d coloured for the front cover again. Her approval was very welcome, and she said that the other women were also happy with the booklet. The feedback for the booklet and the importance of its message was very positive, and I’m happy to have been part of this project. The main thing I took away was the importance of talking to one another about infertility, and to take the issues out into the wider community. Art is an altogether levelling and accessible way of doing this. And Women Connect First definitely have the right name – it was a very connecting experience, after all.

Sofia introducing the booklet

Sofia Gameiro, introducing the booklet

The research team included: Sofia Gameiro, Alida Payson, Berit Bliesemann de Guavara and Elizabeth el Refaie. They now hope to distribute the booklet to healthcare providers and community leaders in order to raise awareness of the particular issues faced by BME women suffering infertility.

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FINISHED! Graphic memoir update

FINISHED! Work on my graphic memoir, The Facts of Life, is now complete, and the file is in the safe hands of my editor, Corinne Pearlman of Myriad Editions. She has been finalising work on the book jacket and getting it all ready for printing. The book will be published by Myriad Editions on March 16th 2017. I’m very excited about jacket quotes and reviews that I’ve had so far – from some excellent authors whom I’ve admired for many years! It’s six years since I started work on this book, and ten years since I first had the idea, so it feels incredible to have finished at last.

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There has been much toing and froing in recent weeks with the copy-edit, book jacket, and mysterious missing speech bubbles, which had fallen foul of the digital ether (i.e. mistakenly overwritten files that InDesign had a dizzy spell over in the final package). Such a huge learning curve! That packaged ID file was a hefty lump of over 4GB of data.

I’ve mentioned my health issues here before. I could not have completed this work without the help of my husband John Austin, who did the majority of my scanning and digital tidying. Computer work (any work) can leave my arm muscles very sore, so this meant that arm energy could be used solely for completing the hand-rendered artwork. I’m extremely grateful for his help, otherwise it might have taken another year, and I was already pushing myself to get things finished as it was.

I’m also grateful to one or two friends who’ve taken the time to read it and put my mind at rest about general brow-furrowing I’ve developed since the realisation of it being real!COVER_Couple_ChartBlueBG_redcrosses_darkerchart

I feel honoured that my book will be joining the Myriad stable of graphic novelists, which houses many books that I admire – some written by people who have become friends and/or supportive colleagues. I’m looking forward to taking it out into the world and crossing paths more often with these talented folk.

In the meantime, I’m having some time off to rest properly, and to catch up with friends. I’ll also be starting HBOT treatment soon, which I hope will help my ME/ Fibromyalgia symptoms. Some people have had good results, and I’ve wanted to try it for some time, but it requires a whole month of daily treatment. I’m hoping to do a HBOT diary with drawings and notes, but I’ll have to see how it goes, and whether it will be possible to draw while tooled up in an oxygen chamber with others who might not want to be drawn!

For more regular updates from my studio, please follow my Instagram account: @paulajkstudio

Three Little Words / #MEawareness

It’s ME Awareness day. I’ve had ME/CFS for over twenty years to a mild-moderate degree, since I had Glandular Fever in 1993. I’ve had better years when I’ve almost felt normal, but it’s always been lurking. I’m only as well as I am because I’ve been lucky enough to be able (just) to pay for tests and treatments unavailable on the NHS (I have regular B12 and Magnesium injections from a private GMC-registered doctor of environmental medicine.) Others are not that lucky and the NHS still does not provide adequate treatment for this illness.

This blog is about attitudes and what to say – I’ve put up with some rancid comments over the years, not least when I wrote for Guardian Comment is free under the pseudonym Jayne Austin about ME and welfare benefits. Last night, I made a very quick and messy little comic to celebrate ME Awareness day, and to suggest how easy it can be to say the right thing (with a nod to Schulz, Peppermint Patty and possibly a few others – what can I say – it just came out!) TLW_web1_PaulaKnight TLW_web2

FFI: http://www.meassociation.org.uk/      http://www.actionforme.org.uk/

 

Graphic novel progress

Here’s a timeline and brief diary for my graphic novel, The Facts of Life, to date. It’s been a case of ‘comics interruptus’ so far for all sorts of reasons, but it’s gathering speed now and I’m ‘in the zone’:

2006: After reading Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, I realise that it’s possible to be a middle-aged woman writing memoir using the medium of comics. Can I play, too? Seeds of idea for a autobiographical graphic novel germinate. Start an alphabetical card file of memories. I begin to sketch memories and draw my first comic strip How a Baby is Made. Tentatively show one or two amenable friends who emit positive noises and suggest I go for it. I go to a comics convention for the first time but feel that neither myself nor my story fits somehow, and leave discouraged. (It would be a long time until I discover the the indie self-publishing scene).

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2007:  I enter How a Baby is Made to the first Observer Graphic Short Story prize – but it’s not really a short story. Join Deviant Art as ‘Missnibs’ and post strip there – but I’m not yet au fait with social networking and don’t get very far.

How a Baby is Made 1

How a Baby is Made 1

2007/8: Submit idea to a new comics publisher – initial interest and very encouraging but nothing solid. My proposal is still a little under-cooked. And so am I.

2008-10: Hiatus – all will become clear in book! Discover Laydeez do Comics.

2010: Timeline of memoir ends so ready to start writing – theme of story has changed somewhat due to life events! I go to Laydeez do Comics for the first time and feel more encouraged that there might be a readership for my story. I start to transfer the card file entries to colour-coded post-its, which stay on the wall for over two years until the glue goes crispy and they start to drop off. I use these headings to start writing scenes in words. Join Twitter as a proofreader (my other work) but end up using it to meet comics people instead, thus discovering Graphic Medicine. Further enthused. Sadly, I don’t attend the very first Graphic Medicine conference because I mistakenly think it’s for academics and medics only.

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2011: Get going! Background research and much reading. Enter 17 pages to Myriad Editions’ inaugural First Graphic Novel Competition. It’s good to have a goal. Air project in public for the first time at Laydeez do Comics in May (where I hear about the competition). Attend Arvon Foundation Graphic Novels course where I receive some welcome feedback and meet more lovely comics people – in full flow of quenching thirst from the overflowing cup of comics camaraderie at this point. In November I speak about my project at Comics Forum in Leeds at the Graphic Medicine day. It’s the first time I’ve spoken at an academic conference and it seems to be well received, although I’m extremely nervous. I’ve finally met ‘my people’, professionally speaking, this year! Trawl through old photos.p1_2010_gray

2012: Good news – reach shortlist of Myriad competition! It’s the first time I’ve got so far in any professional competition. Keep in touch with Myriad as project progresses. More research, reading, and story-boarding in between paid freelance work. Make my first self-published comic, Spooky Womb, to dip toe into water. I take it to autumn Comiket and it sells well. My first children’s books as author are published this year, too. A year of firsts.

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2013: More good news! Sign contract with Myriad Editions. Then follows another unfortunate 8-month hiatus. In summer, I speak at the 4th Comics and Medicine Conference in Brighton, which buoys me. Unearth old teenage diaries and letters. Start working on book again towards the end of the year, when I finish the artwork for my prologue.

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2014: Finish first draft of storyboards. Feeding of recycle bin with superfluous splurge. Successful application to Arts Council England for funding to complete my book. Re-read letter to make sure! They definitely said yes. Have a go at making a handwritten font for the lettering – aka a week of faffing resulting in alphabet spaghetti rather than beautiful lo-fi fontage plus sore knuckles from all the gnawing. Begin to make working drawings from the storyboards, which I transfer to Bristol Board for painting and inking. Fonts can wait until patience is restored.

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Onwards: Part three to jiggle,190ish pages of artwork and lettering to draw and complete, and the cover to design. Now working on it for six days a week stopping at eight o’clock most nights. I don’t get out much. I hope friends and family can bear with me for the confinement over the coming year. BBC Radios 4 and 6 are my friends now, plus garden snails and local cats at lunchtimes.

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Graphic Medicine podcast

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Photo by Ian Williams.

Last year, I presented my work at Ethics Under Cover: Comics, Medicine and Society (4th International Conference on Comics and Medicine). I spoke on a panel named ‘Who’s Story is it?’ alongside Peaco Todd, Linda Raphael and Mita Mahato. Here is a link to the podcast (mine is second on the recording): Graphic Medicine Podcast: Brighton Panel 4A

My talk was titled ‘In or Out: Considering the impact on others of writing and sharing graphic memoir’. I spoke about my work in progress in relation to the responsibility for secondary characters’ stories in memoir (those who have not asked to be in a book), especially where medical details are involved. I also spoke about my other comics about fertility, miscarriage and childlessness and the response to sharing that personal work on social networking sites between 2011 and 2013.

The conference provided a generous portion of brain food, and I heartily recommend creators with medical/ health themes to their work to attend, or propose a paper to, future conferences. Also, do check out the Graphic Medicine Podcast archive where you will find interviews and talks by many talented comics creators and academics whose work reflects the ‘interaction between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare.’ (Graphic Medicine website quote).

This panel took place first thing on a Sunday morning, so I’m sure those delegates who were still wisely tucked up in bed will welcome the chance to hear it. Although I’m still not sure how anyone ever sleeps in Brighton with those tireless over-enthusiastic seagulls.

The Phoenix Project: Surviving Cancer

Last year, I was commissioned to create a comic as part of The Phoenix Project: Surviving Cancer, a research project based between the Royal Hallamshire Hospital and the University of Sheffield. Five other comics artists familiar with Graphic Medicine contributed work, including Mita Mahato and Andrew Godfrey – although we didn’t immediately know who else was involved. They can all be seen here.

The project began by looking at issues surrounding cancer, sexuality and relationships. The project team interviewed cancer survivors, asking them about their experiences. Excerpts from these interviews were then given to artists recruited from the graphic medicine community. We showed the resulting images back to the participants and assessed how they addressed their concerns. This work is vital because completing treatment is not the end of a cancer patient’s story: many are traumatised and vulnerable to further medical complications and a host of other concerns. Little is done to address these issues because cancer research focuses on treatment and prevention. These powerful, provocative and moving images have helped survivors come to terms with how cancer has effected their relationships and sex lives. There are many other issues that patients need support with. The Phoenix Project aims to use visual and digital means to address them by developing an holistic package of care, available to all.

(from The Phoenix Project website)

Here is the first page of my response to the brief. The rest can be seen here. PaulaKnight_Phoenix_Normal_p1

The interviews were provided to us as written transcripts, which I personally found challenging to interpret without meeting the people myself. I wonder how much was lost in translation or how much, as an artist, I could have gained in understanding and empathy had I been present at the interviews. Logistically, and for confidentiality reasons, this probably wouldn’t have been possible.

I hope I’ve grasped the right end of the stick with regards to characterisation, for example. I feel that without meeting the people, perhaps there is too much room to subconsciously project self into the interpretation. And, is this a bad thing or a good thing? I might have detected hints of humour in the dialogue of my chosen patient, because that is how I often deal with difficulty myself, and then projected that onto the unseen patient. Indeed, that might also be why I chose to concentrate on that particular patient for the work.

With that in mind, I must point out that I’ve never swung from a chandelier in my life – not for sexual purposes nor to transport myself from one side of a room to another. I doubt the patient has either; it’s meant to make a point – and to provide a little humour and irony when situated with the title ‘Normal?’. And, humour can help with affiliation according to Elizabeth El Refaie, author of Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures.

My own project is autobiographical with a medical theme, so it was interesting to concurrently tackle biographical work with a medical theme – especially with regards to the confidentiality issue since my story also includes others’ medical narratives.

We have yet to be informed of the patients’ responses to the work, and I am quite nervous, but intrigued, about the prospect of this.

Happysad memory comic

These pages are from a longer comic I made about my late father-in-law, Pete. I made it towards the end of 2011 when he left hospital to return home to be with his family in his final days after a long illness. The title refers to something later in the comic, but I won’t be sharing those pages yet (if ever) because it’s probably too soon.

These first pages are about my favourite memory of Pete. I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish the comic, but, at a difficult time, it felt cathartic to draw and it was my way of coping. Perhaps that’s enough and I’ll never feel the need to finish it. I wanted to share this, though, as my way of celebrating his life and what was an essential part of his character – humour. We laughed about this occasion for years afterwards and I prefer to remember this sort of thing rather than his illness.

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Panel two, page two, might worked better at a page turn – if I ever do finish it, I shall rectify that!