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vol 5 - issue 01 (sep 2002) :: untapped
UNTAPPED TALENT: CHRISTA DONNER
interview by debbie

DEBBIE GOT THE BREAKDOWN FROM MISS DONNER ON BODY IMAGE, FEMINISM, AND ALTERNATIVE COMICS, IN THIS MONTH'S UNTAPPED TALENT INTERVIEW.

Debbie: Tell us about your current body of work and what sparked the message behind it.

Christa: Well, my current body of work I've been working on for several years in various forms. It's mostly an exploration of various issues, like body image, women's health-- well, health in general-- and various issues related to the body and its relationship to mainstream Western culture in the media. I've always been really interested in, and critical of, the media. I've had all sorts of different perspectives on that throughout my life. I was involved in modeling when I was a teenager, and that gave me one perspective on it. I also had a friend who had a pretty severe eating disorder in college, and that gave me another perspective on it. I think most women deal with some sort of major body image issue throughout their lives. So that was just something that was an over-arching theme of my life. And, not that I wanted to deal with it in my work, but I sort of couldn't not deal with it in my work. When I first started making this kind of work, all these different issues had come to a head in my life, and that was pretty much all I could draw about-- whether I was aware that I was doing it or not. Realizing that I was doing work about that came later. I'd just been making work, and started to look at it more and realize what it was about.

D: So the images came to you before the actual idea behind them did?

C: Yeah. I was in New York doing this thing called the New York Studio Program. During that time, I had been discovered by this modeling agency, and I was trying to decide, ethically, where I stood on that. If I wanted to follow that and pay off my student loans with it, or if I had too many ethical problems with it. It turned out that I did. I also was having a lot of health problems. And the health problems were sort of connected to panic attacks. I had been making work that was dumbed-down feminist work that dealt with really broad issues. I've always been interested in feminist issues. But I think I wasn't dealing with them in a very personal way, because I wanted a lot of people to understand them. The funny thing was, when I started doing stuff that was much more personal and more about my specific issues, it became a lot more universal. More people responded to it. More people connected with it when it was more about specific things.

D: Well, it probably came across as more genuine, and people could see that in the art. Now, I know fine art, by definition, has a message in it--

C: Sometimes. (laughs)

D: (laughing) Yeah, sometimes. But the way you talk about yourself and your earlier work, it sounds like a lot of criticisms of typical activism work. People could say that kind of work is trite and overdone. Have you ever come across reactions like that?

C: Well, I think that, initially, when I was doing the work that was really in your face (but also really generic) feminist work, I definitely got some criticism on that. A lot of it was humorous feminist work, and many people didn't really recognize the sarcasm. They felt like I was just feeding into the stereotypes rather than combating them. I think I got more criticism when I was blatantly dealing with those issues. Now I talk about the work in a very political way, but I think it operates on a lot of different levels. When I make it, I'm not necessarily trying to go for a specific meaning, although I'm aware of different issues that may come up. When I make it I'm more absorbed in the colors I'm using and just connecting with different images that I'll choose to work with. And I don't really worry about what it means until it's done. So I think I make drawings that, hopefully, will draw people into them just as works of art,.. just on a visual level. And then they become interested in what the images are about and they start to ask questions. I don't want my work to be purely political. It could be perceived as very vague or subtle. I think that what I do with it afterwards is the more political part. I speak on panels about it, and try to organize workshops with teenage girls about body image whenever I can. That's the more political side of it. But I think that, work wise, it's just pretty artwork that happens to deal with issues for me.

D: That's cool. Weren't you in Jane magazine?

C: Yes. (laughs) Yeah, it was a very interesting thing. Someone else asked me, "Was it ironic for you to be in Jane? Was it weird? Did it feel hypocritical, or was it a revenge thing? Was it exactly what you wanted?" And I think it's a lot of those things at the same time. Initially, when I did modeling as a teenager, it was for Sassy, which was a much better magazine than Jane is. But it was also produced by Jane Pratt, who also produces Jane. And that issue of Sassy I was in was a reader-produced issue. I had also tried out for the illustrating section. They rejected my work. So it was really funny to end up in another one of Jane Pratt's magazines later for this thing that I actually wanted to get known for. I think when I was struggling with that whole modeling issue, one of the things that I was very focused on was becoming known for something I've accomplished and have control over. Not something that really doesn't have anything to do with who I am.

D: Not something like modeling.

C: Yeah. So it was weird to be in a fashion magazine, since I critique fashion magazines in my work. But it was also really cool to be in that kind of fashion magazine and not be compromised in terms of my message. And it was also cool to be in there for something that I'm accomplishing, rather than what I look like.

D: It's the Rage Against The Machine method. You deal with these large publishers or companies that you're against, but you're using them to get your message out there.

C: Exactly. You have to be really careful about how you do it, but-- I mean, I got my widest audience through that. All these people who read the magazine wrote to me and said, "I feel exactly the same way you do. I love looking at fashion magazines, but I have all these conflicting feelings about what I'm looking at. I'm really critical of it, but I still buy these stupid things." It was interesting seeing how many letters I got that said that.

D: That's really cool. Knowing that you're a model--

C: I'm not anymore. (laughs)

D: Well, knowing that you were a model, it's a cool thing to see that someone who was involved in the world of fashion is taking up this struggle and saying, "This is wrong. There are beautiful people, but--"

C: There are so many kinds of beautiful people that aren't represented there. And I have a huge problem with that. Also, one of my concerns when I was involved in the industry was that I'm underweight rather than overweight, which is the opposite of most of the population. I struggled with my self-esteem and my body image because of that. Being told that I looked sick or unhealthy all the time has influenced my work, as you can probably see. I mean, it all has to do with health stuff.

D: All the leg braces and the organs,...

C: Yeah. Feeling fragile and unhealthy is my thing.

D: So you're expressing that by putting images of internal organs and stuff like that on the women you draw?

C: With the internal organs, I try to think about the body parts I draw as Tinker Toys. I try to take my own body parts and turn them into something I can play with-- something I can understand. But, when I was a teenager and someone called me up and said, "Hey, do you want to be in this magazine?", it was like a dream come true. Once I got there, though, I just started to realize that I wasn't comfortable with the way I was, and yet I put myself out there as a model for all these other people to think that's the way to be. That was just really upsetting to me. So I didn't want to put myself out there as some kind of model for them to emulate. I have lots of beautiful friends who don't look like that.

D: In your artist's statement, you say that the issue of "body image in relation to women" goes deeper than ugly versus pretty, or fat versus thin. Do you think your message would have more validity or an extra punch if you were overweight rather than underweight? Especially since underweight is usually considered pretty more often than overweight is.

C: You know, I think that's part of the reason the issue is so complicated for me. Because to some people, that's exactly what they think. They think I've got it really easy. And so, for me to talk about body image is very complicated. If I'm drawing pictures of large women, I'm not coming from that perspective. I actually am drawing pictures of larger women now, in combinations. But I think because I grew up with that whole dynamic-- on the one side everybody was like, "Oh, you're so lucky. Oh, I'm gonna go on a diet so I can look like you." And then, other people were coming up to me and saying to my face that I looked sick, and asking me if I had an eating disorder. They were really chipping away at my self-esteem in a way that I think they'd be more hesitant to do with someone who was larger. That made me aware of that whole concept. It hasn't exactly been easy.

D: Have people ever come up to you and said something like, "You're making comments on this type of beauty being wrong. But look at you. You're not fat." Has anyone sort of attacked you like that?

C: No. Again, I think it's because my work isn't blatantly about that. It's a more subtle thing. And I think my work has more to do with health. I'm definitely not saying that skinny people or models are bad. Mostly what I'm trying to get across in my work is that women, in general, are more complicated than the outside of their bodies. I think that people, men and women, are judged so much on the outside of their bodies. And people assume so many things. People assume a lot of things about me. It would be lovely if they were true. (laughs) But, I think largely what my work is about is that modeling and the media doesn't take into account the complexity of people.

D: Do you ever think you'd move on to do work about men and how they relate to women's image in society and the media?

C: It may come up. Right now, the work's very self-referential. They're like self-portraits in a way, or portraits of my friends. They're more inward looking than that. But, actually, I've been doing a lot of drawings lately, where it's more about the relationships between the way women look at each other. And there have been a few where there's a guy in the picture, too. I think that being a guy is such a different perspective, in terms of the way that you look at yourself and the way that you feel yourself looked at in society. I'm not even sure what that would be like. So it's harder for me. I think it would be interesting to explore, but I don't know if I'd be as good at it.

D: That makes sense. This body of work has been evolving over a matter of years. Do you see yourself moving on to doing anything involving national politics?

C: It's hard to say, because it's hard to know where your work is gonna go down the road. I think, if it does, it'll be centered around women's issues. Obviously, that's a big focus for me because of my own background. I don't think the theme of my work is ever going to go away. I know that I'm gonna deal with it in different ways. I might do video work, or I might do large sculptural installations. And they may not all have intestines in them. (laughs)

D: (laughing) Darn!

C: But it may tie into things, like the oppression of women in the Middle East, or genital mutilation in South Africa. But it's always gonna deal with women and their bodies.

D: So no matter what direction your art goes in, that'll always be at the core.

C: But you could interview me in ten years, and I might say, "All my work is about bugs now."

D: Yeah. All your pictures will be these huge renderings of a beatle's wing. Great! I can't wait!

C: And then I'll just do paintings of cats and kittens.

D: Please don't! I see it now,.. I'll get an American Greetings card and it'll be signed Christa Donner.

C: Yup. Dogs, puppies, and fluffy things.

D: Well, that's what the world needs. Cute is good.

C: (lauging) Right.

D: I saw One Hour Photo yesterday, and now I'm obsessed with products and name brand labels. The movie is really creepy. There's a scene where Robin Williams' character is walking through the store he works in, and I totally recognized all the product labels he was walking past. All the Nike, Barilla pasta, Hello Kitty, etc. And now I'm obsessed with product labels. Is there anything like that, where you see it and you automatically feel like you've got to make a piece of art about it?

C: About specific products?

D: Just about anything. Is there any one thing you've seen recently where it's made you want to make it a part of your artwork?

C: The thing I'm most obsessed with is alternative comics. But that's not a direct thing, necessarily, in my work.

D: How'd that interest come about?

C: Various friends turned me on to it. I've always been interested in storytelling and narrative work. I can really relate to the things that people are doing now (like Chris Ware and Paul Pope); the way they're experimenting with narrative structure in a whole new way, and the fact that it's drawings. I don't do paintings. I do drawings. I love the lush line-quality. These graphic novels take years to put together sometimes. The fact that the artists are just drawing and drawing and drawing, and they're not necessarily doing it for a big audience, is awesome. They just love to do it, and I love to look at it.

D: Have you ever thought of doing your own comic?

C: I've done some comics. I'm not very good at it. (laughs) I'm not good at drawing small, and I'm not good at the narrative part.

D: Well, I heard Chris Ware does his comic pages really huge.

C: Yeah. You can do them bigger and shrink 'em. But I'm used to workin' on walls and stuff.

D: You should do an exhibition where you turn an entire room into a comic book.

C: I did a wall drawing that was sort of a comic. I'm still working on the narrative aspects of that, but that's something I'm interested in pursuing.

D: Have you ever done graffiti art?

C: A little bit. I'm just finding out more about it. I'm really interested in the street stencil stuff. I like that a lot.

D: The cool thing about graf art is that it's so extensive. Did you get a chance to catch the PBS art documentary?

C: Art: 21? Yes. I just saw it recently.

D: Did you see the part with Margaret--

C: Margaret Kilgallen. Yeah. I love her so much. You know, she died recently? I'm so sad about that.

D: Yeah, she was amazing. I love that scene in the documentary where her and Barry McGee are at the train yard.

C: I love that scene, too! She's so awesome.

D: She was just writing text on the side of the train, and it looked like a real label,.. like an existing logo. All the stuff she was saying about how there are imperfections in her line work because it was made by a human hand,.. that was cool.

C: Yeah. She was a beautiful person.

D: Have you ever gotten to see any of her artwork at a show?

C: I did, actually. She did a huge wall installation at Beach Projects in New York. And I didn't know who she was at all then, but I remember seeing it when I was a student in college and being totally blown away. That was sort of how I got turned on to doing wall drawings. I was like, "Wow! It would be awesome to do something like this!"

D: So I assume you have a sketchbook, but the wall drawings are your main thing.

C: Well, I would say working really large on paper is my main thing. I did my first wall drawing for my graduating show from college. At the time, I thought it was gonna be the only chance I would ever be able to do something like that. Now it's ended up that people will ask me to do wall drawings, specifically. And it's allowed me to experiment a little more with them. I've done tons of wall drawings since then, and I've sort of perfected the method of doing it. I really wasn't expecting to be able to do that. Since I don't make a lot of money from selling my work, it's a really good way to get them to pay for me to travel places. Because it's a matter of, "Are they gonna ship my work, or are they gonna ship me?" Another part of the reason I love doing the wall drawings is, I'm a really small person and it feels great to do something really enormous. I like that it surprises people that this really tiny person made a drawing that's bigger than them-- bigger than the room. Also, it's empowering to create something that is enormous, strong, vibrant; all the things I would like to, ideally, think of myself as.

D: Right on.

C: Plus, if it's a group show, a wall-sized image draws a lot more attention to my work than a little framed thing would. And you don't have to worry about storing it later.

D: Yeah. Once it's done, it's done. I have heard that you can "skin" a wall, but I don't know how to do it.

C: I don't either. I would like to know how people do that. (laughs) It's a little bit sad when it gets painted over. But, if you get good slides of it, it's okay.

D: Totally. Have you ever heard of this artist named Bekka? She does paintings of these classical little girls with crowns. Then she just nails them up on a city wall, or on a construction site and leaves them.

C: That's awesome. I'm thinking about getting into graffiti.

D: Yeah, it's tempting. Right after I saw that Art: 21 special, I went out and bought a Wite-Out pen. I was like, "Hmm,.. what can I do with this?"

C: (laughing) Yeah. That made it very alluring. In June I went to the Underground Publishing Conference, and went to this workshop that turned me on to street stenciling. Part of my thing with doing a zine and making work that gets distributed widely is that I want to get these ideas out to a lot of people,.. not necessarily an "art audience". The idea of making a stencil or something that's quickly and easily reproduced, that you can get up everywhere, that's graphically strong-- that's really exciting to me.

D: No matter where people are at or what walk of life they're from, they'll see it.

C: Yeah. I love that.

D: Do you think there's a way to get that same effect with the zines?

C: Yeah, but somebody's gotta sit down and read it. It's a different audience. It's an audience I'm definitely interested in reaching. That's why I do a zine. But the graffiti thing just takes a second to look at, and it gets your ideas and your work out there.

D: It's like the Shepard Fairey/Obey Giant effect.

C: But I'd like to do it in way that's something specific, too. Part of Obey Giant for Shepard was a branding thing. But, as far as I know, it didn't have a specific message. Street stenciling has been used really effectively as a political medium.

D: Well, as soon as you start that, you'll have to let me know. This way, I can keep an eye out for your handiwork.

C: Yeah. Don't tell the police. (laughs)

D: Are there any other future projects you'd like to tell us about?

C: I've got a lot of projects coming up that I'm excited about and overwhelmed by at the same time. I'm doing an album cover and a vinyl etching for my friend's band. They're called The Six Parts Seven. It's really beautiful instrumental music. I've got a bunch of shows coming up that I'm excited about. I'm doing the program for Ladyfest East, and I'm doing workshops with kids out there, too, which will be awesome.

D: With all these exhibitions you've got coming up, what would be your dream exhibition?

C: Well, my dream exhibition is the show coming up in January at Carnegie Mellon. It's gonna have one of my really large drawings and my zines. The show is called Comic Relief. It's all contemporary artists, alternative comic artists, and zine-makers. It's gonna show the parallels between those things. I've been noticing those parallels for a long time. I've been making zines and doing art at the same time for years. I think the zine people were really accepting of my artwork, but the art people were like, "Oh, your zine,.. that's this cute little project that you do." No one was really recognizing the connection between the two. I see the connection. Both the artwork and the zines are coming from me, and they're both dealing with media from different angles. Not only am I excited to have those things in the same show. Every single one of my favorite artists is also in the show. So I'm super-psyched about it. And it's a traveling exhibition. They're doing this enormous catalogue about the connection between contemporary art and comics, which I can't wait to read. I'm hoping to teach a class on that subject someday. Then the show's gonna travel to New Orleans, Texas, Florida, and possibly a few other places.

D: Geez! Nobody tells me about anything. I didn't get to submit.

C: I didn't get to submit either. They just contacted me.

D: That's fucking cool. Well, if you've already got your dream show coming up, what's there to live for now?

C: (laughs) I don't know. I'll hope to have a solo show at The Whitney, then.

D: Is there any one place that you'd like to live for a year?

C: There are several places. I got a grant that I want to use for travel. But I work three jobs, so I don't know when I'm gonna get to go. I have always wanted to go to India. I'm also really interested in going to Japan. I've never been out of the country. I've never been able to afford it. But Japan seems like it would be such an interesting place for me to visit because of my interests. Comic culture there is just insane. It's totally different than what we have here. Everyone there reads comics.

D: I think people generally appreciate it more as an art form over there. Here it's just spandex and lasers to most people.

C: But over there, little kids read them, old people read them, everyone on the bus reads them,.. and comic artists get paid all this money because they're really well-respected. Japan is also this hot-bed of culture. And, from what I've seen of the fashion magazines that come out of Tokyo, their concepts of body image seem more extreme, which is hard to imagine. I was looking at a friend's magazine and it had this whole section that was just photographs of different girls' asses. It was comparing which one was better. Over there, the women shave all their body hair off, not just their legs and armpits. They have huge ads in all the magazines for different plastic surgeons. It's wild. So I think it would be a pretty interesting place to visit.

D: Sounds like it. When it's all said and done, do you want to be remembered as a great artist, or as a great female artist?

C: As an artist. But I think that, if people know my work, they'll know what it's about. Maybe I'd like to be known as a great political artist. I think that feminism is such a big issue. It covers so many topics. It's a human rights thing. It doesn't just have to do with one thing or another.

D: Does it upset you that it gets herded into one large, general topic?

C: Yeah, it's annoying. It's opened up a lot recently. With all these magazines that have come out now like Bust, Venus, and Bitch, it seems like more people are starting to realize that feminism can be fun. You can be critical of things without being this humorless--

D: Man-hating, evil wench?

C: Yeah. A long time ago, before any of those magazines had become well-known, I told someone that I did work dealing with feminist issues. They were like, "Why aren't you wearing camoflage and why don't you have a crew-cut?" I just looked at him like he was insane, because I was coming from this completely different understanding of what feminism meant. There's still that stigma today. But there's Ladyfest, which is a festival of girl bands, artists, and performers. That goes on in all kinds of different countries every year. There are so many things going on right now that make feminism seem much more appealing to the general public. So I hope that changes some of the stereotypes about it.

D: Alright, here's my last question. Do you think dogs have lips?

C: Wow. Ya know, it depends on how you define "lips". My cat doesn't have lips. She has one lip.

D: She does?

C: Yeah. The one on the bottom. So maybe dogs have one lip on the bottom. Maybe. I haven't seen one lately. (laughing) It's hard to say.

TO SEE AND LEARN MORE, VISIT CHRISTA AT HER SITE HERE.


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