Hello! My name is Gina. It’s very nice to meet you. As I can’t be sure who you are, why or where you’re reading this post and what you think I am, I guess I should start with a little bit of an introduction about me.
I think that’s the basics. Sorry for rushing through the introductions, but you don’t need my whole life story. What this post is really about is reflecting on the whirlwind that has been my past couple of years: making the transition from working a full-time office job to working as a full-time freelance artist and, most importantly, learning to love critical feedback.
It really all started back in 2015, when I was accepted into the inaugural Comic Art Workshop (CAW), which was held on Maria Island (off the coast of Tasmania).
The workshop was conceived and organised by Drs Pat Grant and Liz MacFarlane. They both saw Australian comic artists creating great graphic novels, but identified a gap in the editing and workshopping process that could help these comics become even greater. The application for the workshop was different from any residency process I’d ever seen before. Instead of attaching your CV and listing fancy sounding credentials, you had to write Liz a letter - of any sort, as long as you start the letter ‘Dear Liz’ and it was no longer than 4 pages about what Big Project you were working on and why you would like to work on it at the CAW.
A couple of months later I received an email to say that I had got in! And I started planning what to bring.
The Workshop set up
The workshop ran for two weeks, with two approximately 2 hour workshops each day (one in the morning and one in the afternoon). There were 14 participants and several master artists, workshop directors and staff. We all shared rooms, sleeping in bunk beds that were originally sleeping quarters for convicts.
There was only electricity in the main hall of the island and we had to trek across a goosepoop-covered lawn to have a shower (which cost one dollar per 2 minutes). Almost every meal was made by the amazing Pat Grant (one of the workshop organisers).
When not in a workshop, we were free to wander the uninhabited ex-convict island (which I found perfect for thinking about my comics, why I make them, what I want to do and how I could make this happen).
Most of my initial walks were alone. I would get up early and wander around, hanging out with the flora and being terrified of the fauna. However, over the course of the two weeks I got to know the other workshop attendees pretty well and we started to go on walks together, creating the kind of bonds that only seem to develop over trials or close proximity in secluded areas or shared meals.
What I learned most from the workshops
There were plenty of things I learnt during the first CAW (watercolour tips, making awkward friendships, what tangents are) but probably the most important thing that I learnt was how to receive and welcome and hunger for critical feedback on my work.
Critical feedback is not something that I had ever sought out during my time at the Music Conservatorium (I studied classical musical performance at Uni). There, I was constantly terrified of people telling me what they thought of my performance (my instrument was percussion) and would regularly break down crying, “knowing” that I was not good enough and I never would be.
Similarly, with comics, I preferred to just make them quickly and quietly and then forget about them. I hated people reading them while I was in the room and found it really hard to take any form of criticism (even though it was mostly about my spelling or grammar). Still, I couldn’t stop making them. I wanted to keep telling my stories. But I feared that receiving critique might take the joy out of something I loved (which is sort of what happened at uni with music).
However, this was not the case! CAW taught me that feedback can be genuinely constructive and the workshop experience pushed my passion for comics up to the next level. By the end of the CAW I felt like my life had changed. When we were all standing at the jetty waiting for the ferry to come and collect us to take us back to the mainland, I realised that this was one of those moments that can change the direction your life takes. And I wasn’t sure what to choose.
Life after the workshop
It was weird coming back to reality. Leading up to the CAW I had been feeling a bit lost at work, not enjoying the life of an office worker, and drawing in every spare moment I could. But when I came back, sitting at an office desk become unbearable. All I wanted to do was make my book. Although it was a difficult decision, I knew what I had to do.
Over the next two years, I worked at my book (and found out how hard it is to write a long-form comic), applied for mentorships and scholarships and fellowships and residencies as often as I could, took on more paid gigs (commissions and workshops), asked for advice, moved into a studio with an established illustrator (constantly bothering him for tips and tricks), quit my day job and went full-time freelance. It was scary for the first 12 months (and I still have a constant underlying feeling of worry) and I wasn’t sure if I could make it work, but I knew in my bones that I would have regretted not making my book more.
What fears came with the second workshop
And then, in what seemed like no time at all, it was October 2017 and I was leaving Adelaide for Jogjakarta, Indonesia, to attend the Comic Art Workshop part two. Although I had not finished my book - in fact I hadn’t even finished pencilling the whole thing (originally I had planned to complete the whole book in a year, ha!), I was still excited to see everyone again. I had managed to keep in touch with most people from the previous residency and was looking forward to seeing everyone’s work. I wasn’t anywhere near as terrified or doubtful of my skills as I was the first time. At least, not until I got to the residency and saw everyone.
And then it all came flooding back. The insecurities, the self-doubt: ’what if I’d done more work or worked harder’?, ‘I should be better than I am’, ‘I don’t know how to offer feedback,’ ‘why am I here?’, ‘I don’t deserve this opportunity’, ‘everyone is being nice to me, but they don’t actually think my work is any good’. It took about a week for these thoughts to calm down (but they never entirely disappeared from my brain).
Despite my brain playing my antagonist, the biggest differences between the two CAWs (and the things I found the hardest to cope with) were the weather (Maria Island was cold and dark and wet which I love, whereas Jogja was humid and vivid and hot, which I don’t love) and the surrounding populace (Maria Island is an unpopulated island except for a few National Trust workers and occasional campers, and Jogja was constantly humming with activity and people and sounds, and because I was sharing my room with my partner Owen - who had also been accepted into the second workshop - I had no alone time at all during the residency). It was a little more overwhelming to say the least.
But even with everything going on around us, the moment we were workshopping someone’s project, the energy in the room was focused on one thing: giving the best possible feedback to everyone’s work so that they can make the best project they can. It’s a pretty amazing thing to have a room full of artists who all want and love the same thing.
Why are they important
What made the CAWs so very important to me was that they changed and aided my ability to improve on my work. It encouraged me to seek out opinions of people who I trust and admire and this has led me to applying for and receiving grants for mentorships, and constantly asking people for advice. I’ve always wanted to improve my work and strive for better comics-making practices but it wasn’t until the CAW that I gained the confidence and the tools to know how to receive and encourage critical feedback that was invaluable to my work.
In fact, in between the 2015 and 2017 workshops, I organised my own little CAW-style feedback sessions back in Adelaide to solicit feedback on my work in progress.
I still struggle with making my work and having confidence in it. And I’m still processing the feedback I got from the second CAW, which I know will be useful down the track. But knowing that once I finish the last section of my book (I’m currently working on the final hundred pages) I will get to share it with my friends and hear their thoughts and feelings and take their experience to help to make my story a better one… well, if that’s not inspiring, I don’t know what is.
So that’s the story about how I got to where I am so far. I mean, obviously there is a lot more to it than that, but I didn’t want to ramble on too much more than I already have. Anyway, it was really nice to meet you and chat with you for a little while, I hope something I said was of interest. But I really must be going. Thanks for listening and let’s get a cup of tea sometime soon.
Note: The book I am working on is called ‘Oh Brother’ and it’s a graphic novel memoir about growing up with a brother with severe autism. If you want to read more about ‘Oh Brother’ or about specific comics-making techniques and my process, head over to my blog to find out more: http://www.georgerexcomics.com/in-the-studio-2/
Website - www.georgerexcomics.com
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