Published on November 23rd, 2012 | by Julie Davis1
Interview: Feminist Superheroines with Maureen Burdock
German-born artist Maureen Burdock has spent a lifetime using her creativity to combat gender-based violence. Brought to the United States as a child by her mother in an effort to escape domestic violence, Burdock began putting her agony and confusion into artwork by the age of eight. Her work has consistently embraced activist and feminist ideals, using the imagery of surrealism and magical realism to explore childbirth, cultural perceptions of motherhood, sexual orientation, religion, war, family origins, word origins, eugenics and misogyny. An illustrator and book designer as well as a fine artist, she’s also produced a number of installation artworks, complete with sound, drawings, books, and paintings, which have been exhibited internationally. Her work has been exhibited in New York, New Mexico, Cairo, Germany and Juarez, Mexico; she is also represented in the Brooklyn Museum Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art Base.
Her most recent work uses the platform of comics to reach out to a potentially larger audience. The F Word Project: Five Feminist Fables for the 21st Century, a series of graphic novellas detailing the stories of archetypal strong women in multiple nations, has received an award from Through the Flower — a feminist art nonprofit — for New Mexico Feminist Artists under 40.
Art Animal was honored to able to speak with Burdock about her artistic inspirations and her latest work.
Art Animal: Tell us a little bit about your background. When did you first begin creating art?
Maureen Burdock: I began creating art as soon as I was able to grip drawing and painting utensils, and haven’t stopped since. My grandfather was a sign painter in the Black Forest, and I remember him encouraging and critiquing my earliest efforts at drawing around age three.
AA: You seem very drawn to fables and fairy tales. What is it about this material that speaks to you?
MB: I grew up in Germany, the land of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, which my mother read to me and encouraged me to read, along with many other fables and tales including collections of fairy tales by Brentano and Andersen; fables illustrated by characters such as Struwelpeter and Max & Moritz; and myths about Rübezahl (tales of the giant who lives in the Riesengebirge — Giant Mountains in Eastern Germany — now Poland). I even taught myself to read old German script in order to be able to enjoy some of these books.
AA: You’ve worked as an installation artist, a painter, an illustrator, a children’s illustrator and a graphic novel artist. How would you describe the differences between these disciplines?
MB: They are all really just different media that enable me to communicate about the most pressing issues. A pivotal moment in my career was in 2002, when I had a solo exhibition of paintings and drawings and audio at the Anti-War Museum in Berlin. I count among my strongest early influences the Weimar Republic artists who fought against fascism. Artists such as John Heartfield, Hannah Höch and Käthe Kollwitz used graphic design and illustration techniques in their work to clearly and effectively disseminate their activist messages. Much of this art/activism had been based in Berlin, and I felt a very strong connection. After my two-month show there, I went back to school and got a degree in graphic design. I became proficient with design tools and methods and that prepared me to be able to later create my own graphic novels. I think design and illustration are to fine art what journalism is to writing — a professional practice that allows an artist to become a clearer, more versatile and effective communicator while making a living.
AA: Your black-and-white artwork is so wonderfully detailed. It reminds me of famous underground comics, particularly those of R. Crumb and, more recently, Phoebe Gloeckner. Is this just a coincidence or was your style influenced by underground comics?
MB: Thank you. I think my style evolved independently of these artists because I got really excited about crosshatching and obsessed with detail long before I ever saw Crumb’s “Fritz the Cat” or Gloeckner’s “A Child’s Life”. But I do feel I have much in common with these and other underground comics artists.
AA: What draws you to surrealism and magical realism?
MB: Early 20th Century European Surrealism effectively pointed out the absurdity and utter madness of that time and place. Magical Realism in Mexico has played a similar role. Also, it’s where my love of myths comes in. In Magical Realism, myths and ancient archetypes are right beneath the surface of “reality.” Methods of reaching deeply into the psyche to find those images which make the unimaginable injustices and contradictions of our times imaginable and digestible are good compliments to more linear, narrative methods of relaying information. The accessibility of art and psychological depth and creativity need to exist together harmoniously in order for me to be satisfied that I am reaching deep enough and far enough.
AA: Tell us about The F Word Project. What kind of response have you received for the first three books?
MB: I began to work with the cartoon/graphic novel format with this project in 2006. I met a group of cartoonists from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico — Seis Cinco Seis Comics — and they invited me to have an exhibition in that city. Thousands of women have been brutally raped and murdered in Juarez over the past two decades. I wanted to create a superheroine who could galvanize the community there to fight back against this gender-based mass-murder. At the same time, I conceived of four more books that would feature superheroines who confront gender-based violence around the globe. I structured the books as series of fine art that could be exhibited as well as being bound together and disseminated in the graphic novel format. The first three books have enjoyed a tremendous response internationally. So far, art from this project has been exhibited in 13 cities, in six countries and across six continents. The books have also been embraced by several gender studies professors and incorporated into their teaching curriculums. [Todd] McFarland will publish an anthology of the finished five-book series in 2014.
AA: Do you feel that women in all cultures need fables that speak to their experience?
MB: I can’t say that I know what women in all cultures need, but I do conjecture that people of all genders and ages need fables that speak to the most pressing concerns of our time. Among these concerns, millions of people — most of them, but not all, non-male — experience violence based on their gender every year. My fables tackle forms of brutality such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape, honor killing, female genital mutilation, dowry deaths, and human trafficking. Forms of gender-based violence affect not just women but everyone. How can any of us rest until universal, rampant hatred of more than half our species is addressed and eliminated?
AA: You’re also working on an animated short film. Can you explain how that project came about?
MB: In my animated short film, The Terrible Longing, I explore my relationship with longing. In this film, Longing is a complex character — a bald woman with tentacles instead of legs, dwelling in the basement of my home (or in the depths of my psyche). Her stomach has its own insatiable mouth. No matter how much I feed the Longing, she is never satisfied. I am afraid of this creature, but come to realize that she is part of me, and so I consent to give her voice. I try to explain to her that terrible things happen to women who reveal their longings to the world, but she reminds me that some women achieve greatness precisely because they reveal their longings and risk following them. I must choose between being consumed by the Terrible Longing, or following her.
AA: Would you say that you have particular topics or themes that you always return to in your artwork?
MB: Yes. Among them are feminism, longing for connection, tentacles, vines, roots, sinew, spinal columns, the human form, memory, displacement, resistance and transmutation.
A word about my superheroines: I’m drawn to the idea that common people exhibit superhero and superheroine qualities. So my superheroines are really celebrating ordinary, diverse women who find uncommon strength in breaking boundaries and forming coalitions.
AA: Can you describe your process? How long does it take you to finish a single illustration, or a page of comics?
MB: I’ve kept visual journals since I was eight years old, so I have a long-term practice that usually starts with sketching out ideas and/or writing about them. Specific to the comics, I usually map out my story using thumbnails and rough text, refine those into pencils that are at 150% the size to be printed, then transfer those, ink them and insert text digitally. Sometimes I add color digitally as well. My process for the book I’m currently working on is a bit more elaborate. It involves interviewing women who have experienced female genital mutilation, then sketching the story in the graphic novel format, getting the women’s feedback, then inking and designing. It can take from eight to 12 hours or more to complete a page from start to finish.
AA: What advice would you give someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps as an artist?
MB: Always be authentic. Don’t worry about who’s who. Pay attention to the art that has the most meaning to you and befriend those creators. Be generous in return for the mentorship you receive, knowing you’ll be in that place one day. Keep your eyes open, look at things and don’t take anything — including your own instincts — as gospel. Instincts can be nothing more than entrenched beliefs. So keep going outside your own comfort zone and keep pushing yourself to go deeper, see farther and communicate better. Do what you have to do to make a living. The closer that is to making or at least being around or feeding your art, the better.
See more of Maureen Burdock’s work and purchase The F Word Project books on her website, www.maureenburdock.com.