Tuesday, March 24, 2009

An interview with Lark Pien

Oakland based artist Lark Pien is the creator of Long Tail Kitty and the mastermind running one of the busiest tables at indie comic conventions. Lark's work stretches beyond her playful comics, she creates paintings featuring a pantheon of expressive critter characters ranging from magically silly to unusually ominous. In this interview Lark talks about publishing her first children's book, working with galleries, and some other fun stuff! You can see and purchase her work on her website larkpien.com and see the dazzling variety of her work on her blog where she also shows glimpses of her work in progress.
above is a silkscreen called pupile, you can find out about it on Lark's blog

You've been creating Long Tail Kitty comics for as long as I've known you, when did you start working on that magical world and how has it evolved over time?

A: I started LTK minicomics (handmade comic books) in 2001. The drawing style and the story-telling hasn’t changed too much over the years, but what LTK means to me has.
The first story was about my pet rabbit who had died - it was a story about loss. Long Tail Kitty, though the main character, was completely fictional. I didn’t have any plans for him at the time.
Being a fictional character I could shape LTK into whatever I wanted to. The stories that followed then were about fun, made-up things – mainly stories about friendships and hanging out in neat places.
Over the years LTK has gotten attention. Not tons, but enough to make me nervous. Public situations make me really anxious, so I hide behind his character - unconsciously he’s become a sort of public persona for me.

Q: You have a book featuring Long Tail Kitty published by Blue Apple Books, how did that come about? Can you describe the process of working with them to create the final product?

A: I met the editor at a convention years back. He brought up LTK as a book-book, year after year and I finally got a clue. [note for first timers - Even though publishers ask you to join them, they still want you to send in a formal proposal!] I’m lucky that he continued to keep in touch.
Blue Apple Books has been incredibly open-minded and generous with time, budget, creativity and ownership. We spent very little time talking about meetings or deadlines or marketing. Their primary interest has been in kids – how kids would read this book. I was only second to this, they really spoiled me silly rotten. That said, they might never want to do a project with me again...! Though BAB was willing to try a new format, I didn’t make the process of making comics easy to understand. BAB is a children’s book company and comics are new to its staff. Looking back I should have made a How-To guide staging the actual work we’d be doing together. “how to draw word bubbles” etc.
Also, I became harder to work with as the project moved along. Initially I can seem organized and “with it”. But when I’m in the act of doing creative work, I become totally self-centered, I have no sense of time, am easily rattled and am oblivious of the big picture. An editor really has to switch strategic gears to keep me on track. BAB might have thought they were getting someone who had her shit together, but they ended up with Loosey Goosey. It’s embarrassing, but it illustrates the importance of communication and understanding (that is, comprehension, not sympathy) between an artist and the people he/she works with. When people’s capacities become clear, you can see both the limitations and potentials for the project.

Below you can see a page spread from Lark's published Long Tail Kitty book, you can click on the image for a larger readable version...
Q: What do your formal book propolsals to editors involve?
A: A fairly completed script or very readable thumbnails of the book. you can binderclip all this together as a submission, but i personally like to put everything in a thin 3 ring binder.

Q: The sketches for your new graphic novel look amazing, what will it be about and do you have publishing plans for it?

A: Stories from the Ward – a mini comic series I started in 1997. I stopped printing it after four issues, mainly because I started to feel afraid of the public and my peers. First Second asked 
that I submit a proposal. I like the ideology of FS as a company, and the editor(s) a lot. That persuaded me to think of a project for them. If they rejected it, it would have been okay, but I wouldn’t have shopped it around to other places. It’s that kind of story for me.
SFTW has been described as ‘dreamlike’, so I’ll go with that. There’s a plot, but the story isn’t plot-driven. It’s a story that emerges from description, rather than from definition. Can I be any more vague???

Above is a page for Lark's new graphic novel Stories from the Ward
(you can click on it for a beautiful close up)

Q: In your blog you touch on the challenge of finding a happy medium between your love of nonsense and nontradtional narrative and the kind of formulaic, predictable plots that editors like to see in children's books. (You also draw a parallel between your love for abstract art and your frustration about not creating it.) i imagine this process must be frustrating, how do you find an acceptable boundary in terms of commercially viable material?

A: The more sale-savvy work I do, the more I hate myself, you betcha.
Books are tricky, because I think they’re meant to be mass produced. The use of language and of communicating ideas is inherent in its form. In publishing my stories, I feel both guilty and obligated the same time.
I hope folks buy (original) art because they like it, and not because it’s by me. If a person wants a signature/autograph I’ll personalize it “To: that person”, I hope to make it an individual experience. The last thing I want to see is my book or painting up on Ebay the next day, gah. I’m generally okay with the idea of my art winking in and out of existence.

Q: I heard through the grapevine that you were involved with a big animation project a few years ago, your characters were going to be in a cartoon show, can you tell me about that?

A: The producer who had warmed me to the idea of an LTK cartoon soon left her employer (for a better job) and was replaced by an intern level assistant. After understanding how quickly a company could change, I didn’t sign the contract. The head of the company threatened me, and the lawyer who was helping me negotiate the contract got real mad too, since he was working on commission. It wasn’t a fun experience.

Q: You also create a lot of paintings for all sorts of galleries, how do shows usually come about for you?

A: I’m not very good at keeping up with galleries, actually. Most of my gallery connections are through tradeshows (like Comic-Con) and through friends in the art community. Group shows sometimes lead to more shows, occasionally a solo show. Sometimes I get invited but then don’t get invited back. That happens too.
I like educational exhibitions too. Some people complain that it’s a lot of work and no money, but I like serving public spaces – museums and libraries etc. - as long as i don't personally have to be there!

Q: what has been your biggest challenge in terms of being a full-time freelance artist?

A: I am a crappy sleeper. I sleep crappily.

Q: About how many hours a week do you spend drawing? do you ever have trouble with working too much or too little? how do you manage that?

A: I work from 10am to 4pm, and then again from 10pm to 4am. About once a week I paint in a studio, more often if there’s a show coming up. Generally there are 3 projects going at one time, multitasking helps keep up my momentum.
I try to separate the practical (scheduling, emailing, running errands) from the creative. Email in the morning is bad – I don’t want to leave the computer!
I try to meet with a friend once a week or see/read/do something new, hang out with my husband at dinner time. Three days indoors with no light is my maximum limit – otherwise I go goofy.

Q: Can you tell me a little about your process when drawing illustrations for publishing and what materials you use?

A: For minicomics I draw ink/brush and on hot press non-vellum bristol, or on ink/brush/pencil/watercolor on watercolor block. After getting it all laid out on the computer, the files are sent to the copy center and are printed and trimmed to size. I silkscreen the covers, then collate them with the interior Xeroxed pages, staple them, fold them with a linoleum burnisher. For a single title I’ll run a batches of 50 books at a time. Whatever I don’t need or sell are easy to store and save for the next show.

below you can see a page spread from a self published Long Tail Kitty book

A sneak peak at the materials Lark carries in her pencil pouch!


  1. it's oddly reassuring to know that i'm not the only artist working such long hours...thanks for all the interesting info!

  2. I like the look of Lark's work but I really really like learning about her process and the realities of mixing art and business.

    So helpful!