Lauren Purje studied fine art, but in recent years she’s best known for making comics about the art world – most importantly about what it means to be an artist, especially a young artist. Her comics sometimes feel like editorials on the state of the art world, others come off like self-help and self-care, while still others are funny anecdotes containing absurdities that some will find over the top and others will consider all too realistic. Any creative minded person will find her work very relatable – sometimes maybe too relatable!
Top Shelf collected many of Purje’s comics in the recent book You Might Be An Artist If… and it’s hilarious and incisive. Purje spoke about her work, the ways in which art “really is like being in an abusive relationship sometimes” and why the comics world is just better than the art world.
Dueben: Where did You Might Be An Artist If… start?
Purje: The first ones date back to 2012. I decided to start making comics about art and artists because that’s what I felt like I knew best – from being an artist, being around them all the time, and my day jobs were always art-related. The strips really started to evolve when I was picked up by Hyperallergic as a contributor, though. At that point, I had an audience a bit bigger than my own circle of friends, but I knew it was a crowd that was also interested in art. And, of course, deadlines. Those always help fuel a new body of work.
Dueben: What exactly did you study in art school?
Purje: I went to school for a BFA in Painting at Ohio University, but that department at the art school was pretty much a free-for-all. People were making installations and quilts. There wasn’t any pressure to just stick to oil on canvas. The professors were really supportive when I started incorporating cartoons into my work. Which was important, because I wasn’t sure if I could take them seriously as “art” for a while before. I’m glad I got over that.
Dueben: Were you always drawing and making cartoons?
Purje: I drew cartoons as a kid, but gradually as I got older started to consider that not being real, serious art. So, I kept my silly cartoons reserved for birthday cards and doodles to make my friends laugh and my Art, with a capital A, as my work. It took me a while to figure out that my Art could be fun and humorous and serious work at the same time. It all came together eventually and it felt so much more natural to me when it did.
Dueben: How do you think of these comics? Because I’m sure there’s a lot of autobiographical content but there’s analysis and humor and snark and jabs and philosophy. I kept thinking of these comics as editorial cartoons for an art publication.
Purje: I guess coming into comics after studying the fine arts – where it feels like being vague and elusive about your intentions is almost expected – it was refreshing to be able to be really straightforward about presenting an idea or a concept I wanted to talk about. So, I do think I approach comics with the agenda to make a topic as coherent as possible. But, whether it’s comics or another form of art, I always like it to be at least somewhat personal.
Dueben: Are you mostly focused on painting right now or what are you doing for the most part?
Purje: Right now I feel I’m more focused on comics, but I’m doing just a lot of drawing in general. I haven’t been painting a whole lot actually. Now that this book is out I’m feeling even more excited to start diving into some different narratives, so I’m playing around with some new longer stories. I’m still cranking out strips for this artist series, too.
Dueben: I wanted to mention your cartoon on page 110-111. You end with the question “what keeps you going?” and the answer is “Love. The Struggle. Both Can Break You Just as Easily Though.” Which is a great line, a very true line, and I was reminded of the oft-quoted line “Comics will break your heart”
Purje: Yes! That was actually a comic where I interviewed Honus Honus, the frontman of the band Man Man, and then picked apart what he said and molded it into a comic. I thought that line was brilliant, too. Art, of any form, really is like being in an abusive relationship sometimes.
Dueben: How did you end up at Top Shelf?
Purje: To be totally honest, I was at the end of my rope, not sure what my next path should be. So, I got all my comics together and sent them to Top Shelf as my first shot at trying to get published. I figured I’d collect some rejections, get a little feedback, and eventually settle on self-publishing. It was the greatest moment to hear back from them. They’ve been so amazing throughout the whole process too, I couldn’t be luckier.
Dueben: How have you found the comics world? Not that I’m asking you to say comics are better than the fine art world, but you’re free to do so.
Purje: Oh, but it is better! [laughs] I mean, I don’t really feel like I was ever in the art world per se, nor do I feel like I’m in the comics world now, but it does seem very different. There’s so much bullshit involved in the art world, you just have to do your best to meander around it to find your place in it all. But, I haven’t run into any of that when it comes to comics so far. It’s like a breath of fresh air. It feels more like where I belong.