PAUL MADONNA: finding the creative arc

(Evan Karp)

Paul Madonna produces the weekly All Over Coffee strip for the San Francisco Chronicle and Small Potatoes for The Rumpus, where he is also the comics editor. He produces the art book series Album and teaches drawing at the University of San Francisco.

What follows is part 1 of a 2-part interview I conducted with Paul on Tuesday, April 26th at Ritual Roasters in the Mission, in anticipation of his now-released Everything Is Its Own Reward, the second collection of All Over Coffee (read a mini-review I wrote here). It was the first time we ever met. Despite this, I’ve left the conversation intact.

Create! Analyze!

EK: I do these really informally. I’m not as well-prepared as I would like to be—


EK: —I was reading some interviews today and, you know, I’ve been going through the book. I actually got in a fight with my girlfriend last night because I went to a bar with her and some of her friends, and I had the book out and I was looking at it and she was just like You never want to talk to my friends, and I’m like [both laugh] C’mon! I’m preparing for an interview. And I didn’t want to go to the bar anyway, you know.

But I don’t know, I’m really amazed; it’s really inspiring, your work is. And I read the afterword and it is so good!

PM: Oh yeah? You liked it?

EK: Yeah. It’s particularly inspiring to me because I’m just starting a mini-column for The Chron and it’s like every other week, so I’m trying to figure out what the confines are, and what they’ll let me get away with, and I have no idea what I’m doing. And so hearing you coming from there also is really neat for me.

PM: Did you read the afterword to the first book?

EK: No.

PM: OK, you don’t need to have read that. But it’s funny because the first book I really fought to get the afterword in. I mean I sort of had to sell City Lights on it—I mean when I say “fought” it’s a very mild word because I really don’t have to fight with City Lights. That’s one of the wonderful things about working with them, is that they just automatically got me, you know, and so I think in a way that’s how good creative relationships have to be. But I should say I had to convince them: I’m really interested in writing about my process, too, and I think it’s important. And you know we had a conversation about how one of the things with All Over Coffee, the question I got asked for years, is What do you call it? I still get asked: What do you call it, and I still don’t have a good answer. One of the things I heard all the time was I don’t get it.

So I told this to City Lights and they started cracking up and said, Yeah, you have to write something. Because in a way you have to explain it. But me explaining it is really about how it’s made, and how I think about it. And it’s funny because the assumption was I would write an afterword for this book; and I thought I would write one, too, and I spent about 8 months putting this book together, and I didn’t write an afterword. I was making all these notes and I just never did it, and it came time and I was just like, Yeah, I don’t want to do it. They were like, You have to write an afterword—it got totally switched around, and I had them being like Oh come on, everybody loved the afterword to the first one. And so I got retalked into it. I mean it wasn’t twisting my arm, but. And in a way I see it as a way of, you know publishing the work that is—you know 3 years’ work, 4 years’ work of publishing this body, and then at the same time having to step back and say Alright, here’s publishing my thoughts on that work.

EK: Right. And because obviously the process changed some, and what you were trying to do changed, so—at least, you know, I’ve only read the afterword here, but it seems like you were saying there’s a marked difference in … maybe writing the afterword made you examine that more concretely than you had.

PM: Yeah, I think it sort of forced me to a little faster than I was ready to. Because I put the book together and I was all, Cool! I made something, and then all of a sudden I had to turn around and say, OK, I have to analyze what I made. And I wasn’t really ready to analyze it, so it was a little bit of a difficult process. I’m interested to hear what you got out of the afterword.

EK: Yeah. Well, I mean, for me it’s one thing, because I moved here about a year and a half ago and I don’t read the paper regularly, and so, you know, I knew you as much from The Rumpus as much as from anything else because I do check out The Rumpus, but for me because of that I really just got this book and—well I went to the Album release party

PM: Oh, cool.

EK: —so I was there but I didn’t know who you were or anything, so when I got this book I was just looking at the pieces themselves, and it seems in synch to me with my idea of what art should be for me, [which] is it’s simple, and there’s one piece you have that says something like Leave space, and I really relate to that, with what you can do… OK so maybe the first sentence that really stuck out in the afterword was the one about having to allow something to have meaning—I can’t remember the exact quote, but you know obviously what I’m talking about—

PM: Yeah yeah yeah, right.

EK: That’s the first thing, and because I feel that way. You know it’s like you can find meaning in anything, and it’s just a matter of why you’re going to find meaning and what you allot your time to, because that’s the variable that we all have, you know, and I just—a lot of it I relate to that, I relate to the repetition, and how you were talking about, you know, how having confines really allows you to really figure out what you’re saying, because you don’t have to think, you know, you can sit there all day long and be like, Well what do I want to say, you know, but then you just spent your whole day doing that instead of working on a sketch.

PM: Right, instead of just saying a bunch of things and then Oh oh, oh that’s interesting.

EK: And so, I relate to that. I like the metaphor of the dirt hill [“I imagined that to create art was to walk up the mountain-of-everything-ever-made with a small cup of dirt and pour it out while an endless procession of dump trucks poured other people’s cups of dirt onto the mountain as well”], of everything being, all the things happening right now and your little cup of dirt with the bulldozers or whatever bringing in these buckets full of dirt. I don’t know what else I took from it, I mean. I guess I took from it … I don’t know, I really… It’s impressive in that it’s a very straightforward analysis of your own work and process; you obviously know what you’re doing, and that’s not something that you normally get from an artist, you know? It’s really not, and I appreciated it on that level, and I just, I don’t know… something about it is really inspirational.

PM: Hm.

EK: I’m not sure if it’s because I can relate on a personal level, or because, you know, it takes, you know, you look at any object and you can make it as meaningful as you want, and there’s really not anything more inspirational than that, I don’t think.

PM: Well that’s certainly something.

EK: Yeah!

PM: And it’s not a small feat.

EK: Right. So I don’t know; what else, what should I have taken from it?

Don’t Criticize the Tree

PM: What’s that? What should you have? Ah, well there’s actually no intention of Oh, I want people to get X from reading the afterword. The afterword is as much for me as it is for anybody else; it’s sort of me working it out and kind of looking back and trying—really looking back and saying OK, what did I do? There’s almost a pragmatism to it. OK, how did my mind change? And you know this book is set up in a narrative that, even though it’s not in the chronological order the pieces were made, it went through a pretty serious creative, like, mindfuck [chuckles], you know, in the middle of it. Some of it was because, well, I’ve been publishing for about 5 years. You know I had my first book, which was really successful, and, y’know, I was just really happy to make a book. I love being in the paper; the paper just makes sense to me, to be able to publish like that it really fits with my personality and the way that I work, but there’s sort of—and the repetition is excellent for my mind and for my discipline—but there’s also this sense of, Yeah, it could go on forever. Not like I would be lucky enough to have the column forever, but more like the sort of Kafkaesque, just endless there’s a garden and then there’s a courtyard and then there’s another garden there’s a courtyard, and just that sort of endless repetition that makes you want to put a gun in your mouth.

EK: Sure.

PM: And I really, I go through phases and I like to wrap things up so, even in All Over Coffee I think about it as, within structure you find freedom. Because with All Over Coffee I really set these parameters for myself and then left other areas completely open so that I could explore them. And by having this area set, I had something to work around. And at the same time I needed to finish up certain modes of thought, and then move on to other ones. And I feel like at five years I hit this place where I was wondering, What the hell am I doing? I don’t know that I have any place to explore this anymore. And it really bothered me, because I felt like that was a deficiency in myself, that in some ways this should be an endless well, and the only hindrance to exploring that well is my own ability to see that.

EK: To understand that, right.

PM: And that’s where, you know, my wife and I went to Paris for a little while, and we just hung out, and just, were in Paris, and I was so happy to leave here, and the pieces I was making were like, I’m done with something—I don’t know what it is that I’m done with, but I’m done with it. And rather than saying I’m done with this work, I allowed the work to capture that emotion. It’s almost a trick. To be like, Well I don’t want to make what I was making, so I’ll turn that thing into [being] about not wanting to make it. The danger there is of becoming too self-reflective that the work is about the work. Because that can get a little myopic, and you get a little bit of navel gazing, you know. At least the pieces, for me, have a really solid feeling of Alright, we’re going off into a new world. And when I assembled them together, they just sort of fell into place. And there’s one where there’s a tree with its leaves falling off and it says, Would I criticize a tree for how often it blooms? And I was just thinking about how weekly works for me, but what if it doesn’t? What if it kind of works for me, and I don’t really know—maybe I’m good doing weeklies for three years and then I need a year off, and then, you know—what if there’s a larger rhythm at work here, and I don’t know that? And that metaphor of the tree, would you really say, like, You need to produce apples—

EK: [laughs]

PM: —we really need apples like four times a year, right. Can you do that? Can you produce a couple more modes of fruit, like in the seasons? That’s just kind of a silly idea. We’re not born knowing how often we bloom; we have to figure it out, right? We have to be put in situations where things are expected of us and we can’t perform, or vice versa: we can perform better. And then in Paris I just sort of found again the reason, which is just that I have to exorcise something in me, and that’s where the quintessential beast from Paris is sort of the big V skyline and it says, I call it the demons piece… [flips through book] You would think I’d know this book pretty well…

EK: Still pretty hot off the press.

Efforts of Beauty

PM: Yeah. This one here: “All my efforts of beauty /  are little more than decoration / if through them / my demons are not set free.” And it’s like, why am I alive like this, why am I seeking to present… There are people who come to my studio who love the whole of what I do, you know, and get the whole of it; and then there are people who come who say Oh I love your writing, and your drawings are pretty good; and people come who are like I love your drawings—leave that writing off of it. There’s those three camps, and of course I love the people who love the whole thing because I’m like, Good you get me. But I think about that combination and, you know, do I need to tweak that combination. Why do I keep doing this type of thing? And it’s because it creates a process for me, to exercise some thoughts, and the marriage of those become the art for me. But yet what is the reader getting? And I sort of step outside of that, and that’s the analysis of it. Is the viewer getting the same thing that I’m getting? Is it really just a process of cleansing myself; is art essentially waste, a waste product then? What should it be? And I, you know, I think I really came back to feeling good about that through all the pieces I made for this.

EK: I was going to ask if you could talk about the demons a little bit, but.

PM: You mean what they are?

EK: Yeah. Is it just that feeling that you were talking about of not understanding really what you’re doing anymore, or of, you know just uncertainty with the form, or. You know is it something more specific?

PM: I think there’s a certain amount of—the word I’m going to use, and I’m going to use this word very consciously, which is there’s a certain amount of faith that goes into being in the arts. You know, because there’s a blind faith that this is going to work out. What I’m doing has meaning. But you’re saying your girlfriend got mad at you because you were pouring over the book. Luckily my wife understands me to no end. Because if she didn’t we would not be together anymore. I’m pretty obsessive with my work; I work every day, I like to be in the studio, I like to be alone a lot, and you know it’s not necessarily conducive to a good relationship. I mean we have an excellent relationship. But because she understands who I am. And when I get in my little moods, she just lets me be in my little moods. And it doesn’t explode into something, you know. I just was reading a piece on John Baldessari, LA artist who was talking about as he was becoming—he was really into being a teacher and as he was more and more into making his art and becoming more successful, his wife and him split up because they bought a house and John essentially never moved in. Because he just spent so much time in his studio. And I was just reading that now and sort of laughing to myself because I’m like, Yeah that’s kinda me. Luckily my studio is in our flat, in the front half of the flat is all my workspace; if it wasn’t, I would never be at home. I would almost have no reason to go home. Because I would just be like, OK I’ll just sleep on the couch again tonight in the studio because it’s midnight and I want to get up and work on this thing tomorrow. Why trek home? And you know months would go by and the next thing I know my wife would have left me. So at least at home I can stumble through the front of the house and she can be there. I’m digressing I know, but you said this would be casual.

EK: Yeah yeah yeah.

PM: Just the nature of my—

EK: Totally.

PM: Ramblings. You asked about the demons. I think—and I was talking about faith—in a way, what good is a belief system if you never question it? And part of what I’m trying to point out with all of my pieces is the non-obvious. Whether it be in my drawings, trying to point out little details and try to make those beautiful, the stories that I’m telling—I always picture my stories as being in between all the other stories. Like Oh you can watch the movie, but what happened between that cut and that cut—that’s the little story I’m gonna tell you. And the problems now for me are when I start to think I should be telling the entire movie. Because I’m inverting to how we normally see things, as opposed to changing the colors around. And sometimes I think I should be something other than what I am, and I can let my mind run wild with that, and then I try to approach the work that I’ve been doing one way and I try to approach it another way and I get really hung up.

EK: Yeah.

PM: That’s an abstract—I know it’s not a clean-cut answer for you.

Sprinting Time

EK: That’s fine. I was going to say, when in the afterword again I think you were saying something about the different ways you put this book together, was that you would work on themes chronologically—

PM: Yeah.

EK: —things that you were trying to work on, you know, in your own, I don’t know, method of work; that was really neat to me, and I’m wondering if you could just talk a little more about that.

PM: Sure. So what happened with the first book, was three years of work, and I was publishing four days a week when I started, and then by the time those three years were up I was down to one day a week. And so that means I made a whole lot of pieces; I made over 300 pieces in 3 years, that I published in the paper. And the process of that was there was really no looking back; I’d make something, publish it, make something, publish it. I was literally turning in stuff an hour before it went to press, and then going to work on the next one, and the next morning I’d get up, and you know the first thing I’d do is run and grab the paper, see how it printed—just did I prep it right—and then Oh I gotta go finish that piece to turn in. And it was just this amazing process that in a way having to work so quickly, I didn’t have time to stop and say What am I doing, is this working? And I’m really thankful for that; I call it my sprinting time. And after two years of that, I was kinda fried. And I knew it was time to change. I was like OK I need to be more methodical with these pieces. I want to edit more. All of this is leading up to the narrative, the theme thing.

EK: Sure.

PM: So, by the time the three years came around I knew I was finishing up something, and I couldn’t even really describe it, but that’s when I started pitching the book. And I got the book deal with City Lights, and I basically just decided, looked at some pieces and rewound a few weeks and was like, You know what, Here’s a perfect stopping point. And then anything I made after that wasn’t in the first book. So the next six months that I worked on putting it together I was writing these pieces. And… I did a really good job; I’m actually really impressed with myself, how I was able to collate the first three years and still continue to publish every week. Because I’ve been having a very difficult time doing that with this book (and I’ll explain that in a minute).

Let the Work Do the Talking

So what happened putting together the first book is I noticed I had been working in a lot of themes. And I hadn’t done that intentionally. I noticed that I kept coming back to things. And it was like, Oh I wrote these five pieces and then in a way I wrote the same type of five pieces again. And I realized that I wrote a lot of things twice. And so that book has only 165 of the 310 pieces I made, because I realized there were a lot of doubles. It was like I was trying one idea out two different ways. And there would always be one that was more successful than the other. And that was what I sort of finished. I didn’t need to execute everything twice anymore. And I realized Oh I like to write these sort of flash fiction pieces, this sort of fake overheard conversation. The personal narrative, the aphorisms. That’s what putting the first book together showed me. So I began saying well I’m going to work specifically in those themes, and I made a little list. And I would write one or two of the aphorism pieces and I would make those and I would be like OK I’m gonna make an autobiographical piece now. And I would make maybe 5 or 6 of them and do 1 or 2 of them. You know and then have a list of ones I might return to.

And I just started going through that list. And for a couple of years that’s all I did. And I don’t mean to say that it was unconscious, but it made it really easy to be like Oh I want to sort of bounce around; I can do these different themes. And I knew what would happen is over time, the piles of the themes would get larger and then I could start putting them together. And I had a five-year show of the strip at the Public Library. That was in 2009. And that was the first time I really stepped back and said OK, what have I made since basically 2006 to 2009. And that’s when I began realizing that all those themes were starting to wrap up. And then I looked at all those pieces and said Well what sort of stories do I want to add to them to sort of round out each of those themes; how do those themes go together? So then I started combining them. And thinking of them as, What is the overall theme of all five or seven of these things, and that’s where the phrase “everything is its own reward” popped out.

It was a piece that I made, I hadn’t thought anything more of it—it was just one piece that I made—but it seemed to rise above all the others and said This applies to everything else. Like was there one line that, Oh that line applies to three of these, but not these three. And it just, it’s what I began calling the book. And that’s why it became the title. I just love that process of letting the work speak to me, and it’s a way of constantly working: apply this part of my brain, and then looking back and seeing something else. It’s like when somebody else will look at a piece of your work and they’re just like, Oh, it’s about this! And you’re like, holy shit it is about that.

EK: Wow, it is about that.

PM: Wow, I didn’t realize that at all. Oh, hooray. And that’s what a good editor will do; that’s what, you know, good critics will do; that’s what your friends can do. It’s just to sort of help you see what you’re going through.

Focus On the Little Pictures

So what I’m most proud of with this book is that all the pieces came together in such a way that I felt like I was able to tell a story, a very abstract story, about a creative process. Because I feel like it builds up—it’s set, like the first chapter is meant to set you in a place. It’s all about calming you down. These levels of getting you purposely quiet. And then it brings you into stories. I begin with my personal history. Then I go into like flash fiction stories. And then I go into creative process, and then everything starts to break down. And that’s where it’s all a bunch of questioning, and then it goes away. There’s a lot of travel pieces, and then it starts talking about what’s the point of all this. And then the questions start getting answered, and it builds up again, and then there’s all these statements, these sort of affirmations of Yes, this is why we do it, this is it, yes! And then there’s more pieces that are kind of, are about nothing, where the text is sort of floating around and it’s more embedded and the pieces are just really dense, and then it ends with this statement of purpose. So it’s like I was able to find that creative arc, which is something I went through, and of course it was going to be reflected in all of the pieces, because I was making them incrementally, and it was this, like, simultaneous trust, like Yes the big picture will emerge if I just focus on the little pictures one at a time. And I don’t think that that’s always true; you don’t always end up… it’s not like you’re going to go to the computer every morning and be like, I’m going to write a chapter every day, and then at the end of the year I’m gonna have a novel. It doesn’t really work out that way.

EK: [laughs]

PM: And, but I wasn’t looking to write a novel. I was basically trying to get the essence of a creative experience. And in a way you can’t take the voice that I took in the afterword and create the essence of the creative experience, because that voice is too conscious, it’s too self-conscious, it’s too aware.

EK: Right.

PM: And whereas the voice that strings through all the pieces is something that’s much deeper in the brain. And that’s what I’m really proud of, is because there’s a cohesion with these—they form a body of work.

EK: Absolutely. I like, I like how you said you know the title was just one thing that stuck out and seemed to speak for the rest of them. What’s really neat is that flipping through I’ve seen several of them multiple times, and one, for whatever reason, will stick at one point but then on another day I’m looking at it and it’s like there’s a different light or something; all of a sudden this sticks out and seems to put the other ones in a different light, too.

PM: That’s cool. Like having a different favorite song on an album over periods of time.

EK: Right, over a different time. It’s like why is this speaking to me now, I don’t know.

PM: Right.

EK: It doesn’t, I mean who cares really. You know you can sit there and think about that, but. You could also just, you know, enjoy it.

PM: And be happy that there is something that’s coming out again. Like if every song on the album can eventually be a favorite song, then what an amazing album.

EK: Yeah, then you’ve made something that not most people don’t make.

PM: Yeah you’re lucky if you get one thing—

EK: One thing.

PM: —because that’s all it’s going to take, is that one good song on each album to get you to the next one.

EK: Right, yeah. That’s one thing Stephen Elliott, I think, talks about a lot, is getting to the next project. How something takes you from one thing to the next. … Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know what else to ask you. I just want to talk for like a long time.

PM: [chuckles] Yeah we can just talk.

[Click for Part 2]