I’ve been following Gemma Correll’s work for years, plundering her (now defunct) Etsy shop since ’09 for ceramic cups, temporary tattoos, and cards illustrated in her recognizable “naive” style. Gemma is particularly known for her “pugs not drugs” comics, but her work also taps into a wide range of topics, from mental health to the representation of women’s bodies — and there’s plenty of wordplay and puns. Gemma has just published her new book, The Feminist Activity Book, which includes lots of pages to color and cut-out crafts. There’s a cut-out doll which you’re encouraged to draw tattoos onto, The Feminist ABC, Gender Pronoun Badges, and more. Throughout May, which was Mental Health Awareness Month, Gemma worked with Mental Health America and has been posting comics to her Instagram showing what #mentalillnessfeelslike.
I caught up with Gemma, who is now living in California, over Skype to talk about The Feminist Activity Book, as well as her Mental Health Awareness comics, her artistic process, and career progress — and to meet the pugs.
Hello Giggles (HG): Congratulations on The Feminist Activity Book. It’s really funny, thought-provoking, and important. Can you tell us about how you put the book together?
Gemma Correll (GC): I made lists of everything I wanted to cover, because it’s such a wide-ranging subject, I didn’t want to miss anything. I looked at different subjects and issues of feminism, to get a balance of more modern issues as well as a bit of history. I also wanted to have a balance between serious and light-hearted subjects.
HG: You’ve been doing comics for Mental Health Awareness Month, can you speak about that project?
GC: I was approached by Mental Health America to make those [comics], I think off the back of other things I’ve done in the past. We independently both came to the idea of doing a series #mentalillnessfeelslike, so that worked out quite well. Sometimes it can be hard to describe, and I wanted to put into visuals the words people use to describe mental illness in all its various forms, without trying to put any labels on it either. Just letting people say whatever they wanted. Some of them are more abstract so I tried to somehow put into images the more abstract ideas, some others were straight-forward, like an elephant sitting on your chest.
HG: The comics are a great way of showing people how it feels, for those who might not understand it, but might have a friend or family member who suffers but don’t know what it’s like themselves.
GC: That’s what I wanted to do it for, not just for the people who suffer themselves, but for people who know somebody who suffers — which most people do.
HG: Did you get any particular feedback while you were posting the mental health comics?
GC: I got a good amount of feedback, a couple of people said it validated their feelings, or helped them to understand someone else, which was great. Some people said they recognized the symptoms but hadn’t realized it was something they should maybe look into. There’s always negative feedback but it was mostly positive.
HG: You don’t shy away from covering a range of topics in your work, when it comes to the representation of women’s bodies and showing the whole other layer of anxiety women have just going about their day to day lives. Do you remember your first comic that put that down on paper?
GC: I’ve been drawing comics like that for a while but I hadn’t always been sharing them, because it’s personal, and I wasn’t sure if anyone else was interested in my own petty struggles. But I wrote something in a diary a few years ago which I then posted on Facebook, and found that a lot of people empathized with what I’d written, and I realized there was this whole other sphere of subject matter that I could cover.
HG: Like your “body shapes” comic, it’s really funny, while showing what an absurd notion it is to assign shapes to women’s bodies, using shapes like “pizza” and “overcooked broccoli.”
GC: There’s so much of that in the media as well, I just wanted to show the other side of that. Women’s magazines are filled with nonsense like that. It’s bad for everyone, but especially for younger girls if that’s all they see.
HG: You thanked some friends at the end of The Feminist Activity Book – how did they help you with it?
GC: One of my friends is a lecturer who leads a feminist group in my old city in England. A couple of them were really good at bouncing ideas off, and another friend runs a group for women, I went there a couple of times before I left England and talked to everyone about the book. They gave me a couple of ideas and things they thought would be fun, we tested out some of the activities.
HG: As a successful and prolific artist, do you have any advice to share on how to go about it?
GC: Persistence is the most important thing, it is really difficult to just start. I graduated eight years ago, so it’s taken me a while to get to this point. I spent a couple of years working second and third jobs. Online, it can seem that everybody is just immediately successful. But you don’t always realize people are working other jobs or not doing as well as it seems, so it’s easy to get disheartened. I think believing in what you do, not following trends — that’s an easy thing to do at the moment. There are definite trends with illustration and art on the internet, they’re fine for now but they don’t last long. So, really working on your own style is important, and not just looking at the internet either. Having wide-ranging references, not even just looking at illustration, but looking at different types of art and reading, going to museums — everything can influence you. Doing what you enjoy as well is important, if you’re not enjoying it, you need to work hard on that.
HG: What kind of things are you enjoying at the moment, any particular books or movies on your radar?
GC: At the moment I’m reading a lot of non-fiction history books. Because I’ve just moved to America I’m pretty interested in American history, the pioneers. Also neuroscience is my current favorite thing so I’m reading a lot of Oliver Sachs books. Apart from that — being outside in the sun, taking my dogs for walks.
[Gemma picks up Bella and Mr. Pickles to show me her pet pugs, which she features heavily in her illustration work. I squealed, they grumbled, appropriately.]
They like it a lot, they love the sun and spend all day lying in it. Bella gets really hot because she absorbs all the heat.
HG: The dogs must be endless inspiration. You come up so many good ideas, you have an endless supply of puns. Where does it all come from?
GC: It’s always been something I enjoy doing. I write and draw a lot in my sketch book. Things just come to me as I draw, most of them are really silly, but I draw them anyway. Most of my ideas come from my sketchbook initially. I’ve always kept sketchbooks, I’ve always filled pages. Like my Feminist Activity Book, the pages of that is what my sketchbook looks like, full of stuff. It has to be filtered.
HG: How do you like living in the States?
GC: It’s great, I really like it. I actually go outside here. My publisher Seal Press is also in Berkeley beside where I live, so I can go and see them and meet them for lunch which is really nice.
HG: How has the reception been towards the Feminist Activity Book?
GC: It’s been going well. There’s been one particular, really long, amazing, funny review by a conservative magazine about how smutty the Feminist Activity Book is. It’s hilarious.