Special Guest Interview: Sarah Becan

Sarah Becan is a comics artist, author, illustrator and designer, and the creator of “I Think You’re Sauceome”, a food-centric autobiographical webcomic. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Saveur Magazine, Eater.com, The Chicago Reader, TruthOut.com, and the collaborative serial collection Cartozia Tales.

She was awarded a Xeric Award and a Stumptown Trophy for Outstanding Debut for her first graphic novel, The Complete Ouija Interviews, and her work has twice been nominated for the Ignatz Award. Becan’s second graphic novel, Shuteye, was funded with a successful Kickstarter campaign and released in early 2012. In 2014, she wrote and illustrated Luna de Cuernos, a long form graphic story for Fifth House Ensemble’s spring 2014 concert series. Becan illustrated the cookbook The Adventures of Fat Rice, published 2016 by Ten Speed Press, and is the illustrator of the forthcoming Let’s Make Ramen!, a comic book cookbook to be published July 2019 by Ten Speed Press.

STL SPEX (Rachel): You’ve done work in various formats (online, printed books, performances, bottle labels, etc.) – what are some of the benefits and challenges of working across all of these mediums? Do you have a favorite format? 

Sarah Becan: There are pros and cons to every format, I think! I loved my webcomic, because it was such pure instant gratification. Something would happen in the afternoon, I’d scrawl a comic about it in the evening, upload it before I went to bed, and have feedback in the morning. Let’s Make Ramen! is the biggest project I’ve ever worked on – 192 pages of full watercolor paintings. I spent over a year making it, and then had to wait another several months before it actually went up for sale. While that meant I worked for ages, quietly, with no cheering squad, seeing the whole project come together as a finished object has been immensely satisfying in a completely different way. 

I think I’m finding that I really enjoy variety. Making Luna de Cuernos with 5th House Ensemble was intense, but incredibly engaging. We selected music together, talked about subject matter, and then I wrote and drew a story, and timed the plot beats to the tonal shifts of the songs we chose. It was a really fascinating challenge! At the moment I’m working on an illustration for a strange interlocking jigsaw puzzle project, and the illustration has to work in multiple configurations of the pieces. It’s been a super fun problem-solving exercise. 

I don’t think I have a favorite format! But I think I really enjoy being given explicit boundaries to play within and finding ways to be as creative as possible within those established boundaries. 

STL SPEX: What’s the process for creating your illustrations on a technical level? What are your favorite tools and how do you use them to produce the desired effects? 

SB: I like working with a lot of different tools, but I gravitate towards either pen and ink with watercolor, or digital drawing. I like Pitt artist pens because they come in a wide variety of bright colors, and they’re waterfast, so I can drag as much watercolor paint over them as I want. I mostly just use Strathmore watercolor paper, usually the 400 series. I’m afraid to try anything fancier, because what if I love it? Then I’m spending twice as much on materials. Art is an expensive and addictive habit! 

I’ve only very recently started to really dig into drawing on a tablet; I just started out with Procreate on an iPad pro. I like it a lot – it feels like a very different animal than drawing or painting on paper media, but it’s also very fast, and very well suited to certain things. I’ve been spending a lot of quality time with my tablet lately, but I’m still a big fan of working on actual paper, especially any kind of paper with a good toothy texture to it. I think I’ll probably always prefer the full sensory experience of dragging a brush across a sheet of paper.

But honestly, I think color is usually the driving force for me – It’s usually central to what I’m trying to convey, especially when I’m working with food, and I want to get my colors as bright and bombastic as I possibly can. That usually either means layering lots of strokes of watercolor paint or pushing digital colors to their limits. 

STL SPEX: Who are some of the artists you admire and what interests you about their work?

SB: The first comics artist that made me want to make comics of my own was Lynda Barry. When I was in middle school and they were still running Ernie Pook’s Comeek in the Riverfront Times, I sent her a fan letter, and asked if she had any advice. She drew me a gorgeous little postcard and sent it back to me, and it said: “always write and draw about things you truly care about.” It’s still excellent advice! I’m consistently inspired by her work, by how visceral and honest and emotional it is, but also by her constantly pressing us to dismantle the social and emotional excuses we use to keep us from drawing. I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to teach her class at UW-Madison a few times, and her classroom is one of the most warm, welcoming and explosively creative spaces I’ve ever been in.

Laura Park is another artist whose brutal emotional honesty can cut me to the quick, and she disguises it with some of the most gorgeous linework you’ll ever see. Rumi Hara’s watercolor work has a vibrant spontaneity to it that I’m intensely jealous of. Corinne Mucha is a good friend, but I’d put her on this list even if she wasn’t. Her work has a brilliantly charming aesthetic and a ruthlessly disarming sense of humor that can lead you so unsuspectingly to a powerful emotional gut punch. Eleanor Davis’ work always takes my breath away; she has a powerful mastery of line and color that makes it look effortless, and unfairly, she’s also a brilliant storyteller. 

STL SPEX: I’m sure you’ve been asked this many, many times, but why food? What do you find inspiring/fascinating about this topic?

SB: I came to food as a subject in a very roundabout way. I had started my webcomic “I Think You’re Sauceome” as an autobio project, but it incorporated a food diary, just because I was trying to get a little more conscious of what I was eating and why. The more comics I drew, the more I ended up somehow writing about food – about restaurants we were trying, new recipes I was learning about, interesting facts about food, especially about history, how recipes change over time and distance, and culinary diasporas. 

The short answer is that I love it, and I’m passionate about it, which makes it easy for me to draw and paint it in a compelling way. But the long answer is: there are so many important human stories that can be told using food as a focal point. We use food for so much more than just the calories we need to survive. We share meals with friends, we cook for lovers, we argue about drink pairings. We use food to celebrate, to commiserate. We pass down recipes like they’re family heirlooms. We bring casseroles to friends who are mourning because food communicates how much we want to comfort and care for them so much better than words can. Food can also be a powerful touchstone; it’s a cultural experience, layered with so much context and information and emotional weight about who we are, where our ancestors came from, the ingredients that make us. 

STL SPEX: I recently discovered that you designed a t-shirt to support the World Bird Sanctuary’s fundraising efforts – what are some of your artistic connections to that organization and/or other local St. Louis places and people?

SB: So if I remember correctly, the woman who contacted me from the World Bird Sanctuary found me through my comics. But my family moved to St. Louis when I was in 7th grade, so I have a lot of local connections! I went to Cor Jesu for high school, and after I graduated college, I moved back to St. Louis for about five years, and lived in the Central West End. I met my current partner when he was still working at the Tivoli. Starclipper was my first regular comic book store, and when I made my very first zine, I took it there to sell it. My brother and I used to have Sunday brunch at the Majestic Diner (RIP, I still miss the Bill’s special omelet) every week, and then go spend the afternoon at the zoo or the art museum. I’ve been in Chicago for more than 15 years now, but I have a lot of very fond memories of St. Louis! 

STL SPEX: A friend of mine gave me The Complete Ouija Interviews of few years ago and, I have to ask – have you done anymore interviews? Any other stories of the ghosts of Nantucket? (full disclosure: Moby Dick is one of my favorite books…)

SB: No! I tried, I tried really hard. The Complete Ouija Interviews came out of a few vacations to Nantucket when my older brother was working at the hostel there. The mood and the setting was perfect for getting fun and goofy and creepy stories out of the board. When my brother moved on from that job, I tried to use a Ouija board in Chicago a few times, but never got anything approaching the complete and coherent conversations we’d had in Nantucket. I had really wanted to extend that series of comics, but it didn’t feel right doing it unless I had genuine material from actual Ouija sessions.

(A fun fact, since you mentioned Moby Dick – once, coming back from a trip to Nantucket, I was going through security at Boston Logan, and I put the book I was reading – In the Heart of the Sea – through the x-ray thing. This huge bear of a TSA agent grabbed it from the conveyor belt and wagged it in my face. “IS THIS YOUR BOOK MA’AM??” he bellowed in a thick Boston accent. I nodded, and he handed it back to me. “IT’S AN EXCELLENT BOOK, MA’AM” he said, and he sent me on my way.)

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