Illustrator Laura Callaghan: “We need more visibility for women in art”

We catch up with illustrator Laura Callaghan at Comix Creatrix, which is showicasing work by more than 100 female comic artists.

Comix Creatrix exhibition image by Laura Callaghan

The UK’s largest exhibition of female comic artists, Comix Creatrix, opened on Friday evening at the House of Illustration in King’s Cross, London.

The exhibition, which features work by 100 women artists, was designed by Faudet Harrison, who created frames resembling large comic panels to host the illustrations.

The coloured gradients on the back of the frames are inspired by print on pulpy comic paper, and the colours are from original palettes that comics were printed from.

Tillie Walden, The End of Summer
Tillie Walden, The End of Summer

The exhibition is organised chronologically and by theme. It starts in the 18th century and moves through the 1960s countercultural rebellion to the modern-day graphic novel.

For each century depicted, co-curators Olivia Ahmad and Paul Gravett have selected works that display a range of themes and styles. There is everything from Tarpé Mills’ female superhero, Miss Fury, to the political commentary of Leila Abdelrazaq, to an exploration of gender in India by Reshu Singh. No topic is off limits.

Lizz Lunney
By Lizz Lunney

The laughter panels, which included excerpts from Jacky Fleming’s new book, The Trouble with Women and Lizz Lunney’s True Story, had many visitors chuckling out loud to themselves.

The rise of the personal comic is particularly evident in the work of Laura Callaghan, who designed the exhibition’s cover illustration.

We talk to her about her work and her experiences as a female artist.

Design Week: Tell us about your career so far.

Laura Callaghan: I’m Irish originally. I came to England around 2009 to do a Masters in Illustration at Kingston University. I graduated in 2010 and I’ve slowly been working on my own illustration since then.

I started off doing fashion illustration for the Sunday Telegraph. That was a weekly thing that I did for about three years. When you’re doing fashion illustration you’re drawing the same thing every week, there’s not a lot of creativity, it’s a bit formulaic. So I started doing my own paintings, watercolour pieces, which were fashion influenced but more narrative-driven.

Right now I’m making very female-centric, character-driven watercolour pieces.

DW: Tell us more about your female-centric narratives:

LC: A lot of what I do is based around female unity or relationships between women. But it’s not necessarily this idea that there is a perfect friendship or relationship. Often women are depicted as either best friends or as bitchy rivals. Women don’t get the breadth of experiences that men would have in comics or television.

I like to think that the women in my illustrations are flawed and they can throw daggers at each other. In a lot of what I draw the subject matters are quite mundane, everyday things that are rooted in reality.

DW: Are there certain themes that are seen as stereotypically “male” or “female”?

LC: People seem to think that men are creating superheroes and women are making comics more about personal experiences. I don’t think there are exclusively male or exclusively female topics.

I tend to make art about female experiences because I don’t think I grew up with a lot of art or comics about female experiences. I think this exhibition proves that women work in all sorts of different styles on different themes.

DW: So is it reductive to talk about “female comics”?

LC: Ideally women would just be called “comics” or “artists”. But right now it’s almost essential to talk about our experiences as “female comics”.

We need more visibility for women in art. There just isn’t the same platform available to women and there’s been so much overlooked. In this exhibition, the fact that it looks back so far and is quite international is really good. I think a lot of people wouldn’t realise how much of a foot women have had in comics in the past.

DW: Has being a “female artist” ever been difficult?

LC: There’s something that happens where certain men get quite offended that I don’t draw men. It’s bizarre. People come up and say: “Why don’t you draw men, do you hate men?” I get the same messages on Instagram. I’m not excluding men; this isn’t about men at all! It seems like an odd question to ask.

DW: What plans do you have for the future?

LC: This year I’m trying to make more work on themes that are grittier. I want to show the negatives as well as the positives because I think some of my work is a bit dreamy and I want to have the narration be more real.

Comix Creatrix is on at the House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, London N1, until 15 May 2016.

Discover more:

• “Women don’t do comics just for women”

Audrey Niffenegger, The Night Bookmobile
Audrey Niffenegger, The Night Bookmobile
Marion Fayolle, The Collector
Marion Fayolle, The Collector

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