Robot pelicans. Ancient poems of myths and monsters. Zombie jellyfish. When perusing Marnie Galloway’s portfolio, you are able to find a wide variety of work that, while the subjects vary wildly, they all have one thing in common: the illustrations are beautifully, wonderfully thought out and executed. As an independent comic book artist and illustrator, under the name Monkeyrope Press, Marnie captures the feeling of stories–either her own or her clients–through ink, paper, and watercolor. Her style is a magical combination of whimsy and sophistication; her take on her work and advice to others is even better.
Keep reading for inspiration on following your heart to do what you love, participating in exhibitions, promoting your personal style, and more!
Covers of Marnie’s original comics– In the Sounds and Seas – Volumes I & II
1. You studied philosophy and symbolic logic in college, which sets you apart from many creatives with art in their education backgrounds. How did your path lead you to full-time illustration and comics, and how does it influence your work?
Yeah! So I studied logic with an ambition to go into a PhD program, but was increasingly disheartened by how small it felt like that world was: I published a paper that I realized maybe three people in the world would be interested in reading, and the narrowness and hyper-specialty of that future was really off-putting. So I went in the other direction and dove in head-first to a career as a community organizer! I’d put my interest in social justice in to practice, make a difference in the world! …and then I quickly learned that my social anxiety and empathetic openness made me burn out with lightning speed, as it does for many organizers. So it goes.
Over the last 8 years or so, I have worked for years as an administrative assistant in a few offices; I’ve worked as a nanny, as a production assistant in my grad school’s offset shop, as a book artist MFA grad student (which I quit after my first year), a studio assistant in a letterpress studio, a freelance printmaker, and most recently as a print designer at a children’s magazine. It has been a lot of tests and failures, experiments and misfits. With each change I have gotten closer to what I want to do, and at each transition moment I have tried to keep the good and not be afraid to abandon what doesn’t work. There’s a principle in economics called the sunk cost fallacy, where otherwise rational agents keep throwing more money (or time) in to a bad investment because they’ve already invested so much, and so lose even more money or time than if they’d walked away. I’ve tried really hard not to do that in my life, to be honest with myself at each turn and not be afraid to abandon something I’ve worked really hard on if it isn’t making me happy or building towards the career I want, when the timing was possible. That orientation assumes that one has the financial safety or life-flexibility to upend a plan and change directions, which of course is a rare and difficult thing to find or create.
At each transition moment I have tried to keep the good and not be afraid to abandon what doesn’t work.
I’m extremely grateful that I’ve been able to carve away an art practice that I find meaningful; it has been possible through good luck and loving support (from friends, family, and my husband Tom) as much as years of late hours working on nights and weekends. I sometimes look at artists and designers launching in to their careers fresh out of college and wish I had known myself better back then, but this meandering path to my current creative work gave me a lot of skills that I use regularly. Studying and teaching logic trained me to be a focused, clear communicator and debater; that has been super valuable as I write applications to grants, galleries and artist residencies. Going to Smith College meant 4 years of social immersion in critical theory and gender studies; even if I didn’t study that particularly, my time there made me a more subtle reader of cultural texts. Even my years of slightly depressing work as a secretary trained me to keep a supremely organized calendar and accounting system, which has been invaluable. Life is long, and it all matters.
Interior pages of In the Sounds and Seas – so beautiful!
2. As a small business owner, freelancer, or artist, a key way to gain clients is to promote yourself. Having been included in many exhibitions (and the recipient of many awards and honors!), how do you decide what to enter, and what are the benefits?
This is a great question! Right now about half of the events or exhibitions I participate in are things I apply for, and half are invited opportunities that emerge from being a visible member of a really active and thriving arts community. That percentage has changed over the years: when I was first starting out, it was all applications—no invitations—but I applied to EVERYTHING. My philosophy was to make other people reject me; I wouldn’t do that work for them by not applying. I scoured state, county and city grants; aggregate sites like Chicago Artist Resource or New York Foundation for the Arts; comics-specific awards; anything that seemed even marginally appropriate, I submitted an application. You learn not to take rejection personally; it’s a process. There are some galleries or book collections that artists have to pay to be a part of, which is misguided at best or a scam on eager artists at worst, so I avoided those. Small application fees for processing can quickly add up, so I’d be more selective with those and try to stay within a (very modest) application-specific budget I’d set aside for myself every month.
You learn not to take rejection personally; it’s a process.
The benefits are exponential. Once you have one grant, or gallery show, or residency, you are a stronger candidate for future applications. My “break,”so to say, was winning a 2012 Xeric Award, a self-publishing grant for early-career comic artists which tragically doesn’t exist anymore. I was approached for my first freelance comics project specifically because I won the Xeric, which was my foot in the door for my freelance illustration practice. Winning the award also made me feel more confident with my art, and I think it helped to legitimize my new presence in the comics community. It’s also true that crowdfunding is making self-directed creative work a lot easier without the need of gatekeepers or institutional funding, which I think is amazing.
I apply more selectively now, not because I have changed my philosophy of applying to everything but I don’t have same time available that I used to. I have been lucky this year to have a string of events in really quick succession since early spring, so I have fallen out of the application rhythm. The lead time on a lot of stuff can be 6-12 months, so some of the events I’m participating in this month were applications I submitted in January; since I didn’t have time to apply to anything this summer, I’ve got a nice chunk of quiet time coming up this winter where I’ll focus equally on making new work as getting my application calendar organized again.
Select frames from the comic ‘Medusa’ – see more of this story at http://monkeyropepress.com/medusa
3. Speaking of exhibitions, you are one of the organizers for the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo–adorably nicknamed CAKE–which celebrates independent comics. Does organizing an event like this make you think upon what you can do differently?
Yes, absolutely! I joined the CAKE organizing team about a year and a half ago, early last summer, after having been an exhibitor for the first two years of the show. It felt like a no-brainer to join the group of organizers when I was invited. I have gotten so much out of participating in alternative comics festivals that it felt right to volunteer my time to give back, and I also thought that it would be valuable to learn how arts organizations grow and maintain themselves, which as absolutely been the case. It has been fulfilling, rewarding and way more work than I would have guessed as an exhibitor! The labor of a well-run show is invisible to tabling artists and attendees, so the breadth and depth of preparatory labor has been interesting to learn about and contribute to. Organizing CAKE helps me prioritize being well-read and up to date with contemporary comic artists and fill in gaps in my reading of classics, and introduces me to artists whose work I might not otherwise be familiar with. I have learned so much about the craft of comic making through this immersive reading.
All of the artists are super supportive of each other’s work. It’s a love-fest.
The comics community is unlike any other art world I’ve participated in; earlier this week in a CAKE meeting, comic artist & pal Isabella Rotman described the Chicago comics scene as “very group-hug,”and I think that’s right on the nose. There’s a huge diversity of work being made, and at least my experience in Chicago has been that all of the artists are super supportive of each other’s work. It’s a love-fest. There’s a recurring joke that it’s the same $10 bill passing from table to table at festivals, because we all are so excited to buy each other’s books. I have a tendency to self-isolate from shyness and a driving need to hunker down and disappear in to working in every spare hour, but being a part of the CAKE team has helped me push myself to be a more active member of the Chicago comics community. It has been as good for my heart as it has for my work.
In love with this portion of Marnie’s tale of visiting Marrakesh for Saveur Magazine in 2012. See her whole travelogue comic here!
4. I like to imagine you in a studio, illustrating your own comics all day, every day! But when a time ever comes where client work is needed, how do you promote yourself and get hired for independent work? Do you have any suggestions to others getting their start on how to propose projects to potential clients?
I’m definitely still learning how best to pursue client work. A lot of my most exciting freelance work has come to me through loose social networks—“I know a person who knows a person who is looking for an artist; you draw, right?”One way to think about that is that the work I do to promote my personal projects is doing double the work. Since I left my magazine design job last March and have been full-time working for myself, I have started to work on my freelance hustle. My main trick so far is to look at artists whose work I think is similar to mine in tone or style, or whose careers I aspire to emulate, and reach out to art directors who have worked with them in the past. That has worked out pretty well for me so far! There is still more I could do, that I have on my to-do list; I know from my years at the magazines that a lot of illustrators send out self-promotional post cards to art directors or other potential clients. Also, once you have worked with a client, you hope that you have done a good job and maintained a good relationship so that they want to work with you again. Beyond that, it feels like a bit of a mystery.
I will say though, even when I’m in a period of 100% focusing on my comics work full-time, it’s very rarely all-day every-day drawing, unfortunately! There is a lot of invisible work that goes in to maintaining a practice, writing emails and filling out forms; updating social media to announce upcoming shows; organizing events; shipping out orders; applying to festivals and grants; etc etc. One thing that has been a surprise is how much straight-up administrative work there is! Each task on its own is not a big effort, but when there are a lot of pots on the fire that time can add up quickly.
5. You have such a beautiful and unique style. When working with clients, do you ever have to turn down projects because it is too far from your personal style of illustration? Where do you draw the line (pun intended!) between personal expression in your artwork and client direction?
Aw, thanks! This is another great question, and one that (so far) I haven’t had to confront. I haven’t ever turned down a job for a difference in vision—all experience is good experience right now—with one or two exceptions when I just didn’t have time to meet a proposed deadline. That said, I won’t work for free, unless it’s for a charity or something. I have definitely gotten solicitations for work that will be used commercially and they say it will be “good for my portfolio,”which is code for no pay, which is condescending and unprofessional. Illustration work is labor, and deserves pay.
A while back I watched a recording of a panel discussion at the Society of Illustrators with three of my favorite comic artists (Eleanor Davis, Jillian Tamaki and Lisa Hanawalt) where they talked about how they developed their freelance illustration careers. Their advice, which has absolutely been true for me, is to make what you care about first and share it online rather than trying to build a careful portfolio based on what you think will be marketable. By having an established voice for yourself, you make it easier for art directors to get to know you, to see if you will be a good fit for a particular project or not. That also means you’re most likely going to get projects that you will find fun and interesting. I worked for two years as a designer at magazines for children/young adults, and I would always look first at the work an artist makes for themselves, at the voice they’re interested in putting out there in the world; it almost never steered me wrong in assigning projects to illustrators.
Make what you care about first and share it online rather than trying to build a careful portfolio based on what you think will be marketable…you’re most likely going to get projects that you will find fun and interesting.
I think of my personal art practice as a totally different world than my freelance illustration work, even if I use ink and paper for both. I don’t necessarily look to freelance projects for personal expression; I enjoy the challenge and constraints of client work, of trying to make something that will celebrate what is great about the story in its editorial context. It is fun to try out new illustration styles, and useful to learn from the guidance and feedback of art directors and editors who know their product better than I do. It is also great to have quick, short deadlines as a change of pace! Making comics takes a really long time (at least for me), so it is refreshing to get out of my head and break up a long book project with a few freelance jobs.
A Marnie Galloway + Tiny Bold Creative collaboration, for 826CHI’s Compendium Volume 4! Marnie’s illustrations highlighted pieces from the student’s stories throughout the book and made the cover truly magical!
Bonus Question: What has surprised you the most in your career?
This is going to sound glib, but it is still sometimes surprising that I get to make my work in exactly the way that I want to make it. I was discouraged by my undergraduate advisor from pursuing anything but academia; I was discouraged by my grad school advisor from making illustrative work. It’s easy to get voices of criticism stuck in your head and dwell on them in quiet moments, to feel like you’re doing something wrong. It took me a long time to realize I didn’t need permission from anyone to make work the way I want to, and once I abandoned that orientation I started finding my footings towards some success, and definitely towards more meaningful and creatively / intellectually engaging work. I have a tendency (which is human, I think) to want institutional acknowledgment or approval, but every time I have paused to make corrections my work has suffered. It has been surprisingly liberating to distance myself from looking for approval, to be content and confident in my own practice.
In sum: go out already & make it yourself! 🙂
Huge thank you to Marnie for taking the time to join Mini Mighty Mondays! It never sounds glib to appreciate getting to do what you love for a living, and we’re all happy you shared your experiences of how you got to this point! All imagery provided by Marnie.
Make sure to see Marnie’s work (along with Edie Fake’s and John Porcellino’s) at the “Like Comics Without Panels” show at Harper College, running from October 12–November 13th!
Find out how you can be a part of CAKE (or simply keep up with when you can go buy some great comics!) at www.cakechicago.com.
Mini Mighty Mondays is a bi-monthly blog series, featuring interviews with creative individuals or small businesses to emphasize that you don’t have to be a huge company to have huge results. Interested in being a part, or know someone who’d be a great addition? Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!