Illustrating Cuba

Illustrating Cuba
October 20, 2015 zachary

Artist and Filmmaker Lorenzo Fonda recently took a trip to Cuba with a goal to create a fully illustrated travel journal. A limited edition reproduction of that journal is available at Grand Quarterly.  We asked Jennifer Oldfield to chat with Lorenzo about his approach and the process.

Jennifer Oldfield: Ok so it seems that like the Pope you just went to Cuba – tell us about it.

Lorenzo Fonda: I know, we share the same good taste. I’m not sure why he went but I went because since i moved to the States me and my parents go somewhere every summer, just to hang out together for a while and see a new place. This year we decided for Cuba.

JO: And you made an epically genre-bending comic out of it- congrats. I liked how your parents featured in this, are they chill with being included? I mean, there’s a lot of dolphin-alien sex in it.

LF: I haven’t checked properly yet but I think they’re fine. At this point I think they’re used to the weirdness of some of my work, and they just go with it. Which is not completely true: once my mother loved a thing I did but she missed a crucial detail and when I explained it to her she said: “I think I need to throw up”.

JO: Haha perfect. So can you you just explain quickly what the comic is and what it covers?

LF: Sure. When I knew I was going to Cuba I knew I wanted to document my first experience there properly, or at least putting a bit more effort in it than just taking some pictures and videos that any other tourist could take. I was vaguely aware of the situation there, and I in a way I felt it was wrong to go and just snap pictures at people and things and then just leave.. I felt putting more effort would somehow pay a bit more respect to the hardships people have to endure there. so I decided to keep an illustrated journal of the trip, where I would document what happened but also use the medium to explore and learn about Cuba, while also experimenting with different forms of text/visual storytelling.


JO: That experimentation in storytelling definitely comes out: you have a bunch of history in there, your deeply personal experiences, some politics and of course completely off the wall flights of fancy such as being investigated by Mulder and Scully because you made alien babies with a dolphin. Do you let your pen and mind wander freely when you are creating comics?

LF: With my everyday sketchbooks I would say yes.. with this one it was a bit different, as I knew I didn’t only want to just go wild creatively but I also wanted to make sure there were some parts that were rooted in reality and history, and I felt those needed to be treated a bit more delicately. But also when I decided to turn my swimming with dolphins into a sci-fi story I tried to sneak in some references to Cuba (the bitter surgeon, Americans putting their nose in other countries’ affairs, etc). let’s say I tried to make almost every page about Cuba, so there was a little more thinking and planning involved than usual.

JO: That empathy for other humans comes across deeply and one of my favorite parts was about the driver you met Bruno, with whom you stirred painful memories of his late son with your sketching. Were you drawing in real-time as your were there and as you were creating it did you think of what Cubans would think of your journal?

LF: I think since I committed myself to keeping sketchbooks seriously I have come to realize how powerful they are, in terms of creating a temporary sense of communion with a stranger. Especially when traveling I feel that keeping a sketchbook helps me connect at a deeper level with the reality around me, and as a side effect people are drawn to it. Art is universal- when someone approaches and asks what I’m drawing I explain it to them, and since often what I draw relates to the environment around me at the moment, when they seem to enthusiastically relate to it I show them the previous pages and eventually a connection is formed, hopefully leaving both parties enriched by it. Also, since I’m hopelessly shy this helps me meeting new people. Specifically for this Cuba one, I did most of the drawings in real time there- which is kinda hard as you can imagine, because you need to make experiences in order to be able to turn them into drawings but also drawing takes time away from making experiences.. so it’s a tricky balance.

JO: And which comes first, the pictures, the words, the feelings or the ideas?

LF: It really depends honestly. Sometimes I have an image in mind that I know I want to illustrate, but I almost always try to never settle for just a simple visual reproduction of it. i feel what intrigues me about illustrating (well, making art in general) is how you can expand reality and construct a heightened version of it, one that corresponds more to how I personally see the world (or I would like it to be) rather than how it actually manifest itself. Somehow this process helps me make sense of what’s happening around me.. you know, it’s like translating it back to a language that I know and understand. So I guess that whatever the form of the initial idea is, what’s important to me is that the work that comes out of it is personal.

JO: So what you are saying is that drawing gives you the ultimate directorial control over the world?

LF: Ahah, in a sense yes. When I’m creating, I’m in control of whatever is happening on the page, and at least for those precious moments I am not completely and utterly overwhelmed by how the real world is extraordinarily random and uncontrollable. But that mostly happens only with my sketchbooks, because I can make anything happen on the page and no one will complain or object; when I direct videos there’s a lot more structure and rules that I need to follow, so I would say drawing is way more liberating when seen in that context.


JO: The flip side of that liberation is that you are poring your soul onto the page. One of your comic “projects” came out of an epistolary romance with another artist, tell us about that and how it came about..

LF: Ooohh, that one. I had just moved to NYC and was eager to meet both other fellow artists and of course cute girls too. I was at a cafe in Brooklyn and saw this girl in another table that was drawing on her sketchbook, being very pensive, with a longing look in her eyes- I was instantly attracted to her. But since I am not the kind of person who walks there and introduce himself, I made a portrait of her and gave it to her as she left, with my email on it, suggesting we should get together and draw. A few days later she wrote me back, attaching a self portrait she made of herself smiling and writing that she would have loved to draw with me. The problem is that the day after I had to leave NYC for two months to shoot some film projects, so we started exchanging drawings and comics via email, and in doing so we got to know and like each other. We filled more than 100 pages, all in real time. It was quite insane and beautiful. Maybe one day we will publish a book with all the correspondence, and you’ll get to know how and if it worked out.

JO: And in contrast to this outpouring of chaotic romantic energy, your last published comic Trumpet and A Feather is very minimalist and restrained.

LF: True. With Trumpet and a feather I wanted to learn how to use dialogue to create two character that would sound as real and genuine as possible. Therefore I decided to keep the visuals very homogeneous, in order to give priority to the dialogues. It was a bit of an experiment (like, I have to admit, a lot of things I do) and it’s slightly different from your average comic, but people seem to respond to it really well which makes me the happiest because I’m really fond of it too.

JO: I see that you are using more words in your comics lately, are you becoming a writer? In terms of other comic artists do you like the ones that are heavier on the text?

LF: I always had an affinity with writing, even if it’s not one of my main “skills”. I love comics because they merge the visual word with the written one- to me it’s the most perfect art form that you can have on a flat static surface. I can think of a lot of artists I love that go heavy on text- but ultimately it’s a lot to ask the reader. What’s tricky is finding the balance between how much to write and how much to draw: I always keep the rule that if something can be communicated with visuals, make it visual. Of course it takes a lot more time (and space on the page) so then it becomes a directorial/editorial decision.

JO: And who are the other comic artists you rate?

LF: I think the first persons whose sketchbooks I saw that seriously blew my mind were Sergi Sanchez’s and Conrado Almada’s, young Fabrica fellows I both met when I was researching there. I was very young and had done my fair share of illustrating, but I never realized you could take autobiographical drawings to that level of creativity and awesomeness. Then came Blu, with which I spent a couple years working on the project Megunica. He instilled me a passion about travel journals, and seeing him working on his own sketchbooks daily was a life-changing and incredibly inspiring experience. Other artists whose sketchbooks I have loved are Chris Ware and Craig Thompson (specifically his travel diaries).

JO: Speaking of Blu, you recently got to do your own mural on the Ghostrobot HQ in Brooklyn, how was that?

LF: It was great fun as usual! I love doing murals. I enter a physical-creative space all of my own, but at the same time I couldn’t be more on the open, with people passing and chatting me, checking out my progress, judging my skills, involuntarily nudging my paint cans to the ground, having to synch with the sun’s schedule- it’s all part of a social-artistic-environmental ritual that I love and cherish and want to keep getting better at (obviously I’m talking about public murals- I’m less interested in doing murals inside buildings or enclosed spaces).

JO: Look forward to seeing more of them popping up! Finally, what’s next for you?

LF: I’m finishing a new comic called The Uncanny, which took almost two years to make because I only work on it when I have some free time. Film-wise, I am in post-production for my next feature film documentary, which is called Archaeology Of The Future and it’s about a skateboarding session I filmed on one of the biggest sculptures of the world. I’m very excited for this, the whole history behind the sculpture is incredibly fascinating and I am confident it will intrigue people greatly.

JO: Sweet! Well I know that you stayed up scanning your comic’s pages until 5am, so I will let you go rest now.

LF: Ahah, thank you Jen!