The Walker has a history of hiring great illustrators—such as J. Otto and Sara Varon—to create entire worlds for our Education department’s family programs initiatives like Free First Saturdays and Arty Pants. This year we invited British design collective Nous Vous to work with us, and they produced the sprawling scene that you see above. Nous Vous is Jay Cover, William Edmonds, and Nicolas Burrows. We asked them for six illustrations—one for each issue of our bimonthly magazine for a year—that we could also repurpose for postcards and other marketing materials. They decided to create one massive illustration that breaks down into six sections, which we love. Read about how they made it below:
Can you describe the concept behind the piece? Emmet and Dante at the Walker picked out a few of our existing pieces that they liked, and also threw in a few ideas that they had about possibly creating characters or ‘monsters’ looking at/interacting with things. They also wanted it to be ‘weird and whimsical’ and for it not to appeal to too young an audience. The three of us have not ‘drawn’ on the same page for a long time and recently we have all been having fun drawing guys. It’s pretty fun to smash some people together. The piece was fun to make so hopefully it has a good vibe about it. It’s unlikely we would be able to create something like this individually so this kind of sums up the point of working together, to do something more complex and fun and also we may not have made something like this if the Walker hadn’t asked us. We wanted to depict an abstract suggestion of a really active workshop, gallery or art school and fill it full of people doing things relating to the process of making art (in any context—non-professional/professional), aspects of the family programme and the architecture of the places where art ‘happens’ or is presented, whether that’s the artist’s studio or a small gallery, an institution like the Walker, on the walls of a cafe or a sculpture garden etc. We were trying to make something that has a lot of dynamic aspects to it, that draws your eye around, to reflect the excitement that the Family Programme offers participants. The interaction between the guys is what makes it dynamic or interesting, and it’s an unexpected and awkward interaction due to the way the image was made.
How did you go about creating it? It was fairly free and loose to begin with. We all created guys and then we put them together with one of us going through and then tightening up all the illustrations. Most of the crossover happened quite serendipitously. It’s fun making characters that you know will have to interact with others but you are not sure how. There’s an element of wanting to make ourselves and each other laugh by making stupid guys and then it turns into a bit of a puzzle locking them altogether. We’ve tried and failed to make images in a similar way before. We made a list of six rough areas for which we thought about what characters could be doing, and what objects there might be there. So we have a workshop, an outdoor forest/garden, a cafe, a gallery, a sculpture garden and a theatre. Then one of us would compose the images in panels. We ended up making the first two panels as we went along, and then we made the other four all at once.
In your illustration, several tables, or at least flat surfaces (floors, pools, walls) appear, always covered with a variety of objects. It’s a motif that shows up elsewhere in your work—what significance does a cluttered surface have to you? We like things. We like to draw things, make things and live with things. So it’s very much a manifestation of our personal physical worlds, or perhaps our fantasy world. Surrounded by things we’ve made or would love to have made, hanging out with some fun guys and plants and pools. It’s just something we ended up drawing or representing because these surfaces with objects are our immediate environment for most of the time, so they end up getting put into the work. I suppose we started to notice the sculptural or rhythmic qualities of the detritus, the tools and materials present whilst making work. It’s also a way to symbolise certain things, or to suggest something about the characters or the world they’re in.
Do any of the characters have interesting stories behind them? The characters really only come out of the way they are drawn. Really we’ve tried to represent a really odd bunch of people so that anyone could see themselves as part of it. There are certain guys that we all pick out and smile, because they have a silly face or are doing something weird. They don’t have specific stories. We all like to make drawings that have just enough in them for people to grab hold of but still have some work to do in terms of forming a specific character. It’s nice when people can bring their own imagination to this world. There are a few friends and references in there that are maybe a bit more personal but it’s more mysterious for them to stay that way…
Can you point out some of the artists that you reference in the piece? Maybe it’s more fun for people to find them. They’re not very obscure, but here’s a list.
❑ Fischli and Weiss
❑ Joseph Beuys
❑ Yves Klein
❑ David Nash
❑ Katharina Fritsch
❑ Robert Wyatt
❑ Florentijn Hofman
❑ The Lely Venus
We also threw in some cheeky references to our own work in the ‘gallery’ panel at bottom right. The framed work on the wall and the ceramics are all ours! Some others got a bit buried in the drawing process, but there are figurative references to Frances Alys pushing the block of ice and Jackson Pollock painting. They weren’t chosen necessarily because we’re hugely into these people, more that they had something interesting visually to contribute and anchored the illustration in the art world a bit more.
Are there illustrators out there that inspire you? Some yes, of course! Although we are more inspired by things that are not illustration, design or art. But lots of people: Laura Carlin, Sara Vanbelle, the mighty Marcus Oakley, Matthew Hodson. Too many to mention really. Most are friends which is an added inspiration. Most illustrators we like are people who do other things as well as illustrating. It doesn’t have to be a thing in it’s own right. It’s exciting when people make work and then sometimes illustrate or apply their work to different things. This always feels more interesting and is more about getting an idea or an energy across rather than a focus on pure illustrative style.
From the way you talk about this, this project served as a way to bring the three of you together, primarily through the act of making. What does “making” mean to Nous Vous? The reason we like to work together is to vibe off each other, so when we get a chance it’s nice to take it. Making, for all of us, is a an act that can be a bit transcendental, it’s when we make sense of things and let go. It’s social in the way we work, as we make together, it can be awkward making in a public way but you soon let go of your pretence and when you do it becomes quite freeing. Making is also communal in that we like to make things for people. Sure the main pleasure is for us, in the act, but we like to make with the knowledge that other people will find some enjoyment in it. We each have our own individual practices too that are personal and solitairy. It’s good to have both, otherwise we’d probably get bored of one approach or the other. We individually make ceramics, drawings and music as well as other stuff, but together we mostly work on design projects or curatorial stuff, and some illustration work like this brief. Some things work better approached individually and some things work better together, and it’s good to recognise that. Making and thinking is often the same. It’s hard to think without making but then I guess making can be most ‘zen’ when you are in the moment and not thinking specifically. But I guess you become a channel for all the stuff you have thought about and filled up on, and it kind of pours out subconsciously. So in that way it’s important to fill up, stock up on stuff so have some splurge to purge. The making process itself is the space in which you can think and work the thing out as you go along. So for example, we had a rough idea what this image would look like, but we didn’t plan the details, we just started to do it and then worked around problems that came up, ironed things out. You can’t do that without starting something and nothing ever turns out exactly the way you plan it. And why should it? That’s the fun of making things. Things happen along the way and you end up with something you never imagined you would. That’s especially true when you’re collaborating…