In the late 19th century, Southern California attracted misfits, idealists, and entrepreneurs with few ties to anyone or anything. Swamis, spiritualists, and other self-proclaimed religious authorities quickly made their way out West to forge new faiths. Independent book publishers, motivational speakers, and metaphysical-minded artists and writers then became part of the Los Angeles landscape. City of the Seekers examines how the legacy of this spiritual freedom enables artists to make creative work as part of their practices.
Informal personality quizzes are nothing new. Long before the proliferation of clickable multiple-choice tests from sketchy sites online, print magazines published all kinds of ersatz exams about everything from makeup to sex, and probably even makeup sex. (Vanity Fair still does, albeit more tastefully.) The truth is that the tradition of supplying intimate answers to bold questions originated as a Victorian parlor game, and in 1890, a teenage Marcel Proust (1871-1922) indulged in the fad. It's his handwritten manuscript, An Album to Record Thoughts, Feelings, etc., that inspired artist Joanna Neborsky to try to bring back the erstwhile tradition of providing longhand answers to life's profound questions.
There really isn't a term to describe Joanna Neborsky's artistic style, which is a blend of antique spot illustrations, original drawings, and other collages reassembled into colorful yet mind-boggling pieces of meta clip-art. Maybe that's why she's the ideal artist to illustrate A Proust Questionnaire, a book of questions based on Marcel Proust's own answers in his confession album, as there's also not really a word to describe Proust's own writing except "Proustian."
"I would like for others to tell me what my style is," Neborsky tells The Creators Project. "Unfortunately, this morning, I keep landing on 'wacky.'"
Neborsky's career trajectory as an artist is an interesting one. She earned a degree in English at Yale, followed by an M.F.A. in Illustration at the School of Visual Arts. In a few years, she went from being an untrained artist to having her thesis in illustration published a year later as a book, Illustrated Three-Line Novels (2010). Maybe it's because her advisor was famed illustrator Maira Kalman, but most likely, it was Neborsky's witty take on grisly French crime blotters from the Belle Epoque that landed her the gig.
From there, Neborsky's career has taken off with a poster A Partial Inventory of Gustave Flaubert’s Personal Effects for The Paris Review, as well as caricatures of literary figures such as Colette and James Baldwin for A Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year by Tom Nissley.
"If I’m going down anywhere, it’ll be as an X-acto- and- paste- and- construction- paper- and- assorted- pens woman," Neborsky quips, referencing the James Joyce quotation: "I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man."
Neborsky says she finds old magazines and books for her projects everywhere from the sidewalk to estate sales, library sales, and thrift stores, adding that she never cuts out the pieces of her findings directly, but copies them instead in order to keep the source material intact.
"When a freelance job comes in, I identify the theme or concept of the piece and raid my 100% randomly archived collection of photo cutouts, spanning historical eras, animals, buildings, machinery, textures, words, numbers–for fragments that could suggest, either individually or in concert, the subject at hand," Neborsky explains. "Or, if I know I’m unlikely to have the right cutout because the topic is utterly specific—say, semi-automatic weapons (for The New York Times), or the painter Gustave Caillebotte (for Vanity Fair Italia), to cite two recent examples, I move on over to the Pasadena library or The Last Bookstore and fire up the copy card. I set the cutouts next to one another in Photoshop to see if a relationship emerges, if a meaningful (versus merely textural) collage is possible. Then I draw or cut and paste the missing incidentals or accents to round out the scene."
When making art, Neborsky's goal is simple. It's "to tell a story; to make a viewer laugh; to make a little bit of beauty; (selfishly) to get lost in making." Less simple for her is listing her wide range of influences, which include Terry Gilliam’s collages and Andy Warhol’s children’s books. In fact, she has so many, she's made a list of them.
With such a worldly-looking portfolio, it's also interesting that Neborsky decided to come back to her native Southern California after studying on the East Coast and teaching in France. "I’m proud to be Californian, but nobody has ever mistaken me for one," she says. "My family’s roots are in the east, in Jewish Baltimore. Suburban San Diego, where I was born and raised, with its surf- and- SUV- and- smoothie- and- athleisure-based culture, never quite dug my scene. Whether my pessimism was Russian or adolescent, it didn’t matter; pessimism doesn’t play in sunny, bro-dawg San Diego."
Neborsky says she came back to Southern California partially because she felt she had maybe unfairly dismissed it as a youth. "From afar, Southern California started to gain back its luster that was apparent to everybody but morose teenaged Joanna—in my mid-twenties, living in New York, I began, for the first time, to crave the spaciousness, the Pacific, downtrodden glamour (specifically of Los Angeles), maybe a bit of the hedonism."
Like many of her fellow LA-based artists, Neborsky goes to yoga in order to take a break from her studio practice and realign. "And it’s usually there, in Savasana or some shape I am attempting to form en route to Savasana, that I get an idea or two that I smuggle back to the studio," she says.
"I will also say this: even after a decade flopping around New York, some of it in art school, I did not participate in an art scene until moving to Los Angeles. 'Participate' is probably even a stretch: in my shady Mount Washington home I maintain a solitary practice for faraway (usually New York) clients; at quitting time I visit with the LA art scene, in which most of my friends here are involved. It’s interesting and weirdly pressure-free to follow LA art doins’ as a commercial artist with no skin in the game. People are making so many great things here in weird little DIY art spaces, parking lots-turned-galleries, on mountaintops, the LA River. Even the blue-chip galleries in Culver City or Downtown (newly arrived to the consternation of many, I know!) calm me with their monumental sculptures and reliable air-conditioning. I don’t mean to be a naïve cheerleader, but I think so much of the work is good! Expansive (easier to make expansive things here) and intricate and ceramic and funny and painterly-sloppy and feminist and curious and rough-hewn and large-minded. I don’t know what I’m saying other than that I think I love art in LA, even as I’m an LA artist who doesn’t make LA art."
Visit Joanna Neborsky’s website here.