You might recall a feature we ran on Atticus Lish a couple years ago. He’s the guy whose simple ink-on-notebook-paper drawings featured themes such as political beheading, mail order dildos, and men with hairy arms serving people English Breakfast tea. This month Tyrant Books released a limited edition, full-length compendium of his work appropriately titled, Life Is with People. Here the onslaught of gross continues with a terrifyingly familiar and unfortunately hilarious array of folks stranded in the midst of their private lives. It’s kind of like an illustrated guidebook to the craigslist personals—a peek at what your neighbors are doing in that basement. Having read the book twice now—once in the bathroom and once in my bed—I can say that once you get a look at how Atticus Lish draws a horny, butt-naked granny, you won’t be able to shake the image any time soon.
Atticus was kind enough to field some questions via email.
VICE: When did you start drawing?
Atticus: I started drawing pretty young. I think I was around five or six. I tried to write the word "shit" on a piece of paper because I was upset about something, probably something that didn't concern me, and I misspelled it. So the word "chit" was my first drawing. After that, I drew pictures of log cabins and storm troopers and stuff—basic childhood themes in the 70s.
When I first started drawing, I used to draw the things I saw on PBS. They covered American Indians, the Revolutionary War, pioneers… I drew Davey Crocket. I also liked drawing knights in armor (PBS covered King Arthur), but the storm troopers I started drawing after my mom took me to see Star Wars. I was always anatomically correct. I drew knights with their codpieces. I put the codpiece on my space men, too. One time someone asked me if the codpiece was a penis-warmer, and I remember being very upset by that question. Anatomy was not a joke to me.
Writing a misspelled "shit" seems a perfect precursor for the mind behind the drawings in Life Is with People. I was amazed by how dirty the images and the corresponding blurbs of text could make me feel. When did you start drawing the kind of images and situations that ended up in the book?
I found violent material interesting from the time I was young, though I also enjoyed drawing sailboats (truly, not a joke—I was into Robert Louis Stevenson). As I got older, I began to have a more scientific interest in destruction. After seeing The Deer Hunter, I drew a picture of a war scene in Vietnam with piles of bodies. I recall asking an adult, “Do bullet holes have smoke coming out of them?” Because I was concerned about accuracy. In high school, in the library, I discovered news photographs of the real thing and drew from those. I think high school was when I became a little more adventurous about finding things out and depicting them.
So are a lot of your drawings triggered by things you see out in the world, or based on imagination, or some combination of both? Some of them seem so private in action but so specific in detail, I wonder if you see people passing and begin to fantasize about their lifestyle from their shape?
If I feel I need something to look real, I'll draw it from a photo or from the real thing out on the street. For instance, I wanted to learn how to draw a wheelchair for one of the drawings in the book, so I spent a little while on Delancey Street drawing somebody's wheelchair while they were in a pizza place. Yes, they parked the chair on the curb to go grab a slice. When I was done drawing, they gave me the thumbs up.
But a lot of the time I'll just draw without a model, which is lazier, because you end up going by stock images you have in your head. I'll often end up copying myself unconsciously. I've done drawings years apart that were virtually identical. They were drawn by muscle memory, sort of like how a graffiti artist reproduces the same tag over and over again. This is not something I'm proud of, because it gets boring. It amounts to drawing what you think you know as opposed to what you see. What you see is what matters. What you see on Delancey Street.
Sometimes the things I draw just come out a certain way, and I realize it's not actually interesting; there's nothing new going on. To make things interesting, I'm beginning to discover you can't simply rely on anatomy. You have to have characters interacting with something—a situation, or possibly a piece of machinery (such as a colonoscope, for instance), or with each other. That's where the possibilities start multiplying.
I love the way you're able to use a very short phrase or bit of dialogue to open up the already vivid idea. Do you often begin with the words, and draw to them, or vice versa? Is the text overheard, or dreamt up, or both?
A lot of the time my wife Beth and I will figure out the captions together. She came up with a number of them. She has the ability to nail an idea in words. For instance, when we first came to this city we rented a room in a woman's apartment on Ocean Parkway. One day I left my underwear on the towel bar in the bathroom, and my drawers were basically touching some woman's nighty. When we got home that evening, the woman had stickered the entire bathroom with Post-it notes, saying: “You can hang your things here… or here… or here… BUT NOT HERE.” Beth remarked, “This woman is hostile!” She always has the right word. So, yes, Beth is my guide if I'm making something up. And then sometimes I also use direct quotes that I've overheard.
Do family or other people ever look at your work and say stuff like, “Dude, gross. What is wrong with you, why do you show people like this?” I kind of want to give this book to my mega Christian aunt this Christmas.
Haha. Yes, my wife has shaken her head at me more than a few times, but she's laughing because she knows me. I don't tend to show family or other people. I understand that this stuff is not what a lot of people care to see. Sometimes I draw Christmas cards for my in-laws, but I keep it reasonable. I save the coprophagia for the New York crowd.
The pieces in the book are culled from a much larger collection, yes? How long have you been working in that way? How did you go about picking what would go in and what wouldn't, and how were they sequenced?
Yes, there is a pile of drawings—over 300. I started drawing when Beth and I went to China. You can buy great pens and notebooks in China for very little money, and that was probably the biggest thing that got me drawing—the availability of pens and paper that I liked. The other motivator was the sense of alienation. It seemed natural to want to satirize everything that was outside us. This continued when we came back to the States. New York, initially anyway, seemed like a continuation of where we had just been: stressful, crowded, dirty, alien. So the drawings kept coming here for the same reasons. And then I was lucky enough to get hooked up with Giancarlo, which suddenly made New York seem like a place of possibility.
In terms of selection, Gian made a first pass, selecting a pool of about 150 drawings. Then, within that set, we narrowed it down to 120. The sequencing was my project. I tried to get a natural progression in terms of subject matter: children, animals, spousal abuse, terrorism, anal and fecal themes. I tried to be logical.
Do you see drawing as a release?
Well, it feels good when it goes well, when the paper and pen feel right. And it can be somewhat therapeutic. But the truth is—and this may be hard to believe—I don't actually feel I need therapy. What I'm really trying to do these days is just make something that I'm pleased with, not to vent a sense of alienation or fury or loneliness.