A conversation with my schoolmate, dear friend and incredible illustrator-cartoonist Lee Lai. We met up a couple blocks from each other's houses in Montreal's Park-Ex neighbourhood. While drinking Turkish coffee and spinach phyllo pie (Ispanaklı Tepsi Böreği) we spoke, and laughed, and cooed over daycare tots and baby sparrows in the park. Lee and I met this year, upon returning to school for a graduate program in Communications.
Lee Lai, a panel from "The Diversity Aesthetic," to be published with The Lifted Brow this year.
Nina : I wanted to interview you because you are one of the most interesting, lovely people I’ve met. I remember when I first met you I was like…
Lee: “What an unassuming little freak?”
No, but I remember you lurking around the halls flashing that really sweet cheeky smile and I was like, “who’s that?!”
Definitely the vision I try and cultivate (laughs), um, I mean, that’s nice.
It just seemed like you knew what you wanted to be doing. The way you navigate the world, the distinct way that translates in your work too.
I think that has a lot to do with knowing your pleasures—knowing creatively what kind of work practice gives me energy and drive and purpose. And for me, an extension of that can be knowing what kinds of people give me energy too. Just learning to hold space for your own particularities and preferences and paying attention to energy and chemistry has been huge in figuring out how much I can invest myself in certain projects and people… I guess while also trying to challenge myself and push my own boundaries a little at the same time.
Thinking about my practice through a framework of knowing what brings me pleasure and energy has been way more concrete and helpful than something as nebulous as the term “inspiration.” It’s helped me find those ways to make the work feel like my own.
Yeah, totally. That’s interesting and also challenging.
It reminds me of the podcast you recommended: Sex Gets Real. There’s this episode about trust, and the interviewee is talking about having erotic relationship with her work—that commitment takes up time and her partners have to understand and respect that relationship. It reminds me of what you were talking about (earlier) of needing to feel entitlement to be making your work because if you don’t have it, it’s so hard to allow yourself to commit to it. You need to understand that it’s pleasurable and essential to your well-being.
I’m curious about what aspect of the things you make gets you excited. The pleasure behind making it is one thing...
I mean, it’s complicated, it’s not just pleasure. It’s not just immediate gratification—it sometimes is, but it’s sometimes definitely not. I think saying “pleasure” is a lazy shorthand as well. Maybe using the metaphor of interpersonal relationships again is helpful: like a relationship with another human, friend or otherwise, is definitely not just pleasure, it’s a ton of anguish. And a ton of compromise and navigating boundaries, you know? And making sacrifices and going into conflict and learning from that and evolving and change…
But then, there is pleasure within that: in growth and change and connection and self-learning too. In talking about knowing your pleasures, that’s also knowing that there’s a whole spectrum of experiences and feelings within that idea. Because if you’re just doing it for the immediate gratification, then you’re going to be pretty disappointed.
Lee Lai. An illustration for Liminal Magazine's event "Liminal Presents," showcasing works from Asian Australian artists.
It’s interesting to think about gratification when disappointment can be such a great motivation for creation as well.
Totally. For me having a sustainable practice is to know that the thing I’m making right now is only going to be good enough to allow me to take the next step. I’ve made comics I’ve trashed and never shown anybody, and maybe it was a failure in the sense that I wasted two months of my life. But, I wouldn’t have been able to make the next thing without the experience I acquired from making the thing that failed. It feels helpful to see every project as an enabler of the next.
Like Craig Thompson. He wrote this giant book called Blankets that got really popular. It’s about his first love and Christianity and losing faith. In an interview he mentioned that that book was an effort to get better at drawing people. That book is definitely unreasonably good for an “exercise” in getting better at drawing people, but regardless, it’s a nice way of looking at process.
When I realize that I’m able to draw a certain thing I’ve been struggling with, what I feel like I can write stories about totally changes. Lately that’s been drawing interiors: I’ve finally figured out how to use a ruler properly and so I’ve been writing more scenes set inside kitchens and bedrooms. I feel like I’m constantly navigating what edges I can push up against in terms of my own ability. So, with that in mind, it feels important to try to see work as not permanent, but more like a series of stepping stones. I think that helps in not just getting sucked into trying to make it look good.
Do you think you need to create something permanent?
I think I struggle with completion.
For what it represents or… ?
Just in general. I think sharing only happens with something I convince myself that I have “completed this stage.” And that means I can share it in the world. Which, I guess is interesting that that is one of my goals. But I also know that the action of sharing opens up new possibilities.
A panel from "Questions for Auntie Mica," published with The New Yorker, 2018.
And that’s what’s so exciting about the whole process of making work. The minute that I share something—and I don’t mean just online—that palette of possibilities that is embedded in every person presents itself and that becomes an opportunity for collaboration or idea-hatching. It’s so exciting!
“Palette of possibilities”
I get it.
No, but I mean somebody comes up to and offers you “THIS” (opens palms) and it’s this idea that you could never have generated on your own but was born out of something you shared.
But, ultimately nothing is really permanent because it’s just about getting it out there so that I can actually see it and learn from it, and from others.
I want to know what you’ve been working on!
Um, what I’m working on now. Damn. I mean, it’s funny to talk about that after talking about the idea of impermanence and the process of sharing. Because of course, I do feel a lot of pressure to make a shiny, finished thing, and that’s also linked to being able to make any kind of money from it too. It would be so nice if there was more freedom in that, but there isn’t. I’m working on a book called Stone Fruit that’s maybe going to be roughly 200 pages, and I’m about thirty pages into it currently. I guess we’ll see if I can pass through all these ideological rings of fire we’ve been talking about to actually get it into the world. I promise I’ll at least show it to you anyway.
Lee Lai, selected page from Stone Fruit, to be completed.
Lee Lai is an Australian cartoonist living between Naarm (Melbourne), Australia, and Tio'tia:ke (known as Montreal), Quebec. For the past few years she has been writing comics, painting illustrations, and facilitating mural-painting workshops with teenagers in Canadian schools. Her work is part memoir, part fiction-- stories that revolve around intimacy, catharsis, rage, gender, families and food. Her work has been featured in the New Yorker, The Lifted Brow, Room Magazine, and Everyday Feminism.