Walter Scott On the Life and Lives of "Wendy"
Tavi Gevinson talks to the artist and writer about his latest book, "Wendy, Master of Art."
I first discovered Walter Scott’s Wendy in 2017, in a bookstore, drawn to the loopy marker lettering on its purple spine. Opening it up, I knew this hungover art girl and her fellow groping-in-the-dark creative types were for me. I was mad at everyone who already knew this series and hadn’t told me about it, and I prided myself on introducing it to the unfamiliar. Reading it, and its sequel, Wendy’s Revenge, I took pictures of panels that became shorthand among my friends. “How does he know?” one texted me as she read, referring to the delightful surprise of so deeply relating to a female character written by a man.
That man is Walter Scott, and his latest addition to the Wendyverse is Wendy, Master of Art, out this week from Drawn & Quarterly. In Master of Art, a M.F.A. program acts as a petri dish where Scott allows his characters to explore questions around what art could or should do, even when they’re all too insecure or drunk to speak clearly. These questions are timeless, but also feel so of this moment: Among countless cultural conversations about art’s relationship to politics, it is fortifying to see Scott engage such concerns via stories about people's personal lives. His compassionate sense of humor and slightly unhinged drawing style add a gleeful dimension to otherwise daunting topics. And he achieves what all my favorite artworks-about-art do, which is to show that art, identity, and politics are fluid parts of being alive, informing one another in mysterious and fascinating ways.
Can you tell me about Wendy’s origins and the other art you were making at that time?
I was involved in the punk DIY music scene in Montreal and making a lot of psychedelic posters and stuff that was photocopied and put on poles. I was also in a band. I wanted to enter the art world and I had an understanding of the art world as a place of austerity and very stringent aesthetic decisions. I couldn't really get away from my instinct to make really doodle-y psychedelic things, but I was trying to fit myself into this capital-A Art World and I felt a little bit lost. I had been out with my friends at one of the DIY music events that we used to go to. The next day, we're in a diner, and I drew this really... well, it was really stupid. It was a comic of Wendy being hungover and puking. Then I went home and I Photoshopped it and posted it on Facebook because I wanted to make something dumb and I was tired of trying to be a real artist and I wanted to do something to amuse myself and my friends.
That’s a theme of the books, the way that trying to be a “real artist” can shut one off to other possibilities in art making. What do you get out of making books rather than fine art, in your ability to make work about the art world?
Writing books and zines is way more familiar to me. I used to make zines and comic books and sell them on the school bus when I was a kid. On my lunch breaks in high school, I would go to the photocopier in the corner store down the road instead of socializing. It was a way for me to retreat into my own world and at the end of it have something to disseminate that expresses what that world was. It was a really good way to communicate without being present in a weird way.
I went into art school, but honestly, I was making zines then too. By the time I decided I was going to go back into comics, the language was natural for me. It's almost incidental that I had all of this art world experience under my belt that became the subject matter of my work because it was closest to me.
Unlike a lot of art world satires, Wendy doesn't make me afraid to be creative. It actually makes me excited to make things and be vulnerable. How do you strike the balance between satire and Wendy's genuine journey of trying to make authentic art, or are those not even competing goals?
I feel that with the art world in popular media, it's always the same two or three jokes. Pretentious people go to a gallery and the humidifier is the piece and some pretentious person says it's amazing and of course it isn't and the joke is that it isn't amazing and it's a humidifier. That's about as far as people get with the art world. I wanted to create a story of the art world that is made up of people with feelings, at the very least, where the art that they make might help to better understand who the character is.
Like Maduhri, for instance, in the book; she's a super-queer artist of color who's interested in these super feminist things like fermentation. The artwork is there in the book as a way to flesh her out a little bit more as a character, and not just be an accessory to her pretentiousness as an artist. A lot of the artworks in Wendy, I only realized after drawing them that they could actually be artworks in real life and maybe even be substantial.
Reading it now I felt very aware of how a lot of the vocabulary of critical theory that's been present in academia and the art world for a long time has proliferated out into mainstream media. I'm curious if you were thinking about that while working on Master of Art.
I did in relation to the characters because the characters live in this world, and so they would be affected and respond through their artworks and through who they are to the world. It's very, very complicated to make any form of art nowadays knowing that it's going to enter through these pop-political filters of interpretation. Sometimes, in a way, that... what's the word for cutting something off at the pass? Precludes. There's a lot of ways in which the way people use language now precludes the possibility of understanding the work.
The experiences that we have of politics and art right now—I wanted to embody them in the different characters, at the get-go, and then you watch how the interpretations that they all have of each other all start to smear together, and things get a little more complicated. It actually is about conversations and encounters between people. I mean, that's the thing that helps us grow and think differently.
There's a misleading but very internet impulse to think that if you know someone's politics, it's shorthand for knowing everything about them. With the character Eric, it’s like he thinks his politics can bridge every gap between himself and others, like he thinks that’s a form of intimacy.
Some people do. I've had so many people who want to connect with me be like, "Well I mean you get it, you're a person of color." I'm [sarcastically] like, "That makes me feel soooo good!" Also, I'm totally white-passing, so it really is about someone else's interpretation of me based on how they feel about themselves.
You’re reminding me of a very basic but easy-to-forget storytelling rule which is that good stories come out of making characters feel real and putting them in scenarios and relationships that feel real and seeing how they react to each other.
It’s tied to what you said about how you see someone on the internet and then you assume what their politics are. It's almost like, if each character is a stand in for a certain type of person and each of them are a drop of food coloring that's a different color and you drop them onto a dish and then suddenly watch them all meld together and you see what happens, that’s what most interests me about writing a book like Wendy. They do start out as these stand-ins for political positions and subjectivities, but the joy of writing how all of these people transform, or not, in relation to each other, is the joy of writing the book—Well, what if this person says that and then this person says that in response?—and it creates this scenario.
It's this Roland Barthes quote about the “neurotic makeshift,” where the only way to write is by living in this world of constant neurosis of the impossible. [The impossible] may never happen, but you're always preparing for it. I'm completely misquoting, but as a writer, I feel I'm not that different from worst-case-scenario people—Well if this happens, then this could happen, and then this can happen—and I've made a career of being that person. At least with writing I have the power of turning it into a positive at the end. This is probably why therapists tell people to keep diaries. I've decided to make mine public.
Another aspect of writing these characters who might initially be stand-ins for certain subjectivities is I get to flesh out what my relationship is to them. More neurotic in a deeper sense, I feel like the characters represent different aspects of myself. If I'm having trouble reconciling different aspects of myself, I can have that happen on the page. A part of me is Wendy who's out there doing what I need to do in the art world to make things happen. There's another part of me that's like Winona, an Indigenous person who's resentful of the power dynamics of it all. I get to personify those two parts and have them have a conversation. It's two halves of something that turns over in my mind constantly.
I feel like in the last few years I've consumed a number of shows, movies, or books in which a white, female character being ditzy is the ceiling of the work looking at her whiteness or class or straightness. It's a way for the storyteller to be like, “I'm in on the joke because I think this character's stupid.” I appreciate how much Wendy is not that, and looks at how all of these characters are trying to relate to each other through those lenses of identity. How has that challenge presented itself in the decisions you’ve had to make as an author?
I think part of it is making her friends at fault, too, where Wendy is actually not always wrong. I had her friend Winona be this Indigenous woman, but I found myself writing what I felt like people want, which is the really level-headed Indigenous woman who always knows exactly what's going on and the right thing to do and the right thing to say and the right thing to think. But then I always felt like that was doing a disservice to Winona because I don't think it's fair to have her be one dimensional either, you know? I think that puts too much burden and responsibility on Winona to be this model person. I'm not really interested in that; I'm interested in them as best friends. Sometimes Winona has to make mistakes and it's a way to write a story where her humanity is included. You see her process of becoming more vulnerable.
And I don't want Wendy to be this tent pole. I fucked myself over because ever since I made her the protagonist I have no choice but to try to figure out how to make that not so. In this book you see Screamo, and he has no patience for who Wendy has become. The opportunity is to have these stories splinter off where not only is she not interesting to the character anymore, she's not really the point. It's a way to point to this constellation of subjectivities.
Can you talk to me about the choice to exclude most of Wendy's art from the panels in the book?
Yeah, that's an in-joke that I have with myself. The story of [Wendy’s] journey towards becoming an artist in this general sense—I think it's way more important than what she actually does. Because I think that if you look at what she actually does, it might color your idea of what her ambition is. It might bog the story down a little bit more. I think that if she's an all-over-the-place arts worker, it's a really good way to allow people who are reading it to relate to her. In a way it doesn't really matter what she does.
I feel like I could probably, in my real art life, make a whole exhibition of Wendy artwork. I think it's funnier, at least from the breadcrumbs of what people describe to me, to imagine this art practice. You can make up the art in your head.
Did you have any specific goals for taking the style of Master of Art in a different direction?
I think that your intention of what you want to draw and then what actually comes out—the gap between that is your style. It's more important for me to get facial expressions right than anything else, but if I draw hands wrong, it's fine. I don't ever want to take the art too seriously. One of the things that I like about Wendy is that I try to print it the same size that I draw it, because I feel like it's such a direct one-to-one and I feel like readers can connect to something more if they feel like they could have drawn the thing that's in front of them. When you see graphic novels where the artwork's really big and then it's condensed for the page, there's that one extra layer of removal. If the art and the pen marks are the exact same size as they would be if they were written there on the page, it's almost like you're looking at someone's diary or something. I like drawing in a crappy way because if those people who don't feel like they can draw read it, maybe they feel like they could still tell a story.