Flex Gallery and the Work of Tag-Hartman Simkins
In response to a lack of public art opportunities during winter, on January 11th, I launched Flex Gallery, a mobile public art space located on my left arm. For the project, I sent canvas armbands to six artists, requesting they turn them into artworks. Each artist works in a wide variety of media, and I provided them with no themes or limitations other than the dimensions of the band. For two weeks last month, I wore the work of Tag WR Hartman-Simkins a Galesburg, IL native now residing in New York City. I spoke with him to learn more about his work and creative process.
Tag Hartman-Simkins. Boyfriend Twins. Image transfer on canvas. Flex Gallery, Grand Rapids, MI. Chicago, IL. 2016.
Zachary Johnson (ZJ): What did you go to college for and how did you end up starting when you did?
Tag Hartman-Simkins (TH): I went to college originally for English in 2006 when I graduated [high school], along with everybody else. But I only did one semester, and it wasn’t really my thing. I went to a big state school, Illinois State University. But I didn’t have a very good time there…so I took time off and just worked for a few years. I ended up moving to Chicago from 2008 to 2010. People ask me, “What did you do during that time?” I tell them, “not much.” I just worked and lived life. I found things I liked and what I wanted to do. I eventually moved back to Galesburg and went to school. We have Knox College, but we also have a community college, and I enrolled [there] and took a few classes. When I transferred to Knox, I went there for creative writing with a minor in graphic design. So, I did a lot of visual art, which is what I did in high school, but I ended up in creative writing.
Tag Hartman-Simkins. Panel 1. Digital image. 2015.
ZJ: Have you always had that dual interest in writing and art?
TH: Yeah, I think so. It was something that was kind of competitive. The feeling I would get is that I had to pick one or the other. I’ve drawn since a really young age, but I had teachers who thought my story abilities were very good, that I was very good at writing. I had a father who was an English teacher, so I was exposed to literature and all that very early. And that got developed alongside drawing. I didn’t really know which one to pursue. I think I was afraid to pursue art even though English wasn’t any more lucrative career-wise [laughs]. So, I went to school for English, but ended up doing creative writing anyway and mashed it up with art in the end.
ZJ: Is that how you got into comics? That seems like such a logical way to combine the two.
TH: I think that’s something I was interested in at a young age. I did have the whole anime interest. I made a lot of friends who liked comic books but mostly manga. So, I got into that at a young age. I liked film and I liked comic books; I liked the mishmash of the two, [writing and art], but I think later on in college I came back around to the idea of comics as something that I could do to wed the two.
Tag Hartman-Simkins. Panel 4. Digital image. 2015.
ZJ: So then, if you majored in creative writing and minored in design, how did you learn the conventions of putting a comic together?
TH: I don’t know. I think I just sort of tried it myself. It’s something I’m still learning as I go. I have a chapter of this book I’ve been working on, but it’s something of a difficult struggle to figure out. Going in and looking at comics that I like, figuring out how they’re put together or how they sequence a story, it’s not something I was ever able to take a class on, so I really only have personal experience. Then on top of that, I did some film and television writing classes, so I know how a film should be sequenced, and how that should be put together, so if anything, I rely on that. I think I’m more used to the way Japanese comics are sequenced, and they’re not at all sequenced the way US comics are done.
ZJ: Oh yeah, the pacing’s completely different.
TH: I’m used to the way they seem really decompressed compared to American comics. Especially because when I was young I read things like Dragonball, and [those manga] are meant to be spaced out over weeks and weeks and [dozens] of books it seems like, so I feel like they just let things linger for a really long time. Then American comics are just once a month, they’ve only got thirty pages, and they have to fit everything into it.
Tag Hartman-Simkins. Panel 5. Digital image. 2015.
ZJ: So do you feel like you take manga’s sense of timing and spacing into your work?
TH: I think I do. I get worried that I linger too much on things or I try to draw things out too much. I think that’s an issue generally with writing. Writing for screenplays and drama, you have to take into account how long someone’s on stage or on screen and if that’s going to hold someone’s attention. I tend to write really long scenes or dialogue, and then have to worry about how I’m going to take it and space it out on the page, and how many pages that’s going to take up. It’s something I’m still learning.
ZJ: You mentioned film. Do you feel you’re influenced by any films in particular
TH: With writing I think I am. I like the idea of auteur cinema, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, etc. – the idea of the writer controlling everything. I like the idea of making a graphic novel as one big statement and then moving onto another one. I’m used to manga series being several graphic novels in a big, thousand-page series. I like one contained artistic expression.
ZJ: How long have you been working on your current graphic novel?
TH: Since I left school [last year]. It’s mostly been writing it. It was based on a screenplay I wrote for one of my classes. I wrote a full-length screenplay, which was not the assignment, but I was really feeling the story, so I went with it, and then I had a screenplay and I thought to myself, “I’m never going to make a movie.” I’d wanted to make a graphic novel anyway…so I thought, why don’t I try this?
I think in the US, basically if you’re going to do a graphic novel, there has to be a reason for it to be that way. This could easily be a book. I could just write it. I feel like people want justification for drawing pictures over and over again, I think that’s why [mainstream comics] are so science fiction or superhero-dominated. You’re justifying that you’re making people read a graphic novel because otherwise filming it would be hard or expensive.
ZJ: I totally get what you’re saying. With manga, the medium is seen as just another means of expression. There’s a lot of manga that could just as easily be a live action TV show or a book, but I think in Japan, the thinking is, “This is an option. Why not take it?”
TH: There’s so much manga like that – Osama Tezuka did this series called Adolph that was basically a 1940’s WWII story. There’s nothing fantastical about that. It’s something that could have easily been written and filmed, but I like that there’s a range of those genres and subjects in manga that [historically] in American comics wasn’t there– although there are a lot of graphic novels now that don’t do anything remotely fantastic. I read This One Summer, and it’s just about a young girl at a vacation home in Canada all summer, and that’s it. There’s nothing science fiction about it; there’s no reason it had to be drawn. It’s a wonderful graphic novel, so that’s something that I want to do.
Tag Hartman-Simkins. Panel 8. Digital image. 2015.
ZJ: What’s the synopsis of the comic you’re working on?
TH: It’s basically a gay love story. It’s based on certain experiences I had in Chicago when I was twenty. I want to explore gay issues when it comes to identity in the Midwest. It’s a slice of life, an examination of life in Chicago at a certain time for a young, poor gay man. He’s feeling out life around other gay people when he’s never really been around or interacted with them before.
Tag Hartman-Simkins. Joni Panel. Digital image. 2015.
ZJ: What do you feel is next for you artistically? You’re working on this now, but do you feel you have other artistic ideas on the horizon?
TH: School was just so intense for me. I went in at twenty-three and left at twenty-seven, so I knew exactly what I wanted to do and was laser-focused all the time. I had painting classes and drawing classes and writing classes and threw myself into them and didn’t do anything personal. So, the moment I graduated I thought, I can finally do one thing, one project and work on that and get it done. So, I don’t think this will be done for a couple years.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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