Esther McManus (Comics, 2020)Untitled-4

Esther McManus's Testimonial

Being nominated in the ‘Comics’ category - by peers - was a huge boost to my confidence. This year, for the first time, I began to set myself maximum limits on the amount of teaching I took on, to retain time for drawing and research - something I am keen to keep up, and find ways to make sustainable in the long-term.

My nomination for the AFFA came at a critical time: I was finishing an MA and considering a new shape for  my professional life, negotiating the balance between creative ambitions and financial realities. The  nomination alone encouraged me to seriously interrogate how I could make space for meaningful personal  projects, and writing my proposal helped me to give that a structure. Being nominated in the ‘comics’  category – by peers – was a huge boost to my confidence. My creative practice straddles printmaking,  teaching and drawing, which lead to an insecurity that my publications and projects were not consistently  ‘comics enough’. It was therefore gratifying for my work to be acknowledged 

, and gave me the  permission to keep pursuing this kind of work with renewed energy and less doubt.  

I had proposed to work on a comic about feminist publishing history, conducting interviews and archival  research to build a picture of both past and present feminist activism. I wanted to use the year to:  – generate ways of working collectively, that are ethical and mutually beneficial, 

– improve my drawing skills and focus on the form and layout of my comics,  

– explore how to tell multi-temporal stories through comics 

While my proposal was not able to come to fruition in the way I’d hoped, I stayed true to these broader  goals through reaching towards new technologies and ways of working, forming new relationships and  being flexible and responsive to the pandemic’s restrictions and developments.  

From February I was the Artist Interpreter for Chisenhale Studios’ artist development programme ‘Into the  Wild’, and working with this group of early-career artists enabled me to explore ways of representing their  experiences. I documented their collective learning via a series of comics and ‘assignments’, intended for a  broader audience. I also set up an online space for artist development in the UK – a wiki, based on the  conversations of the group and their core aims and ethos. These two outcomes had been proposed before  the pandemic, and had to be adapted as it unfurled. I am still working with the group to take the wiki  beyond the year’s duration of ITW and into a new phase of its life, increasing engagement and participation  with a broader audience. It has been an intriguing to examine how specific online platforms can be used  effectively to share knowledge and bring people together – something vital during the last year.  

Working with ITW also helped me examine my interest in forms. As a printer, I enjoy interrogating the  printed form of the book, but periods of lockdown forced me to consider alternatives in other media,  including digital platforms – something I have long been interested in but not adequately explored. The role  of Artist Interpreter gave me the opportunity to publish comics via Instagram, and examine how this form  can be used effectively. My comics were published both on the ITW account and then reformatted for a  more permanent home on the wiki.  

I expanded on these experiments through the summer, producing a multi-temporal comic to be published  online in a variety of ways – as episodic strips on Instagram and consolidated as a page on my website.  This was a useful exercise – an attempt at a short narrative that bridged different historical moments, and a  formal experiment in how layout, pacing and form could help the reader navigate those bridges. This  helped me work towards my proposal’s aims to “harness the unique qualities of comics to convey the  multiplicity of experience rather than a single history”, and evaluate their effectiveness for future projects. 

In my proposal I committed to invest in life drawing, putting aside some of the budget for classes. Life  drawing has brought me such purpose and pleasure during lockdown, and I have attended weekly online  classes. I also managed to attend an in-person class at my local adult learning centre, and a weekend of  ‘Drawing for Accuracy’ at West Dean Gardens during the looser restrictions of the summer. Dedicating time  to improving my drawing has enabled me to work with greater confidence and achieve the kinds of images  that I have strived for. It also has a tangible psychological benefit, that comes from a process of sustained  self-investment.  

Despite the lack of access to archives, I was still able to work with archival collections as a subject of my  work. I began the fellowship with a visit to Glasgow Women’s Library to research feminist publishing and  archiving, which was a fruitful and energising trip – yet this was short-lived! As the year progressed, it  became clear that archival work would be impossible for the foreseeable future, and I turned my attention  to a text that had inspired my thinking on time and archives – Carolyn Dinshaw’s 

I  reached out to Professor Dinshaw and had an energising conversation with her about adapting one of their  chapters into a graphic novel. This is something I have been researching and developing alongside other  projects, and which I intend to take up in earnest during 2021. 

This year I have also worked with an online archive, which gave me the opportunity to explore the  representation of its content through comics. I was commissioned by Gaada to design a publication that  documents their work with a local activist group, Up-Helly-Aa For Aa (UHA4A), including the creation of an  activist archive. As part of this publication, I have produced a comic that represents some of the archive’s 

content and its many voices. I have taken more creative risks than I might have in the past – experimenting  with watercolour and its reproduction via risograph printing. It has been an excellent experience to work  closely with Gaada, but I was not able to work as closely with UHA4A as originally conceived. Unable to  visit Shetland (where Gaada are based) in person, I have attempted to find ways of working with UHA4A  and their archive in an ethical and respectful way. At the end of the fellowship, through working with ITW  and Gaada, I have more confidence in my ability to produce comics that fairly and accurately represent  others’ experiences, which is something I am keen to build on into the future – hopefully with in-person  interactions and collaborations! 

The fellowship was a boost to my confidence, and the recognition it afforded helped me prioritise time for  my own creative work. That said, habits of taking on freelance teaching, design, print work to sustain  myself die hard – especially during the pandemic when future employment is so uncertain. My workshop based teaching has been on hold for a year now, and my teaching contracts are never secured from one  term to the next. In the past I have never felt able to turn down work, which has impacted on my available  time for personal creative projects (which are labour-intensive and complex, especially when I undertake all  the printing and finishing myself!). This year, for the first time, I began to set myself maximum limits on the  amount of teaching I took on, to retain time for drawing and research – something I am keen to keep up,  and find ways to make sustainable in the long-term. 

Teaching will always be a meaningful part of my life, and its migration online this year has been an  interesting challenge. I have learned a lot, both on the job and through attending online courses. Alongside  my regular work at Ravensbourne and UCA Farnham, I have been a guest lecturer at Leeds Art University  and Camberwell, and delivered a day-long workshop to MA Graphic Communication Design students at  Central Saint Martins. Their 

invitation allowed me to design an experimental, playful day,  informed by my interests in forms of publication and representations of time. This was a valuable  opportunity to consolidate my own research and present those ideas to others, and see what questions we  could tackle together through physical and digital methods of production. 

The fellowship’s encouragement to preserve time for my own practice has also provoked me to explore  how my creative work can be psychologically sustainable. In the past I have been buoyed by the  communities at London Centre for Book Arts and the calendar of zine and book fairs to enable contact with  like-minded people and their work. To minimise the challenge of working in isolation, I have had weekly  crits with my regular collaborator Sam Whetton, which have been invaluable in the development of my  work. I’ve had fruitful, less regular dialogues with other artists and cartoonists too, which bring both comfort  and the stimulating challenge of other people’s perspectives and expertise. I’ve also taken steps to  interrogate the conditions under which I work, through joining the Designers + Cultural Workers branch of  UVW, and talking to others about their experience of freelancing in education and creative employment.  Joining the union and finding solidarity through these conversations is another step towards making my  work feel more secure and ethically sound.  

The last twelve months have undoubtedly been the most challenging I have known. The pandemic has  made daily life frightening and uncertain, and imposed new challenges on my personal life. But being  awarded the fellowship gave me a sense of purpose and commitment that I was constantly grateful for. It  made me aware that people had believed in me and my work, and were keen for me to see what I could do  if afforded time and space. Both the encouragement and the financial security gave me a tangible sense of  support during the isolation and uncertainty. My commitment to my personal practice – and to comics as its  home – is stronger than ever, and I can see a nourishing future in my work (…if little else!) 

Looking forward into 2021, I’m in the final stages of my publication with Gaada, which will be followed by an  exhibition. With luck, the year ahead will offer a greater sense of ‘fruition’ – events such as 

are  finally taking place, enabling me to connect with others who work on comics and comics scholarship. I look  forward to both sketch-noting and presenting a paper there. During the spring term I will return in earnest to  my comic inspired by Dinshaw’s scholarship, taking advantage of a lull in teaching. I am keen to move my  working day out of my bedroom and into a studio space (with others), and am currently hunting with  another cartoonist, with the hope that we can build a little comics haven in south London. Before the AFFA  nomination I wouldn’t have imagined that any of this was possible. I can’t thank The Arts Foundation  enough for the honour and opportunities your fellowship has given me, which have been truly life changing  and extending into all areas of my professional and personal life. Thank you.