Alex Citrin is a New York based illustrator, commonly known for her magazine Until Now, a project she created for her thesis, but managed to make such a buzz, probably because of its subject.
Coming of age is a topic Alex seems to never tire of. She enjoys analyzing the behavior of her former self, but she does not forget to live in the here and now. Scratching past’s surface isn’t her only pursuit. The illustrator that used to live with a ghost back in her Baltimore apartment while graduating, wades into strong ideas that trouble every person’s mind and puts them onto paper, in exceptional, lifeful drawings. Oh! And she loves constellations.
Until Now, the magazine you created about your thesis, features stories about coming of age. I guess you got a bit tired answering to this, but please tell us, why did you choose this subject?
I'm never tired of answering that question because I chose a topic I never tire of. When I conceived Until Now, it was a litmus test to see if I could hack it as a specific kind of art director, the kind who specializes in working with illustrators. That was the initial concept. There is also a huge regeneration of interest in small independent publications right now, which is an incredible thing to witness and a kind of hilarious backlash to the onslaught of digital media. I mean, there are digital platforms racing each other to produce exclusive printed content because that is the thing right now. It's amazing, and on a slightly less cynical note I believe we are tactile creatures who like to touch and hold things. That said, I ruled out more general topics early on as those seem to always get lost in the small press shuffle; I didn't feel I had much more to add on the larger topic of fashion or music or art. I simply wanted a strong, specific idea that I wouldn't get tired of, so I leaned into my longstanding obsession with the not so distant past.
I don't live in the past, but I think about it a lot, my own at first and now that of others. We push to leave it behind, collectively, but once I've known someone for approximately ten minutes I can't help asking what they were like as teenagers, which definitely weirds people out. That's the allure of the topic for me, the "fully-formed adult" (societally speaking, since I'm not sure we're ever fully formed irregardless of age) and what is accidentally left behind when we decide to not be kids anymore. It's a healthy transition as well as a conscious decision, but that person you leave behind is inextricably tied to who you are now, more than it can be comfortable to admit. There's a hefty amount of romanticism attached to that idea, but to me it's very real. For instance, I harbor some slight issues with authority. The version of me who skips class to smoke in the parking lot is still kicking around my brain somewhere, but occasionally she needs to quiet down when I'm, you know, trying to hit my deadlines at a corporate magazine.
The magazine features also a lot of collaborations. Can you stand out a few of them and tell us why?
When I think about it, I really consider the collaboration between the illustrators and writers I paired up. Unspoken, since none of them ever met, but certainly a collaboration. My role as editor and art director was essentially a liaison between the two. I feel the most successful pairings came from matching essays with illustrator's whose work as a whole seemed to match the tone of the writing.
One of my favorite combos was Greg Kletsel illustrating Mike Sheffield's essay. Mike's essay was a bit on the darker side, but I also know him personally and he's sort of a goofball, too. I was really excited when Greg agreed to the project; I'd been a fan of his work for a while and figured he would be a good artist to breathe some light into the essay without overshadowing it's point. Greg took it to heart, the whole thing, he was a lot of fun to work with. I also thought the combo of Dave Singley and Annie Kreighbaum worked well. Annie is a beauty writer, a sort of combo essayist-journalist, and Dave is much more of a fine artist than an editorial illustrator, if we have to use labels. But I actually love working with journalists and non-illustrators seeing what they do within the confines of those descriptors. I didn't want Annie's essay to suffocate under the weight of overly girly imagery, which would have been an easy trap, and Dave came up with some gorgeous, stark imagery that felt very right for the piece; both of them seem to generate stream-of-consciousness work, planned but not over-edited. It worked out well. Another journalist who gave me all she had was Carrie Battan, who is an incredible writer and an old neighbor from when I lived in Brooklyn. I was tempted to illustrate her essay myself, but I jumped at the chance to sic Laura Callaghan on it, because I could see her stylish, Amazon women populating the world Carrie was reflecting back from her essay, this world where women are constantly criticized for showing their human weaknesses. On the flip side, I chose to do the illustrations for Lola Pellegrino's essay myself for the simple reason that she outlined the lists of things she wanted to learn as a teenager, among other things. I was also a teenage list maker, I felt kinship in her essay. So I did the drawings for that one. Art director's privilege.
If you were able to go back at a certain age of yours what would that be?
It's a tie between age sixteen and age twenty-one.
What would you say to your former self?
I would tell my sixteen year-old self to not to judge my classmates so harshly; it's not their fault they were so conservative. It's how they were raised. Suburban Connecticut in the early 2000's was not exactly a hotbed of teenage rebellion, and my inability to stay out of detention for incredibly benign things like wearing fishnet stockings to school made me seem like a weird, bad kid to a lot of them. That's all it took! Most of the girls were quite smart, though, even the boring, preppy ones. Most of the boys were garbage in khaki pants. Real up-and-coming misogynists of America. I'm sure some of them grew out of it, but I'll likely never know. Mostly I found myself to be an observer, leaning against the wall at the handful of parties I went to, watching everyone get wasted, blasting Pavement while driving through the backroads on my way home at three in the morning. I wouldn't change that. Also, you weren't fat. I'd tell myself that, too.
Twenty-one year-old me, I wish, should have been a little tougher and fought back a little more. I was incredibly depressed; I'd tell myself to stop going out and pretending I wasn't. The drugs weren't working. I'd tell myself to stop talking to my old boyfriend, maybe quit talking to potential boyfriends altogether for a while. They all taught me something in retrospect but most of them treated me pretty badly. As I'm answering this question, I'm laying on the couch in the house I share with my partner while he's organizing his side of our studio down the hall; he's listening to the Misfits and just made me some hot chocolate, for no reason. I'd tell myself at twenty-one, chill, bad boyfriends suck the energy out of you. Just keep your head up and wait it out. I'm happy now. I'd tell myself that, if you choose to be in a relationship, having a good partner makes you work better and harder. I'd tell every twenty-one year old that.
You seem to wade into stuff that are not easily illustrated. I mean they are quite adult – serious stuff, like your comic book Miscarriage for instance. How is that working for you? I get the feeling that you think a little bit like a writer, too. Am I right?
I have been told I think more like a writer than a traditional illustrator, and I take it as a compliment, if only because the process most illustrators go through to get from one point to another can seem very mysterious. I have had some writing published here and there and I do find the illustration process to be very similar to writing. Both are forms communication. That's what separates an illustration from a drawing. Illustration is not style, which is a weirdly common misconception, but a way of speaking. When I did "Miscarriage", I was focusing on a strange thing I'd experienced that I couldn't seem to shake the idea of. It felt like a comic strip to me. Incidentally, I hate doing comics. I went ahead with it anyway and was greeted with some pretty intense reactions from my peers and critics, both positive and negative. Something about the topic at hand put in a comic format seemed to really mess with people. The funny thing is that once I was finished with it, I was done. Really done. I printed twenty-five editions and sold most of them, and the remaining few I have kicking around my studio I never really look at. They're just collecting dust. It appears there are some things I actually can leave in the past.
How did you decide to make jewelry? Do you enjoy getting involved with that medium too?
I was in my second year of graduate school and needed a creative outlet, which sounds redundant since I was getting my MFA. But even when your work is creative it's still work. That saying about doing what you love meaning you never actually work a day in your life is such bullshit, the downfall mentality of young artists everywhere who feel guilty and discouraged on those occasions they realize they'd rather smoke a joint watch Netflix than hit the studio. It's an incredible privilege to do what you love professionally, but you need balance. At least I do. I wanted a creative practice that was not my professional trade, something less intense than my thesis and illustration business, which I was still actively running during school. I was at the Maryland Institute College of Art and had some pretty insane facilities at my disposal during my time there. I went for the metal studio, mostly because I'd done some metal work as a teenager but I figured I had better taste now and could at least make something cool to wear. It was actually an extension of the school being run in conjunction with the Baltimore Jewelry Center, which completely ruled because when things got too tense in the graduate studios I could go hang out with a bunch of Baltimore area artists who just wanted to get down and make things without pretense. It kept me going through that last rough semester. Also using a blowtorch is fun, I highly recommend it. Now I don't get to do it as much, but I'll mess around sometimes. I'm a member of Brooklyn Metalworks. Making jewelry taps into some primitive drive where I just want to produce objects with my hands. It's a different feeling from drawing but it comes from the same place.
You used to live in Baltimore, right? What did you like to do there? Describe us a typical afternoon of yours.
The life I left in Baltimore and the one I have now in New York are pretty different. It was time to leave Baltimore when I did, but I miss it sometimes. Fortunately, my personal relationships are the constant between the two -- when I left New York in 2012 to move down there for graduate school, my partner stayed in New York for work, but we managed to see each other every other week. It was not ideal but we had a plan; it became very normal and honestly was not at all as dramatic or terrible as people make those situations out to be. I think it's because we're both fairly independent on top of which we were both working seven days a week -- we had the same schedule where we'd get home around midnight every night, video chat for a bit, talk about our day and what we ate for dinner, our plans for the next weekend. He understood I needed to go where I went and do my thing. That said, most days I was flying solo and my normal days in Baltimore were dominated by working in the studio, learning to teach undergraduate courses, going to the bar or warehouse parties, and being with my studio mates, my fellow grad students who are some of the best and most deeply talented people I've ever met. They made me want to be better. A typical weekday was walking to the graduate studios, making some tea, quietly eating my yogurt in a lecture, working for a four hour block on a project or my thesis, heading out to assist an undergraduate class, more work, and maybe a drink at Club Chuck or Liam's.
Baltimore is weird, a little dangerous if you're not careful, cheap and full of unused space. It's a great place to be an artist right now. Sometimes my friends from New York would come down and visit me, or a friend's band would stop in Baltimore on tour and stay with me. I lived in a crumbling, two-hundred year old apartment with fifteen-foot ceilings and a ghost. It looked onto the back alley of Saint Paul Street, I'd sit on the windowsill and watch the occasional person spraying graffiti on the building behind mine, late at night. I remember the paint started peeling in the bathroom one day to reveal this incredible floral wallpaper that was probably from the 1920's, based on the pattern. When I say this place was crumbling, I mean it was really falling apart. By the time I moved out, I was the only person left in the building. I think it's condemned now. I loved it. Most of Until Now was produced in that apartment between 11pm and 5am. Something about that apartment at those hours of the morning made me feel like the only person on earth, completely alone with a stack of other people's essays and sketches to mark up, just me and inDesign with my cat curled up on my desk.
Coming back to New York was hard at first. Going from the intensity of graduate school to the intensity of working in the art department of a weekly magazine didn't seem like it would be such a stretch, but of course I was wrong. Moving to a small neighborhood in Queens was the right choice. My home life is very relaxed, we have our own little area that feels fairly removed from the craziness of the city. The real challenge now is finding time to see all the people I love, since my job keeps me working late most nights and my weekends usually involve a lot of the other work I do. It's just that time in my life. I'm hoping to art direct for the big leagues one day, so I have to earn my keep. I wouldn't change it, but I'm looking forward to something of a break in a few months once I get the next issue of Until Now to the printer. I'm dying to go to the beach.
Let’s say you move into a new apartment and there’s this huge white wall in the living room. What is the first thing you would like to draw on it?
Constellations. I've done this in every apartment I've lived in. There's actually a wall right now awaiting the constellation treatment…
You have many major contributions in your bio such as Urban Outfitters, The New York Observer, and Nylon mag. What do you think grabbed the attention of these guys to get in touch with you and collaborate with you?
That's a great question because I also hire illustrators now, so I can put myself in the shoes of the people who hired me. I'd imagine a lot of it was practical and even more of it is timing. It's certainly tone, too, as I mentioned before in my own effort to seek out illustrators for “Until Now”. Nylon is a good example; I figured I'd be a good fit for them, so I emailed their art director. I wasn't going to wait around and see if they would email me first because that's a losing game, although no one likes to admit that they cold email. We all do it, though! One day, he got back to me and said, "We have a story I think you'd be good for, do you want to give it a shot? Here's the budget." That was around three years ago. But I reached out to them instinctually, because my work fell in their stylistic camp. It was that simple. It's about the art director's taste, and that's the puzzle. There's not much you can do about it, and I know this is true about myself as an art director as much as it's true about me as an illustrator. I could be drawing covers for the New Yorker every other week but if the AD for the Idaho Daily or something isn't feeling my style then believe me I'm not going to get hired there.
There's plenty of prestige in the illustration community, and plenty of cliques, too, but there's something so pure about people's reaction to it. The irony, of course, is that we're still somewhat maligned by the proper art world as something of a trade, but tell me with a straight face that the contemporary art world isn't a straight-up commercial business. Illustration is meant to be accessible, a bit of a dirty word among other types of artists, but if I'm trying to communicate some kind of message or feeling and it's not translating properly, then I haven't done my job. What that feeling is, of course, is entirely up to me. If an art director picks up on what I'm selling then that's a good day, because there's nothing more satisfying than flipping through a magazine in a midtown deli three weeks later and seeing your drawings in it.
Before we close this interview, I’d like to go a bit crazy, because I consider you a quite playful person, so we will play a game. Shall we? I will give four letters and four numbers. I want you to write the first thing that comes in mind when you see these. Let’s go! 8, 13, 5, 9. – A, H, R, Q.
8 - Eight is weird fat whole number. I am almost positive I have no actual associations with it other than when I write the number eight I do it as one circle on top of another and the two circles almost never touch each other, which seems strange and possibly a thing that would identify me if I was the kind of serial killer who wrote cryptic messages to newspaper editors. It’s also a very inefficient way to write a number so I sometimes think about that, too, or how I could just be more efficient in general. That’s never been my strong suit. I like to take my time.
13 - This is my birthday and also my lucky number. It is a number that makes me happy.
5 - A good number of things for a series, a very strong design number. My day job is as a publication designer, so I think about these things; five photos, five bullet points, five blurbs…it’s a good, reliable number, aesthetically speaking.
9 - 18, 27, 36, 45, 54…I don't have a great head for mathematics but I am fond of the nine times table.
A - Report cards. Not mine.
H - Exhaling. You can't make an "H" sound without exhaling.
R - Rona, my mom. A seriously intelligent, silly, grounded and stylish woman. She was my age when she had me but had already been married to my dad for five years, she was finishing up business school. I'm wearing her coat in the photograph of me here. The cut makes me look like a linebacker since it's from the early 1990's. I live in it all winter. I also wear her old perfume sometimes. I don't know if she knows that. Hi, mom.
Q - Quail. Don't ask.
Shall we wait a 2nd issue of Until Now?
Yes! If you have the patience. It's currently in motion, I think I keep saying for spring but I'm guessing it'll be more like June. Issue #2 is coming of age through the lens of environment, I'm calling it Spaces + Places. A lot has changed since I first sat down to plan out issue #1 so we'll see how it goes.