On her website, Kaye Blegvad modestly refers to herself as a "maker-of-things". While this term can be rightfully applied to her name, it fails to express the immediacy with which her ‘things’ cast their spell on us: From her illustration art to her jewellery label Datter Industries; everything Blegvad touches conveys delicacy and appeals to an intelligent mind.
Sometimes sugary and naïve but always relentlessly honest, Kaye Blegvad’s illustrations have found their way into Lucky Magazine and The New York Times amongst others. For METAL, she took some time out of her busy schedule and answered a number of questions via email. We discuss the artist’s signature style, the light in which art made by women is seen and how the Londoner’s career got started in New York. To cite her own words from her website one more time, Blegvad currently lives in between the two cities but ‘not 'between them' as in, the Ocean.’
Hi Kaye! As a child, I loved drawing my favorite characters from books and television. What were your first creative steps and how did you get into illustration?
Both my parents are artists – my mum is a painter, my dad an illustrator. My grandparents were artists and illustrators too – I'm the third generation. So drawing and art was always a huge part of my life. I drew from the moment I could hold a pencil and made little clay sculptures and paper dollhouses and all sorts of things. I think I was always quite serious about it. When I was a bit older, 5 or 6, I began making tiny illustrated books – most of them are on the topic of cats, girls, and death. So I guess my kind of illustration was always on the cards.
You were born and bred in London yet decided to study in Brighton. Why leave the capital for the city by the sea?
Brighton had a really well regarded illustration degree, which was quite open-ended and allowed for experimentation. A lot of illustration degrees were more traditional, focusing on just children's books, or just editorial. At Brighton you could work in different mediums from project to project; people made costumes, sets, books, animations, films, prints; whatever they wanted. I've always worked in a variety of mediums so I liked that. Also, it's still really close to London, which was a big advantage.
After graduating, you quickly went on to live in New York. What was it like looking for work in the Big Apple? How did your career get started?
It happened quite quickly when I went to New York. I was interning for Kiki Smith, which was amazing and awe-inspiring, and drawing in my free time. I had every expectation of being an intern/waitress/bartender for the next decade at least. Then I got a meeting with Steve Heller (a god of the illustration and design world) to show him my portfolio, and he liked it and forwarded it on to some art directors at the New York Times. That was basically the best thing ever. I think I got pretty much all future work thanks to that.
You have worked with a large number of companies including Topman, Lucky Magazine and The New York Times by now. Hands down, how much artistic freedom does one get working with such household names?
It really varies project by project. I've been fortunate that I've only been asked to work on projects I'm actually interested in. I think it can happen that you get a job that's very prescribed, and not something you really want to do, but you do it anyway and that's got to be a tough way to work. But I think art directors are trying to choose artists who they can tell will be right for the job and that includes being interested. So all of my jobs have been pretty good to me, nice problems to solve.
There is something rather childish and naïve about your illustration style – lines aren’t really straight, limbs are out of proportion and perspective and depth are mostly ignored. What inspires this way of drawing? Do you think simplicity implies approachability and something "honest and real"?
I've always really liked simplified, naïve images. I don't have a lot of time for realism. It just doesn't do it for me. There's an immediacy in a simple image, you can see the marks, the speed of the line, the urgency of getting an idea down. I love children's drawings, outsider art, images made because the image needed to be made. So I guess things like that have influenced me a lot. It's never really felt like a conscious decision – that's just how I draw, it's natural now, and I can't change it any easier than one can change one's handwriting. I can fake it in a different style but it's always fake!
Judging from your work, you seem to have a really blunt (though far from banal) sense of humor…
Uh oh, not sure what that means. I like putting humor in my work, try to keep it from being too po-faced. Sometimes using humor is better for getting a serious idea across. Sometimes I'm just trying to make myself laugh.
There seems to be a big occupation with animals and womanhood in your work. Some illustrations look like manuals on what to expect in life when you’re a woman. Are you trying to make a political point through them?
Yes and no. Part of it feels natural: I'm a woman, so that's what I know, so that's what I draw. I find it frustrating that if you're female, whatever your work; people are going to ask how it relates to your female-ness. Every woman artist everywhere is always being talked about in the context of being a woman, whereas male artists are just talked about in the context of their work. That imbalance gets exhausting.
Then again, yeah, I want to make work about being a woman, and I think I'm probably mainly making work that will appeal to girls and women, and their experiences. I don't mean to deny that being female influences my work. I think there's a lot of darkness, a lot of struggle, a lot of pressure and weird shit that goes on with being a girl. I don't ever want to draw blandly happy, sexy women. I want to draw tough women, sad women, violent women, vulnerable women, righteously joyful women. It is what it is.
You’ve also experimented with the element of storytelling by creating comics. How does it change or benefit your work? Would you like to do animated comics at some point?
Man, comics are so hard! I love them as a medium – narrative has always been a big part of my work, and comics are a great way to tell a story. I'd love to do more of it, but it's always such a huge undertaking, I often find myself just drawing stand alone images with captions instead. I'd be curious to try animation in the future but I fear I won’t have the patience to do it right. I like immediacy.
Tell us a bit about your work with ceramics. I was impressed with how your signature style translated into another medium without losing any recognizability.
I've always worked with clay, since I was a little kid. I love it. I picked it up again about two years ago, having not done it for a couple years. I think my drawing style had solidified a lot in that time, so my return to ceramics felt like a bit of a revelation. I love making three-dimensional objects, and somehow ceramics feel very solid and "real". A nice way to make drawings come off the page. And I enjoy the line between "product" and "art", and ceramics walks that line very nicely. You can make very functional objects, or sculptures, or somewhere in between. I like that.
Designing jewellery is another creative outlet you’re no stranger to. Your rings, necklaces and earrings are very playful, imaginative and still discreet. Looking at them makes me feel like I know a bit about your character… How does this personal touch benefit the commercial intentions behind your jewellery?
Making jewellery started as very much an experiment, a hobby. A friend showed me how to work with casting wax, and as soon as I got my first pieces back I was hooked. It is still so cool to make something and have it transformed into metal. I never get bored of that.
Only when the jewellery started selling, and turned into a business, did I have to consider the commercial aspects. It's not a big factor though – I do consider size and weight of a piece, to keep prices down, but otherwise I'm pretty much just making stuff that I like and hope other people will too. The first things I made were things I wanted and couldn't find. I made a sword pendant and a ring in the shape of an eye, because I wanted those to be sort of talismans that I could wear. I've always been interested in meaning being attributed to objects, to wearing things that have some sort of power or story behind them. I'm just lucky that other people seem to want to wear them too.
What are your future plans for your label Datter Industries? Have you tried your hands on non-jewellery fashion yet?
When I was younger I was very into making my own clothes, but I'm not so much anymore. I'd love to design textiles, and I'd love them to be used in clothes (and bags, and homewares, and all sorts) but the fashion aspect of it doesn't really float my boat. Too fleeting. Jewellery and art last a long time - I'm not going to pretend to think they last forever - but fashion is over so quick. I find it a bit alienating, not a "safe place" to work.
When I go to galleries, I mostly find myself looking at painting, photography, sculpture and installation art. As a general rule, I think illustration is often being neglected – maybe due to its decorative nature and because it is hard making it ‘work’ in a museum context. Do you think this disregard by the art world is undeserved?
I actually think that illustration has been really embraced by the art world in recent years. People's opinions of it seem to have changed. Artists like Marcel Dzama, Jockum Nordstrom, David Shrigley, all might have previously been written off as "just illustrators" but now they're huge names in fine art. I'm sure it's still tougher to get that recognition than it would be for a traditional painter, but people seem to recognize now that it's a legitimate thing. And indeed it's often more accessible than a lot of contemporary art – I think it widens the spectrum of people who would go to a gallery, who would consider themselves as someone who "likes art".
Lastly, what would be a dream job to be offered one day? This could be anything from illustrating the album cover of your favorite musician to doing a lecture on females in art at Cambridge (let’s just aim high for the moment!).
Oh my god, definitely not the lecture, I'd be terrified! I'd love to make books. If some amazing publisher just came up to me and said, hey, we'd like to print a giant book of miscellaneous stuff by you, that'd be pretty good. I'd like to have longer-form stories and one off drawings and sculptures and installations and pop-ups and photographs and a whole mess of stuff together in a book. And of course, in this fantasy, somehow it all hangs together and is imbued with meaning and isn't self-involved at all. Failing that, I'd love to design a range of textiles for someone, or a range of ceramic homewares and ornaments, or illustrate a funny and strange children's book, or make some kind of sinister but beautiful app. All of those things would be pretty sweet.