Given a pen, illustrator Jordan K. Gaza can tap into a fundamental human dread. Her work is organic and whimsical, often with a dash of body horror. Imagine Dr. Seuss having a bad mescaline trip in a field of Venus flytraps. Her figures’ soft edges belie a terror that looms in the foreground, ready to penetrate if we let our guard down. She can draw a damn good looking piece of pizza too. A freelance artist in Grand Rapids, Gaza is a true talent who’s had art featured at the UICA, Glitter Milk Gallery and more. Keep your eyes peeled for a graphic novel down the pipeline, or any project from her for that matter. With a signature blend of comfort and unease, her work takes lodge in your mind, and you’ll want it to stay.
What have you worked on recently that you’re proud of?
I did a mural at the UICA this past spring for their Exit Space project, a rotating series of work inside the gallery space. I’d never done something on that scale before. It was nice. I got to be by myself eight hours a day painting and listening to podcasts. I also enjoy doing portraits of striking people I see around town, picking out details in people that they might not notice and translating that to a more simplified cartoon version. People like seeing themselves reflected in these exaggerated forms.
What can you tell us about your first forays into the world of narrative illustration?
I first got interested in making zines when I was 13 after discovering Esther Watson’s chapbook, Whatcha Mean, What’s a Zine? It was a good guide for how to construct and print your work when you’re self-publishing. I’d make these little one-pagers letting out my teenage angst, and I’d leave them around Jackson, Mich. for people to find. They had my email on the back and people would reach out to tell me how they related with my stories. As far as graphic illustration, a lot of it was self-trained, looking to other graphic novelists and deconstructing how they do it. With good illustration, all you need is a quick look-over and you can see the story. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary, often the personal is more affecting.
Do you feel graphic storytelling is taken as seriously in the arts community?
I think there are some on the fine arts side that view graphic illustration as selling out, or that it’s commoditized and not terribly serious. From their standpoint, they don’t see the hard work or process behind it. It’s hard as a creative professional to have that stigma put on myself by peers.
Left: Wolves of Suburbia. Middle: Jordan K. Gaza. Right: Arcadia Cover.
Do you see that tide turning?
I do. There’s a movement to start teaching graphic novels in a literary capacity, like Maus in history courses for example. With some cutting-edge works, I think it will take a while for the education system to catch up. With graphic illustration, there are two different types of storytelling. I can’t write to save my life, but visually I can get across emotions that sometimes words can’t. When you have image-building working together on multiple levels it can create a wholly new and profound experience.
In what other ways do you see graphic work as a tool for learning?
I really enjoy the possibilities of children’s literature. I made a book called Soft Warm Thing. A little girl, Push, and her grandmother live in the woods without leaving their insulated world. One day her grandmother falls ill, so Push ventures into the woods to find a cure. She has to keep the soft warm thing safe to keep the darkness at bay. It’s her strength inside that keeps the light alive. People talk down to children a lot. It’s not necessary.
How did you get your start as an artist?
In the turmoil of growing up, dealing with the fallout of a troubled home, it was comforting to draw. I remember when I was young how my grandfather and I would draw a map of a farm I’d want when I got older. I would fill the map with animals and he would draw the barn and houses. It was an escape. We’d do it all the time. I think my love of illustration all started there.
Find Gaza's work at jkgaza.wixsite.com/jordan-k-gaza-art.