The first thing I notice when I enter the studio of illustrator and comic artist, Rachel Ang is the hyperthermia blanket covering the fireplace. While the blanket is there to stop the draught, it also gives the room a festive feel, reflecting muted light in the south facing room.
Rachel is unpretentious. Her work is honest. Her studio space is practical. There are no superfluous objects. A desk, art materials, a bed, a pink clock, books and lamps set a tone of calm productivity. As a self-described minimalist, Rachel feels that a tidy space helps her to work.
Rachel has been living in the Footscray terrace house and working from her room as a studio for six months now. The Victorian terrace built in the 1800’s, is in a prime location in Melbourne’s western suburbs. Climbing narrow red carpeted stairs up to the rooftop, we are rewarded with views of the docklands where large shipping container cranes define the horizon in colours of red and white.
“I could look at that view all day,” said Rachel.
Growing up in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, Rachel finds the west a more vibrant place to live. The arts culture in Footscray is strong and you don’t have to go very far to find a gallery or creative venture. “I think that for better or worse the old notion of the Artist is dying and from their ashes we see the rise of the Creative Entrepreneur. Like, I see a lot of people (myself included) trained in Fine Art now doing other things on the side, like making jewellery, clothes, design.”
With a background in Fine Art and Architecture, Rachel’s skill in observation is evident in her drawings. Friends have often asked her if she is going to depict a shared conversation in her work and Rachel approaches this concern with sensitivity. “I feel there’s a lot of responsibility that comes from making work which is in some way autobiographical,” said Rachel.
“A lot of my work is about love, sex and friendship…I’m aware that making myself vulnerable through these stories is a massive part of my work, but I also know that nobody else gave consent for that. So I do think about that, and I’ve got boundaries about what I’ll tell,” said Rachel.
Rachel is conscious that the autobiographical work needs to be clear about the purpose it serves to avoid self-indulgence. This is a concept which she often discusses with her friend, artist Klara Kelvy “Art is like a prism – you take all of your life and experience, and like light, it is refracted through the prism and turns into something that can have meaning for other people,” said Rachel.
Rachel works exclusively in pen and ink and has her preferred materials. Amongst Rachel’s favourite inks are Ecoline water-soluble black ink which can be reworked after it’s dry to achieve a mottled, watery effect. Her favourite permanent black ink is Super Black from Japan and is popular amongst comic artists because it is the blackest ink that you can get. For colour, Rachel orders a set of Koh-i-noor coloured inks from the Czech Republic.
“That’s what started me drawing so much in colour.” She loves the intensity and vibrancy of the coloured inks and uses them in their pure form, unmixed. This results in her coloured illustration work being distinctive in vibrant scenes of blue, red and yellow.
Rachel works like a printmaker, first building one ink colour on all of her pencil drawings and then going back and layering each subsequent colour. “I try to get my pencil drawings done during the day, because for me that’s the really hard part and often feels like I’m the sole inhabitant of Struggletown. If I leave the ink and brush work until night time, it’s almost like a reward. Drawing with a brush is pure pleasure and it really comes effortlessly. If I have a couple of drinks first sometimes it turns out even better,” said Rachel.
When Rachel is pencilling her drawings, she works in her studio space in silence so that she can concentrate. When she’s inking or painting she enjoys listening to music. “At the moment I really like Clams Casino…it sounds like they put hip hop through a blender. And in general hip hop is a pretty big influence on me – I think it has a lot in common with writing comics – rhythm, flow, poetry, telling your own stories in a way that others relate to it,” said Rachel.
Initially feeling a sense of embarrassment going into comics and illustration because of it being perceived as a low brow art form, Rachel said, “I think accessibility and immediacy is super important.”
Rachel feels that she has found her art making identity in zine culture. In recent years, female, non-binary and queer artists have contributed to the resurgence in the popularity of zines. “We’re telling different and diverse stories that people relate to…I want to convert people into loving comics through telling stories that have meaning to them,” said Rachel.
Representation for the autobiographical stories of female/LGBTI comic book artists is important so that people can see their lives reflected in the work. “When I hear someone say ‘It’s like you drew this just for me!’ it’s the biggest compliment and I almost cry,” said Rachel.
As part of the Women in Comics Festival in December 2016, Rachel met many people who weren’t the usual comic book fan and she was impressed with the turn out. “I wonder how many of those weren’t your typical comic book fans but rather just interested in good stories, or they were feminists and wanted to support other female artists.”
Rachel is currently working on a project with Maribyrnong City Council which involves consultation with local community groups to create a graphic novel to address racism and discrimination in the western suburbs. She is also the Art Director for Pencilled In, a new magazine which showcases the art made by young Asian Australians.
Rachel’s work can be found in a variety of publications including The Lifted Brow and Ramona Magazine. She recently took part in an artist residency in Denmark and was the recipient of the 2016 Banksia Project where she received mentoring from zine publisher, Alisha Jade.
When asked about her future plans, Rachel said, “My hopes for the future are pretty humble – I just want to keep making work and improving every day. I hope people continue to like what I make. I maybe will write a graphic novel. And I want to be happy.”