Conversations: An Interview With Artist Shelby Criswell

By Amaya Alejandra

For part three of our “Conversations” series, Amaya Alejandra interviews artist Shelby Criswell, whose various works are featured within Feminine Inquiry’s first issue.

Shelby Criswell is a genderqueer activist from San Antonio, currently attending Santa Fe University of Art and Design for a Bachelors in Studio Art. While their focus is in illustration and sculpture within their program, Shelby also runs an online daily comic dealing with gender and identity. Below, Feminine Inquiry explores Criswell’s views on gender pronouns, influences, and the art of immediacy.

Tell us a bit about where you’re from? How did you end up where you are now?

I spent most of my life in San Antonio, Texas, but I’m going to school at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, NM. I’m working on my bachelor of arts in studio arts with a focus in illustration and sculpture.

How do you identify? Please elaborate on pronouns. When did you start using them and what difference did it make?

Gender-wise I identify as neutrois, which is under the umbrella term for genderqueer, which means many different things from neither male nor female to being both,  or one more days than others, etc. All of these terms fall under the other umbrella of Transgender or nonbinary, meaning not cis male or female. The term neutrois for me seems most comfortable because I feel neutral in gender and not really one specific thing at any point. That being said, I use gender neutral pronouns (they/them/their). I had always had an issue with trying to identify my gender alongside my sexuality, but I didn’t start using my new pronouns until I got to college and found a group of people that were accepting and also dealt with their own gender issues.

What are some major influences to your process?

I read a ton of comic books, anything I can get my hands on from large action-packed graphic novels to small indie zines that are only a few pages long. Other than just reading and observing what other people are doing, I draw a lot of inspiration from artists like Daniel Clowes, Mark Lazlo, Erika Moen, and Robert Crumb in terms of style and writing.

I also have a lot of artistic family and a grandfather who worked for Hallmark. I think he’s the one that inspired me to keep drawing well past childhood because he had such a distinct style of drawing lanky people with over the top expressions and features and I wanted to do the same. I would go to his house and we would just draw together and it’s one of my most fond memories. He no longer can do that because his drawing arm is immobile due to a stroke he had a few years ago, which keeps me drawing everyday. In a way, I think that allows him to live on through me.

A good portion of my work revolves around life experiences, so having good people around to help me through hard times is nice! I’d love to live solely off of doing independent comics my way, but I know that’s a rough road to try and succeed on.

What are some personal motivators in your life? Are there overarching career/art plans brewing? 

A good portion of my work revolves around life experiences, so having good people around to help me through hard times is nice! I’d love to live solely off of doing independent comics my way, but I know that’s a rough road to try and succeed on. I think just working in comics in general would make me happy, even if I was just color flatting pages for the rest of my life and working another job on the side to keep me standing.

I do have a lot of projects swirling around in my head right now like a cardboard and upcycled materials sculpture installation of an arcade that will promote recycling as well as my first graphic novel, which I am currently thumbnailing out as we speak.

I aim to work in styles that are fun for everyone and will make people who didn’t think they’d like comics or cartoons get into this sort of stuff…If I can use comics as a medium to teach people and it’s effective, then why not keep doing it?

Your work is very straight forward. How do you relate to this type of delivery?

I like to express my views and thoughts boldly and as quick as possible, which is why creating a webcomic was a nice way for me to get this stuff out in just two to three panels. I aim to work in styles that are fun for everyone and will make people who didn’t think they’d like comics or cartoons get into this sort of stuff. I recently just finished a comic for my science class as part of my final that taught people about dumpster diving in a fun way and people told me that they didn’t even like reading but couldn’t put that comic down. It’s stuff that like that pushes me to make work that is straight to the point but fun and hilarious at the same time. If I can use comics as a medium to teach people and it’s effective, then why not keep doing it?

I think even in my personal life aside from my work, I try to be straight forward in appearance and personality-wise. If I like something, I’ll let you know, and If something bothers me, I will let you know. I think this trait I have definitely relates over into my art and I work in a “no bullshit, it is what it is” kind of way, which is also how I live my life.

Fairly related question: Your style brings humor to issues of identity. 

Identity, especially in today’s world, is so important to be able to create social change and form groups of acceptance. I personally need to be able to laugh at myself in order to feel comfortable with my own body and identity as a genderqueer, pansexual, and panromantic person. I grew up in a strict Baptist community where nothing like gender or sexuality was ever talked about and if it was ever brought up, it was immediately shunned. I think since I have come to terms with my own identity and am able to express myself in this way, I can laugh at the struggles that come along with it. I put this humor in my work to help those searching for their own identity feel a bit more comfortable and not afraid of this process.

How do you relate to Awkward Shelby?

Sometimes I feel like Awkward Shelby is a separate identity from my own and then in certain situations, I feel 100% like that character, which is usually where specific comic strips stem from. I started this webcomic as a way to keep my family and friends updated on what I was doing over the summers that I spent in California. It immediately got a great response from people that I didn’t even know as well as from my family and friends, which is why I kept it up. When people recognize me as Awkward Shelby in person, sometimes I am blown away because I don’t feel like I am that character all of the time. Rather, I am just the creator of this independent entity.

Identity, especially in today’s world, is so important to be able to create social change and form groups of acceptance.

Public / Private / The internet

How do these concepts relate to each other for you

Well, I post public and private things on the internet, which inherently makes it public in a way. Even when I post something on the internet on tumblr separate from facebook where my family will see, I get a sense of privacy even though it’s still a public post to others. I think the internet has given me the confidence to create a presence and not censor my art. I used to post certain comics dealing with identity on sites other than facebook, but now I just don’t give a fuck anymore, haha! Everything is public now in regards to my sexuality and gender. Of course though, I keep some things off the internet 😉

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