Everyone’s An Impossible Person: The Dina Kelberman Interview (Part One of Two)

Posted by on November 30th, 2010 at 12:01 AM


Click image for larger version.


Dina Kelberman’s comics are filled with contradictions.  They have a strongly misanthropic quality, yet an unfailingly social one as well. There’s a frequent self-negating air about them (the many “should I quit art?” ruminations), yet the strips keep coming out relentlessly.   Her characters are minimalist, geometric shapes that berate each other and themselves in frequently hilarious fashion.  Her use of color is boldly original and frequently dissonant.  She brings her background as a multimedia artist to bear on her comics in the way she incorporates interesting design elements into her lettering and cultivates the immediacy and off-the-cuff nature of a do-it-yourself project.

Kelberman went to art school at SUNY-Purchase, an experience that helped to cultivate her participation in art collectives, or rather, continually hanging out and even living with friends who are artists.  Like the legendary Fort Thunder, her experiences with the Wham City collective in Baltimore (living in what they called the Copycat Building) wasn’t collaborative in the sense that the artists (working in many different media) collaborated on a specific final product.  Rather, it was collaborative in the sense that every member influenced the other by virtue of simply living together.  The warehouse space was one for living, working, art shows and performance.

Kelberman also paints, does illustration, writes plays, performs with a comedy troupe and designs clothes, among other pursuits.  Her first collection of strips, Important Comics, focuses on her interests in obsessiveness, spontaneity and improvisation combined with a mind keenly aware of timing and design.  She has a regular strip in the Baltimore City Paper as well as a monthly minicomic she sends sends to subscribers called The Regular Man.  She can be contacted at her website.  All drawings and photos below are ©2010 Dina Kelberman unless otherwise specified.

From Aperiodic Comics (2010) 

Roots and Influences

RC: Where are you from?

DK: I grew up in Severna Park, Maryland.  Which is a boring suburb between Baltimore and Annapolis.  It was preppy and boring, but I’m glad I grew up there because I think it’s important to be bored as a child, because then you have to invent things.  I always feel like there’s something weird about kids from the city for that reason.  They have been less bored.  When I have kids, I will bore the living shit out of them.

RC: What was your childhood like from a comics standpoint?

DK: I was more into animation than comics.  Chuck Jones was my idol.  Comics-wise, I loved Far Side,  Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County.  Oh, also when I was like 13, I came across the Jim’s Journal comics in a local store and I was just completely blown away.

I was freaking out, showing my brother, going “THERE’S NO PUNCH LINE. IT’S JUST WHAT HAPPENED!!!!  AHAHAHAHAHAHA.” Later, after I had started drawing comics, it occurred to me that I was obviously, really blatantly influenced by those books and I bought them all and rejoiced.  Something similar happened with the book Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head by B. Kliban.  I read that book as a kid and had no idea what was going on, and then recently rediscovered his work, and love it.  I never read any other comics until after I started drawing comics, which was in college.  I’m only still slowly learning what the hell’s going on in the comic world.

RC: How old were you when you started drawing?  Were you encouraged in this pursuit by your parents?  Did you have friends or siblings who drew with you, or was it strictly a solitary pursuit?

DK: I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember.  When I was a kid and I was obsessed with Looney Toons and Tiny Toons, I would copy them and other comics/cartoon characters from books and compile binders with folders for each set of characters.  I remember having some pretty wicked drawings copied from the Eastman/Laird TMNT (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) comics (which my younger brother had).  I am so sad that I no longer have those binders.  I was definitely encouraged by my parents; they sent me to extracurricular art classes my whole life, for which I am very grateful.  I would draw with my brother Josh a lot.  I probably bossed him around about it.

RC: Why did animation have a stronger influence on you than comics?

DK: For one thing, I think I was just exposed to a lot more quality animation stuff than quality comics.  Like I said before, there was some stuff that I was into, but definitely the funny pages were pretty weak and, I mean, Chuck Jones, come on.  Is Curtis going to compare to Rabbit Seasoning???  Get real.  I mean, the timing is incredible.  They look great and everything, but Looney Tunes are all about the impeccable timing.  My childhood interests basically went from cartoons to stand-up and comedy, which is also all about timing, and now that I think about it, maybe that’s why Chris Ware was the first comic artist I actually got really interested in, because he has a really amazing sense of timing in his stuff, and also obviously Quimby The Mouse is really influenced by Looney Tunes and other old cartoons.

RC: What other cultural influences have had an impact on your work?

DK: I spend a terrible amount of time on the Internet.  But I never watch T.V. or read the news.  Basically I am an 11- year-old therefore? I choose to live in a pretty serious bubble, so I am definitely affected by the occasional ventures into the real world, and often that is something that appears as a subject in my work, I think.

I am more influenced by Steve Martin than by anyone else. He’s just the funniest person in the world.  Also all about timing, and clearly very influenced by Looney Tunes.  My brother and I pretty much started passionately emulating him as kids when we saw Steve Martin Live and The Jerk.  I think you can tell in my brother’s performance.  Maybe not so much in my comics, except maybe the interest in jerkiness.  Like, the somehow-appealing arrogant prick.

Click image for larger version. Kelberman’s bookshelf.


Education: Formal and Otherwise

RC: What was your career as a student at SUNY-Purchase like?  Were you an art major?  How did this experience shape your career as an artist?

DK: Purchase was a crazy place.  It was the most important thing that happened to me, and I don’t know where I’d be without it.  It was so awesome to be a part of this insular community of weirdos who were all artists but from all different media, and that was something that once I found it, I never wanted to live any other way, and haven’t.  I think a lot of my friends from Purchase feel the same way, which is why so many of us are still working together.

As an actual college for learning, things were a bit different.  The art program there isn’t particularly demanding, so it’s very much up to the student as to how much they’re going to get out of it.  I didn’t actually start trying in class until about three years in, which sucked because as soon as I was like “Hey, I LIKE art, I should WORK on it!”, I graduated.  Also, Purchase, at least at that time, basically didn’t even breathe a word of “You will need actual life skills to be a professional artist.” at least not in the programs I was a part of.  So many people graduated from there and were just left in limbo like “Oh, but . . . now what do I do?”  I see kids graduating from MICA with such an utterly different experience.   It was shocking at first to realize that I was missing that entire part of my education.  However, as I said, I probably could have learned a lot more of that stuff if I had sought it out.

Click image for larger version. Kelberman’s drawing table.


RC: What are the origins of the Wham City art collective that mixes collaboration and cohabitation?

DK: “Wham City” was a name that was originally made up at college when there was a contest to name a new dorm building.  Dan (Deacon) was speculating about what our friend Keith (Abrams) would name the building, and “Wham City” was his speculation.  Everyone thought that was hilarious, and there was a campaign of fake flyers declaring that Wham City was the name that had won the contest.

As far as being a “collective,” we never really wanted to be one.  Or at least, we could never agree on being one or not.  We can never agree on anything.  Which is why we aren’t really a “collective”, we are just a group of friends working on art together and separately, and this name was something we just started throwing around to indicate that one or several of this group of friends were involved, never imagining that we would actually be called on to explain it to anybody.  So now there is no explanation and mostly it’s just a phrase that causes confusion and inaccuracy.

Click image for larger version. Kelberman’s sewing table.


RC: Living in the Copycat Building, what was the experience like living with fellow artists as well as collaborating with them?  Why did that experience come to a close?

DK: It was just like Purchase, basically.  It was really awesome to find all these people around us that were also involved in art and music and drinking heavily.  However, at a certain point after living in what amounts to a giant decaying college dorm, you want to be able to leave the party.  I think we all just wanted new living experiences.  Some people are in different warehouse spaces now, generally ones with less of a feeling of complete anarchy, but still interested in having a space that can be live/work/venue.  There is a kind of situation in Baltimore where there are certain warehouses that basically are like “this is the warehouse you live in when you’re in your 20s, and this is the one for your 30s and this is for when you’re older.”  And new ones cropping up all the time.  Baltimore is the best.

Click image for larger version. From Getting Nailed Down (2010), photo by Holden Warren.


Comics and Other Media

RC: You are a multimedia artist.  Describe the sort of things you do (drama, crafts, painting, design clothes), and how they relate to comics (if there is a connection).

DK: My plays are definitely related to comics, and in fact when I had one produced last year for the first time (Sometimes, which was performed at Whartscape 2009 and the 10-Minute Play Festival 2009), my friend Connor told me he thought I had invented “the comic-strip play” because they’re just always broken into these short vignettes that could easily be seen as comic panels.  It all comes back to the thing about timing, I try to instill that sense of timing in my work a lot.  Also there’s a pretty clear sense of minimalism and color and lettering that runs through most things.

RC: What do you get out of writing plays that’s different from drawing comics?  Do you ever do any acting? What sort of reaction have you received from them?

DK: Sometimes [and] Getting Nailed Down are my two most recent plays.  I like writing plays because I have no idea how to do it, and it’s fun.  I don’t act because I have stage fright, but people try to get me to do it and maybe someday they will succeed.  So far, the reaction to the plays has been positive.  A friend of mine is turning my play Sometimes into a short film right now, which I’m very excited about.  I helped convert it to screenplay.

Click image for larger version. From Getting Nailed Down (2010), photo by Holden Warren.


RC: Why is the idea of synaesthesia so fascinating for you?  Are you a synaesthete?

DK: I’m not, but oh how I wish I was!  I am generally interested in weird neurological phenomena.  I really love Oliver Sacks and V.S. Ramachandran, and Ramachandran’s theories about synaesthesia as a foundation for language is something that has implications that I think are really wonderful to think about.  I also read a lot about animal language studies (in particular signing chimps) and animal cognition and emotion.  I don’t know what it is, those are just the things that fascinate me.  It’s interesting because my brother is extremely into all sorts of spiritual learning, and I feel like we are looking to the same ultimate conclusion, but from traditionally opposing angles.  The interconnectedness of all things.

RC: What are the implications of Ramachandran’s theories?

DK: Well, he talks about how we all actually have certain synaesthetic senses that we just don’t think about having.  For example, the links between taste and smell, or the ability to replicate an expression on ourselves from looking at someone else (which newborn babies do instantly).  There’s this awesome experiment called the Booba Kiki test where they show people from all different cultures/languages/etc. these pictures and ask which is Booba and which is Kiki; and people universally attach the name Booba to the roundish blob and Kiki to the pointy blob. So then he talks about how there is to some degree this inherent human connection of certain sensual experiences to each other, and how he thinks that is what leads to language development.

So the implication is that everyone actually has synaesthesia and that some people have more than others. I don’t know how widely thought this is, but I’ve heard people suggest that autism is the opposite of synaesthesia, so there’s this spectrum of sense connections. I like to imagine that we could eventually evolve in one direction or the other, and think about how that would affect language, although we’ll probably die out way before that could happen. Here’s a comic I drew about that (it was one of my weekly City Paper comics).

Cover of I Wish I Had More Sides (2002).  Click image for larger version.


RC: Important Comics was the first work of yours that I read.  What strips went into that book?

DK: The first book was made of comics culled from the first few years of my Aperiodic Comics that I have been posting on my website.

Cover of Important Comics (2009);  Click image for larger version.


RC: How did your minimalist drawing style evolve?  What led you to use basic geometric figures as your primary characters?

DK: It happened slowly over time.  I just got simpler and simpler.  I am very interested in trying to pare things down to their essential elements.  I want things to be extremely vague, to be applicable to anyone.  Although recently I have been including myself in my comics more specifically, at one point, and still to some degree, I really want my characters to be genderless, nameless, and not necessarily consistent “characters” with prescribed personalities.  I want each strip to be seen as an independent situation between two anybodies.

From I Wish I Had More Sides (2002).  Click image for larger version.


It actually never even occurred to me somehow that they could be seen as consistent characters, because I just wasn’t thinking about them that way, until my roommate was like “that guy’s always a jerk!”  I suddenly realized people thought of them in that way, which of course they do, because that is how everything like that works.  It was shocking to realize people were having this completely different experience in reading the comics than I was.  But that is really a complete success, because what interests me about the vagueness and anybodyness is that the reader gets to bring so much to it, they get to make it about whatever they are feeling themselves.

From I Wish I Had More Sides (2002).  Click image for larger version.
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