Pain and Expression: An Interview with Panic Volkuskha


Devon Douglas-Bowers I Society & Culture I Interview I June 9th, 2016



Below is the transcript of an email interview with artist Panic Volkuskha, where we discuss art and how it can relate to reality, specifically focusing on a rather recent piece entitled Couples Therapy.




What made you interested in art? Why are you so passionate about art?

I enjoyed drawing from a very early age. Comic books, specifically Japanese manga, are actually what got me into art in the first place.

I'm a transgender man, I spent the first 24 years of my life being viewed and treated as a woman. So being raised as a little girl in the 90s, I didn't find many American comics and tv shows that interested me. The stuff aimed at girls didn't click for me -- I didn't like the art style, I didn't like the plot lines. Japanese comics and cartoons, like "Sailor Moon," "Cardcaptor Sakura," and "Revolutionary Girl Utena," did click for me. Many of those were created by women, and the main characters were young girls, who got to have magical powers and fight villains. And they got to wear super cool costumes while doing it!

My dad often says that he knew I was serious about art when I was seven. I had gotten in trouble for drawing during class, so I started setting my alarm clock early to draw before I went to school. My dad said nothing would have gotten him out of bed early at that age.

I have my parents to thank, too. Both of them work in the arts, so I grew up going to plays and art museums on a regular basis. For a long time, I didn't realize that was not the norm for most kids. My parents may not always like the content of my art, some of my paintings and comics deal with disturbing subjects, but they have always been supportive.

By middle school, I was really using art as an escape and as a form of therapy. I was bullied at school before there was much public discourse about how damaging bullying is -- it's emotional abuse -- so the school didn't really know how to handle it. The teachers and administrators didn't seem to understand how horrible it was for me. I felt dismissed and unheard. My art was where I could make myself heard.


You said in a recent Tumblr post that you live with "depression, anxiety, obsessive skin-picking, and some lingering trauma." Do you use art as a way of dealing with that?

Oh, absolutely. Since I started studying art therapy, I've begun to see that a lot of the art I was making/continue to make has been an instinctive method of therapy for myself, particularly comics. There's a form of therapy called "narrative therapy," which is based around the idea that everyone tells stories, to themselves and about themselves. These stories influence self-perception, emotions, and behaviors. Narrative therapy also holds that the "true" story doesn't really matter because all stories are subjectively true; you experience it, therefore it is real. This is particularly helpful with PTSD, because trauma can distort and conceal "true" memory.

Before I ever heard of narrative therapy, I was making comics about the stories that I told about myself and the stories others told about me -- what it was like to be seen as an intelligent, high-achieving student when inside I was incredibly anxious and self-loathing. I was sexually abused at a fairly young age, by a kid my own age, and those memories are pretty fragmented. For awhile, I was plagued by the fact that I couldn't fully remember what happened. So I made a comic about what I did remember, how it made me feel, and how I accepted it as a part of myself, but not as what defined me. It really helped to lessen some of the anxiety and intense emotion surrounding the event; even if I didn't have the full "real" memory, I had my true experience of it.


Why is it that you chose drawing/painting as your particular art style? What other artists do you admire or have influenced you?

Drawing is usually the easiest thing to do! There's almost always something to draw with, no matter where you are. I draw when I want to complete something relatively quickly, as my paintings take a longer time and tend to be more detailed.

I like acrylic and oil paints the best. I've worked with them the most, so I have a sense of mastery, I know how to do what I want with them.

My favorite art movement is the German Neue Sachlichkeit or "New Objectivity" movement. It developed after WWI, before WWII, and focused on the social and economic desperation of the times. The general style involves realistic depictions that are distorted and bizarre, a reflection of the climate in Germany at the time. A lot of the Neue Sachlichkeit artists were outspoken about the rise of the Nazi regime and had to flee Germany.

One of my favorite comic book artists is Lynda Barry. She has an incredible ability to tell funny and serious stories through the view point of children; she really captures how it felt to be a kid, to know more than the adults around you think you know, but to still not fully know what's going on.

Another big influence for me is Dave McKean. His work, particularly "Cages," expanded my idea of what can be done with comics. He uses photography, digital manipulation, painting, collage, and he blends it all together so well -- it never feels chaotic, like too much, it's all considered and composed.

To just list some influences -- Otto Dix, Jenny Saville, Odd Nerdrum, Dino Valls, Henry Darger, David B's "Epileptic," Charles Burns' "Black Hole," "7 Miles a Second" by David Wojnarowicz and David Romberger, "Dorohedoro" by Q. Hayashida, Kate Beaton's comics make me laugh myself sick, "Vampire Loves" by Joann Sfar and all of my friends who are artists.


Regarding the "Couples Therapy" piece that has gained a lot of attention as of late. I wanted to know, what inspired you to make that piece? What made you chose those specific characters and television shows?

I was taking a class on systems therapy, which refers to a number of theories of therapy that believe, even when working with one person, you have to consider the entire system, the family system the person grew up in, systems of economics, race, gender, and sexuality, and the broader sociocultural system that we all live within. All of these tie into the individual and how they experience the world. For instance, the anxiety and/or depression experienced by a transgender Latina woman is informed by different factors than the anxiety and/or depression experienced by a cisgender white man.

Our class used different families as examples in our class discussions, as case examples, fictional or nonfictional families that were relatively well-known so that everyone had some base knowledge for the discussion. I started thinking about families in pop culture, the ones that I had grown up with, and was suddenly struck by the fact that Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin are both abusive fathers. I mean, I kind of knew that, but I had never thought about it very seriously before. Hank Hill sometimes borders on emotionally abusive, but he's the most understanding and adaptive of all three characters.

I started wondering, if I considered the behavior of Homer, Peter, and Hank seriously -- then what would Bart, Chris, and Bobby be like as adults? Looking at the behavior of their fathers, the behavior of the entire family, and how the family is viewed in the context of the show, how would these kids turn out? The idea snowballed from there and I began sketching out the comic.


What do you think are some of the long-term effects that shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons have on normalizing violence and abuse, while masking it under comedy?

I don't think the shows themselves are responsible for child abuse, which is what some people seem to think this sort of criticism -- my criticism -- is claiming. I think the shows normalize abuse. All three shows are semi-realistic family sitcoms, with "King of the Hill" being the most grounded in reality. The Simpsons, the Griffins, and the Hills are pretty much all put forward as the "average American family." And the Simpsons and the Griffins are abusive families.

If the shows were consistently cartooinshly violent, like "Coyote and Roadrunner," I wouldn't have so much of a problem. But the shows are relatively grounded in reality and present these families as "average sitcom families."

If the abusive behavior is meant to be satire of actual abusive families, then it is not good satire. It falls into the trap of simply repeating/displaying the thing that it's trying to satirize, with no criticism or deeper message.

Part of this is a cultural shift, I think. The creator of The Simpsons is my parents' age; they grew up in a time when physical punishment of children was the norm. Sure, there was some sort of line that you weren't supposed to cross, or else it would be abuse, but getting hit with a belt or chased around the house with a switch was a part of their childhood. And my parents joke about it with their siblings because it's part of their shared experience, and part of why they chose to never ever physically punish me.

There are so many studies coming out now that show how extreme and long-lasting the effect of physical punishment can be; not just extreme physical punishment, any physical punishment, even spanking. Maybe physical punishment was normal enough when my parents were kids, and even when I was a kid, so that it could be a joke, but not anymore.

Lastly, I've been getting a lot of messages from people about the comic that really drives home that these depictions are a problem. People writing me and saying "It took me a long time to realize my family was abusive because shows like this made it look normal," or "This is the kind of thing that happened to me and it was horrible and I don't understand why I'm expected to laugh at it." Those messages made me want to cry and I think they're very telling.


What every day things inspire you?

People! I love portraits and figure drawing. I honestly believe that everyone is beautiful; there is at least one facet of any person that would make a beautiful painting, the unique pattern of crooked teeth, the folds of flesh on a person's stomach, the hollows made by the eye socket.

My classes are really inspiring. As much work as grad school is, it's very exciting to be studying a subject that is so important to me.


How can people support your work?

The big one that I urge everyone to do with art online is to properly credit the artist. Always try to find the original source and link to it.

I do have a Society6 (https://society6.com/panicvolkushka) and an Etsy ( https://www.etsy.com/shop/panicvolkushka). There isn't as much on there as I would like, what with being a full time student and employed, but whenever I have a break from school, I try to add new stuff.