Q&A with Resident Cory Kerr

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To whatever extent you’re comfortable, can you share about your project?
I’m telling a Japanese fairy tale called Shita-kiri Suzume or The Tongue-Cut Sparrow. It’s a children’s book about greed, selfishness, kindness and friendship. I’m sticking as close as I can to the original telling of the story without sanitizing it. There are many great stories from cultures all over the world and we’ve been fixated on so few of them for so long. I’m seeking to shed some light on some lesser-known tales from around the world.

In the Tongue-Cut Sparrow, a poor man reaches out and helps a creature different than himself who, it seems, cannot offer him anything in return. As a result, he gains a friend and his poverty is ended. He is contrasted against one who chooses selfishness over kindness and loses everything. Of the three characters, the sparrow is the most symbolic. She symbolizes everyone that we could reach out to that has little to offer us in return.

I feel strongly that a lack of kindness is at the root of all of today’s major suffering. I feel like much of this unkindness stems from ignorance and selfishness. If only we were all a little kinder to each other, if only we extended a little humanity to those we disagree with, if only we thought kindly of those who come from different backgrounds and make different choices... if each of us was a little kinder, it would end poverty, hunger, racism, war, hate, etc. The helpless, the needy, the “others” in our lives in fact offer us more than we could imagine, the biggest treasure we can gain in this life: peace and contentment. I know this sounds lofty for an old tale about a little bird, but I believe strongly in the power of stories and the need for kindness.

What do you find alluring about your medium? 
I'm find ink fascinating. I have spent the last few years learning to draw, maybe someday I’ll learn how to paint, but there is still so much to learn about this one value. I collect comic pages because I find it fascinating how much people can do with so little. There is no hue, only the binary black and white; yet they are able to coax out the impression of gradients, emotion, motion, symbolism, story, etc... All from putting black die on bleached wood pulp. Seems a bit overdramatic to put it that way, but you can hide a lot with color. 

I also love the challenge of line weight. There’s a permanence to inking traditionally. The slightest change in pressure or angle of the brush while you’re putting a line down can drastically change the mood of that line. A quick movement of the brush translates into an energetic line. Add a little hand shake and slow down a little and the line takes on an erratic natural feel. All of these little choices have to be made while you’re moving and, because of that, inking must be a bit instinctual. You have to make these choices quicker than it takes to think about them so they come from something deeper than your mind.

Digital is great for its speed and ability iterate at any stage, but there’s a tactile loss when you’re not physically touching something. There is a connection that triggers deep-seated instincts when you drag your hand across paper. I think it has something to do with the reason we feel peaceful walking in the forest or climbing a tree. We’re not meant to be constantly surrounds and encased in plastic, glass and metal. We’re meant to have some kind of contact with dirt and trees and water. 

Digital is constantly seeking to mimic traditional with little tricks, but it is, by its nature, very precise. There is a risk to inking on paper because it can easily be ruined. There’s also a bit of randomness added from the movement of your arm to the hair of the brush to the texture of the paper. In a world where more and more things are being automated, each of us is impressed with things done by hand. We each relate to and love the imperfectness of the human touch in something. There’s a greater value in people’s mind when something is made by hand.

What capacities does it offer that complements your project?
Well, I’ve probably gone on too much about it already. I am telling a traditional, ancient, Japanese fairy tale. It just seems appropriate to do as much of it as possible with brush and ink.

In what ways do you hope/expect 212 will help to develop your work?
I work in a small town with very little connection with other creatives. I’m hoping to get some good critique and refinement through this process. I’ve also found that I need a sense of accountability in my personal projects. I’ve mainly done this through youtube, but I’m looking forward to some more one on one accountability.

Part of the 212 program is that you are assigned a mentor who will help guide you as you develop your project. What excites you about working with a mentor? Do you have any anxieties about it? How do you imagine it will affect your process?
Honestly, I’m not sure how it will affect my process. I’m fairly confident in my choices, but not so deluded to think that I don’t need outside feedback. I imagine that I’ll get sent back to the drawing board a few times and that the project will be all the better for it. I’m looking forward to a professional and trained eye on my work.

Popular fairy tales have been told and retold so many times that modern retellings are drastically different than their source material. As an artist dealing with lesser known tales, what responsibilities do you feel towards the source-material?
That’s an interesting question. I think that there’s a balance between scrubbing things so clean that they lose all meaning and a hyper-focus on the prurient and gory that distracts from the core story. In either extreme, there’s some power lost to the story. A few examples come to mind. There was going to be a local production of Les Mis here a couple years back. The theater set out to edit some of the more unseemly parts out of the story and they lost the rights to perform the play. That story is about broken people being redeemed. It’s about people sinking to their lowest points and being saved. The power of the story comes from how much they were saved from. It’s like the people who said, “That Jesus guy is alright, but he hangs out with prostitutes and tax collectors.” Or trying to explain Lincoln’s place in history without mentioning all that icky stuff about slavery.

There’s an infamous guy named Thomas Bowdler who set out to censor Shakespeare so that it would be appropriate for women and children. He felt that these stories needed to be scrubbed clean. Disney did the same thing with the fairy tales they’ve told. They’re still okay stories, but I think it’s important to see Hamlet die and know that the evil stepsister’s were blinded by crows at the end because there are lessons there.

Stories are important. Humans don’t have many instincts at birth and almost no survival skills. We spend the first two decades of our lives learning to survive and thrive through the lessons we learn in stories. Deep down we know that the world is an incredibly beautiful, wonderful, terrible and ugly place. Being honest about that allows us to navigate the world authentically. 

All of that is to say that these stories were told these ways for a reason. People needed to know about kindness, giving, love, hate, greed, murder, etc and the results of choosing to act in specific ways. 

And what responsibilities do you feel towards your creative process?
I don’t know that I’ve thought about this much, but I try to follow my gut. If something feels off or wrong, I try and figure out where I’ve gone wrong and fix it. There isn’t a lot of details to some parts of these stories and characters. In telling it to a modern audience, I add a little here and there, but I try and understand the characters enough that I don’t make them do anything that feels forced or changes who they are.

What is your process in discovering and interacting with these lesser-known fairy tales?
This is the first one I’ve tried to adapt, so I can’t speak from the experience of someone who has the experiences that comes with creating a huge body of work. Everything I put down on the paper is informed by research. For example, I called a buddy of mine who has a degree in architectural horticulture to discuss Japanese Wisteria. It’s this beautiful pink flowering plant that has an ethereal mood to it that I first came across in Hiroshi Yoshida’s woodblock prints. In this book, I use it to indicate to the reader that things are about to get magical. I spent some time researching images and descriptions of the Jomon period of Japan, looking at their clothing, buildings and technology. The home, dress and vehicles are what I like to call, “authentic plus,” which is to say that they’re rooted in historicity, but mixed with fanciful elements. For example, it seems that they did have wind-powered carts with Junk ship-styled sails back then, but they didn’t have floating islands…

What about them interests and inspires you as an artist?
I love reading and listening to stories. I love ancient cultures. I love how different cultures all throughout history use stories to teach their kids how to be a good member of the tribe/village/family. Mostly though, I love drawing and telling stories and fairy tales offer an excellent foundation for me to build something on.