Ester Eriksson interviewed by Lo Hallén
Stockholm-based artist Ester Eriksson offers a witty take on the great challenges life has to offer: heartbreak, loneliness, lacking control, shame, mental health issues, and, well, the fickle promise of happiness that is doomed to wither on the vine as soon as it is even imagined.
The frank manner with which she treats these subjects is powerful, particularly as expressed through Eriksson’s own chaotic, loveable, and hilarious alter ego presented in her works as someone looking a lot like Goofy. This is a person who calls out guys at night, makes tearful phone calls to her dad when she’s drunk, and who feels despondent and hopeless, but is still somehow sassy, smart, and confident.
The exhibition focuses on your Goofy-esque alter ego. When did she first appear?
”It was three or four years ago, when I was working on my first book, Det finns ingenstans att fly (‘There’s nowhere to run’). One day I was too hung over to get any work done on the book. I ‘d managed to make it to the studio, but was kind of too burnt to get any work done at that point. Instead, I asked my friends, who were also present, which characters they wanted me to draw. They mentioned some different Disney characters, including Goofy. I thought that I’d seen them all often enough to know exactly what they looked like, so I just drew them straight from memory. It was a lot of fun, how messed up they turned out. I worked on both books in parallel after that. Or, rather, I didn’t know that Goofy would end up being a book; early on, I simply used that project as a reward. Whenever I had finished a page of the book, I gave myself permission to make a Goofy drawing.”
Your two books are very different. The first one, Det finns ingenstans att fly, is a little more conventional, and has panels and dialogue. On the other hand, Jag, Esters Rester (‘Me, Ester’s Leftovers’) is a blend of a picture book, a comic book, and an art book.
”Yes. I hate comic panels. I hate the way you have to try to fit inside that cramped space. How you always have to limit the text. It’s so damned difficult. For Goofy, all I had to do was add a sheet of paper and keep writing. I wasn’t under the same pressure to conform to any certain format, and the work was free to take any form it wanted to.”
Is that also an aspect of your present aesthetic, something that Goofy represents? The fact that it’s all patched up and jury-rigged, and the way the end result is so transparent about the process that produced it?
”Yes, it has made it clear to me that mistakes aren’t the end of the world. I can just paint over it, use whiteout, or cover it with something. I like it, too–it feels more like me. When I scan it, I’m sometimes disappointed, because parts of it are lost in the process. Some originals are a lot more fucked up than the versions that saw print. But now, I’m working on another Goofy book that will use panels, and it really feels like work. The drawings are usually just one or two independent pictures that I can post to Instagram right away and get some likes–get that instant confidence boost! But when you’re working on a longer comic, it doesn’t work that way. Then, you have to finish the whole thing.”
The exhibition at CFHILL features other characters, too: Taz and Tweety from Looney Tunes, Minnie Mouse, Daisy Duck, and Donald Duck. Who are they to you?
”Taz and Tweety have been myself whenever the context suited it. Minnie Mouse is my friend, My Palm, who is my roommate now. We shared a studio space at the time when I made the drawings. Daisy Duck has represented a few different people, but she’s also a friend. Donald, though, can be pretty much any guy I’ve encountered.”
I read an interview with you where the journalist said that your creative work often revolves around not blaming yourself for how difficult life can get. But is that really true? I see a far more tragicomical image here; a rejection of all responsibility, along with a comment on how rubbish society is.
”It’s rather been a matter of making myself aware of certain behaviours I fall into. It’s been a kind of therapy, too. Let’s say I made a fool of myself over the weekend, perhaps by calling out for somebody at night. On those occasions, it’s been liberating for me to make a drawing of it, about it, so that I can at least acknowledge the funny side of it.”
Is being so candid about things ever a strain on you?
”Well, not on myself. It’s been a bit of a shame, though, when other people have become upset or broken off our friendship over it. That’s why I try not to work when I’m still feeling emotional, but of course, that can be a tricky balance when the work itself is a way for you to acknowledge your emotions…”
All the same, it feels like you insert a lot of symbolism into all that outspokenness.
”I do, but this is something I’ve recently become aware of. For example, the curtains, which are often on fire, is a symbol for my dead mother. The parquet floor has been a recurring motif for a long time–it’s the only element of my work that has been there from the very start.”
You talk about the freedom of drawing a lot, particularly in the context of the ‘Goofy Ester’ aesthetic. What happens when your breathing space becomes your livelihood?
”That’s why I’ve begun investigating other media. When it comes to drawing, I’m too comfortable within the Goofy aesthetic at this point. The mistakes were the fun part, trying to salvage the drawings that look like they were about to fall apart. But now, I feel like I’ve got it down. If I begin on a drawing now, I find it challenging to surprise myself. Because of this, I like to take on new materials, that I’m not familiar with. A lot is born from the mistakes. For this exhibition, I’ve started working more with charcoal sketches. It’s a lot of fun, it’s fast, and it gets so dirty. It’s hard to control; you accidentally blur half the picture, and after you erase it, it still shows. Changing materials from a steel nib to charcoal, crayons, or clay has been a way for me to rediscover the exciting, uncontrolled nature of Goofy.”
Does varying the media have an impact on your drawing? Do you bring things back to your drawing board from there?
”It’s actually been the other way round. I’m not too cautious about my materials when I draw; I’m not afraid of making mistakes. In painting, the material has actually inhibited me. Now, I try to escape that by treating the canvas like a sheet of paper–thinking of it as rubbish, basically.”
Do you feel that you’ve merged with your alter ego over these last three years, or have you slipped further and further apart as time has passed?
”I’ve tried to include her in the Mom comics I’ve made since I had my child, but it hasn’t exactly been a seamless fit. I think we’re slipping apart, even though I still possess the aspects that she represents. I also think they will grow more prominent again sooner or later. Goofy Ester is me when I’m close to my breaking point, or when I can’t restrain myself–whenever my urges are too strong and my emotions seep out. I still feel and behave that way, but I’m much more collected now. I don’t act out as much as I used to.”
Is this out of necessity or because you want to?
”Both. I don’t think being Goofy Ester all day would be a very sustainable way of life.”
Ester Eriksson is one of five artists chosen for CFHILL ANNUAL 2019, running through August 30 – September 19.