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Lithe, Jagged, Dark

Vivienne Flesher, interviewed by Leanne Shapton
“When you’re an artist, there are times when everything becomes your art, and it’s exciting to follow that.”
Vivienne Flesher, self portrait

Vivienne Flesher, self portrait

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

The illustrator of an article about women’s reproductive rights must beware the tropes and clichés of feminine imagery: the body, the hourglass, the hourglass body, the fetus, the coat hanger, the femme. When the Review editors decided to illustrate our symposium about the new threat to abortion access posed by Justice Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, my first thought was Vivienne Flesher. Her lines are lithe but there is a jagged, dark smudginess to them that undercuts what might otherwise be mistaken for a gentle femininity. Her drawings seduce even when depicting the violence of domesticity and the law. Her babies can be cute while grimacing; her naked women communicate their power.

In addition to drawing fourteen illustrations for the series of essays about the end of Roe, Flesher contributed a painting that served as the cover for our June 9 issue. I e-mailed her this week to ask about abortion, drawing women, and Rodin.

Leanne Shapton: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what got you painting and drawing in the first place?

Vivienne Flesher: When I was growing up, in the suburbs of Long Island, I had a terrible time in school, trouble with math and spelling, but I could draw, and I could ride horses. So my options seemed really clear to me: be an artist or join the circus. I ended up studying at Parsons and remained in New York City for many years before somehow ending up in San Francisco. I am still a New Yorker in my heart.

I wanted to work with you on this series not only because I thought abortion might be an issue you care about but because we needed so many images so quickly, and I know how fast you can think and draw. Where were you when I asked if you might be available? And had you heard about the draft opinion at that point?

I knew this was coming, I think all of us have known since Trump and Mitch McConnell cheated to put anti-abortion judges on the Supreme Court. I was away from my studio when I saw your e-mail on my phone. I couldn’t read it well because of the sun and I didn’t have my glasses. I immediately said yes to your project—anything to fight for abortion rights—but I had no idea you wanted so many drawings in such a short period of time until I returned to my studio, and glasses, and could properly read your message. I have been mostly painting during the Covid years and wasn’t certain I still had what it takes to work like a full-time illustrator.

Illustration by Vivienne Flesher

Did any of the fourteen essays strike a chord with you?

Many of them moved me. I thought I knew this material; I feel passionate about it. But I learned so much that I hadn’t known before. Each writer conveyed something I hadn’t known or felt before.
Christine Henneberg was powerful and moving. I’m older than you are, and I was personally struck by Liza Batkin’s piece. In my youth men often behaved as though their word was sacrosanct. The dishonesty and smarminess of Justice Alito’s reasoning is elucidated in Batkin’s essay.

The previous two illustrations you did for us were portraits of Patricia Highsmith and Hannah Arendt. You drew both of them smoking cigarettes. These days, very few writers are photographed smoking—I suppose I want to ask where your visual dark streak comes from. I particularly like how you portray women because of that streak.

I am pleased you enjoy my dark side. I suppose we all have that lurking around inside of us. As an illustrator most of my clients haven’t wanted to see it. But my work for you and my own painting are where I can let it come out. While smoking is a vile and dangerous habit, it’s a gorgeous prop—just look at classic black-and-white movies or photography from the early twentieth century.

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith; illustration by Vivienne Flesher

Did you deliberately scale back on full-time illustration work in order to paint?

I was bored with illustration, and when Covid hit I thought, Why I am still doing this, if it’s not making me grow or isn’t interesting to me any longer? When I was just starting out as an illustrator the art and editorial departments were equal but separate entities. Over time editorial and marketing gained all the power. Ads, book jackets, even most publications are no longer as exciting visually. I, like so many, searched for something to get me through the Covid years. My love of solitude and my art sustained me—more than that, they brought me joy. Right now, I am obsessed with creating digital art from drawings, paintings, photographs. I love what Photoshop brings to the process. These files can be reproduced at any scale.


Are you reading more nonfiction or fiction lately? And does your reading inform your personal paintings?

I recently finished The Famished Road, by Ben Okri, and used fragments of his sentences as titles for a show of paintings. His writing is like being lost in a dream. Mostly I have been watching movies. I will photograph moments of films and incorporate them in my new work on the computer. As you know, when you’re an artist, there are times when everything becomes your art, and it’s exciting to follow that.

I’m curious about the cover image. What is the story behind it? I really like the crossed arms of the figure. That gesture makes me think of something in the balance, a pause or a defense.

When I have had the time, I have been doing small paintings for myself. Sometimes these paintings were of the people I met on my travels; I did a series of the wonderful people I met in Papua New Guinea when I spent a month there years ago. Sometimes these small paintings are of friends or objects in my life. I can’t recall precisely but I think the one on your cover is from a book I was looking at during the pandemic. I love what you are seeing in her posture and believe art is about what the viewer sees in a painting. For me, the less revealed the better, unless I am doing an illustration; then my work needs to convey something quick and tangible. I much prefer mystery.

Your paintings, at least many of the ones we considered for the cover, made us think of Rodin, his Cambodian dancers and erotic studies. Are you a fan of his? What figurative work do you like or are you looking at?

I love Rodin’s watercolors. They are so elegant. Recently I discovered Asafo flags, made by the Fante people of Ghana. I’m not sure that they are finding their way into my work, but I love looking at them. My husband, Ward Schumaker, is also an artist, and we are constantly inspiring each other. Which is a good thing, since we have been locked down together during this weird time.

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