Interview: Megan Perra
An interview with Illustrator Megan Perra with a focus on the art of printmaking.
Illustrations: Megan Perra
Tell us a little about yourself and how you became an illustrator?
I didn’t start out wanting to be an illustrator or an artist; like all kids in the 90s who saw Jurassic Park, I wanted to be a Velociraptor, and then—more realistically—a paleontologist. Whilst I never shook my interest in bones, I did become more fascinated with contemporary animals, and after reading Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, I was set on becoming a wildlife biologist.
I went to the University of British Columbia in Kelowna to pursue a degree in Zoology, and by this time I had a burning desire to break into bioacoustics and study the evolution of vocal signals and ‘accents’ within social carnivores (wolves, mainly). After an independent study on lion vocalisations was interrupted by an abdominal surgery that cut my third year short, I was a little discouraged about my ability to finish a project in a true academic form. In the last year of my BSc, I took two semesters of a screenprinting elective and absolutely fell in love. It was not uncommon for me to spend all hours in the studio; it’s the kind of work that makes me resent the necessity of sleep.
What inspires you to start your work?
It’s not any one thing: sometimes it’s a texture, sometimes it’s a scientific story, and sometimes it’s a juvenile angst towards relationships that have gone awry. When I make art a lot, it's just a reflex that I'm always working on something and moving onto new things. If it's been a while, I'm often prompted by someone else's work that I admire, or by a concept (usually scientific research) that I want to translate into a visual image.
Where did your passion for print making come from?
I think it started when I saw artists like Ken Taylor and Aaron Horkey who dominate the poster making scene today. Their work was just undeniably cool, and it was actually through contemporary screenprinters and artists that I started to admire more traditional Japanese woodcuts, and etchers like Edwin Booth. There was one summer three years ago that I just decided to try screenprinting, and I was pretty unsuccessful doing it on my own with the beginner kits. The first time I tried to print at school was an absolute disaster that left me a sweaty, nervous mess. Once I got the hang of it there was really nothing better, but I'll never forget how afraid I was of messing up when I first started (and how stupid that fear feels now).
What is your preferred choice of medium and why?
Definitely screenprinting. Once things are on the printmaking table, I don’t want to stop; seeing how each layer causes the colours and composition to evolve, watching a piece go from static line to object feels like creating life. I like UV screenprinting ink specifically because it doesn’t dry in the pores of the screen since it has to be cured with a special UV lamp. The ink is originally meant for commercial printing, but my mentor and a handful of other studios in Canada are part of a very limited group that use this method. It allows you to get all the nuances out of handmade positives; you could create a design by drawing pencil onto frosted mylar, and when you printed it with grey ink it would look just like a pencil drawing on paper. The kinds of things you can do with that ink, simply because it can go through higher mesh screens, are really remarkable. I try to convince others about it, but they’re put off by the need for a UV lamp, which can get expensive. Still, the expense is worth it I think, and I hope to have my own UV screenprinting setup when I’m settled into one place.
Why do you favour science and nature as your primary focus?
I went to university to become a behavioural biologist, and learning about science and nature has always the main interest in my life. I think that science and art are actually just two sides of the same coin, because both are trying to interpret the world, to break it down into a language that they can understand. You get bad science when they're from people who refuse to acknowledge that their research requires creativity and abstract thinking, and you get bad art from those who believe there’s no science to their craft.
Sometimes I feel disappointed that I haven’t pursued a traditional academic route and become a researcher, but I know I can do better work taking a more creative direction and acting as a bridge between science and art. I still have the field guides from all the places my family lived when I was younger, and their pages are dog-earred and thumbed through, with spines that have been creased at all our favourite photos. I think it was inevitable that I’d become a naturalist in some capacity.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a number of graphic design related projects for work, and for everything else I’m sort of in the planning stage. I’ll be painting a mural in Fairbanks in the middle of July and I’m still in the process of nailing down the colour scheme. I’m also planning for a documentary project in Iceland next year, and grant writing has taken up a big chunk of time lately.
Which of your creations has been your favourite so far and why?
One of my more recent prints, “Wind Fights Flow” is probably my favourite at the moment. I drew the design on clayboard first, using a scratchboard knife to etch in the fine details, and I made it over 1-2 weeks while I was in the Faroe Islands. It took upwards of 30-40 hours to get done, and it was almost a year later until I was back in the printmaking studio and had the opportunity to print it. Getting that piece onto the printing table finally was a bit emotional after having the original clayboard hanging in front of my desk for months. I printed the black design in several layers of different colors, and each time I felt like I was sculpting life out of what had been a simple black and white design. The black and white version has it’s own charm, of course, but the full screenprint is how it was intended to be.
What art movement, artist or photographer would you say influences your work most?
For photography, Vincent Munier is hands-down my favourite. The way that he couples the vastitude of the arctic with a sense of delicacy and grace really lends an especial beauty to his work. There are many photographers that put themselves in those same places and their photos are nice, but they’re nothing more than captured moments in an inaccessible place. Munier’s work is art, it’s not the greedy snapshots of someone trying to preserve time, it’s the careful composition of someone trying to transcend it.
João Ruas’ artwork is hauntingly beautiful as well as Vania Zouravliov, both of whom I consider modern-day masters. Most recently though, I think Quentin Garel is my new favourite. I saw his work at a gallery in Montreal before I left, and it’s made me want to explore sculpture if I can ever find the time and money. He carves large skulls and animals out of wood and then casts them in bronze, and I love the textures that come of it and the different patinas that he uses.
What is your favourite location to work from?
I work mostly from my desk, it’s easiest to stay focused there, but I do go a bit stir crazy. I rotate between feeling really self-conscious and wanting everyone to see what I’m making, so sometimes it’s just nice to live in a bubble and other times I want to go to a café and pretend I’m a forward-thinking trend-setter sipping espresso and making beautiful art. It really depends. When I’m at home in Portland, Oregon and not living abroad, I’m with my family on the outskirts of the city where it’s quiet. I like to work in the mornings and take our dogs for long runs in the afternoon; even when I’m in amazing places, I eventually feel the pull back home. There aren’t as many distractions and the dogs keep my feet warm when I’m working at the kitchen table.
Do you have any work related future travel plans?
I’m actually going to Sitka, Alaska in about a week for the Voices of the Wilderness Artist Residency in the Tongass National Forest, specifically in the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness. I’ll be on an 8-day sea-kayaking trip with the US Forest Service for the residency, volunteering to help them dismantle old fire rings and previous campsites. After that, I’m getting flown up to Fairbanks to paint a mural for a company I’ve been doing branding and packaging work for.
At the moment, it seems to be that graphic design work will be paying the bills for my more ambitious projects. The money I’ve made in branding has actually allowed me to secure my place on a winter photography expedition with a group led by Joshua Holko in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. Holko has been to the reserve in winter for the past 5 seasons and his book of arctic fox photography recently won an award. I’m hoping with his expertise I’ll be able to get a lot of good photos and video of the foxes for a documentary/research project that I’ve organised with my friend and contacts in Iceland. We’re looking at how oceanic pollutants might impact the development of arctic foxes through their diets. I’ll be documenting the research and interviewing hunters who—for the past few decades—have been donating the foxes they shoot to biologists that study them. I’ll be in Iceland from late February until the end of April, working out of Thingeyri in the Westfjords and travelling down to Reykjavik periodically to film some of the fox dissections and research that’s taking place. My brother is an avid backcountry skier and we plan to do a traverse over one of the northwestern fjords if the weather holds.
Do you have any advice for creatives who are just starting out?
There’s no single way to be successful, and too many people follow a formulaic path when they should be forging their own. You have to be determined and you have to practice at your craft, and everything else from there is going to be variable depending on who you are. But I can’t emphasise the need for practice, for prioritising your growth as a creative even if you’re working a different job or going to school for something else.