GR Interview: Artist Hellen Jo

Hellen Jo is an illustrator and comic book artist, but most of all she's inspiring. While sitting on a recent panel at the LA Zine Fest, most of the panelists cited Hellen Jo as an inspiration. Her work is empowering with a strong viewpoint. Her lines, colors, and characters amazes and grows on you. From working on a video game project with Hellen and her partner in life, Calvin along with her part in numerous exhibitions, we're excited to host her solo exhibition, DGAF at GR2.

GR: Explain what your DGAF exhibition will entail? In the past your work featured Asian girl gangs! What's happening this time?

HJ: There isn't as much of a unifying theme with this show as there was with the previous shows I did in 2013 (Seasonal Changes at GR2, and H8FOREVER at the Secret Headquarters). Most of the girls I draw, in general, don't give a fuck, and I find that to be the through-line with the paintings, comics, and drawings I'm including in DGAF.  I think that attitude is a reflection of my work, as well as my broad world view.  I care deeply about some things, but generally, at least these days, I really can't be moved to give a shit. I'm BUSY/TIRED/WOULD RATHER BE GOLFING. Just kidding, I don't play golf.

GR: Your work inspires so many people, can you talk about your intentions to empower women with your work?

HJ: I try to make the drawings an extension of my own brand of femininity: rough, vulgar, ugly, tough, mean, bratty, bored.  I just want to draw women the way I feel, and I think people, women and men, identify with elements of that.  I really despise being told what to do or how to act, and I'm sure everyone feels that to some degree.  My drawings are just a symbol of and ode to that petulance.

GR: People have adored your work and always want more. How are you able to produce work while you have a day job in animation? Are they in any way related?

HJ: Oh man, I have no idea how it happens.  Working in animation can be so grueling for me, that doing any kind of illustration or comic work at the same time is some kind of miraculous reprieve.  It usually involves forgoing sleep for a week, barely getting my office work done, and not talking to anyone for a while.

Working as a storyboard artist and designer is cool and all, but ultimately, it's just a job: I see everything I do for work as a means to an end. I would rather be painting dumb girls all day but I don't have the discipline to be a full-time freelancer or fine artist.  I'm still figuring it all out, I guess, but for now, this works okay.

GR: Do you have plans to work on a long form project? If so, what would it be about?

HJ: I am currently writing three different comics, but whether any of them will ever get made remains to be seen.  I am my own worst enemy when it comes to personal work, and it's been a really long time since I've sat down and consistently banged out any comics.  People always ask about Jin & Jam 2, and I feel so bad; 25 inked pages exist! But who knows if I'll ever finish the remaining 40.  I am so lame, dude.

GR: Is Taiyo Matsumoto (Tekkonkinkrete) still an inspiration? Who else these days? 

HJ: Taiyo Matsumoto is still the unrivaled master of my comics heart; I have read everything I can find in English or Korean (Tekkonkinkreet, Ping Pong, Hana otoko, Sunny, GoGo Monster, Blue Spring, ZERO, No. 5) and I find every character moment to be so deeply beautiful and moving.  I have cried reading at least six of those titles (although I do cry pretty easily, WHAT), and I desire to make other people feel a similar heart-swell in my own work.

I LOVE comics, and if I went into a list of all the stuff I've enjoyed ever, it would take a few weeks and an Excel spread sheet.  Some comics I've read semi-recently that I found to be particularly wonderful include Diane Obomsawin's "On Loving Women", Aisha Franz's "Earthling", and everything by Anna Haifisch.

GR: You were a die hard Northern California person, how's life in Southern California and how does an environment change your work?

HJ: You probably know this, but Bay Area natives are taught from a young age that LA is evil and repulsive, and that Angelenos hate us just as much as we despise them, but after living here for four or five years, I've learned that:

+ the hate is pretty much a one way street

+ Angelenos are chill

+ LA can be stupid, but so can much of the Bay Area, especially right now, so what's the big deal?

Honestly, I had a hard time living here at first (mainly because I was living in fucking BURBANK) but in the last couple years, I've made friends, figured out where my favorite junk foods are located, and learned how to drive like a complete dick, and I feel very at home.  So long live LA!

In terms of my work, moving to LA has been pretty useful, in that a change of scenery is always an opportunity to reset, re-charge, find a new way to look at your shit.  I've definitely been more aware of teen subculture since I started working in television (as it rules EVERYTHING), and I think it helps keep this old lady in touch with teen malaise and adolescent anger.  Maybe I'm too old to be drawing bored teen girls now, but I never want to lose touch with the universal coming-of-age experience and all the pain and joy that entails.