Rainbows, Butterflies, & Ocean Waves: Confessions of a Doodler

Not many “graphic poets” find themselves on a reading list for Women’s History Month, but Rebecca Fish Ewan isn’t your average artist or poet. Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at ASU, founder of Plankton Press (a zine press), and author of the graphic poetic memoir By the Forces of Gravity and the craft-book Doodling for Writers, Rebecca is best known for creating tiny, intricate doodles filled with mesmerizing colors. Sometimes, there’s even a micro-poem tucked inside. Regardless of her medium, her distinctive drawings and watercolors are some of the most innovative art being created for the page in Phoenix.

WOD: When did you first become interested in drawing? Poetry? When did you begin to commingle the two?

Rebecca Fish Ewan (RFE): As a kid. My first book was a spiral-bound hand-written collection of poems and drawings that I made for my friend Luna’s birthday when I was twelve. The poems are mortifyingly ridiculous (sample lines: “Take L.S.D. upon a hill” and “Karma flows like a river”), and I wish I’d drawn more, but the cover drawing is all me. I don’t draw many lightning bolts now, but still love rainbows, butterflies, and ocean waves.

After that, I began to mingle words and images mostly in cartoons. Further mixing evolved from my training in math, landscape architecture and poetry, all disciplines that treat the page as a visual space. Now I’m circling back to my childhood space-filling doodling, but with more maturity and no hallucinogenic drugs.

WOD: How does landscape architecture influence your other creative productions and vice versa?

RFE: Landscape architects communicate in hybrid form, using words and images to build a picture of a place that doesn’t yet exist. I have always loved this aspect of the discipline. It was also the part I had previous skills for to bring to graduate school. I could already draw and write words, which I applied to tell place-based stories.

Being immersed in the discipline for thirty-four years has deepened my understanding of the earth, of trees, water, and human connections to place. Landscape designs are by their nature open-ended, because they continue to grow. This acceptance that you are not the controller of all you create is very much at the heart of the work I do as a visual/literary artist. I work in watercolor, because the physics of water makes such wonderful things happen on the page. Painting is a collaboration between me and water.

WOD: What inspired you to write a memoir, and more specifically to write it as a graphic poem?

RFE: When Luna was murdered, I had no tools to process her death. I buried all memories of her. Because the internet has a way of reducing everything to sound bites, many years later, I saw how she had become a footnote to her famous father’s life, the youngest daughter of Robert Anton Wilson beaten to death at fifteen. I wanted to create a record of her marvelous life. It became memoir, because it was the only way I could imagine showing her as I had known her.

I tried writing in more straightforward memoir form, but grown-up me as the POV felt flat. Grown-up me knew Luna dies. The only version of me that didn’t know this horrible truth was kid-me. Once I realized this, the poetry poured out as fast-paced and punctuation-free, because this matched kid-me’s voice (in her head anyhow). The cartoons emerged in revision, as process sketches to help me picture written images. I started drawing on the words themselves. It took a while for me to realize these drawings carried the story too and needed to be in the memoir itself.

WOD: We know that you love to geek-out about color, so talk a bit about your relationship to it—where it comes from, how it changes/evolves?

RFE: I love the relativity of color, how color perception takes context into account, how much depends on color relationships. I also love that color is captured by the eye as reflected light waves, so an object perceived as green actually absorbs all frequencies of light except those in the green realm.

I started coloring as a kid, with crayons, but I fell into a rut color-wise in grad school. I used the same 12-pan watercolor palette for the next 30ish years. Now, I have two paint boxes for my watercolors that fit no more than 72 pigments, so if I add a color I have to take another out. This rule keeps me from overwhelming myself with color choices.

WOD: It’s sometimes difficult to feel like you’re part of the artistic landscape in Phoenix if you’re not a muralist, so how do you see yourself contributing to the ever-evolving Phoenix arts scene?

RFE: I could only be a muralist for mice. I believe in the power of the tiny, which is why I named my press after plankton and make a zine called Tiny Joys. My brain doesn’t filter much, so when I moved to Phoenix, I was overwhelmed by the bigness of the place. It took me a long time to be able to notice the subtle through the noise of the immense.

Wasted Ink Zine Distro was my entry into the landscape that thrives in the finer weave of Phoenix’s urban fabric. The owner, Charissa Lucille, and the zine culture helped me see the more nuanced way art is practiced here. Since the first time I walked into WIZD, when it was in Tempe near QT, the artistic landscape has become more visible and I feel more a part of it.

WOD: How does living in Phoenix impact/influence/inspire your art?

RFE: It’s made me appreciate water by its scarcity. When I paint, I feel completely connected to water. I’ve begun using smaller brushes and tinier pieces of paper, because this takes me to a place on the page where surface tension, capillary effect, all the physics of water influence the work. I’d probably be splashing about on giant sheets of paper if I hadn’t moved to the desert!

The Sonoran Desert has a quiet patience that has influenced my work. And encouraged me to keep at it.  Saguaros can live for 65 years before flowering, just standing there in the baking sun. How is that not an inspiration for late bloomers like me?