J. Webster Sharp is a comics artist who pursues her vision with a singular dedication. In fact, Sharp opened an art gallery in Wales, to sell her own work, as none of the galleries in Wales were ready to take her. She opened the gallery in 2018, only months before the death of her husband. This last year or so has seen a tremendous output by Sharp, including a tribute to her husband, the book entitled, Sea Widow. Sharp was born in a town called Ripley, in Derbyshire. Since 2005, she has lived in Yorkshire, England. She now makes her living from the sales of her comics. If you read my review of Sharp’s work, then you’ll have a sense that this is the stuff of strange wonders. Sharp’s work can be deeply personal and utterly surreal, often at the same time. In this interview, Sharp shares about her process and provides a tour of her comics work.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: I would say that your work explores the psyche and takes various detours, often dark and intriguing. Is that a fair description? What would you say to that?
J. WEBSTER SHARP: That is a very fair description. A silent, noise-free world. How it feels to live inside your head all day. My head, anyway!
Please share with us how you got into art. How did you develop as an artist–and how did that evolve into comics? Do you consider yourself an artist first, or do you like to be called a comics artist?
I am a comics artist now. I’m actually content and happy and where I feel I should have been the whole time. But I have always been a maker, of paintings, sculpture, drawings. I made the mistake of going to university to do art. Which did not work out for me the way it has for others. I didn’t find myself amongst others like me; it just isolated me even more than I already was! I got an interview for the Slade School of Fine Art in London. I wanted to go there. I remember the interview panel laughing at my drawings.
When did you begin to take your work seriously? I mean, when did you first publish your work? And how do you feel about your early efforts?
Probably since I was 13 was when I decided to be an artist. I wanted to be a portrait painter. But everything I do I think “this isn’t good enough, I must do better,” this isn’t good enough, across all mediums. Art was all I had, all I can do. I get a new idea before I even finish the current idea which makes me instantly think the current idea has failed. All my early work/uni work is about the problems I have with my identity. Trapped in situations, under pressure, under threat from my body. About 12 years ago I printed something, and I had great feedback, except from this one place. And I had so little confidence I stopped comics and went back to painting. And I kept that email for years and read it when I felt bad, because it was proof I was nothing and had no idea what I was doing. Which was just who I was back then, I couldn’t look anyone in the eye, never spoke, I was pretty useless as a functioning person! I’m a completely different person now. I changed very fast and quite a bit, and that has had its problems.
What can you tell us about Jade, and Her Schizophrenia, the book focusing on your sister?
I should have made it clearer on the inside cover, my sister wrote this story, and I drew it. It is true and about her psychosis back in February 2013. To draw her story I did so much research, too much I think, it made me so sad and guilty to think of what she went through. Goes through. How to draw what it’s like to have paranoid schizophrenia. That was hard, it was virtually impossible and this was as close as I could get it. My sister is fiercely intelligent. I hope she writes more about what has happened since so I can draw it.
Would you share something about your process? Do you first think of an image, per page, per panel? Or are you thinking of what will add up to a whole book?
Panel to panel. I love the not knowing, because whatever I think I might draw might change because of a news item I might see, or a new eccentric person I might find out about. Or if I see a moth! If I plan thumbnails and things, I am bored of it as soon as I start it because my brain says I have already done it. The mystery is gone, the puzzle solved already. I like working from collage too, collecting clippings to use in the future. I love collecting imagery, I always have, I have always remembered visuals since I was little. My comics work is sort of a continuation of my painting work, I love collage thanks to William Burroughs, cut-ups, I think it’s great. A process that mimics my thinking exactly. All I do is tell myself a page limit.
What can you tell us about Sea Widow?
Sea Widow is about when my husband died. I started drawing this in May 2021. I hadn’t done any drawing or anything since it happened in 2018 and I was going through all my boxes and photos and notebooks, and I put all these things together and went from there. I had to get it out, as much as I could, I had no outlet for anything. I thought in a funny way it might help someone maybe. It did help me to do this. So I quit my job and started to draw. He loved the way I drew.
What can you tell us about Pretty?
I didn’t dare stop once I started in case the drive and desire went away. I just started immediately on the next thing. The stand-alone stories are about enclosed worlds and dysfunctional families I feel.
It looks like you’ve hit your stride with the ongoing series, Fondant? Would you care to share any thoughts?
Fondant, the name of an icing used in baking, something horribly sweet and if you have too much it makes you feel sick. Its automatic drawing. And it scares me sometimes. Invasion. Its all about fear, events and people and objects which can’t be controlled in silent environments. The fear of feeling, not knowing, unwanted thoughts and memories. Like wrapping your hand around a white hot object and you can’t let go. Bad sensations you sort of like.
There are so many subjects and themes that you work with. How would you describe your universe of interests?
Extensive and tiring. Never ending. I could research all day. I love it, adding to my creative inventory. I have old magazines from antique shows, old comics, new comics, old pornography, photo job lots, medical books, vet books, sewing books. Books on the paranormal. Film. Always so important to me, always. John Waters, Ingmar Bergman, Lynch. French new wave, Kenneth Anger. I watched Betty Blue recently, love Beatrice Dalle in that. And Cinema Paradiso. I love the films of Ari Aster and Robert Eggers right now.
I can not help but comment on your working with the theme of the foot. It is a subject that I believe will always harbor a sense of mystery. For some, it becomes a sort of taboo topic. For others, it takes on a keen focus. What can you tell us about your interest in this subject, given your wonderfully strange depictions of the human foot? It seems to me a gateway to better understanding you and your art.
I like to explore subjects that interest me, many of those subjects are sexual, fetishes and things, I think it’s the question why feet? that I am interested in. The psychology behind things. They are very vulnerable. Shoes are so strange. I have ballet pointe shoes. But I have never done ballet. They’re just great to look at and they’re heavy and shiny. I love heels, high heels. How they make a leg change shape. I’m very short.
Any final thoughts? Do you have plans beyond the next year or so? More books? Any possible gallery shows? Please feel free to add anything that I may have missed.
To keep working and saying yes to as many opportunities that come my way. I would like to approach some people regarding publishing something, but that needs to be underway before I do, so I shall begin that in the next couple of weeks.