CREATIVE EXPRESSION: ILLUSTRATOR
INTERVIEW AND NARRATIVE BY KENNEDY GACHIRI
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LULES(@ELMUNDODELULES)
We are perched on a rock formation in Central Park, New York, thousands of miles from her home country of Argentina. Pepita Sandwich, who bears a moniker that combines a childhood nickname and her favorite food, is known for her unique illustrations that showcase a distinct style marked by rich color palettes, a sense of motion, and an obvious feminist bent. “It was my destiny to be an illustrator…this is my true calling. I’ve been a professional illustrator for six to seven years… Cartooning is how I understand the world. The way I process everything that happens to me,” she says. Pepita continues, “It’s inside you. When you do it, you know that’s what you have to do. I feel like…there’s something that I have to draw…and I have to do it. There’s no way I can’t draw something. It’s like a need. …It’s bigger than me. I just need to do it. …I can’t picture myself living without drawing or art.”
At what point did Pepita know that drawing was her most urgent form of creative expression? “I always drew. My grandmother always took me to museums when I was little. When I was young I asked my mom to take me to art classes. And she is an art dealer… So I grew up with a lot of art books… I never thought it would become my job. When I finished high school, I didn’t know I could work as an artist…It was like a hobby for me,” she says. “I liked fashion a lot and so I would draw from magazines… I studied fashion for four years in undergrad…and started working in fashion [post-graduation]. …Then I had this crisis. This big personal crisis because I didn’t like my job. I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life. I didn’t like the…fashion world…and how competitive it is. …I was always drawing on this little notepad that I had. My friends were like, ‘You need to do something with drawing!’” Pepita says.
This period of personal crisis for Pepita coincided with rapid growth of social media platforms. “I remember that this was the time that Instagram came along and it was becoming more popular and I said to myself that I need to share [my drawings] at least on social media. And I started taking pictures of my drawings and posting them. And I had a good response from people. And people found them funny,” she says. “[My social media presence] started growing and I…quit my job…[and] started to work freelance. …It was really hard for me to get into that,” she says. What type of freelance work was she initially involved with? “I started working for magazines doing…editorial work and illustrations. I did illustrations for fashion brands I knew. I started contacting people and doing some shows. And I had some help from my parents…and then I became a cartoonist and illustrator. Everything became so much better…my life all came together,” she says.
One can’t help but feel that the inspiration that Pepita channels when illustrating comes from a deeper place. Where does it come from? “I get inspiration any time so I have to be prepared. I will write in my phone [and] on a notepad,” she starts. “Maybe I’m walking down the street and I see someone who inspires me to write a comic or an illustration or a gag or whatever. …My inspiration comes from real life and day to day things. …I am always writing ideas and so…when I go to my drawing table, I will read all these ideas and I will pick one…and I draw it. Sometimes I have to draw and I’m not inspired and that’s hard but it happens when you make this your everyday job. So I like to read books and watch movies and maybe go for a walk and that will inspire me to do something else. I describe it as feeding my brain,” Pepita says.
What is her sense of the relationship between inspiration and spirituality? “I was actually raised Catholic but I don’t practice that. I believe in something bigger than us but I don’t know if it’s God. …It’s something bigger that is out there. It’s not like I pray but it’s like my own religion that I made up. My own god I feel. When I was younger, I was like, ‘I only believe in science,’ but now I feel like there’s something bigger,” she says. Have there been signs? Where does this sense come from? “I haven’t had revelations or anything like that…but, for example, today we went to the Museum of Natural History and we saw this Dark Universe video in the planetarium…they show the entire galaxy and here is this tiny dot [that is us]… And I was…sure there are more worlds and more people and we’re not the only ones…in this universe. It’s so big and we’re so small…like atoms. And we live our lives and it’s like a hundred years if you’re lucky and then you die… It’s not possible that nothing happens after that. It’s so magical. I feel like there must be something else. But I don’t believe in God in the traditional way,” Pepita says.
A look through Pepita’s illustrations reveals strong feminist undertones. Well, at times it’s right in your face. Like a drawing of a woman with her vagina exposed calling for abortion rights for women. “I’ve been a feminist for 3 or 4 years now,” she says. “Being an activist for abortion comes in hand with feminism because it’s one more right for women. It’s something that we need to have as women [in order to be] equal [to] men… …Abortions are still happening in Argentina… They’re still happening even if it’s not legal. …Women go to unsafe places where they die or have complications. …[In Argentina,] we have public health so all the health services are free for people… We’re asking the public hospitals to have at least one doctor that can [facilitate] an abortion,” Pepita says.
“I was raised in the 90s…and we were raised in [the] patriarchy even if we didn’t know [it] …We thought we were equal to men. There [are] a lot of things that we still need to conquer as women [such as] equal pay [and] a lot of sexual harassment issues cause you are a woman working in a man’s world,” Pepita explains. She continues, “[There was] a fourth wave of feminism…in Argentina [called] ni una menos [which translates to] “not one woman less” because in Argentina, thirty women die [every] day [due to] gender [based] violence. Ni una menos came [about] in 2015 [as] a lot of women in Argentina started realizing these numbers. That women were dying and that we needed to be…more empowered. …So we started [marching on] the streets… I work for a magazine and I make art so I [decided] to tell [the story] through my drawings… A lot of my inspiration right now comes from women [because]…I feel [the] need to…help women have more power,” Pepita says.
Pepita is always looking to grow and evolve in her artistry. “I published a book in 2016 with my comic strip and now I am making a second book and it’s going to be out [in 2019] in March,” she says. “I am trying to improve every day. Right now I am [pursuing] a [Masters in Fine Arts] in Comics in Vermont… I love to study and I am always trying to learn new things. [I’d like] to…improve in storytelling,” Pepita continues. She is in the process of writing longer graphic novels which requires writing a script and then drawing [from it]. “So that’s the hard part. To draw and write. It has to be a good story if you’re going to draw two hundred pages!” she says. Pepita would like her work to be prolific and reach as many people as possible. “I would like my work to be more known around the world. I would like that my books get into houses around the world,” she says. But why? “I don’t know. My ego!” she says chuckling. “No, it’s nice to make something that can make people feel like they can escape from their own heads,” she says.
Illustration and cartooning is not the only medium that has struck a chord with Pepita. She is considering a foray into filmmaking. “I am always changing mediums and I was thinking that I wanted to do movies because it is the most complete art. It has images and sound. And you can develop a world. And I also like animations,” she says. Pepita continues about the correlation between comic strips and film making. “We write scripts and every picture is like a frame. And a lot of movies now are inspired from comics. But the only thing I feel like about comics is that you work alone. …You are the director, the writer, and producer and everything. It’s sometimes harder to work in a team and manage people…but maybe I can write a comic that becomes a movie. …I really like that collage feeling of real actors and animations,” she says.
What artists inspire Pepita? And more specifically, why does she think that Prince is the sexiest motherfucker ever? “He’s the sexiest person that ever lived,” she starts. “If I could return someone from the dead and have dinner with them it would be Prince. I think he is amazing. I love his music. His style. And I love when artists are complete. Like Bowie. They have this distinct way [of] singing and doing art but also they have this look and they create a whole world. I feel like Prince was really special and he did something really unique. I like that in an artist. You can listen to a song and see something and you know it’s from them,” she says. What does she mean by an artist being complete? “They take everything into consideration. The way they talk. The way they dress. The way they do music. It’s the whole package. They are so special that they have their own world around them,” Pepita says. Are there women that she believes have risen to the level of a Prince or a Bowie? “I think women had a lot less space. Now we are having more space… For example, in museums, 70% of the art is [tailored] to men. So women have been [rendered invisible] for so long [and] now we are trying to make up for it. But I like Joni Mitchell, Simone De Beauvoir, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Patti Smith,” she says.
We conclude with a discussion on fluidity of art forms and roles. Including gender roles. In particular, the approach that Prince and Bowie took to the question of gender. “They didn’t have a gender! They were their own thing. They [didn’t] have stereotypes. They would use whatever they wanted. …They erase those gender roles. And that’s what I want to do. I don’t want genders to be roles. You are your own person. Genders are a construct by society. …I went to the Bowie exhibition in Brooklyn and loved the way he approached life. He didn’t care what you thought about him. He was pretty carefree,” Pepita says. When it comes to her creativity, Pepita is both strictly disciplined and also craves immense freedom. Her desire to push boundaries is reflected in how she would conceptualize herself if she were a physical room. “It would be colorful with a lot of textures. With a window facing the ocean. But like a pink ocean. And it would smell like ice cream. And it would be fun and sweet and playful,” she says laughing. “In design I like this movement called Memphis Milano…it’s an interior design movement from the 80s. Or perhaps it would look like a cartoon from the 90s. But I like nostaligia too. Like pop retro,” she adds. There you go. Ice cream. Sweetness. Pop retro. Textured colors. And a pink ocean. No wonder her name is Pepita Sandwich.