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Giulia Sagramola, the Cartoonist that ‘Illuminates’ The New Yorker and NYT

Native of Fabriano, in the Marche, now living in Barcelona, she often comes to New York: “If I had to pick a city in which to set a story, I would pick Brooklyn.”

Giulia Sagramola

Illustrations and comics are two different forms of communication and they use different languages, even though both include a strong element of design… ‘Illustrating’ etymologically means ‘to shed light on,’ the function of which should be to convey a message visually. I’d like to express this in my work.”

Raised on bread and Manga–the Japanese cartoon art form– the thirty-something Giulia Sagramola has been in love with cartoons and illustrations since she was practically a toddler. When she read Beatrix Potter in elementary school, Giulia understood that illustrating wasn’t just a  creative outlet but could be a career as well.

Born in Fabriano, in the Marche region, a city included in UNESCO’s list of Creative Cities and famous for its paper production, Giulia studied visual communications at ISIA Urbino and illustration at the Massana School in Barcelona. Since then, she has worked as an illustrator and cartoonist, she has a workshop for adults and children, and she has developed some self-funded personal projects.

She is the author of two graphic novels,  Bacio a cinque (Topipittori) and Incendi Estivi (Bao Publishing), the latter completed in 2015 during a year as artist-in-residence for La Maison des Auters di Angouleme (France).

Giulia Sagramola’s work on The New York Times

Her illustrations are on the pages of some of the most important daily newspapers and magazines like The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vice, Feltrinelli, Topipittori, Mondadori, Rolling Stone, Quirk Books, Il Castoro and others. Together with Sarah Mazzetti and Cristina Spanò she founded Teiera, a self-publishing company specializing in publishing collective works of cartoons. The project includes over 20 volumes between book collections and ‘fanzines,’ and involves the work of other Italian and international artists.

Over the years, her work has received recognition by the Bologna Children Bookfair, American Illustration, 3×3 Picture Book Show and the Society of Illustrators. Her last illustrated book Sonno Gigante Sonno Piccino (Topipittori), written by Giusi Quarenghi, won a Merit Award by 3×3 Annual Picture Book.

At the moment Giulia Sagramola lives in Barcelona where, in her free time, she has fun creating ceramics and on the lookout for the dogs that pass through her neighborhood.

“If I had to pick a city in which to set a story I would pick Brooklyn, which is a place I love, or Tokyo because a lot of cartoons that I grew up with are set there.”

Illustrator and cartoonist, you have to your credit numerous international collaborations. How did the collaboration with The New York Times and The New Yorker come about, and how are the illustrations for them born?

“I often end up contacting art directors whose work I admire to show them my most recent illustrations. When I was in New York last October, I ended up meeting some of them and they were able to see my portfolio in person.

Illustrations for a magazine are born through contact with the art director, who sends me a brief and sometimes the article and technical directions (like the formatting or the delivery date). For The New York Times, the illustration is often done on the  same day. Working in Europe, I receive the request for an illustration at around 4:30-5PM, I deliver different drafts of ideas at 9 PM and then I have time until midnight to send the final version in black-and-white and in color.

For The New Yorker, there’s more time, usually a few days. I begin by reading the article I have to illustrate or the brief about it a few times, and if I need to, I do a little research online. I read other articles regarding the topic, meanwhile I begin to sketch on a sheet of paper whatever comes to my mind. On the basis of this visual reasoning, the ideas that the art director proposed begin to take form.”

Creative process

What is the difference in the narrative between an illustration and a cartoon?

“Illustrations and comics are two different forms of communication and they use different languages, even though both include a strong design element–although not necessarily so. For this reason, even though they’re different, they are very interconnected languages. Illustration usually depicts a text, concept, or subject with only one image, so has to be able to summarize it well and have a nice composition, as well as find the best way to represent the message you want to impart in a single image.

The cartoon is a sequential language; the design is a function of the story sequence. The style of design that I can use for these is extremely varied. I usually adapt it to the kind of story or to the kind of illustration that I’m working with. I like to use different “tones,” from the most delicate and subtle to the most satirical, keeping to my style of design.

A generation of young female Italian illustrators is emerging. What do you have in common with them and how do you see this sort of phenomenon?

“I see it as the natural consequences of a process that began some decades ago and is linked to cultural matters that go beyond illustration and comics—of course I’m extremely happy about it. There are so many of us that, beyond the genre, I don’t think  there could be much in common among us all at the visual level. Illustration is a very wide field that includes everything from  magazines to children’s books. Each illustrator’s style has evolved from different tastes and interests and everyone finds their own space in the profession.

I think that as authors of comic books, what we have in common as a generation, is that when we were in middle school or in high school, there was a boom in the export of Japanese Manga comics and this introduced us to a vastly different style of comic book from the European or American models that we were used to.

“Belgium Law” for The New York Times (Giulia Sagramola)

What is the value of a political cartoon in The New York Times?

“I would be curious to know the point of view of a reader or my art directors—for me, that adds a point of view or a key to the text. ‘Illustrating’ etymologically means ‘to shed light on,’ the function of which should be to expose a message visually. I’d like to express this in my work.”

In general, do comic books and illustrations have a strong political value for you?

“For me, yes, especially in my stories, even when I don’t explicitly say it or when I create stories with innocuous subjects like dogs or ironic things that seem to have nothing to do with politics. As I perceive society, human interactions, values on which I base my own life—all these things inevitably enter my work and the choices I make when I decide how to illustrate an image or how to tell a story. They inevitably have a political connotation.

Giulia Sagramola: “Alcina”

Are there cartoonists and illustrators that influenced you and inspired your development?

“I have an infinite list of artists, films, songs, comics, and books that influenced me; it’s difficult to pick just a few as a reference point. My way of sketching is definitely very influenced by the style of Manga comics that I read a lot as a kid, which I then mixed with the French and North American indie comic styles. These are the cartoonists that I particularly love: Sammy Harkam, Jillian Tamaki, Camille Jourdy, Manuele Fior, Daniel Clowes, Aude Picault, Kate Beaton, Kerascoet, Rumiko Takahashi, Oyvind Torseter and many others. I also find a lot of inspiration in the crazy things I find on the internet, like old scientific prints, maps, medieval pictures, Soviet and Polish graphic designs, the Bauhaus, Fortunato Depero and Italian futurism, Gunta Stölzl’s rugs, and the work of Josef and Anni Albers. I admire the visual world of Bruno Munari, Tomi Ungerer, Maurice Sendak, André François, Saul Steinberg, Elisabeth Brozowska, Beatrix Potter, Garrett Price, and Roger Duvoisin. Apart from these influences, the discussions and debates with my friends (Giorgia Marras, Sarah Mazzetti, Cristina Daura, Brahm Revel, Nicolò Pellizzon, Lucia Biagi, Eleonora Antonioni, to name a few) are fundamental.”

Giulia Sagraola: “Girl Poodle Lady”

Together with Cristina Spanò and Sarah Mazzetti, you founded the independent label “Teiera.” How difficult is the world of independent production in a sector like yours in Italy?

“Independent production is an environment that is relatively easy if it remains what it is: a space in which to produce your own editorial projects yourself. I can easily define it because at the heart of this field is the fact that, to begin, no one shows you the way. It’s a space that you create for yourself n your own simply by producing your own things and shopping them around. You shouldn’t hope to be noticed, contacted, hired, you should simply start by putting yourself on the line and just do it. There’s those who do it just because they love it or to take the first steps toward eventually being published by an editor. The time it takes to create a book and to promote and distribute it is demanding. When I was just starting out as an illustrator, I definitely had more time for independent production than I do today. If you want to transform your own independent production project into a publishing house, the path is probably more complex. For me it is a parallel space in which I develop personal projects just for the pleasure of doing it and that, from a younger age, has helped me to get noticed. It’s something I love doing and that I don’t think I’ll stop doing.”

How have Italian cartoons changed since the times of the Corriere dei Piccoli (Children’s Courier), and what are the differences with respect to the American tradition?

“One thing that I find particularly interesting about cartoons is that it is a rather new narrative language: it’s a little over 100 years old. Therefore, it’s truly interesting to see how it has evolved and ‘expanded’ in different directions. To say how it has changed in a few sentences is difficult for me and I don’t think I have the historical credentials to do so. The thing that I like about Italian comics today, with respect to when I began to follow them a little under 20 years ago, is that it is opening up more to experimentation and research. I think that Italian comics and the American ones have a kind of traditionalism in common that, for years, brought to both a form of depicting reality in an accurate, often realistic, way. In American comics, this idea developed in the area of the superhero comics; in Italy, it developed in the adventure and escapism comics. In the last few decades the forms of visual representation in comic books have grown and have accommodated different experiments that I personally find interesting. Today both the Italian and the American comics are experiencing this fast evolution, which doesn’t mean eliminating past trends, but simply adding a wider spectrum of possibilities to relate visually.

You are also a cartoonist and have published various books. What are you reading today?

“At the moment I’m finishing the first children’s book written and illustrated by me, it will be released in France for the Le Rouergue edition and will be called Une drle chose pas drle. In the meantime, I’m continuing with a long illustration project with an English agency and I do some commercial illustrations for US and Italian publishers. In my free time, I try to develop my personal projects like my next comic book and the comic diary that I publish online for those who follow me on Patreon (a platform to support your favorite cartoonists with a few dollars).

Giulia Sagramola: “Hoppipolla”

When did it become clear to you that you wanted to do this work? When you don’t sketch things, what do you do?

“I have always wanted to do this, since I was a kid I knew that I wanted to be a cartoonist. I understood that a job existed in illustration when I read about Beatrix Potter in elementary school. What wasn’t clear to me and what took the longest time was how to really be able to transform this into a profession and I didn’t know if this could be a way to support myself. It’s very unstable work, the first few years especially, and what’s maybe the most difficult part is to be able to maintain the high level of enthusiasm and energy you have at the beginning. I got the feeling that things were starting to gel in 2001 when I began to get several job offers while working for the Bilbolbul festival by day and my first book, Bacio a cinque, by night. So I decided to go freelance. I often don’t have much free time during the day because I am a freelancer in a peculiar kind of job, and I have to deal with both my craft and the paperwork

Giulia Sagramola, 2015

I end up sketching things in my free time as well, when it’s not for a client, and I find that very important. When I don’t sketch, I try to devote myself to the other things that I like and to the various interests I have. I like to watch some TV series, films, read novels and comics, listen to a lot of music and podcasts, and to go to exhibitions and events related to my work and to art in general. I’m passionate about handicrafts. I want to deepen my skills in embroidery and the loom; last year I took a course in ceramics. If I can, I like to travel and sometimes I try to do so by bringing my work along so that I can stay longer in one place and live a little bit of everyday life in another country.”

You split your time between Barcelona and Bologna, and you often go to Paris and New York. In your opinion, are there some cities that are more iconic and more representative of comics or graphic novels than others? If you wanted to do a comic set in a city, which one would you pick?

“Indeed Barcelona and Bologna are very iconic and full of the perfect details to be able to turn these environments into comics. Bologna is the home of many cartoonists and because of this it was often depicted by cartoonists like Vanna Vinci, Gio Pota and Flavia Biondi, for example. I had done a mini comic set there, and since I was an Erasmus student, I’ve done a whole independent project dedicated to Barcelona. Maybe if I had to pick a city in which to set a story, I would pick Brooklyn, which is a place I love, or Tokyo because many comics that I grew up with are set there.”

Translated by Emma Bass

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