By Alicia Guzmán
Instagram is a powerful tool here in Santa Fe and elsewhere. It has and continues to foster an “artist’s community” by bringing like-minded people into each other’s social media lives. In fact, Book Santa Fe found Matilda Gutierrez’s “50 Days of Book Covers” on Instagram while cruising photos taken at Downtown Subscription for a worthy repost. A witty photograph of Matilda’s face covered by Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood piqued Book Santa Fe’s interest, which then led to the discovery of the growing trove of artistic reinterpretations of some of the most iconic book covers from the past century. With a new kind of book art at hand, and facilitated by something so seemingly common as Instagram, the idea for an interview was born. When I got on board shortly thereafter (also aided by the handy Instagram), Matilda had just completed her fiftieth and final cover.
In a quiet corner of Santa Fe University of Art and Design’s Fogelson Library, surrounded by books about the history of opera music, Matilda Gutierrez began to tell her story. An aspiring artist and illustrator from Laredo, Texas, a town that borders Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Matilda had just finished her sophomore year at SFUAD. With some time on her hands, Matilda gave herself an assignment for the summer months: create a project that would last until the fall term started. The resulting set of ink, watercolor pencil, and marker illustrations was titled “50 Days of Book Covers.” Joined by Mari and Art of Book Santa Fe, we touched on the project’s origins, the influence of Instagram and the role of social media accountability in keeping Matilda on track until the very end.
Each day, Matilda chose a book cover; some of the books she’d read and others she hadn’t. Mostly, it was the appeal of the cover design and the illustrative impact of each book that influenced her choices. Here, she judged each text by its cover, showing that what beckons readers to books is indeed a visual first impression. Far from copying, Matilda reinterpreted the designs of fifty book covers. Through her own hand and “mind’s eye,” iconic covers from books such as Lolita took on a graphic quality, where strong line work, prismatic color and an embrace of the white of the page, transformed old into new. The role Instagram played was significant, as it became the primary mode for showcasing the project; the title “50 Days of Book Covers” was, at first, a hashtag, one that was up for grabs and perfect for recording the project’s course (her own handle is @matgutz). To post each day’s cover on Instagram was to continue the project, to send it out into the universe, and to introduce an audience to her creations. And to have an audience, more significantly, was like adding a system of accountability that kept Matilda going.
The interview is excerpted below and contains my questions as well as Book Santa Fe’s regarding the inspiration for the project and many other topics, ranging from speaking Spanish, process, medium, discipline, the role of social media and last, but not least, selfies. We seem to have covered it all. Read on!
September 28, 2016
Alicia Guzmán (AG), Arts Writer
Mari Angulo (MA), Book Santa Fe
Art Tucker (AT), Book Santa Fe
Matilda Gutierrez (MG), Artist
AG: First of all tell us about your history and then you can tell us how you arrived at your project.
MG: I’m from Laredo, Texas, which, is a small border town and my family is from Mexico and living there (Laredo) is pretty much like living in Mexico. So all through my elementary, middle and high school I was in art classes and I got lucky because I always had really creative teachers. In high school, my art teacher there really pushed me to keep working and basically she would really push us. Recently I was going through my old sketchbooks from high school and I realized that I had a ton of text-drawing just stuff that I would copy like if I was reading them I would copy the cover and a ton of magazine drawings and sitting there thinking I should’ve studied design or illustration. So it was kind of this epiphany that I really want to be an illustrator and I’m a junior and only have a year left and have spent the past few years as a painter so I was trying to make up for lost time so I was trying to learn from these illustrators that have kind of created these book covers that I was always attracted to so I was trying to pick up a few tools from them.
AT: Where is your family from in Mexico?
MG: My dad is from Durango and my mom is from Chihuahua.
AT: My other question is what do you like to read?
MG: It varies. When I was little whatever I read in English I had to read in Spanish. I had to match what I was reading in English and my mom was always encouraging my sister and I to read out loud in Spanish. I loved Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I grew up reading Harry Potter in English and then I read it in Spanish.
Art: So did your family speak Spanish at home?
MG: Yes. To this day.
MA: They didn’t want to let it go.
MG: Yeah. I love Spanish.
AG: You’re a painter, right, so this is a project to try out your hand at illustration? The marker and the pen drawings were something new, then?
MG: Well, I’ve always drawn in ballpoint pen. That is what I drew in high school, but I never took it as seriously as my paintings. My paintings were my artwork and my drawings were my doodles, things I did during the day when I had free time.
AG: So then (50 Days of Book Covers) was about taking the drawings and making them into a finished project?
MG: Even with my sketchbooks I would make my (sketches) obsessive and try and get them really perfect and make them look like paintings, I guess, like make them look like finished artworks. But I was playing with those two (approaches).
AG: Well, it’s interesting because you did develop a style in the book project... so it’s surprising for me to hear that the paintings were the “finished product” because your style of illustration looks finished even if it doesn’t cover the page.
MG: In school you’re always taught to fill the whole page. It must be so saturated that you can’t see the white of the page.
AG: But there’s so much white (in the project)! So much negative space. Was that part of the illustration?
MG: Yeah I think with my time here and with my time in studio arts, I’ve become looser in my drawing. I’m not afraid of negative space anymore. I leave my sketchy lines in. I don’t erase mostly. It’s been kind of freeing.
AG: To get past the medium question, you went back to your high school notebooks and saw that you were drawing based on things you saw. Was that the inspiration for the actual book project or did the project just come independently?
MG: So at the same time I was looking at my sketchbooks, this was during the summer. I didn’t have any assignments. I wasn’t in school, but I was listening to this podcast, from “The Jealous Curator” and she was saying that when you leave school it’s important to give yourself assignments and keep yourself busy so I think she pushed me to start a project and see how disciplined I was. I was also getting scared of graduating.
AG: The world of self-motivation (laughter)?
MG: Yeah and finding a purpose for myself.
AG: Well, you proved it. Now you can say that it’s over.
AT: How hard was it? Seems to me it would be pretty hard.
MG: It was pretty hard. There were a few days where I definitely skipped and just caught up later. I think I ended up finishing a week later... toward the end I was running out of book covers and I was in the library a lot looking for something. But I also live with a creative writer so there are books everywhere, so I guess that’s where I got the book idea because at first I was gonna do labels and album covers, board games or DVDs.
AT: Just out of curiosity, typically what time of day did you do these?
MG: If I did anything in the day, it would be the first thing that I do because I have to keep in my lighting and natural lighting is the best lighting and try and finish by a reasonable hour, but there were some days I didn’t, so I would use a projector setup because projector lights are so bright and I’d make them with projector lighting.
AG: Did you read all of the books?
MG: No. To me it was literally judging a book by its cover and what attracted my eye and that’s where I would go.
AG: Did you feel compelled to read the book after you drew the cover?
MG: I did at first. I feel kind of guilty I was afraid someone was gonna call me out on it (laughter).
AG: It was purely design impulse then?
AG: Which I think is interesting because I think a lot of time we’re compelled to read a book based on what it looks like. Buying is so much about looks.
AT: Yes. A cover can change the sales of a book.
AG: This proves the rule right? Why did you start with Haruki Murakami then?
MG: That one I did read (laughter). There are a lot of (examples) in here that I read, but some are ones that were on bookshelves
AG: That leads me to another question about the variety of books because there is an immense variety of books from Norwegian Wood, to The Little Prince to Where the Wild Things Are, so from iconic novels to children's’ books, to artist’s books—I saw the Yoko Ono book in there, too—was that what was available?
MG: I didn’t have a specific pattern or anything. The first ten are my favorite books and then after that I started going into my childhood and then there were days where I would google attractive book covers. At one point I would do a children's book cover and then do something weird the next day. I did Matilda, here, and the next day I did Slaughter House Five (laughter).
AG: That’s great.
AT: What’s the name of this series?
MG: Well, it’s 50 Days of Book Covers. I was looking for a hashtag on Instagram that hadn’t been used.
MG: Yeah. Instagram is pretty great.
AG: How much did Instagram help determine the direction of the project?
MG: So much. I think, at first I was so scared to do this project because if I put it on Instagram then everyone would see it and if I flaked out on it later, then everybody would know I didn’t finish it.
AT: You made a commitment.
AG: Accountability. Social media accountability.
MA: I like that term.
AT: There is that on Instagram. An accountability.
MG: Yeah because then people start expecting it from you and it was my motivator I guess.
AG: I’ve seen some other projects before where people are going to do 365 days of something, like...
AT: Selfies? (Laughter)
AG: I knew one photographer who would type quotes on a typewriter and place them everywhere and take very artful photos. So did you see things like that because I seem to see them in abundance?
MG: Yeah I think that’s everywhere. I think Instagram is becoming an artist community.
AT: I think so. More so than originally. Originally there was an awful lot of selfies. It’s kind of calmed down though. But there are a lot of very good artists on Instagram.
MG: That’s where I find all the artists that I like now—that I’m inspired by, and illustrators and they’re also super motivating.
MA: What was the response that you got?
MG: It was really great, not what I expected at all. I thought “who would be interested in my project
that I’m just doing for myself?” But then a lot of people had a really great reaction and everybody could relate to it, books that they’re reading now or books from their childhood.
AG: I think that’s a really great point because when I went through this and the pictures on Instagram I was like, “I read this at this specific point in my life.” And that’s where you can relate back to something. Like Harry Potter defined a very specific point in my junior high years. Or Norwegian Wood I read two summers ago. There is something about relating a place to a book that’s really special. And like Where the Wild Thing Are, everyone could relate to that.
AT: And to me I could associate with the authors, like Kurt Vonnegut. I can reference what I’ve read and that I really appreciate.
MG: On Instagram someone wrote about my Esperanza Rising book, “I love this book. I stole it from my fourth grade teacher’s class” (laughter). It was just really great to hear everyone’s experience.
MA: Yeah you can get everyone’s dirty book secrets. You know what struck me was I wondered if you picked up a couple of covers of the same books and thought, “Hmm which one is better?” Like Lolita, with the skirt and the little school girl outfit. I thought, “she probably looked at multiple covers and had to make a decision sometimes.”
AT: On the same book?
MG: That definitely happened with the Great Gatsby, too, the blue one, Celestial Eyes. That’s the painting that’s on the cover. I drew that one a few years ago, so I decided not to go with that one and tried one from the 1920s (gestures to page). That’s how I decided on that one. But with Lolita, I kept finding so many book covers and they’re all so cool and that Lolita cover I had also drawn in high school, but I had drawn it very perfected and I was very meticulous so I kind of wanted to see how my style had changed from high school so that’s why I drew that one again. But yeah it kept happening where later I would find a different book cover and would rather have drawn that one.
AG: Next 50 book covers! That’s fascinating, too. I think what’s coming out of this is the sense of playfulness in your work. Is that something that you consciously put into your style, something that you developed or something you saw in other people’s work?
MG: I think that’s just something that I’ve developed because my number one critique in all of my painting classes is that all of my work is too pretty and I often get that my work is too illustrative and I think that when I do this work it just comes out.
AG: What do you think about that critique?
MG: I used to hate it. I tried to be edgy and paint in all black... in my other painting projects and now I kind of accept it.
AG: So much of it is the color and so much of it is the line work that lends to being “illustrative.” Do you have illustrators specifically that you look up to?
MG: Yes, I’m blanking on their names. I mean these book covers, those are the illustrators that I was really researching. I also love fashion illustrators.
AT: How much license did you take from the current book cover to what you created? What percentage of it is…?
MG: Not a whole lot because I was really trying to pick up on what they were doing so I was trying to learn from them. I was really trying to learn their thought process. But with color and line work and not filling in the entire page, that’s where I took liberties.
AG: When you see this it doesn’t seem like this a learning process for you. When you come to this (project) as a viewer, it’s like “oh, this isn’t her own way of working through something.” It’s a very different experience as a viewer, I think, than what you’re telling us, which definitely turns around expectations.
MG: That gives me something to think about.
AG: It doesn’t appear as a “process work” is what I mean.
MA: You have a legitimate perspective. I don’t think we saw you as trying to do something, we saw you as…wow, that’s pretty cool.
AT: Not just elaborating from what was already done, this was really (your) take on it. And I can see that. Has this led you to think about this not just as art, but as (career) to create book covers?
MG: Yeah. Definitely. This is what I want to do.
AG: Do you plan on doing something with this (project) in particular...would you consider making it into a reproduced series?
MA: Or a gallery show?
MG: Yeah, I would consider that. I just haven’t thought about that. Notebooks are so... this is just a book, so I never really think about tearing out the pages.
AT: I completely understand what you’re saying, you take a book cover and create it with your own mind’s eye, basically and that’s a good process. And it’s a feeling good process. It’s kind of addictive, actually.
MG: It is addictive. I think on day fifty, I was really happy to be done and the next day I thought “which book cover am I gonna have to do today?” And I just didn’t have to and it was a weird feeling.
AT: And Instagram has that element of addiction, too. “I have done this regularly for this long and oh my god I’m not doing it.” It’s kind of like “what a loss this is; I don’t have anything special to do for it.”
MG: Especially when (Instagram) is there, always.
AG: And then you started doing portraits, right? Was that the new assignment, the selfie portrait?
MG: I didn’t want to lose momentum so I just threw in another project...This is day 2. It’s basically twenty days of selfies. People can tag me in their image, I’ll draw it and then I’ll put it on my Etsy shop and if they like it, they can buy it. So it’s like the 20/20 portraits.
MA: I am super impressed.
AG: Here we were talking about how Instagram was being taken over by selfies and this is one degree further.
MA: It’s about narcissism. People love themselves. And then for her to be like, “I’ll draw your selfie.” People are going to be all over that.
AG: And (your subjects) are probably coming to you wondering which selfie (is the best). “Which selfie should I tag you in?”
MG: Yes. I was thinking yesterday that this is a psychological experiment because the way different people react, it’s really interesting.
AG: How did people react in the selfie project?
MG: I was expecting it to drag on and maybe get like one person a day but I basically got flooded. I had to keep reiterating, it’s only twenty. People were just like “are you sure you want to draw me?” And then they would tag me in like six selfies and ask, “what about this one and this one, and this one, and this one...” (laughter). Some other people were just straightforward, like “this is the best selfie I have,” so you can definitely see people’s levels of self confidence.
AG: “Selfie” confidence…It’s kind of a funny selfie critique.
AG: Do you have any projects after this one?
MG: I thought of the portrait one like five days before I finished the book cover one so I was ready to throw that one out there. I like this project idea so I’ll think I’ll keep going.
MATILDA'S #50DAYSOFBOOKCOVERS FULL GALLERY
You can visit Matilda's Instagram here.
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