Interview conducted by Tracey Miller-Zarneke

WIA strives to foster a sense of collaborative energy and “lifting each other up” as women rise together in their individual career paths. WIA is pleased to shine a spotlight on the Wine and Zine Collective, a group of five dynamic women in our industry who embrace and embody all of that positivity in their long-standing friendships and mutual support of one another. The party of five met while studying Animation at university in 2009, and although they have since spread their lives across England and Wales on their individual journeys, they remain interconnected thanks to lifting glasses over internet access, as well as the occasional in-person reunion.

WIA is pleased to share some insight from Bryony Evans (cel-action animator and illustrator), Claire Spiller (illustrator and comic artist), Gemma Roberts (2D animator and illustrator), Jess Leslau (2D animator and illustrator) and Zara Williams (professional “doodler”) and invites you to read more about them on their blog or via their podcast 

Think back to the earliest moment in your life when you realized you loved art and telling stories, and please share it with us.

Jess: I remember the films Anastasia and The Prince of Egypt having a profound impact on me as a child. The aesthetics/music/stories of those films really spoke to me (and still do!) In terms of telling stories myself, however, I remember drawing very naïve little comics from a young age, but I definitely got even more inspired upon seeing The Incredibles, after which I started making my own superhero characters interacting with the films’ established ones in little comics.

Zara: Pretty much from the get-go I’ve been carrying a pencil and pad with me wherever I go.  I had a lot of encouragement from school to develop my art skills, as I struggled quite a bit with other subjects. If I had to pinpoint a part of my life that my love for creating stories started, it must have been from when my childhood friend and I played with dolls (and we played with dolls religiously!) Our stories would range from typical romantic dramas to superheroes to high fantasy, or even a mixture, if we were feeling adventurous. As we got older, that changed into us working on small projects together just for fun, collaborating together writing stories, creating characters and even drawing some comics too. 

Did your parents/family encourage you in your pursuit of art as a career? If so, how? If not, how did you move forward in your pursuit?

Wine and Zine: We all had very creative childhoods where our families could see that we loved art, films, drawing, etc. We were lucky that all of our parents were supportive of our chosen paths; they gave us materials to draw and paint with, access to animated films and galleries, encouragement for our development, and there was no doubt that we could make a living off our art in the future… which eventually led to us all meeting at university to study animation!

Were/are there artists that inspired you or that you looked up to?  If so, how?

Claire: I’ve always been a big bookworm and grew up obsessed with Chris Riddell’s illustrations in the Edge Chronicles books. I also spent a lot of time surrounded by animals and outside exploring nature, something that still informs much of my creative work today. I found that a steady stream of fiction and animated films lit a fire in me to draw and create from a young age. Films like The Dark Crystal delighted me with the depth and dimension of their worlds and how densely packed with lore and life each scene was. If I’m thirsting for inspiration nowadays my go-tos are a mix of concept art, comics and illustration, artists like Brian Froud, Tillie Walden, Heikala and Owen Davey.

Zara: I guess there are three comic artists I take a lot of influence from. Natsuki Takaya’s work on the 90’s manga Fruits Basket. Takaya’s manga layouts are fairly unusual but they were well done and easy to read. The second is Koogi, the creator of the Koreon Webtoon, Killing Stalking, I don’t think I have ever been so disgusted and in awe with a comic before, the way she writes and draws horror and drama is very inspiring to me. And finally, an American indie comic artist, E.K. Weaver, creator of The Less than Epic Adventure of TJ and Amal because, oh boy, she is excellent at creating engaging characters, with very natural sounding dialogue.

Gem: Probably my first inspiration (aside from an obsession with horses!) was the artists that set the style for the Final Fantasy games franchise: Yoshitaka Amano and Tetsuya Nomura. I loved the Japanese fantasy aesthetic and the characters soon became all I would draw. Later I would discover artists like Lois Van Baarle, Chris Sanders, and Mingjue Helen Chen who all helped me combine my Western and Eastern style and influences into something that made sense.

Bry: As a kid I was constantly drawing Cardcaptor Sakura, I loved all the costume changes and the way the magic was animated. The Final Fantasy games were another huge inspiration. The way Tetsuya Nomura designed a character’s look and overall fashion was so my jam in my early teens. Jamie Hewett’s Gorillaz was also a big inspiration with the grungy delinquent characters. Currently there’s too many to name, a lot of comic artists for sure. It’s also lush to actually work and be friends with people that inspire me these days.

Jess: A lot of my early inspiration comes from the world of children’s books. Shirley Hughes’ work still resonates with me today. Her ability to capture the imagination, curiosity and nature of a child in both her storytelling and illustrations in multiple works has always appealed to me. As of the last few years, the work from notable artists such as Claire Keane, Jillian Tamaki, Tove Jansson, Posy Simmonds and Lucy Knisley continue to appeal and inspire me.

Historically speaking, are there any women that you admire for their influence on the animation or other art form? Who might they be, and why?

Gem: It wasn’t really until university when I finally found female directors, animators and storytellers, a lot of the mainstream animators I had seen tended to be men! So I was spellbound when I discovered story artist and director Brenda Chapman and her involvement in films like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and The Prince of Egypt–all hugely formative films for me as a child! I think she had a huge role in opening up the story department to women and sharing women’s stories in mainstream animation. Her first written and directed film Brave was also released just after we graduated and that was such an inspiration in our final year…if we could see it, we could be it!

Jess: Mary Blair – I hadn’t known about Mary Blair until university, though her work was already very well known to me from many of the older Disney films that I spent my childhood watching. I found her inspiring not only for her beautiful illustration style and color work, but also because of the time she worked in. There were not many women in prominent roles in the Disney Company at the time (and with generally ‘the time’ of course!) but she rose solely because of her talent. It was just so brilliantly inspiring and helped me look forward positively to the time I would eventually work in the animation industry.

Bryony: I never used to think about the minds behind animated films; it all seemed so far away with so much of what I watched being made in LA.  However, university is where I learned the name Joanna Quinn, where I realized I’d watched one of her shorts in The Canterbury Tales’ series (which scared the bejeebers outta me as a kid). The more I learned about the films she’d done, the more possible being a director seemed to be and filled me with inspiration. Her films were so different visually and narratively to what I’d experienced before and on top of that she’s a really lovely and funny person who is still so grounded, what more of an inspiration could you ask for?

What, if any, adversity have you faced in your career or life in general, and how did it shape the artist you are today?

Gem: I’ve had a number of animation and storyboarding jobs in my career, but some can prove challenging, especially when working freelance from home or abroad in another country. I’ve been let go from a very demanding job with a horrific schedule before that really damaged my confidence, had crazy long work hours that tipped my work/life balance upside down and worked away from home in a different country in another language which was a very difficult and isolating experience. All of which have knocked me down and I’ve had to build myself back up, hopefully stronger than before. I’m still getting through a long art block to this day, but working together with my Wine and Zine gals, I’m gradually relearning how to draw for myself and to keep the enjoyment of it.

Claire: I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression on and off throughout my life, hang-ups from a sometimes traumatic childhood and issues that continued well into my teens. Drawing and creating was always a means of escape, almost a defense mechanism and way of coping with turbulent feelings that I didn’t necessarily understand at the time. I understand now that creating art and stories was a meditation, almost a type of therapy by exorcising my anxieties and past experiences onto paper. Much of my work now revolves around catharsis and exploring themes of innocence, darkness and self-imposed boundaries told through wildlife and natural imagery. To this end, my final year film Catharsis was an exploration of accepting death as a natural force, made shortly after my father passed away. I continue to find my comfort zone in tackling difficult topics through the comics I make, like losing a child, the invisibility of road-kill and addressing how we mistreat ‘vermin’ animals.

Can you share a reflection on a time when having each other’s support helped you through a challenging scenario?

Zara: After we finished university and returned home, I entered my first (and hopefully only) art block, which lasted for about four years. It felt that I lost a big part of my identity during that time. I lost all motivation to do something I love. I wasn’t myself and I was miserable.  However, bit-by-bit, as we met up with each other, the idea for us to form a creative collaboration grew. I never believed it would actually happen when it was first suggested, but now here I am, part of Wine and Zine and I’m just finishing my second comic this year. Thanks to our group, I have reclaimed my love for drawing again. I feel like the luckiest person for having such wonderful and supportive friends and I’m so grateful!

Wine and Zine: We have this amazing group chat between the five of us where we share our achievements, our problems and funny memes too, of course! There’s been too many times to count where we’ve helped support each other, mainly through a rough day at work, a drawing that’s not quite right, or personal troubles where we just need a little advice or a digital hug and motivational gifs to feel better.

What advice do you have for young people looking at animation or related arts as their career field?

Gem: As artists, we tend to play down our strengths, but I think it’s really important to have some confidence and perseverance with your work. Timing is everything in this industry and sadly rejection will happen, but it’s not a reflection of you, it just means a better path is right around the corner. A good dose of humility helps too, everyone has done amazing things and we work with our heroes, but they’re people too and they want to be your friend and co-worker, not an idol! We are a very welcoming and kind group and we really want for you to succeed, keep trying and one day it will happen for you!

Claire: I work in a college and am sometimes lucky enough to sit, draw and chat with young art students. I feel like there’s often a lot of frustration when you’re younger that you aren’t improving fast enough. Students will sometimes grow exasperated that they aren’t at my level, and I have to remind them that I’ve had about 14 years more experience of drawing than they have and that I often still feel inadequate. Practice takes time and is unavoidable if you want to improve. But you WILL improve. Just like lifting weights every day makes you stronger, drawing every day feeds your artistic ability without fail. It’s gradual and often hard to see, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening – so persevere. Also, I feel like there’s a lot of pressure from social media for sketchbooks to be filled with perfect, finished pieces of art. That’s not how you use a sketchbook. It shouldn’t be precious, it should be a place for your creativity to explode and sometimes that ain’t pretty. Fill it with doodles, tests and mistakes. And forget about perfectionism. There’s a saying in art – finished is better than perfect.

Jess: Be kind, be attentive, be humble. When you first start in the industry it can be overwhelming, as it takes a bit of time to get relatively settled. The best thing I’ve found is that kindness goes a long way. Don’t rush, either. There can be a lot of perceived pressure on where you are and what role you get going into different jobs, but with animation, we are lucky that we are always going to be working on very different projects every year! So appreciating that has helped ground me and makes me enjoy the many different styles, teams and projects I get to work on.

How do you keep your decade-long, geographically diverse friendships fresh?

Zara: I do think having a shared interest DOES help a lot, since we all met at the same University on the same course and we all love 2D animation! Our friend group was even nicknamed the “Disney Girls”! Although we each have our individual quirks to keep things interesting.

Gem: Every time we meet up, it’s like no time has passed at all, we just pick up where we left off! We have very strong bonds with each other individually as well as together as a group. And of course posting memes in our messenger chat keeps us going! We also host our own podcast where we tackle a different subject every month between a few of us and sometimes with comic/animation industry guests, too!

Bry: Knowing we got each others backs is pretty much the core of any long friendship; if we are having a shitty time we can talk to each other no problem, even if it’s just a message on a screen.

Claire: Collaboration has really helped. With Wine and Zine, we have shared goals, can motivate each other and constantly have new projects where we can work in different combinations of teams to compliment each other’s skills. We’re constantly growing together, it’s a beautiful thing. We were friends before WaZ, but now it feels like we’re a team, like some kick-ass girl gang, and that gives you so much more confidence as a creative AND as a human being.

Jess: There was something special that happened for all of us to meet when we did at uni and to spend those three years together. At the core of the friendship I think is the bond from our shared interests and individual creativity. It’s always encouraging and inspiring, and we’re all good at constructively giving feedback on each other’s work when prompted. It’s always so great to see what everyone is doing artistically, so having Wine and Zine I think helps us all keep motivated with our own projects as well as collaborating together, too. It’s always such a fun time together when we do meet up; it really is as if no time has passed at all, let alone 10 years!

Any other thoughts or advice you wish to share with our membership?

Bry: Know what drives you. For me it’s people, it took me so long to make any personal work after uni, I realized I work best in a group, even if it’s a solo project, bouncing off people’s advice and ideas is what gives me the drive to get creating.

Gem: Enjoy the moment – don’t linger on the past or worry about the next thing, if you’ve got great stuff happening now, then let yourself enjoy it!

Jess: Chocolate! Oh, and if you have a good bunch of friends around you, you can make it through anything!

Claire: Don’t be afraid to take breaks. Sometimes it helps to sit back, take a breath and come back to work with fresh eyes. Also, improve your organization, self-discipline and time management skills. Seriously, you’ll thank me later.

Zara:  Always carry a sketchpad wherever you go. You never know what you’ll see and the ideas you may come up with. 

WIA is appreciative of the time, effort and energy the Wine and Zine Collective shared with our membership here and raises a virtual glass to toast their continue happiness, friendships and successes.