The Madison-based artist discusses how her work has changed, and the process of making a living from it. (Above: Self-portrait by T.L. Luke.)
The past 13 months or so have forced Madison-based artist T.L. Luke to stay flexible. In an effort to actually make a living from her art, Luke has taken on commission work, created merch (including pins, prints, and tote bags) to sell at markets and online, and developed a frank, texture-thatched style of illustration, all while striving to make time for the kind of work she’d want to create regardless of whether someone wants to buy it. Luke studied oil painting at UW-Whitewater and worked for a couple of years as an exhibitions manager at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, but lately she’s managed to find a support structure that largely exists outside of the conventional fine-art world.
Luke’s work has become more and more of a common sight around Madison. To name a couple of recent examples, she created the art for a new set of bookmarks for downtown bookstore A Room of One’s Own, and she successfully submitted her illustration “Space Girl” to the Downtown Doors art project. Luke’s stand-alone illustrations, like “Planted” and “The Ghost Knows,” tend to show strong, often solitary figures (and often their animal buddies) communing with worlds both natural and fantastical, and Luke often fills the drawings with a wealth of intricate tactile detail. Luke has also used the format of comics to explore real-life subjects and to tell the stories of a failson superhero, Flyboy. Throughout all this work, Luke often conveys a playful and optimistic spirit, but often with a bit of menace around the edges. “There has to be some darkness when you’re adventuring,” she says. “That’s kind of the the risk of it.”
In July alone, Luke will be showing and selling at Art Fair on the Square and showing a yet-to-be-announced selection of works at Communication’s one-year anniversary celebration. Luke sat down earlier this week to talk about becoming a full-time artist and how she balances the demands of creativity and commerce.
Tone Madison: You made a comic last year about trying to go full-time as an artist, and how that experience is a mixed bag. How has that gone for you since?
T.L. Luke: This was June 8, 2018, and I had just quit my full-time job working for the Department of Revenue, so I went from nice full-time benefits and state health care and all the yummy stuff why people work there, because they’re taken care of. I had just quit to be, like, “You know what, I miss being an artist.” I had never done it full-time before, but working for the state allowed me to take three months off to try to pursue this. I had no idea what direction I wanted to go. I have my degree in oil painting and I didn’t know if I wanted to do that full-time. I used to work for fine artists as an artist assistant and stuff and I thought, “that sounds like such a pain-in-the-ass career.” I just decided I was going to illustration, stuff that I really love and really admire in other people, and I kind of started figuring it out, but by August I started working at a café again. I was learning what style I wanted to do and started making just weird, dark, whimsical shit that I really loved, and then people started buying it. It blew up very quickly. Technically, I started T.L. Luke Art in probably September, officially, and it hasn’t even been a year. I applied to a bunch of markets thinking I’d get into maybe a quarter of them and I got into all but one of them, including Art Fair On The Square, and now I have a Downtown Door mural. It got pretty big pretty quickly.
Tone Madison: So while making this career change you also had to totally re-think what kind of art you wanted to actually make and what kind of an artist you wanted to be.
T.L. Luke: Right, and my paintings are nothing like my illustrations. They’re super-colorful, very realistic, naturalistic, I guess I’ll say. The colors are kind of goofy, but yeah.
Tone Madison: At the same time, your paintings have these elements of dialogue and narrative that obviously points toward the comics you’re making now.
T.L. Luke: I kind of gently took a break from making comics. There’s a couple months’ gap now. I’d say they’re still very narrative illustrations, because each one, I do it as if it’s this much larger scene and we’re just seeing one little section of the narrative.
Tone Madison: You make a lot of work that’s hyper-textured, almost like a woodcut would be.
T.L. Luke: I’m definitely inspired by woodcuts and linocuts.
Tone Madison: But you’re actually drawing in pencil?
T.L. Luke: It’s actually all digital. The technique is still very traditional in that I am still making every single mark, but it’s using an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, and just using a “dry ink brush” [setting] on there.
Tone Madison: It’s very convincingly paper-y and scratchy. I just didn’t realize people made stuff this way with digital drawing tools.
T.L. Luke: I have a lot of feelings about it. I had somebody come up at one of my markets and go, “Oh, is this like scratchboard or something?” And I was like, “Oh, it’s all digital,” and the look on her face was like “Oh, cheater.” Like, excuse me? Don’t you walk away, come back here and we’ll talk about that. She was like, “Oh, I’m a graphic designer and I’m just teasing you.” OK, but it’s not like I’m cutting and pasting a mark over and over again. It still takes 10 to 20 hours for me to do this, but I’m not using traditional materials anymore. I’m not worried about that kind of waste. It’s this very streamlined version now. I have traditional art experience, and it’s so nice to not have the risk of messing up and having to do it again, then scan it, then edit it to make sure that it’s clean so that I can make more prints of it.
Tone Madison: Is part of it just that you’re running a business and don’t want to buy a shit-ton of art supplies?
T.L. Luke: Yeah. It’s insane. Again, I still have a bunch of leftover stuff and go, “I need to get back to sketchbook stuff or whatever,” but it’s been all digital for the last year.
Tone Madison: How did you come up with your comics character Flyboy? In the Flyboy comics you have on your website, he’s this character who is just tragically misguided.
T.L. Luke: Flyboy is the brainchild of me and my partner Andrew. He’s one of the funniest people that I’ve ever met and is constantly thinking of bits. Just like, “Hey babe, guess what—I thought of a joke.” One day we were like, “What if there was this boy who could fly, but he was the only one in the whole universe who had this superpower, but he’s also a piece of shit? What if he had no idea what he was doing, but he really wanted to?” Our voice for him is just [speaks in a high nasally voice] “Aww geez, it’s me, Flyboy!” And it’s awkward and like “I know what I’m doing!” but then just failing completely and tragically, in a really disgusting kind of way, each time. There were so many bits on the table for Flyboy that I was just like, “Oh, I don’t think we can do that one. I think that would really offend people.” He was writing it, I was co-writing it gently…these are just a couple of the terrible adventures of Flyboy. I would love to get back to these…He’s also a really charming character, because he’s trying to do good. Is that enough? Clearly, he should have stayed home and things would be better.
Tone Madison: It made me think of most of the people running for president right now. Just people who need to insert themselves into a situation.
T.L. Luke: And it’s like, do you? For sure, there’s a few Flyboys [in the race].
Tone Madison: Do you get a lot of opportunities to develop characters and narratives in your work?
T.L. Luke: Recently, I’ve been struggling. I definitely want to get back to comics. I think that’s the end goal, is to have a published comic. I’m writing something right now that I’m really excited about. When I started T.L. Luke art, I was like, “OK, I am just starting. I have no base here. I am starting from the ground.” I had a five-year goal of, “eventually I’ll maybe get into Art Fair On The Square…I’d be happy to get full-time, eventually. Maybe in a year I’ll be able to go full-time.” And that happened really quickly. I suddenly had a fuckload of commissions that I was not expecting…and then getting into almost all [the markets I applied to] was just like, “OK, that’s not what I was expecting.” All of a sudden it became like—I don’t want to say “all these successes,” because I still have extreme impostor syndrome—but I’ve been coming to terms with the struggle of how I balance the original stuff I want to be doing with the stuff that’s bringing in income. Really even this week, like [Monday], I was like, “Oh man, I’m being really hard on myself right now and I think it might be fine if I finish up the commissions I have on the table and not accept any more until August or September.” You know, I need to start doing my own stuff again, and that includes doing my own stuff again instead of just illustrations that I can turn into prints that I can sell, and getting out of that mindset.
Tone Madison: When you’re the only person who really decides how you spend your time, it’s really hard and kind of terrifying!
T.L. Luke: It’s so validating hearing that from other small business owners or creatives who are doing the thing full-time. I’m not the only one having, like, daily panic attacks. I think it’s getting easier. But in my mind I was like, “Oh, in a perfect world, this will happen so gradually that I will be learning in time with the workload.” So it would be, “Oh, cool, I have now gotten comfortable with this workload, and it will be so smooth and easy and clean,” and it’s like, oh, wait. [Laughs] I’m not complaining either, because I’m very excited about where this is going.
Tone Madison: A Room of One’s Own recently rolled out a whole new set of four bookmarks that you illustrated. I’ve still got a bunch of the old ones that say “Bike, eat, read,” or something like that. But I was wondering what went into the new bookmarks, and how they try to reflect where the store sees itself going. Did you have a lot of conversations with the folks at the store about what kinds of people and situations they wanted you to portray?
T.L. Luke: I’ve been going to room since I moved to Madison in 2013. Every single one of my books on my bookshelf has one of those old bookmarks. But yeah, it’s all white, middle-aged kind of people, or one kind of demographic…when I was talking with [co-owners Gretchen Treu and Wes Lukes] they told me a couple of things. I think I still have the notes from it. It was just like, “Can we have queer, people of color, friends, books, locals,” just little prompts. I also think they wanted there to be a bunch of sci-fi, since that’s such a huge thing there now.
I went home and asked, “What would I want to see?” A queer black girl in a park with her bike—that’s super Madison. And what about if we’re seeing what they’re reading? That could be a super fun visual. What about this black girl that wants to see herself in a book? How do we visualize when we’re reading? Sometimes I picture myself as the main character, or we can picture whatever we want. It’s our minds. So making her, like, the knight in a fantasy story was like, hell yeah. And the guy in a wheelchair sitting in his penthouse or whatever in front of the Capitol.
Tone Madison: This dude and his cat are super sweet.
T.L. Luke: And I didn’t want it to be, like, “Look! It’s a guy in his wheelchair!” No, it’s just like a guy, he’s just enjoying a book…or at the Memorial Union, a girl reading a comic book, [because] they have an amazing comic-book section [at Room]. And then the last one, the mother and her child sitting in bed, I wanted to do a gentle homage to Gretchen and their family. That’s a very big family with three mothers and they have two kids now, so [there’s the kid’s drawings of “mamas”] in the background. I had sent that to them and originally it was just like a little white family, and the only edit they had me do was, “Can we make it a Latinx family?” And it was like, “Oh definitely, let’s move in that direction.” And right before I announced it publicly, that’s when they announced the #BookstoresAgainstBorders campaign.
I’m glad that they turned out good and seem to be getting received nicely by the public. It’s definitely nerve-wracking, because I’m replacing something that people have seen for years and years. I think those [older] bookmarks came out in the ’70s or ’80s or something.
Tone Madison: When you sell your work at markets, what are people mostly buying? What’s your bread and butter these days?
T.L. Luke: I feel like I am very lucky because I actually having been getting a lot of sales of my original illustrations—I mean all my stuff is original. “New Moon Wanderers,” I feel like is the least weird of my illustrations, and a lot of people have come up and said, “This one makes me feel so comfortable, and I want to be there.” I guess in all my illustrations, I like to include at least one or two animals in there, beasts, as I like to call them, that are just super bigger than life-size. In this one, it’s a very oversized bear. They’re just camping in the middle of nowhere. A lot of people have bought that one, and I think it’s because it’s one of the least weird ones. But there’s “R.I.P. Furry,” it’s this black cat. I got a commission for a black cat, and I liked it so much that I re-bought the illustration back from the person who commissioned it and said, “Hey, is it OK if I just sell these because I love it so much?” That’s been my biggest seller. I think a lot of people just go by and say, “That looks like my black cat!” or just, “I love black cats!” If it’s somebody that’s walking by that’s a dad or someone I don’t usually see in my typical audience, they’ll usually pick up that black cat one. It’s my one very relatable thing.
Tone Madison: In a lot of your drawings, there’s a feeling that the people you’re portraying are kind of overwhelmed or living in cluttered environments, and yet there’s also this optimism in the face of that.
T.L. Luke: Yeah. The thing I realized I kept going back to, and I think I know why…I’ve been doing a lot of lone girls in kind of precarious or cluttered or sometimes dangerous-seeming situations, where it’s like, “Why are you alone with this oversized beast?” or “what’s happening in this scene, why are you always alone?” I grew up as an only child, in a forest, in the middle of nowhere. It was just my mom and me.
Tone Madison: In Wisconsin or somewhere else?
T.L. Luke: In Palmyra. It’s an hour southeast of here, next to Whitewater, in the Kettle Moraine Forest. I grew up just playing alone out in really weird locations. Looking back, I go, “How did I not die falling out of trees, alone?” When I was younger, I didn’t have somebody to kind of check my reality. I didn’t have a sibling to go, “We’re playing make-believe right now.” It was a lot of, “I’m playing make-believe right now, and who knows? Am I imagining things?” It was full creativity, imagining little worlds for myself. I kind of am fascinated with the idea of adult creativity…and remembering what I was doing when I was a kid. Where was I most creative in my life? It was alone, in the middle of nowhere.