Monday, October 26, 2015

Getting to Know: Sophie McMahan of You Were Swell

Few artists can so successfully find a niche or a running theme in their work without giving into old tropes.  Sophie McMahan's twisted brand of Americana stands out among the crowded market for retro inspired arts and crafts, with her unique Etsy shop --You Were Swell -- highlighting her kitschy but dark artwork.  I got the chance to talk to her about her inspirations, the process of creating a new piece, and the meaning behind her work.

How old are you and where is your shop based out of?

I’m 28 years old and I’m located in Urbana, IL.  My shop is online only, so I do everything from home.

Was there a specific moment or cultural touchstone in your life that first brought out your creative side?

Yes!  I have always been a huge art and pop-culture lover.  But it was during the summer before my last year of college that I had a total breakthrough.  My aunt had given me a copy of Lynda Barry’s “Naked Ladies, Naked Ladies, Naked Ladies” - which is a sad, tender, and unusual coming of age comic/graphic novel.  It was unlike any other comic books or graphic novels I had ever seen.  I was so drawn to the format and type of story and artwork.  It made me realize that I could sort of do whatever I wanted in making comics and art - I didn’t have to follow a certain formula I once assumed.  That book really piqued my interest in alternative comics, and that same summer I bought Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel called “Caricature”.   That book and his artwork in general made it even more clear that this was what I wanted to do too - create weird art and comics.

What inspired you to share your artwork with others and to open a shop?

I’ve always wanted to create products with my artwork on them, and the internet has been an absolutely incredible tool to get my artwork and products out there.  
I’ve recently been able to quit my day job and focus fully on my art and my own business.  It’s been wonderful so far.

Do you have a specific process for new pieces or designs, and once the idea is formed, are they usually produced as drawings, paintings, or digitally illustrations?

I take a lot of inspiration from old b-movies, vintage magazines, pop culture, and vixens from the past.  I will usually use reference photos  from my inspirations when creating my pieces.  All of work are drawings.  I start off penciling in my ideas.  Then I will ink it - I use micron pens.  And then I color the drawings using gouache and acrylic gouache.  I hope one day to learn how to do coloring digitally - but for now it’s all by hand.

Did it take a lot of experimentation to find what worked best for your shop, for example, silk screening vs screen-printing?

It has taken me a while and quite a bit of research to find the best ways to produce my products.  I’ve been working up to where I am now for years and years.  Most of my products I have made by professionals.  My shirts and bags are printed by an amazing local screen printing business - Weiskamp.  
I do still like to hand make some products because it’s so much fun!  I make magnets using shrinky-dinks. I love it because I have a lot of freedom and little pressure in the process.  When I make a t-shirt design - I have to make sure it’s perfect and well thought out, because I know I will be having  hundreds of them printed.  But with the magnets, there is no pressure - I can make whatever I want.

The themes of your artwork, as stated on your website, revolve around the 1950s/60s and the disparity of the American dream and the way life was portrayed in ads.  I noticed also that there are a lot of perversions of either ideal beauty or the perfect woman, like in the Bizarro Beauty Pageant, the Bardot Monster series, or Dreamy, which superimposes a beautiful woman over images of pills.  

How do you think your work comments on or reflects your own views of femininity or beauty in our society?

For sure.  I really love this question!  I have spent my entire life haunted by beauty ideals.  It absolutely consumed me when I was younger.  Sadly from the ages of 14-20ish it’s almost all I thought about - trying to live up to what is considered beautiful.  I have never felt good enough, pretty enough, thin enough etc and it’s been so damaging.  My art has been a way to break out of that horrible mindset and focus on other, more important things.

I have a funny relationship with beauty - I am still so drawn to it, I love all of the old glamazons from the past - the glorious hair and makeup, it inspires my work a lot.  But I also hate it at the same time.  I hate that someone’s worth is partially based on what they look like.  I think that’s incredibly toxic and horrifying, but in this society it’s sadly true.  So in my work, I do draw beautiful ladies, but I often will pervert them somehow - distort them.  

Your work looks very bright and fun and weird.  Were you ever concerned about people not “getting it” when they first saw your artwork or products?

Thank you!  Yeah, my work is definitely on the low-brow side of the art world - I love all things spooky, kitchsy, retro, and tacky.  At first I did worry about what people would think of me and my art, since it is strange - and I still do worry sometimes.  I’ve gotten better about that though as time has passed.  And I appreciate the people that enjoy my work even more!

You’ve experimented with a lot of cool retro characters, from Vampira to the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Are there any other cultural icons you want to play around with in your art?

Yes!  I love including cultural references in my work.  As I mentioned before, I am super inspired by pop culture.  I’m actually currently working on a romantic piece with Michael Myers.  Halloween is one of my all time favorite movies.  I’m going to make sure to finish the drawing by this Halloween.

Where do you want to take your art next, in terms of both content or exhibitions?  Do you have any new product designs in the works?

I want to keep on improving my ideas and my artwork.  I’ve recently been coming out with a lot of new products - enamel pins and patches most notably.  I want to come out with more designs very soon.  I’m also hoping to do more art fairs like Renegade Craft fair and others.  I’m really looking forward to what this year has to bring!

You can find more from Sophie at her Etsy shop, You Were Swell,
at her website,, or on Instagram @youwereswell

All art/products featured above are copyrighted by Sophie McMahan

1 comment:

  1. I let out a bit cheer when she said that she loves all things spooky, kistchy, tacky, and retro (which shines through awesomely in her work), as I'm quite the fan of such categories myself, too.

    Thank you both very much for a terrific interview!
    ♥ Jessica


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