45: Joana Avillez

photos by Edith Young

Joana Avillez talks loving life as a nine-year-old, people-watching, bouncing back from burnout, children's books, embracing her sense of humor, and the joys of working in a room of one's own.

Joana Avillez is an illustrator from and still living and working in New York. She grew up in a fish market, but escaped to attend The Rhode Island School of Design, and returned to NYC to study illustration at The School of Visual Arts. Most recently, she published the book D C-T!, an illustrated book about New York City in the ingenious style of William Steig's classic CDB!, alongside writer Molly Young.

Olivia Aylmer is a New York-based writer and editor. Starting September 24, she can be found at the Wing, where she'll be programming stellar events across their three (and counting!) New York City spaces. She is also the co-founder and editorial director of Constellation, a digital platform launched in March 2017 to highlight women and non-binary creatives in cities across the globe.  In past lives, she worked in book publishing, served as the editorial and production intern at (the late) 29th Street Publishing, and co-hosted The Pulled Thread, a fashion history podcast that unraveled the human stories behind clothes.

Edith Young is a photographer, designer, and writer working in New York City. She graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2016, and currently serves as Man Repeller’s photographer and photo editor.

This interview was conducted by Olivia Aylmer in Joana Avillez’s Tribeca loft, which formerly belonged to her father. Edith Young photographed her there post-conversation, on July 15, 2018.

OLIVIA: Let’s start at the very beginning. Tell me about your experience of girlhood.


JOANA: Well, I was thinking recently how much I loved being nine. That was my favorite age. I remember thinking,Oh, this is the best.” And I think it is. It’s the last time it felt like there wasn’t any delineation between being a girl and a boy. At 10, things really changed. That’s when boys began asking girls out on dates to the local parlor, My Little Pizzeria. I remember feeling a sort of resentful excitement.  

My dad was my best friend. Everything that I dreamed up or imagined, he would build it or draw it or make it, for me and with me. I did “girly” things, insomuch as I played with dolls. But it was more of a childhood, I think, than a “girlhood.”


OLIVIA: I like that. Nine really is such a magical, in-between space. And your body is not yet what it will be…


JOANA: You’re boob-less…


[Both laugh]


JOANA: Short hair, overalls. And I liked being funny, and I liked my friends. But I think I was lucky. I’m sure other kids have a different feeling about being nine or that age, but I felt very free and good.


OLIVIA: What places were important to you then?


JOANA: I grew up in the fish market, in Lower Manhattan. It was sort of a weird place to grow up because it was totally abandoned. It smelled terrible. There were only a few other families and some lone artists who lived down there. Now it seems sort of wild that until recently there was a place in Manhattan that was so forgotten and empty and lawless. When I was little, I thought it was a weird place to live. Now I see why my parents liked it. It was empty and open and you could have a large space for very little rent.

One incredible thing about the neighborhood—actually, it was the main thing for me—was that, as if by magic, my two best friends lived on the same street. We were born July, August, September. (I’m August!) Until the girl born in July had two little brothers, we were all only-children and we all lived on this street in this abandoned, smelly neighborhood. 

childhood drawing by Joana

OLIVIA: I’ve heard you say in past interviews that you think that being a lifelong New Yorker isn’t necessarily a good thing, in the sense that in can pigeonhole you. Your work and identity is so much more than where you grew up.


JOANA: I think I’m very lucky, because everyone that I grew up with—all of my friends and their parents, who are my friends—are here. I get to always be in the same world as my childhood, expanded. But I think New York can give someone an extremely myopic and distorted view of the world. It’s like that episode of Sex and the City where Carrie goes on a date with a guy who hasn’t left Manhattan in 12 years, and this carnival music starts playing. Someone recently said to me, because I was thinking about [what it would be like] if I were living somewhere else: "But you’re so New York!" I definitely flinch at that a little bit. But I think that’s just because I never really thought too much about it. Which might be the problem!


OLIVIA: And your work is the opposite of myopic! It’s filled with this wide-eyed wonder, not in a naïve sense, but there’s a reverence for the characters of the city, and their idiosyncrasies, that you find walking down any block. Your approach reminds me of that Grace Coddington scene from The September Issue, where she’s driving through Paris, and she says the photographer Norman Parkinson taught her you should never to fall asleep in a car, to keep watching, because you never know what you’ll miss out the window, what might inspire you. There’s a real sense of love for New York, for the stories piled on top of each other here. How did you hone that sensibility?


JOANA: I’ve enjoyed people watching since I was in a stroller. It is my passion wherever I go, not only in New York, but it’s so particular here. People aren’t driving places. They’re showing their full selves on the sidewalk. There’s no hiding. I’ve always loved that. It can also speak to the bad parts of New York—superficiality, caring only about aesthetics and surface value. But I loved people who stood out.

OLIVIA: Do you recall a lightbulb moment, or a series of lightbulb moments, when the impulse to make something out of that curiosity occurred? Especially because you work with both words and images. I’m curious when that started.


JOANA: I feel like what I get to do now is what I liked to do when I was nine. When I was a kid, I made a drawing about the women I would see going to work on Wall Street, which was near the Seaport, about how they wore white sneakers on the subway and changed into heels at work. So I made this piece about “Wall Street women’s style.” Those huge white sneakers of the ‘90s.


OLIVIA: The original "ugly sneaker."


JOANA: Ha! Yes. So I would make little fake newspapers, which had writing and drawing. I do think of drawing as [a form of] writing, but trying to say the things I can’t with words. With writing, I can say things I couldn’t get out with drawing...and the best things I think I make use both. I don’t necessarily think my drawing alone is its best and vise-versa. I need both [mediums] to convey an expression that, if put into words, you couldn’t really get it. They need each other.


OLIVIA: Do you ever worry about becoming pigeonholed as an illustrator? How do you navigate building up a recognizable, distinct aesthetic, while also letting yourself feel free to explore new directions and ideas?


JOANA: Sometimes I’ll get a dream assignment for a magazine that’s exciting, where I’m working for people I admire who are editing and making it, and those are often the best place to test out new ideas and play around. And hopefully, with client work and the jobs one does to (hopefully) be paid well, they see what you did in those dreamy, ideal assignments, and they’ll hire you to do something like that. I like working in both. There is a basic commercial aspect to [illustration]. I think it’s really different than the art world. Sometimes people are like, "Oh, this is Joana, she’s an artist." And I’m like, "No, I’m an illustrator!" And they say, "But you’re also an artist." But I really love the things that make an illustrator an illustrator. It speaks so much more to who I am. My mom’s an artist, and she’ll sometimes get miffed when I delineate the difference, but there’s a wonderful difference. Whatever I make, it will probably be recycled next week. It’s hopefully printed a million times, but then either saved on a fridge or lining a hamster cage. It’s not occupying storage. It doesn’t require expensive materials to make. I have a really nice scanner I bought five years ago and besides having some technological needs, I could buy all of my supplies in the kids art section or even the deli if I needed to. There’s no need to source material from inside a mountain in Scandinavia. I love how simple it is.

OLIVIA: And speaking of dream projects, what was it like to work on D C-T! with Molly Young?


[EDITOR’S NOTE: D C-T, published by Penguin Press in May, is Joana and Molly’s illustrated book—part-humor, part-alphabet soup, part-love letter to New York—created in the style of William Steig’s classic, CDB!]


JOANA: It was wonderful to make a book. Sometime with illustration, you look back and say, "Oh I did, like, 400 jobs in x amount of time." But it’s nice to have one thing that isn’t recycled and can collect dust! It’s nice to work on something that you can really hold in the end.


OLIVIA: What inspired the book?


JOANA: Molly and I had known each other. We went to adjacent colleges and we shared an ex-boyfriend, so we knew each other through this person we both dated. We were aware of each other, and had always been sort of fascinated by the other from a distance. It was really Molly who said we should make a book together. The genesis was, I would be pictures, she would be words. We wanted to do something that kept that in some sort of balance. I wasn’t illustrating her story—we used each other. I feel like Molly and I each have an office or a very large apartment in each other’s brains. [Laughs] We are able to anticipate what the other one is thinking. Well, no—she has such genius ideas, I couldn’t anticipate them. But I can come up with drawings I know will help her think of something good.


OLIVIA: It’s so nice, and so rare, to connect with a collaborator in such a mutual way.


JOANA: There’s nothing I feel I could say where I’d embarrass myself and vise-versa. But it’s also not like one of my really close friendships, where if we were to work together, we might be too entangled.

Joana and Molly

OLIVIA: So now that you’re in this phase of renewal, what projects are on the horizon? Is there something you’d really like to do that you haven’t yet?


JOANA: I have two ideas for children’s books—one’s further along. Both ideas are quite different. One is a little bit more speaking to the childlike me that liked looking at people. And the other is a little more cerebral. It’s about being a kid in the fish market. I’ve also been trying to make a book that has more writing in it, with drawings accompanying it. Sort of humor essays, but not slapstick. I’m in that funny zone where you’re walking up to your ideas, approaching them, and seeing how far that idea will take you.


OLIVIA: It’s exciting that you want to work in the children’s book space. I feel like D C-T appeals to both children, who can appreciate it visually, and adults, who can pick up on the layers and the humor of it. I wonder if you’re a fan of Maira Kalman’s work? Her work also lives in that intersection so beautifully.


JOANA: Yes, definitely. I’m always looking at children’s books. The plumber was over a couple months ago to fix something and he asked me how many kids I have, and I was like, "Ha, I don’t have any yet." Because he was looking at my bookshelves, which are filled with colorful children’s books. I think they’re extremely important. With Maira’s books—I’m kind of shocked by how they’re not even talking down to me as an adult. 


OLIVIA: She’s so present, but the work is so timeless and out of time. She has this day-to-day awareness of her surroundings, even as she’s so aware of and connected to her past and her family history.


JOANA: The language in them is so lyrical. It’s been guiding me as I write, and thinking, “Oh, I shouldn’t use that word, it’s too complicated,” or “That wordplay is too sophisticated.” You don’t want to speak down to kids, but you don’t want it to seem too preposterous or over their heads.


OLIVIA: And I love her approach to subjects like cake or girls standing on lawns—seemingly light fare. There’s so much care and seriousness she brings to them. It’s about so much more than cake. It’s about the context in which the cake was served, and who made it, and who was there in the room, and that’s just a gateway to memory. It’s a Proustian madeleine on a much larger scale.

I prefer style over fashion. I like when people have a wearable biography; an irreverence.

OLIVIA: I’m thinking of your illustrations that I’ve loved the most, particularly your portrayals of women, and the attention you pay to how they put themselves together. When you walk around today, what sorts of people catch your eye? What details stick?


JOANA: I prefer style over fashion. I like when people have a wearable biography; an irreverence. I can tell they’re not too concerned with what other people think, but they’re also maybe doing it to get a rise out of people. And I also like people who are a little oblivious of some of the things they’re doing, in a kind way. Even noticing how time affects style, how people dress. Like, my mom thinks that bell bottoms are the most flattering pant shape. Obviously she had a great time wearing them in the ‘70s. That’s her holdover. Until my grandmother was 95, she wore the same 1940s bob, and would try to get me to wear it! That was her ideal. My dad is Portuguese, and at one of my cousin’s weddings, like five years ago, my mom and I went to the hairdresser with my aunts, and afterwards, my mom’s hair looked like she had a 1950s bouffant. The salon just never updated their blowout.  But really there’s nothing more pleasurable to me than seeing someone exuberantly dressed; an individual. Which is why Brighton Beach is so fantastic.


OLIVIA: Switching gears a bit, would you be able to identify anything you’ve changed your mind about in terms of your lived conception of womanhood? How does it feel in practice?


JOANA: In my 20s I found out that women maybe weren’t supposed to be funny? Or that women weren’t funny? Men didn’t like women who were funny? I’d never even heard about that. Not that I’m hysterical, but I didn’t think that “being funny” had anything to do with gender. I remember in second grade I lent a VHS of One Hundred and One Dalmatians to this boy, Sam Ross, in my class, and his mom returned the tape to my dad, who told me, “Sam said to his Mom you’re the funniest girl in the class.” That’s a really important memory. I felt really proud. So chuffed. I remember thinking, “This is so great,” and sort of glowing. And then much later I learned that could apparently be really intimidating to men. I was really doubled over!


OLIVIA: No pun...


[Both laugh]


JOANA: I had been so clueless—it was like a knife to my heart. How depressing, how tragic. Obviously you learn later that whoever you’re interested in, should [appreciate] it. The thing is to be yourself. I’ll show you this letter my dad wrote to me at camp that tells me that.

letter from Joana's father, Martim Avillez

OLIVIA: It goes without saying that the world is currently in a weird, dark place. How do you maintain the sense of humor and optimism and unabashed fun that permeates your work, when the mood every day is so anxious and unsettled? Has your work become a sort of emotional balm as you make it?


JOANA: After the election, it was a real wake up call to how asleep we had been to [the reality of] many things, or I certainly had been. I felt like, “Oh god, I can’t do illustration. This is so frivolous. How can I be doing something so ineffectual and not tangibly related to making [a difference]?” But then you realize there is a point to it. In the same way I might watch garbage TV, because it’s very relaxing. There is a point to making a weird drawing of a woman with a nutty hat, because it gives some respite, some pleasure. Of course those are the things that will be the first to go—art and individualism. Maybe that’s the most important thing to peoples’ survivals. To be a voice is not extraneous by any means.


OLIVA: How do you consume the news, say, on a Monday morning?


JOANA: I usually listen to Democracy Now! first thing in the morning. Amy Goodman gets you with that sort of boppy, Seinfeld intro music, and then you hear this unfolding cacophony of horrors. I’m always reading the news. But [as a counterbalance], I also listen to things like the podcast Who? Weekly, with Bobby Finger and Lindsey Weber. My friend Isabel said this so well: she said that podcast is so great, because it’s so irrelevant. The stakes are…there are none. To hear about Marielle Franco being murdered in Brazil, it’s extremely upsetting and you feel quite removed and powerless. And then to listen to something about Bebe Rexha, something that has no effect on anybody, it’s calming.


OLIVIA: Do you often work at home?


JOANA: Yeah, I work at home, which I prefer because I’m a social being. I see people enough and I get very distracted when I’m around people. Not in that I need to talk to them all the time, but I’m aware that they’re there, and that distracts me. I need my brain to expand to the perimeters of the apartment. If someone else was here working, I’d be aware of the thought bubbles above their head.

OLIVIA: And finally: What do you believe that women, both in the arts and beyond, need or can do for each other presently?

JOANA: That is a tough question for me, as I feel slightly overwhelmed with the commodification of womanhood at the moment. Okay, for example, the resurgence of The Handmaid’s Tale as a TV show. Prophetic and sage Margaret Atwood aside, I do not necessarily think it is a boon for women. It’s a Hulu-sanctioned scare-tactic to show what could happen if you don’t enthusiastically don a pink crocheted “pussy hat”! That’s how I tend to feel about it. Of course there is some massive overcorrecting that’s being done, a seismic re-aggregation! That is good.  

I think about three years ago, something happened where I noticed a majority of my illustration jobs began to be on the subject of women. Job after job. When Molly and I were shopping our book, a few publishers suggested we make it about “being women.” It was incredibly frustrating. But then I think of PJ Harvey trying to deny the feminist intention of that amazing, incredible song of hers “Man Size.” I love that video and song so much! It makes me feel very free and defiant and jolly. Which was sort of how I felt when I was nine, at least in my own inner world. Maybe that’s why I loved that age so much.

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