Arizona O'Neill

Photo by Justine Latour

Arizona O’Neill interviews 12 Quebec artists about happiness in her new illustrated book

We spoke with the author and illustrator behind Est-ce qu’un artiste peut être heureux?, a project she began by interviewing her mother, Heather O’Neill.

Arizona O’Neill’s new book Est-ce qu’un artiste peut être heureux? is not dissimilar to a guidebook on the contemporary Quebec art scene. Composed of 12 illustrated interviews with Quebec artists, the book touches on comics, music, street art, photography and creative fiction. Even readers unfamiliar with the artists, as I was with a handful, will find much to enjoy in this charming collection. O’Neill’s playful fourth-wall breaks and winsome watercolours add a textured dynamism to the interviews. The interviews cover a wide range of emotional states beyond the book’s central one. As a happiness sceptic myself, the question is less interesting in itself than in the ways in which it brings up other questions. Is happiness found in the everyday or in the act of retrospection? Can we only know that we were happy, not that we are happy? Or does the pursuit of happiness put us on a path of self-deception and disappointment? Perhaps it’s a cliché to say that the best questions have no answers, but sometimes you have to ask a question first to find out if it’s a good one.

I spoke to Arizona O’Neill after the release of her book.

Sarah Foulkes: How did the book come to be? Did you pitch it to the publisher? Did they pitch it to you?

Arizona O’Neill: So I was asked to do a written interview with my mom, Heather, who’s in the book. And I asked them if it would be okay if I did an illustrated interview. So that was my idea. And the reason I kind of wanted to do that was because I understand the imagination of my mom and I thought it would be really interesting. I had this idea to bring her characters to life on the page. I just thought it’d be more engaging than a written interview. And then that was published in Zinc magazine, which is the company that did this book. And they loved it so much that they asked me to do a full collection. I said, “Absolutely.” And then they suggested the interviews have an overarching theme. And in my mom’s one, we had already talked about happiness and if you need to be tortured to be an artist. We were already kind of touching on that theme. And so it was kind of an easy link for me. 

SF: So it kind of birthed out of your relationship with your mom?

Arizona O’Neill: Yes, definitely. And everything I talk about in that interview is how a regular conversation would go between us. So that was a really good starting point for me, just to prove that I could do it. It was the first comic I had ever attempted. But once I did it, it was obvious that that’s what I should have been doing this whole time. 

SF: And what was it like to imitate some of the drawing styles of these artists? Because that was really interesting to see how close it was to their styles.

Arizona O’Neill: For the past year, I’ve been painting the window displays at Drawn & Quarterly on Bernard for the bookstore. I paint the window for the new graphic novel releases. So I had already realized that imitating other people’s art style was something that I was quite good at and that I enjoyed. And every time I paint one of those windows, I feel intimately close to the artist, even though I’ve never met them and most of the time have never spoken to them. So whenever I would interview graphic novelists and imitate their styles, it felt like a love letter to each of them in a way. I didn’t trace. It was really me replicating it. 

SF: Did you find that imitating their works changed your own style or made you reflect on your own process as an illustrator? 

Arizona O’Neill: I think it made me realize that I had my own way of doing things. When I’m drawing I don’t think “Oh, is this fitting in with my style?” And I don’t think that these artists are doing that either, but I think from the outside we think that they’ve created this style. It’s not just how they draw. You know, like they’ve created a unique look and then they’re going with it. But I realize that this is probably the natural style that they have within them. And I thought that that was really fascinating. As an artist, you don’t actually have to think about what your drawing style is, it just comes out. And then when you’re imitating their style, you think, “It could be nothing but their drawing.” I don’t know why it didn’t just trace it. I feel like that would be a cop out. 

SF: Was it the publisher that restricted it to Montreal artists? 

Arizona O’Neill: The publisher didn’t restrict it really. First of all, I knew that the collection was going to be in French, so I had to also think about a French audience. And because Quebec has its own star system, I thought that that would pull people into the collection. So I knew my targeted audience was the French Canadian public. And I do think that Quebec artists have richer work than the rest of Canada. That’s a big statement, but I find that because the French Canadians tend to and support their local communities so well, there’s actually this really, really rich art scene in Quebec. I do think that the rest of Canada is missing out a bit on not reading the translations of that work. It’s a bilingual country. And most people took French as a second language in school and there isn’t really much of an effort to keep it up. Now I’m getting into a whole language political conversation here! As someone who’s bilingual, clearly anglophone, writing a book in French, I have to have an appreciation for French culture. 

SF: Perhaps it also boils down to Quebec’s financial support of artists which, compared to other provinces, is significant. A lot of artists can make a living off their art. It’s easier to focus on something like happiness when you’re not struggling to pay your rent every month.

Arizona O'Neil interview Est-ce qu’un artiste peut être heureux?
Est-ce qu’un artiste peut être heureux?

Arizona O’Neill: Well, I think that it’s not necessarily because they’re French Canadian that I’m asking them this question, it’s more just a question I would pose to any artist of any background. Good art starts in emotions. Mirion Malle writes a lot about depression in her graphic novels. And in the book, she said that happiness for her was the ability to feel many emotions, not just joy. And I thought that that was a very strong sentiment. She captures something I had never quite thought about before, that the worst thing is to feel numb. And for her happiness is the opposite of that.

SF: A kind of emotional freedom. In the book, your mum talks about freedom as happiness. 

Arizona O’Neill: Yeah, Heather makes big statements in this book, too. “People with bad childhoods are usually the ones that become the best artists.” I think that’s what she says. I think it’s interesting because I don’t know many people who would say that they had a happy childhood.

I don’t think that artists particularly feel different emotions. I think we all feel emotions very similarly. But once again, I think that artists can articulate it better than other people just because they think about it more. 

SF: And what in particular interests you about the question of happiness? I guess from my perspective, ever since reading this book by Sara Ahmed called The Promise of Happiness, I’ve become very sceptical of the pursuit for happiness. To me, it’s somewhat of a delusion in that it’s this promise that puts you on this path towards these goals, people and values, thinking that they’re going to make you happy. But once you achieve those things, you realize that you never really wanted them. You just wanted to achieve them.

Arizona O’Neill: Definitely, I don’t have much of a connection to the word happiness. It doesn’t do anything for me. Maybe that’s why I was able to tackle talking to other people about it. I’ve always thought that happiness is a social construct that keeps us on a particular path to achieving, you know, “the system’s” goals. But I think that we are most happy when we forget happiness exists. It’ll happen when it happens, you know? But I don’t think that there are steps that will make you happy. A common thread in the book is focusing on the little things of everyday life. 

SF: The different answers that people gave were interesting. There was a lot of that contentment with the everyday. Drinking coffee, not feeling anxious. And then there were the more reflective answers. Thinking back to a time when you were happy, and that makes you happy.

Arizona O’Neill: I had two people tell me that a past memory of a beach made them happy, but I only included one because I was like, “Well, this is redundant.”

SF: The Miss me interview is interesting because Miss Me says happiness is being satisfied with your life. If you died right now, do you look back on your life and think, “Yes, I was happy”? It’s interesting how much it’s connected to death for her. 

Arizona O’Neill: Yeah, Miss Me is very cynical. That’s why we love her. Her interview was the most fun to illustrate. And a fun fact about the cover of the book is that when I asked Klô Pelgag, “What are the little things in life that bring you joy?”, she just couldn’t answer. She said, “I’m gonna come back to you. I need to think about that.” And a few days later she sent me an email that just said “Oysters.” And then that’s the cover. 

SF: With the case of Miss Me, it’s really interesting how productive unhappiness can be. Being settled into your unhappiness and your discontent can be a powerful force in your art. That anger is so important. 

Arizona O’Neill: That’s what I found with all of them. They were all talking about pain and suffering in their past. I do think that to create good work, you do need to be at a good place. But you need to be drawing those emotions from someplace real. Mirion Malle’s work is fiction, but all of her characters are feeling and going through experiences that she’s gone through. I think that that’s very true for everyone. I mean, even when I read my mom’s book, despite the crazy setting, I see elements of our life in the book. They say “Write what you know,” but it’s deeper than that. It’s “Write the emotions you know.”

A lot of people are hunting and searching for it. And artists get so consumed in their work, the ones I know. So their desire for happiness comes out more in their desire for success. And it just doesn’t matter. They get the things they want, they get success, but it’s just awful.

SF: How did you experience that with your mom’s success? 

Arizona O’Neill: There’s always another goal. That’s the issue, right? You set yourself a goal and then you achieve that goal and you set yourself another one. So I don’t think that that necessarily brings you happiness. I think that financial stability brought joy in our lives. It’s not necessarily like the art doing well was the thing that brought the joy. It’s more that money comes with that. I don’t know.

SF: I guess it’s about freedom, to go back to your mum’s view of happiness. It’s easier to be yourself if you have a roof over your head.

Arizona O’Neill: That’s exactly it. Lullaby for Little Criminals came out when I was 12. So I was old enough to experience the ultimate change and shift in our lives, which was very drastic. Before the book came out, we were living with my grandfather who was abusive in NDG. And my mom spent 10 years writing Lullabies. So my whole life she was writing it. And she would always drag me everywhere and constantly say, “You’ll see once this book comes out, things will change.” And the book became this magical entity, you know? 

SF: Like a promise.

Arizona O’Neill: Yeah, exactly.

For more on Est-ce qu’un artiste peut être heureux?, please visit the Zinc magazine website.

For more Montreal arts coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.