Cole Nowicki is a writer, illustrator, comic, and graphic designer based in Vancouver, BC. His Portraits of Brief Encounters, a series of “run-ins, pass-bys, overhears and introspections,” is a self-published collection of stories and art. Dealing with the menial and hilarious moments of his everyday, his Portraits have been tweaked to fit comedy clubs, and collaborative art shows. His last exhibition, (Another) Portraits of Brief Encounters, featured eleven local artists visually interpreting his stories, as well as a gallery game. Nowicki also runs an online skateboard, art, and lifestyle magazine called Sunday Drive Digest, and has been published in McSweeney’s, Sad Mag, and King Shit.
Nowicki’s blurring of life and art reveals how trivial moments can create meaning in our contemporary media driven setting. We spoke over email to discuss the ups and downs of self-publishing, poor comedic delivery, and what it means to hold someone’s attention.
Why portraits? Why brief encounters? Why not write the next great American novel?
This effort isn’t going into the next great American novel because I’m obviously Canadian, but also because I use these usually small, inane, or revelatory moments as a nice writing exercise of sorts. Did the Starbucks barista really just write “Coal” on the cup? How can I expand on this? What other ways am I like a harmful fossil fuel? Can I tie in the fact that my dad works at a coal plant? Absolutely. It gives me the opportunity to flesh out an otherwise throwaway idea and send it out into the digital world almost immediately for appraisal, which is one of the boons of the social media age. It’s like the Antiques Roadshow, you don’t know the value of the junk in your attic until a bunch of strangers tell you. The visual side is important because it can aid, deter, and influence the reader in many ways, which I find interesting. And I’ve always mixed the things I like together—the cream corn gets swirled in with the mashed potatoes, which get spread over the lasagna.
How do your other forms of art influence or shape your writing? What comes first?
I watched this German film Victoria the other week while VIFF was in town. It was a very emotionally intense film––all two-hours of it a single shot. It got me excited and made me want to try out different writing techniques and find my own two-hour single shot. On what comes first, it sort of depends. Sometimes I’ll see a piece of art that’ll inspire the visual style of a Portrait, but I’ll always need a story before a move can be made.
In Portraits of Brief Encounters, you take some quotidian or strange occurrence and repurpose it into a commentary on reality’s ridiculousness. Much of what you do takes from personal essay, comedy, and flash-fiction. How does a social medium like Instagram allow these styles to merge?
The most obvious to me is what I touched on before in the immediate reaction to a piece on Instagram or online. If something lands, you know. There’re actual stats. More than a few times I’ve taken a Portrait that’s done well on Instagram, tweaked it and tried it out as a bit at a comedy club, where I get an even more immediate reaction. I think that works because my subject matter in Portraits is generally relatable and of the day-to-day variety, not regressing to thoughts on airplane food, mind you; but they don’t explode with a 1,500 word sci-fi piece about aliens suffering from athlete’s foot either. They’re usually a flexible narrative that’ll top out in two to three paragraphs on why I don’t think it makes sense to get married or finding a funeral home in Prince George, BC, called Assman’s.
Could you comment on your collaborative shows? Specifically how reinterpretation and participation pushes your work into both the art and literary scenes.
Having different artists interpret my stories is a neat experiment. It’s interesting to see what bits of the story they find worthy of pulling out and spending their creative energy on. I think the shows create a little wormhole between the two scenes, because the premise of the shows themselves are for people to walk around the gallery reading the stories and then try to match them to the art work. Essentially using one world to discover another, and two worlds is obviously a bigger audience than one. Plus you can drink beer and win stuff. Everyone likes that.
There’s obvious ups and downs to continually self-publishing? Why do you choose to do so?
With a project like Portrait of Brief Encounters, which started out of a sort of primal need to create something and throw it out into the crowd, self-publishing through social media is the true home for it. If you go back to the first 10-20 Portraits, they’re pretty rough. The prose is wonky, the illustrations are pure chicken scratch. Self-publishing allowed for trial and error while it grew and found its voice, which is a luxury not afforded in other areas.
You spoke of “throwaway” moments and how those manifest themselves in your writing. Do you find you start to think of their insignificance or their bordering on “airplane food” quality? What’s it like to flirt between poor observational comedy and something more meaningful, maybe even more literary?
I have a whiteboard beside my work station where I’ll write three-four words describing these “throwaway” moments. One of them says “Laundry basket on head,” another says “swastika molding.” These moments have been on the board so long I’d probably have to chisel the marker off. Essentially they’re “throwaway.” I don’t think of them as insignificant because one story’s trash can someday be another one’s treasure, or at least a shiny nickel.
Even poor observational comedy has meaning; its meaning is just obscured by poor delivery.
I still read my published copy from your last show. On the page, the stories are very much alive and shed the menial joke of cyberspace. Do you find there’s a limitation to having them released through social media? Will you ever create a larger physical compilation of your work?
The limit would be that the internet’s attention span is very, very short. I can put out what I feel is my best Portrait and it’ll get buried in the feed in a matter of hours. It’s a constant climb to stay relevant in the online space, which is a weird way to approach writing at times.
I’ve also been working on a collection of short stories separate from Portraits that I’d like to do something with at some point. It would be nice to steer away from the self-publishing route. Call me, interested parties 😉
As a final and pretty open-ended question, what’s comedy’s purpose in art? Your comments on socialization and lack of seriousness remind me that we’re here to be entertained, so why not have fun with it?
I find comedy to be a great tool. It has the power to cut a brooding, sorrowful, narrative with a dose of humanity—I think one our greatest evolutionary traits as a species is our ability to make fun of dire situations while we’re in them. Then sometimes a dick joke is just a dick joke and that is just as important.
Curtis AuCoin is a writer/musician living in Vancouver, BC. His newest publication, in conjunction with Unit/Pitt Gallery’s Limited Time Library, comes out in December.