Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

December 23, 2013

CR Holiday Interview #06 -- David Murray And Kate Deneveu



imageOne of the big comics stories of the last couple of years which will remain key to understanding the next few years has been and will be the move of talented non-creatives into businesses that serve the comics community. At this year's Small Press Expo, I was struck anew by the posters displayed by Telegraph Gallery from Charlottesville, Virginia -- a retailer I'd seen at one or two other shows during the lengthy convention year. I made a mental note to track them down for an interview at the end of the year.

David Murray and Kate Deneveu took inspiration from the Telegraph Avenue-located businesses they enjoyed in the Bay Area to open their bookstore and gallery space in Charlottesville, home to two presidents and the best-looking classic American college campus. One intriguing element to arts businesses right now is that for the most part we recognize their temporary nature: we don't think of them as lifetime commitments that fail to live up to that near-impossible status but living activities that may find a way to last five years, a dozen years, a quarter-century. None of that is a concern right now from Team Telegraph, in the heady early days surrounded by the collective good will of multiple arts communities that would like to see them succeed. If the last couple of years have taught us through festivals and conventions the value of events in comics, businesses like Telegraph stand to reintroduce us to place. Plus if we talked I knew we'd get to run multiple images of from their art shows. I'm dying to visit. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: David, Kate, I suppose this is impossibly broad, but I can't figure out a better way to get into the subject matter at hand: you're very early on in what you're doing. How has it gone so far? Is there anything that's surprised you in this first period of having the gallery open? Should we be worried about you at all?

KATE DENEVEU: Telegraph is kicking ass. We're not millionaires yet, but as far as first years go, David and I couldn't have asked for anything more -- we've taken some risks, made some big decisions, and so far -- fingers crossed -- it's working. That sounds so weirdly corporate and business-y, but true. We're still going to be figuring out some things in 2014, but that's half the fun.

Big surprises of the year: David and I were too ambitious with the first few shows. The goal was to work with 12 new artists every month. Twelve new prints every month. 144 prints a year. We must have been insane. The first three collections are phenomenal, but it almost killed us. At some point we realized, "This is madness. We can't do this every month." I'm happy working with smaller tighter collections like Botanivore, but I think David still likes the drama factor of big shows with a lot of artists. This month's Face Value show is his baby, and I think that's why we have over 30 different artists participating.

SPURGEON: It looks like the current show -- and tell me if "show" is even the right thing to call it -- is the portraits show that's on your web site. Can you walk through something like that from conception to execution? I assume there's an initial idea... do you then recruit artists? Are there contracts? At what point do you schedule the opening? Is there an opening night there at the gallery? How do you then try to sell the work?

DENEVEU: Our process is pretty simple; David and I curate shows based on what we as fans want to see. We bounce themes and shows back and forth for a month or so -- basically every time we're alone together we're talking about the next few shows. It's become a huge part of our daily married life, just feeling out ideas, texting each other links to artists web sites with messages in all caps ("CHECK OUT THIS AWESOME GUY"), talking about new comics we've found, or recent work by old favorites. When we select the roster of who to invite to each show, it's a balance between who artists who are comfortable with the material and artists for whom the theme will be a challenge for. For instance, asking Michael DeForge to be in a monster-themed show is not a huge stretch; we knew he would knock it out of the park. But we asked James Harvey to participate in a show about dinosaurs, just because we wanted to see how he would draw a dinosaur.

Truthfully we started pretty timidly with recruiting. Our concept was new and untested; we didn't want to pass too much risk onto our artists. So we started with friends and people that wouldn't hate us too much if we crashed and burned. And we pay our artists for the commissions up front just like any other graphic design job -- Illustrators work hard and deserve to be paid for their work. We prepare the art for the printers, and we pay for the printing costs. That also puts the burden on us to sell the pieces. If any gallerists are reading this interview, they're probably horrified. The risk is worth it so far. David and I made a choice a long time ago that ethics and our relationships with our artists is worth more than money.

imageBut we've become braver over the last eight months. The Arcana show came about because we'd created a list of artists who we wanted to present with a dramatic theme. As a result, Arcana was our most focused print collection of our first year. Ben [Marra] and Simon [Hanselmann] were definitely the cornerstones of the show. They aren't afraid of reinterpretation, confiscating the symbolism of the traditional card, subverting the message. Ben's design literally inverted the meaning of the Death card, and these "tarot cards" are now artifacts in their own richly developed worlds.

The openings schedule is determined by our local arts scene. We're located in a downtown area that has a First Fridays art opening tradition going back 20 years. All year long, the first Friday of the month is punctuated with gallery openings, performance art, and interactive events. Telegraph is fortunate to be a part of a community that has welcomed us. Our openings are fun and casual, there's always cold beer and good crowd that's enthusiastic. We're getting a reputation around town as the place to go to discover something new every month.

David and I have approached Telegraph from a different angle than your traditional gallery, so we have the added challenge of educating our customers about what it is that we do. Telegraph's focus is the quality of the prints and the work itself; most of the time I think of us as "producers" more than "gallerists." We bridge the gap between illustrator and physical art. If we do our job right, the prints sell themselves.

DAVID MURRAY: Our latest show, Face Value, is a nice break from our usual routine of print collections, and it's been a fun, new challenge to sell original pieces. I've always admired Giant Robot's annual Post-It shows, and organizing a 5x7 portrait show is my attempt at doing an affordable small format original show without just swiping the Post-It idea. This was also a great opportunity to work with a lot of artists we hadn't worked with yet but had admired for some time, and some old favorites from our first year.

SPURGEON: Are you trying to build a relationship with artists you will then use over and over, or is that something you see changing show to show in dramatic fashion?

MURRAY: Though I'm certainly tempted to strain my friendship with Michael DeForge and use him in every show, we made a point in our first year to use different artists for every show -- the one exception being the most recent portrait show -- but this only scratches the surface of the amazing artists out there.

imageDENEVEU: As far as relationships with artists is concerned, Warren Craghead is the hero of our story. When we opened the gallery, we had no idea that he lived in Charlottesville - Now he and his little girls are fixtures at our monthly Sunday Comic Craft Days. He was a guest speaker at the July SCCD, and it was phenomenal to have him guiding the workshop, working one on one with adults and kids, talking about zine folds, experimental formats, and encouraging a joyous approach to creation. He's been the biggest cheerleader of Telegraph, and has probably done a better job of marketing us than we do. Oh -- and there's a "seed toss" conversation happening on our bathroom door, between Warren and Billy Glick, another local illustrator we work with.

SPURGEON: Are there areas of comics art in which you have little to no interest? Do you see yourself having a specific focus, and do you think that people will see what you do in a certain way that may be different than your self-conception?

MURRAY: Charlottesville is a big enough town, I think, to support one Big Two comics shop and one comics shop that tries its best to cover everything else, with a bit of overlap here and there. I don't think we can realistically afford to limit ourselves beyond that. I have my personal tastes and that's reflected in the books I'll personally recommend to people; we have to stock beyond our own personal tastes. Kate is the person who taught me this; she definitely has her eyes on the big picture and is better at seeing things from an objective business standpoint when she needs to. In the big picture, it doesn't matter a damn bit if I don't personally like steampunk things, for instance.

DENEVEU: He has a blind, seething hatred for all things steampunk. I think it personally offends him every time he has to ring up steampunk titles. In all seriousness, though, we're a weird shop, which requires open mindedness from our customers, so it's only fair to be accepting in return. Just because we don't like something doesn't mean it isn't worthy of respect.

SPURGEON: How much of a background in comics and comics art do each of you have? Can you each talk about how you've come around to having a relationship with that kind of art, what was meaningful to you to experience and when?

MURRAY: I was a huge Marvel head as a kid -- I had every Spider-Man title on my pull sheet and read a lot of trades of older stuff, and wanted to be a comic artist when I grew up. I spent a lot of time drawing little gags to make my friends laugh when I should've been studying, but school work was pretty much a breeze for me until college. In high school, I was filled with so many emotions and found solace in stuff like Optic Nerve, Eightball, and Milk & Cheese. In college, I started off as an Architecture major, because I was good at math and liked art and design and had no idea what to do with myself, but I ended up with a degree in Japanese Lit. Proudly, I used my language skills to read a lot of manga, my final paper for my penultimate Modern Japanese Lit course had a three-page comic strip intro, and I spent a good deal of time at a library in Yokohama poring over the first French language comics that were published in the country in the late 19th century and are credited with introducing the idea of speech bubbles to Japanese artists.

I'd studied wood block printing while living in Kyoto for a year, and when I got back, I decided to give screen printing a go because putting my jokes on t-shirts seemed like a fun and easy way to make money -- which, of course, it isn't, but it was fun at least, so I stuck with it. I'm actually more known by my artist pseudonym, Seibei, taken from the name of the character in a Japanese short story that stuck with me in college, Shiga Naoya's "Seibei and his gourds." As Seibei I've made t-shirts for the past seven years, and I've collaborated with comics artists on tees from time to time, like Jason Fischer, Derek Ballard, Zack Soto, Hellen Jo, Mia Schwartz, Kris Mukai, and Bryan Lee O'Malley. It was also through my t-shirt work that I met Ryan Sands, now of Youth In Decline. We've been friends for a long time, and he first introduced me to a lot of the artists I'm friends with today, opened my eyes to the works of so many awesome publishers, and let me borrow a lot of good books. Fun bit of trivia -- I gave Ryan the Risograph that he's printed a lot of his books on.

I'm now trying to put together some comics in time for TCAF.

DENEVEU: I have a degree in Art History from the University of Virginia, but my origin-story in the art world is from my god-father, Gerhard Wurzer. He was an art dealer for over 30 years, specializing in works on paper from contemporary artists and some masters like Lautrec, Cassat, even Rembrandt. When I was a teenager, I spent summers with him at his gallery in Houston watching him hang pieces and sneaking off to flip through folios that I probably shouldn't have been touching. He was one of the people that taught me the importance of ethics and reputation in this business. While what we're doing is not the same as the secondary fine art market, the principle is the same. These people trust you with their work, their name, their reputation -- and that's not to be taken lightly.

imageSPURGEON: You've told the story that initial impulse for the show, and in fact its name, was derived from the kinds of galleries that you found on Telegraph Avenue in San Francisco. I was wondering as specifically as possible what it was that you thought that was worth transferring into a different context, and if as a result your gallery is different than the others in Charlottesville. In fact, if you could just talk about your place in that communities of galleries, I'd love to hear about that, too.

MURRAY: The half-gallery/half-shop business model seems to be way more prevalent on the West Coast than it is out here -- Giant Robot magazine was a huge influence on me in college, so their galleries were like holy ground for me -- and we thought we could give it a go back home. When I was in school here, I was just getting into some of the artists that first started to carry me to where I am today, like Deth P. Sun and kozyndan, and I felt like there was nothing for me in the Charlottesville art scene. I wanted to make the kind of place that I'd always wanted.

DENEVEU: David's always been an entrepreneur, and I wanted to work with him on this gallery/shop idea we'd been toying with for the last couple years. Charlottesville was always the plan. We met here. Selfishly it's a town we want to live in, and it's where we could afford to open the shop on our budget. Initially the concept for the shop was closer to something like Park Life in San Francisco. We were both working at a screen printing shop at the time. David was the head of the art department, and I was the head of sales. We were walking down Telegraph Avenue after brunch at Aunt Mary's Cafe in Oakland, talking about the shop. I don't know whose idea it was first to have us actually produce the pieces, but that became the cornerstone of the gallery concept. "We know screen printing from the printer's side; we know the process, the costs, what to spend money on, what not to waste money on. That's our edge." That was the moment that I knew we could actually do this, and maybe not starve to death in the process.

SPURGEON: [laughs] Can you talk about the bookstore part of Telegraph in isolation a bit? I have to admit, I'm pretty unclear how extensive that part of your business is. How do you conceive of that part of your business, how much are you trying to carry, and what audience is there for those books? Is it art books? Comics? Both?

MURRAY: Comics are the bulk of what we carry -- a solid selection of Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Koyama Press, Retrofit, Last Gasp, Nobrow, Youth In Decline, et al, and lots of self-published stuff bought directly from the artists, but we also carry art books, in part because it helps provide context for what we're doing and bridge the gap between the gallery and comic artists. The bookstore component was always part of the plan -- it made sense to sell the books of the artists we worked with, to try and present a curated vision of comics culture rather than showing these prints and pieces on their own -- but it's grown significantly over the last nine months.

DENEVEU: We opened with only three dozen titles from Koyama and Last Gasp. Now we carry about 500 titles. Comics, art books, art instructional books, zines, art theory books, papercraft, children's art books, -- but mostly comics. We're working on getting that inventory onto our website. Our target audience is young professionals who may already be familiar with comics in some form. Very few of our customers are entrenched in the indie comics scene, but most have picked up a Batman or a Calvin & Hobbes at some point in their lives. So part of our daily running of the shop is actual one-on-one education, talking to people about small press, recommending titles based on their favorite movie and books.


SPURGEON: Do you have a surprise best-seller -- or very good seller -- either art or books?

MURRAY: I'm surprised we haven't sold any of our Tom of Finland books yet.

DENEVEU: Bicycle by Ugo Gattoni for Nobrow. It's such a gorgeous book, all we have to do is put one out for display and it sells itself. We can't seem to keep it in stock. The best part is it's a great "in" book for people unfamiliar with comics. It doesn't look like a comic. Older ladies love it. And then we've got 'em hooked. As far as posters go, Simon Hanselmann's High Priestess Print sold a lot faster than we anticipated. It is a phenomenal design that fits well into his body of work, but it's also the first poster we've had sell out within just a couple weeks. It's satisfying that Simon's work is in so many more homes now, but there are times when I yell at myself, "Dammit, we should have made a larger edition!"


SPURGEON: Is there a difference between exhibiting successful and unsuccessfully for you? Is there a risk in that kind of expenditure? Do you find something does particularly well for you at shows?

DENEVEU: We've had a couple stinkers. Successful means we make enough money to do the next collection, plus a bit on top for rent. It doesn't always work. We've lost money on some shows in the short term, but luckily art prints don't go bad. And we make it up with the next show. But I do the books, so that's how I see things -- Truthfully I think David thinks of a show as successful when the prints are up to our quality demands.

MURRAY: Smaller prints are definitely an easier sell. There's only so much wall space in this town, and no matter how nice some of our larger prints are, it's sometimes too much of a commitment. We have loads of framed prints in our house -- admittedly, half of them are sitting in a stack and I've been meaning to hang them for a few weeks -- but I imagine this isn't the norm.

DENEVEU: Our best shows are smaller in other ways, too. Tarot Cards and botanical prints have attracted more attention than larger clumsy themes like "space" or "monsters." We initially wanted big themes with lots of artists to allow for more conceptual freedom, but a small tight shows with focused subjects are outselling the big shows.


SPURGEON: The vibe from your part of this interview is overwhelmingly positive. There's a notion in small business right now -- and something that comics has entertained as well -- that we're starting to see more people engaging with the difficulty of small business by embracing the lifestyle-choice aspects in addition to the hard realities of doing a business. How do you like being small business people, how do you like being comics merchants? Are there specific joys you can point to about doing Telegraph?

MURRAY: Kate's stuck by me through a lot of stressful times with me running my own business as Seibei, so we're certainly no strangers to this lifestyle. I get listless and depressed if I'm not working enough, honestly, so having two jobs where there is always something to work on is ideal for me. Working with Kate is great because she's far more focused than I am and knows how to differentiate between which things need to get done now, later, and eventually.

DENEVEU: They just did an article in The Onion about how as the economy improves, more people are becoming Delusional Enough To Start Their Own Business. I read it this morning and couldn't stop laughing- oh my god it's us. But I don't think we're that delusional. Definitely risk takers. We knew the economy was terrible when we started, but weirdly it became a part of our strategy. We're not going to make any significant money in the first couple years no matter what the economy looks like, but why don't we use that time to build our company? Tighten the belt, put out a great product, build a good reputation, and then then the economy recovers -- we'll already be established.

As far as the day to day goes -- I love selling comics. I get to talk to people about comics all day long, and I love arranging/rearranging our displays like a crazy small press Martha Stewart. No matter what the stereotype is, comics shops aren't the dark little places I remember as a kid with warehouse shelves and bad lighting. Our shop has a tin ceiling, bright lights, custom woodwork, and way too many pine display crates. My two great joys are coming up with new ways to prettify, and putting a copy of Big Team Society League into someone's hands.

MURRAY: I feel like I've hit a really good rhythm as a salesperson, and am getting better every day at finding at least two or three books to recommend to any person based on a short description -- a vital skill during the holidays for sure. People are actually starting to trust my tastes, which is great. It's so gratifying to be able to introduce people to something that we love, and, even better, I get to spend a significant portion of each day talking about how talented my friends are and how great their work is. That's a damn privilege.


SPURGEON: Do you think have a role in comics? Your internet presence give you at least the beginnings of a presence not fettered by geographical concerns, but I wondered about your conception. Do you see yourself in service to a regional or local comics scene? As a player nationally or even internationally for what it is you specifically do? And do you feel obligated at all to do comics shows or pay attention to that industry in that way for how you see your gallery growing moving forward?

MURRAY: We do have a role in comics, and I think we'll get out of it whatever we put into it. We were in the trenches at New York Comic Con and SPX this year, and honeymooned at TCAF, and I see comic shows as a huge part of our business. We opened a bookstore in a time when the convenience and ubiquity of Amazon has hurt a lot of small businesses. We have to give Telegraph a face and a personality. Conventions and shows are how we do that, and how I met you at SPX. We've got to pay attention, and we've got to fight. It's still early days yet, but we're ambitious and just dumb enough to not know what we can't do.

DENEVEU: We love reading and talking about comics, but we didn't have to start an art gallery to do that. Comics, particularly small press pieces, are worthy of greater attention in the fine art world. It is one thing to look at Lichtenstein and talk about comics as a part of greater pop culture. It's another thing to look at contemporary illustration and say -- "This is not just a part of pop culture. This is not just about comics." Taking illustration out of its current context of comics and graphical representations of greater texts, and creating new unique original pieces of art. While what we produced is not part of the fine art world, deep down I know that what we are doing is significant -- that's what gets me out of bed every morning.


* photo of store provided by Telegraph
* from Jeremy Taylor
* from Benjamin Marra
* from Rebecca Tobin
* the seed toss conversation
* from Bicycle
* from Allyson Mellberg Taylor
* from Niv Bavarsky
* from Hannah K. Lee
* three more photos provided by Telegraph (below)



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