As a friend of Lo'Vonia Parks, I immediately knew what was happening when, just a couple minutes into our interview last week, her hand began to reach for her bag. I was about to be drawn.
Some people whistle when they get nervous, some people bite their nails, Lo'Vonia draws, so when she reached for one of her pads while answering one of my first questions I wasn't surprised. In fact, I was excited to finally get my first official caricature done on the big pad after nearly a half-year of friendship.
Lo'Vonia (pronounced Low-VAWN-ah] is a local artist who draws caricatures, among other things. I've attended multiple music shows around town with her, and she always keeps her sketchbook at her side, ready to begin snapshotting a performance with sketches at a moment's notice.
After spending months watching Parks in action doing caricatures on commission at local pop-ups, sketching entire bands in minutes at music venues and putting her more thought-out figure drawings up for sale at TUFT, I sat down with her at Amelie's one recent morning to discuss all things caricature, from humor to haters.
Creative Loafing: When did you start drawing?
Lo'Vonia Parks: When I was a kid. I didn't really realize that it was a thing. I can't even remember, but my mom has the proof. I started on the walls, then quickly learned that is not the canvas for me to use, and then my mom got me colored pencils, crayons, proper paper, all that.
As a kid, I preferred drawing. I would be alone and draw and have fun. I had friends, but for me, it was just more fun to draw and make up my own little stories versus going outside. That was fun, that was my activity, that was all I wanted to do — in class and in school, too.
How did you get involved with caricatures?
That was a class that I had at Savannah College of Art and Design, it was The Art of Caricature, and then there was Humorous Illustration that you could take. I just fell in love with humorous styles. I still do illustration work, but most of my work is more humor-based. Once I did the class on the Art of Caricature, I fell in love with the line, in trying to express someone in lines, and trying to get that down. To me, that was a challenge, and it just was something I resonated with and gravitated towards. I took an internship with Six Flags in Georgia. Oooohhh, yeah, being out there in the hot sun, that was some type of creative hell there.
Was it that education that got you into drawing with speed, or was that already a talent?
We were trained that way. With caricatures, or retail caricatures, you are trained five minutes or less per face — the faster, the better, basically. So we had to be trained how to do that in five minutes, because you're out there from the morning until the park closes, and speed is everything. Everybody there is like, "Oh, I want to get this done, but I want to ride this ride, I want to do all this other stuff." So you have to get it under five minutes or less, and I had a timer. It doesn't matter, you can have a party of five, you still need to crank that out.
Retail caricature is effectively a commissioned art piece, and it's depicting the customer. I know how picky people can get about how they're portrayed in my medium. Do your depictions ever piss people off?
The golden rule is this: You know you're a good caricaturist if you can make somebody cry. It seems really mean, but I guess there's beauty in the faults. A lot of people, sometimes they get uncomfortable about getting a caricature drawn. Because usually people will ask me, "If you draw me, what would you draw?" And I tell them, "I draw what I see." And that either has two different reactions, people will love it or they'll say, "No, thank you," and quickly walk away. They'll get away from me as if I just said I've got Ebola.
Do you remember your first time making someone cry?
I was working a trade show in Orlando. A girl just came up to the booth, she said, "Oh, what is this?" Her cousin had already sat for me and she was so excited, so she sent this cousin over and said she wants one too.
I explained to her in detail that it's like a cartoon version of yourself. She said, "Alright, so you're going to draw me." I said, "Yes, but it's going to be a cartoon version of yourself." That's how I break it down for kids. She was like, "Ok, cool, yeah, yeah." She sat down, I drew her, I showed her the image. There's no reaction, she just takes a look at it, and nothing. Face just blank. I can see her eyes welling up and she has nothing but tears at this point just falling, falling like a waterfall, face still straight as can be.
Her cousin is like, "Well, what do you think? Do you like it? What's going on?" She just goes [tearing motion] and tears it up right in front of me. One tear, two tear, three, four.
Her cousin goes off, "What are you doing?" But to me, I didn't care. This is a part of it. People are not going to like it. That was the first true rejection to my face of, "No, I do not like it." Sometimes you can tell, people are like [fake smiles], "Oh that's cute, thanks. Oh wow," but that was my first honest rejection.
I noticed many of your commissioned caricatures during the holidays were dogs. Is that normal or is it a new trend?
It's something people have always commissioned me to do, but recently it's so popular. There are so many artists now that just draw or paint dog and cat portraits, or whatever, ferrets. But I love it, because that's when you kind of learn a lot about someone else and — I know it probably sounds cheesy but — their capacity to love.
People will talk about what they love the most. Whenever I get commissioned to draw a dog or cat, people will tell me stories. It's like they're members of the family. They will say, "Yup, we rescued them here, and here's the story about who they are." They give me insights into their personalities, and I really do love that. I cherish it a lot, because animals give you unconditional love, and it shows with the people I speak with about their animals. They share a good story with me and it helps me draw or paint the picture of their pet.
Do you ever get judged by folks in the visual arts community that maybe think you're not a real artist?
Yes, of course. You're going to run into that, because it's an art that's based around whimsy and being playful and people associate that with children. Children are immature, not fully grown, so people relate those same sentiments to your art that you produce.
I can see that, I understand it, but for me, it is simple and complex at the same time, the way caricatures are. The art of it is that you have to learn how to push and pull and exaggerate a face, but you need to understand and try to get somebody's personality, all within five minutes. So it's a lot of pressure, but the end result is something that looks like a simple cartoon, exaggerated features.
It's alright if you feel that way. I'm still going to do what do what I want to do, because it's my passion. I have to live this. I have to work this. This is who I am. So I get it, and it's just one of those things that happens along the way. It's just another form of that rejection.
You're always sketching when we're at shows together. Why is that?
It's always there. I love to draw the bands. I credit that to learning caricatures and learning speed. I'm trying to get them down in the first song. Songs are usually 2 minutes and 30 seconds, and I'm trying to capture them. It's gesture drawing, which is a form of sketching that you're taught where you're quickly trying to read what you see right in front of you and put it to the paper. You're catching a moment almost the way a camera would; it's a still of that particular moment. That's what I'm trying to do when I draw out bands while they're playing music.
You always get amazing reactions from performers after the fact.
It's pretty neat, and it's also a crutch too. Because it's my social way of communicating with people when I get nervous, I have my sketchbook, I can just show them the drawing.
How does your process with a caricature compare and contrast to work you do on your own time at home, such as the figure drawings you have at TUFT currently, or when you're just at home drawing because you love to draw and it's not timed in any way?
It doesn't differ much. I like line and line weight; the thick and thin, push and pull of lines. I love Al Hirschfeld's stuff a lot. When I was a kid I would always see his celebrity caricatures; he did Lucille Ball, Charlie Chaplin, and he did it with just a quick, simple line. I love it, that was just what I wanted. That was what I gravitated towards.
So when I sketch at home for myself, I still do the same thing. It's a little bit looser way of working, where sometimes I work real fixed on a certain line. Like, the illustration I did of Solange was very precise lines, very thick, very thin — it's the same style, it doesn't go away.
You can catch Parks set up outside Pizza Peel at Midwood Market on April 15 and 22.