Posted on 16th Jun 2015
Anders Nilsen / Line Cook / Worked at Lula 5 years
Anders Nilsen began self publishing in 1999 by photocopying drawings and comics from his sketchbooks and stapling them together into a mini called Big Questions. In the time since, he has drawn numerous strips and graphic novels including Dogs and Water, Big Questions, Don't Go Where I Can't Follow, Rage of Poseidon, The End and others. His work has been anthologized in Kramer's Ergot, Best American Comics, Best American Non-Required Reading, Mome and elsewhere. His illustration has appeared on a number of book covers, as well as in TimeOut, The New York Times, Chicago Magazine, BOMB, Interview and elsewhere. His work has garnered three Ignatz awards, and Big Questions received the 2012 Lynd Ward Prize for Graphic Novel of the Year, as well as a citation as one of 100 Notable Books of 2011 in the New York Times. The End was shortlisted for the LA Times Book Prize. He also still self publishes work now and then. Nilsen grew up in Minneapolis and New Hampshire and studied art at the University of New Mexico and, briefly, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He currently lives in Minneapolis.
How would you describe your work?
I draw pictures that tell stories. Some of these become books of various sorts. Some become large drawings you might hang on a wall. I also draw in my sketchbook and try to surprise myself.
What is it about storytelling that excites you? Why this career and not another?
I love not knowing what's going to happen. When I start a story it feels like opening a door into a little world that already exists. I just happen to be privy to it's mechanics and get tasked with trying to describe it as faithfully as I can. When it works it feels like a gift.
Why this career?
I can't imagine anything better. I get to sit around and draw and people pay me. It's amazing.
Who/what inspires you?
I loved Tintin when I was a kid. I loved fairy tales. These days I mostly read non-fiction, books about human nature and history, mainly. I'm very inspired by painters from the late middle ages and early renaissance, like Giotto and Fra Angelico. My friends and contemporaries in comics are amazing. Skateboarding and punk rock were a big deal to me as a kid, and still are in many ways.
When did you get your first big break? The first time I was ever contacted by a publisher (Drawn & Quarterly, still my main publishers) to commission a story was in an email I got during a break in dinner service at the second annual Valentines Day Prix Fixe. I went back to work feeling like I'd won the lottery. That story later became my first book in 2004, Dogs and Water.
I worked at Lula the whole time I was getting my career off the ground. When I would get a little money from my own work, like, say the advance for Dogs and Water, I would drop a day at Lula. J and L's flexibility and indulgence made my own work possible in so many ways. At the end I was only working two days a week, which, in a kitchen of that caliber, is ridiculous. It would take a full day to learn and get comfortable with a new specials menu, then I would have one day of fluency, and then I would disappear again for five days. They let me string out that umbilical cord longer than a lot of other restauranteurs ever would have. They would let me take significant time off to travel to comics festivals, they commissioned work from me. I owe those guys a lot.
Your work has dealt with personal topics. How has Lula played a part?
Two of my books, Don't Go Where I Can't Follow and The End mention Lula explicitly. Both books deal with the death of my partner Cheryl Weaver in 2005, and the aftermath of that loss in my own life, and Lula was something of a hub for both of us during that time. We both worked there (she tended the bar in its first incarnation), and were deeply connected to the people there. She and I had started dating around the time I first started working there, and she would regularly get up early to drive me to work before breakfast. For that and many other reasons Lula will always feel like a second home to me.
How often do you collaborate with other artists/illustrators/authors? Who do you avoid collaborating with?
I'm currently working with a painter friend on some animation which has been very rewarding, though we haven't actually got to the animation part, yet. Collaboration is great if it makes you try stuff you might not otherwise. It stretches your limits. It can be hard though. I avoid collaborating with people who's work doesn't interest me. Over the last few years I've become involved with a group of artists in France who put on a series of artist residencies for cartoonists that are all about structured experimental collaboration. We're holding the second one in Minneapolis in 2015. They are amazing.
Any go-to menu items?
The other cooks used to make fun of me because I always had a piece of bread nearby with unlikely ingredients from the line piled on them. A basic favorite was cream cheese and thai coleslaw on whole wheat. As for the current menu I really love the ham and raclette panino, which was added after my tenure.
You also co-curate the Lula art exhibitions. How long have you been doing this and what have you learned from the process?
I've been doing it (with Marianne Fairbanks) for... I don't actually know. I guess we took over in the Winter of 2002...? Which sounds crazy to me. I still feel like we're the new curators. For a long time it was very seat-of-the-pants, the last few years we've gotten a bit more organized, doing openings and postcards for the shows and trying to do a better job of letting people know about what's up. I absolutely love being able to present work by artists I'm really excited about to Lula's public, who may or may not visit galleries and museums on their own. I love being able to present art in a lived space in the real world, where people will be surprised by it, and where it can roll through conversations over a meal – which is where most of the best conversations happen – and might be encountered a few times over a season.
Please tell us about the button installation. Was it your idea?
Before I was ever the curator I got connected through Andy Moran, a mutual friend and fellow Lula employee – to Christen Carter at Busy Beaver Button Co, who let me use her equipment free of charge if I wanted to make something interesting. I ended up doing button installations all over the dining room, using cut-up photos I took of Lula and views from the roof. The basic form was something I'd worked with a lot in college, but just as cut up found imagery on paper. The button form made a permanence possible that hadn't been before. Anyway, Lula's patrons were invited to remove the individual buttons and take them home, and I would periodically replace the missing ones with red dots (which traditionally signify a sale). So the whole thing slowly transformed over the course of a few months. I was interested in the idea of a single whole, dispersing. To me it's about memory and, I suppose, a kind of Buddhist idea about the illusion of the self. The form of the pieces suggest it, but I liked the idea that the piece was made to actually disperse itself over time, and in a way still exists out in the world where all those individual buttons are on people's clothes or handbags, or in junk drawers (or, perhaps, landfills). Jason and Lea liked the original, whole pieces and commissioned one when the bar was first built out, and a second one later to go above the pass-through window in the dining room. Having those two pieces showcased there has led to other commissions, which has been great.
Plans for 2015?
I have a collection of short comics and drawings coming out in June, called Poetry is Useless and I've just started working on a new book, which I expect will occupy several years before it's done. I'm also trying to learn to be an animator. And about six other things... which will make me feel tired if I list them all here.
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