Moose Allain – artist and cartoonist (#99)

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Photo credit: Steve Haywood

Moose Allain is an artist, cartoonist and prolific tweeter. He lives and works in Devon. As well as creating original artworks and prints, Moose’s cartoons feature regularly in Private Eye. He published his own drawing activity book ‘Fill-me-in’ and has provided illustrations for several books including ‘The A-Z of Pointless’ quiz show book. Moose has been involved in a variety of projects, including co-producing the video for Elbow’s song Lost Worker Bee, designing murals to decorate the interior of a waxing salon in Mexico City, producing a family guide for the Tate Britain’s Lowry exhibition, and a “How To Draw … Anything” guide for The Guardian website. He has appeared on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb and has even been lured onto the stage to do stand up comedy.

Twitter and Instagram: @MooseAllain

Twitter (shop): @world_of_moose

Website: www.worldofmoose.com/


Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?

I’m going to offer two. They are both sources of constant wonder, but one is natural and one is man-made.

Most days I walk our dog along the lane opposite our house that wends its way across miles of Devon countryside. More often than not I will encounter one of the buzzards that patrol the woods, fields and occasionally our garden. I must have seen buzzards thousands of times in my life, sometimes no more than a few feet away, and yet each time I see one I am amazed by their size. Some big birds, like swans, are the size you expect them to be, but somehow a buzzard is always bigger than you imagine it. It’s as if its size is not to do with dimension but a matter of presence, a kind of super-natural heft unrelated to the space it occupies in the world.

The second thing that amazes me is, well, the endless invention and creativity of the human mind. I know that’s almost uselessly broad, but it’s evidenced in hundreds of micro-moments each day via social media, particularly in the form of humour. I despise the notion that I sometimes encounter that ‘there are no new ideas’ or ‘there are only six jokes’ or whatever. Each day I laugh at some bright, sparkling new idea that pops up in my timeline, or, increasingly, that my teenage children bring me from meme culture. I love the way their generation’s humour is evolving: surreal, self-referencing, sophisticated, often beyond my comprehension, and I love the way that technology—Vine, TikTok etc.—sparks a constellation of expressions of our natural creativity, evolving new languages and dialects with it. There are myriad examples, but here’s one that my son showed me that made me laugh recently. I tried to find the original on twitter, which may be this, although ideas of origin and authorship are perhaps something that is getting lost. That’s another subject.

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Image taken from Cartoon Book iii

Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

It’s easy to become jaded, to take all this for granted *gestures broadly at everything*. We live in an age of astounding variety and richness of experience and, for many of us, privileged access. Yet we yearn for more all the time and will casually dismiss things which don’t reach our high standards of expectation. I realised at some point in my 30s that I was spending too much time sitting around with friends designating things as ‘shit’. Sneering. I grew sick of it and vowed to focus on the positive and since then I’ve tried to stick to this mindset.

I think we have to consciously step back from the world a little every now and then, to understand just how fortunate we are. We need to refresh our eyes and our ears as often as possible, try to see and hear things anew. Being an artist offers you an excellent opportunity to do this, especially if you can pull off the trick of being paid for it. It’s a license to wonder and I consider myself lucky to be in this position.

 

It seems like you’ve had a varied career. Could you give me a brief sketch of your career and were there common themes throughout?

Broadly, 1980s: unemployment, 1990s: temping jobs followed by training as an architect, 2000s: working in architecture then giving up that career to become an artist, which is where I am today.

I struggled for a long time to know what I wanted to do. When I was unemployed I painted, drew, wrote all the time. I used to go to the library and read the Architectural Review, but it didn’t occur to me for ages that I could do that. I think the years of unemployment imbued me with a deep sense of hopelessness. It wasn’t much fun being unemployed in Thatcher’s Britain, you were made to feel worthless and it seemed impossible to find a way out of that. Going back into (vocational) education gave me a chance to use my creativity to do something worthwhile. That was the idea, anyway. I had notions of ‘helping’ people, being a ‘socially conscious’ architect. In the end I fell into a niche role, community engagement, that didn’t satisfy my creative urges. I reached a point where I couldn’t envisage doing that for the rest of my working life. We ended up moving out of London, giving up our careers and starting again trying to make a living from art. It’s just about working and at least I get to do something I love every day. Maybe the ‘helping’ people side isn’t there so much any more, but I assuage my conscience by telling myself that what I do, especially on social media, brings a lot of people joy, for free.

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Image taken from Cartoon Book iii

How do your cartoons develop? Do you have a set way of working?

I’m very much of the ‘ideas pop into my head’ school of cartooning. I think because it’s not my sole source of income I have the luxury of working in this way. It can be anywhere, any time, maybe sparked by a word or phrase I hear. I jot the idea down in a Google doc on my phone, and when I have enough I’ll sit down and draw them up for a couple of days. I’ll sketch them on my iPad first. I used to then tweet them directly, however scruffy they were, for the thrill of getting a fresh idea out there. I loved the immediacy of the response. Then I realised I could get paid for them, so I don’t do that very often now, unless it’s particularly of-the-moment or twitter-related.

I send them in batches of three every couple of weeks to Private Eye magazine who are kind enough to publish them occasionally and pay decently. We then sell copies which I draw to order. People often refer to them as ‘prints’. I’m not sure if that’s because they think they’re prints, or because the word is becoming a generic term for ‘reasonably priced piece of art you can buy online’.

 

Do you think being an artist has made you better at ‘noticing’? If so, how can we all in our daily lives be better at observing?

Oh dearie me, no. I have to be honest, I am not an observant artist—or person, for that matter. I think it’s because I tend to work from my imagination rather than from life. I’m usually distracted, thinking about words, puns, jokes etc. I’d like to be and I admire/envy people who have a sketchbook always in hand, who remember to ‘look up’, who can draw a bicycle without having to peruse a picture of one first. But that’s not me I’m afraid. On the other hand, I’m happy inside my head.

 

Is there a piece of work that you’re particularly fond of? Maybe because of the recipient’s reaction, the doors it unlocked for you or that exemplifies your work.

I think there’s a key drawing of mine that unlocked everything and took me to a threshold. It’s my drawing ‘Ant Hill’ and led to a series of what I called my ‘Little Men’ drawings. It was inspired by observing, while we were on honeymoon, trails of industrious ants carrying twigs around. I started drawing it for my as-yet-unborn first child. In 2007 we sold a print from that series, ‘Bazaar’, as a six-foot high print to Priscilla Conran/Carluccio for her new boutique in Knightsbridge and that was the first time I felt I could legitimately say to myself, “I’m an artist”. Not that I think ‘art’ is determined by monetary value, it’s just I could now adopt artist as a job title.

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There is a whimsical nature to your work. Do you think we need to be more silly?

I’m all for it. It’s a survival instinct, quite honestly. We don’t take being silly seriously enough. I have a piece on the drawing board right now, a large A1-sized cityscape. I want to leave it as it is, unpopulated, but there’s a very strong urge in me to add tiny figures, to imbue it with little stories. I have a sense this would make it less serious as a piece of art, definitely more whimsical, but without them it feels unfinished. I think it’s better to be true to my nature than resist it.

 

You’re one of my favourite people to follow on twitter. Your tweets are consistently funny, good natured and offer fresh perspectives. How did social media turn into a key part of your life? How much was it a business decision/strategy and how much serendipity?

Thank you, that’s much appreciated.

I first went on twitter because I thought I ‘ought to’, for business purposes. I wasn’t an online sort of person, didn’t understand it, thought it was probably nonsense so was quite resistant to it for the first year or so. But gradually I started making connections with people and realising it was a good place to put the little bits of wordplay, idle thoughts, jokes etc. that were very much a by-product of my hours spent drawing. I started to build a following because enough people like that sort of stuff to build a bit of momentum. I always felt reluctant to use it as a selling platform (and still do) but had to acknowledge that some people wanted to buy my work. It has, over time, become an essential part of our business, giving us a global market, especially as doing the art fairs and markets started to tail off as austerity bit in the UK. And as well as a selling platform it’s connected me with lots of amazing people, several of whom have become friends, as well as collaborators or commissioners of projects. So it’s been great and I owe a lot to it.

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Image taken from Cartoon Book iii

You have a massive engagement with your followers. How important is this interaction? Do you have any ‘rules’ for replying?

I love having twitter as a platform for showing off my nonsense in various forms, but the thing I enjoy most about it is the interactions. In the early days I could chat with friends I’d made on twitter. I don’t get a chance to do that so much anymore, which I regret. I find I just don’t have the time to reply to people anymore. I miss a few but try to at least mentally compose a reply to most, even if it never gets typed!

I don’t really have rules but tend to reply to people who make me laugh or have something original and interesting to say. Is it a humblebrag to say I spend a fair bit of time saying ‘thank you’ or sending smiley emojis to people? Yes, I think it is.

However, the thing I love above all is when I start a thread, usually inadvertently, which snowballs into something great. There’s an example of this in 2012 where people tweeted me their ‘family games’. The tweets are gathered here. I ended up giving a Lost Lectures talk about it, “The Hive Mind of Twitter”.

Over the years there have been many wonderful threads of this nature, or others where I have mined information on, for example, the many names of woodlice or local words for alley ways. I think my favourite was from 2017 where I tweeted a fairly innocuous comment “Accidentally said “Many thank you” to a woman in a shop”. The replies came in their hundreds and many of them reduced me to breathless tears of laughter. You can view the thread here.

It’s when you really see a good side of twitter. Hundreds of strangers who are able to share, funny, poignant, pithy little stories about themselves which can give you a sense of togetherness on a platform that can so often feel divisive. I know it brings a lot of joy to others, some of whom are struggling with stuff, and it can be a much needed ray of light when things are gloomy. It can make me feel that sharing my silly, whimsical thoughts has some value after all.


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