Gatineau Residency Blog – Illustratorin und Autorin Twyla Dawn Weixl in Quebec

Das Kunstministerium vergibt ein neues Literaturstipendium für einen zweimonatigen Aufenthalt in der kanadischen Provinz Québec. Das Stipendium, das im Rahmen eines Schriftstelleraustauschs zwischen dem Oberpfälzer Künstlerhaus Schwandorf-Fronberg und dem Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Québec vergeben wird, ermöglicht einer Autorin oder einem Autor aus Bayern den zweimonatigen Arbeitsaufenthalt in Gatineau, der viertgrößten Stadt der Provinz Québec.

Die bayerische Stipendiatin 2017, Twyla Dawn Weixl, ist Schriftstellerin und Illustratorin und arbeitet seit 1979 in München. Nach dem Kunststudium an der Concordia in Montreal machte sie eine Ausbildung in Münchner Filmanimationsstudios. Als Produktionsdesignerin für die deutsche TV-Musiksendung Formel Eins entwarf sie Sets für Musiker wie Stevie Wonder und George Harrison, aber auch LP- und CD-Cover, Merchandising-Produkte etc. Ihr erstes Buch Twenty-two feelings from nice to nasty, das sie sowohl schrieb als auch illustrierte, erschien 2000 bei Napoleon in Toronto. Seit ihrem Magisterabschluss in Kunst- und Englischpädagogik an der LMU München im Jahr 2008 lehrt sie Kunst und Englisch als freiberufliche Dozentin in Schulen sowie Unternehmen. Sie unterrichtet deutsche Teenager im klassischen Zeichnen von Comics in englischer Sprache, außerdem Zeichnen an der Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film München. Derzeit illustriert sie ihre erste Graphic Novel über die „Bälger“ der Luftwaffe, die in den 1960er-Jahren des Kalten Krieges in Kanada, Kalifornien und Deutschland aufwuchsen. Weixl wurde 2017 zur Gewinnerin des Aufenthaltsstipendiums in Québec (Gatineau) gewählt, wo sie zehn Wochen verbrachte, um an ihrem Werk Miss Cold War Fighter Brat (Arbeitstitel) zu arbeiten. Hier ist ihr Bericht in englischer Sprache.


Gatineau welcomes me and my 180-page graphic novel script and notes, illustration supplies and a suitcase of woolly winter clothing in September, with two weeks of unusually hot, sunny weather – my first autumn in Canada after almost 40 years in Bavaria. Francois Lescaliers, Director of the Association of Authors of the Outouais and Michelle Lapierre-Dallaire, AAO Coordinator, welcome me warmly to Maison Scott-Fairview. This historic stone house in a public park in the middle of a comfortable, working-class neighborhood of small houses, is to be my residency base for the next two months. A sign on the front door that says "Artist in residence. Please knock!" They show me the alarm system and walk me through the house, explaining everything in rapid Quebecois. Downstairs, there are two large salons with very long tables, a laundry room and spacious, well-equipped kitchen with wheelchair access. (The freezer full of ice cubes reveals itself to be invaluable in the hot days to follow.) A lovely carved and polished staircase leads up to one enormous multi-purpose workroom and one small writing room, a very pleasant corner living room and a bedroom. Altogether, more than enough space!

The pale gray, two-story stone house was built in 1863 by Richard William Scott, a mayor of early Ottawa. Today, mature maple, oak and willow trees screen the house from busy Rue Gamelin. From the verandah, one can watch dozens of black squirrels leaping from tree to tree, as well as park visitors, photography buffs, picnicking families, tree-huggers and dog-walkers. Gatineau, current population 300,000, expanded in the 1800s to house workers at the big Eddy pulp and paper mill in nearby Hull. Logs were axe-cut in northern forests and floated down the river to Hull.

Francois and Michelle give me a tour of the town and invite me to dinner with AAO writers the next day in Hull, the oldest part of Gatineau, directly across the Ottawa River from the Parliament Buildings.  After my hosts depart, I begin to explore the house. How will I make this huge space mine? First, I search for an ideal place to draw. The downstairs front salon seems best: it has a 3.7 meters long solid wooden table, and three large windows, extending from the floor almost to the ceiling. I spread all my papers on the table: character sketches, script, notes and photocopies of clothing from the 1961 Eatons catalogue, model sheets, scribbled storyboards, diary, plus Polychromo coloured pencils and watercolours. Knowing that this vast space will be all mine for two months, without interruption or daily responsibilities, absolutely delights me! It is only after the sun has set and the park is enveloped in utter darkness for two hours until the outdoor lights come on, that I begin to feel the challenge of staying there alone. There are no curtains on the downstairs windows, which makes me feel vulnerable, despite the alarm system. (A few days later, I solve the problem by pinning sheets up over the windows every night, so that I can work downstairs without feeling like I am in an illuminated aquarium!) I am not a wimp – I have just been living on upper floors in very secure Munich "apartment-land" for decades.) The first night ends early – my brain is too overloaded to focus on working. I vow to make a fresh and productive start in the morning, then somewhat guiltily retreat upstairs behind thick curtains to read myself to sleep.

Next day, I’m up at sunrise and take a brisk walk to explore the park. It is wonderful to be able to simply walk out the door into a beautiful park. Refreshed, I sit down at the enormous table in the front salon and write a schedule for the next two months:

- reread my story script and notes from the past 3 or [4] years

- start sketching thumbnails (miniature storyboard layouts) of individual panels for the first 20 pages, to test story flow before I commit to full-size drawings

- transfer the layouts to full-size pages and develop the drawings

- scan and email batches of 10 penciled pages to my mentor, the superb Munich graphic novelist, Barbara Yelin, for her expert feedback every two weeks

- experiment with different techniques for contouring (or not?) in ink (brush or pen?) or Polychromo pencil? or gouache? or scan and colour digitally?

- research early 60s RCAF and family life at area museums, archives and libraries

I am restless, eager to begin on all fronts at once, like Gottfried Keller’s young man in Der Grüne Heinrich, who, leaving home to conquer the world, leaps onto his horse and rides off in all directions simultaneously ... so I rush out of the house and walk quickly around the park again, pondering whether to devotedly follow my finished script, using the work-saving animated film method I’m familiar with from working in that industry – or try Barbara Yelin’s approach: dive in visually and let the images which emerge help shape how the story is told. She says this is how the boundaries of graphic novel style and content get stretched. I decide to not reread my script because I know the story intimately – and just start with the strongest image which comes to mind. Relieved at being so boldly experimental, I realise I also need to increase the flow of air in my workroom, here all the windows are stuck shut. Two young repairmen, (handsome, bearded voyageur-types) from the City of Gatineau, are installing a picnic table in the park. I ask if they are also responsible for the house. They nod and I ask them if they could open the stuck windows in my workroom. Within minutes, they fix them and also install a screen in the bedroom window, vital for unbitten sleep in Canada. They also tell me that in the four years in which they have taken care of the house, they have never heard of any break-ins – and that there’s a beach at Lac Leamy, 15 minutes away. Very pleased by that news and cooled by fresh air now flowing through my work room, I sit down and begin. 

Over the next few days, I develop an early-rising work routine which results in several pages of thumbnail layouts on plain copy paper. I have to cut some of them up and move the panels around until the action is clear. Once the scene thumbnails are clear and visually exciting enough for me, I enlarge them freehand in pencil on cream manila sheets, 30.5 x 22.7 cm, the final size of the future book. I know I should be working twice as large as the final size, (European A3) but I don’t have a tilt-able drawing surface large enough to hold paper that size. Lacking a proper drafting table, I improvise portable slanted drawing boards, using a set of five large, smooth, rigid placemats. With the bottom edge of the board resting on my thighs and the back of the board resting against the table edge, I have the correct angle for achieving accurate perspective. This is how I work in my small Munich apartment. These portable boards expand my work space very effectively.

The opening scene involves my teenaged protagonist, Dory, standing on the ground and talking to her father, who is flying above her in a Sabre jet. This scene takes days of experimenting to get down on paper in a way that the extreme difference in scale is believable.

Armed with the Letter of Introduction supplied to me by Diane Isabelle, Head of CALQ (Council of Arts and Letters of Quebec), I bike over to the local library to check out its collection of graphic novels. This library is open every day of the week and is frequented by all age groups. The friendly, efficient staff quickly supply me with a library card. I am gob-smacked to find a series of band dessiné (called "bd" in Quebec) by Frederic Zumbiehl, titled Buck Danny, an American fighter pilot who flies both the jets relevant to my graphic novel! The artist, Jean-Michel Arroyo, has expertly drawn both Sabres and Starfighters from every conceivable angle, saving me much work. I borrow as many Buck bds as I can lug home. I do plan to draw the actual jets at the superb National Aviation Museum in Ottawa, but the Buck comics are an unexpected and valuable resource to have at hand.

I am in a great mood when Michelle picks me up for dinner in a lively pizza bar. My rusty French frustrates me but everyone is kind and slips easily into English whenever I falter. The Quebec writers speak so passionately about their work that I fall in love with the French language and Quebec all over again –  memories of studying art and animation in Montreal in the 70s blossom and I wonder why I ever moved away.

Munich fades very quickly as I commit every day to making the best of my time here, still stunned that I am [w]here I am, doing what I’m doing. I can believe it better when I meet Carole Lague, Head of the Gatineau Library system, who is a member of the Canadian jury which chose my graphic novel project. She is so enthusiastic about it that I can finally believe that yes, this residency is really happening. 


Weeks 3 & 4, October 2 – 15

My frequent 40-minute bike rides across the river to the National Archives in Ottawa have revealed some unexpected and deeply moving material. On my first visit, I am given a friendly and informative two-hour introduction to using the Archives by archivist Mathieu Saborin and librarian Alexandra Clemence. They show me how to request classified material relating to the American Air Force and Lockheed training of Royal Canadian Air Force pilots in the deployment of nuclear weapons with CF 104-Starfighter jets in the U.S. in 1961. Ordering material with any mention of "Starfighter 1961" ultimately results in being presented with a wheeled cart bearing 8 large boxes of thick communique files regarding the development and supply chain for Starfighter parts and services necessary to complete Canada’s urgent NATO commitment in Europe.

Sifting through all these typed and hand-written documents takes many more hours than I am really willing to devote – although working in the air-conditioned facility saves my sanity some days – but it provides technical and logistical background which is important for the emotional tone and urgency in the daily lives of the fathers in my story, all RCAF pilots engaged in new, very dangerous nuclear defense roles. I am stunned to find evidence that the northern Alberta air weapons testing range was not adequately mapped before Starfighter pilots were to be trained there for NATO squadrons. Apparently getting the range mapped quickly and professionally was debated due to added cost – while the safety of the pilots hung in the balance.

I also search for general nuclear preparedness material produced by the government for citizens. Inside the very chilly Specialized Collection Room, I unexpectedly burst into tears while reading an original 1961 document titled Emergency Measures Organization – Continuity of Government Planning Guide – Privy Council Office. The threat of nuclear attack is expressed in plainly and provides a detailed plan for all areas of government and civilian survival. I cry because those words were written by humans facing absolute destruction. The librarian on duty comes over and tells me I am endangering the document with my tears. I apologize and leave, even more determined to somehow get out to Carp, 20 miles from Ottawa, to visit the Diefenbunker Museum, [w]here 550 Government officials and civilian authorities could have been safely sheltered from nuclear radiation underground for one month, after a strike on Ottawa.

I am aware that I want time to slow down, to give me time to really see what I am doing with my story, to see the whole flow.

It is becoming clear that I’m moving simultaneously in four different time zones: first, the early 1960s of my graphic novel; second, my own past in this area, 1968 to 1974 (very happy high school years at Ridgemont in Alta Vista and later working as the first female letter carrier in eastern Canada); third, my present experience drawing in Gatineau and researching in Ottawa; fourth, my future: is it time to leave Munich and return to Canada? [W]here can I work best? [W]here would my books be most successful? [W]here do I feel most alive? These questions are always present.

To ground myself in my story’s era, I fill the house the big old house with early 60s music and eat food of that era: salmon sandwiches, maple leaf cookies, pyrogies with sour cream and onions – and drink root beer floats. The 60s music is essential: girl groups like the Ronettes, the Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Solo performers like Little Peggy March. And Henry Mancini and his Orchestra. The music and CBC Radio relieve the loneliness of days spent working without any contact.

Frustrated by too little action in my second scene, I draw a new one: Dory, 15, gets dressed as her default heroine, Anne of Green Gables, and runs to the air base flight line (runway area) before school. Visuals show: her home-sewn "Anne dress", her pilot dad shaving, his flight equipment in the kitchen, his car in the driveway, a map of the air base. I elaborate on Dory’s relationship to the chain-link fence which separates her from [w]here she longs to be: flying with the pilots. New dialogue, saucier, stronger. The scene at the flight line fence is absolutely KEY to setting up tension between Dory and her father. After supper, I bike to the local library and use their free scanning service to send Barbara my first 10 pages. I resist feeling guilty for not hav[ing] finished more – I am working as intensively as I know how. I also search for Quebec graphic novels to read. Jane, the Fox, and Me, by the Montreal artist/author Isabelle Archambault, has quietly evocative illustrations. I tell myself again (and again): Just let yourself try new methods. Gouache and pencil. Or ink contours, but alive, not rigid! Loosen up! 

A tremendous rain storm pounds the park and house. I find a soaked teen-aged boy and dog on the verandah and invite them in to dry off. A big tree crashes down, luckily away from the house. Lightning strikes the ground immediately beside the house, melting the underground internet cable. Lights out.

A repairman appears next morning, restores electricity to the house and to my enormous relief, switches the automatic exterior lights on, 24/7. No more "Dark Park"!


Weeks 5 & 6, October 16 – 29

Diefenbunker Museum

In the excellent company of Jerry Mayer, an old friend from my 3 Wing (Zweibrücken, Germany) high school days, I visit the Diefenbunker Museum near Carp, a 40-minute drive from Ottawa. We have a well-informed guide with an appropriately dark sense of humour, who guides our group of eight through the "radiation decontamination showers" (a dry run) and deep into the four-story underground facility, designed to shelter 550 selected government and civil officials for one month after a nuclear strike against the nearby national capital. The utterly functional design (think submarine), cramped bunk rooms, scary medical equipment and dreary military colour schemes are alleviated only by a few special themed exhibitions, including a "nuclear family" kitchen, a display featuring UN peace-keeping activities, a CBC broadcasting studio and a very intriguing art installation, "The Age of Atomic Anxiety", by 2016 resident artist, Anna Frlan, who welds metal.

The War Council Chamber has tiers of armchairs and crisis telephones facing a huge map of Soviet missile installations and projected targets (global!). Somewhat freaked out by the entire experience, Jerry and I pretend to be the Heads of the Air Force and Army and "take calls" from each other, warning of incoming nuclear missiles. Hav[ing] to make an appropriate response, even in play, feels grim indeed. We are both extremely relieved to reach the exit and fresh air.

Jerry shares my Air Force brat background. A former intelligence officer, he invites me to lunch at each of the beautifully-maintained, historic Officers’ Clubs in Ottawa: Air Force, Navy, and Army. I especially enjoy seeing the wonderful model airplanes in the Air Force "Control Tower Bar" diorama of an RCAF flight line. He also arranges a mini-reunion with several of our 3 Wing high school friends, [w]here some of the more daring older brats tell stories of how they "shook up" Zweibrücken in the mid-sixties – all great intel for the second volume of my graphic novel story, in which Dory and her family are transferred to the NATO Base at Ramstein, Germany.

Finding four large white panels in the house allows me to mount all my preparatory sketches, model sheets, 60s reference images and especially a series of portraits of my protagonist. This provides more 60s atmosphere in my Victorian-style work room and more space on the table for the growing number of finished penciled pages. I go to the main public library in downtown Ottawa to browse their collection of MacLeans magazine – a great resource for getting the mood and concerns and the look of 1961.

I also find Barbara Yelin’s great graphic novel, Irmina, and a wonderful compilation of Doug Wright’s masterfully-drawn wordless comics about his family. I lug them home and am so happy to have their creative vibes in the house with me.

At the Aviation Museum, I draw a Sabre jet’s landing gear and the pilot’s helmet and flight boots. It’s interesting to see a 60s CF-104 Starfighter helmet and blue flight suit from a time when wearing all insignia guaranteed a downed pilot of being treated like an officer by the enemy. Shiny zips, blue fabric, insignia – all has changed. Now the suits are drab olive, matt zips, velcro’d insignia for quick disposal. What moved me most at this fabulous museum? The Sabre’s compact, graceful design and its accessibility, like a small, strong mustang. I could viscerally imagine my father’s delight in flying that plane.

The weather has cooled and I feel stronger. Barbara’s precise, constructive feedback arrives via email. It focuses on reminding me to allow the characters enough eye contact and time for adequate and believable responses to their actions. I cut up and reposition the first two scenes and complete the flight line conflict, determined to finish it, whether badly or beautifully. Then a disaster happens: I take a deep breath and colour the all-important first page with coloured pencils (which I love to use and have just used to great effect in a picture book) – and HATE the result.  How could I have been so blind? Pencil crayons are too grainy for drawing metal jets and details. I’m very glad no one’s watching me bungle this. At a nearby copy shop, I have the first page enlarged on fine Bristol card, rush home and paint it quickly with gouache before I lose my nerve. It’s an improvement, but still not evocative enough. In the first volume, the settings vary from a metal and concrete air base in verdant New Brunswick to a pastel California suburb and Malibu beach. The colouring and contouring techniques are by far the biggest challenges at this stage.

A happy development is a 3-day visit by an artist friend from Quebec, Bernice Sorge, a master printer and painter. We work together very well, sharing the long table in my workroom. She works on illustrating her poems while I push on with my third scene. We lunch at the Lac Leamy lake-side café and fill the paper placemats with drawings, urging each other to push the stories and style of our projects. As a former army brat and air force wife, who also lived in Germany, she understands my story profoundly. At night, she reads me her poems and we’re inspired to draw them. This flows into my work by simply opening my soul more to what I really want to say in my story. These weeks, I feel far away from Munich, far from concerns there, the refugee crisis and seemingly ever-present history of Germany. It’s a relief, although I deeply admire Germany’s courage in facing its past. I have learned how to tackle hard subjects from living there. And as I absorb the current daily and historical concerns of the Canadians who surround me now, I feel I am one of the most fortunate people I know, with two rich cultures to draw from.


While at the library, I am quietly scanning a second batch of 10 pages for Barbara’s feedback when a group of school children, about 11 or [12] years old somehow notice that the drawings are penciled comic pages. They spontaneously abandon their teacher’s lecture on library research and gather round me and the scanner. They want to know if I drew the pages and are audibly impressed when I nod. A few ask questions about which series the drawings are for, who’s my publisher (!) and if I wrote the story too. They pull over more classmates to see the drawings too. I ask if any of them draw comics and we chat about what they draw. I am delighted by their comic-savvy interest and go home all aglow.


Weeks 7 & 8 – Giving Back, October 30 – November 19

The brilliant leaves are drifting down relentlessly, exposing the enormous trees around the house. I write a poem to one heart-breakingly beautiful maple.

The Maple Nearest Me

I am gripped by, gravitate to 
the slender flaming maple,
beside which a 24/7 street lamp pales.

I am this tree.
My leaves blush, burn, flutter.
We let go, sail sideways, sink in spirals.
We crust the grass in crispy layers,
our edges curling slowly
towards central veins,
bleaching to beige, caramel, brown.

Detached, grounded, we stare up
at the still-blushing, still-burning above
like the aged staring at the young
who flaunt with all their being,
innocent of their tenuous grip.
Weightless, we the fallen lift and flip and surge,
breathed by random winds to who knows [w]here,
to mix with all that is neither tree nor me. 

And know it’s time for me to give back. The University of Quebec in Gatineau (UQO) has the only Bachelor Comic Arts degree program in North America. I present for one hour, in mixed English and French, to the 25 students of Sylvain Lemay’s Comic Arts class. I show some of my earlier Munich work, LP covers and Twenty-two Feelings, from Nice to Nasty, which I both wrote and illustrated (published by Napoleon in Toronto), before diving into my current project, Miss Cold War Fighter Brat. To impress upon the students how constrictive society was in the early 60s, I show them the Eatons catalogue women’s clothing pages, especially the rigid bras and girdles, as a metaphor for the limited possibilities for free movement, physical and mental, for my teen protagonist and her female peers. I show them my first pages via projector and the progressive stages of improvement in drawings I have had trouble with. I encourage them to follow their hearts, not the market. The students ask if my story is personal, how I will contour and colour the 20 pages and which publisher would be my ideal. One student says "After your talk, I just wanna run home and draw all night!" I bike home, satisfied.

I meet Michael von Killish-Horn, a Munich translator and [2016] Artist in Residence, at a forum on employment opportunities for graduates of the Comic Arts program at UQO, held in French at a beautiful Aylmer bookstore. I totally envy his ease in French. I give up trying to follow the forum and sit at the back of the store, leafing through graphic novels, including Ludwig, the audio-enhanced book written and illustrated by Quebec artist Christian Quesnel, whom I later meet and encourage to apply for the Schwandorf Künstlerhaus Residency.

Before I leave, I invite the AAO members, writers, artists and friends to my final presentation at the house. I invite Benjamin Emans, the Bavarian representative to Quebec, but he is based in Montreal and can’t make it. The front salon, my work room, is arranged as if I am in the middle of work, with paints and brushes, pencils etc. on the table, as well as copies of the 20 pages I have penciled. The four mood boards display a series of new portrait paintings of my protagonist, plus many drawings of other characters, model sheets, ads and photos from the era. Michelle creates a tempting buffet in the back salon. I try my best to speak French throughout but must resort to English often. The guests don’t seem to mind and throw me words I don’t know. I emphasize the nature of family conflict driving the story – the loyalty and love that suffer under the roles everyone is forced to play in the Cold War. During the following discussion, a few writers commend me for tackling this story and vehemently express the desire to approach their own writing with more honesty. I am quite moved by their response.  

Sadness tugs at me every moment as I return all the wonderful library books, as I clean my rooms and stuff my suitcases. I vow that the passion that was well-fed here will glow on in Munich, that my daily responsibilities will not extinguish it. Michelle drives me to Montreal through bitterly cold sunshine, to meet with Diane Isabelle at CALQ.

Diane, a great listener, is very interested in the "real story" of my residency. I tell her how much the time in Gatineau has helped me to push my project forward.

I visit the Salon du Livres and Drawn & Quarterly’s bookstore in Mile End. It’s my dream to launch Miss Cold War Fighter Brat on D&Q’s tiny stage. This is the place to dream and learn from all those crazy and courageous artists and writers who are brave enough to create graphic novels.

I sincerely thank everyone involved in the Artist Residency Exchange in Bavaria and in Quebec for this life-changing opportunity to work in Gatineau.

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