Picking Up the Pen Again: JP Brammer Reignited His Passion Sketching Birds
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JP Brammer. Photo: Courtesy of JP Brammer
JP Brammer is a writer and artist from rural Oklahoma, with a popular advice column ?Hola Papi! and a recently published memoir by the same name. JP reimagined the beautiful Scissor-tailed Flycatcher for Audubon’s ‘The Aviary’ series, which explores the intersection of birds and art. This design is available on apparel, tote bags, and more. Purchases from this collection support our commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion, including programs that support people of color, people with disabilities, and people who identify as women or LGBTQIA+. You can watch our entire interview with him here. A curated version of that interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, has been included below.
How did you get started in illustration?
It was where my first impulse was. I went to Catholic elementary school and then a very rural middle school, so the place where I found my little safe haven was arts and crafts. I always thought that I’m better at expressing myself through art and through planned writing, than I am in normal conversation. I feel like I’m holding so much of myself back in conversation and I find it so much easier and more fluid to sit with my own thoughts and kind of channel them into something. So drawing was a part of that. It was mixed in with writing for a long time, and then at some point I made the executive decision of like, “Okay, writing is more applicable to a career than drawing.” And it really wasn’t until the pandemic where I got all the technology together and I was drawing again.
What brought you into the world of wildlife and birds?
Now as a kid I was obsessed with dinosaurs and dragons. Anything that felt like it was outside of the realm of reality I loved. And it turns out that the things most adjacent to that in our natural world are birds. And when I started drawing again, I was drawn to birds because, believe it or not, I think birds are the most forgiving thing in the world to draw. If you imagine a bird, no matter how messed up that imagined bird is, there likely exists some real life version of it in the world. They have crazy proportions. More recently, in the crushing sadness of March of 2020, birds became a really fun symbol to draw because it’s about freedom, it’s about mobility, being able to go out into the world. So I found myself returning to that previous love I had for winged beasts and fantastical animals.
Illustration: John Paul Brammer
What inspired you to reimagine the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher for The Aviary series?
I love going back to my childhood and going back to things that are important to my personal history. And so when I had the opportunity to draw something for the National Audubon Society, I asked myself, “What is a very Oklahoma bird?” And I immediately thought of the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. It’s so beautiful and interesting. So I knew immediately I wanted to draw one, but I wanted to bring in more Oklahoma. So I took inspiration from when I was in middle school, which was in a rural area and near a Native American reservation. I was thinking of Native American culture, and when I think of the dances in that region, I think of the birds. I think of that feeling of movement that comes out of watching the dances there. I wanted to incorporate those colors and that sort of movement [into my illustration].
Can you talk about your process?
My writing is very structured and my drawing is not. With writing, I have maybe two or three hours in the morning where I’m productive. But drawing can strike me at any moment. My writing [routine] goes back to when I was in college and when I set up how I wanted to approach writing, but drawing came back to me during a very unstructured period of my life. So I got used to doing it whenever. With drawing, I’m very keen on getting the skeleton of the thing down and then working on the rest, so I will just draw on anything. If my iPad’s available, I’ll do that. If I have a sketchbook, I’ll use that. As long as the shapes are down, the rest is just a matter of putting it in drag.
How do you bring who you are, and your identity and culture, into your work?
It’s almost like I don’t have a choice. When I’m drawing it really does feel like I’m better able to access a stream of consciousness through colors and shapes. So afterwards, I get to look at it and figure out: Where did that come from? What part of me made manifest on the page today? I think everyone brings themselves to whatever they’re making. I have so many selves like everyone else does, and it’s really interesting to see which one takes control that day and then look later and think, “Oh, that’s where I was in that part of my life. I wonder why I was so drawn to that theme or that shape or that color?” I used a lot of sea greens when I was originally picking up art again, and I think it was because I wanted some calm.
Why is art important?
Art has always touched on this aspect of humanity-which I find to be the most alluring part-which is transforming an interior to an exterior. I think I’ve made it my life’s work to do that and I do it imperfectly just like anyone else does. It’s really exciting to me to be able to show someone-physically or visually-“Here’s what’s going on in my head.” It can create understanding; it can make two people put themselves in conversation with each other in ways that other mediums just can’t. One thing I love about it is that I don’t even have to be in the room for that conversation to happen. I’ve always been mystified by the idea of your work being out there and now other people get to engage with it. To this day, I’m hooked on that feeling.