A Conversation With: Elly Makem

(she/her) @ellymakes

Elly Makem, leaning against a window in a train

Elly M by © Nkech N

Introduce yourself!

My name is Elly Makem, though I also go by the portmanteau ‘EllyMakes’, and I am an Irish illustrator based in Belfast. I create comics and illustrations exploring neurodiversity and queerness – particularly lesbianism. I like juxtaposing the serious elements in my content with bright, flippant visuals.

How would you define queerness?

To me, queerness is a thing that subverts the structured norms of relationships. Often it is presented as anything that isn’t cis and hetero, but I think it’s broader than that. I think you can have ‘LGBT+’ spaces that aren’t necessarily ‘queer’, and that the definition can encompass a lot.

© Elly Makem

I think there’s a pattern in society that we’re encouraged to follow, of what constitutes ‘good’ relationships, be it with ourselves, or each other. Which gender expression is good, what sexual practice is good, what type of relationship is good. Judging your choice of clothes, right up to your choice of partner and what you do with said partner(s). Queerness to me is anything that flips the idea of ‘good’ on its head. It’s radical, different and challenging to the status quo.

Mutual Aid Fundraiser flyer by Queertopia, illustrated by Elly Makem

© Elly Makem

What role does activism play in your work? How has it affected your own life, living in Northern Ireland?

Activism is hugely important to me, and also very personal. I find that even when I don’t intentionally set out to feature it in my work, it makes its way in there somehow. Because I am gay, autistic, and ‘femme’ presenting, I feel very connected to the early experiences of my life where I have been mistreated based on those things. I feel that my ideas of the world have always been founded on the understanding that the order of things isn’t always true or fair. So, when I’m creating anything, I am aware that I have a unique opportunity to use my platform to discuss things quite personal to me, and often those things are centred around activism. In particular, de-stigmatisation.
Growing up and living in Northern Ireland has meant that activism has always been a part of our cultural bread and butter. The state of Northern Ireland is always last on everyone’s checklist – Brexit comes to mind. Fortunately, that has given a great DIY sensibility here, and a collective understanding that local people have to be the ones to make change. Nothing is handed down, so you get quite used to campaigning or working with grassroots movements.

As an illustrator, what difference has it made for you working alone versus working in a studio with others? Particularly other queer artists?

I currently operate out of The 343– which is an artist-focused, feminist lead, queer art space. Although a lot of my studio-mates range in discipline - from drag performers to fine artists and others, there is definitely a huge healing energy that comes with being in the space and sharing conversations with other queer people.

© Elly Makem

When I was working alone, I didn’t realise how starved I was for queer contact. I think to be mentally well as a queer adult, it is necessary to maintain consistent queer relationships. There’s the obvious benefit of bouncing off ideas and exploring things, but honestly just talking normally for a few hours about growing up and coming out and having that sense of validation means the world. I don’t feel that my work is an island so much; I can actually see it live in other people’s minds as well.

Your Queer Zodiac series is so much fun to see! What inspired you to start it?

Thank you! That’s very kind of you. Honestly, I often like to start things and find the motivation for it afterwards. I was doodling about with the icon for Sagittarius – my star-sign, and I noticed that we have this very stereotypical imagery of the centaur as this masculine figure. It’s shirtless and quite obviously cis and male.

© Elly Makem

There’s certain elements of queer bodies I don’t see explored enough visually, that are unique to us. I thought it would be interesting to see what it would be like to have a centaur with top surgery scars, and a more ambiguous gender presentation. That lead to me wanting to challenge myself to try and remix the imagery of the Zodiac into queer iconography.

For your next comic, do you have a specific narrative in mind? And if so, what is the story behind wanting to write it?

Currently I’m writing something bigger, but I also have a few miniature comics on the back burner. The shorter comics are things that I think are funny and what I can try and squeeze into 10 panels on Instagram. There’s a few ones coming up about things that have happened in my life that I think can be exaggerated well with my sense of humour.

© Elly Makem

The bigger comic is much more personal. Early this year I realised I wanted to get into visual storytelling much more, so I began planning and drawing the storyboards for a larger visual novel. There have been two drafts so far, but really, it’s a very personal story related to my own experience growing up queer, catholic and autistic in Northern Ireland just post peace-process. I’m very interested in the transcendental potential of telling your own story, and honestly presenting the unique queer experience. I love seeing the fantastic depictions of queerness we’re getting now in media, but they are also so focussed on the American experience. Growing up queer in Northern Ireland has its own struggles so this is aiming to represent that.

Besides illustration, have you explored other art-forms? Are there any you would still like to play with?

I’m a really big fan of video editing. I honestly love making videos for things – whether I’m doing my own blatant self-promotion or silly things just to experiment. There’s something really special about creating something that has that visceral sense of movement. Punchlines are just that more impactful. Apart from that, I began writing properly this year. I’ve written for myself and my work and also fictional things, and I’m really enjoying it. I always have had plot lines sort of running about my head and actually putting them down into paper has been really rewarding.
I may regret writing this but I’d love to explore dance as well, as I think it really links to that sense of movement. Maybe when the lockdown is over, who knows.

Your use of colour is incredibly bold, but it seems to change in stages. Is there anything that influences it? Moods? Seasons?

I definitely enjoy bold colours, I find myself at home with them. In terms of the progression in my use of them, I’ve had a bit of a journey with it. I really got into reading about Piet Mondrian – and by extension, Marlow Moss - this year and their theoretical standpoint on colour. To use it to visually replicate the pure energy that exists in everything. Both Mondrian and Moss’ minimalist vocabulary influenced me to keep restricting back my palette. I tend to keep to the same one at for a few months at least, but now I feel that I’m more interested in getting more out of less. I’m keeping with pink for now, and just seeing where I can go with it.

© Elly Makem

What has been your most enjoyable project so far?

For this year, it has to be the comics. Although I’ve only publicly published 2 or 3, I’ve sketched dozens this year as practice. Just really getting into it. Honestly, it felt like coming home. I feel much more connected to creating visuals and puns and pacing. I enjoy every part of it so much.

If you could be in any game/fantasy/animation world, which one would it be?

Ha ha! This is a really hard question. You have the ones you love but might not be fun to live in, and maybe ones that are a bit more boring but would actually be really cool. I’m going to have to say the Avatar universe. I think I’d be a fire-bender, that would be too cool.

All the thanks in the world to Elly Makem. It was a pleasure to take a walk through your process, and have a peek at your illustrations. We look forward to the development of your work, whether that is more illustrations, video - or dance! Of course, there is much more to see where that came from.

To see more of Elly's work on instagram, click the link: @ellymakes

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