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Word on the Street Toronto Weekly Feature: Interview with Saul Freedman-Lawson
Title card image courtesy of Word on the Street Toronto, photo courtesy of Saul Freedman-Lawson
On June 17, 2021, Youth Advisory Board Saul Freedman-Lawson spoke with Yeli Cruz from Word on the Street Toronto for a special Pride Week feature.
The full video is below, with a transcript following.
Special thanks to Shim Hirchberg and Maggie Thistle for transcribing!
Yeli (she/her): Hi everyone, welcome to WOTS Weekly Features. Today’s guest is Saul Freedman-Lawson, illustrator and youth advisory board member at Shameless magazine. We’ll be talking about intergenerational mentorship and systems of care. I’m Yeli Cruz and I’ll be your host.
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So now for our guest: Saul Freedman-Lawson is a student and illustrator living and working in Toronto, Ontario. They write and draw about queerness, transness, Judaism, and childhood and child care. Their comic Naturally is available from Old Growth Press in May 2021. They are the illustrator of S. Bear Bergman’s Special Topics in Being a Human, forthcoming from Arsenal Pulp Press in Fall of 2021. Welcome Saul, thanks so much for joining us today.
Saul Freedman-Lawson: Thank you so much for having me.
Yeli: I’m very excited to chat with you. So I guess we’ll just dive right in. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to illustration and how you ended up working with Shameless magazine?
Saul: For sure, and I kind of enjoy that that is the same story for me in a lot of ways. I started working with Shameless when I was 14 because the teacher who ran my middle school GSA said that she thought it would be something I’d be interested in.
Saul: And a thing that I really liked right away and continue to like about Shameless was that they take all of the young people they work with very seriously. And so they were hiring staff illustrators for the website and they hired from within the youth advisory board, in part. And so I started doing illustration work for them then, and they gave me Photoshop and set me loose and took me seriously as an illustrator when I was very very young and had no experience. Now I’m very very young and I have slightly more experience.
Yeli: (laughs) I love it.
Saul: (laughs) But that was how I started doing illustration work and it gave me a lot of confidence and I definitely learned a lot and continue to learn a lot through working with the editors there.
Yeli: Amazing. Definitely as an emerging writer myself as well, it’s always so refreshing and empowering to find places like that, that encourage you and want to nurture you and boost you up like that. So speaking of that, can you tell us a little bit more about this “intergenerational care and mentorship” that you wanted to mention and how that has shaped you as an artist.
Saul: For sure. And I thought it was really lovely that you asked what I would like to talk about today.
Yeli: Of course.
Saul: One of the things I have loved about working with Shameless is that there are these very strong systems of mentorship and of care. And so I’ve been able to work with people who have a lot more experience than I do. I’ve been able to work with people of a whole range of ages, and I really felt in a number of ways cared for, in terms of making art and as an illustrator, but also cared for personally. And a lot of the first trans people I met, I met through working with Shameless. I think that that experience and meeting those people and having that kind of care really shaped my life. Outside of that, I’ve been very lucky to work with queer people who are much older than I am, queer people who are much younger than I am. And that feels deeply valuable because I think if we don’t have that, every generation feels like they have to reinvent the wheel and they are the first and the only of whatever they are, and we’re not. It’s just sometimes hard to find people like us.
Yeli: Absolutely. Is there anything that you can pinpoint from your experience with Shameless that made you feel cared for? Was it a specific mentorship or just the environment in general? Do you have any advice for somebody who wants to nourish that culture themselves as well?
Saul: I used to come to Shameless meetings feeling deeply exhausted from like being a person, and you know, being queer in high school is exhausting. And I would always show up and feel like, “I don’t want to be here, I want to be at home under a blanket.” And then … meetings always had food. We always started by really checking in and seeing how everyone was doing. We always had conversations that felt focused on: what do we need, what do we want, what do we need going forward, how can we look after our communities, how can we look after each other. It felt deeply optimistic, in a way that was — not because people weren’t struggling, and not because people weren’t aware that it was all hard — but being in a space where people were listening, where people were really imagining a better future. I would leave and I would feel like I got energy.
Saul: Now this will keep me going, so you know, food at meetings, checking in, planning for the future, all of that.
Yeli: (laughs) Amazing. Meetings with food will definitely always get me there, put me in a good mood.
Saul: (laughs) Yes, I feel like one of the things I learned through Shameless was you can’t invite people to a meeting unless you’re going to feed them.
Yeli: (laughs) Amazing, if you take one thing from this interview, folks, that’s it (laughs). So let’s see, you mentioned that you wanted to chat about systems of care and that’s actually something that I had never heard about until you mentioned it, so could you please elaborate a little bit on what that means, and what that means to you in particular.
Saul: For sure. I think that when I talk about systems of care, I am thinking about care as work and care as labour, and I will cite my sources and say I am specifically thinking about Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ essay “Mothering Ourselves” from the book Revolutionary Mothering, where she talks about mothering in a pretty expansively gendered way, but as work - and as work that’s done through mentorship and as work that’s done. She talks about house mothers in ballroom culture and also talks about mothering as worked by child care workers and mothering as worked by enslaved women, and thinking about the way all of those systems regenerate themselves, like the good and the bad, regenerates itself because it is a system. How we can create systems of care that are not just about survival, and definitely not about enslavement, and are about how we can take care of our communities and building systems that will regenerate themselves in that way - so, care not as just about who we like in a particular moment or who we end up with in a particular moment. But about what can we build that will keep itself going moving forward? Even with different people, even in different situations, even when things get very difficult.
Yeli: Absolutely, so care that’s passed along like that from person to person, I love that.
Yeli: Do you find that systems of care play a role in your writing and illustration?
Saul: (laughs) absolutely yes. I am laughing a little bit because I spent part of this year working on a book with someone who I also see every day and who has shown up for me in a number of, just, massive ways and thinking about, you know, making work with people, that is a system of care - but then also making dinner for people, that is a system of care.
Saul: I have been lucky to make work with people who I feel both cared for by and able to care for, and I think we make better work from when we look after each other.
Yeli: Definitely. So, now on the flip side of that question a little bit, in terms of your writing and art specifically, does your writing and illustration have a relationship with queerness and queer pride?
Saul: Yes, absolutely. I sometimes say that I only draw trans people, which is not strictly true. I have occasionally drawn cis people. But for sure, I am always drawing from a queer place, and one of the things that I think is funny is that sometimes people have strong feelings about the gender of someone I’ve drawn or that they do not know the gender of someone I’ve drawn, and I am often just not thinking about it. I feel like I have been lucky to make work in places that I am just drawing people I find beautiful and people in ways I find beautiful, and I think that shapes my work a lot.
Yeli: So would you say gender is a big aspect of when you are drawing? It sounds like it doesn’t play as much of a role and that people are allowed to be gender-less in your work.
Saul: I think maybe both of them. I am trying to make work from a place of trans bodies as default. I think often when people are learning to draw, we learn to draw women as soft round shapes and always thin and always white, and men as square triangle shapes and always thin and always white. I think that that idea that there are two types of bodies of no overlap has very little to do with what bodies look like in the world and what people look like and what we are made of. I want to be able to draw a whole range of people, if only because otherwise I would get bored and I would never draw anyone that I thought was beautiful. People are not, you know, circle shapes or square shapes.
Yeli: We are not just two different kinds of bodies. Would you say that there are any other aspects of your identity that also contribute to your work or inspire you to draw certain things?
Saul: Yes, and I think this is true with anyone. All of the things that I am in the world shape my work in good and in bad ways. My work is shaped my queerness and my transness and my whiteness and my Jewishness and my thinness and my relationship to ability, and all of those things play into it. I also think that working with kids shapes my work a lot because the are very smart and make beautiful work and they often give me feedback and edits in ways that I also love. I did a comic this year about kids that I worked with and then I had some of them look at it in terms of consent, like, “is this ok for you to me to put out in the world?” And they would edit things like, “I would like to be wearing a different shirt in the picture,” or, “I think this part of it was about me.” And it was not (laughs). But I really like that and I think that informs the work that I am making in lot of ways. I get to work and lively closely to kids right now.
Yeli: Kids are so fun and also so brutally honest.
Saul: Yes, yeah. They will be like, “I don’t know what that is, I do know what that is and I like that.” I had a piece of art up the other day and my friend, who is also my friend’s child who is eleven, was over and was looking at it and was like, “I see this piece is about me and my younger sibling.” And it wasn’t (laughs), but they have a lot to say and they are very smart and see things that I don’t.
Yeli: I love that. What advice would you give to someone who is at the beginning of their journey as an artist or an illustrator?
Saul: This one feels hard because I am also starting things out and I feel like a lot of the places I have ended up are a combination of luck and privilege, and of being able to take on work that I wanted that does not pay well, and also meeting the right people at the right time. But I would say: work with other people, work with people you like. I feel really strongly that nobody makes good art in a vacuum with just their technical abilities and a pen. We learn a lot from other people, and not just other people who make the kind of work we are making, but people across the board. So talk to people, learn from people, make art with other people. Make weird stuff and learn about collaboration.
Yeli: Do you also have any advice maybe, for someone who is seeking out their community? So like you said, art isn’t made in a vacuum, but sometimes it can be very hard to not be trapped in that vacuum. So what would you say to someone who maybe doesn’t know how to find their people yet, do you have words of wisdom for somebody like that?
Saul: This also feels like a hard question, and I feel like particularly, lately, many people have felt very stuck where they are and particularly, many young people, sometimes very young people, have been stuck with parents and stuck with people who do not like them or do not see them. I think seeking out people who are not exactly like you helps, and so going in to places where it is not just people of your own age and own identity - if that is a thing that you can access, because sometimes it is not - but if that is available to you, access it, and also other things.
So I have a thing that I like when book stores are open. Go to readings for authors you do not know and sit next to people and talk to them. Work in places, if you can, with people that are interesting to you or find ways of connecting with people around you. I think the internet is sometimes great and sometimes not great at all (laughs), and if that is a thing that is available to you, then really seek out people who are not like you are. If you are, you know, fifteen and queer, seek out people who have been doing it longer than you have and also look for people who are even earlier in figuring it out then you are, and find ways to make community with them.
Yeli: Amazing. I like that you mentioned seeking out people that are different than you are, because I think there is something you can learn form all sorts of people in whatever field you are working in. To wrap things up, can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming work and how we can support you and uplift you?
Saul: Yes, I just had a comic come out with Old Growth Press and I feel excited about that. I love the people who work there. The editorial team is fabulous and the other people who work there are fabulous. So that is a thing that you can get now, and hold in your hands. And I have a book coming out that I illustrated, that you mentioned earlier, written by Bear Bergman, who is brilliant and who I thought was brilliant even before I was biased about it, so I get to say that (laughs). That is coming out in October from Arsenal Pulp and I feel very excited about that. It is a book of advice, and I have been able to draw a lot of people doing things they should and should not be doing. (laughs)
Yeli: Very fun, and what I have seen from that book, it is also related to childhood.
Saul: A little bit. So, naturally the comic feels a little bit about childhood, and then Special Topics in Being a Human is very much about figuring out how to be a person in the world and about how to be a person with other people. I think it is very good if you are like me and young and trying to figure it out, but I also think it works for people at a whole range of ages.
Yeli: Awesome. Thank you so much for joining us, this has been such a great chat and we have loved having you here and we are very excited.
Saul: Thank you so much, thank you for having me. This has been lovely.
Yeli: This has been amazing. Bye!
This has been today’s WOTS weekly feature. Tune in next week for Indigenous People’s week with special guests, Kegedonce Press, All Lit Up, and the First Nations Community Read. For discount and deals, check out toronto.thewordonthestreet.ca/weekly-features. From all of us at WOTS, Happy Pride Week!