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A talk with Berta Cusó

Hi Berta, how are you? Nice to see you at 2chairs! Your way to art doesn't look like a straight line: you started as an architect and landed up as a books illustrator. Let's start from the beginning – what does architecture mean for you?

Hi Lena, it's my pleasure! Architecture is a fascinating subject. I decided to study it because it brings so many different interesting aspects into play: art, philosophy, and sociology combined with physics and the rough reality of the materials and the construction site. I find it is one of the most complete disciplines. But the reality of the professional world is far from this beautiful ideal of architecture. When I was working as an architect I felt more and more distant from this world.

Did you find architecture as a field of dominant masculinity? Did you feel any gender pressure? If so, how did you deal with this?

In university, there were lots of female students and although most of the professors were men from the older generation of architects there were also some inspiring women teaching. But most of the architects we studied and looked at were men, we had few female architects as referents.

In the professional world, I did feel a lot the dominance of masculinity. Not in the art-world related projects (exhibition design and so on) but in the conventional architecture world, yes, definitely, extremely. Especially in the way of communication, the dynamics. On some projects I found myself sitting around a table with ten german men to discuss. Being the only woman, the youngest and the only foreigner made me feel of course in a very strange position and completely out of place. They were project coordinators, clients, specialists in statics, plumbing, electrical installations... At first, I was very intimidated but with time I learned to just smile and appear calm in front of the pressure and the discussions... I was laughing a bit inside myself seeing all these men fight for "problems" that when you look at it with a bit of perspective have zero relevance in the world.

All these discussions... together with other absurdities of the job brought me away from architecture. I learned a lot from these meetings, and I collected all the funny anecdotes to make a series of weekly comics for a Spanish newspaper about the experiences of a migrant architect woman in Germany.

Are you working today on architect projects as a freelancer? Do you still have any passion for architecture?

From time to time I collaborate with other architects on projects but it is becoming rarer and rarer that I do it. I am now centred on illustration and I teach drawing at the Open University of Catalonia. I do have an interest in architecture from a theoretic and speculative point of view and also as an aesthetic experience. I have several architect friends and the gaze I got from practising architecture stays with me: the perception of spaces and light, three-dimensional thinking, and a particular interest in details and materials... I enjoy good architecture, I always have to smile when I stumble upon a building by Bruno Taut while walking around Berlin.
Why have you decided to change your career? How did you start as an artist?

I think the key for me was that I never stopped drawing since I am a child. As an adult, when I would come back home from my architecture job I was not checking out architecture magazines and news, I was drawing and reading.

As I got more and more emotionally detached from my job, it became more and more clear that what I wanted to do with my time was a draw and that worrying about the details of some special doors or discussing for hours about the best floor tiles for a project was not what I was interested in.

Somehow the shift came at a special moment: I started practising ashtanga yoga daily very early in the mornings before going to work. This daily routine of waking up at 5:45, riding the bike across Berlin, still dark, to the yoga studio and practising in silence before going to work helped me see clearly what I wanted and gave me the courage to make a change. I stopped working as an architect and centred myself on illustrating my own projects, looking for clients, and entering competitions... it worked out. I am much happier now.

What is your favourite artistic medium? What do you use more often and do you know why you choose it?

Watercolour for the uncontrollable aspect of the water and the focus it requires. And pencil for the immediacy of it, I find the connection of the brain to the hand with the pencil is very direct. I can think well in pencil, maybe this comes from my architecture times.

How do you come up with ideas for your illustrations? Do you work on a certain topic or social issue?

Most of my ideas come from just observing the world with a mindset of curiosity and admiration. If you walk around and look closely you will see we humans are all very strange and very particular, same with the things. All these orange trashcans in Berlin, or the mailboxes, bicycles! and nature... it is all quite weird and impressive I find. As for the topics, I have worked a lot on drawing women, on portraying a different image of women that differs from the dominating and harmful convention. I am also interested in certain subcultures of resistance, for instance, I made a comic about the Chinatown and the Paral-lel avenue of Barcelona during the 1950s and 60s. In times of the dictatorship, this area became an epicentre of the LGTBI scene with numerous theatres and cabarets, semi-clandestine environments that opened a crack of light in the heavy darkness of the Franco regime. Naked dances and transvestite shows were mixed with humour and musical numbers. Catalan was sometimes spoken on stage despite the ban on that language. That area of the city was mostly frequented by poor workers, prostitutes and artists, but with the growing popularity of these places, the rich bourgeoisie also ventured there after spending the evening at the Liceu Opera, attracted by the shows that broke the censorship and the taboo.

As a storyteller what do you prefer: comics or a single drawing?

I love drawing so I enjoy both, but there is something about the process of sequencing images that makes it special, very close to cinema or theatre, depending on how you approach it. Working on comics and illustrated books is a lot of work, an intense creative process that gets me immersed in another world. I love it.

Could you please tell a few words about "Women" represented here? What is the story behind it?

It came in a very free way, without previous sketches. It was the beginning of March last year and I was thinking a lot about the past and life challenges and my strong women friends. My mum always says: we women, we have to do things. Do whatever you want but be in the world, set precedents for little girls, and let them see you doing it so they know it's not impossible.

And I am thankful for all the inspiring women in the world that allowed me to see beyond what seemed possible. Later, I developed several drawings after this one, a series about women of all kinds supporting and empowering each other.

We talk with you at disturbing times, when it is clear that most previous global agreements are outdated. How do you see the role of the artist in changing conditions? What art can bring to the table?

It can be difficult to appreciate or even see the importance of art in moments like these, but I think art and culture are essential for bringing out the humanity in us. Art comes from life, from emotions, from thought, it has something very intimate with how the creator lives in the world and it can awaken very intimate responses in the observer. I believe art is not only a powerful protest and resistance tool but also it is what can bring us back in touch with our human essence, and remind us that we are part of a whole.

Could you please share your plans or hopes for the future?

My plans are to keep drawing and telling stories. I want to do more non-fiction illustrated books about stories and people that I think are important and that do not belong to the higher-culture world. There are lots of people out there working on the edges, doing important work and making things happen. I am a big believer in the relevance of the applied arts. And I prefer the circus to the opera. I think this culture from the margins brings joy, and thought, and has an impact on society that is usually underestimated. I hope I can continue spending my days drawing.

Thanks for coming and having a thorough conversation. Good luck, Berta