A Million Ways To Color A Tree

“Art is the one connecting factor. That’s what brought us all together and made us friends. You think it’s just a small drawing in a notebook, but it has a giant power.”

-Ross Carvill 

The first time I met Ross, he was wearing a monochromatic green outfit he had sourced from various stoop sales around his neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn that very day. From that moment I knew we would be friends. 

Ross is an illustrator from Ireland who uses drawing as a means to connect with people and places around him. Some days this looks like drawing on the windows of a fish market, sketching every dog he pets in a given day, or sheepishly attending a wooden spoon carving club with a whittled leopard bird he made.

Ross in his Bed Stuy apartment Brooklyn, NY, 2023. Photo courtesy of Clara Harlow.

Clara Harlow: I’m curious what play looks like to you? 

Ross Carvill: Not taking the world for the easiest perception of it. Like, you can easily look at the world and accept it for what it looks like – a tree has branches, leaves are green, dogs only have four legs. That’s easy to do, but if you widen your perception of things a tree doesn’t have to be brown, and it isn’t necessarily brown. 

Clara Harlow: I love that too because it speaks to actually looking, rather than just drawing the image of a tree that you have in your head and reproducing that over and over again. You actually have to look at what’s in front of you and ask questions. 

Ross Carvill: There are a million ways you can color a tree. But I feel like it’s also about breaking rules, too. People keep telling me “I can’t draw hands,” or “I can’t do perspective.” I want to make a tee shirt that says “Fuck Perspective,” because I feel like people are always getting so caught up in that. Why are we following these rules that someone made like 1000 years ago? People have drawn buildings with perfect perspective hundreds of times. But if you draw a building how you see it, that’s more beautiful in my books than just trying to recreate something that someone else has written for you. Those rules aren’t your rules. Your view of the world is unique to you, so why would you try and censor that by following rules that were written by somebody else? So playing to me means being honest with yourself and your perceptions, I suppose. 

Clara Harlow: I feel like the way that you approach drawing is like conversation. It’s your way of speaking and connecting with folks. 

Ross Carvill: Definitely, and I struggle sometimes to speak, about emotions for example. But I feel like I digest a lot of stuff through drawing. It’s always like a safe place that I can go to no matter how I’m feeling. If I’m ever trying to explain something, it’s always easier just to draw it and show the person. But it also comes up when I’m asked about what sort of drawings I make. I’ve never been able to answer that question, I always just have to open my notebook and show them. It’s funny. 

Clara Harlow: I think that keeps your work really accessible, though. Your style and point of view allows for all sorts of folks to be able to connect with you – about your day, about New York, about funny or hard life experiences. To me, your drawings really function as an invitation.

Ross Carvill: Totally. Last week, I was doing Halloween windows for businesses and people were looking at me drawing through the glass and were really interested in what I was doing. I really like that environment where I’m in my own world of drawing, but at the same time, I’m interacting with people. Over 3 days I gave out 93 flyers for Halloween window drawing in Brooklyn and got 8 jobs from it. I ended up doing 2 coffee shops, 2 smoke shops, 2 pizza restaurants, a liquor shop, and a 40 year old fish shop! It’s a really cool opportunity to have my drawings where people can see them too because I have so many drawings in my notebooks that no one ever sees except me. I draw them and then I turn the page and then that’s usually the end of the life of the drawing. So bringing folks in is a very integral part of my practice. 

Flyer for Ross’ interactive drawing event. Brooklyn, NY, 2022. Photo courtesy of Ross Carvill.

Clara Harlow: Speaking of that, can you tell me about your Mystical Magical Maths drawing events?

Ross Carvill: Mystical Magical Maths is a live interactive show where the audience gives me one animal and one object, and then I magically combine them together on a giant piece of paper. And while I’m drawing, I also tell a story and a joke. It was never meant to be like,  stand up comedy, but people find it funny. It started as just a way of selling drawings, to be honest. In the beginning, I was doing art markets in Dublin, and had a spinning wheel that I made out of cardboard, a fidget spinner, and a hot glue gun. It had all these animals and objects written on it, and people spun it twice and whatever it landed on I drew on a piece of paper and then they purchased the original drawing. So it was just kind of a way of interacting with people, but then COVID happened immediately after I made the wheel, and then I was in my bedroom drawing on my own. And I was like, I wonder if I can still connect to people in a safe way while we’re all in lockdown, so I started going live on Instagram and recording my hand drawing while people commented with animals and objects for me to draw. I did 20 episodes of that during COVID times and I also took over two whiskey distilleries’ Instagrams and a screen printing studios’ Instagram. 

Clara Harlow: Can you talk a little bit about the Irish children’s television show you’re featured on? 

Ross Carvill: Yes, it’s a show called This is Art and we just filmed our third season this year. Each episode is a different theme and I have a segment where I come up with a piece of art to make with kids. The idea is that viewers are then inspired to make it at home. It’s been interesting, I had just come from COVID times when making during lockdown looked like making YouTube videos of my art process, sort of making my own TV show you could say, but it was a lot of work and editing. I was feeling negative about it because I was just putting so much time into them and there wasn’t much payback from it. And then the final video I did I was like, this is going to be the one! I spent a month going to multiple rivers around Dublin sourcing pieces of pottery and, unfortunately, plastic from the waterways and making this big fish mosaic out of it.  I spent so long making the video and then I put it up and it barely got any traction. So I was like, frick this, and I didn’t make another one for ages, but that ended up being the video that the director of the TV show saw. I went from being very negative about it to being given this opportunity, which is interesting. I never planned on being on TV, it’s funny, it’s one of those things that just happened.

Still from the television show, This is Art! Screenshot by Clara Harlow.

Clara Harlow: So your segment is Ross’ Art Corner?

Ross Carvill: That’s what we were calling it initially because I had a corner on the set, although on the new season there’s a different set, so I’m not sure if we can call it that anymore. Last season was cool though because we put a lot more emphasis on my segment, so we were actually out and about in the world drawing in Dublin Castle and drawing at the circus and drawing at the zoo being surrounded by lemurs. So I was able to bring a sense of place into the work with the kids which is cool. 

Clara Harlow: What do you like about collaborating with kids?
Ross Carvill: It’s amazing to see their creativity and it reminds me of drawing when I was a kid. There are so many people that I meet that tell me they used to draw when they were kids. I always like the opportunity to be that person that provides encouragement that keeps them drawing. Even if one of the kids that I’ve taught over the years keeps drawing then it’s been worthwhile.

St. Patrick’s Day window painting. Dublin, Ireland, 2020. Photo courtesy of Ross Carvill. 

Clara Harlow: Yeah, that’s amazing. Did you know that I actually kind of have a complicated relationship to drawing?

Ross Carvill: Why?

Clara Harlow: I think it has something to do with how people expect you to be skilled at drawing and enjoy it if you’re an artist. I think growing up I felt a lot of pressure to do it in a certain way. But also the process and product of executing something formally impressive has always been boring for me.

Ross Carvill: Yeah, I feel like maybe a reason why a lot of people stop is because they’re comparing themselves to other people. But the other thing about when kids draw is that they are 100% drawing the way that they see the world. I mean, they’re drawing people and the person might not be a proportionate person, and they might have big blue arms, or they might have like a gigantic eyeball, and then a tiny eyeball, or like a giant pointy nose. You might think that’s not how you draw a person! But that is their view. And they’re not worrying about what other people are thinking about it. That’s a big part of it. 

Clara Harlow: Yeah, totally. There’s a lack of self consciousness and they’re just leaning into intuition. I think the other piece of my wonky relationship to drawing is that I’m an artist who struggles working in solitude. There’s such an association with writing and drawing in solitude, but I’m so drawn to your practice because I think you really challenge these historical hang ups that I have with drawing as a medium. 

Ross Carvill: The only thing it has to look like is whatever you want it to look like! You should come with me tonight to the Art Club group. It’s this evening at 7pm in Williamsburg. 

Clara Harlow: Yeah, I remember I went to the Artists of the Met group with you once and I was surprised by how hard it was for me to sit down and draw for an extended period of time. I keep a notebook and I observe and make a lot of lists in it, but I hadn’t intentionally sat down and drawn something in so long. And I think it made me have to confront some blocks I have around drawing. It doesn’t come as naturally to me as a form of play, it feels obligatory. It really requires you to slow down and listen to a space, which I think I typically resist.

Ross Carvill: It’s the only time in the day I slow down, to be honest with you. I’m constantly like, go, go go and my brain is constantly like, go, go, go. It’s such a busy world that we live in, and especially in the city. But it’s really the only opportunity I have every day to just 100% slow down. It’s sort of time for me and it’s not always easy to give yourself that space for sure.

Clara Harlow: Yeah, I feel inspired by the way you push what drawing can be and do. It really feels like a form of conversation with your community. You’re using this medium that could be so solitary and insular and instead using it as a means to connect and collaborate. It reminds me of your Eddy Goldfarb drawing. Can you tell me a bit about that exchange?

Ross with his flea market find. Brooklyn, NY, 2023. Photo courtesy of Clara Harlow.
A still of Eddy Goldfarb with his Chattering Teeth from short film, The Man Who Invented More than 800 Iconic Toys by Lyn Goldfarb. Photo courtesy of The New Yorker.

Ross Carvill:  A few years ago I watched a short documentary from the New Yorker about Eddy Goldfarb, this toy designer whose biggest hit was the chattering teeth toy. I appreciated him and his attitude towards creativity and I felt inspired to draw him. So I did, and then I found his Instagram page and messaged him the drawing out of the blue. I didn’t think he was gonna reply, but then his daughter did reply. I told them I’d love it if you could have this drawing, so I sent it to them and they sent back a photo of Eddy holding the teeth drawing.

That was like two or three years ago and I didn’t really think about it for a while. But then I was at the Brooklyn Flea Market under the bridge in Dumbo a few months ago and I found the teeth toy. I was so excited because this was the first time I’d actually seen it in person. And then I told the whole story to the guy working at the flea market and he thought it was cool so he gave me a discount for the story. 

Drawing by Ross. Brooklyn, NY, 2023. Photo courtesy of Ross Carvill

Clara Harlow: Can you tell me about all the meetup groups you’ve attended? 

Ross Carvill: Well, there have been many, but the two I regularly go to are a drawing group in Williamsburg that meets every Monday night at a bar and Artists of the Met where we go to museums to draw, but we also go to parks and other places. Yesterday we went to Sleepy Hollow, where the Headless Horseman myth originated, to draw stuff. It was funny, it was actually like an unofficial collaboration between the two big drawing groups. 

Clara Harlow: How is drawing with other people different from drawing on your own?

Ross Carvill: It’s interesting because my mission is always a very solo mission. I call my art days my hermit days, and I don’t really speak to many people. I’m very much a people’s person, but I always struggle letting someone do a part of my piece of art because it’s such a personal thing. Like, recently I needed help with a budgeting aspect of a project and it was hard to let somebody in, but when it’s somebody doing their own piece of art beside me, it’s different. 

Clara Harlow: Like parallel play. 

Ross Carvill: Yeah, it’s nice to have company and experience places together. It’s also interesting when we go somewhere, and we’ll all be drawing the same scenery–it’s just always amazing to see, like, 15 or 20 versions of how different people have digested and seen the exact same location. 

Clara Harlow: Are you nervous when you go to meet up with a group of all strangers?

Ross Carvill: I’m a weird person that sort of feeds off those situations. I’ve always been intrigued by job interviews and starting new things. There are definitely anxieties, but I feel like curiosity overpowers the anxieties. But I also like being in a space where the connection is art. Having that boundary broken already takes away a lot of the anxieties of meeting a new person. You already know that you’re meeting somebody that shares a passion of yours, so you’re not starting from zero, you’re already starting with a deep connection. 

Clara Harlow: Yeah, absolutely. 

Ross Carvill: Yeah, that is a beautiful thing about it as well. Art is the connector between people from India, people from Ireland, people from Texas in these groups. Everyone’s from different cultural backgrounds, religions, upbringings, different everything. It doesn’t matter about any of that stuff. You can throw all that stuff out the fucking window because the only thing that really matters in that space is that we all are artists, we all draw, and we all appreciate and love drawing. 

Clara Harlow: That’s your shared language.

Ross Carvill:  Art is the one connecting factor. That’s what brought us all together and made us friends. You think it’s just a small drawing in a notebook, but it has a giant power. 

Ross Carvill (he/him) is a freelance illustrator from Dublin, Ireland currently living in Brooklyn. Ross has been drawing every single day since he could hold a pen. He loves to draw everything from lobsters mixed with roosters to documenting a conversation with a stranger on the street. He has worked with brands such as Hopfully breweries, Dead Rabbit Irish Whiskey, Ilk clothing, Anti Social bar, SOMY, The Dubliner Irish Whiskey, 48 Ireland, Clay Plants, Tesco Ireland, RTÉ and Innocent Smoothies. Visit his website to see his projects and follow him on Instagram for updates.

Clara Harlow (she/her) is an artist, designer, and preschool teacher from Omaha, Nebraska. Her work weaves together community, intimacy, and play through experiential events and objects. She has collaborated with Four-D, Fire Escape, The Tom Collective, Lolo NYC, Sounds, and the Fabric Workshop Museum Shop. Clara currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.  www.claraharlow.com 

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

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Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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