Clay Hickson is the co-founder of The Smudge– an illustrator whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Apartmento and Inka. Growing up with artistic parents in the “hippy farm town” of Sebastopol, he didn’t imagine he’d be an artist. Munching on couscous, fennel and olives, we talk about how food and diner culture have influenced his work.
I would start by saying that I don’t think I’m good at lunch. I’m definitely more in the camp of eating something fast, like a bowl of cereal or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so I can get back to work.
I would start by saying that I don’t think I’m good at lunch.
I made lunch today. It’s couscous with fennel and olives. It’s really good. It’s from the Salad for President cookbook. I know my way around the kitchen. I can whip something up but my wife’s definitely better at it so I don't cook as much anymore. A lot of days my wife will go down and make something and call me when it’s ready, which is a real treat.
You can spend a lot of time working on something that doesn’t look good.
With drawing, you can get caught up in it and forget to step back and think about what you’re doing. You can spend a lot of time working on something that doesn’t look good. Stepping away for a minute and coming back to it with fresh eyes is always helpful.
I really love drawing food or tablescapes, like I did for Inka. I don’t know why that is. It’s just something I felt I was good at so I kept doing it. My favorite things to draw are usually breakfast related. I think I associate it with a kind of diner culture from the 70’s that I always wish I had been able to experience. You know, a “regular at the diner.” In my mind, people went to the diner every day in the 70’s. There’s something about that that I love, both socially and aesthetically.
My favorite things to draw are usually breakfast related. I associate it with a kind of diner culture from the 70’s that I always wish I had been able to experience.
Growing up, I never actually planned on doing illustration work even though I was around it. My mom kept us busy with crafts for sure. She just had tons of art supplies because of her job (art therapist) so it was always around. And my dad was an illustrator. He worked out of the house - he had a little studio - and we would watch him illustrate.
At first, illustration was totally on the side. I never really pursued it. I always had day jobs, working in coffee shops and libraries and stuff, and then whenever I would get an illustration job, I would just do it at night after work. Slowly, I got busier and busier with that and finally, I decided to quit my day job.
Slowly, I got busier and busier with that and finally, I decided to quit my day job.
I liked working those day jobs though… chatting with people and having coworkers. The life of an illustrator’s pretty solitary. Luckily, my wife is also an illustrator so we hang out. But if it wasn’t for her, I would pretty much be alone in this room all day.
Tan & Loose Press (we recently changed the name to Caboose) was the name of the press that we started in 2011 or ‘12 and it was the name we published ‘zines’ under. My wife and I started The Smudge right after the 2016 election. We were, I think, like a lot of people, feeling overwhelmed at the direction the world seemed to be going. We had thoughts and emotions and wanted a place to express them. We’d been publishing books for a few years so we had all the printing and shipping infrastructure to do this. We still don’t really know what we’re doing but we’ve been kinda winging it and figuring it out as we go.
My wife and I started The Smudge right after the 2016 election. We had thoughts and emotions and wanted a place to express them.
There’s been a lot of jobs that called for things that were out of my wheelhouse though. Some people don’t have those limitations. Some people have a real knack for communicating visually but for me, it’s always been a real struggle and been stressful.
There was one job that’s definitely up there in terms of my favorite jobs. I illustrated a cookbook for Apartamento magazine, which had been and still is one of my favorite magazines. They put out a cookbook every year with different themes and they get one person to illustrate it so I was really excited to get to do one. I illustrated the soup cookbook.
Every once in a while, we’ll throw one of those together for dinner and sit on the floor and just eat bread and cheese.
Cheese is the main thing we always have. We’re big cheese eaters. We make plowman’s lunches. A plowman’s lunch is a piece of bread and a piece of cheese and a few pickled things. Every once in a while, we’ll throw one of those together for dinner and sit on the floor and just eat bread and cheese.
Words by Nayla Al-Mamlouk and Photography by Elena Mudd
Want Clay's lunch recipe? Click here.