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Tillie Walden started drawing at 16. Ten years later, she's the cartoonist laureate of Vermont

Artwork done in many shades of green that looks like embroidery. The image includes trees, water, a house and a child.
Tillie Walden
Tillie Walden has finished and published more than 10 books in the 10 years since she started drawing. Her work has been recognized for its authentic portrayal of adolescence that often includes queer themes.

Norwich resident Tillie Walden has been chosen to be Vermont’s fifth cartoonist laureate, and will be appointed to the three-year term on April 13 at the Statehouse in Montpelier.

At the age of 26, she is the youngest artist to receive the honor. Walden, who started drawing when she was 16, has finished and published more than 10 books. Clementine, Book Two, which she wrote and illustrated, and Junior High, which she illustrated, are expected this year.

She also teaches at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction.

A photo of a woman with red hair and round glasses
Tillie Walden
Tillie Walden has been chosen as Vermont's next cartoonist laureate.

Host Connor Cyrus talked with her about her serendipitous path to art, her messy creative process, how she would like to see queer characters portrayed and what she loves about Vermont.

An edited transcript of that conversation is below.

Connor Cyrus: When did you start drawing? Did you always know you wanted to be a cartoonist?

Tillie Walden: Actually, whenever I'm on a panel amongst a lot of other artists, and this question get asked, everyone's always like, “Oh yeah, basically, I came out of the womb, and I picked up a pencil and I started drawing.” That could not be further from the truth for me.

You know how kids get identified by the few things they do? I was the kid who was an ice skater, and I wore glasses, and I was a twin —and art had nothing to do with anything in my identity until I was 16. My dad, who was a big nerd, signed me up for a comics class that I think he wanted to take himself. But he had work to do, so he sent me instead.

I took the comics class, which was with a guy named Scott McCloud — a force in our industry. And it completely altered the course of my life. I made a really bad comic, and Scott looked me in the eyes and was like, “This is really good.” And let me tell you, it was not really good. He was lying to me. But that's OK. I talked to him years later. And I was like, “Scott, thank you for lying to me. I've made like 10 graphic novels, and my life is great.”

But it was just this random thing where my life collided with comics. And I thought, I think I love this. I gave it a year of just making comics. It was my last year of high school, the time when everyone is deciding who they're going to be. And by the end of that year, I had made comics every single day. And I went to my parents and told them: "I'm not going to college. I'm going to be a cartoonist. And I'm moving to Vermont." And all three of those sentences were hard for them.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in New Jersey and Texas. But at that time, I was in high school in Texas and dying to get out of Texas. In my high school, they put the list out of where everyone was going, and it was just like Texas, Texas, Texas... Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont.

But kudos to my dad, he made a lesbian joke, and I thought it was hilarious. He was like, "I'm gonna get you a Subaru, because that's going to help you find a girlfriend."

So what went into the decision to move to Vermont to study cartooning? 

Well, I was really lucky in that what I think is the finest comics program in the country happens to be in an old post office building in White River Junction. And, you know, I was looking for a place to study and hone my craft. [The Center for Cartoon Studies] was really the only school that was offering me exactly what I wanted, which was doing nothing but comics. All other four-year art universities have a lot of emphasis on you know, painting and life drawing and learning the fundamentals. But CCS was like nope, none of that. You're gonna be a cartoonist if you come here. And the fact that it was in Vermont just seemed like this extra kind of fascinating thing.

I didn't know a lot about Vermont before I got in my Subaru and drove up here at 18, rented my first apartment and got my first job. I still remember going grocery shopping for the first time in my life alone at one of the co-ops in White River, and being like, “What's a co-op? What am I supposed to do? Am I allowed to shop here?”

But it's all because of the school that I came to Vermont, and it's because of the school that I fell in love with Vermont and ultimately fell in love with my wife, and now live here.

You have received numerous accolades, but the most recent is you being named the state’s next cartoonist laureate, which is a high honor. What does that title mean to you? And what do these accolades mean to you?

It's so hard to process, because I worked so hard alone in my house. And when you find external validation, it is sort of shocking. What I found most overwhelming and beautiful about being named the Vermont Cartoonist Laureate is, before this happened, I loved Vermont, and I love living here. But I never expected the state to love me back. You know, I was really content to just live here, start a family here, be myself here, make art here. And I thought that was the end of the sentence. But with this title and this honor, and this three-year term — it sounds very official —I realized that it's Vermont's way of giving some love back to me.

Now it just makes me feel an even bigger responsibility to do what I can to spread the word, not only about this great state, but about what it means to make comics here, what it means to be gay here.

"What I found most overwhelming and beautiful about being named the Vermont Cartoonist Laureate is, before this happened, I loved Vermont, and I love living here. But I never expected the state to love me back."
Tillie Walden

What does it mean for you to be queer here in Vermont? And how does your life story of coming out in Texas play into the art that you make today?

I mean, it's night and day. I have some love still in my heart for Texas. But at the end of the day, I was genuinely worried for my safety almost every day that I was there. And even when I go back and visit, I'm hesitant to hold my wife's hand, which is nothing I ever want to feel.

Whereas when I'm walking into Dan & Whit's [General Store in Norwich], it doesn't bother me in the slightest to hold my wife's hand or say anything that comes across as queer. I found Vermont to be an enormously accepting state. It was a wonderful state to get married in. It was a wonderful state to get a house in. And it's a wonderful state to start a family. And because reproductive laws for queer couples are really different in a lot of different states. And Vermont is one of the few places where it's a really good and safe place to be a queer parent.

So as far as how that impacted my art, I mean, when you're queer, when you have any marginalized identity, and you're somewhere where you're allowed to relax, what's fascinating is that, then your identity almost becomes secondary, and you really start just living your life. And what's been so wonderful about making art in Vermont is I've been allowed to make queer art that has so much more depth to it.

Whereas when I was living in Texas, even just having a character come out felt like such a big deal. Now I'm realizing I can tell stories so far beyond just coming-out stories, because I myself can live beyond just coming out.

Walk us through that, what does that mean to you? And what are you seeing in terms of queer character arcs? 

Yeah, it's really interesting. It’s a great time to be a lesbian in comics. But at the same time, I can't help but feel like so much queer representation right now is really arbitrary. I was just talking to my wife about this yesterday, how it doesn't actually make me feel any better about who I am and the life I live when I see two girls kiss in a movie on Netflix, because queer identity isn't something that starts and stops. And I think the frustration I get with so much media and queer representation is that they still treat queerness a little bit like this, this plot point, like, it just happens once and we got it, we gave you your queer thing. And let's go on and move on to more important things in the story.

Whereas to me queer identity, is like, it's akin to like how tall I am and how much I weigh. It's a part of me that is constantly shifting, and it's so complex. And it's so nuanced, too.

I love that there is so much more positive, queer representation out there. That's a beautiful thing, and not something I saw a lot of when I was younger. But at the same time, one of my goals as an artist is to try to really authentically represent queer people, and that includes queer people that aren't perfect, and queer people that have complex relationships to their queerness that might not always be easily accessible to people who aren't queer. And I think that's the big thing that gets me down about a lot of queer representation now, is it feels so sanitized. I mean, anyone who's queer knows how complex and strange and wonderful and wild and horrible and great our life is.

So let's take a step back a little bit. I want to hear about your creative process and how you approach different comics. 

Yeah, I also have a very messy creative process. So every time I have an idea for a new book, I basically just sit down and I draw the entire book, without much thinking, without any planning. I don't write any scripts. And the whole point of jumping right into drawing a book, usually in pencil, is to let the idea be in its worst form possible. There's nothing wrong with making a bad book. That’s something that I tell my students, and I really believe, because when you make a really bad book, that's what leads you to making a good book.

So my creative process is all about taking the idea, fleshing it out there on the paper, and then refining it, trying it again and again, until I can really discover what the story is about.

I think a lot of people, especially artists, suffer from impostor syndrome. How do you fight that inner saboteur, as RuPaul calls it? 

You know, it's something I've worked on for so many years, and it's something I have truly squashed down inside of me. So I'm here to tell you, any artists who are listening, imposter syndrome can be fully destroyed inside of you. You can't wait for someone to give you the validation you need. You have to give it to yourself right now. And you have to give it to yourself every single day.

Right before I came into the studio for this interview, did I just draw a page of comics that looked really bad? Yes, I did. Do I care? Not really, because I know that deep down, there's something in that page that is worthy. And the next page I'm going to do, I'm sure will further reflect what I'm capable of. But this is all to say I am so aggressively positive about my own art. And I do — I try to pass that along to my students to believe in themselves, and constantly say to themselves that you can do this.

Broadcast live on Thursday, March 16, 2023, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Connor Cyrus was co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition from 2021-2023.
Tedra joined Vermont Public as a producer for Vermont Edition in January 2022 and now serves as the Managing Editor and Senior Producer. Before moving to Vermont, she was a journalist in New York City for 20 years. She has a master’s degree in journalism from New York University.