How Illustrator Corey Wash Created A Genderless Anti-Hero Who Says Everything We Wish We Could

“I like to piss people off. I think that’s what art is supposed to do.”

December 23, 2016
How Illustrator Corey Wash Created A Genderless Anti-Hero Who Says Everything We Wish We Could Geordie Briscoe

Los Angeles-based artist Corey Wash's illustrations capture the simplicity of our inner thoughts and daily conflicts. In 2012, the Baltimore native moved to New York to pursue modeling and photography, but she began to paint after getting a little bored with those ventures. Eventually, she started making free-hand drawings depicting the life experiences of a non-gendered, oddly cute character named Willoughby. The character represents Wash's inner life, and in turn, sheds light on the issues that many of us battle with. By writing out Willoughby's internal monologues and their conversations with others, she's able to bring awareness to pertinent narratives surrounding black people, feminism, politics, and mental health.

Over the phone, Wash told The FADER why she chose not to gender Willoughby, how nature inspires her, and why it's more important to talk about anxiety than ever.

Tell me about Willoughby, the main character in your cartoon. How did they come to be?

I was with a friend one weekend, at her apartment, drawing a bunch of plants. Then I drew 30 more drawings of things I saw in the house, and I started putting little characters into place. I started drawing faces, and then those faces eventually evolved into the characters that you see today. Willoughby is kind of my main character. She – or he, I kind of refer to him as both "she" and "he" because they don't have a gender. Willoughby speaks for everybody, but mainly me. Willoughby's like a main reflection of myself — but also of other people as well.

What went into your decision to not gender the character?

I think so everybody was able to relate. There's not just one specific group of people that he's talking to. Sometimes he is calling out men for certain shit, sometimes he's standing up for women, and sometimes he's saying something about black people and how amazing we are [laughs]. He wants to relate to everybody, and he wants everybody to know that he's not limited to one specific group. He's available.

Willoughby's form was inspired by a plant. What is the influence of nature on your work and creative process?

There's so much that we can learn from nature. I've always been this sort of quote-unquote "nature girl.” My mom used to take us hiking in the mountains. To this day I love to hike. I love to go to the park. I love to go through the woods and just spend time around plants and nature and breathe that air. I feel like this generation doesn't really care about nature like that. We're in the technology and computer age, but I just love being outside and looking at plants and flowers. Everything I learn about nature — from why we have seasons to why plants are green — I literally study that shit. I'm definitely a big advocate for saving the planet.

How Illustrator Corey Wash Created A Genderless Anti-Hero Who Says Everything We Wish We Could Corey Wash
How Illustrator Corey Wash Created A Genderless Anti-Hero Who Says Everything We Wish We Could Corey Wash

A lot of people engaged with the drawing about Willoughby’s anxiety. Was that piece also inspired by some of your own experience?

Oh yeah! I'm definitely a person who struggles with anxiety. There's a lot of people that struggle with it who aren't as verbal about it: young black women, men, artists — anybody. I think it's something that needs to be talked about because it can be defeated, it's something that a person can overcome. I haven't been too verbal about it until recently.

Being an artist and being so hands-on with things, I always find myself running around and doing ten things at once, and it builds and builds and builds. I get a bit anxious. I get nervous, and I stress myself out way more than I need to. It's something that I'm working on. It's definitely not hindering my process. I can draw about it. People like that I'm talking about it. They're like, "Thank you for bringing this to my attention," or "Thank you for talking about this because my friends always think I'm crazy."

This year, like many others, black people have endured a lot of trauma. We're now seeing a lot of black creatives come out and be open about their struggles with mental health — something that's stigmatized in our community. Do you think there's something about the climate of our world and how we operate on a day-to-day level that contributes to that anxiety?

Everything is very, very quick. Everything is clickbait. Everything is a headline. Everything is just, "Look at this now! Read this!" And the headlines are the most dramatic, over-reactive statements that I've seen. Everything is just too much. You log on Twitter, you can read about Kanye, Kim Kardashian, Donald Trump, Syria, and Flint, Michigan all within five Tweets. It's so much to process and it’s hard to see. You scroll down and see five black teens murdered, or a church shot up, or a club in Orlando shot up. It's just so much to take in. You might've logged in to Twitter just to check in on a friend or a status, something like that. You go and see all of this and it's just like, "Oh, shit. What the fuck is going on in the world?" Five seconds of being on Twitter, and there's already been five mass shootings and explosions and Donald Trump is our president. It's just so much to process, and I think sometimes we forget to filter what we look at. We look at so much at one time that it goes in one ear, out the other. It passes by so quick. Everything is just swipe-up, swipe-down.


That definitely contributes to the anxiety. I definitely like to spend time away from my phone, offline. I like to read books, I like to draw, I like to watch cartoons. I like to spend a lot of time off my phone so I'm not dealing with that stress of being on Twitter or being on Facebook and arguing with some old white lady about why she thinks black women aren't women. I have to spend time off of it. It can definitely help, but it can definitely hurt. I will say that a lot of my success from my artwork has come from social media. It's come from my Instagram, it's come from my Twitter, my Tumblr. But I have to know the balance — I have to take advantage of it more than it takes advantage of me. For a lot of our generation, social media takes advantage of them. People are reading headlines and not full stories. Social media has definitely played a part in maximizing anxiety and normalizing mediocrity.

How Illustrator Corey Wash Created A Genderless Anti-Hero Who Says Everything We Wish We Could Corey Wash
“I don’t only want black people to know that black people are amazing. I want everyone to see how I feel about black people.”

Some of your drawings are of Willoughby's internal conversations and others involve other characters. What's the impact of portraying these dialogues?

Willoughby definitely takes after a lot of people — mainly me. A lot of the conversations Willoughby has are conversations people are maybe thinking about having, but they don't want to really say it. I was with my brother yesterday and he was like, "Willoughby will say it!" He'll say things that people are thinking, but they'll feel like, "Maybe this is a little too blunt or a little too blatant." But there are conversations that need to be had, things that when I post, people go, "Man, I was thinking that!" or "I'm so glad you found a way to put this in words, put this into a drawing." I love that. I love to hear those responses because I like to talk about things that people don't like to talk about. I like to piss people off, I think that's what art is supposed to do.

Art is supposed to throw that balance off. Art is supposed to be in-your-face. I want people to come at me and be like, "Oh my god, you need to watch how you talking, because not all women do x, y, and z." People come at me and say, "Is this your view? This is how you think black people are?" And I'm like, "Yeah, I'm one of them." I've definitely gotten a little bit of backlash, but I love any type of commentary. I want you to talk, I want you to get mad at this. If you don't like how I'm talking, then do something about it [Laughs]. Change your ways, you know?

You represent a lot of different perspectives in your work. Who are you trying to connect with, and whose voices are you hoping to amplify?

Everybody that I've ever come in contact with, I would like to speak to them. I want people that I've never even met, from anywhere to be like, "Yo, I really resonated with this one piece that you did," or "I really related to this one theory that you did about how black women are beautiful or how they're the strongest women in the world." I really love to get that response from people. Mainly black people first: black women and men, black children, black parents, everyone I grew up with and everybody that surrounds me. I'm also talking to white people, and white women. I like to talk to anybody who's willing to listen and look. I don't only want black people to know that black people are amazing, I don't only want to amplify their voices for them to hear. I want everyone to see how I feel about black people.

How Illustrator Corey Wash Created A Genderless Anti-Hero Who Says Everything We Wish We Could