On a recent Friday night at Eric Buterbaugh’s EB Florals Gallery, 23-year-old Tallulah Willis, aka “Buuski,” opened her first art show, “Please Be Gentle.” Prior to the debut, the emerging artist had participated only in group showings and quiet collaborations, but with some coaxing from Buterbaugh and persistent encouragement from her tight-knit clan (dad Bruce, mom Demi Moore, et al.), Willis overcame the anxiety that accompanies not only being a newcomer to the L.A. art scene but a newcomer with a famous last name.
Amid the sounds of Toro y Moi and clinking Champagne flutes, the invite-only soiree featured 50 original drawings by Willis. Her anthropomorphic creatures, which act as visual reminders of the highs and lows of feeling feelings, draw inspiration from Shel Silverstein and Tim Burton. They reflect the fanciful, imperfect and unconventional world Willis has engendered throughout the past 2½ years working on her craft. From “Modern Femme,” which shows a limp arm with pointy boobs and prickly underarm hair, to “13th Birthday,” with a headless character dragging along her misplaced, balloon-sized head, Willis takes her multidimensional readings on self-worth, femininity and identity, and displays them gently but unapologetically in her work.
In January Willis launched her website, where she sells her drawings and merchandise. “Please Be Gentle” is on display at EB Florals Gallery through March 11.
What led up to your first gallery showing?
Throughout childhood and beyond, I never had a real passion or drive for anything in particular. It was half self-deprecation and half laziness, and I was so jealous of other people who seemed like they just happened to find something they were good at. I’m sure for them it was hard work, but when you’re young, it really doesn’t seem that way. What began as minor jealousy became a really pivotal issue for me of self-worth. I wouldn’t even try new things because I thought I wouldn’t be good at them anyway. The one thing I felt good at was drinking and doing drugs. That became where I found my place, which was really just massively dulling down everything I felt. So, when I got sober, it was like someone turned the lights on and all my senses were heightened, which resulted in minor agoraphobia and high anxiety. I didn’t like leaving my house, I didn’t like crowds; I became very aware of the physicality of people around me.
I stayed home for a year and I just started drawing these funny little cartoons. I started posting them on social media, and it was mostly images with a phrase I was feeling. It was really just therapy for me, and when I started to see people have a really positive response, I thought it was cool, but still thought it’s just something I do the way people at the office doodle when they’re on a conference call.
When did you realize, "Hey, maybe this is actually good, I want to really do this?"
I’ve been drawing for about 2½ years, but the whole time it’s been a battle. Something really big will happen, or I’ll do a cool collaboration and people will want to buy my work, and then I’ll get hit with another wave of "This isn’t real, this is stupid." I didn’t want to accept that my work was more than just a side project, because at this point it’s become so important to me. If I kept it in its tiny bubble, there was no risk of being judged for it on a real scale. And yet I’m getting encouraged by everyone in my family that not only is it something I clearly like to do, but it’s something that other people also really enjoy. So when Eric Buterbaugh asked me to show my work at his gallery, I was scared and pushed back, but then it came to the point where he didn’t really give me a choice. I met with Eric and a colleague of his at the gallery and they set the goal at 45 pieces. I was nodding my head and thinking to myself, there’s absolutely no way I can make that many. I’m the world’s biggest procrastinator. The fear of knowing how I inherently operate fueled me to do actually work week by week and do five at a time. I set a goal to be finished with all the drawings two weeks before, and I ended up with seven more drawings than I needed. At the end, I realized how much they all tell a story and how proud I am of it.
That sense of completion must have felt major.
Exactly. It takes a lot for me to keep pushing and for me to push through that “stuck” feeling. And then people started coming and then next thing I know there were so many people and pieces were getting sold one after another. I kept hearing people say, "Oh, that’s the artist over there," and I was like, "Who?" I was looking over my shoulder, because I’m very quick to call myself an illustrator or cartoonist, but it’s very uncomfortable for me to say I’m an artist.
Do you feel there are certain expectations in place if you say you’re an artist?
It’s very uncomfortable for me, because for a long time I felt like a fraud. It’s very foreign for me to stand up for myself and fight and say, "No, I have a reason to be here." It was hard for me to say, "This is real art." Through the aid of Eric and everyone at the gallery and my family, I realized I really had to own what I was doing. The craziest part was having people who I didn’t know come up to me and comment on how my work made them feel. A family friend said, "Look, I was coming here because I love you, I love your mom, but I didn’t know I would actually like your work." There is an ingrained sense of people coming because of who my parents are, and that is something that I have to grapple with, but that night I really felt that the art was really speaking for itself. There was a true earnestness in people describing what they loved. So many people had had such a response to the names as well as the pieces themselves and where that collided. Some of them are dirty and raunchy, both funny and sad. Knowing that I had people connect to the feelings I created on a blank piece of paper – that was the moment when I realized that this something I have to stop pretending I’m not good at. Not only do I have to own this identity but also be able to defend it if it comes into question.
I’ve always viewed you in this unique position of being Hollywood by default but also fairly anti-Hollywood in your persona. How does this inform your work?
I think that it’s something that of course affects me. I was born into a life that comes with massive opportunities and preconceived notions. Even at the show, I thought, "Are half these people here going to tell me it’s great even if they think it’s not?" I think what this experience has afforded me is that it doesn’t really have anything to do with my parents or the path they carved out. There’s an awareness to the fact that inherently people are going to look at something I do because of the name that I have and I know there’s a lot of amazing artists that might not get the same opportunities and have to work harder to be on a radar that I may just be on by default, and I don’t take that lightly. I think that was a big reason why I initially felt uncomfortable owning my place in this world. I don’t take any of it for granted. I like to speak out about what I feel and I’m very cognizant to not speak of things that I don’t know about. It’s obviously very uncomfortable to have people talk about you and know things about you. At least now I feel like if there’s a reason that someone is talking about me, hopefully it's about something I did that I’m really proud of, instead of what I was wearing at the gym — which feels really trivial.
What’s your take on critics in general? I’m guessing you titled the name of your show “Please Be Gentle” in defiance toward fault-finders – yourself and others.
I’ve had a very acute experience with people critiquing things from a very young age solely based on my physical appearance. By the time I was 11, I experienced it pretty constantly throughout my life. I’ve never had anyone critique my work besides every once in a while with Instagram comments where someone says, "A 6-year-old can do better than you," which I kind of love because I love and respect kid art. In a general sense, it’s a hard position because it’s very easy to sit back and speak on something and judge it, and you can have a vast career in being able to identify and speak on someone’s creations really eloquently, but I think there’s a line between that and someone just trying to be snarky. I also live with the worst critic I know, which is myself in my own head.
How often do you draw and how did you develop your aesthetic?
It depends, sometimes I’ll see an animal on the street and think about the way their nose lays on the face in a funny way and go home and try to draw that, but for the most part it’s me sitting on the floor in a pair of undies with the TV in the background. I only work in pen, I never work in pencil, so it’s this weird, masochistic thing where if it works out it works out, and if it doesn’t there’s no erasing. If I make a mistake, I’ll put a mask over its face or cover it up in some way. When one presents itself and I really like it, it feels very special. Two of them can never be alike, even if they have the same energy. I love drawing certain things – boobs, weird proportions, like skinny arms and big bodies and bug eyes.
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Does that come from your interest in the human body or just a fascination with dysmorphic things?
It’s just an aesthetic choice. I’ve always liked weird, gremlin-y things. I love Jim Henson movies like The Dark Crystal and Labryinth. I tend to want to make very rounded creatures. I have a negative connotation with sharp edges and I don’t like when things appear pokey or sinister. I relate with soft figures and imperfect angles to be a little bit more approachable and understandable. A lot of them don’t have hair, many of them looks like fetuses. But it’s definitely evolved. Very early on I realized that I didn’t want to start working with a ton of detail. That was a conscious choice, because after I started getting the hang of it, what I really started to appreciate and love was seeing emotion and feelings come from these two-dimensional little creatures.
It would be really cool to add animation to your characters one day.
I have no animation skills, but it’s definitely something in the back of my head I’d like to do. I want to continue to evolve with the creatures and keep pushing and moving and see what could be done with them. I also just launched my website. It’s been the show and then the website, and I’m just open and ready for anything that happens next. I’ve always wanted to do a book, whether it’s a children’s book or an adult children’s book. I feel a lot more momentum and capable to be able to take this on, where in the past I was so scared.