David Schmidt in conversation about "Saint-Victor-sur-Rhins" The Tip of the Iceberg: Travels with Gregor Hinz
Gregor Hinz’s travelogue “Saint-Victor-sur-Rhins” seems chaotic at first read. But anyone who travels with Gregor is guaranteed to be amused by his poetic picture stories. We had a conversation:
“Then I’ll tidy my hair again.” (Gregor)
“Straighten your pandemic hairstyle.” (I, David) “My dad cut it the other day.”
“Your dad cuts your hair?” “Used to do it all the time, then stopped for ten years, and now he does again. He lives in Berlin. Let me know if you want an appointment.”
“Is he really a barber?” “No, he’s a real estate agent. But he can cut hair. Back in the day, people had to know how to do everything.”
“Yes. Today too, actually.” “That’s true.”
“Did you bring a beer for yourself?” “Nah, but I’ve got options here; this here is a Baileys blend and we recently were given some quince schnapps. But this is quicker.”
“And the kids are in bed?” “No. But I did my part.”
“How old are they?” “Two and five. You have a cat?”
“I have a cat. She’s the same age.” “Two and five?”
That’s the start of my interview with Gregor Hinz, which I conducted to write this article. Our dialogue feels like something out of one of his stories: We freely associate, I ask a question, Gregor reacts, asks a question in return and before we know it, we’ve lost the thread. We joke, brood, search, find, like two travellers moving through unknown terrain without knowing where the path is going.
Gregor Hinz’s path began in Rostock in 1982, but he spent his childhood in the Berlin of the GDR. Even after the fall of the Wall, Gregor lived in the eastern part of the city for a long time. When he meets people with a similar biography, he feels connected to them, but cannot say exactly why. One of these important people for Gregor is Franziska Ludwig, with whom he produced the comic book "Eisberge", published in 2017 by JaJa-Verlag. The two are also connected by the magazine "Pure Fruit". Franziska was co-editor for a few years, but last year she withdrew from the project. That troubles him.
“The point is to leave gaps in the story, to challenge the reader”
Eisberge (Icebergs) is a travelogue in which Gregor and Franziska travel through Germany. They don’t reveal where they’re headed and why. During the drive, both of them lose themselves in fantasies, puns and fragmentary little stories. At first glance, it seems chaotic, but the second one shows that there is a method to the chaos. There’s a revealing conversation on page 44:
“Hemingway’s a writer.” (Gregor) “Was a writer.” (Franziska)
“Was a writer. He had a theory that is very suitable right now: THE ICEBERG THEORY. That’s what my girlfriend told me. I think it was actually about short stories, but it doesn’t matter. The point is to leave gaps in the story, to challenge the reader. I thought that was great. I think that’s great. It’s such a nice poetic approach. You tell a story, but only the tip of the iceberg and the readers have to imagine the rest of the story for themselves. In other words, the author thinks up the part underwater, and it’s important that he knows what the iceberg looks like underwater, but he doesn’t write it down in detail. Then a whole lot of the story takes place in your mind. And it doesn’t necessarily have to reach the reader, what the author was writing about. That’s okay. It’s also a great name for a theory. Since then, I’ve wanted to read Hemingway, but haven’t managed it yet. Well, that’s when I came up with your mermaid.” “The Old Man and the Sea?”
“No, I mean that mermaid you were just talking about.” “No, I mean whether you’ve never read The Old Man and the Sea?”
“Oh. Sure, sure, I did. But it’s a short story.” “I see. But that wasn’t a mermaid in my story; it was a ship’s figurehead.”
“Figureheads are often mermaids.” “That’s true.”
Preliminary study: With companions through France
For me, that conversation was the key to Gregor’s “Saint-Victor-sur-Rhins,” which was published as part of the Comic Transfer. Saint-Victor-sur-Rhins is the name of a small municipality in France and, as the name suggests, on the Rhine. In 2014, Gregor spent several weeks here, offering comic workshops, getting to know the region and capturing his impressions on paper. In the resulting comic, we see him travelling through France with companions.
Five pages show five different scenes from this period, drawn in felt-tip pen. In one, Gregor and his companion climb St. Victore. Dusk falls during their ascent and, although they haven’t yet reached the summit, they have to turn back. “You have to get up earlier to get up there,” Gregor notes under the picture story. Next page: We see Saint-Victor-sur-Rhins divided in two by an invisible border. When crossed, the Rhins suddenly becomes the Rhine. The other pages show a night drive through the mountains and Gregor at one of his drawing workshops for schoolchildren.
Viewed in isolation, the word-image collages produced in 2014 seem like a loose chain of travel impressions: the lack of suspense makes them seem almost unintentional. When I first read it, “Saint-Victor-sur-Rhins” left me at a loss. That changed after I read Eisberge. Gregor’s short French comic reads like a preliminary study for it.
Eisberge is also a collection of seemingly unrelated stories that frame the journey of the two protagonists. But what may not have worked in “Saint-Victor-sur-Rhins” develops an exciting momentum of its own here: Suddenly you think you’re learning more about Gregor and Franziska than is actually on the page. They gambol effortlessly from one good idea to the next. It’s so much fun to witness that I turn to the last page with regret. It feels as if I’m sitting in the back seat of their car while they’re travelling; as if I were travelling myself.
As if I’m sitting in the back seat of their car while they’re travelling; as if I were travelling myself
But if you want to get to know Gregor Hinz even better, you have to travel back home with him. And his home is now no longer Berlin, but Kiel. Long before his children were born, he gave birth to another baby here on the Baltic Sea: Pure Fruit magazine.
Pure Fruit has now published twenty-one issues, the magazine is available free of charge online or in print. The idea for the comic magazine entered the world ten years ago, thanks to a Free Comic Day. Gregor had just moved to Kiel with his girlfriend. Despite the free motto, Kiel had allowed for a few stands where comics could be bought. At one of these, Gregor met another illustrator, through whom he later met others. Suddenly Gregor was part of a group of artists who all wanted to kickstart a project. The result was Pure Fruit magazine.
In the spirit of the Free Comic Day that brought Pure Fruit into existence, readers don’t have to pay for issues. Each issue presents a large number of comics and drawings. The whole thing is financed with advertisements. The income is enough to cover printing and distribution. Every now and then a foundation such as Stiftung Naturschutz or Arche Warder commissions a special issue.
The fact that Pure Fruit can even exist during the print media crisis is, of course, primarily due to the passion of those who publish it. Gregor and the others usually don’t earn anything from it. But Kiel, the place where Pure Fruit is made, also plays a role. As an artist in Berlin, you’re one of many. There is so much culture in the capital that it’s less appreciated than elsewhere. In smaller places like Kiel, the interest in home-made culture is greater and it is easier to start up a project. “I think being in Kiel, that in itself is our advantage,” Gregor agrees with me. “Also that we get advertisers. That would definitely not work in Berlin.” There was another reason why he moved to Kiel:
“My girlfriend isn’t from Berlin and thought it was smelly, loud and stressful.” (Gregor)
“She’s not wrong about that.” (I, David) “She’s not. At some point, there was a story about a terrorist cell that said: Something can happen to you anywhere, except in Kiel. Well, at least on their part. Sadly, I never found it again, I don’t know, maybe we just imagined it. So maybe it’s not true at all.”
“So you two moved to Kiel because you were afraid of terrorists.” “Exactly!”
Our conversation turns back to travel. His favourite travel destination? Gregor has to think for a long time. “I don’t have one,” he finally says. “When I thought about it, I wavered between Germany, Norway and Finland. But it really doesn’t matter where you go. It’s just nice to be somewhere else. That’s why Germany is enough. I also prefer to travel by bike and that doesn’t get you very far.” Intercontinental travel is no longer an option for Gregor due to climate change. He would be afraid of travelling to South America or Africa anyway. “I always think some spider will bite me and then it’ll all be over.”
“It really doesn’t matter where you go. It’s just nice to be somewhere else”
Travelling was the main topic in Gregor’s first major publication. He finished his diploma in communication design in Berlin in 2008 with the travelogue "Es war, als würde ich nur kurz zum See fahren". There was a time when Gregor imagined he would permanently combine his work and travelling. But, he explains, since he needs to be under pressure to work, that didn’t happen. Today, Gregor makes a living with his work as an illustrator, but he doesn’t earn any money from many of his projects. “My marriage is the reverse of conventional,” he explains to me, “my wife brings home the bacon and I’m the artist.”
As we’re chatting, it’s getting later and later. The sun set hours ago; the streets are quiet. We’re talking about the pandemic and agree that the lockdown is necessary but hard to take. Gregor says he has to pay close attention to how he’s doing. It helps that he’s good at self-manipulation. In his latest project, two hand-drawn figures wander through photographed landscapes. It’s about motivation. “That was a corona project where I felt a little unmotivated, and I thought I had to do something. For me, but also for others.” Gregor hopes that the pandemic will teach us to take just as decisive a stand against climate change.
Gregor no longer knows exactly how he got into drawing in the first place. It just happened. He’s always loved telling stories; drawing comics has the advantage that the scene for it in Germany is so small. That makes it easier for your work to be seen. Asked whether he’s concerned about raising the art of drawing comics from its niche, Gregor replies, “Not so explicitly,” and empties a glass of chocolate liqueur. He doesn’t find classic comics all that interesting. Experimental, poetic picture stories, like those by Brecht Evens and Mawil are much more exciting to him.
Childlike journeys into an exuberant imagination
Even though Gregor always tests new things in his work, he still has his very own, recognisable style. His characters and the worlds they live in are childlike in the best, very best sense of the word; namely dreamy and playful. This is by no means simplistic, but pleasantly life-affirming and poetic. His stories are journeys into an exuberant imagination, which he lays over reality with a wink and wilfulness. In the past, he often heard comments about his style that stung him, like, “Oh, how cute” or “My kid can do that, too.” Today he’s at least overcome being cute, says Gregor. But it’s still difficult for him to accept that the childlike nature of his work is actually a strength.
Or let’s put it this way: Gregor is still on a journey as an illustrator and wouldn’t want it any other way. Where it will end, he doesn’t know yet. But one thing is certain: What we see of Gregor on paper today is only the tip of the iceberg.