There is an undercurrent of loneliness in the cartoons drawn by Liana Finck, the artist who has known the sentiment intimately throughout her life. But now, as we all reel from being quarantined in our homes during the coronavirus pandemic, loneliness has evolved to feel much more intense than it did before. Finck’s artwork captures this moment when some are quarantined alone, while others might feel stuck with people inside their homes.
You may have seen her simple illustrations in the New Yorker, where she regularly contributes, or possibly even reposted to Instagram Stories by someone on your feed. These illustrations embody the very human need to connect with people alongside the stress of managing how to be around others. And even though Finck has over 400,000 followers on a platform that encourages—and honestly, forces—connection with others, her relationship to fame is tenuous.
So, when Ariana Grande—arguably one of the world’s most famous pop stars—reached out to Finck and asked her to collaborate on cover art for her next single, a pandemic ballad featuring Justin Bieber called “Stuck With U,” two pop culture worlds collided, and exposed the artist’s work to an audience outside of the typical New Yorker reader.
Finck spoke on the phone about DMing with Grande, making art in the midst of a global pandemic, and proudly embracing the mandated six-foot distance from others.
When did you start drawing?
I’ve always been drawing. My mom’s an artist, so she’s drawn with me since I was a baby. She made sure I didn’t have formal training because she was a snob. I didn’t really understand there was a difference between fine art and cartooning until right before I went to art school, when I was trying to make a portfolio. I thought I was going to be a fine artist, and then at art school I realized I wasn’t a fine artist, I was a cartoonist.
Your work is perfect for this current moment, because I think it embodies both the yearning to connect with others and the stress of connection at the same time.
Yes. That’s such a good way to put it.
Since we all started quarantine, how have you managed connection and reaching out to people while also preserving yourself and maintaining your own boundaries?
It’s been such a mixture. On the one hand, it’s so awful, and I don’t even know how to talk about it. But on the other, it’s been nice for me to stay home. I don’t think I realized how stressful it was to push myself to be social. I’ve pushed myself for a long time because I was very lonely as a kid. I didn’t really know how to connect with people as a kid and I wanted to. Since I’ve learned how, it’s been top of my list of ambitions to always go to meetings and have a lot of friends, and go to parties, and take trains to places to see people, and be a good daughter. There’s a reason I didn’t connect to people when I was young, and I think it’s because all this stuff is really hard for me. It’s been interesting to learn that I can stop doing all this stuff and not feel completely alone the way I did as a kid. I think I’ll probably stay quieter after this ends. Also, the six-feet distance as been very nice for me, too. I always wanted six feet of distance and I think no one else ever got that, until now.
As an anxious person, in some ways it feels like everyone else is catching up to how I’ve always felt. Like, all of the fears I had that were once deemed irrational are totally rational things to be afraid of, now that there is a virus tearing through people across the globe.
Yeah, exactly. It’s like you don’t have to be embarrassed anymore for not wanting to go to a party, or not wanting to touch someone who’s sitting next to you.
Did you grow up in New York?
I grew up in New York State, up near Storm King. Not the city. I’m in Brooklyn now.
Has this pandemic shifted your perspective on living in the city?
The way I have a push-pull with people, I’ve had a push-pull with this city. I was very unhappy, socially before I came to the city. I lived in places where it was very strange to be an artsy, shy person, and I was very isolated because of that. I feel so comparatively normal right now and so accepted, and I love that. But I’m also not someone who likes to be touched by someone sitting next to me, or yelled at, or scolded, and you get so much of that in the city. I think I could deal with that, but I’m not a fan of how rich and impersonal it’s gotten, and how angry it is. It just doesn’t feel like the city I came to, so I have many mixed feelings.
Right now, I guess I’m learning I don’t need all the stuff I thought I needed in the city. Like, I don’t need to see my friends every day, I don’t need to go to a café every day, I don’t need to have great grocery stores that I go to all the time. I love riding trains—I miss them so much and I miss museums, too—and I don’t know if I’m learning I don’t need trains and museums, I am learning that I really do need them. Mostly, I’m learning that I could probably survive in an artsier suburb. On the other hand, I’m so glad to be here right now. I don’t have kids, and I think that would be horrible in a very small apartment taking care of kids all the time. But I feel so much less isolated than I think a lot of people do, being in a city around people.
When I saw you announce that you drew the single artwork for a Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande duet, I was floored. It was such a huge, unexpected merger of two different sides of pop culture. How did this collaboration happen?
Ariana reached out to me, very much like a human. It was great.
Did she reach out on Instagram?
Had you been a fan of hers?
Yeah, see, I really like her songs. But I’m very not aware of pop culture. I think I still can’t fathom her fame. I don’t think I’d ever seen a music video of hers, I’m very oblivious. But I love her music and I noticed that she followed me on Instagram a few years ago, and I was very excited.
How did you feel when she asked you to provide the art for her song?
I probably didn’t feel excited enough, but I felt mostly very happy that someone who makes really good art wanted to work with me and liked my work. I also felt very admiring of her. I’ve always thought she was a good, interesting, sane person, and I felt like I was working with a mensch, and that was really nice.
What did she ask for when it came to requesting art from you? Did she give any creative guidance, or send you the song at all?
She didn’t send me the song, she sent me a description of the song. I’ve been working on my iPad lately, and my art has gotten a lot cleaner and more corporate-looking. She told me she would rather I work in my old style, which is on paper. She sent me a bunch of things I made that she liked. I asked if she wanted the song title in it or if she wanted it to be an illustration of the song title, or a cartoon that would just be a little bit connected to the song somehow—like book covers sometimes are—with a caption or something. She wanted the song title, but also a meaning, so I did funny drawings very fast because I’m self conscious and I didn’t want to let that freeze me—and that backfires a lot and people fire me because I send them unfinished work—but she liked them. She chose one and then I did a lot more versions of it with various kinds of ponytails, but they chose the original without the ponytail. [Laughs.]
Have you heard the song yet?
Oh, yeah! I love it so much, I’ve been listening to it on loop. And I love the video, have you seen the video that just came out today?
Yes! I was going to ask if you had seen that because there were so many cameos from other celebrities in it.
Oh, see I didn’t know that. [Laughs.] Who was in there?
Demi Lovato, Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband.
And then of course Justin and Hailey Bieber.
Now, them I saw.
Did you communicate with Justin at all in this process?
Nope. No. [Laughs.] I’ve never communicated with Justin Bieber.
How do you feel about the prospect of millions more people being introduced to your work through this song?
I think my publisher is excited about it. I think fame is very weird, and I don’t think I can catch it this way, but I’m very glad to be involved because I really like the song. I’m excited that a lot of people are going to see my work—but I don’t think they’re going to automatically know who I am. I don’t really care.
In quarantine, have you found yourself catching up on any TV or movies you missed?
I am watching maybe one movie every week or two, which is a lot for me. I used to go to The Met every week. I’m still listening to books on tape, like Audible books, which is how I take in my books. I wish I were suddenly able to watch TV, but I get very antsy.
I understand, I’ve had trouble suspending reality for long enough to immerse myself in a fictional world, which means I haven’t been reading much since this all started. And I feel really bad about that.
I wasn’t either, and then I got really sad due to someone passing away from COVID-19. Suddenly, I went back into books. I don’t know what the difference is between anxious horror and true sadness, but I think in sadness, you can read. I’m still reading, I’m holding onto it. I just read Severance by Ling Ma. I ordered it from the library months ago, and I hadn’t realized it was about a pandemic, so that was a good entry into novels.
That’s one of the last books I read too! Right before the pandemic hit the U.S.
Wow. Did it freak you out?
Yes, I have been thinking about it every day! Do you find yourself listening to music more?
Yes! Also, only when I’m feeling really down. I think when I’m feeling down, my defenses are down, and I can let someone else’s brain into mine. Otherwise, it’s lie only podcasts, and that’s kind of exhausting when they’re all about the news. But my boyfriend and I are very into Fiddler on the Roof lately. I have been listening to Ariana Grande! Some Madonna, some Hamilton.
You mentioned that you’re finding you don’t need to see your friends every day, but have you been connecting with them on FaceTime or Zoom more often?
A little bit. I’m talking to my mom every day. It’s been nice. I actually always talk to her every day, but it’s hard to connect when we’re so busy and I feel like I’m connecting better. I talked to my dad and brother twice a week, and my grandma once a week, and then friends when I can. I really miss them, and I feel like my relationship with my boyfriend could use a tiny bit of other people. I feel like I’m living in a tiny capsule with him, and it’s great, but I need my friends for that more than I need them for companionship. Do you miss your friends a lot?
I do! But I can also feel overwhelmed when I have too many calls or video chats in one day. They zap your energy.
It really does, I don’t know why. Zoom is kind of like the bad of hanging out without so much of the good.
Everyone talks over each other!
And the quietest voice can’t ever be heard because Zoom chooses the loudest voice.
What are you looking forward to most when the pandemic ends?
I think The Met. Although, it’s hard to look forward because we don’t know what’s going to happen. I want to see my parents—they’re 70 and almost 70, so if I have to choose between seeing them and not putting myself at risk in any way so that I can’t pass it to them and going to The Met, I’ll probably choose to see them.
Are you working on any other projects that you’re excited about?
I’m working on an adaptation on the Book of Genesis—the Jewish version, the Torah—with a female God. It’s due very soon, it’s been really fun to work on. Maybe I’ll have Ariana model on the cover. Just kidding.
She does say, “God Is a Woman.”