Missed Connections: The Rumpus Interview with Sophie Blackall

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“Odd things happen in New York, which is why it’s such a great source of stories. Once I read a Missed Connection which took place on a train…”

I first became aware of illustrator Sophie Blackall when I stumbled on photos of her home on Design*Sponge, which had a link to her blog where she paints (in Chinese ink and watercolor) scenes from New York City’s Missed Connections posted on craigslist. Blackall is a successful children’s book illustrator, most notably for the Ivy + Bean series written by Annie BarrowsRed Butterfly by Deborah Noyes, and Meet Wild Boars by Meg Rosoff. She also wrote and illustrated Are You Awake? forthcoming from Henry Holt in 2011. She started the MissedConnectionsNY blog in March of 2009 and has been selling prints of her paintings in her etsy shop. You Probably Won’t Read This: A Year of Missed Connections will be out next year from Workman Publishing.

Blackall is a native of Australia and moved the United States in 2000. She shares her Brooklyn home with her two children and lots of Depression-era dolls, some with limbs attached. Here’s what she had to say about bear suits, eye contact and the optimism of Missed Connection posts.

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The Rumpus: Do you listen to music when working on the Missed Connections? If so, does the tone of the listing determine the genre of music?

Sophie Blackall: I usually draw in silence, but listen to music or public radio when I’m painting, after all the important decisions have been made. I can often look at a picture and remember a particular song, or a story I was listening to at the time. I did a children’s book set in 5th century China called Red Butterfly, but whenever I look back through it I think of Moby Dick, which I was listening to as an audio book at the time. They are forever oddly linked.

Rumpus: I’m curious why you started the Missed Connection paintings in the first place. You were already a very successful illustrator, but clearly some aspect of your creative needs weren’t being met with art that you were paid to do.

Blackall: I’ve illustrated sixteen or seventeen children’s books and I feel awfully lucky to be able to do something I love so much, and yes, to be able to pay the rent, but there was a yearning to do something more grown up, and something where I didn’t have to cater to anyone; I was just waiting for the material. I toyed with making portraits based on people’s discarded shopping lists found on the street, or old diaries bought on eBay, or other forms of borrowed stories. When I stumbled across the Missed Connections listings, I knew immediately I’d found it.

Rumpus: What struck me when I first saw the site is that you are taking a moment that was fleeting—over in a minute, yet one person (at least) is left with a longing feeling. It’s actually not over for them. Then that person solidifies the moment by posting it on craigslist or somewhere public. It’s like a quick retelling of a moment, maybe to let go of the regret of letting that moment pass.  And then drawing and the act of making the interaction public again, in a different medium, takes the energy away from the original poster and turns it on its head. It opens it up.  Do you ever feel like you are inserting yourself into the mix? I ask this partly because in preparation for this interview I scanned the Missed Connections listings in San Francisco and in one of them, the last sentence read, “Now we can be in a Missed Connections painting too.”

Blackall: The fellow who wrote the post about sharing a bear suit with a girl at a party saw my illustration and emailed me, which was kind of thrilling. He sent a photo taken on the night, and that was a dream-like experience… but even though I’ve seen the “real” bear suit, my image of it feels real to me, and his photo the interpretation. There’s arrogance for you. I think all artists insert themselves into their subject matter. I look for ambiguous messages to illustrate…I like some detail but not too much detail. I dismiss posts where one or other of the couple was wearing anything named by brand, or you know, baseball caps, or sweat pants, because I don’t like drawing them, and I don’t have to please anyone but myself. On the other hand, I’m drawn to top hats, and spats, and mustaches. I haven’t read a Missed Connection yet with someone wearing a monocle, but rest assured I’ll snap it up if I do.

Rumpus: Did the bear suit guy ever say how he came to share a bear suit with someone who he didn’t know? And did he hear from the girl?

Blackall: He didn’t really explain the circumstances leading up to sharing the bear suit, and no, he never heard from the girl, sadly.

Rumpus: Reading your blog I started to feel that many missed connections postings were, in their own way, a plea for more friendliness and boldness. Do you agree?

Blackall: Or at least a personal regret for not being bolder, and for missing an opportunity. Many messages are just thanking a stranger for a kindness…I love those ones, because I imagine everyone else reading them feels encouraged by such examples of humanity and generosity and tenderness. And if they encourage us to reach out to strangers more often, that’s a good thing. There are more than a few messages from lonely people wondering why they never find themselves described…I illustrated one, “How come no one ever misses me?” They kill me, those. There are also dozens and dozens of success stories; many couples have emailed me with their original posts. I love reading these stories, but confess I am not as interested in drawing them as the unfinished, elusive ones.

Rumpus: Which brings me to my next question, what are some criteria for choosing which ones to illustrate? Obviously, the more visual they are the better. But do you ever pick one, start the drawing and then abandon it because it’s not happening?

Blackall: I glean a few times a week, and it’s all about the subject line. I look for the lyrical, “Billowy Red Scarf Girl” or the funny, “Hipster Chick Who Passed Gas,” the unintentionally funny, “Looking for the Hot Girl in Pink Dress,” ones that immediately suggest images, “Furry Arms Under a Yellow Umbrella,” or the plain odd, “Seeking Girl Who Bit Me Twice…” I don’t think I’ve ever abandoned one… the images usually arrive fully formed in my head as soon as I read the message, and I decide whether to draw it or not.

Rumpus: Due to popular demand you are selling the prints of the paintings at your etsy shop. Have you noticed a geographical location where people tend to buy them more? Is it primarily east coast? New Yorkers?

Blackall: This has been the most amazing thing. I have had people come to the site from all over the world. The US and Canada predominantly, but also Brazil and South Africa and Greece and Indonesia and Hong Kong and Ireland and Argentina and Spain and Israel and Australia…

Rumpus: Have any of your friends forwarded you listings with notes like, “Sophie, I think you could do a great job with this one?

Blackall: Not so much friends, but I get those messages from strangers all the time.

Rumpus: I wonder if anyone has ever posted a MC then sent it to you with a suggestion to draw it. Do you know?  Has anyone outed themselves?

Blackall: I don’t think so. The ones people send me are usually bizarre in some way. I did have a couple of people asking me to illustrate their MC in a hope to widen the exposure, unfortunately the messages weren’t a good fit, so I couldn’t oblige. And I didn’t really want to become a matchmaking service. Someone posted a missed connection “I like your blog” which was directed at me… that was kind of fun to stumble across.

Rumpus: Did you paint that one?

Blackall: No, it felt too self-referential. Someone wrote to me recently asking me to illustrate a missed connection that “hasn’t happened yet.” This guy has seen the same girl waiting at a bus stop on his morning commute for weeks, and has been trying to find a way to approach her. He thought it would be fun to put up a Missed Connections poster [of my painting] on the corner where she waits and see what happens. It is kind of an intriguing idea but there’s something a bit too manipulative about it for my liking. It’s a fine line between being creative and stalking!

Rumpus: I was telling a friend about your blog and she has a friend who reads the local Missed Connections a lot. One day she happened to mention to this friend about an interaction she had with a stranger who was waiting in line behind her at a very busy popular bakery and her friend said to her, “That was you? That guy posted a Missed Connection about you and that day.” Do you know of any connections made from Missed Connections that you’ve drawn?

Blackall: Some people have recognized their friends in my paintings, but I’m not directly responsible for any hooking up as far as I know!

Rumpus: My friend is also an identical twin and one day one of her friends asked her, Were you and your sister at such and such a place over the weekend at such and such a time? She said yes. Someone had posted about them and the friend recognized her (our) friends. I wonder if things like that happen in NY or if they’re more likely in SF because it’s so much smaller, less populated.

Blackall: Odd things happen in New York, which is why it’s such a great source of stories. Once I read a Missed Connection which took place on a train… a boy was reading a book, watching a girl writing in her notebook. He got off before her, began to walk up the stairs, hesitated and turned back down to see her through the window as the train pulled away. Three messages along, there was one posted by a girl who was on a train, writing in her notebook, watching a guy reading his book… the guy got off, walked up the stairs, hesitated…etc. That was one of those exciting Craigslist moments!

Rumpus: Did they ever meet?

Blackall: I don’t know. I wrote to them both, but didn’t hear back.

Rumpus: I want to talk a little about a few specific paintings. One of the funniest ones is the girl undressing in the Laundromat and the guy who thinks she’s beautiful but he can’t look at her—he’s got his head in the dryer. Laundry rooms are just gold mines for these kinds of awkward moments. Rarely do people interact while there and you’ve literally got your dirty laundry with you. They’re lonely places.

The other laundry room painting that is so poignant is the recent one about the guy who is about to have a missed connection. His posting is so lovely. I have a feeling that every single woman in NYC of a certain age has developed a crush on him. There’s a rush at Laundromats in Green Point! But it’s sad.  I do think people want to talk more, but in a space like that, they’re hesitant. It’s like getting stuck next to a chatty person on an airplane. You wouldn’t mind talking for a few minutes, but not for the whole flight and you need to size up the other person pretty quickly. Will they want the conversation to go longer than you? And I guess so many times people make the wrong decisions. They back off.

Blackall: I loved that line from the guy in the Laundromat… “Unfortunately I hardly looked up, but I’m pretty sure you were beautiful”… it just makes you go “What??” I found that message very funny. The other Laundromat one is a little sad, but it’s also beautiful and optimistic in a way… I mean he’s doing something about his desire to meet someone, and there’s something gentle and sweet about his post.

Rumpus: The other one I want to talk about is the girl with freckles and bruises. Here are these two people— one with bruises, busy with her homework or whatever. She’s not taking in her surroundings at all. And then this guy writes how he would never let anything happen to her and ends it with “I read a book once.” I keep wondering why he wrote that.

Blackall: Yes, that line was odd, and kind of a lighthearted ending to a fairly heavy message… although it sounds wistful too. I think that’s part of the enormous appeal of Missed Connections for me, the mystery and ambiguity. Nothing is known for sure, even the person who was there isn’t entirely sure he or she had the same response as the other in that moment. One person might have fallen head over heels, the other might have been thinking about what to have for dinner and inadvertently making eye contact. But mostly I think two people do share a moment, and we all know that feeling, and it can put a spring in your step for the rest of the day.

Rumpus: The girl who posted for the boy who tapped her on the shoulder in the library and tells her she’s pretty. Now there’s an interaction that’s just fraught with momentum and possibilities. It’s clear she liked the attention he gave her. These two are so close to connecting again. It makes me wonder what the very first missed connections were. Cave drawings maybe?

Blackall: On Valentine’s Day this year, The New York Times ran some classified ads from the late 1800s, which were exactly like Missed Connections. Here is one:

If the young lady wearing the pink dress, spotted fur cape and muff, had light hair, light complexion and blue eyes, who was in company with a lady dressed in black, that I passed about 5 o’clock on Friday evening in South Seventh Street, between First and Second, Williamsburg, L.I., will address a line to Waldo, Williamsburg Post Office, she will make the acquaintance of a fine young man.

Jan. 19, 1862

Rumpus: Have you painted any of those? You could really go for it with the top hats and everything.

Blackall: I’m thinking of painting one of the Victorian messages for the book. I’m a big fan of spats.

Rumpus: Finally, we like to ask everybody this question: What was the last book you loved?

Blackall: Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist.

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Visit Sophie Blackall’s site, MissedConnectionsNY.


Sona Avakian lives in San Francisco and has never stolen another book. More from this author →