Welcome to our McConnell Professor Michel Hellman

Published: 22 April 2024

Portait de Michel Hellman

It is with great pleasure that CIRM welcomes Michel Hellman as McConnell Professor of Practice for the year 2024!

Michel Hellman  is a cartoonist, illustrator, lecturer at the Université du Québec en Outaouais and art history teacher. He is the author of the comic strips Mile End (2011, Pow Pow) and Nunavik (2016, Pow Pow), and has participated in numerous residencies and exhibitions, including one on the Côte-des-Neiges district organized by the district's Maison de la culture. He holds a B.A. and an M.A. in art history from McGill University, and is interested in the relationship between urban space and comics. We caught up with him to talk about his upcoming projects at CIRM.


What are your plans for your residency as a practicing professor?

My aim is to create a cartographic map of Montreal. In short, it is about capturing the essence of Montréal's different neighborhoods through drawn narratives. It will be a "sensitive" cartography made up of anecdotes and memories, telling the story of a place from several points of view. These points of view will include my own, the narrator-spectator wandering around the city, soaking up the surroundings and trying to bring out their specific features - something I have already done, whether in my comic strip Mile End or in my exhibition Côte-Des-Neiges - but there will also be a collection of short stories from various emblematic characters living in these neighborhoods. There will be street-level portraits of neighborhoods, made up of multiple perspectives. I want to show differences, contrasts and illustrate neighborhood communities.


What do you mean by sensitive mapping?

It won't be a traditional cartography, but rather one that is sensitive and emotional. It will present (if we want to use research terms) qualitative data associated with the experience of individuals. This can help us when we are trying to paint the most accurate picture possible of a place, by going beyond numbers and statistics to focus on lived experience, expectations, desires, joys and frustrations.


How do you plan to find emblematic neighborhood characters?

That is going to be more difficult! Ideally, I would like to be able to collect as many testimonials as possible. My project will be fueled as I go along by stories and encounters. I will try to work with community organizations. I am a cartoonist, but I am taking advantage of my time at CIRM to learn how to become a researcher. Right now, I am in the early stages of my project, trying to find the right tone and style, both graphically and narratively.

The characters I am going to talk about will each have a different experience of the district. I'm going to start with the Peter-McGill district (which is considered a "sociological neighborhood"). I find it relevant to start in Peter-McGill because, firstly, I didn't know the term "sociological district", and secondly, Peter-McGill is where CIRM's offices are located... But beyond these practical considerations, I find this district to be a fascinating microcosm of Montréal. You can see its history in the variegated architecture; it's also a mosaic, with a marked difference between the populations living on either side of Sherbrooke Street. It's a neighborhood made up of McGill and Concordia students, but also of recent immigrants, young families and the homeless. There are a multitude of portraits that can be made.

Comics are an excellent tool for explaining many things, and this is an important dimension of my project. In my neighborhood portraits, I want to convey information and ideas, and reach a wide audience. I want to talk about this diversity, and try to explain why Montréal is divided the way it is, with historical "borders" - sometimes natural, sometimes artificial - that are created between neighborhoods. There are places in the city that have a specific identity, like Mile End, and others that are simply administrative designations. Do residents feel a connection, a sense of association, a sense of being defined by that neighborhood? Not necessarily! And there are a lot of ghost neighborhoods, too, that have disappeared over time, and that is interesting to talk about.


Ideally, what do you think you will have achieved by the end of your residency as a professor of practice?

I would like to come up with a concrete project, a book, about Montréal's neighborhoods. I don't know if I will have the time to really list all the neighborhoods; it is quite ambitious! Comics help to make abstract concepts more tangible: there is a special relationship between text and image in this medium, which allows a story to be read on different levels. I would like my comic book to be a collaborative project with the CIRM research community. There will be an academic dimension, but I want it to retain the poetic, humorous, accessible and playful tone characteristic of comics. I don't want to try to reinvent myself as someone I'm not. So it would be a work that draws as much as possible on the research of CIRM members, but that does not stray far from my tone and style as a cartoonist. I don't think interdisciplinary work is necessarily easy, so I think it will be a good exercise for researchers to be able to synthesize and summarize. By explaining to me the main lines of research that I could include in my project, it will be a way for them to visualize their work in a new way. I think it can be a relevant exercise for everyone.


Can you tell me about your creative process?

It is like any other creative process! You really have to go with the first drafts, which are often bad. Throw out all the ideas, without judging them. Don't try to make something good right away. I always have a notebook with me and I draw as much as possible from observation, gathering information. Sometimes there are good ideas, mostly bad ones, but you have to get the bad ones out to get the good ones. That's how I start, and I put everything in a jumble. I don't try to start with a "traditional" comic strip, putting in the boxes, phylacteries, etc... After the first few drafts, I manage to identify a common thread, and it's with this common thread that I will be able to start and continue the story. So the first part is a laboratory part, if I can call it that, where you accumulate and put as many things as possible on the blank page, where you try to make links.


Do you read other comics?

Yes, I read other comics, but I try not to draw my inspiration exclusively from comics. I also look elsewhere. You have to try to take an interest in everything, you never know what will end up feeding your practice, creating the "flash" or inspiration.


Why is it important to write and draw Montréal?

It is an inspiring city that is constantly on the move! I go out, I sit down, I draw, I take the time to observe absolutely every detail, to try to bring out certain elements that we tend to ignore or forget when we always walk the same streets, when we are caught up in routine. Taking the time to immerse yourself in your city, to understand it, is a very pleasant exercise. And perhaps drawing helps to bring out elements that we might be less likely to notice in a book that focuses solely on photography, for example. In drawing, there is a slower, more introspective dimension that I think readers can also detect.


A perfect day in Montréal?

A perfect day doesn't have to be sunny - it can snow too! But you have to start with Mount Royal. Walk around and have the opportunity to be outside a lot and have a coffee or a beer. It's a classic route!

3 essential symbols?

Mount Royal, which defines the landscape so much.

The staircases of duplexes and triplexes, which give Montréal a poetic quality.

Languages, not just French and English, but many languages are spoken in Montréal, and our level of bilingualism, even plurilingualism, is astonishing.

Favorite neighborhood?

I have talked a lot about Mile End! I don't have a favorite neighborhood, I have several. Right now, I'm discovering Shaughnessy Village, and I love it!

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