Two Artists Walk Into a Bar: Marina Esmeraldo & Kiki Ljung
When we interviewed WNW Member Marina Esmeraldo about cofounding an online magazine that celebrates short fiction and illustration, she mentioned how big of a fan she was of the work of fellow WNW Member Kiki Ljung. So we decided to coordinate a meetup between the two illustrators at a bar in Barcelona. They met up at Casa Bonay, where they not only discussed their creative backgrounds and evolutions but also immortalized the rendezvous by drawing each other in an awesome recreation of the venue's iconic bathroom wallpaper.
This isn't the first time we've brought two creatives together. Tobias Hall and Dan Woodger met up at a bar in London to collaborate on cocktail napkin drawings, while Eva and Marta Yarza caught up at a McDonald's in London to discuss being twins with unique creative styles. While we will continue regularly hosting Drinking Not Drinking events around the globe, expect to see more of these one-on-one meet-ups as well.
Marina: We’re both transplants from elsewhere. You’re half Swedish, half Italian, from Brussels, and you’ve lived in London, Barcelona, and Paris. I’m Brazilian, grew up in the UK, have lived in Rome and now live between London and Barcelona. How do you feel that has shaped your professional output; growing up in foreign countries, learning multiple languages?
Kiki: I’m so glad to be a clash of cultures! As a child I was reading Jean De Brunoff’s Babar, Francesco Tullio Altan’s Pimpa comics and Elsa Beskow’s illustrated stories. Obviously, this has influenced my creative taste and the material I both like to make and to consume. Bruno Munari and Olle Eksell are two of my heroes and I completely relate to their aesthetics, in part because of our shared nationalities. Living in London, Paris, and Barcelona has brought me so much culturally and I think I do apply that to my work.
Marina: You had a difficult experience at the end of your undergraduate programme in design, where your tutor (who was a fine artist) didn’t appreciate your style. I had kind of the opposite experience, where I was studying fine art but wanted to be a commercial illustrator and was rejected and misunderstood by my tutors. What made you keep going and persist?
Kiki: In my last year of university I felt like I had started to develop a voice and I kind of knew in which direction I wanted to push my work. It was very frustrating to then be told to push it in another, opposite direction! I was not very confident and I couldn’t make sense of the feedback I was receiving, which completely compromised my self-esteem as an illustrator. After a lot of internal struggling, I decided to simply do me, and keep on working in the way that felt truest to me. It payed off!
Marina: How has your work evolved since you started freelancing? I’ve noticed you’ve been using more texture.
Kiki: When the commercial work is low, I like to spend time developing my own projects. That’s where I give myself more space to try out new things. In the fall I would like to start learning animation programs. I make a lot of character based illustrations which I think would translate well in the moving form.
Marina: Aside from your commercial illustration practice, you also develop products: pom pom-based fashion pieces and your dog patches and miscellanea with Studio Oumi. I myself have been obsessing about creating a physical product as well. Why do you think illustrators get restless?
Kiki: I love making screen-based work because I can do it from everywhere, on a plane, by a pool-side or in a cabin in the woods. But I do often miss doing things by hand, and that’s where my pom pom obsession began. I have made hundreds! When I was little, my mum would set up ‘bricolage’ workshops for me where I would play with paper, glue, and glitter, and I’ve carried on playing like this. It’s important to be creative off-computer.
As for making knick-knacks such as pins and patches, I wish I could do this a lot more! But unlike drawing, getting products made requires some sort of investment and the business aspect scares me a little. Something to work on!
Kiki: You’ve had an interesting creative route and stumbled into illustration almost by accident. Originally you trained as an architect and later went on to study fine art. How do your experiences in these fields inform your illustration practice, and what made you decide to take the leap into freelance illustration?
Marina: Training as an architect has definitely shaped not only my creative approach but also my world view and critical thinking. I learned how to see the world, how to deconstruct space and form; that has definitely had its influence in my approach to illustration, and my interest in mixing the figurative and abstract. I was always drawing as a child, but it took me a long time to realise it could be an actual career. I still remember the “aha” moment I had one night trying to sleep and thinking I could combine my background in design with fine art and do commercial illustration. I was in my mid twenties by then, professionally adrift because of the 2008 recession and my own confusion about what path to take, so realising I could try to go freelance was a ray of light in my mind and the only option I absolutely had to take. Like you said earlier, it’s definitely paid off!
Kiki: You are co-founder of the online platform In Shades Magazine (with which I’m thrilled to have collaborated!). What made you decide to put this project together? You’ve had some amazing talents contribute, some of my personal favourites being Karl Joel Larson and Juliana Futter. How do you select your artists? I, as a fan of the printed matter, would love to see some of these drawings and stories in the flesh, any plans of going beyond digital in the future?
Marina: It’s been so brilliant having you and other people we admire contribute to In Shades. We receive some amazing submissions but I also actively seek artists whose work I enjoy and who I believe fit the bright, bold aesthetic vision I have for the magazine. We definitely are working on a print edition, potentially a book or hybrid publication. We’re seeking funding but also waiting until some other projects wrap up so we can focus better on it. We’ll keep you posted!
Kiki: Your portfolio is an explosion of vibrant feel-good colours filled with women oozing power and self-confidence. As image makers we hold a responsibility in creating honest, diverse representations. I have often felt resistance from clients when trying to escape harmful stereotypes or to include non-traditional bodies, and it’s something I struggle with quite a bit. What are your thoughts on this and have you had any problematic experiences?
Marina: I completely agree about our responsibility as image-makers and drawing diverse characters is one of the things I enjoy the most about the work. It’s not surprising, but I’m still amazed by how conservative and prejudiced publications and brands can be. I’ve personally had a good experience on that front, with commissioners encouraging body and ethnic diversity, but there have been high profile projects where the brief was meant to be feminist/female empowering and I was told my ideas were too “aggressive”. That’s marketing bullshit right there.
Kiki: I’ve been very impressed by your rigour and discipline in taking on a 100 day drawing challenge! We have previously spoken about how we miss drawing by hand - is this a chance for you to reconnect with the pen and paper? What have been the biggest challenges? And what have been the benefits?
Marina: Absolutely! In the middle of the project I went on holiday with no laptop, only a sketchbook and drawing supplies. It took me a while to warm up, but it’s been brilliant reconnecting with pen and paper and I’ve really been enjoying how that has been feeding back into the digital work. I was surprised to find the biggest challenge – once you get into the habit of doing it everyday – is to keep on thinking of new things and themes every day, but it’s a fantastic challenge to have and it’s been forcing me to really explore new territory.
The other main benefit has also been implementing mindfulness in my day to day. As a freelancer one can have long bouts of not being creative and doing admin work, and besides I was spending too much time on social media, which can be very crippling. I've actually been waking up earlier to draw as soon as I wake up, while maintaining a state of serenity and mindfulness, and it's already been so incredibly beneficial – for my creativity and, as a consequence, for my overall happiness. Taking part in it has probably been one of my best creative decisions ever!