Julia Soboleva’s portraits of Ellis Island immigrants

Julia Soboleva is a Latvian-born illustrator currently living and studying in Manchester, UK. A few weeks ago she sent me an email about her personal project inspired by the Ellis Island immigrants, and my curiosity was piqued.

For 60 years (from 1892 to 1954), Ellis Island, a small island in New York Harbor, located within the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, has been a portal for over twelve million immigrants to enter United States. Augustus F. Sherman captured photographs of more than 200 families, groups, and individuals of immigrants while they were being held by customs for special investigations.

My curiosity led to an interview with Julia to find out more behind her project, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading – I felt that the subject is so very relevant, especially given our current political climate.

Hi Julia, tell us how you got started with the project.

Initially the current project wasn’t suppose to be a project at all. During my maternity leave while caring for my newborn son, I was always carrying a little sketchbook in my pocket. So each time my baby was asleep, I was trying to do at least one doodle. I stumbled upon Augustus F. Sherman’s photographs of Ellis Island immigrants. Those portraits were full of character, they showed humans from all over the world wearing their traditional costumes, with the vulnerable gaze and the eyes full of hope. Mesmerized by these portraits, I started drawing them in my sketchbook using just pencil, without any ambition for further development. At that time, being a new mum, it was really convenient practise for me as it didn’t require any special equipment and it was portable and accessible any time. Later on, after doing some research on the history and context of Ellis Island and thinking how relevant the issues of immigration are nowadays I realized that my drawings have a potential to be developed into a project.

Tell us the story about the people in your illustration – what happened to them?

For 60 years (from 1892 to 1954), Ellis Island, a small island in New York Harbour, located within the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, has been an immigration inspection station for over twelve million immigrants entering United States. The passengers travelling first and second class were considered trusty and wealthy enough to be examined on board of ships, while the poorer passengers were required to visit the island for medical examination for infectious diseases or insanity and legal inspection. Augustus F. Sherman, who worked as a clerk at Ellis Island at that time, happened to be an amateur but highly gifted photographer. Being fascinated by diverse cultural backgrounds of his subjects, Sherman created hundreds of portraits of newly arrived immigrants.

In this context, a personal development, a movement of finding your ‘true self’, the act of getting lost and being found can also be regarded as immigration.

He captured the images of Romanian shepherds, gypsy families, circus performers, Russian Cossacks, Greek soldiers, and women from Guadeloupe. His photographs became a fascinating archive with the compelling insight into this vital period of American history. To add, only two percent of the immigrants were denied entry to the country, and the rest of them made it through the border. Sherman’s immigrants are people in my illustrations.

Why did you decide to illustrate this series? Was there a personal connection with the subject matter?

At the outset, the decision to illustrate Sherman’s immigrants was spontaneous. Initially, it was simply supported by he fascination with the photographs and the motivation to keep developing my drawing skills. However, looking deeper into the context of these photographs, I started reflecting on the notion of immigration and how differently this term can be interpreted in different circumstances. For example, according to one of the definitions of the word, immigration is the international movement of people into a destination country of which they are not natives in order to reside there. This definition makes an immigration to be a vital and universal act of human development, search and discovery. In this context, a personal development, a movement of finding your ‘true self’, the act of getting lost and being found can also be regarded as immigration.

There is also a personal connection with the subject as I am an immigrant myself. I was born in Post-Soviet Latvia and being a Russian speaker I was classed as an ethnic minority. Awkwardly, it always felt like I am a lifelong immigrant even in the country I was born. Possibly that is why, when I moved and resided in UK seven years ago, the process of adaptation and cultural adjustment seemed somehow familiar and relatively easy to overcome.

Finally, current political debates on immigration worldwide, which are often quite myopic in my opinion, made the notion of immigration particularly relevant and interesting subject to work with.

What do you hope to achieve with this series?

I consider this project to be a start-up for further developments, discussions and collaborations rather then being a finished piece in itself. For example, making these series made me realized how much I enjoy working with archival images. Thus, there can be possibilities in future to collaborate with museums and libraries with the archival collections. From the other hand, I hope that my series would encourage open discussions and bring the awareness of the notions of immigration and internationality.

What positive outcomes have come from this personal project of yours?

This project became my illustration resurgence after my pregnancy and maternity leave. It motivated me to upgrade my website and my portfolio and seek new opportunities of collaboration. I also discovered a new fascination with archival imagery and how it opens up a portal for studying the past history and the self within it. I drew my Ellis Island Immigrants using just pencil in a detailed and highly stylistic way, which made me question the notion of drawing in my own practise and what is the role of style in creative process. I am investigating this discourse in my MA Illustration course which I am currently studying in Manchester Metropolitan University.

How do you think artists can help when it comes to social issues?

Answering the same question Kurt Vonnegut said, ”I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.” It really corresponds with my thoughts on how artists contribute to solving social challenges.

Being extra vulnerable and responsive towards the problematic issues which generally are not talked about and being able to communicate these issues to wider audiences is what makes artists being so vital in our society. Often in our social system, we see how normalization of prejudice and intolerance is left unchallenged. Artists are the ones who challenge the system, bring awareness of its injustice and offer a fresh perspective.

Thanks so much Julia!

Check out more of Julia’s work on her website.  

Drawing parallels in art and fashion

Anna Parini

When I was younger, I didn’t know how to pick out clothes for myself. I didn’t know where to begin. I had to march to the fitting room, try everything (maybe even twice) before I could make a decision. Even then, I had to ask someone else what they thought of it. I’d rely heavily on their opinion for that final push – yay or nay? It was nail-bitingly hard because picking out an outfit was more than just choosing which pants that would go with a shirt or a blouse. It was (at least what I thought it was at the time) also a statement of who I was and what I represented to the world.

I didn’t know who I was.

And so I didn’t know what to wear.

Throughout my teenage years, I wore a lot of hand-me-downs. These were clothes that my cousins no longer wore, but were in good condition and hence were passed down to us. I didn’t think too much about style back then – I wore what fit me, and I didn’t feel the need to go out and spend money on clothes because hey, I had them. My clothes were picked because they were already there – not because I picked them myself. And because of this, I was terrified of making the wrong decision when it came to buying my own. Unlike hand-me-downs or second hand clothes, I would have to fork money over for clothes, and that’s not even including the mental anguish that came from the sheer availability of choice.

You might remember that as a teenager, I had a bad case of cystic acne and wore braces. I felt like a badly melted version of Terminator. One person even called me Robocop, and others would ask (hurtfully) what was wrong with my skin. It took me many, many years before I started to gain confidence in my outlook, and to feel comfortable at looking at myself in the mirror. And even then, the awkwardness when it came to dressing myself was something I needed to overcome.

Drawing parallels

When it came to drawing, the problems I encountered were very familiar. I found it hard to nail down just one style or technique, and so I experimented a lot in between. Big thick lines versus small thin ones. I’d change mediums many times and tried so hard to like watercolour but gave up because it was hard to control (I know that’s the beauty of watercolours, but still). I went through periods where I experimented with collage, vector and brush and ink; and found out which worked for me.

How did I the problem with my wardrobe? It took some time, but I managed to navigate the choppy waters of being presentable by asking for tips from friends who’s dressing style I liked. I looked up references on how to dress better. I took the time to really look at myself in the mirror when I tried on clothes, identified how it made me feel and why; expanding my palette to include colours and prints and slowly taking more risks when it came to picking out pieces. Before, the insides of my wardrobe were swathed in dark colours (I still have this habit), because it was easy. I didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself, and I was comfortable being in the background. What I came to realise after I studying more about fashion and style was this: there is a formula to all this madness; just like how I learned which drawing style I liked best.

I found key things that worked for my body type: small prints, interesting necklines, details and hems. No garters at the waist, or fabrics that cling to the skin. No too-short skirts (I have varicose veins, ugh), or wide ones that would gather too much attention to my hips either. By creating a guideline of sorts, it made finding an outfit surprisingly simpler – I knew what would look good on me without having to try it on. Shopping became a fun exercise in seeing if I was accurate in picking out pieces that would play to my strengths while avoiding pieces that would exaggerate areas I wanted to play down. I’m happy when I’m comfortable, and to me, that’s a big part of being confident. Another example would be how some contestants on American Idol who has a great voice but chose the wrong song. We all have our limits (for now). We’re good at specific things. We accentuate the good and hide the bad. Why shouldn’t it apply to other things in our life?

The formula

As for drawing, I knew that I was good at brush and ink, and that I loved teaching more than I did dealing with clients. I love drawing on smooth paper and hate the sound that calligraphy pen nibs make when scratched on paper. Just like how we would flip at old photograph albums and cringe at what we wore before, the same thing happens when it comes to flipping through your old sketchbooks. Thank goodness we are able to grow and learn from our experiences!

In coming up with the syllabus for my upcoming class on personal style (I can’t fit everything into a book, unfortunately), the one thing I keep coming back to is that learning about your personal style is a process, one that is uniquely personal. Can we hurry or hasten the process? Yes we can, to some extent. Should we, though? It depends. I fully understand how some might take longer than others to figure out what style works best for them, whether it’s fashion, drawing, cooking, or even communicating. Some might have hit a snag, or others have allowed it to set them back professionally.

If time is no object, what usually works is this: having keen observation in learning and figuring out what works best for you. It’s very easy to forget that what comes naturally to you may not be the case with others (just like how it took me many years to dress myself well). So my advice is to talk to the people in your life: friends, family, mentors or colleagues who can help you gauge your personal formula, so that you can play to your strengths. Getting some help can often make you see clearer, make mistakes faster, and thus get quicker feedback. Pretty soon you’ll be able to decode the rest of life’s mysteries. Or some of it at the very least!

Share with me – what personal formula have you worked out that has served you well so far?

Also: If you need some help figuring out your personal artistic style (not the fashion kind!), here’s a free email course I created.

[Illustration by Anna Parini]

The need to belong (+ a new project in the works)

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When I was in primary school, a few of my classmates would start up not-so-secret clubs, and inevitably they’d have all the cool kids in it. Knowing that there was a secret club (they did a crap job of covering it up, really), I was bewildered – why wasn’t I invited? Why can’t I join them? There would be a secret rule book, a secret handshake, secret meetings and the whole lot, all under an umbrella of a cool club name.

I was young and while I didn’t know it yet, I wanted so much to belong. To be a part of something, even if I wasn’t sure what it stood for. The fact that it wasn’t so secret made it so much worse. It made me wonder if I wasn’t special enough to be a part of it.
As I grew up and started working, I thought I’d left this silly world of secret clubs behind. Turns out, the secret rule book, a secret handshake, secret meetings, and the whole lot – they all still exist, only this time they didn’t need a name, nor was it secret. It’s still unofficial, to be sure. The only difference is evidence of its existence is plastered all over Facebook and posted for posterity on Instagram. And it still felt like a huge imposing wall I couldn’t scale.

I encountered the same thing working in publishing. And especially when I started freelancing. I watched as colleagues did other stuff together after work – shopping, watching movies, and chatting at cafes. I hoped to be able to slink my way in but at the same time can’t help but feel hurt – it felt like I never left primary school. I was again an outsider without an invite. I can’t help but watch TV shows like Friends and the Big Bang Theory and sometimes ask myself (stupidly, of course) – does everyone come with a permanent set of 5 friends but me?

To be clear, it’s not anyone’s fault – no one really thinks about these sort of things (maybe?) and I’d like to think that people don’t hurt other people’s feelings on purpose. Maybe I try too hard, or I don’t try enough. I understand that some people just click together, and some don’t; whether it’s through shared experiences, proximity, history or opinions. It’s just the way things are. Even if you try hard to be included, sometimes it’s just not in the cards – I’ve come to accept that fact, as much as I accept that friendships come and go. But it still feels rough.

When I started Pikaland, I didn’t know where I was headed. But one thing I did know was that I wanted it to be inclusive. It was to be that space (virtual as it was) that I could make for myself. Subconsciously maybe it was even something that I needed. If I couldn’t get on the inside, heck, I’ll start something. It would be a place where others could feel as though there wasn’t any pressure to belong. Just come. Stay a while. Or not – it’s okay. I’ll be here – if and when you come back. That has been a constant throughout my journey, even if my presence have been a little scattered of late.

Last year was a time to recollect, regroup and refocus myself. I went into hiding (well, just a bit), and soaked up things and experiences for myself. It was my time to be a little selfish – to fill up my well and to re-examine what I wanted for Pikaland, and how I can do better.

Being an outsider has been a constant theme and thread that has carried me through my life until now. I was always on the outside, looking in. Whether as a friend, colleague, illustrator, writer, or even a teacher – I’ve always chosen to do things a little differently. But this year, I realized something. I’m not alone. You guys are with me, from the outside looking in. You’ve always been there with me as I go through ideas that are fun and silly (but hopefully helpful at the very least). Demystifying the subject of illustration has seen me scratching an itch for almost a decade now, and I am finding that things are still continuously changing and growing. It’s a fascinating subject and practice that I feel has so much potential to make us better people. Better artists. A chance to make the world a better place.

And so with 2017, I’m launching a new project with this goal in mind. A place where everyone can feel they belong. A place where you’ll find unconditional support where we get to hang out together, and we’ll fight the same fight together, in a safe space. Will it be a secret club? Not really. It won’t be a secret (not anymore, anyway). It will be driven by a common goal of discovering your superpowers as an artist, and how you can train and harness your creative abilities. I’ll be there a lot, and I hope to see you there too.

While we won’t be sitting in a coffee place across from one another physically – I’m aware nothing comes close to being in the same space in real life – but hey, I’ll take what I can get. It’s an alternative that I’m thrilled to have, thanks to the internet.

Thank you for indulging me and for your continued support of Pikaland. I started the blog with the idea that it was to be a bright, happy place to be. You’ve made it so and so much more.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

[Illustration by Yeji Yun for The Mighty Artist]
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