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]

Changing careers: Why it’s not just about following your passion

Ana Yael

It starts with being very scared of what’s coming next.

That you don’t know what you’re doing. That you’re unsure whether things will work out the way you hope it would. The doubts that creep up around the edges, just when you think you have everything planned and under control. The butterflies in your stomach do double duty, and teeth grinding becomes a nightly affair. How your jaw clenches and your fist curls up into a ball when you think about what you’re going to do. It’s not fear – it’s enthusiasm. Or so you think.

When I left my full-time job eight years ago, that was me.

The decision didn’t come about after reading books that told me to go and find my passion. I don’t remember such books existed back then – the closest I got to was “What Colour is my Parachute?My journey was never one in pursuit of passion. It was one born out of curiosity. Finding my passion was merely a result of being extremely curious and doggedly persistent. Was I scared? Yes. Did I care? Not really – I was young, and I didn’t have much to lose. I was lucky. Looking back, I’m not sure if I have the courage to do it all over again.

I graduated with a landscape architecture degree – which took me four years to complete. I pushed that piece of paper right to the back of my bookshelves after I left university and entered the field of publishing. After climbing to the top of the proverbial ladder, I made the big leap and became a freelancer as I worked on Pikaland. Along the way, I tried out and learned a few things too – visual merchandising, copywriting, PR. I even learned how to sew when I couldn’t get a job, because I wanted to do something useful with my time. I didn’t know what I’d do with the skills and knowledge I’d amassed, but learning them meant that I could identify patterns through information that I’ve absorbed, and process it in a way that was unique to me.

If an older person saw how my real, actual CV looked like they would have choked on their coffee and have a heart attack right in front of the desk where they would have worked for 20 over years. They’d think I was scatterbrained, lacked focus, with no ambition or drive. They’d think I was crazy for jumping from one job to another while I had a professional degree stashed away in the corner, collecting dust.

But throughout it all, I knew what I was doing even though I didn’t know where I was going.

I wasn’t job hopping. I was meticulous – my moves were calculated and strategic. My intention was to absorb as much experience as I could, in careers that interested me in the very slightest. When I was an undergraduate, I would spend my time browsing books on art, physiology, and even cooking (besides spending a lot of time in the architecture section). I turned every job interview I had into a fact-finding mission. I made an appointment with a Pilates teacher in Singapore to talk to her about what it would be like to be one. I spoke to a florist and asked her what her job entailed. What their day would look like. What they wish they knew before they went headlong into it. I didn’t know them beforehand – I was just curious. I asked so many questions.

I belonged to an awkward time – when the internet was in its infancy and I still had my Nokia phone (anybody remembers how awesome the 3310 was?). Google was unheard of, and IRC and ICQ was the hottest thing online. Any information I had to go on came from books, newspapers, and magazines; and I knew it wasn’t enough. So I improvised. I looked for more. For information that didn’t come packaged up into nice, glossy pages. I was hungry for the truth. The bad. The good. I needed to hear them all. So I talked to whoever I could find, who didn’t mind answering the many questions I had.

It’s now 12 years since I’ve graduated from university and I still can’t believe how lucky I am to have spent 8 of those years on Pikaland – a blog that I started because I was curious about illustration. It led me to many years of self-study into the process and ideation behind illustration and creative entrepreneurship, where I got to know many wonderful, talented people along the way. I started fun projects and ended some. I began to teach and it unearthed another passion that I didn’t realize I had. Life is funny that way.

I still need a reminder every now and then about pushing through the scary bits, even though it’s been many years since that first major one. Reliving how I emerge whole (not unscathed though) through the other side is a fun reminder of how far I’ve come and how much more growing I still need to do. Which is why when Communication Arts contacted me for an interview about my career trajectory, I was a little surprised. But as it turned out, I did have some great stories to tell, which you can read here.

If you’re thinking of changing careers, the best advice I can give you is to keep an open mind. Pikaland was possible only because I went out and tried to find myself. I was curious about everything, and especially where I fit in with the world. I made mistakes. I had breakthroughs. I made my own opportunities. I lost out on a few. It was hard. And while the fear remained, it was also very easy to say no when I felt that things weren’t right. I’ve said no to major job opportunities that would have meant going back to publishing (and beating myself about it when things were rough). I had a path to clear, and I couldn’t stop – I had to go forward. I pushed on until I could see that clearing, beckoning. To everyone else, it may seem as though I finally found what I was looking for all those years. But it wasn’t something that I found – it was an idea that grew wings of its own. Remember how I said I knew what I was doing even though I didn’t know where I was going? Well, I still don’t know where I’m going – but I’m still here, and I’m curious to find out.

In turn, I’d like to ask youhave you ever thought about changing careers? What does a perfect career look like to you? What’s stopping you from making the leap and what are your concerns when it comes to forging your own career path? Share your thoughts with me in the comments.

Illustration by Ana Yael
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