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.  

When your strengths make you weak

Jean Jullien

It’s 2 a.m.

I was tossing on the bed, yawning till my eyes watered and yet, there I was. No closer to sleep. I opened my palms, laid straight and imagined myself relaxing one muscle at a time. The corpse position. That usually worked, and I’d wake up in the morning. It was not to be – ten minutes later, my eyes were still brighter than an owl’s.

Darn it.

Before lights out, I was doing a search on my phone for harnesses. Specifically, dog harnesses that would help Bessie (my 12-year old dog) retrain and regain the use of her back legs. Nerve damage, the vet said. Arthritis was another. She couldn’t control her left leg last Wednesday, and her right leg is stiff, so getting up was a challenge. She’s not in danger of any sort (except for wounding her backside from all the dragging around she’s doing), so that’s my consolation.

My mind spins all the time. It goes into overdrive when I need to do something. Anything. Especially when it has to do with family. And Bessie is family. Sure, she’s not dying, or in pain. But the crux of being (too) creative for my own good and taking no for an answer is at the back of my mind, there’s always a voice that says “what else can I do?”.

So my Google search history is rife with keywords like “dog”, “harness”, “back legs”, “DIY”, “nerve damage”, “how to heal” and “physiotherapy”; in multiple combinations. My mind makes a mental tally of the materials I have on hand that could be fashioned into a sling that would support her back legs while she walked. Tough cotton calico, some bag straps, or how about that unused tote bag that I could tear the sides of, so that it could support her weight and save my back at the same time? I made quite a number of iterations on the design – all of it in my head. Velcro, knots, and sewing. It felt like I watching Project Runway for canine accessories.

I was reminded of the time when Cookie was ill. I had educated myself on canine cancer so well that I could understand the vet when she voiced out medical jargon, I knew exactly what she meant, and I spoke the same lingo effortlessly.

When I woke up the next day, lethargic and dazed after not sleeping well (for the past week), I realised I have a problem.

“I might be suffering from anxiety”, I told Mr. T.

And it’s caused entirely by myself. I like things to be organised, and to me it’s because I like to have some semblance of control over what I do. The loss of it has the ability to freak me out on a subconscious level. And when I say control, I meant over myself (not other people!)

Waiting, to me is painful. Because I can’t just sit there and fidget. I need to do something. Anything, that can help the situation. Don’t even get me started on my optimism, which I’ve heard from some people can be too infectious for my own good. And so I look at things from every conceivable angle – down to the downright silly. I formulate a Plan A, B, and C. I come up with plans and explanations for myself as a coping mechanism when things go wrong. And always, always a backup plan. There’s no such thing as not trying in my vocabulary.

This skill that I’m good at – thinking and creating solutions to problems – has been the bedrock of what I do. I love to analyze, think and contemplate. I love to measure and experiment. It’s made me sharper; as teacher and student. I can parse information and data to arrive at a hypothesis. I can see (and prove) if they’re true, through many different ways.

But when it comes to matters of the heart, this skill of mine, has turned me into a ball of mess inside. I feel like throwing up randomly. When I stop what I’m doing. While lying in bed. It manifested in me getting massive motion sickness at a movie. Bessie isn’t data nor information. She’s furry, black and brown. She doesn’t like hugs. She’s my first dog. She’s seen me as a university student, struggling to finish my final project – and stayed up with me. She’s the first to greet our family in the morning and when we come home from work. And I’ve short-circuited myself by thinking too much. The equation that I’m seeking can never be found; it can never add up to an equal or finite amount, because it’s not tangible.

So my new plan is to just do everything I can, and hope for the best. It’s also time to exercise more as well, as it usually helps disperse my worry-wart tendencies and calms me down. It’s easier for me to focus on other things instead of myself (I bet it’s the same for a lot of you out there), so I need to remind myself every now and then that it’s okay to slow down and take a breath. Optimism is totally fine, except when it’s bordering on denial.

I’ve learned that my ability to rein myself in emotionally is merely an illusion, especially when it comes to furry folk, family and friends. And maybe that’s okay. For everything else though, it’s game on.

SHARE WITH ME:

What about you? Do you have a strength that can also be your weakness? What’s your paradox? Share with me your stories (so I won’t feel so alone!)

[Illustration: Dog by Jean Jullien]

Of beginnings and endings

Cookie

 

It was to be a typical Friday morning last week – I was wrapping up the last Q+A session of the Work/Art/Play class (and what a wonderful class it was this year).

It was bittersweet.

Bittersweet not only because it marked the successful end of the class’ second run. But because after I put my earphones down and started to convert the day’s recording for the rest of my students who could not join us that morning; I had to leave for my mother’s house to say goodbye to my dog Cookie, who was scheduled to be put to sleep after a courageous fight with cancer.

We diagnosed her six weeks ago – right after I began this year’s session of Work/Art/Play. I burst into tears when the vet told us that she had maybe just a few months to live. We thought she had an upset tummy and it was why she was losing weight. Not cancer. Not cancer, I thought. How does one deal with the idea of their first pet dying? I cried buckets. That day had came for me. For us. It was no longer a looming shadow at the back of my mind as I thought about how far we’ve come. It’s here.

An X-ray confirmed that the cancer had already spread to her lungs, although she didn’t show any signs at all, save for an upset tummy which went away. It was probably for the best, the vet said. There was nothing to be done, even if we had caught it early – it was aggressive, and surgery was never an option because of the risks involved. Even a biopsy was too risky.

For the last 6 weeks, everyday I told myself – one day at a time. One step at a time. Perhaps it was just me talking myself through as I walked my class through the modules. It was a phrase that I had mentioned often, and not to myself, but to the rest of my class as they went through the paces of taking down walls and rebuilding a new, firm foundation for their art and business.

One step at a time. You’ll get there.

My mother and I took turns to look after Cookie, and in that past 6 weeks we saw her deteriorate before our eyes. I bought Chinese herbs as an alternative measure in the hope that it would help her with pain, or to slow the process down. We formulated a new diet for her, to make sure that we were feeding her and not the cancer. She slowed down, and lost more weight. Everyday I would worry about her. Did she get enough to eat? Is she cold? Is she in pain? Her new favourite spot was under the car, where she would spend hours lying on her side; instead of coming out to wreck havoc on the garden or to gallop about happily when it came time for her walks.

I thought about life, and death. Of how it was a circle. And that there could not be life without death. But it didn’t work. I was a ball of mess, snot and tears every week. I thought about how unfair it all was. Our family always thought that our older dog, Bessie would be the first to go, because Cookie didn’t seem to have aged at all in the 10 years she’s been with us – she was sprightly, hardy, and strong. We weren’t prepared. It felt like someone punched me in the stomach. It was hard.

One step at a time. You’ll get there.

Early in the week I had made arrangements with the vet to come over, as well as the caretaker. I had to stifle my sobs when I called them, digging my nails into my skin to compose myself. I allowed myself to cry when I felt the need to let it out when I was alone. My sadness came in waves and heaves. I cried out of regret, of sorrow. I cried at not having more time to spend with her. But of all the range of emotions I felt, I never felt guilty, because our family gave her our best. Food, shelter, walks, love. She had it all. She was a lucky dog. We were a lucky family to have her.

Everyday I would whisper goodbye – because I never knew if it was ever our last day together; if she did pass at night.

But when the time came to truly said goodbye, we did. We said goodbye to Cookie. Goodbye to a future with her. Goodbye to her goofy, lovable spirit. Goodbye to her cancer, and to the pain. Goodbye to sorrow. We said goodbye.

I made it. We made it through.

Together.

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I penned down my thoughts in a letter, which I wrote after she passed. It helped me greatly to put down into words what I remembered fondly about her. It’s a little personal, but if you’d like to read it, you can do so by clicking here. If you’re a pet lover, do share your stories with me this week – I’d love to hear yours.