How to be Sound Season 4 Ep 1: Illustrator Charlot Kristensen | Transcription
The illustration Charlot Kristensen created for the recent cover of The Irish Times' Saturday Magazine (above) which focused on being black and Irish will surely go down in history as one of the most iconic Irish images of 2020. We sat down in our respective homes (#stayhome, y'all) to chat about how this commission came about, working as an artist in Ireland and her upcoming graphic novel, What We Don't Talk About.
You can check out Charlot's work on her website at charlotkristensen.com and pre-order her graphic novel here.
Charlot is involved with the Dublin Comic Arts Festival, more on which here.
Alan Dunne, who Charlot mentions as a friend and great supporter of her work, can be found at alandunne.ie.
I mention Jordan Peele's Get Out, which is a stunning – and horrific – satire on race in America.
If you'd like to support the work I do – help keep 'How to be Sound' going AND read a plethora of essays on life, love, sex, dating, feminism and more, sign up to my Patreon from just $4 per month.
Rosemary: Hello and welcome to another episode of How to be Sound, after a long hiatus where I have moved country, moved home, worn a lot of masks . . . It's been a whole trip, hasn't it? Thank you all for hanging around. This episode of How to be Sound features one of my favourite chats, actually, with a very interesting and smart and talented woman, Charlot Kristensen, who you will hear chatting about her work and her life and her upcoming work – and I will have all the links in the show notes to follow and support her, and buy her work, and I highly recommend that you do!
If you don't already, you might consider supporting me on Patreon. That's on patreon dot com slash rosemarymaccabe. It helps pay for the production of this podcast and also helps support the other work that I'm doing in my writing online and off. And now, here is the conversation.
Today's guest is Charlot Kristensen, an illustrator, designer and author based in Dublin – and also the woman whose work recently appeared on the cover of The Irish Times Magazine, on an issue dedicated to black Irish lives, something that has come up in Charlot's work a lot. Charlot, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.
Charlot: Thank you, Rosemary, for having me.
R: You're so welcome. Tell me a bit about yourself. For starters, how did you end up in Dublin, of all places?
C: [laughs] It's quite a long story. I wasn't always in Dublin, actually. I was in Belfast before . . . Actually, no. Let's start from the beginning. It's very confusing. I came to Belfast when I was 15, with my family, and then they moved up to Dublin – moved down to Dublin – at the time.
R: Dubliners do like to say "up", though. Move "up" to Dublin.
C: Yeah, yeah. It's so confusing! Cos you're up in Belfast and you're going down, so . . . I always get those things confused. So they moved to Dublin, then, and then I followed after I was done with my college there. I was doing a diploma in art and design, and when I ended up in Dublin, I was here about three years and then I went to London to do a degree, and I was kind of long-distance relationship so I was sort of flying back and forward to Dublin and London. And I've now been back in Dublin for the last, I think, five years now. So yeah – it's kind of a little bit all over the place.
R: Your accent definitely isn't Belfast or Dublin, so where is your family from originally?
C: I'm originally from Denmark, so yeah, a little tiny town in Denmark, about like an hour away from Copenhagen.
R: Oh wow.
C: I haven't been there – haven't lived there since I was 15 though, so my accent's gone a little bit of everything in it. But there's still quite a Danish accent in there, too.
R: Yeah. I mean, you can definitely hear the Dublin occasionally, but you can definitely hear the kind of Nordic influence as well! Denmark is always getting touted as the happiest country in the world to live in. Have you ever been tempted to go back?
C: I think only really when I just moved, you know? Because you're 15 and you're going to a really different place, and you're leaving all your friends behind, and it's very hard to kind of make friends again, especially as a teenager in a class where everyone already knows each other, so I'd say the first year was very tough and I definitely wanted to go back. But then you kind of adapt very quick as a child, too, you know? Honestly, now it's been exactly 15 years since I left. I couldn't imagine myself going back now. It's just been too long.
R: Yeah . . . And do you go back for holidays, vacations, at all, or do you just do the same holidays and vacations that Irish people do, you know what I mean?
C: I do, because my family actually moved back to Denmark. My sister moved back, I think, in 2011, and then the rest of my family moved back in 2012. So I've sort of been going back twice a year to see them. That's been a bit hard, obviously, not having them here. It's just me and my partner, but at the same time it's something you just kind of get used to. It's strange – you sort of learn to live away, having a distant . . . And maybe your relationship is even better with your family when you don't see them all the time! [laughs]
R: Yeah – I used to actually say that a lot, especially with my sister. She lived in the States – well, I now live in the States too, but she's lived here for maybe 10 years and I think our relationship really improved when we had a little bit of distance between us. Although we were a bit younger, as well, when it first happened.
C: Yeah, I can imagine. Have you been in the States for a long time?
R: Well, I just arrived here on March 14th, so in the middle of COVID. So I've basically arrived at the worst possible time for anything.
C: Oh my God! [laughing] Yeah but that's a bit unlucky, but I hope you're okay. I hope everything's fine.
R: Yeah, I mean – I thought it was going to be an interesting time because it's an election year, but now it's been triply interesting because of all this. Tell me about when you did your diploma in art and design, what were you hoping to do from there? Did you think you would go into illustration, or did you have any ideas . . .?
C: Actually it was all a bit, you know, up in the air. At the time, I didn't even see myself going and getting a degree. I know all my friends were sort of like, oh I'm doing graphic design; I'm doing photography, and I was just . . . At the time, I was really, really interested in animé and manga and all I wanted to do was comics. And I initially actually applied for university, years back, before I went to uni, and it was kind of like a sequential art degree and I got accepted but the course got dropped. So I ended up not going.
R: Oh, wow.
C: Yeah. It was all a little bit funny. I was still living in Belfast when that happened, so I decided, okay I'm moving to Dublin and I'll see what I'll do with my life. And I spent a year, like, not doing anything really. I was kind of like a bit lost and confused about where to go, and then my Mom finally kicked me in the ass and said, you need to get a job, so . . . I was like, okay! So I worked for a few years and then I sort of sorted myself out and realised I would actually like to do illustration. I think it was good – I'm happy I went to uni at a later age, cos I kind of had time to think about what I want to do. And I felt like, yeah, doing a sequential art course might have been too restrictive and I wouldn't have learned about other stuff that I ended up actually enjoying. So yeah, that's kind of – that's sort of what happened.
R: And what were you working at during those years that you kind of obeyed your Mom and knuckled down?
C: Something completely different! I was in IT. I worked in customer support and I was doing, like, Danish support, so I was working with Danish clients and it was kind of how I got the job because I spoke the language, so I was like, okay, I'll do this job, save some money up, which was also good, especially going to London and not having any savings would have been crazy. So it kind of worked out in the end.
R: And how did you find studying in London vs studying in Belfast? Did you find there was a big difference or . . . did you like it? did you hate it?
C: It was definitely different, because Belfast is so tiny, you know? It's smaller than Dublin. Actually, Dublin felt like a giant city when I lived here – and then London was a massive step up, you know? It's like living in a little country. Every little part of London is like a little town of its own. So it was very overwhelming. It was also hard because I was in a long-distance relationship, so we were separated for quite some time, and we tried to sort of see each other twice a month, so that was tough. But I quickly found my feet there. I have some great friends in London and obviously I ended up enjoying my time in London. I really miss it at times, just little corners of London that I used to go to a lot – like Brick Lane is just very arty and there's all these little cool galleries and shops. And Camden, as well. There's just things that I actually miss.
R: I think, from a cultural point of view, London is so great because it's just got such a diversity of style and so many different things to do, in a way, that . . . I don't like the rhetoric that says things like, 'There's nothing to do in Dublin except drink', but sometimes when I was in Dublin, I did feel that, you know what I mean? Just because it's small.
C: Oh yeah, yeah.
R: London just feels, geographically, so much bigger than Dublin, even though it's not really that much bigger, it's just so much denser.
C: It's got its good sides and bad sides. On one hand, you've so much to pick from. But then there's also the question of money and time – it takes so long getting around London, so maybe there's 10 different gallery shows you want to go to, but you have to pick one! In a sense, having so much choice can be really overwhelming. And I kind of like that Dublin's so down to earth, and there's less to pick from and it's, you know, 'Let's hang out at the canal', you know? Just do some very down to earth stuff.
R: How have you found working as an artist in Dublin? Because I know that's one of the things that often gets brought up, that Ireland isn't great for supporting the arts, isn't great for supporting illustrators. How have you found it?
C: I have definitely found it tricky. I would say . . . I haven't got a lot of work from Ireland. Most of my work has been from the States.
R: Oh, right!
C: And obviously there's different reasons for that. I know that my style is something that they look for there, but also think the topics that I tend to represent . . . It's not really something that's talked a lot about in Ireland, even though there is a Black community, it's obviously much smaller, and I think it's just that clients don't really think about those kinds of issues here as much. So I've definitely felt like there's been less work here for me. But I also think in terms of support, I know that they recently brought in the jobseekers' allowance but it's for freelancers, it's for artists, there's an artists' scheme. But it's very messy and last year I was struggling a bit financially because I was working on my current book – I took a deal that wasn't really the best deal, but I really wanted to do it because it was a creator-owned story and I had complete control over it, which was amazing. But it did mean either taking loads of jobs on and not being able to stay on top of my deadlines, or actually seek out some help. And I found that it was very, very difficult, getting that support, even though it was there. Everyone was sending you to different departments, no one wanted to tell you what you needed to do, what documents they needed . . . so I ended up giving up on it. So that wasn't great. That wasn't a great experience. I ended up getting a part-time job, actually. [laughs] I was just like, I'm done.
R: It's really tough – and I think, you read about and you see a lot of people going, oh, I got help from this department or I applied for this grant, but I feel like almost as if the creative community in Ireland is divided in two: people who know how to get funding, and people who don't – and will never know. You know what I mean? It almost feels like there's a barrier to entry and if you don't know how to get in to this group of people who get funding, you will never get in.
C: You're absolutely right. I am very thankful that I know some artists here who have advised me on a lot of stuff. I can totally understand how you can really be in the dark when you don't know the right people, or someone who can help you out. The tax exemption form is a good example, because there are so many people who don't realise it's there. And they can apply for it – and they think, that their work doesn't fit . . .
R: . . . that it doesn't qualify.
C: Yeah, and I actually just spoke to someone who's been an illustrator for quite some years, Alan Dunne, I don't know if you know him.
R: Yeah, I know of him through my friend Liam, actually, who would be very interested in the comic book scene.
C: Oh yeah! He's been great, he's been giving me so much advice. And he just told me, 'Just apply! Just do this, this, this!' And I was like, oh okay! So I did and I got it, so that's been obviously a great . . . Getting that. Since then, I've been telling all my friends, 'Just apply for it!' It's just a bit of support and something you don't have to stress about.
R: Yeah, and that must take such a load off. Because I know as a freelancer in any discipline, worrying about this tax bill that you'll have hanging over you at the end of the year can be crippling!
C: Oh my God, yeah. It was definitely a fear.
R: You touched on the topics that you cover in your work, and how they're more of interest in the States maybe than they are in Ireland. Can you talk a little bit about that?
C: Yeah, my work – a lot of my work is about representation of Black people particularly, and I just find that that sort of work is quite . . . I think there's a lot of big communities in America, and a lot more Black editors in publishing or in different platforms. I know it's still very under-represented there, but I definitely think that's kind of like where I got my first work. It was just through Instagram, someone just saw a piece of work I had done and said, oh yeah we really like that style, and obviously the topic and everything, so that's how that happened. But most of my work has just been really about representation. I think it all just kind of started from the book I made back in uni, my Black Women in History book. I think that was kind of where I started looking at things I was passionate about – and things I was good at, which was drawing, and I thought, why don't I combine the two, and why don't I fill a gap here? Because I felt like, when it particularly comes to representation, there wasn't much about women – and I didn't really know any acknowledged Black women, or women that had done some things in the past or in different sectors as well. So I wanted to do a book about it, and I just got such positive response from it. I was actually really nervous, the first time I sold it on a market was actually in Dublin. It was the scene fair that they used to have, and I remember being really nervous about bringing this thing out, back in 2015, where no one was really talking about the movement there, the Black Lives Matter movement, and people weren't really talking about Black representation and stuff, that much. I just remember being like, oh my God, people are gonna think I'm some, really intense person and I'm trying to make them uncomfortable . . . I don't know! I just had a lot of fears. But everyone was really positive about it, and they were just like, 'oh my God we didn't know about these people. This is great.' I just felt, wow, I've just got to keep going. I've got to keep bringing representation out there because it's helping people and it's educating people and, you know, it's just something I wish I had when I was a kid, growing up, as well.
R: It's also – it's such a gift, in a way, to be able to combine something that you're passionate about with something that you're talented at. That's, I think, something that's so special with art – if that's something that you can make your living from, it's kind of incredible. Do you think, since 2015 even, do you think the level of representation has changed at all in Ireland? Do you see any improvement?
C: In Ireland . . . I feel like maybe this is . . . In some ways, there's definitely people talking more about issues that are happening here, particularly direct provision and things like that. I definitely remember back then no one would even know what that was. And in recent years there's been more activism going on, obviously with the campaign for Choice and there was a lot of highlights being done about direct provision then, and how Black women are suffering in those systems. And so I feel like there's definitely been an awakening, but there's been a slow awakening – and then obviously recently with George Floyd's death, it's just kind of exploded. And it's like, you're seeing all these people kind of like rioting about Black Lives Matter and being interested in actually learning about stuff that's happening in their own country. That's just been overwhelming – and intense, but also I'm seeing something positive come out of it, even if it's very, very long overdue.
R: Is it difficult – I mean, I feel as though, basically, it must be difficult to be a person of colour and to see these conversations happening non-stop, depictions of people of colour being harassed, being attacked . . . Is it something that's very draining, or, I mean obviously we're kind of glad that people are talking about it, but is it difficult to bear witness to that, for you?
C: Yeah. That's definitely been a really difficult thing. I remember when it just happened, I was just getting all these messages from people I hadn't talked to in, like, years, and I was a bit like, what?! 'Oh, I'm here for you if you need to talk!' [laughs] I was just like, you were constantly being reminded of our suffering, something that we're already very aware of. It was kind of being put on big display, globally. It wasn't even just in one country any more, it was sort of dribbling into every media around the world, almost. So it was a constant thing you couldn't escape, and as someone who is really aware of it and gets impacted by it a lot, me and a lot of Black folks that I know were just like, take a break from the Internet. You just need to look after yourself, look after your mental health, put some animé on . . . I don't know. Just take your mind off it, because it was really draining. I would definitely say it kind of feels a bit more naturalised now – normalised now, like it's not as intense but that first two weeks was just crazy.
R: Yeah. I also feel as if, probably naturally but . . . There was so much pressure being put on people of colour to talk about it, and also to kind of utilise their own experiences as a form of grief porn. The kind of endless conversations of, 'Tell us when you were harassed in public.' That's really, really difficult, I think.
C: Yeah, that's actually a really big problem when it comes to the Internet in general, because I feel like, if you met a person face to face, you probably wouldn't ask them these really insensitive questions. But I feel like, on the Internet, there's a big tendency to put your whole life on display. And people almost expect it, and they want to consume it, and it does become kind of like a consumption that's sort of unhealthy and, I think, people forget boundaries. So yeah, I definitely felt that there was a pressure, a need to say something – to speak about this. And people waiting to hear what I'm gonna say, and that was too much pressure.
R: It's a massive pressure to put on one person to commodify their own experiences for a cause that, in essence, isn't their fault . . . You know? Isn't your work to do. But then becomes your work.
C: Absolutely, yeah. That's true. Then another aspect that was difficult was that all of a sudden there was all these opportunities flooding our way. I was getting so many emails, being like, hey, do you want to be involved in this and this? But there was no time to kind of grieve? There was no time to sort of reflect on what's happened and just give yourself space because you felt like, oh I have to take these opportunities. Maybe it's gonna blow over and then no one is gonna hire you – so that was another kind of pressure that was happening. I just wanted to put that out there.
R: Yeah, of course. You kind of get the – you know, I'm advocating for more representation of people of colour in these different spheres, so when someone comes and asks you to do it, of course you want to say yes. But then you're also going, this is a really stressful time!
C: Exactly. Absolutely.
R: It's all very complicated. So, how did the front cover of The Irish Times, which was out last weekend – is an incredible piece of work, how did that come about?
C: That was, um . . . God, I wonder how [Irish Times Magazine editor] Rachel Collins got my contact details but I just remember seeing an email from her come in, saying, they really liked my work, they would really like me to do this cover, and they mentioned, obviously, the people who were gonna be part of it, and I just thought, oh my God, this is really exciting. I've never seen this in Ireland – and this is a big thing. It was almost like history to me. It's the biggest newspaper, as well . . . and so to imagine having a feature, literally centring on Black Irish people, and what exactly they're going through here, was just incredible. It was really amazing to be part of it. Very emotional, as well. So yeah – that was a very short deadline. It was very, like, I think a week before it was supposed to launch. I was like, oh my God! I was juggling so many deadlines already, but I just couldn't say no.
R: Yeah, of course! And what has the feedback been like on that?
C: Oh, wow – it's just been immense. I just remember the moment it was put out there, just seeing all the people tagging me in and saying it's an incredible feature, that the cover is amazing . . . It just felt like, 'oh wow, I've done something good. I've put something good out there.' And also, just like, Black people living in Ireland, seeing themselves – it was a big deal for them. I did remember seeing some messages from them, being like, 'oh I feel really emotional about this.' And then I felt very emotional and teared up! [laughing] I just know how important that must have been, that moment, for them. I think that particularly because I come from a very similar sized population, in Denmark, with very little representation as well, and you live among majority white people, and you've never seen a big national paper write about your experiences. It's just incredible.
R: I mean, I guess it's been really interesting to watch, in a way, kind of – I used to work in Irish media. Now I'm slightly removed from it, obviously geographically and work-wise, but it was really great to me to see how positively received it was and how many people talked about it. Because I feel like, in Ireland we kind of have a tendency to talk about the things we're annoyed about – more than to celebrate the wins. And I thought this was such a great win, and there was so much noise about it. It was just really, really wonderful to see and very different, I think, to 10 years ago, when I worked in Irish magazines and Irish newspapers, I think it would have been slightly different.
C: Yeah, I can imagine.
R: Even then, any stories about Black Irish people, like you said, were about direct provision or they were about immigration. There was very little coverage of Black Irish people living their lives as Black Irish people in Ireland, if you know what I mean?
C: Completely. That's another thing – I remembered it being very keen on having something that felt very hopeful. Something that was very positive for the cover, and I think that – I hope – it translated as that. I wanted something that felt very like, looking towards the future. Something positive, and I think all the issues and things that were covered and also just a celebration of achievements of Black Irish people. It was just great to see that. Really, really great.
R: Yeah. It made a really nice difference to a lot of grief porn that the media can tend towards. It was a really nice, meaningful and positive – as you said – piece. Tell me about "What We Don't Talk About", your graphic novel that is out . . . this year? Soon?
C: Yeah! [laughing] It's been pushed a lot, just with the whole COVID and stuff . . . It's finally being printed and it's finally being shipped, and I believe it's being shipped this month. It's gonna be in stores officially in August, in Europe, and in Ireland. And, in September, in the States. So I'm really excited about that – and just to tell you a little bit about the story, it's about an interracial couple, they're called Farai and Adam. They've been together for about two years, but she's never met his parents. And they finally set out to go on a trip to meet his parents, and during the trip a lot of uncomfortable stuff comes up. She realises that his parents are not the most tolerant people. There's a lot of subtle racism that happens, and whenever she tries to address it with Adam, he kind of tries to avoid the conversation because it's uncomfortable. And he doesn't really want to address it – and, so, it kind of is a story about them struggling, discussing these things and sort of being honest with each other. And she kind of starts to wonder, you know, if she can be with this person, who's not willing to accept that she's different. Being with a Black person is not just . . . You can't just ignore their colour. You can't ignore that they have different life experiences, and that they're gonna be perceived differently. And so it's kind of a story about that internal struggle in their relationship.
R: It kind of is reminding me of – well, not the entire plot, I think, but the opening scenes of – Jordan Peele's Get Out.
C: I still need to see that! I'm the worst. I need to watch that.
R: It's a eally fascinating film, but kind of like that, in the opening scenes there's a Black guy and his white girlfriend, and they're talking about going to meet her parents and he kind of goes, 'Have you told them that I'm Black?' And she's very casual and kind of dismissive, going, 'of course I have – it's not a big deal'. Whereas, he's obviously going, my lived experience is that it might be a big deal.
C: That's a really good point.
R: I think, as white people, we often – because we assume, like, I assume that I'm not racist, and so if somebody says something about Black people I almost have to stop and think, okay, their experience might not be the way I think about it. I'm going, of course this is the way it should be – without actually stopping to go, oh no that's not how you experience life. You walk through life differently to me, because you're forced to.
C: Yeah, exactly. I think it's a very . . . done so subconsciously, you know? It was very important for me to not paint Adam as an evil character, because I think, often when we see stories like this, we see them as very black and white. Oh, there's the bad guy and there's the good person. And, in a lot of interracial relationship films that I have watched, it's like, them against their parents, and it's like, they cut their parents off and then they're madly in love and everything's fine. And it's not like that! [laughing] At all! It's so much more complicated. I mean, I'm a product of an interracial relationship – my Dad is white and my Mum is Black, and I grew up seeing a lot of this subtle racism, sometimes quite obvious, from my grandmother. And seeing how sometimes my Dad would just stay quiet because he didn't want to confront it. And that was very uncomfortable, as a child. You're confused because it's like a reflection on you as well – and seeing how it was impacting my Mum, it kind of also shaped the way I looked at myself. So I know how difficult it is. You love your parents and you don't want to make them upset, so that's why a lot of times people just pretend, or they'll just say, 'oh they're just old'. They don't want to confront it because it is uncomfortable. It might mean you're potentially causing a disruption in your relationship,a nd so I wanted to talk about how it was difficult.
R: I also think that kind of state of being in the blurred lines between racism and something that doesn't exist, like, racial neutrality, or that doesn't exist for white people anyway, that's much more realistic.
R: . . . to be talking about the insidious ways in which racism creeps into our lives, because it's really easy to denounce somebody who is in the Ku Klux Klan, or who is filmed on Facebook, you know, throwing racial slurs at someone else . . . But it's more complicated – and more realistic, and more everyday – the conversations that we're not really having.
C: Absolutely. That's it, really.
R: Charlot, thank you so much for taking the time to chat to me after our initial technical difficulties.
C: Oh, it happens! I'm happy we were able to do it, because this was a really nice conversation. I really enjoyed it.
R: Me too – thank you! Tell me, how can people either get in touch with you or follow your work or support you . . .
C: So, I think the easiest way – I'm on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and my username on all those platforms is @zolwia – it's actually pronounced as "shuv-ya", most people say "solve-ya". That's how most people can find me, and I also have a website under charlotkristensen.com. And an art shop, as well, called theorangenestshop.com.
R: Wonderful! I will share all of those links in the show notes. Thank you all for listening to How to be Sound. I know I've been away for a while and I really appreciate you hanging around. If you would like to support me and the work that I do, you can pledge $4 a month at patreon.com/rosemarymaccabe and you'll get three or maybe four essays a week – three minimum!
How to be Sound is produced by Liam Geraghty, whose own podcast, Meet Your Maker, you can listen to anywhere you get podcasts, and you can check out the website at meetyourmaker.ie. His latest episode features the true story of how Don Bluth ended up leaving Disney to open an animation studio in Dublin, where All Dogs Go to Heaven was made – the film that made me bawl my head off and I had to be escorted from the Swan Cinema in Rathmines. The Stella! The Stella, the original Stella, cos that's how old I am. Thank you all for listening and I will catch you all next time!