Portrait of the Artist: Embla Granqvist

Embla Granqvist is another of the artists who has been good enough to contribute her designs to the Stand Up Speak Up Apparel store. We are very excited to have her enigmatic designs that really stimulate the imagination and bring a relaxing, tranquil vibe to any situation. Here is a blog post she has written to tell you all a little more about herself.

I’m Embla Granqvist, an artist originally from Sweden but currently living in a caravan in a horsefield just outside of Copenhagen in Denmark where I’ve been for three years.

In an old report card about me from kindergarten it says: “she mostly just wants to paint”. So my relationship with art started early. I was quite popular at the drawing table because I ruled at staying within the lines of the colouring pages and I clearly remember my very slow and systematic technique for drawing inside the lines, and how absorbed I was in the process. When I think about it, that isn’t only my first art-memory, but that systematic approach from a toddler was probably also one of the first signs of me being on the autism spectrum.

Since I was one of those kids that never stopped drawing, I don’t think my parents ever needed to encourage me much. It was just something I did anyway and it meant I got a lot of art supplies for birthday gifts!

It wasn’t always my plan to pursue illustration as a career, but I knew I wanted to be creative. That’s how I found myself enrolling at a school for circus artists. I was involved with circuses for five years, and really thought I was going to be an acrobat when I grew up. Then I had to leave because of my mental health issues, but it was all for the best as I’m neither sociable nor adventurous enough for that lifestyle anyway.

My work with children, as a teacher, circus trainer, nanny and face painter led to my involvement with children’s book illustration and that’s how my art was given the opportunity to develop. Before I started getting illustration work I was just drifting around. My mental health issues meant I was denied the opportunity to continue at my school, so I was broke, homeless and aimless. Luckily I found my landlady, who offered me the space for my caravan, and I also found a boyfriend who encouraged me to share my art online. It’s all been going upwards since. Soon I might even be moving into a real house!

My art skills come from many years of trial and error, and I’m still learning something new every week. The real encouragement came once I started putting real effort into my art. My mom gave me opportunities that I couldn’t handle taking for myself while my dad let me know that I should do whatever makes me happy, and it was my boyfriend who pushed me to put up my art online. It is all thanks to them that I’m not still homeless, depressed and thinking of myself and my art as worthless.

All the effort paid off as my mom loves my art and the rest of the family is supportive and can see that I have great skill and that I am making a living from something I love. While the family acknowledges that my art is good, my subject matters, aside from the children’s books, are not quite to their taste.

Now I’m a full-time illustrator and have been for three years, but I do sell a print or original from time to time as well. Since an illustrator’s income can be very bumpy, I also take care of my landlady’s horses in exchange for free rent, and every other weekend I work at a playground, for the sake of economic stability. Actually, I was technically a full-time artist before three years ago, but then I wasn’t getting paid for it – just homeless and unemployed and had nothing better to do than to paint all day. If I wasn’t an artist I’d like to work with something where I get to use my hands and work by myself. A caretaker or gardener would be ideal.

I take a lot of inspiration from nature, and from observing the kids at the playground where I work. That all provides great material for children’s books. I get new favourite artists all the time and right now I’m very much in love with the works of Ulla Thynell and Chiaki Okada. Their subject matters are very different, but they both makes me very calm when I view their art. They both know how to put a lot of feeling into something very simple.

My all time favourite is the illustrator Sven Nordqvist. His books are both funny and beautiful, and filled with overwhelming detail. Each page is like a little world of its own. The more I illustrate, the more impressed I am by his work.

I love experimenting with new mediums and techniques, but I always go back to my trusted watercolour painting. I think I just got stuck on watercolours because they were the ones that was always available. I kept finding them lying around in mom’s attic or received them as gifts. It wasn’t until last year that I bought watercolours for myself, and I love them even more now that I use the good ones from the art store, instead of the ones from the toy store.

My first artwork for Stand Up Speak Up is called Misplaced, because that’s how I feel a lot of the time. I’m not sure if that’s the best title for it, because I personally would feel right at home alone in a treetop. But anyone who saw me would most likely think that I didn’t belong there. At the places where I’m supposed to belong (let’s say a place full of people the same age and with the same interests as me) I usually feel distant and out of place.

At first I wanted to create a piece that reflected on my relationship to other humans, so the initial sketches were full of people and the tree was something else, but the people slowly disappeared from the picture, because after a while I was pulled more and more towards the idea of loneliness and how being different can be both a good and a bad thing. Even though I often feel lonely and misplaced, I also enjoy solitude and a lot that makes me different to others is positive. I think (hope) a lot of people can relate to that, both on and off the autism spectrum. I thought the motive of a lonely person in an odd place was a good representation of those feelings. I chose that particular tree because it grows at the end of the field where I live, and people who have commented on it have said they thought it ugly and that it ruins the view, but I think it’s charming. So, it’s there as a personal reminder of a positive difference of mine – I see beauty where others might see ugliness.

Art is therapy to me and I can get so absorbed in the painting process that I forget everything else (sometimes even eating and sleeping). When I paint, I sit in the same feeling as shown in Misplaced, which is why I intentionally make most of my work happy and/or peaceful. So when I get to paint for a whole day, I’m happy and peaceful that whole day.

I think art contributes to the wellbeing of society in all sorts of ways. Art has the power to make big changes and can be used as a tool for education, for communicating, for spreading political messages. It can bring people together and can provoke both love and hatred, it can make people laugh and cry, and it does something as simple, and yet huge, as making the world a little prettier.

I think this is a message that needs to get across to the politicians who want to cut school programs they deem unnecessary, like art, music and physical education. These programs may not seem like they’re immediately beneficial for a system that’s designed to form productive members of society, but they are. Many of us need an outlet to cope with our modern society, and introducing our youth to healthy hobbies (such as creating art) is a very effective way to maintain a general wellbeing in the population – thus creating a lot of healthy and productive taxpayers.

Besides from painting being very therapeutic, the fact that I’m able to do it for a living has saved my economy and my mental health. I could never figure out why I was so depressed when I went to school and worked regular jobs, or why I found it so hard when everyone else seemed to handle it all perfectly fine. Turns out that I was really exhausted, and couldn’t see what was exhausting me. Now I know that it is people. People and noise, being sociable, following unclear instructions for open ended tasks, moving around the city in rush hour. It takes a lot of brain power for me to navigate through all of that. Now that I spend most of the time alone, within my comfort zone and knowing that I’m doing a good job, my general mood is better than ever before.

Where to begin with art? Anywhere and with whatever materials are available. You really don’t need expensive art supplies to start out, you can create amazing things with a simple ballpoint pen.

Practice drawing and painting by observing the world around you, look up some youtube tutorials, and copy other people’s work to refine your own techniques, just don’t pass it off as your own. Or you can go crazy, Pollock-style, and just mess around with the medium in whatever way is the most fun for you. As long as you enjoy doing it, do it.

Often we lack confidence because we compare ourselves to others, and of course your stick figure will look ridiculous next to the Starry Night, but even Van Gogh probably made a stick figure or two in the beginning. Art is a skill that can be achieved through practice, and you don’t need to have talent to become great at it. Sure, talent exists, just like math comes easier to some than others. But you don’t need to be a natural math-genius to become a programmer or engineer, and you don’t need some innate talent to become a graphic designer or an illustrator. Just do it because you enjoy doing it, it’s the only thing that matters, and it’s the thing that makes art good. It shines through in the work. A crappy doodle made with love is oftentimes better than a masterpiece made by someone who has no passion at all.

“Draw what you see, not what you know”, my elementary school art teacher would tell me when I was struggling to depict a shoe from a photo. I was thinking more of my own idea of what a shoe looks like, and not of what the photo actually showed. This is called perception bias. Once I stopped thinking of it as a shoe, and only focused on the shapes I saw in the photo and drew that, it suddenly looked a lot more like a shoe. The words of my old teacher always go through my mind when I’m trying depict something.

Bio: Embla Granqvist is yet another of Stand Up Speak Up’s artists blazing a trail with her inspiring artwork that shows us all a different angle on life and the world. Originally from Sweden, Embla was training as a circus performer but was forced out of school due to her mental health issues, but she feels better suited to her current work illustrating children’s books and creating stunning designs for Stand Up Speak Up and private collectors.

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