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Get to Know Nanaimo-based Illustrator and Gender Historian Carina Nilsson

Get to Know Nanaimo-based Illustrator and Gender Historian Carina Nilsson

Carina Nilsson has no one signature art style. Her work spans everything from illustrating children’s books to depicting empresses from the early Roman and Byzantine era to helping organizations translate complex concepts into visual information. She’s also the artist behind the much-loved illustrations in our Pie Lady of Vic West story.

You hold a master’s degree in history from Simon Fraser University where you researched the political power of early Roman and Byzantine empresses. This is a fascinating subject—why this one?

I’ve always loved history. I’m a big believer in the importance of context and critical analysis—in all parts of life. My research showed how conventional historians had effectively erased stories of women that held great power during the early Roman and Byzantine era. I used material history, things like mosaics, illustrated manuscripts, coins, and statues, as tangible evidence to prove how the field of classics wasn’t being truthful about the status of women during that time. The material history revealed that powerful women did exist—they commanded armies, passed laws, and ruled empires.

Who was your favourite empress to study from that era? 

Empress Irene was one woman that ruled—on her own for over 20 years—in the eighth century. It’s been speculated she refused Charlemagne’s offer of marriage because she didn’t want to unite the two empires (or share the throne), and she even had her own son killed to preserve her position. But to be honest, they are almost all problematic; it was a very Game of Thrones type of world. I’m surprised there hasn’t been more movies made about the early Roman and Byzantine periods—it’s full of high drama!

What can we learn from these women? 

My biggest intent in my research was to expose the misogyny and sexism that was (and still is) present in the field of classics. When most of the books are written by old, conservative white men with an agenda to erase stories and voices that are diverse and female, it can be a challenge to work against such an established narrative. It’s important to look at who is doing the writing, and what they might be leaving out, and why. So: question everything!

Test sketch of Byzantine Empress Irene | Carina Nilsson Illustration

You’re now translating your research for your degree into a visual, illustrated series online. What is it about art that makes it such a powerful medium to convey a message?

I’ve always loved comics and graphic novels, and I see how my kids learn more quickly when they’re presented with a visual way of thinking. Visual storytelling is really powerful—it helps readers retain complex ideas. Plus, let’s face it: it’s way more fun to read a graphic novel on history than a 1000-page, 10-font, stale book.

Tell us more about your process, and what informs a piece you’re working on.

Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky to have worked steadily on digital studio pieces for clients. Most of what I currently do is help organizations visualize information in a way that makes it easier to understand complex concepts, engage more audiences, and represent diverse voices. The most important part of that process is making sure I’m representing things accurately and to never distill communities or cultures down to an icon or stereotype. It’s always in collaboration with the client—asking questions and never assuming I know everything.

Self Portrait | Carina Nilsson Illustration

You don’t seem to rely on one single style in your art. What are your favourite projects to work on?

This is a tough one! The work I do now is so different from what I used to make, but I absolutely love it. In particular, what I get to create through Drawing Change, a company with social justice and cultural safety at its core, is some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever had the opportunity to do. I’ve co-created visuals for organizations like the World Health Organization, Trans Care BC, Provincial Health Services Authority, and a number of Indigenous communities. It’s always challenging (which I love), and I get to collaborate with amazing people that are passionate about their communities.

Do you experiment with different mediums in your art?

When I’m working on my own pieces, I love gouache and watercolour. During my Fine Arts degree, I also created video and audio installations, which were super fun. Lately, I’ve been doing more animated video work; it brings me back to those days of happily editing sound and video clips in the studio. 

Where do you find inspiration for your work? 

I find inspiration in other artists and creatives, like my best friend Bree Galbraith, my colleagues, and my kids. Working freelance is often a grind, so it’s important to take time to see what other people are doing, where you fit in the industry, and how you can keep growing. I also often ask my kids’ opinions on my illustrations—just because I’m older doesn’t mean I know more! They’re always honest.

Best Friends | Carina Nilsson Illustration

How much of your physical surrounding drives that inspiration, if any?

Being a full-time illustrator is a dream, but it can also be isolating when you’ve got your head down working all the time. I’ve found it’s very important to stay connected to a community, to meet people in-person as well as online, and to make space for myself to get outdoors and surf. Too much screen time is 100 per cent a thing. Also, I need an organized studio, good music playing, and cool art by local artists on my walls.

When you’re not illustrating and working, what else occupies your time? 

All the things that come with having a 10-year old and a 13-year old kid! I also head up to Tofino to surf whenever I can. I wouldn’t say I’m any good, but I absolutely love it and try to get out there every season—winter included. We also explore outdoors a lot; my husband’s trusty four-wheel drive gets us to some pretty cool, remote places for camping adventures. Basically, spending time with my wonderful friends and family is always my favourite thing to do.

The Pie Lady of Vic West | Carina Nilsson Illustration

And lastly: give us your go-to place to grab a coffee, a meal or a beer in Nanaimo. 

We’re quite new to the Island, so we’re still figuring out where our favourite places are. White Rabbit Coffee [in Nanaimo] is my top spot for coffee and gluten free snacks. They’re very kind, support local creatives, and they have oat milk! I also loved the experience of going to the Crow & Gate Pub [in Cedar] in the summer. 

Check out more of Carina’s work

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