09 Feb Camilla Engstrom
Interview by Crystal Cheng / Photography by Chaunte Vaughn
In the vibrant and diverse city of New York are people who left their roots behind just to fight for a dream and find their own place. Camilla Engstrom, the Brooklyn-based artist behind the famous pink cartoon character Husa, has brought so much ease and smile to all the tired city souls with her heartwarming imagery and humorous stories. Through the rising of social media, Camilla now has a wide following from all over the world. It has proven to us that in a fast-paced society, people are longing for bright and uplifting messages in their newsfeed.
On an exceptionally warm day in December, we visited Camilla’s apartment and studio in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. As we stepped into her beautiful apartment space, the first thing that caught our eyes was a black kitty painting covered with generous sunlight. On the other side, Camilla was just like the kitty in the picture ─ radiant and at ease ─ casually tuning in her light jazz playlist for our arrival.
All this time, we were wondering how Camilla balances her creative imaginations in her ordinary life, with her Scandinavian roots. We were also curious how she finds her inner voice here in the concrete Big Apple. We listened to Camilla telling us her life story while continuing more watercolor drawings that she had left off earlier. Her adorable adopted cat, Goose, also jumped in to join our conversation.
Can you briefly tell us about your upbringing and background?
I’m originally from Stockholm, Sweden. My mom is Chinese and my dad is Swedish. I moved to New York six years ago when I was 22 to study fashion. I was an artist assistant at the same time. Back in Sweden, I only applied to fashion schools in Europe but failed to get in, so my friend asked me, “Why don’t you try New York instead?” I’d never, ever thought of doing that. I’d never been to New York, never thought of living in New York, but then I got in. Suddenly, I started to apply for a visa and moved, and then…I got stuck here!
I think New York has this charm where people come without realizing that they’ll end up staying here.
I tried to leave in my first year because I wanted to get out of New York City. I was still applying for fashion schools in Europe, but I failed to get acceptance again. I think I was probably meant to stay in New York.
Did you have an art-influenced surrounding growing up? As a kid, did you always know that you wanted to do things art-related?
My parents were not exactly good at finding out what their children’ talents were. Since I was little, my mom wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, and she still does now. I can never argue for myself because she just doesn’t see my skills. But growing up, my grandfather really influenced me. He could see that I was good at making stuff with my hands. Honestly, if he didn’t notice that about me, it would’ve took me much longer to figure myself out. When I was a kid, he would take me outside to nature and draw watercolors, and when I drew something nice, he would frame them for me. He made me feel so special. When he passed away, I kind of lost the creative side of myself. It didn’t come back to me until high school…but yeah, I think I knew that I was good at making art and crafts all because of him.
Was he your main creative influence growing up?
Yeah, he was very creative. He was an artist traveled to many places. Back in the 50s, he made a travel show about Mexico, but he wasn’t famous at all. He did things behind the scenes.
After all these years of sorting yourself out, how would you describe your personality and how would you describe yourself as an artist?
As an artist, I think I’m kind of all over the place (laughs). Sometimes, I wish I can stick to one thing, but my work does change a lot. My gallery even told me that it changes all the time that it’s hard to follow up. I think it is from my fashion background. I’m bringing the same pace to my art; I always want to try new things. After I try it and show it, I’m over it, then I wanna move on to other things.
A lot of artists stick to the things they’re good at, and they repeat on the similar elements, which is good, so people can recognize their work. For me, I get bored easily and I always wanna excite myself. I’m curious.
Can you share with us what your typical work day is like?
Woo… all over the place. Especially now in the holiday season, I get a lot of contacts for personal requested drawings, and I tend to say yes to everything which is not a good thing. However, it does excite me when I get personal orders. I’ve also been embroidering sweaters and painting tote bags for an upcoming holiday market.
What about your regular days? Do you have any daily rituals?
It’s important for me to get enough sleep, so I go to bed at pretty much the same time everyday, and I always wake up at around the same time, around 6-6:30 in the morning. Having quiet time in the morning is very important for me. I avoid using my phone or going on social media until 9-10. I simply want my mornings to be exclusive, or just be with my boyfriend and my cat. We would make coffee, have coffee in bed, and just talk to each other.
Do you prefer working in the day rather than in the evening?
My perfect work hours are around 9am to 1pm. I usually get tired easily, but when I paint, I can go on for hours. My ideal work day is not having to do different things or run errands but simply paint all day. It is my favorite but at the same time, the hardest to sell. Paintings are expensive and not everyone can afford them. It’s like a luxury when I can only paint. I do lots of collaborative work with other brands, which is exciting as well. But in the future. I hope I can focus more on just painting rather than other commercial or commissioned work.
You’ve done a lot of illustrations and collaborative work. Is there any other career that you’re participating in on the side?
I’m lucky that I’m self-employed, but sometimes I do need to do things that aren’t so exciting. I do model for some clothing brands, which I don’t feel is related because it’s not about me as an artist.
Through time, how did you discover and establish your own style?
Honestly, I think I’m still discovering it. I believe the only way to do it is by making a lot of work and just never stop, being very curious, and trying new things. I feel like I’m getting there yet still I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. I like to adapt changes rather than limiting myself.
We understand that there are many things you’d like to say with your character Husa, such as gender, sexuality and self-expressions. Could you tell us a little more about that?
Yeah! Husa actually came when I was going through a breakup. I was with a man who did not respect women and I was just angry. Instead of becoming a mean person, I came up with this character and I just took a lot of frustration out by drawing her. Later, the anger just slowly disappeared, and she just became this really confident, low person. Sometimes, she’s a boy. Sometimes instead of creating a male cartoon character, I would draw two Husas so that people can’t really tell which gender she/he is. It’s like… she can be anything. She’s my friend and I can’t stop drawing her! Through her, I wish to show a lot of confidence and self-love and not care about what others think about you. That’s the message I want to put out there.
Do you have any ideas or goals you want to try for your next step?
I really want to make a book with only cartoons! I get a little overwhelmed thinking about it, but I definitely want to try and make it my next step: just collecting a lot of past work and make new ones. It would be a lot of work but it’s gonna be fun. To fund it, I will probably go through Kickstarter. That way, I’d know if people would support the book…and if not, I don’t have to make it (laughs)!
People would definitely support it.
Yeah, I think people would like it!
We look forward to your new project! It is hard to believe in ourselves sometimes, How do you deal with yourself in times of self-doubt?
I just surrender to it. I allow doubting myself or hating myself for a certain time. But then I always promise myself to get over it. I always try to catch my thoughts and feelings before they go too far or just shut my brain off and distract myself. Life is just too short, and I don’t want to look back and regret that I’ve lived life with doubts. We are our own enemies and we often say cruel things to ourselves. We cannot deny those negative feelings, but we have to set an expiration date.
Since your studio and home space are together, how do you balance your work and your personal life?
It’s hard. My boyfriend helps remind me to stop talking about work sometimes. At home, I set myself hours to just stop myself from working overtime. I am self-employed, so having structure is very important. I try to work hours like an office job.
I know you have a lot of talents, and work with different mediums. What kind of design or craft excites you the most? Is there a material that you love the most?
Yes, paints. I just LOVE painting. Paints are expensive and I love to paint big, so my dream is be carefree, have the money and space to buy lots of paint buckets, and just go crazy. Artists are poor; I’m lucky that I can make a living with other work, but it would be really nice to just do painting full-time. I’m not there yet, but that is my goal.
What kind of people or characteristics are you most attracted by?
I like people who are just kind. When I find friendships, the most important thing is that they’re kind and caring. It is a virtue that I always try to do to others, and selfishness definitely turns me off the most. For me, it doesn’t even matter what they do for a living; the most important is that they are nice, genuine people.
In New York, where the majority of people came from a different culture background, it’s is very important to have an open heart.
Yes, to be open. I am very sensitive, so when a person is not like that, I turn around the other way. I attach to people easily and I used to make mistakes of bonding with people who were not nice, yet I’d take care of them because they were sad or depressed. They were not very healthy relationships, so now I’m learning to stick with people who carry an equal amount of caring for each other.
What kind of readings do you enjoy?
I like to read stories about other people. I’m always very curious about people. They don’t have to be creative or anything, but I like to see how others live their life. I cannot read horrible news because it ruins my whole day. Honestly, I prefer YouTube more than reading, especially documentary videos about other artists.
Can you recall a phrase or a quote from your readings that inspired you the most?
“Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience.” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Is there a character from your past readings, fiction or non-fiction, that you could relate to?
Hmm, that’s a good question. I read a book written by Joyce Carol Oates when I was younger. It was called Blonde and it was about Marylin Monroe. Although the novel is part fictional, I felt really connected to her character. She was strong but very vulnerable and dark…and I can relate to that.
When facing stress, what would you do to bring yourself back to inner peace?
For me, making little drawings makes me really relax. I would also pick up my cat, Goose, and force him to snuggle me! And maybe going for a walk too but ideally somewhere outside of New York.
In an interview, you’ve mentioned that you like to drink tea. Does that help center yourself as well?
Yes, when I’m really stressed out, I would drink tea and also burn incenses. But cuddling with my cat is the best! Sometimes, I would watch a really stupid TV show just to distract myself too.
That sure is detoxing.
Yeah exactly. I can just turn myself off and not think about things.
If you can switch your surroundings for one day, where would you like to be?
Oh, anywhere in nature! Any of my friends know if they’re going upstate, I’m coming along! I just love the peace and quiet nature brings.
Can you describe what New York means to you and how it has shaped you?
New York has really pushed me to believe in myself as a creative professional. The world is very straightforward. You have to make money or else you can’t survive because the city is expensive. Coming from Sweden, money is a subject that people are ashamed of. If you want to be an artist in Sweden, you NEVER talk about how you’re gonna finance or run your business. But coming to New York, I learned and realized that I am running a business. It is okay making money out of what you do and it’s okay to do some commercial work. As an artist, I am very easy to work with, and I’m open to do collaborative work. I have just learned to really push myself out there.
This city has taught me to be ambitious and punctual. Everything needs to be planned and scheduled. It’s great that in New York, I can find a lot of like-minded people who are doing similar things, but then finding customers and clients is hard. It’s like I can’t sell my art to other artists because they are also trying to sell their work!
That is a tough question shared among the art industry. We all know that New York is known for its museums and galleries. What elements interest you the most when you’re looking at an art piece?
I love when I am able to see the person (artist) in their work. I love female artists especially, because they show so much personality and vulnerability in their works, and I think that’s really respectful. I also tend to like artworks with a bit of humor in it. I just love it when I can see another human story in there.
If you were a color, what would it be?
I would say…green, because I just love nature. My earliest memory is in a small town surrounded by nature. I would be the color of forest.
How did you come to discover your own value and how do you sustain it?
I think it all came from starting to love myself. It’s like treating myself like a little kid again, drawing little things, and saying encourage words to myself. Basically, I just condition to think positively about myself: “If someone else can do it, why can’t I?” I may not be as skilled as other artists, but there are still people who like and appreciate my work, and even if it’s a small crowd, I am just so happy.
Your work has so much of your own charm. I believe a lot of your audience find them light and encouraging. Lastly, how would you like to be seen and how would you like to be remembered by?
Funny! I like to entertain and make others happy. I want to see people giggle a little bit when they see my work. In the long-term, I want to do more children’s work so eventually I want to be known and remembered by making a children’s book that both adults and kids can enjoy.
Camilla now resides in the sunshine city Los Angeles, California, continuing to pursue her creative adventures. We send our earnest blessings to Camilla, for the city brings her new inspirations and energies, where she continues to spread her optimistic works to the world.
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