By Juilee Raje
As we make our way through the last quarter of 2020, most of us are growing accustomed to turning our screens on around midday and intuitively scrolling through informative graphics peppered across social media. Some offer new developments and tips on how to run alongside, rather than into, the mouth of a stealthy virus which has been slithering into our communities overnight. Conversations bounce back and forth between anti-maskers and compassion fatigue. As most of the world is recovering from sheltering in place, the residue of an impulse to collect vast bits of information from various sources and then retreat deep into ourselves remains.
In survival mode, it can feel familiar and comforting to circle certain questions while avoiding larger, or more difficult ones about our planet and violent interactions with environmental diversity—preventable measures often ignored most by people who have the power to implement them. Journalist and scientist Sonia Shah, who authored the book Pandemic in 2017, explains that rather than a reductionist approach of framing ourselves simply as victims of a foreign invasion, we should reconsider environmental and social policies—such as deforestation and a failure to resolve a persistent housing crisis among vulnerable communities—which are the real culprits behind harmless microbes developing into irreversible outbreaks. Indigenous scholar and environmental activist Melissa K. Nelson refers to the Ojibwe edgewalker and tidewalker trickster figure Nanabozho to explain the urgency of cultivating marginalized ecological biodiversity, and that our relationship to nature should be regenerative and reciprocal. Having truthful understanding of the communities and animals that thrive in our inherited environment, and the complex challenges they face at the hands of other humans, is the first step to influencing policy and strengthening inter-social well-being.
In these times, mindful image-making is vital in allowing more people to flip to the same page faster. Illustration is an essential artistic practice that has the ability to compartmentalize issues beyond our immediate realm of understanding, especially when it comes to rapidly evolving topics. Around the beginning of summer, I interviewed North-Vancouver based Illustrator Josiane Vlitos to gain more insight on her research-based art practice and her work around intersectional environmental activism. Vlitos studied Communication Design with a focus on Illustration at Emily Carr University, and has since worked on various children’s books and freelance projects. She is an arts and design educator, as well as the author and illustrator of the picture book Bee Friend. Her endearing characters with carrot-shaped noses and their expressive journeys stem from mindful storytelling and her English roots, and her contemporary style certainly shows an experimental approach to representation.
Sometimes, a message can be driven further when there is a face associated with the words. A distinctive attribute of Vlitos’s work is her ability to conjure characters which feel simultaneously unfamiliar and familiar; especially in her editorial works. Though there is representation of bodies and faces that don’t often receive enough overt visibility, Vlitos finds a way to avoid reducing them to stereotypes by switching up details of attire and palettes of appearances on a spectrum of realistic skin colour shades to blues, greens, and yellows. Curiously, though they rarely show a relationship to each other or hint at an interpersonal dynamic, their individuality is affirmed when they are shown in very specific contexts of coming together as an intersectional community to spread urgent messages, as seen in Feminist Editorial Illustration (2020) or Togetherness (2020).
Seeing yourself represented in a feminist illustration around topical content can inspire more personal accountability and less political apathy. Vlitos says, “As an engaged citizen, I desperately want to contribute to meaningful social dialogue… Illustration empowers me to participate in these important conversations and allows me to engage with people who might otherwise be disengaged from the discussion.First and foremost, when I’m creating an image with a message, I spend a considerable amount of time on research—images can be powerful, so I need to be sure that my message is grounded in truth.” She explains that though her degree in communication design has equipped her with the skill to distill a few key points of research into an image, fine-tuning work is necessary as social dialogue evolves.
The artist borrowed from these values when she wrote, illustrated, and self-published the children’s book Bee Friend at the brink of her professional career. The story is spearheaded by a gender-neutral character named Charlie and pulls young readers’ attention to the issue of colony collapse disorder among honeybees. Vlitos shared some insight on why children’s books are a great vehicle to tackle unfamiliar topics by revealing, “As a child, because of my dyslexia, picture books were my only means of reading to myself. Decades later, I’ve never outgrown their charm, both as a reader and an illustrator.” The severity of CCD has fortunately been on the decline; according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the number of hives lost was halved between 2008 and 2013. Still, as of the last five years, beekeepers see colony loss as a concerning matter that may not be paid attention to due to a skewed stigma of honeybees and lack of public awareness around the role our globalization footprint plays in interfering with pollination.
Bee Friend pulls inadequate forage and poor nutrition into focus as a cause of colony collapse disorder. The “cuteness” of the artist’s style takes away the threatening reputation of a honeybee, making it seem more likeable and invoking sympathy, while chipping away at some of the stigma. Though the bee is fleshed out as a mystery and a difficult guest to entertain, its presence in the community is welcomed. The focus leans on Charlie as he engages in trial-and-error in order to learn what is causing the bee to become disempowered and ill. Through tuning into the bee’s reaction to holding a lone flower, the solution is eventually discovered; the book then shifts gears into subtly putting out a call to action to adults and children alike to plant more bee gardens if they are able to do so. While reading aloud Bee Friend to young children, Vlitos engages the bustling class by asking them what flowers and vegetables they are able to identify in a brilliantly illustrated fold-out section. Though it is natural to feel frustration over an initial lack of knowledge or understanding of biodiversity, the character of Charlie illustrates that remaining open, listening to the affected party, and showing reflexivity in his desire to help is the successful approach.
In every form—whether they are erected on the walls in our homes, spread across books and magazines, or present on social media—images undeniably take up space in influencing public perception surrounding an issue. For the visual learners, for disabled individuals, for young learners, and many others, images are more powerful than words alone in creating an emotional and rational impact. During the Black Lives Matter social movement and global pandemic, illustrators are in the position to sketch an accurate portrayal of issues outside of our windows. The good news is, these subjects are not exhaustive and accessible illustration practices make headway for many entry points into engagement. The responsibility of the viewer, however, is to recognize that the images we consume often have short lifespans, and to extend their messages and how they apply to our own practices or routines.