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Sara Jansen: An Analog Artist Learning to Live in a Digital World

Despite a year of confinement, Barcelona-based illustrator Sara Jansen Avecilla used the time productively, unlocked her creativity, – and reclaimed public spaces!

As humans, we are in possession of a special gift that defines us as a species on this earth: The gift of creativity. The ability to turn imagination into reality is something really distinctive about humans. It brings us joy, it improves our physical and mental health, and is even considered the driving force behind our evolution! Indeed it could be argued that without art, we are not human.

If the ability to create has got us through the last six million years, then it would make sense for us to be creating like our lives depended on it right now, wouldn’t it? However, the past 12 months have been tough on the arts and those working in creative industries. For most of 2020, galleries, museums, and cultural spaces across the world were forced to close their doors and art remained locked away from public view. Yet some found themselves with extra time that could be invested in creative pursuits. There was definitely plenty to be angry about last year, and a huge need to connect with other humans. While the Culture sector sadly remains in crisis, it has been heartening to see humans’ innate need to create, reimagine and redefine continue to push boundaries and find new ways to express themselves.

As an art and culture lover, living in one of Europe’s Creative Capitals, I’ve sorely missed being able to pop into a gallery or enjoy live music and festivals. The streets were my savior though, as the city’s rich history of Street Art ensured there was still always something interesting to see. That’s how I came upon the work of local artist, Sara Jansen one deserted December afternoon. I loved how she was reclaiming the streets as a public cultural space and inviting conversation with her illustrated posters. One piece in particular – The Screen Show Era – caught my attention. A planet of screen-addicted humans failing to notice as aliens descended and abducted their beloved cats. To be honest, in such a fraught year, and with so much time spent staring at screens, it didn’t even seem that far out of the realm of possibility. I considered it my duty as a citizen of planet Earth to track down the artist and see what else she might know about what was coming next…

Where did you get the idea for your piece The Screen Show Era? Was it inspired by one moment or event in particular, or just based on your everyday observations?

“The Screen Show Era” is the last poster I did before finalizing the pieces for this exhibition and it’s one of my favorites. I like that this interview is focused on technology because I’ve always felt like a very analog person, almost left behind for working manually. I see myself as a bit out-of-touch when it comes to screens. 

I seem to remember getting the idea for this piece while riding the subway. It gives me a strange feeling that I don’t like – seeing all those people being teleported almost automatically beneath the city, glued to their screens. The Screen Show Era equals the Current Era and I feel it captures this everyday observation really well. I’m broadcasting this particular message to the streets of my city (and the world) as a narrator in the third person. 

Let me explain: I don’t have a smartphone and I never have, I prefer to observe the world of screens from outside. Although sometimes I feel a bit weird taking my old Nokia out of my pocket, being responsible with my use of the internet (I only use it when sitting in front of my computer), and not being a slave to the screen in my pocket, makes me feel good about myself and the way I lead my life. I’m able to live quite comfortably in this way, yet the very idea seems extremely strange to almost everyone I meet! I feel that as an artist it’s almost my responsibility to show that it is possible!

I don’t have a smartphone and I never have, I prefer to observe the world of screens from outside…I feel that it’s almost my responsibility as an artist to show that it is possible!

As a creative, do you ever find that technology and screens negatively affect your work or prevent you from feeling inspired?

This is a really interesting question because I can’t answer yes or no. As an artist, I’ve always gotten by fairly well with all things analog: drawing by hand, analog photography,  engraving, ceramics… technology has always just been a tool I’ve had to learn to use to show my work that I found a hassle and often didn’t know how to use properly – to the point that it actually slowed me down. It’s the part of my job I like the least, but now it’s also the part that helps me expose my work and share my ideas with the world. 

The Internet is a source of unlimited information at our fingertips and helps me stay up to date and see what the people I like are doing as well as the ones I don’t. In that sense, being able to have all this information so easily via the screen, can feed my inspiration.

Technology, if used correctly, can be really helpful and convenient – of course! But it’s so easy to fall into the trap of “non-physical” thinking – we start to consider these online spaces as unreal, in another dimension from our own, and I think this is what leads to this abuse of technology that everyone talks about nowadays but does little to change. I’m proud to say that I don’t consider myself a screen-addict, but like everyone, I’ve had negative experiences. It’s easy to compare yourself against others and feel inadequate when you have so much information at your disposal. I’ve also worried I was “selling out” by putting my work online, but I’m working through these toxic ideas to find a way to feel at peace about the way I interact with the virtual world.

Have you set yourself any rules and boundaries for using tech? Have any of these changes affected the way you work? 

I haven’t needed to! Using technology to digitize my work was the trigger that made me begin using Instagram to show off my work, and this has been a positive change for me since I get a lot more recognition and people following my work. However, I’m still very conscious of how I use screens, which keeps me from wasting time online. 

Being able to devote as much time as I want has allowed me to follow my instincts and make creating my priority. It’s been incredibly enriching, and precisely what I needed to get to where I am today!

How do you stay motivated and focused on a daily basis? Do you have a routine, process, or place that helps to get into a productive flow? How did that change in 2020?

To be honest, I don’t really have a fixed routine. The constants are that I’m always curious and I get up early. Very early in the morning is when I’m most keen to get on with whatever I’m working on, so get I’ll get straight down to work with a coffee while I listen to the news, interviews, or music in the background. If I’m not tied to a particular project I just let my inquisitiveness flow from my fingertips. 

Ideas come to me in different ways – most often they come when I’m walking as that’s when my thoughts tend to turn towards creativity. I also visit the theater and museums to awaken new ideas or different perspectives in my work. On the days where I don’t feel inspired I don’t force it… some days are more active than creative and that’s when I need to open Pinterest to look for inspiration to get to a new place, or I’ll just fill pages with doodles.

As for this strange year, being confined to home has allowed me to spend time drawing that I hadn’t had until now, since being an artist/illustrator isn’t a job that guarantees you an income. This year I could devote as much time as I wanted, and for the first time, understand my way of working and how I communicate through art. It’s been really interesting because I’ve followed my instincts and creating has been my priority. 

I’ve been able to explore and find comfort in what I do. It’s been incredibly enriching, and precisely what I needed to get to where I am today! I’d never felt the need to have an Instagram account until I became motivated to share my work during this time. During the quarantine, I focused on uploading one drawing per day, as a way of counting the days going by and I was able to clearly see the process and evolution. It’s actually been one of the best times for my creative side – not that a global pandemic is anything to be celebrated! However, it’s so difficult to make a living as an artist that without the lockdown this time to indulge my creativity would never have existed for me.  

I discovered your work through a poster on the street, which is quite a novelty nowadays – but you’re also very active on Instagram. What is the balance of analog or digital in the work you do? Do you find yourself drawn more to one medium than the other?

In terms of the way I work, I consider myself analog, but I make use of the digital world as a resource to share my art. Almost the entire world today passes through the filter of Instagram, and I’ve come to realize that part of my job as an artist is to make myself seen. I use Instagram as a platform to teach and discover, but I don’t think I am particularly dependent on it. 

Of course, not having it in my pocket definitely helps – I upload images on the computer and then go and do other things. If I am at home I can see how quickly the likes start rolling in, but I’m not overly concerned about that. For me, it’s extremely interesting and helpful to get feedback, and seeing how people react to my work is something that would be much more complicated without Instagram. 

I don’t create with a specific audience in mind, I do what I want and talk about what worries me, but it’s always interesting to see the type of people with whom my work resonates, and examine our similarities and differences.

Your latest show focuses on 3 main ideas: coexistence, conversation, and public space, all of which can be thought about in a digital sense, especially in these current times when the everyday spaces we occupy are almost entirely online! How much of your work was inspired by the digital worlds we inhabit?

The Screen Show Era is the only work that directly critiques the digital world (although I’m now working on a poster that could be its brother!). The three ideas in the exhibition were born out of an observation of everyday life seen in my own way and from my experience. I place my characters in the different everyday spaces of people who, like myself, have certain privileges – enjoying the streets, having a room, feeling free to express their ideas. 

So much of it represents our experiences of the past year – the things we lost, (enjoyment of public spaces), how we survived (passing time at home and finding ways to connect with our loved ones), and what we seem to have less of every day (social criticism and freedom of expression). This last subject is one where I try not to position myself, but to illustrate situations that I want to bring to light, and encourage others to think about.  

In one section of the show, I converted the entire process (all the sketches and draughts of each piece) into one result. I really like this part because, unlike the others that have been digitally scanned, these pieces were created entirely by hand and retain an organic and carefree spirit. I like to think that this encourages people to think about our constant pursuit for digital perfection via the screen and compare that with the spontaneity of a sketch, which holds a type of precision that can only be appreciated without passing through any filter.

On the cloud, you can be whoever you want to be, and anyone who sees it is free to believe it – we have all become the authors of our own fairytales.

Your work is filled with idiosyncratic characters, what are your thoughts about how we portray ourselves online versus offline? Were any of the characters particularly inspired by internet personalities?

When I look at these characters now with some distance, I can see that they are all made up of parts of myself and the people I love, so the answer to the second question would be no. As for the first question, I believe there is definitely a gap between the story we create online (a beautiful life where everyone and everything is photogenic – even our breakfasts!), and who we really are. In the cloud, you can be whoever you want to be, and at the same time anyone who sees it is free to believe it – we have all become the authors of our own fairytales.

What things do you do outside of work that help to inspire you and stay productive? (For example, eating/sleeping habits, exercise, meditation, etc.)

As I mentioned before, the things that inspire me are walking, music, visiting museums and theaters, and waking up early with a strong coffee. I hadn’t associated other hobbies like sports or eating with inspiration but now that I think about it, I have to say that when it comes to food, I see myself as an artist in the kitchen too! I love to experiment with the flavors, colors, and different methods of cooking. 

Being very energetic, I have a constant need for movement. Playing Volleyball helps me to stay active, stimulates my body, and tires me out. I suppose that keeping active physically also stimulates the mind – I doubt that creativity comes easily to couch potatoes!  For me, walking and cycling are moments of introspection that I cherish, as they help me realize my ideas. 

The other thing that inspires me hugely is reading. I often feel the need to illustrate the thoughts in my head when I read, and I love to play with authors’ ideas to see where they will take me in my own work. Many projects have been inspired by stories that I read and I often reference books very directly – inserting favorite titles and authors into my drawings. 

The past year saw many creatives using technology and the internet to connect and create. Were you involved with any kind of virtual art events? Were there any artists whose way of working stood out to you or inspired you to use technology differently?

For me, this was the right moment to get to grips with Photoshop – something that I had been needing to do for a long time so I could put my work on the web. Apart from my personal project of uploading one drawing a day, I worked with an NGO that uses art to teach inclusivity and values to children in schools where social exclusion can be a problem. We adapted the face-to-face workshops so that they could be done online. It was complicated but extremely enriching to be part of this process and see the results. 

Apart from digitizing my drawings with Photoshop, I didn’t resort to technology for anything else. I do remember a moment during the lockdown when my roommates and I attended a virtual party and we were the only ones who were not sitting in front of the screen and with the headphones (we were dancing and drinking). It stuck with me because it was both sad and fun at the same time.

One artist who I admire a lot is Victoria Vincent, an illustrator, and animator, in whose work I have found similar references to society and technology. I think my style could easily be translated into animation but when I have tried to do it myself I haven’t found it easy and quickly abandoned the idea! 

What resources or tools do you use daily and have found most beneficial to your creative process?

I think I already answered this question! I’m lucky that I do not need a lot of sleep, so I take advantage of this and dedicate time to the various projects that I’m involved with. I often feel that I have so much more time thanks to that. There are mornings when I wake up fresh as a daisy after only 5 hours of sleep, but, unfortunately, not all days are like that! I try to respect my natural rhythms a lot – not always- but when it comes to drawing, I never force myself if I don’t feel like it. 

There are times when I can’t stop and my head doesn’t know how to focus on anything else but there are also the days when I need to disconnect from the drawing. Spending time with other people helps me to refocus, after taking a break from drawing. I find learning about new things incredibly enriching, and I consider it a part of my work. Simply walking around and observing the world is incredibly important, too.

What projects are you currently working on that you are most excited about?

https://www.instagram.com/p/CJin4Y_D_Py/?igshid=17dsy0ug8q5g3

Right now I’m quite overwhelmed with work, which is very exciting! I have just delivered illustrations for two magazines, a newspaper, and even a book, which has always been my dream!

I’ve also had some bespoke orders, one of them is for personalized mugs. I don’t want to dedicate myself to making mugs, but it is always interesting to try new things nonetheless! Personal projects, right now, revolve around my posters – I have so many ideas and would like to submit them to a European contest for social and political comics. One of them is very special because it will have a participatory element, with the intention for it to be on the streets so that people can influence it (it has an unfinished message and a blank space). 

I’m also working on some collaborations with other artists – a book of poetry with a local street artist, and an upcycled clothing brand.

Click to follow Sara’s work on Instagram!

Born and raised in a family of artists, and growing up with no television at home, Sara spent her childhood drawing, reading, and creating art inspired by the books she read. Always knowing her life would be dedicated to art, she studied Fine Art at the University of Barcelona, with an Erasmus year in Porto, where she enjoyed discovering the creative freedom to fully express herself. She completed her degree in 2017, with a Masters year focused on exploring the art of the book – through both images and words – the two things that drive her life.

Sara has continued to study alongside her work with children: Editing and Publishing, Lighting and Photography, Illustration, Tattooing, and now Art Direction and Scenography! This has given her the opportunity to work within community art and theatre projects, as well as with Creart, a local NGO that uses art as a tool for social transformation. She hasn’t yet curated any exhibitions (except for her own!) but stay tuned!