Lightness of Being: A Conversation with Artist Julia Monson

The first time I went on Julia Monson’s Instagram to look at her work, I laughed out loud. It was a picture of a drone that did it, one that had “send nudes” written on the side. I just about lost in on a streetcar.

Monson’s work is unexpected. It’s light but can easily be deconstructed as commentary on today’s society. Monson’s colour palette is pretty and feminine but the humour is dry and crude. I was so enamoured with her illustrations that I was excited to pick her brain for an afternoon, a task made easier by Monson’s open and lighthearted disposition.

We sat down in her studio, tucked in the back of her Toronto apartment, to talk creativity, Instagram, and fidget spinners.

Julia Monson in her studio.

Natasha Grodzinski: Thank you so much for inviting me into your space! To start off, tell me about your artistic background — did you study it in school? Was it always a passion you had?

Julia Monson: I went to OCAD for criticism and curatorial, which is far form what I’m doing now. I’m not curating and I’m not in criticism [laughs]. But that’s fine, at the time I wasn’t ready to fully commit myself to making or creating. I was more interested in a critical aspect. I minored in painting and drawing in my last two years. It took me six years to get out of OCAD. I took a break for a little bit, and it wasn’t until maybe last year that I thought, “I’m just going to illustrate, I’m just going to do that,” and now that’s what I’m doing.

NG: How did that transition come about, to get to illustrating as a job?

JM: I think I’m just a creative person — I like to make things. It was just a feeling, like I need to make something, to put something out into the world that’s mine. I think a lot of my artwork comes from my comedic voice, so I feel like there’s an urge to get that out. I though, I’m not going to be a standup comedian. I can draw, so I guess I can just do both simultaneously.

NG: I noticed that, looking at your work. There’s a level of humour to it, very tongue-in-cheek.

JM: It’s very observational and very personal too. I think that’s always been a way of coping with those urges. You know, I really want to get this out, but I’m not sure the level of seriousness I want to go with it or have attached to it. I’m not going to start a YouTube channel and just rant, but I will for sure draw some funny drawings that I think convey the same message with how I’m feeling.

NG: Do you do a lot of reflections on current society in your work?

JM: Most of it is attached to technology. I really like the iPhone in a lot of my stuff. A lot of it I liked to be attached to Toronto. I don’t know why, maybe because everything that’s personal to me is also form here. I just draw from what I know.

NG: Did you grow up here?

JM: No, I grew up in Hamilton, but I’ve been here for 10 years now. I moved when I came to OCAD. I found an independence here and I’m attached to it. It’s very dear to me.

NG: When you really began working on your illustrations, did you still consider it a hobby or did you think, “This is something I can do.”

JM: I think I’m in that transitional period now. I do waitress on weekends because rent is ridiculous. Unfortunately I can’t be freelance illustrating full-time. There are months where I definitely could have, but it’s the fear of, what if I don’t make enough one month? Or what if I can’t live up to that standard and it takes the fun out of it? A lot of it is doubt, but the dream is that one day I could. Anything to do with art, I’d like to be working in that field. Right now, it’s still a bit slower.

NG: What’s your freelancing experience been like?

JM: It’s been a big learning curve in terms of pricing my work and understanding the value of my time. There are some companies I absolutely love working with like Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Recently I just did a bunch of drawings for them and that was so fun because they approached me in a way that was, “We already love your work and we love your voice.” I’ve also done logo work where I thought, “This is a nightmare. This is nowhere close to what I want. I’m not going to use any of this in my portfolio.” I’ve also learned how to deal with people. That is not something you typically think of when you sell your work. Choosing a client has been a huge moment and learning experience for me.

NG: What’s that process like?

JM: It’s a lot of emails. It’s a lot of, “Hey, I’m thinking this, now I’m thinking this, now we want that.” There have been moments where I’ve had to take a step back, whereI’ve thought I shouldn’t have taken that client. It’s another reason why I don’t mind bartending on weekends, because it means I get to make the art that I want to make.

NG: Let’s talk more about your illustrations. Do you primarily work in watercolours?

JM: It’s gouache that I water down and ink. I should probably get into watercolours but I’m so obsessed with my colour palette right now and I’m a slave to it. I don’t really stray away from it, but I would like to work with water colours soon. I also did a screen printing class about a month ago. That blew my mind and I had so much fun doing it. Working in inks and acrylics is really fun.

NG: So you have a piece of the Venus de Milo that I really like.

JM: Thanks!

NG: And I love how you take essentially millennial stereotypes and make fun of them.

JM: Yeah, I enjoy that. I like to make fun of everything. I don’t want to be taken too seriously and I think that’s reflected in the medium. It’s just paper and colour, ink. These are typically cheap materials and I actually like that.

NG: It’s about keeping that lightness, right?

JM: Exactly! Light is a good word. Just easy and casual, but funny.

NG: In your freelancing experiences have you ever come across a client that’s saying, “We want serious art?”

JM: When it gets a bit more stiff, I get these alarms going off in my head. I don’t know if they’ll let me do me. With Her Majesty’s Pleasure it was great because I think they pushed me more than I pushed them in some moments. They understood my aesthetic and the ell of crudeness I was coming from. I would love to keep doing stuff like what I did for them, that’s a bit more edgy and less conservative.

NG: Are you doing a lot of shows lately?

JM: I did a group show at Northern Contemporary which was a lot of fun.They’re an illustrator gallery and that’s awesome. I met the curator at the Artist Project I did back in March. That was interesting. I don’t know if I’d do it again but it was a cool experience, to have so many other people look at your art. I want to do more shows in the future, I think, because it’s so great to be able to talk about your work with other artists and with any type of viewer. That’s why I think I love Instagram so much. Someone in Turkey or someone in Italy can see my stuff. It’s such a great suppository for my work especially given the nature of my work. It’s this daily feed of nonsense and it’s great. As a graduate of curatorial practices, Instagram is the best thing ever. It just makes so much sense. I really try to hone down on that and use it for my artwork.

NG: Looking on your Instagram, it seems like there is a lot of interest and lots of people you can engage with about your work who you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

JM: And it’s going back to the humour thing, too. Is this working or is it not? Is this funny? It’s so instant, you can get that validating right away, like okay, what I was thinking is funny.

NG: Where do you get your inspiration from? Does it happen instantly on the street, where you see something and think it’s funny and know it‘ll work?

JM: Every time it’s happened I’ve been on the street. Laughs. I’ll take these long walks sometimes. It takes me 40 minutes to walk to work and I don’t do it often, but when I do I’m constantly writing notes in my phone and constantly getting ideas. Most of them start off as captions or they start off with, “Okay, today I saw a girl on her phone walking six dogs.” I did this series one about every girl in Toronto, then trends of fashion and what they’re wearing, what they’re doing. A lot of it has to do with technology. Selfies with an iPad. That’s hilarious. I need to draw it. The fidget spinner, I think it hilarious. I have one at my desk now because I’m trying to think of more ways to incorporate it anatomy drawings. I love observing females, not in a judgemental way, but just to observe. I’ve always admired females.

NG: Toronto’s so big and weird that you can see a lot.

JM: Yeah! In a 40-minute walk I have enough material for the week. Some ideas take longer to manifest. It’ll start out as something small and end up getting bigger. I really enjoy drawing and making fun of the LCBO. I thought of doing this merchandise line based on LCBO apparel, but that’s a small idea that can get bigger.

NG: Love that idea!

JM: It’s so intrinsically Ontario, so specific to the area. It’s something we all deal with. Again, it’s super millennial, kind of personal but also more relatable.

NG: But the millennial humour is relatable. It’s dry, it’s sarcastic, it’s pretty dark.

JM: It is dark! It’s getting really dark! I like that. I think we should embrace it. Everything is meme culture or can be explained in emoticons. We’re all mirrors of how we were raised, I guess, and as much as I like to seriously delve into it I also like to make fun of how not serious it is. Anything to do with school debt, or I cant buy a house, you know? These are things we’re all dealing with. It’s the reality of our situation. I think I was also fed this fallacy of, “Do what you want, you can make a career out of it and be happy,” but I don’t think that’s the path everyone was fortunate enough to take. I think I’m feeling that a lot now. I’ve always been creative but I don’t know if it’s something I necessarily need to make money off of — it can be a way of life I stay true to. If money comes along with it, that’s amazing. If I can make a lifestyle of it, that’s another thing. But I don’t think I’m there quite yet.

NG: As you said, you’re transitioning.

JM: I like to think so! I’m still relatively new to it. I’m still learning what works, what doesn’t work. I’m not 100 per-cent on my philosophy for it. It all comes from a personal level right now.

NG: All of your pieces are your babies, but is there one piece you have that really represents your style?

JM: I love the Venus de Milo one with the selfie. I did two still lifes recently and I like the idea that things can describe us. That was really interesting, to juxtapose this still life of my studio. I’m actually more attached to the idea. The way I feel about the drawings is one thing, but the way I think about where they came from and how they transpired is what I’m obsessed with. I wouldn’t say there’s one particular one that makes me say, “That’s me.” They’re all a collection of my thoughts and how I’m feeling.

NG:  Like journalling?

JM: For sure. I like to look at it that way and then I’m not too previous with my ideas. This day is happening now, I can work with this idea, then tomorrow there’s another idea.

NG: A real stream of creativity, then.

JM: When you don’t get so previous with them, you just get them out and it keeps you going. It’s kind of lame but there was this quote on Chef’s Table. There was this dude who as amazing. He was killing it in his restaurant and then he went, “I’m leaving to start my own.” The owner said, “If you leave, the dish you made here is going to be ours.” The chef says, “Don’t worry, I’m going to make more.” I thought that was so cool. We can’t be too previous with these ideas or thesespmrts of brilliance. We need to move on. That’s why I love working with paper. They’re just pieces of paper. I get it out of my mind and I’m done. What’s next? It keeps me in a cool frame of mind when I’m walking down the street. I’m not too tied to one focus. I’m constantly moving. I’ve actually never thought of it that way but that is how I work. I’m building my philosophy now.

You can find Julia Monson’s website here and follow her on Instagram hereContinue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.