Cape Town artist explores fanciful portrayals of everyday life and discovery

Courting: Kirsten Sims turns to tennis in Love GameObserving people’s idiosyncracies: Limoncello (left) and Fairweather Family Photograph (right) by Kirsten Sims

Courting: Kirsten Sims turns to tennis in Love GameObserving people’s idiosyncracies: Limoncello (left) and Fairweather Family Photograph (right) by Kirsten Sims

Artist and illustrator Kirsten Sims has just published her first children’s book. It’s called Balthazar the Great and it’s about a bespectacled polar bear, the last remaining violin-playing polar bear in the world, and his journey to find a home and safe place on Earth.

Sims’s second solo exhibition, titled You Are Here, has just ended at Cape Town gallery Salon91.

A graduate of the Academy of Design and Photography at Stellenbosch University and a freelance illustrator, Sims’s otherworldly paintings have sold out at the Kloof Street gallery because of their fanciful drawing of home, ordinary life and her own interpretation of the city at the bottom of Africa.

When and where were you born?
I was born in Cape Town in April 1987. I stayed there for all of a week before flying home to Mossel Bay where I lived for the next 18 years.

How old were you when you realised your hands could do this?
Creativity was always encouraged in our home as a child; no game, drawing, dance or outfit was ever “wrong”.
I think that was very important. It gave me the confidence to express myself without fear. In my second year of studying graphic design I really started to experiment with illustration – that’s probably when I realised it was something I could spend my life doing.

Do you call yourself an artist or an illustrator?
I am both. My formal training is in illustration and I think I approach painting in an illustrative way. I am more comfortable thinking of myself as an illustrator who paints.

Do you remember the first thing you drew?
Only from pictures – I am so lucky and thankful that my mom kept a lot of my drawings. I love looking at them now and finding the connections between how I saw the world then and now. Not that much has changed – I still love drawing people, dogs, houses and trees. I think I’ve always had a knack for observing people’s idiosyncrasies and using those observations to invent characters and stories.

How often do you draw/illustrate/ paint?
Almost every day. I divide my time between exhibitions and freelance illustration projects.

Where does your style come from?
It’s a style reminiscent of mid-century Americana, of something you’d find in Vanity Fair or the New Yorker.

I think style is a combination of imagination and observation and what one has been taught. My style was shaped by things like the picture books and stories I grew up with: Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Dr Seuss and Hans Christian Andersen. In later years I looked at artists and illustrators like Oliver Jeffers, Laura Carlin, Winslow Homer, David Hockney, Carson Ellis, Maira Kalman, Henri Matisse, JMW Turner, André Francois, Edward Gorey and Peter Doig. Studying illustration and design played a big role in giving shape and context to the pictures and stories I already had in my head.

What was the last film you watched?
The Jungle Book 

What is on your bedside table?
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham and How to be a Woman by Caitlan Moran.

How do you decide on a subject?
It’s not really a conscious decision. It usually just happens.

How long does it take you to complete a work?
Never much longer than one sitting. I get bored and frustrated if a painting takes too long and I usually mess it up if I fiddle too much.

What are some typical commissions for you? I see you’ve done something with Anthropologie.
The nature of what I do is constantly changing. It ranges from wedding invites to magazine horoscope illustrations, to picture books, to murals, to editorial illustration. It’s so much fun to discover the many ways illustration can be applied.

How does Cape Town influence your style and subject matter?
I use my observations of people and their idiosyncrasies in my pictures – well, the people of Cape Town are a constant source of material, not to mention that it is an incredibly beautiful place.

What’s something that is really challenging in your work?
The boring practical stuff – time management and cash flow.

Which are your favourite tools of expression? Watercolour, paint or charcoal?
Music, exaggeration, coffee and acrylic paint.

Where do you work from? 
I share a studio with four other freelance creatives on Kloof Street.

What do you want your work to say about your generation?
That we are free to express ourselves in all our weird, wild, silly and strange ways.

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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