Meet Our Illustrator for Underdog: Astrid Jaekel
Every month, CreativeMornings works with an artist in our community to create an illustration for our global monthly themes. Our monthly themes help spark new conversations and ideas at our events. Speakers around the world are invited to share a story around the theme and what it means to them.
Our global theme for July is Underdog. This month our featured illustrator is Edinburgh based artist and illustrator Astrid Jaekel.
Given that these illustrations spark conversations all around the world, it’s only right that we get to know the illustrator.
Meet Astrid Jaekel
Astrid has lived for most of her life in West Cork, Ireland, and Frankfurt, Germany. She now is based in Edinburgh, where she works as both a freelance Illustrator and an illustration teacher at Edinburgh College of Art. As an artist, Astrid likes working with anything from the tiniest design to huge public installations.
Outside of illustration, Astrid enjoys cycling around Edinburgh and in the Highlands. She loves spending her time outdoors and you may also find her amongst wild bushes foraging for things to fill her freezer and jam jars, her favourite being the delicious ’lemon of the north,’ aka sea buckthorn. At the moment, however, Astrid finds herself stuck in the US due to the pandemic, where she has been eating far too many marshmallows.
What were some of your biggest creative influences in your early days? How did you get into illustration work?
I spent a large part of my childhood living in Ireland, where my parents had moved to from Germany to live an adventurous life, running an almost self-sufficient farm. I had the sort of childhood that many kids in the 80s would have had: very little entertainment, no sports clubs or music classes to be taken to, and just lots of time on my hands. My three siblings and I were usually sent out to play and would only return home for lunch or dinner. We mostly just roamed freely on the farm. We were always around animals and we were always inventing toys and games. There were a limited amount of toys in the house, but there was always a big box of pencils, markers, and a stack of paper. I have very fond memories of rainy days when we’d all be sat around the dining table drawing and making things. My older sister had a big impact on me. I spent my first years copying whatever she was doing, often much to her annoyance. One day, when I copied her way of drawing horses’ hind legs, she jabbed me in the arm with a pencil tip. It had taken her a while to figure out how to do it and there I was immediately copying her hard work. Ever since, I’ve literally had drawing in my blood.
It still took me a while to realise that I could be doing illustration professionally. It wasn’t an option anybody told you about at school and I wasn’t aware of many creative professions. So my journey to illustration didn’t really start until I reached my thirties. After school, I applied for a design course in Germany, but my portfolio was rejected. I was gutted, believing I had no talent. I started an apprenticeship to become a clinical dietitian. I ended up working in the field for a couple of years after my training and it took me five years to regain the confidence and make another attempt to study art after I had first been rejected. I ended up completing a fine art degree and then moving to Scotland to do a Master’s in Illustration. I’m just so glad that I took the right turn and that I am now doing what I love most.
Your artwork brings in the use of bold silhouettes and large-scale displays. What do you think draws you to these particular themes?
When I studied fine art, there seemed to be a competition of who could build and paint on the largest canvases. I think I took this into illustration with me.
At the beginning of my illustration course I got interested in shadow play and creating backlit wooden light boxes to which I fitted paper-cut silhouettes. Boxes were piling up around me for which I had no further use, not to mention space. One night, as I was walking through Edinburgh’s city centre, I had this moment where I realised I could temporarily turn windows of vacant buildings into paper cut installation light boxes. This work got some attention and soon I was offered my first permanent laser cut window installation on Edinburgh’s iconic Rose Street. That’s how the whole large scale public installations story began.
From there, I continued to investigate ways in which to work in this way. I’m drawn to site-specific work as it has a very direct audience, and a very direct impact on communities. At its best it is based on something relevant to the people and can encourage them to interact with one another and spin stories around the piece. And of course, it’s fun to think up ways to engage people in this very direct way — especially in a time when many of us mostly interact with an audience through social media. My latest project saw me wallpapering the town square of Wigtown, a small town in southwest Scotland, which was extremely rewarding in many ways.
What’s the creative scene like in your city or region and how has it influenced you?
I moved to Edinburgh from Germany ten years ago. Coming to a new place, and especially one as atmospheric and vibrant as Edinburgh, enhanced my sense of curiosity and, consequently, my creative productivity. I experienced Edinburgh and Scotland as a welcoming and playful place. I met wonderful people and was offered great opportunities that helped me develop my work and identity as an artist.
I’m also lucky to have a part-time job teaching illustration at Edinburgh College of Art, which is a place buzzing with creative energy. Working as part of a great team and seeing our students grow and develop and all the wonderful work they make serves as a good reminder that I’m part of a wonderful tribe.
Edinburgh as a city is very special. It’s small enough to occasionally bump into someone you know and big enough to be left alone when you need to be alone! Its walkable from one end to the other and I usually cycle everywhere. It’s on the sea and surrounded by hills, so there are many quick natural escapes. It’s an atmospheric historic city with dramatic views that continue to stun me. World famous for its festivals and many cultural venues, Edinburgh always has something going on. And although I don’t make enough use of it, I’m still very glad to be living in a place bursting with so much life. There’s much history to be inspired by and fabulous museums and galleries. What’s best is that they’re free of charge and you can just walk in and out as you please. It’s got everything you could want from a city, well, apart from a proper summer perhaps!
This year has been difficult for many due to the pandemic. What has your experience been like and is there anything new you’ve realized or learned so far in 2020?
My now eight-month-old baby and I had joined my husband on his book tour in the U.S. when the pandemic struck. Luckily we were offered a place to stay with a friend who lives in the secluded woods of North Carolina.
We were very lucky to be met with such kind hospitality and offered a woodland paradise to hide out in for most of the pandemic. The amazing wilderness and all the new animals I encountered — including opossums, snakes, raccoons and hummingbirds — got me very excited to do lots of drawing.
Of course we hadn’t brought much with us (the plan was to spend five weeks and not six months here) and lived a rather simple life. But I had a good amount of art materials with me. My husband Ken did lots of gardening, so we had lovely fresh vegetables. (Gardening, this is something I definitely want to add to our lives once back in Scotland.) And after our isolated experience we’re also considering moving out into the countryside a bit more.
2020 has also been my first year of being a mother and having to be creative with less time on my hands. I certainly had to learn to work more efficiently within the time available. And I discovered it is possible. What the hell was I doing with all my time before?
How did you go about visually interpreting our global theme of Underdog? In your opinion, what does it mean to be an underdog?
During my walks in the woods I observed little saplings literally fighting for a place in the sun amongst all the tall mature trees. Watching their struggle to make it to the top, where they themselves could grow into strong trees, has inspired this work.
I think every emerging artist is familiar with an underdog feeling. There’s a world of experienced talented and successful artists out there and it feels as though you are developing in their shadows. And the thing is, even after some success, you might still feel a sense of Underdog as you set yourself new goals and venture into new areas.
What’s something that you’re currently inspired by that’s influencing your work or life?
Having a child has made me reflect on my own journey. It’s brought up feelings and memories that were buried deeply. It’s so inspiring to watch a child discover the world and to be reminded of one’s own discoveries, be they great or small. It’s made me keen to do some autobiographical work based on my own life and family history, although I’m not yet sure what shape that will take.
Do you have any specific projects or efforts you want to focus on in the near future?
I’m allowing myself to take it slow and enjoy my daughter’s baby days as much as I can, but I’m also working on various commissions. Personal projects are always important to me too. I’m always keen to try something new and I’ve actually started working on a picture book project with my husband, who is an author. It’s something I haven’t done before so it’s exciting. While it’s going slow, it’s definitely coming together.
What are some things you’d like to do more of?
It’s always great when commissions allow you to explore subject areas and ways of working that you feel excited about. I have been very lucky to be offered work that allows me to explore freely, one of them being the CreativeMornings commission for this month’s theme ‘Underdog’, which was a lot of fun. I have a growing interest in comics and picture books and exploring these areas has been on my list of things to do for some time now. I’m hoping to combine these interests with subjects that are personally meaningful to me.