Welcome to this week's Artists of Color interview! This time I am speaking to my friend and Philadelphia-based illustrator and concept artist, Winona Nelson. I first met Nonie at the Illustration Master Class seven years ago, and was blown away by the powerful imagery and stunning technical skills she displayed for such a young artist. Her work has only gotten better since, and I've learned so much from her thoughtful approach to her subjects, and her articulate discussions on representation. I'm so excited for you to read this interview, so let's get to it!
1). Tell us about yourself! What is your background, and how would you describe your work?
I’m a member of the Leech Lake Band of Minnesota Ojibwe with some Scandanavian ancestry mixed in. My work is divided between a few disciplines – illustration for clients such as Wizards of the Coast, concept art for video game companies including Naughty Dog, and fine art focusing on the culture of my tribe and on my experiences as a woman. All my work is representative and realistic, and I include people of color, the full spectrum of gender representation, body shapes, ages, etc. I adore painting people in all their variety, as well as fantastical animals.
2). When did you first fall in love with art, and realize that you wanted to pursue it as a career? Did your parents approve or disapprove?
I’ve drawn since before I could walk, and my parents are both artists, so it was just kind of expected that I’d be good at it. They never made a living at it and the bar of expectation was very low, so I knew no matter how badly I did in life, my parents would be there for me. But I wanted more security, so I aimed for art careers that could provide a reliable income, and that was a little alien to them. Because of our poverty, I had to make my own way, and had to move away from my hometown to pursue the specialized education I wanted, and thereby a career.
3). Are you self-taught, or did you go to art school? How important was this training to becoming a professional artist?
At the time I got my first video game industry job, I was mostly self taught with one year of excellent, specialized classical realism training. The Safehouse Atelier was incredibly good education for the specific goal of attaining high level foundational skills and a portfolio that could get me work in the industry. I was a somewhat competent illustrator getting a little bit of work before going to the atelier, but came out of that year as a very strong candidate and got to choose between a few offers from game companies. I also attended the Illustration Master Class each year for a couple of years before my illustration portfolio was strong enough to start getting work from Magic the Gathering, a goal I’d set back when I was around 15 years old. I’ve been fortunate in finding the best type of education for my needs at a very low cost compared to conventional art school.
4). I absolutely love the painting series you’ve been creating based on your tribe, the Ojibwe. Can you tell us more about your tribe, and how your identity inspired these works? What are your plans for this series?
The Ojibwe are originally from the East Coast, around Maine and Canada, and following a prophesy, we migrated along the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, starting over 500 years ago. We now live throughout the Great Lakes area and north into Canada. When you combine the US and Canada populations, we’re the second most numerous tribe in North America, but we’re not at all known in popular culture. We’re not a Plains tribe, which is the main group of tribes that most non-indigenous Americans and people all over the world have seen. The depictions of Native Americans in film and TV are almost always simplified down to one mono-culture that seems to exist only on horseback hunting bison. Though there are many tribes who do have that as a part of their culture, there are also many of us who do not. I hope to engage a wide audience with my artwork and increase the knowledge not only of the traditional culture of the Ojibwe but also that indigenous people are still alive and still active makers of culture, neither extinct nor frozen in time. I also hope to be a role model for younger people of color, to show that even with all the obstacles placed all around us, no dream is beyond our reach.
5). What is a major obstacle that you have faced in pursuit of your art career? How did you overcome this, or is it something that you still struggle with?
Starting out in total poverty was the biggest hurdle. I was incredibly fortunate to have grown up in the early days of the internet, because if I had been born ten years earlier I would not have had access to the many tutorials and online communities that made it possible for me to study art on my own for free, and to begin getting work and making connections in the industry. The anonymity of the internet also allowed me to sidestep much of the dismissal that comes with being young and female, because people saw my work before they saw me. I gained a lot of confidence and was treated with respect due to the assumption that everyone on the internet back then was male, and by the time I was going to conventions and workshops, I had confidence in the quality of my work and how it stacked up alongside others at a similar career stage.
6). Does representation matter in art?
Hell yes it does. Yes yes yes. If, like me, you grow up without seeing anyone of your gender and background being a hero, it bakes this idea into you that either you can’t be a hero, or that if you are going to be one you need to change who you are. I even believed when I was young that to be important I needed to be a man, and thought for some time that I might be transgender. I know now that I’m not – in fact, I always loved my body. I simply feared being treated the way society treats women.
7). If you could communicate one thing to artists about representing a background or experience that isn’t their own, what would it be?
Research! Reach out to people! Some people might get tired of being asked to weigh in on questions about their minority status, but when framed as an attempt to avoid the things they hate about portrayals they’ve seen, most will want to have a say or will at least point you to some worthwhile resources. If you know no one of the background you’re portraying, find books by authors of that background and read or listen to audiobooks. If you think you don’t have the time to study a bit, then the truth is you need to let someone take over who does care enough to do the work. Research is part of the job of the creative and if you’re not doing it, then you’re not doing your job. Sometimes we are hired to work on a project and find out the project itself is stereotyped or disrespectful. In those cases you need to speak up and point out the need for more background research, because as the credited artist, you will hold the blame as much as the client even if you merely did what you were told. The world now expects better, and in order to hold a place in the future as an artist or a company it is essential to adjust to the new, global, diverse audience.
8). Do you have a favorite character of color (from film, television, literature, comics, or any piece of art)?
There is still a huge gaping hole in pop culture where modern indigenous people should be. I was excited by The Chief in Wonder Woman, played by a Native actor and speaking Blackfoot onscreen – but he’s a side character. We’re usually only minor side characters. One person of color that stood out to me in literature when I was a kid was Ged from The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K LeGuin, who is described as dark skinned. Contemporary fantasy and science fiction authors are exploding with new contributions. I ate up The Broken Earth series by N. K. Jemisin and greatly enjoyed the diverse descriptions of race and gender. It’s still necessary to seek out Native authors to see Native characters done well, and most of these authors have not yet been big enough to find much readership beyond those of us who read authors of color specifically. It’s still pretty “niche,” though a lot of it is really excellent.
9). Who is the most underrated creator of color you wish everyone knew about?
Louise Erdrich. I wouldn’t say she’s underrated, technically, as she’s got piles of awards. She’s fantastic, and well-loved by many of the widely-read and author bent, but not well known enough! A good place to start learning about my tribe is her young adult series, The Birchbark House, which has a little Ojibwe girl protagonist during the days of early contact with Europeans, tracing the changes in the world as she ages. It’s a great introduction to what Ojibwe life was like only about 100 years ago.
10). What piece of advice would you give to young aspiring artists of color?
Don’t let others’ doubts derail your progress. Your lofty goals are attainable. If you fear that being outspoken will hurt your career goals, remember that the client who does not want your voice and your message is not a step forward in your career. The ones you want to work for are the ones who want you specifically, and while some in your chosen field might not want to hear you, there are others who need you and are looking for you. It takes a little longer to get a unique career off the ground, but standing out leads to greater success in the long run. A career in the arts is especially hard to start when you don’t have a safety net, and many people of color have socioeconomic disadvantages to deal with. For those who need to keep a day job and an income, remember that success is more about mileage than it is about speed. So don’t be deterred. Cover those miles, do work you’re proud of, and share it with the world.
11). Any current projects you can talk about? What is your ultimate dream project that you canʼt wait to work on, or be a part of someday?
My Ojibwe themed works have already been mentioned, but specifically I’d like to collect them in a book and show them in places of cultural importance. It’s a long term goal as I need to keep a schedule of paying work, and the cultural work is something I don’t want to be influenced by a need to monetize it. I also have a series of fantastic creatures aiming at aging up perceived little girl interests like unicorns, making a universe where women get to grow up alongside these creatures as powerful, awe-inspiring, and just plain awesome, the way there is dragon imagery for all ages. There’s no reason, other than the simple disdain of the feminine, to think dragons can be cool and badass, while unicorns must be enjoyed only ironically. I aim to bring out the epic feminine beast mode, and collect these pieces into a book of their own as well.
Thank you so much, Nonie, for sharing your story and your gorgeous art! And thank you, readers, for joining us for this interview series. If Winona's answers resonated with you, please comment and share her interview far and wide! <3
Be sure to follow, support, and share her work through the links below:
Winona's Website and Store
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