A Q&A with Karolin Felix, Cover Artist of the first Pshares Single

The inaugural Pshares Single, Lady of the Burlesque Ballet by Timothy Schaffert, features cover art by Polish artist Karolin Felix. We chat with Karolin about her artistic practice, fairy tales and freak shows, and what happens to one of her characters once it becomes the star of an e-book.

Ploughshares: How did you get started as an artist?

Karolin Felix: I was always a slumbering artist (as I believe all artists are natural born), like a Sleeping Beauty waiting for a life restoring kiss, until one day something changed and I woke up.

PS: How would you describe your art?

KF: My art is dark in an odd way, sometimes sweet, both real and pop surreal… I love double, triple meanings, but dislike interpretations. What I usually intend for my paintings is to engage a spectator in a contemplation about a character/scene and their place in a world, which is never easy as my subjects are usually outcasts of society.

PS: Where do you find inspiration for your work?

KF: In weirdness of ordinary life: curiosities, sideshows, circuses, carnival life, phenomena, stories, books and fairy tales; in the art of comics, dance, the world of dolls, kitsch and retro, art of the past, design styles, death, music, dreams…

PS: You grew up in the Polish countryside and now live in Ireland, both countries with mythical landscapes and strong folklore traditions. How have the places you’ve lived influenced you?

KF: I think that mythology of a place where you grew up is deeply rooted in you. It reaches through fairy tales, legends, pagan holidays dressed up in other religions’ clothes, or something as popular as superstitions. I’ve spent my childhood near the “Bald mountain” which, as the legend says, was a gathering place for regular Witches’ Sabbaths. Oldest local folk remember mysterious lights over the place, which nowadays would probably be called UFO. As a kid, both grannies fed me stories about war and folk-Christian mix of saints, miracles, devils, old hags that will steal you and other various peculiarities, which were often logically questionable but still so very interesting!

Bald Mountain (Łysa Góra)

One of my favorite Polish folk legends is the one about the fern flower, which blooms only once a year during the summer night in the woods. It can be found only by the righteous man, and for that who will find it, it grants great luck and prosperity.

About Ireland.. I live in Dublin filled with magnificent Victorian houses and I’m sure there are ghosts of the past there. I think I even have one in my studio. It likes to open the cupboard from time to time (and I would know if that was a wind).

PS: There is a very identifiable style that runs through much of your work. It is fantastical and feminine, beautiful but decidedly weird. Have you always created work in this vein, or is your current style something that has emerged over time?

KF: In my teens I was fascinated with manga/anime and drawing a lot — learning how to draw actually, but I had no clarified style back then. Strange ideas though were forming already. [I was] in love with paintings, especially darkly fantastical, like the ones by Fussli, William Blake, Wrobel or Maleczewski, my subjects became darker and partially out of this world, but always anchored in reality, as clusters of weirdness in the ordinary world seem to be more interesting for me than pure fantasy. And then I had long break from painting (as hours of still life in pencil and later on architecture plans doesn’t count) but my interests evolved in the dark until they could see light again.

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli 1781 – Institute of Fine Arts, Detroit

PS: The painting that appears on the e-book cover is part of a series called “Vanishing Sideshow.” What is it specifically about sideshows and performance that inspires you? And why “vanishing”?

KF: “Sideshows” represent an era when to see a mystery you had to buy a ticket, and it was sort of an adventure and big event that marked a moment of your life. Now it’s so easy to reach all kind of information that it’s almost scary and no longer romantic. So in a way “Vanishing Sideshow” is an epitaph for dying art.

But sideshows hold an interest for me not from the spectator side, but rather from the performers point of view — what they feel, how they live and how they look at each other without a need to look away — and my sideshow series is also an attempt to write a better, happier story for each performing individual.

PS: So each of the figures in your work — sideshow performers, dolls — has a story?

KF: If disconnected from a story, my art would hold little interest for me, a voiceless picture. Some characters materialize before they take a form and sometimes story comes to me after painting is ready, like if it was unconsciously written and just waiting to get out.

PS: And the woman in the burlesque show who appears on the e-book cover – what’s her story?

KF: ‘Bearded Lady’ is an untold story of woman that is proud of her looks despite the world that perceives her as a freak of nature… there’s also a secret reflection in a mirror (which we cannot see of course) but looking at the expression on her face, we can imagine it’s something blissful.

PS: Once you give a painting to someone else, the context in which it was made changes, and with it any sort of back story or further characterization of the subject you may have created. How do the characters you create potentially change once the painting becomes the cover of a book? For example, the burlesque performer is now not just a sideshow star, but the “lady of the burlesque ballet” herself.

KF: When painting, or writing a story, I love to create a puzzling situation. If the context changes, character might benefit with new, interesting details and questions. So I’m actually impatiently waiting for the novella to influence my lovely burlesque star. I’m curious to look at her in a new light <:.

Images from Karolin Felix, CzechR via Flickr.