Illustrating Inspiration

Carol Rossetti speaks to about the powerful messages that lie behind her series of illustrations, and her refreshing approach towards feminism

Images: Carol Rossetti

Images: Carol Rossetti

CNN. The Huffington Post. Cosmopolitan. These are just a few of the publications that have featured Carol Rossetti’s Women series. With nearly 190,000 ‘likes’ on her Facebook page alone, there is no denying the growing popularity for this emerging form of art activism, and for the quirky illustrator herself.

The concept behind the illustrations is simple yet effective. Acting as a sort of antidote to the negativity of the press, they praise women for their many differences, and emphasise their right to inclusion in society.

The illustrations tackle a range of different topics. From ‘Amanda’, a woman who has decided that she is proud of letting her body hair grow, to ‘Ana’, who was raped, to ‘Isaura’, who has undergone an abortion.  The result is a series of beautifully hand drawn postcards with very powerful messages.

Carol Rossetti is the woman behind it all. The illustrator is not part of a corporation or an activist group. Women is her own personal project, which she only in fact started in April of this year. She is Brazilian, from the city of Belo Horizonte, and as well as her career in illustration, she works full time as a graphic designer.

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Despite her busy career she has found some time to talk to Nouse and satiate our curiosity about her very interesting and widely popular project, the beginnings of which were rather more humble than you might expect.
“I started this project because I’m an illustrator and a graphic designer, but I used to work mainly with graphic design,” recalls Rossetti. “In order to get more illustration projects I had to show people what I could do. So I tried to make a picture everyday and post it on my Facebook page so I could have a portfolio.”

The origin of her first piece was actually a reaction to the typical nasty comments we are all too accustomed to reading.
“I decided to draw a woman – Marina. She’s a large girl who wears a striped dress and I drew her because I’d seen a friend of mine make this comment. She took a picture of a large woman wearing yoga pants with her back turned and posted it on Instagram with the caption, ‘eugh. My eyes!’ and I said ‘come on, that is so cruel!’”

Rossetti realised that this was society’s problem. “The friend of mine, she’s not a bad person. She just didn’t realise that she was being so cruel.  So I made Marina, which was basically a reflection of same situation. I decided that I would put text with it and have it structured in such a way that it would be as if they were the kind words of a friend of hers.”
The popularity of the idea was obvious from the very beginning: “Many people liked the picture, including that same critical friend,” Rossetti tells us.

It was this response that made Rossetti realise that issues such as these were what she wanted to address in her illustrations. “I thought at that moment,” she recollects, “people don’t really think that they’re talking about another person, who has a name, who has a face, who has feelings. So I knew I could do something about it. So I made another illustration and then another one and then another one, and more people were ‘liking’ and sharing online. I didn’t have intentions of starting a big project, but it kind of happened anyway.”

Given the story behind the birth of the ‘Marina’ illustration, it begs the question as to whether there were any influences behind any of the other sketches.

According to Rossetti: “Most of the characters are fictional, but all of the stories are real.  My inspiration is ordinary people that we see everyday. I started talking about things that my friends did, or my mother, or any of relatives. At first I started talking about little daily issues, but then I started to get braver and tackle much bigger issues.”
Nonetheless, she is keen to emphasise that her work is inspired by ordinary people: “It is so inspirational to just look around you because there is always someone really interesting nearby.”

Some of the topics included in the illustrations have been fairly controversial. ‘Louise’, for example, is depicted as being HIV-positive. Consequently, the series has been viewed and referred to on numerous occasions as having a political and feminist agenda.

Rossetti is proud to admit that her content is of an activist nature: “I think [Women] is a form of activism, as representation is a big issue and I touch upon this. The best way, in this case, to fight our current representation, is to try and represent ourselves in a wider way.”

“For me, it is the only way I can be an activist. Really, I’m terrible at going to big protests on the street. I’m very lazy. I’m a couch girl.”

‘Couch girl’ she may be, but given the thousands of shares and ‘likes’ currently occurring in a response to her work across the internet, this form of activism appears to be working.

Does she see art as a form of activism then? “Art, design and illustration all have a big potential to be a good form of activism because they can evoke a lot of emotions. However, that is not to say that all art is activism. It can be whatever moves you.”

The concept has been overwhelmingly popular. The project has been covered everywhere from BuzzFeed to the The Telegraph. The pictures adorn the Tumblr pages of many teenagers, and the postcards that Rossetti has created are always selling out.
Rossetti believes that this ever-increasing amount of positive feedback is owed to two things. First, she tells us, she believes it is popular because, “the topic tends to touch women in a personal way.” Her work refers to the everyday realities that women across the world can relate to.

However, she believes her work differs from many other forms of art activism because she, “prefer[s] to always use a kind of speech that is soft, that is not aggressive, that is comforting and very friendly.”

She believes that even “people that genuinely don’t like the word feminism or people who have possibly never even heard of it, tend to be more open minded to see what I’m talking about, without really thinking it over.”

“I think I do my best not to sound angry, even though I am. That is just not my style and I feel that in this way, my work can touch more people.”

A recent Time magazine article regarding a suggested ban of the word ‘feminist’ has foregrounded the debate in the media.  Nonetheless, Rossetti is still adamant in her identity as a feminist, though she is aware of the difficulties regarding the movement.

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“I think I am a feminist but I think it is also important to understand that it is not one thing that we can define very easily. There are many ways to be a feminist. There are people fighting within feminism. I think it is important to say that I consider myself a feminist, but my work is just one way of being a feminist.”

“I fight for things I believe in. I believe in inclusion: I believe transgender people, and people with disabilities, and people from everywhere around the world should be considered as equals. I think mostly about inter-sectional feminism that is  not the only area I consider important.

“There are many feminists who wouldn’t agree with some of the things that I do. They have a different approach and that is fine to me. I just need to be very careful never to suggest that the way I do things is how feminism should be, because that is really not the point I’m trying to get across.”

Though Rossetti may be tackling some enormous issues, the tools she uses to create such powerful images are nothing out of the ordinary. “I use ordinary coloured pencils. The original ones I used were leftovers from when I was a kid. Then, as the project grew, I managed to buy some better materials. I also use a black ink pen.”

Her choice in design technique was also a similarly simple process: “It was all very continuous. I had some craft paper left over, I made a circle, I made a girl – ‘Marina’ – and then I decided, ‘this composition looks fine.’ It doesn’t have a big context behind it, even though I’m sure there are many pieces that could be said to have influenced it. I just liked what my first one turned out like and decided to stick with it.”

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Though no artist or piece of work in particular influenced the Women project aesthetically, Rossetti feels there are many influences who inspire her personally: “I find Disney movies very inspiring. I love Disney’s style. I’ve loved it since I was a kid, but I understand that many of them have problematic issues.”

“Also, I adore comic book artists and graphic novelists such as Will Eisner and Craig Thompson. I will always talk about Amanda Palmer, and I love Neil Gaiman. He may not draw, but his stories have made a huge difference in my life. My husband and I are crazy about graphic novels and comics. Our bookshelves are filled with them.”

Understandably, she isn’t so quick to pick a favourite of her own illustrations:  “It is like a mother picking her favourite child. I have a few with which I feel I did a better job with the colour, and so they are aesthetically more interesting.  For example, I like ‘Susan’ very much, the girl with the hijab, and also ‘Olivia’ and ‘Linda’, the two girls who are a couple.”

Her success is undeniable. She has already managed to inspire thousands of girls around the world with her kind and charming approach.

However, it all begs an important question question: What is next for Carol Rossetti?: “I have many ideas, even ideas for a new project that I’m trying to develop. However, right now, I have really run out of time. Most of this project is by myself. Right now, I just don’t have any time to move it to a new level, but it will happen.”

Though we may have to wait a while for her new material, it seems that there is still a lot more to come from Rossetti and, for now, all we can do is eagerly watch this space.