Schoolin’ Life: Fiona Smyth

In today’s episode of Schoolin’ Life, we meet illustrator/painter/cartoonist Fiona Smyth.

fiona smyth at 24 and now

Quick bio: who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?

I’m a feminist artist whose practice includes drawing, painting, illustration, and cartooning. I’m into zine collecting, comics, and snacking! I teach illustration and cartooning at the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD U) and the Art Gallery of Ontario. I’m the illustrator in collaboration with writer and sex educator Cory Silverberg for the picture book What Makes A Baby and the newly released follow-up Sex Is A Funny Word from Seven Stories Press. My first graphic novel, The Never Weres, was published by Annick Press in 2011.

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

I graduated art school in 1986 but I was already exhibiting my paintings the year before. My expectations were to spread my work internationally and live off my art. I managed to establish myself as an artist, illustrator, and cartoonist in Toronto and get a bit of a reputation beyond Canada.  Sometimes there were day jobs and there was a brief stint on welfare.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I was inspired by what was happening in New York City’s Lower East Side’s art scene- fast creators and ever present artists like Keith Haring. Toronto was a real boys’ club in art and comics. I knew as a woman artist (in Toronto and beyond) I was an exception and so was the content of my work/what I had to say. I was creating sexy, in your face, colourful work. I was driven to show my work often, and also outside the gallery system through posters, murals, clothing, and zines.

What was your first job like?

My very first job ever was when I was 15 at a deli/café named Sweet Gallery but later in my twenties my day job was working the candy counter and ticket sales at a repertory cinema. I was doing illustration commissions, painting clothes and murals, and making comics during the day. I worked with Reactor Art & Design for illustration, Vortex Comics, and Weller-Potovsky Gallery in Toronto.

What was your first apartment like?

I lived in the basement of a student rented house. There were at least 4 other roomies. I had a studio at the time that was shared with 3 other artists. At some point I decided to get a cat, which the roomies were not psyched about.

Did you experience any big life changes?

My family moved to Nova Scotia and I was on my own for the first time in Toronto. It was a much bigger adjustment than I realized- freedom but also dealing with emotional issues.

In what ways did your friendships change?

I knew a lot of people but had a handful of close friends. I got into a bad habit of finding “surrogate parent” friends, or troubled and depressed folks like myself. There were many bad decisions in relation to friends, living situations, and partying during those days.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

There weren’t romantic ones until I met my partner (of now 23 years) when I was 28.  Before Craig Daniels entered my life, it was drug addicts, alcoholics, and genuine jerks- territory that was familiar.

How did your relationships with your family change?

Distance and time helped me build healthier boundaries and self-esteem (plus the stability and support of my relationship with Craig, and therapy).

How do you feel society viewed you?

As a woman artist society tends to judge your work in relation to what you look like in a way that doesn’t happen to male artists. When I was younger, folks were often surprised by my demeanour in relation to the sexy, violent, outrageous content of my work and they also made assumptions because I was a punk rocker. I find now as an older artist, folks are surprised I don’t look like a punk rocker. I can’t win!

Also you can be pigeonholed as a particular kind of artist- for example for years I’d have art directors say something like: “We love your work but we don’t want erect penises or flaming vaginas in this kids’ illustration” –well, duh!

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

At the time I was making bad decisions and acting out in ways I wouldn’t understand until years later. I’ve gained understanding and empathy for my younger self since then.

How did you change intellectually?

When I first made a name for myself as an artist I was afraid of the F word. I would call myself a humanist. That didn’t last long, I am a feminist artist and fiercer about that stance the older I get. Personal experience and feminism opened my eyes.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

I discovered my art acted like an alter ego and that was an okay way to deal with being in the world.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

My worldview was becoming more and more fatalistic, especially with the occurrence of family illness.

What was the most embarrassing moment?

Apart from not calling myself a feminist for a time? Being 15 minutes late for a friend’s wedding for which I was the “best man”.

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

There was a chance I might have gone to NYC as part of a studio residency. For many years an established artist teacher/mentor of mine would bemoan the fact I hadn’t gone but in retrospect I often think of it as missing a bullet not an opportunity. I needed the stability and slowness of Toronto to discover my healthiest self and my visual voice. I think I would have been burnt out on drugs and the fast pace of NYC, I don’t think my 20’s self would’ve survived.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

Punk rock and hip hop DIY culture (this was pre-Riot Grrrl and Queercore) which taught me to be wary of the establishment, not give a fuck, and promote and disseminate my work outside the gallery system. Keith Haring showed the way in creating populist iconic work fast and effectively, and including social justice themes. He taught me the personal is political, and can be accessible and universal.

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

The murder of 14 women at École Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989: I remember hearing the news, being in denial thinking they were murdered because they were engineering students- and having the nauseating realization they were murdered because they were women.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

I wish I’d done more comics- I pursued art more fervently but comics travel in the world better.

Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?

I had some adventures in Detroit- showing art, and visiting with Craig and his band, The Leather Uppers. The grit and rawness of this dystopic American city was juxtaposed with an amazing music scene (The Gories). This culture was at its most punk and resilient, grounded by broken glass and burning cars.

Dame of the Day: Elsie Ivancich Dunin

Elsie Ivancich Dunin

Today’s Dame of the Day is Elsie Ivancich Dunin (July 19, 1935-). This Croatian choreographer specializes in sword dances and other specialities of the Croatian diaspora. In 1981, she founded Cross-Cultural Dance Resources, a non-profit dedicated to the study of dance ethnology.

Dame of the Day: Ana Pessoa Pinto

Ana Pessoa PintoToday’s Dame of the Day is Ana Pessoa Pinto (1956-). Pinto began her career in exile in Mozambique before returning to East Timor and winning a seat in the nation’s Parliament. Today’s she is the country’s prosecutor general and previously served as Minister for State and Internal Administration.

Dame of the Day: Margaret Nasha

Margaret Nasha

Today’s Dame of the Day is Margaret Nasha. Nasha began her career as a civil servant before entering Botswana’s cabinet in 1994. She was the first female speaker of the country’s Parliament, representing Botswana’s Democratic Party.

Schoolin’ Life: Duretti Hirpa

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we catch up with senior software engineer Duretti Hirpa.

Duretti Hirpa

Who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?

My name is Duretti Hirpa, and I’m a senior software engineer at Slack. I’m unabashedly into people, Beyoncé, snacks, and the ever changing role of technology in our lives. I spend my days making Slack better, working on my snack podcast (snackoverflow), as well as trying to make the tech industry a more welcoming and equitable place for lady-identified and/or marginalized people.

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

Growing up, I was inordinately obsessed with being an “adult”. Now that I’m here, I realize we’re mostly winging it. Additionally, my expectations were really normative – spouse, baby, house, but conversely, I told myself my twenties were for me, that I get every year in my twenties to myself, to figure out what it was I wanted and how to get there.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I come from a family of immigrants (shout out to East Africa), and as such, I had a lot of dissonant societal views coming at me: women should have a career, but being married with babies is your most crucial function. It took me a long time to see myself separate and apart from my family, or as something more than a potential wife and mother.

What was your first job like?

I moved to the Bay Area in 2008, at the very beginning of the recession. I had just graduated from university, and had approximately $500 to my name. I found a contract position at an educational startup and I felt so lucky to have found something that I could live on (years later, I’d find out that it wasn’t that much, and I was supposed to be withholding taxes from my paycheck. Tax season 2009 was rough). The job itself was mostly scut work, but I felt so thrilled to be earning money at something I truly liked. I couldn’t help but feel I getting away with something.

What was your first apartment like?

My family is quite a large one, and we have always loved the hustle and bustle of living with others; as such I’ve never lived alone. After graduating, I lived with a friend from university who had done all the leg work – she found the apartment, she got the lease sorted, all of the adult unpleasantries that go with finding a place to live (shout out to Kristen). It was a two-bedroom, one bath apartment. It was carpeted and homey. We hung our handmade crafts on the walls. It was located in a huge complex with lots of children, and a tiny, tiny dive bar in the parking lot.

Did you experience any big life changes?

Not really. Worked, paid student loans; rinse, repeat. (I don’t really have an answer for this one!)

In what ways did your friendships change?

Growing up, I believed that the friends you made in college were your “forever friends”, and as such, I had a hard time leaving university and learning to put down roots elsewhere. Eventually, I learned that the people who really care about you figure out ways to keep in touch, conversely, it’s possible to feel intensely lonely while you make friends in your new city. It gets better, though.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

That we all play at intimacy, and embodying true vulnerability and acceptance is the hardest thing we do as people. In the words of Rilke:

“For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”

How did your relationships with your family change?

I grew closer to my siblings, and learned to humanize instead of idealize my parents. We’re all human people trying to make it as best we can.

How do you feel society viewed you?

I’m not sure! What I do think is that I stopped caring how it viewed me. I think if I concentrate too long on how I’m viewed by others, I wouldn’t done the things I’ve done (talk about your classic extrovert’s dilemma: act first, question later). I think I spend a far greater amount of time struggling with how I view myself.

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

I think I got better at self-regulation. That being said, there’s something to being unregulated. When I was younger, I made decisions with a lighter heart. I’d like to still have the wisdom that comes from making those choices and the bravery to do so.

How did you change intellectually?

I think I wanted to see the receipts more. I still pretty much believe everything I read in books though.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

It’s like the title of the David Lipsky book about David Foster Wallace – “Although of course you end up becoming yourself”. I was always me, things just settled more into place.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

I think got WOKE. Most of my early and mid twenties were spent trying to answer the question, “How should a person be?” I wrote lists and lists of admirable qualities, and tried to become the kind of person that embodies those qualities. I became more accepting of the humanity in others, but more skeptical of the systems we put in place.

What was the most embarrassing moment?

Urnmf. I’m not sure! They probably have to do with being interested in someone and being shot down? You get over the intensity of that, too.

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

Yikes. I’m an intensely positive person. I don’t tend to dwell on disappointments (and I’m having trouble recalling one now). I’m of the attitude that if there’s a set back, that’s fine: there’s always gonna be setbacks. You can’t let it derail you. Ever forward, and all that. Ultimately, I’m stubborn, and once I truly make up my mind about a thing I want to accomplish, there’s very little that can stand in my way.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

It’s lonely being The Only One in the Room. I think the younger kids are more woke, they have this catchphrase, “you can’t be what you can’t see” – professionally, I don’t know of anyone that’s been my biggest influence. I guess my answer will be Beyoncé. The answer is always Beyoncé.

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

Michael Jackson died, and with it, a bit of my childhood. There’s a passage from Nick Hornby’s About a Boy that sums it up perfectly:

He hadn’t been shocked by the death of a pop star since Marvin Gaye died. He had been… how old? He thought back. the first of April 1984… Jesus, ten years ago, nearly to the day. So he had been twenty-six, and still of an age when things like that meant something: he probably sang Marvin Gaye songs with his eyes closed when he was twenty-six. Now he knew pop stars committing suicide were all grist to the mill, and the only consequence of Kurt Cobain’s death as far as he was concerned was that Nevermind would sound a lot cooler. Ellie and Marcus weren’t old enough to understand that, though. They would think it all meant something, and that worried him.

I was 23 the summer Michael died.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

Of course – that’s thing about moving linearly through time: you never know if the decisions you make are the right ones. I cheer myself up by thinking about the multiverse version of Duretti, who has made the choice that I ultimately didn’t go with. It helps me be less indecisive, strangely, to think that some other version of myself is doing the other thing I’m waffling on.

Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?

Not really..! Maybe a montage of increasingly vigorous eye-rolls at people telling dad jokes?

Dame of the Day: Inge Lehmann

Inge Lehmann

Today’s Dame of the Day is Inge Lehmann (May 13, 1888 – February 21, 1993). This Danish seismologist and geophysicist discovered that the earth had a solid inner core and molten outer core. Her insights helped explain seismic waves and the nature of earthquake activity. Lehmann earned numerous awards including the Danish Royal Society of Science and Letters’ Gold Medal.

Dame of the Day: Slavenka Drakulic

Slavenka DrakulicToday’s Dame of the Day is Slavenka Drakulić (July 4, 1949-). Born in Croatia, Drakulić began her career as a journalist writing about feminist issues for the country’s newspapers. In the 1990s, she left the country for Sweden after she received death threats for writing about the region’s civil war. While in exile, Drakulić wrote extensively about the Yugoslav wars and interviewed inmates of the International Criminal Tribunal. Today, she splits her time between Stockholm and Zagreb.

Dame of the Day: Magie Faure-Vidot

Magie Faure-Vidot

Today’s Dame of the Day is Magie Faure-Vidot. As a poet, Faure-Vidot routinely represents her home country, Seychelles, at literary competitions around the world. In addition to editing Sipay, the country’s only literary magazine, she also founded the online journal Winds Easterly. Faure-Vidot is an associate member of the Academic Institute in Paris and the International Academy of Lutece.

Schoolin’ Life: Colter Jackson

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we meet illustrator and writer Colter Jackson.

author photo final

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

In my 20s I had this agonizing, paralyzing ambition to “become a writer.” Hell or high water, I wanted to publish before 30. Guess what? I failed. But I needed that failure. It taught me a lot. I started having fun in my writing. I started drawing again. Letting myself play and pursue fun side projects – that’s when I started getting published and I think that’s not a coincidence.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

Society shrank my expectations of myself. I grew up in a very small town in Missouri (500 people or so). In that culture, girls were encouraged to be pretty but not interesting, defiant or smart.  Also, art was not valued. It was considered something the weird kids were good at. And I was good at it and worked hard at it, so I guess I was a weird kid. Creative pursuits were unheard of and I’d never met an author or an illustrator so I didn’t understand that these were things you could be. Even though I’ve made a career of it, my family still refers to my artistic inclination as ‘artsy fartsy’.

What was your first job like?

I was a waitress at a diner and I got fired. They said it was for my terrible handwriting. I was devastated. I thought it meant I was destined for a life of failure.

What was your first apartment like?

I was 15 when I moved out of my mother’s house. It was a small one-bedroom subsidized by the government. My English teacher had to write a note for me explaining that I was a responsible kid and would pay the rent. I hated the apartment then – the dingy carpets, the dark rooms, the leaky faucet, but I love it now. The idea of it. I can see myself up late at night at the kitchen table working my ass off on my college applications. Doing everything to get myself out of that little town.

Did you experience any big life changes?

I had a health scare that really transformed my life. I was working in advertising as a writer but I had always dreamed of writing books and pursuing my illustration more seriously. Then I got sick and realized I didn’t have all the time in the world to squander at happy hours and late-nights at the agency. After they let me out of the hospital, I quit my job, went freelance and started making things (novels, comics, illustrations, kids books) furiously and with absolute abandon.

In what ways did your friendships change?

In my 20s, it seemed like I had a million friends. But a lot of those friendships were shallow and based on nothing more than shared space. I have fewer friends now in my 30s but life feels so much richer because the connection to those friends runs very deep. I feel so fortunate to have found a tribe of people who all really love and respect each other and want good things for each other.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

I learned life is too short to put up with shenanigans. Find someone awesome and wake up and love them with all you have every day.

How did your relationships with your family change?

Family is so complicated. I’m the baby of five, so I think I had to get far away in order to carve out my own version of myself. Being the youngest child, I had a bit of hero worship for my older siblings. I had to grow up and realize they are just humans and their approval of me doesn’t make or break my life. Their beliefs about the world, don’t have to be my beliefs. That was very freeing. I stopped trying to make everybody happy with my choices. The strange result of that was deeper, more authentic relationships with my family. I enjoy most of them. I’m friends with them.

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

In two large ways. I let go of the reins and this constant feeling of wanting to control the direction of my life because there is so much out of our control. And I let go of the crippling desire to make everyone happy. I realized people would still love me if I made choices they didn’t approve of and if they stopped loving me – they weren’t the kind of person I wanted in my life, were they?

How did you change intellectually?

I’ve always been a reader but I think I started to understand the value of reading books that are really challenging and not just entertaining. That books actually get inside of you and make you bigger and better in a lot of ways, opening your eyes and opening your heart.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

The adjectives changed. I went from striving to be pleasant and pretty to striving to be interesting, tenacious, brave, intelligent and kind.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

I grew up so insular. Travelling and reading really opened my eyes to how connected we are as human beings. How we should do everything we can to minimize the suffering of others.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

My high school English teacher had a profound affect on my life. She was always so fiercely intelligent and well-read. I grew up in a cultural desert and she was this magical oasis of knowledge and poetry. She encouraged me in my outlying interests and it’s the only encouragement I can find when I look back.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
The things I regret aren’t really missteps or mistakes – I think those are valuable. I regret time wasted and I regret anytime I’ve ever hurt anyone.

Dame of the Day: Martha Ruby Holland

Ruby Holland

Today’s Dame of the Day is Martha Ruby Holland. In 1958, Holland founded Guyana’s first music school. Its rigorous grading system mirrored that of London’s Royal School of Music. When she moved to Canada in 1978, Holland becamed affiliated with Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music and continued to teach piano in her home until 2001.  In 2003,  her death, her children established the Ruby Holland Scholarship to assist students who cannot afford to pay for music lessons.