Kind, solitary, or just plain lazy, Sofie Birkin’s characters express power and femininity
Diversity and queer visibility are paramount to the Denver-based illustrator’s works which subvert traditional ideas of femininity.
The story of how Sofie Birkin ended up working as a full-time illustrator is kinda funny. Yes, she grew up a creative child, but a career in her now-chosen medium didn’t present itself until someone made an offhand comment as she left a room one day. “It happened almost by accident,” she says.
Sofie studied footwear design (technically called Cordwainer’s Design) at London College of Fashion before moving to Denver, where she realised a career in fashion was looking less and less likely. For about a year, she sold popcorn at a local cinema and drew wedding shoes for brides-to-be on the side. During this time, her family kept pestering her to put together a graphic design portfolio and eventually, she took their advice and spent about six weeks devoting every spare minute to doing so. “I applied for about 70 positions and landed an interview for a graphic design internship at an agency I loved the look of – Grit,” she recalls. The interview went well, and as she was walking out the door, Sofie’s now boss Sean said, “Oh, and can you draw?” Sofie said she could, to which Sean replied, “Great – we need an illustrator.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
And thank god Sean did ask that question, because today Sofie boasts a portfolio with a distinctive style but, more importantly, a point of view. Her characters are bold and empowered (and empowering), filling each frame with confidence; they’re impossible to ignore. Whether it’s a witch in a power suit and sneakers, or a high-glamour femme chain-smoking at a diner, or just your average gal sleeping butt naked, Sofie’s characters exist in a queer and trans-inclusive and sex-positive world – and we love it.
Sofie’s childhood, until the age of 18, was spent in Southend-on-Sea. “It gets a bit of a bad rep – it’s the holiday destination of choice in Eastenders, and our pier seems to burn down a lot – but it’s got charm to spare and a vibrant art scene,” she tells us. Her parents fostered her creative interests, and one of Sofie’s earliest memories is of sneaking into her dad’s study, aged four, to draw. “He found me in there, and instead of sending me back to bed, he lay down on the floor with me and showed me a better way to draw noses,” she recalls. Her graphic design skills also stem from an early age, as she started “messing around with Photoshop” around the age of ten, and the family got their first Wacom tablet a couple of years later.
“Someone once said that they want to be friends with the people I draw and that really hit the nail on the head for me.”Sofie Birkin
When asked why she chose to move to Denver, specifically, Sofie tells a heartwarming story: “For love! It was very spontaneous and very Scorpio. My now-wife Erika (who is Cuban-American and was living in the US) and I met while she was on a trip to London, and a few months later we were married and I was in Denver.” She made the leap once “the glow of graduation” had worn off and she was working all hours in a pub in Charing Cross “pouring Peroni badly” for City Boys every five minutes. “Denver felt like something out of a movie – bright sunshine every day, great big colourful houses with people waving at you from their porches, dive bars with gorgeous neon signs, people skateboarding everywhere,” she says. “It blew my mind.” Today, Sofie and Erika share a house with their one-year-old German shepherd mix and Sofie works three days a week at Grit and freelances on her other days.
It was only in 2017 that Sofie really started focussing on her own practice – before then she had just been too busy, “working five jobs at one point” – and from there she started to pick up freelance gigs. Yet, despite having only been developing it for this short amount of time, Sofie’s output is already impressive. There’s a vibrancy to her works, thanks in part to what Sofie calls the “hallmarks” of her style, or at least the ones she aiming for: “thoughtful colour palettes, an economy of composition, small pops of detail and confident but minimal line work. And big hands!”
Expanding on this final point is where the crux of Sofie’s work becomes clear. “There’s a historical convention of ‘feminising’ illustrations of women beyond what’s natural, giving them tiny hands and feet and soft little features, and I want to push back against that.” And while enlarging certain features of her characters helps Sofie defy convention, there’s much more to it than that. Her works are imbued with a disobedient attitude, one that sees her playing with or subverting traditional femininity with “agency and strength” – often in women, but not always.
“There’s a historical convention of ‘feminising’ illustrations of women and I want to push back against that.”Sofie Birkin
Of the kinds of characters she likes to draw, Sofie says: “I try to make them unexpected, playful, a little mysterious. I love them being referred to as characters, because they should never just be there to be beautiful – your gaze is irrelevant to them, actually. Someone I know said once that they always want to be friends with the people I draw and that really hit the nail on the head for me. I grew up surrounded by women and it’s essential to me to illustrate women with complexity who can’t be reduced to a singular trait or trope. This is a tangent and maybe over-personal, but I was in a very abusive relationship when I was much younger, and became really isolated from my friends, and at my loneliest, I would daydream about being free and having female friends who were strong and kind. And then I started university and I actually found them in real life, and they did help me escape my situation, so I think about that when I’m creating characters – who do we need to surround ourselves with when we’re vulnerable?”
What’s unique about Sofie’s characters, specifically, is the ways in which they express their femininity and their power and the relationship between these two things. “I think [that’s] the most consistent theme in my work: What power can look like,” she remarks. In many instances, it can look like resilience, subversion, rebelliousness or community and often the work is concerned with visibility and representation, “which I think we expect,” Sofie says. “But it can also look like kindness, or chosen solitude, or even plain old laziness. There are a thousand ways to say, ‘This is what you want and I’m not giving it to you’, or to put it another way, to not conform to an expectation, and the quiet ways of doing that can have as much power for gradual change as the loud ones.”
These sentiments are not only expressed in how Sofie draws, but who she draws too. “I don’t think we can underestimate the impact of diversity and queer visibility in art and media,” she responds when asked why it’s important for her to represent everyone and anyone in her works. “I didn’t tell anyone that I was attracted to women for a really long time, and it wasn’t because of some internalised shame, it was because I literally had no exposure to queer women in the media I consumed and didn’t realise it was really an option.” Her works, in turn, she hopes can do something to remedy this. Despite the fact that today’s landscape is, of course, incredibly different, the point still stands that seeing yourself positively represented in a mainstream context can be incredibly empowering and it’s entirely necessary. “Compulsory heterosexuality is really powerful,” Sofie adds, “and I got off lucky in comparison to kids who grow up surrounded by outwardly homophobic language and imagery.”
One commission which enabled Sofie to do so in an acute way was her time as Cosmopolitan’s sex illustrator. Sofie was brought on to illustrate queer and trans-inclusive sex positions, which were also inclusive of all body types and ethnicities. “I was thrilled to get the Cosmo gig because they specified from the get-go that it was essential to be diverse and inclusive, which felt like a big milestone in media representation of sexual bodies, so I was really proud to be a part of that,” Sofie says.
In another more recent project, Sofie was commissioned by Playboy Magazine to illustrate a double page spread and an accompanying spot illustration for its gender and sexuality issue. “I was really interested to hear from Playboy on the direction it’s taking, and ultimately was really impressed and proud to be in an important and thoughtful issue which gave a platform to queer and trans experiences,” she tells us. The piece titled Our Country, Which Art in Panic, which Sofie created work to accompany, was by professor Shira Tarrant and posited that the US in the grip of a sexual moral panic. “Essentially,” Sofie recalls, “they gave me a list of the issues in the article – #metoo, Brett Kavanaugh, Title IX, FOSTA/SESTA etc – and it ran to around 12 separate ideas that needed to be contained in one illustration.”
Sofie’s response sees her riffing on The Last Supper in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek visualisation of these ideas – all with the Pope sat centre stage. “Conceptually, it was interesting finding ways to represent all these extremely contentious issues in a way that aligned with the tone of the article and also didn’t compromise the integrity of my own political beliefs,” Sofie remarks. “I had a ball putting in little Easter eggs – the sexy stained glass windows, the tea being served by the women on the left, the Pope’s vulva-inspired tacos (extremely puerile I know!).”
“I don’t think we can underestimate the impact of diversity and queer visibility in art and media.”Sofie Birkin
Big Dyke Energy
Looking forward, Sofie is not one to aim small, she’s driven and has high hopes for what she can achieve. Her dream project is something big – literally and figuratively. “I’m really interested in exploring ways we can take digital art and give it a more tangible physical presence,” she tells us. “That sensation of being awestruck by an enormous painting, or beautiful cinematography – how can I create that with digital art?” This was something she began to explore last year when she was given the opportunity to collaborate on an animation with Vincent Comparetto which was then projected onto a 325ft-tall building in the centre of Denver. The real dream project, though, she tells us, the “pie in the sky, mysterious benefactor dream project” is an illustrated horror movie – “but if a feature film is pushing it, I’d happily settle for a music video!”
Kabuki from The Art of Drag
Big Dyke Energy
The more distant future, however, will see the release of a project for Nobrow Press which Sofie co-illustrated alongside Helen Li and Jasjyot Singh Hans. Titled The Art of Drag, the book which is due for release in May 2020, allowed Sofie to give real attention to the details such as background and fabrics which she would usually forgo in her digital work. It’s the first book Sofie has illustrated for and presents a “comprehensive history of drag, from mines in Ancient Greece to the founding of the House of LaBeija,” a project which she describes as “a real honour” to work on.
So, keep your eyes peeled for The Art of Drag and, in the meantime, if you’re sitting on a lovely lump sum of money, Sofie’s got a horror film to fund…
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About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.
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