Author, educator

November 3, 2023

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I’m Lena Nemik. I am an illustrator, comics artist and workshop curator. I work in the field of social and educational projects. In this text, I’m talking about my process of disassembling and then assembling my various experiences and educational backgrounds, about storytelling as a way of communication and finding meaning, about dreams and about the questions I seek answers to in my practices.

Putting pieces together

It seems that I never doubted that my profession would be somehow connected with drawing. Noone in my family had a creative profession, so my parents offered me the option that was most understandable to them – architecture. I learned the basics of classical art disciplines at the architectural lyceum, did not enter a university and, in the end, didn’t become an architect. Instead, I entered cultural studies at the Belarusian State University of Culture and Arts in a specialty very similar to curating. And then there were a lot of other places and things I learned (and am still learning) informally, following my interest or lack of necessary professional skills: critical theory, history of contemporary art, non-authoritarian pedagogy, theory and practice of storytelling, and many more things related to drawing illustrations and comics.

At the same time, I got into the punk scene, and on the one hand it gave me a lot of new means for self-expression and formed important values, but on the other hand it gave me many restrictions because of what was acceptable or not acceptable in the subculture. As a result, I began to divide myself even more doing something for money, something for punk rock, and something for the soul.

For a long time, I considered my disparate education, hobbies and experiences as some kind of chaos: “about everything and about nothing”, “collected a little bit of everything”. This state of disassembled puzzle pieces was quite frustrating and drained me of energy. It seemed to me that for different purposes and environments, I have to present a certain censored version of myself limiting resources and access to my other qualities: a punk in me released a zine and despised all interaction with the “philistine world”; a children's illustrator drew cute animals and cut off access to dark humor and informality; an activist painted posters for social projects for free denying professional ambitions and the desire to earn money.

Now I feel more like a whole person with diverse values, interests and unique experiences. I want to create and live out of this integrity. This way I can rely on all of myself with all the diversity and opposites and stop feeling constant inner instability. Also, this perception of yourself and the world has a cool perk: it’s as if the concept of competition disappears and there is no point in comparing yourself with others, as each and everyone is unique.

The stories we choose to tell

I’ve always liked to try something new within my chosen profession and reinvent myself from time to time. Sometimes it happens out of curiosity, sometimes out of crisis. This is how I’ve changed directions: from children’s illustration to magazine illustration, from magazine illustration to social; and my roles: invited illustrator, author of the idea, educator. And at some point, I’ve felt the need to reinvent and to bring some clarity at the level of meaning.

In the theory of storytelling, there is a concept of the Call. This is a voice that persistently calls you to go somewhere new. In tales and myths, the Call often has some magical origin. In real life, this is something like a clear answer that our subconscious gives us as a response to long periods of thinking and searching. But it still feels like magic! I clearly remember the moment when I was walking on a warm summer night during the full moon and had a sudden realization: “You are a storyteller”. A colleague on a project told me the same phrase several years earlier when I was particularly good at drawing extensive character stories in a laconic way. But I remembered it at that moment when I really needed to understand where to go next.

After that, there were many events, coincidences, meetings, work and routine tasks which reshaped my practice as an illustrator and comics artist – I began to consciously use storytelling tools to tell stories more vividly and arouse the interest, and as a curator – it turned out that stories are great for sharing important things and creating together.

The ability to evoke emotion and create a sense of belonging is one of the main strengths of storytelling. When I need to cover some, often complex, topic, I think about what emotions I want to evoke with my pictures. Depending on the task, I create characters that the audience can relate to or experience some kind of feelings for them. Character development is probably my favorite part of working with visual stories. Then, I create the atmosphere and world (fantasy or real) where the characters live – it helps set the mood and context for the story. Also, color solutions, composition dynamics, narrative, contrasts, stylization and metaphors come into play. While working, I try not only to keep in mind the story I’m telling, but also to do it ethically. It seems to me that illustrators and other professionals in visual arts have a certain responsibility for what kind of visual norm we create.

At workshops on storytelling, I give specific practical tools which can be used to work visually with any story. They include a script, narrative structure, characters, stylization, metaphors, colors. But what’s even more important, in my opinion, is the emotional connection the storyteller has with the story: why it is important to tell this particular story and how they feel telling it. It is often possible to create a trusting, creative atmosphere in which very personal and touching stories are born. This is what happened at the last workshop on visualizing family stories: through specific storytelling techniques, the participants drew, made collages and created comics on deep and personal topics related to their family.

From “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters” by Emily Esfahani Smith

Storytelling gave me support and meaning. I not only use it as my main working tool, a canvas on which I string what I create professionally, but also as a way of perceiving life. Psychology has a narrative approach. Simply put, it’s about what kind of story we tell about ourselves and how that can shape our perception of the world and ourselves in it. This story can be rethought and rewritten into a clearer and more inspiring one. By telling stories about myself, I have a better understanding of who I am, what I do and how it can help people. Both at the local and, I’d like to think, at more global levels. For me it’s a supportive and clarifying way of communicating with myself and the world. And I try not to lose it in moments of doubt, external and internal crises. I can't control much around me, but I can continue telling stories. And help other people tell theirs.

And then what happened?

from Neil Gaiman's Journal by Neil Gaiman

This story would be superficial and uninteresting if I said that I found all the meanings, my place and answers to all questions once and for all. Being at the intersection of mediums, disciplines and communities, I often don’t know where I belong. And a sense of belonging and people are some of my core values, so it’s quite important for me to understand where (and most importantly, with whom) my place is. Returning to the terms of storytelling – I'm following my own path. I come to some places, learn new things, meet new people. And I move on. Or I stay in this place for some time and consider it my home. Then I hear the Call again. And I go into the unknown. I don’t know where this journey will take me next and what other metamorphoses will occur in my professional and artistic path. But I hope it will be an interesting story. To tell and to draw.

P.S. And I hope that I’ll open the museum one day.

The material was created within the media-educational project "Support in Arts" which is a series of interviews, publications, essays, educational courses and events from representatives of the Belarusian art community and art educators who work in various fields of art (illustration, design, modern dance, visual art, fashion, modern poetry and prose, photography, music, cinema) and interpret the modern context in their practices.

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