Katia Engell

Katia Engell is an artist and art instructor based in Toronto, Canada. We met through the blogging world a few years ago and since then, she has expanded her blog to an amazing vintage jewelry business called House of Ell. On top of that, she is a multidisciplinary artist, art instructor to persons with dementia, and a graduate student working towards her Masters in Recreation and Leisure at the University of Waterloo. I am in love with Katia’s bold use of color and texture, and the general FUN she brings to art. She reminds me how playful art-making can be, and I love watching where her creative mind wanders! We met up in London last summer to take some photos together, and I am so pleased to share them and our conversation here! We collaborated on a “collage wardrobe” for this shoot, using paper as clothing and her collage work as a top, a fan, and makeup! We then accessorized with some gorgeous pieces from her shop. Enjoy and be sure to check out Katia’s shop and website!

S&G: Katia, thank you so much for talking to me for my Women’s Work series and for coming all the way to London so that we could finally meet! To start, can you describe what kind of work you make? You have so many talents and work in so many different mediums, but your artworks always have a clear sense of authorship. I’d love to hear about how you think of your work and yourself as a maker.

KE: I am so grateful we were able to meet too! It was a whirlwind mini adventure.

My creating is varied, and I like it that way, as I don’t believe in limiting myself and stifling my curiosity.. I hate the notion of finding a niche even if that’s how you “make it” as an artist, typically or maybe financially. I sometimes care about that but I don’t think it’s a big deal to me in the grand scheme of things. My work is really about exploration – what can I do within the boundaries of a certain medium, to what degree are the boundaries flexible and expandable? Do I even want to push the boundaries or enjoy a craft for what it is? How can I make it feel good for me? A lot of my work is collage right now and I think I’m drawn to it because every image I include brings with it a new set of possibilities and boundaries. And I puzzle it all together best I can. It’s also a fun way to let the medium surprise and delight me. The process guides me and I like this mode of art making the best right now.

I love the way that you puzzle together those images–so much so that your collage work was the inspiration for our shoot! What do you look for in source material for your collages? Do you decide what you are looking for ahead of time, or just let it come to you?

It really depends! If it’s work for a client or a specific theme, I might keep certain poses, imagery, or colours in mind to look for. Otherwise I usually flip through vintage magazines and let what I find inspire me and guide me. Oddly enough I really like vintage Playboy magazines. I like that the models in them aren’t always as slick and over-posed as modern fashion magazines, I like the texture and retro colours in them. Also, it’s fun to rework what’s normally seen as explicit or taboo and turn it into a new piece of art that maybe has other meaning!

You have such a strong understanding of color and I feel like that is really what ties your work across mediums together. Let’s go back to the beginning: how did you begin your journey with art, and how has it transformed over time?

Thank you! That’s a really tough question. It’s just always been the way for me, creating. I’ve never questioned it, it’s manifested in different forms, sometimes more and sometimes less, but as far as I know there has never been a period of time where I wasn’t making art. Neither of my parents are artists, but I was given the space and tools I needed to explore my creativity as a kid! My grandma was an artist though, and I remember doing quirky nature inspired crafts at her place sometimes. There’s no real start date for making art for me though. I’ve dabbled in so many different things – drawing, fashion, writing books and poetry, painting, photography, knitting and weaving, embroidery, clay, jewellery making, animation…. the list goes on. A big turning point for me and my style was when I graduated from my illustration program. I felt so stifled by what “illustration” meant to my department, that I let loose and went a little abstract and surreal with collaging. I just fell in love! It felt like my work finally matched my inner aesthetic, the one I could never quite grasp through more traditional techniques. I’m starting to revisit some of my more illustrative styles right now, for no real reason, but I’d love to find a way to merge that with collage somehow. We will see!

I had a similar situation growing up where I was just given space to create, and actually my grandma had a really big part in that as well! I find it super interesting and exciting when artists stray outside of their “major” art form into other mediums, and I love to watch how they weave them together so I can’t wait to see what you make! How would you describe that “inner aesthetic” you were searching for and eventually found in collage? What inspires you?

Love that! I think your work is a good example of that as well, not cornering yourself into a niche. 

I’ve never tried to put my inner aesthetic into words! It’s just what clicks with my spirit I guess. I can do a little brainstorm of words to try and get at it: multiplicity, rich colour that is ALIVE, a bit of sparkle and whimsy…  surreal, playful, earthy, spicy… one degree off of what you’d expect! I guess I’m inspired by surrealists and little details. I’m inspired by furniture design and fashion. I’m inspired by nature and people and the way individuals see the world. I was recently particularly inspired by a Reiki healing session! I was skeptical but the practitioner and I both experienced the same vision when she hovered over my lower stomach. So that lit a creative and excited fire in my belly – pun somewhat intended!

I’ve never tried Reiki but I could see how such a bodily experience could translate into artistic inspiration…maybe I will need to try it soon! But I definitely agree that it is hard to pin down what is inspirational–sometimes it just happens, exactly like a vision! But I also think that the time we live in, with the internet and huge accessible archives, has been so influential to artists today. I especially think having access to so many different forms of inspiration was what drew me to the blogging world, and I suspect that’s the same for you too. I found you and your work back in the blogging days (is it appropriate to refer to them as bygone days when I actively still have a blog?) and was so drawn to the vitality and gusto that you infused in your posts! When did you start House of Ell, and what did you enjoy about blogging?

Ahhh yes the blogging days! I started blogging… god I can’t even remember. I’m half embarrassed to admit that my online presence really started thanks to Neopets. I got into designing graphics for elements of that game, and HTML/css to code pages. Eventually that just extended to websites, with sort of DIY blogs inherent in the way I did those. Then I got into Blogger and loved all the commenting and the community aspect built into the blog-specific platforms! I used to use blogs to publish poetry and really moody diary-like entries, as well as my personal creative photography and art things. I loved and still love creating, sharing, and connecting. Our online-turned-in-person connection is a perfect example of the creative connecting I’ve had the privilege of experiencing because of blogs!

House of Ell, my jewellery business, started as a blog. I wanted a space to share more than just my own work, to foster community, to go a bit beyond just fashion. I did a “year of thrift” challenge posting updates to it, and eventually started an instagram for it with the same intentions of sharing more than just me and my art. When I first wanted to try selling some jewellery, it seemed like a better account to try it on than on my art page! I also ended up finding a sustainable fashion community on instagram who became so supportive of my efforts! So the blog largely moved to instagram and focusing on jewellery, as I just don’t have much extra time for writing blog posts and maintaining it right now with all my other endeavours! But maybe some day…

Ah, Neopets!!! I think we have bonded over this before; that we both got started online in Neopets. I loved that community aspect as well, and that a lot of the blogging people really are kind of doing the same thing as they were before, just on different platforms. It’s so cool to see how your blog has morphed into a shop! Let’s talk a little bit about your shop, where you sell upcycled vintage clothing and jewelry. You find THE MOST amazing pieces. Can you talk about your relationship to fashion, sustainability, and your vision for the shop?

Yes! House of Ell is almost a year old this month! Fashion is a really fun, creative form of self expression for me, and has been since I started dressing myself. I’ve been thrifting for over a decade and I think it started because I desperately didn’t want to dress the same as every single person at my school, which was a very homogenous environment, and evolved into a more sustainability based decision. Most of my wardrobe is second hand and I feel icky shopping mass-produced fashion that I know hasn’t been made sustainably or ethically. I advocate for the idea that we vote for the kind of world we want with our dollars and I really have no interest in supporting fast, uber-capitalist fashion businesses.

I also went through a phase of wanting to be a fashion designer! I never quite had the patience for truly learning to sew, even when I took classes, but I did find I enjoyed upcycling and editing existing clothing. So the same ended up being true for jewellery. Other than collecting beautiful pieces to resell, which I also do, I love  upcycling and view the way I do it as a sort of jewellery collage. It’s so satisfying to do and it’s special to see people want to wear the pieces I find and make – it goes beyond buying a print and putting it on your wall; people choose on a day to day basis to wear the piece, to add to their own creativity in clothing. It’s a privilege!

Making jewellery in this way also really aligns with my ethos of sustainability. I like keeping jewellery bits and pieces out of the landfill and giving them new life instead!

I love thinking of vintage selling or collecting as a collage–that’s so perfect! So with all of these creative outlets, you seem to value art-making as a powerful act in and of itself. That is also reflected in your work as an Art Instructor. Can you explain what your job is and how you got started in it? What is your relationship with it now, and where do you hope for it to go?

I definitely believe in process over product! That’s where the magic lies and I think you can feel the difference when creators get something out of their process, rather than fight with it or simply go through their motions to get a certain result. The process is even more important in my work with people with dementia; I am an art instructor working with persons with dementia and I really focus on the act of art making and how art brings us together and connects us, rather than any specific “therapy” goals. It really is about the process of putting paint to paper or conceptualizing something in the moment that has to be rewarding. And you don’t even have to do anything to make it so, you just have to pay attention to the process and centre it in your practice, encouraging others to see it and value it too. I got into this work when I started volunteering at a centre nearby that was based on a really innovative philosophy of creativity and relationality – basically the opposite of most of the clinical, institutionalized settings that we usually make available for persons with dementia. I fell in love with the work there and have never left, going from volunteer to staff artist – it’s been about 6 years and I can’t imagine my life without it. I am now doing my Master’s in Recreation and Leisure, using arts-based approaches to research. My thesis looks at reconceptualizing friendship in long term care homes. My hope is that I can take my experience, my research, and my creative skills to more people down the road. I don’t know if it’ll take shape as  being on the ground, doing the work (which I’d like to always be in touch with), or teaching and encouraging others to explore these approaches throughout the field. We will see how it all unfolds. Either way I’d like to make some change in how we typically perceive people with dementia and how we can relate to them, create with them, and make safer more welcoming spaces for them.

That sounds like such fulfilling and inspiring work! And what an honor to not only help people who might not usually get to make art, but to also get an intimate look into the art-making process in a way that others might not get to see. Do you feel like your artistic practices have changed since you started helping others make artwork?

Oh absolutely. My focus is so much more on the process and what feels good for me. That’s not to say I won’t challenge myself – that’s also part of my philosophy with persons with dementia. I’m not afraid to ask my participants challenging questions or to draw something abstract. Never underestimate someone’s insight! So I definitely challenge myself too, but am much more focused on what that challenge does for me. I also really crave more collaboration in my practice, as I enjoy it so much at work. It’s a hard thing to let go and give the process over to someone else’s creative whims, but can be so rewarding to mash up the different ways multiple  artists think and process, and put it all into one piece! There is definitely an element of letting go and improvisation that I have grown into at work and apply to my creative practices, and also to my general approach to being a human being in this human experience!

Your willingness to collaborate and to “let go” is so admirable, and something I hope I can embrace more as well! Alright, final question: what is the best thing you have read, heard, or learned lately?

I recently learned that the Smithsonian has made public a HUGE collection of photos and images online that they are encouraging people to utilize and make art out of! It’s a collager’s DREAM! They even have 3D models of some objects so you can look at them from every angle. It’s incredible and I cannot wait to dive in and get creative with it!

Whaaaaat that’s amazing!!! And thank you for sharing, everyone should know about this! Katia, thank you so so much for taking the time to talk to me about your work! Good luck with your thesis and I can’t wait to see what you create next!

YAAAY thank you Jenna! It was so special to meet with you in London for this and so nice to speak with you about all of these topics and concepts. It is a pleasure to talk art and life with like-minded creatives.

Photography: Jenna Opsahl

Collages: Katia Engell

Styling: Jenna Opsahl & Katia Engell

Jewelry: House of Ell

February 10, 2020