The Artist Spotlight series aims to celebrate creators at a time when art is being consumed the most. We wanted to invite individuals working within the creative field to provide their voice, opinions and suggestions for the improvement, development and future of the Canadian creative community.

This week, I sat down with Kiyana Nielsen, a Vancouver – based Painter, Hairstylist and Textiles and Crochet Artist. Kiyana shares the ways in which motherhood has changed her life and her art, and how she continues to draw inspiration from her environment through a global pandemic.

Q: Can you share a little background about yourself and your creative practice?

TW: mention of suicide  

Growing up I moved around quite a bit, so I had a lot of freedom starting from a young age and was able to go where ever I wanted, whenever I wanted. My parents were very scarce in my upbringing; my brothers and I practically raised each other so there weren’t many rules or restrictions. I had a friend who would jokingly compare our lives growing up to the three brothers in “The Outsiders“. My teenage years were especially tough mentally, emotionally, and hormonally. I found myself in such a deep depression that there were times I wanted everything to end and made more attempts than I can remember.  By the time I was 19 I was an alcoholic. I would drink before, during and after work. I could barely form or hold onto relationships of any kind. My life was pretty much one big black out episode, the duration of which was unclear. Through everything though, art has been the one constant in my life and I think that’s why exercising my creativity was so important, because I needed that emotional outlet. I needed that community to keep pushing me, to inspire my curiosity and always bring me back to my roots and foundation. Art has always been a reminder for me to breathe and come back to center.

My life changed drastically in 2017 when I moved back home (Vancouver) from Toronto.  I found out I was pregnant in March and became a mom in December. Throughout that time, I really lost myself and struggled to find a purpose other than raising my son. The process in rediscovering who I once was was difficult, emotionally exhausting and frustrating, but my perception of what being an artist was changed immensely. I learned that anything can be accomplished as long as I put my heart and soul into it, and although I still find it hard to balance being a parent and my own person, I’ve come to realize that everything is art. I’m creating my future as I envision it and my body and mind are the tools I need to create my final masterpiece, which is my life.

I went to cosmetology School in 2018 and graduated knowing how to cut, colour, style and chemical treat hair. While I was in school, I started working at a salon which really kept me occupied and focused on being a hairstylist, but I never felt completely satisfied or that I was chasing after my passion. I left the salon in January 2020 to take some time off and be home with my now two and a half year old son. Since then, I’ve really felt like all the projects I’ve talked about starting for years are actually becoming my reality. I still cut my friends and family’s hair from home, but because of the current pandemic I’ve closed my doors for now. I hope to open them back up in the near future.

I’ve known forever that art is a part of who I am as a person and affects how I perceive the world around me. I don’t have much to share as far as how I came to explore my creative practices because it’s always just been a constant for me, and a search for something new. However, I’ve always envisioned my professional life painting and designing/making clothing. I am happy to say that I’m in the process of producing work to share with the public and that I’ve really been allowing my dreams to come true.

Q: Is there a quote/mantra you live by, how has that shaped your practice?

Nothing specific comes to mind but I do try to live with a lot of love; within myself, spreading it to others, demonstrating love for my son so that he knows it’s power. I think it’s been the ultimate tool in my creative process, I’m sure you can notice through the colours I tend to gravitate towards using. My palette usually consists of yellows, pinks, blues and white. Colours that in my mind bring a lot of joy and excitement because that’s what love is, really.

“It’s a feel good emotion, it brings people together and I think that’s what art is all about too, that human connection and intimacy of our inner selves and those around us.”

Love has shaped my practice in that I try to put more thought into and be more mindful in my work, really creating something out of my love. My work has always been made with the intent of putting a smile on someone’s face, and bringing warmth into their lives. Joe Strummer said it perfectly, “without people we are nothing”. I solely create to share my love with the world.

Q: What are you working on/up to right now? 

As far as creative work, I have tons of ideas I’d like to make real but unfortunately there’s only so much time in a day. I’ve been dedicating my time recently towards a crochet project that came to mind when I was looking into what kinds of flowers to plant for bees. I’ve planned it to be a cropped sweater and matching high waist skirt set that’s very bright, bold and spring/summer inspired. I can’t put an exact deadline as to when I can share the final product, but I wish to be able to share it soon!

I have a bigger project also in the making, but that I think may take a few years to complete. It’s been more of an in the background thing, I’m still deep into the brainstorming phase where I just have loose descriptions and sketches being thrown around, playing with different ideas. My life story (so far) has been something I’ve wanted to share for years, there’s a lot to it that most people would say isn’t “normal,” and I do feel as though it has been unique in some ways. My vision is to walk the viewer through each neighbourhood I grew up in, sharing my mental state and the circumstances I experienced when I was younger. I guess you could call it a biography. I envision a hand painted sign for each neighbourhood, with photos I’ve taken throughout the years to add to the timeline. Nothing is set in stone yet but I look forward to the reward of finishing this project.

Personally, I have goals set towards building a future with my family. My husband and I hope to expand our little family soon and in doing that, we would need more space than our current apartment. We want to be somewhere where we can be as self -sufficient as possible; a home that provides enough space to be able to grow our own fruits and vegetables, lessen our carbon footprint and in my mind also be a home to animals like cattle, sheep and goats. This has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember, and I think realistically this is something we’d like to do within the next 5 years or so.

Q: Do you see any differences in the creative communities in Toronto VS. Vancouver?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived in both cities although I was only living in Toronto for two years. But definitely, the atmosphere and the pace of both cities are on completely opposite ends of each other, just like they are in location. When I think of the Toronto art scene, I think a lot about the influence of hip hop. Maybe that’s because for most of my time living there that’s what I was listening to, but I do believe the city is heavily influenced by New York. I remember one of the first things I noticed was the city’s graffiti; it actually stuck around (and in some areas is featured) in the downtown core for everyone to see, and it was everywhere. I felt a huge sense of passion from the work of the creatives I met as well, everyone seemed to really want to make something of themselves and they wanted to share that with all of Toronto.

It wasn’t until I moved back to Vancouver that I realized how slow of a city it really is. It’s very relaxed, there’s no buzz or hum in the downtown core and most places close fairly early. I think it’s a city that likes to stay grounded and close to earth, which makes sense seeing as it’s surrounded by so much wildlife. When I think of Vancouver art my mind goes straight to Emily Carr, a painter from the late 1800’s. Her work was very much inspired by the Pacific Northwest, specifically the Indigenous peoples of the west coast, and there are a lot of natural elements in her work.  If we are to compare the cities, I think where the differences come to light are the influences of the surrounding environment.

Q: How has the pandemic and physical distancing measures affected you, your family and your art?  

In so many ways there have been drastic changes to my life, and thankfully for the better. I won’t say every day is easy; there are so many moments where I feel like I’m working towards nothing or I’m not making the right moves in life, but this time in quarantine has brought me so much closer to myself than I’ve ever been and I think that’s really important. My husband and I have made the choice to work towards healthier habits, taking advantage of the trails and parks around us, cooking our own meals and growing our own vegetables. We’ve really allowed ourselves to start to live exactly how we want; being at home with our son, creating freely and really curating an environment that is open minded and safe. I think this time has helped me realize that I wasn’t working towards my dreams pre-pandemic, so what I feel and can see through my new work is a lot of growth and transformation.

I’m really just trying to stay positive about what lies on the other side of all of this. It’s been difficult not having that freedom to see my friends or family and naturally my son is such a social little bug. He’s that kid who says hi to anyone walking past him and hugs every other kid at the playground. But he’s been such a good sport through everything. We’ve slowly started to open up our social bubble to a few people, and even then we don’t really get a ton of visits or invites out, when we do it keeps us all from going stir crazy.

Q: What inspires and/or motivates you right now? Do you feel inspired?

Maybe this is a cliché but nature will always be an inspiration for me. I think there’s so much to learn and discover in the outside elements and where I live (in British Colombia) it’s so easy to take wildlife for granted. I’m surrounded by forestry, grasslands and mountains and It’s easy to take a camping trip just a few hours from home just to escape reality for a few days. Being away from my phone, social media and even just home is very refreshing for the soul; I wish everyone was fortunate enough to be able to do that. Realizing how vulnerable you as a human actually are in the wild… I think that’s truly inspiring.

Inspiration doesn’t last forever though, and even having something as beautiful as nature around me loses its novelty quick. I think not being inspired is important in the creative process as well. That’s usually the time I take to reflect on my work and set goals for my next project, or where I’d like to see myself in the future (however near or far).  Currently I’ve been feeling extremely inspired and I think I can credit the change in seasons for that. There’s something about the sun shining that makes everything seem so warm and energetic, like everything that passes me by is a new opportunity.

Q: How do you envision the future of the arts and culture sector, such as art shows, panels and live music events, given physical distancing measures may be in effect indefinitely? Is the future all digital?

That’s a good question, I honestly haven’t thought about it much. I think technology has a huge impact on our future within the arts, you see so much of it happening already. Social media has made it easier than ever for us to share our work, speak out about our beliefs and really allow us to express ourselves to anyone watching, you know? People from all over the world can find you by a simple search and click of a button, which in my mind is super great. But it can be overwhelming to think about too. Personally I’m a bit terrified of computers and phones even though I use them and have them in my household. There is just so much information out there, I think it’s important to be mindful when you’re doing research or sharing personal information such as your artistic work.  I’d like to stay optimistic about physical gatherings like art or live music shows. We need that social aspect and physical, human connection, so I can’t imagine the whole art scene being strictly digital. I do picture events being a little more intimate and exclusive though, likely smaller gatherings.

Q: What do you think companies/collectives/local organizations need to be focusing on to address the ongoing systemic racial inequalities in the arts and culture sector?

Personally I think the focus should be on race. Educate yourself, your peers and your community about how real it is because being “colour blind” to the problem is a problem in itself.  Opening conversations about racial inequalities, social injustices and marginalization needs to happen as well, it’s something that makes many people uncomfortable. But this is something that has reoccurred over the ages, this is systemic and there is so much information out there to back that up. I grew up in a biracial family, my mom immigrated from the Philippines when she was young and my dad- a Caucasian male who grew up here in Canada. There have been times when I’ve felt very lost in my identity, not really understanding my Filipino culture because I identified mostly as white; which is weird to think because I am so aware that I’m mixed race and my Asian heritage is made clear through my skin. I’ve felt ashamed being dark skinned at times because I was taught at such a young age that lighter skin holds more power, I realize now just how false that statement is. I think we need to encourage everyone- especially the youth- to embrace every bit of themselves, every bit of their family history including the hard stories. We need to change the way they think. Skin colour and/or racial background should not determine your social status in society, that’s something we need to continue to fight for.

Companies should focus on validating their solidarity with the cause after publically addressing the issues, actively making changes to prove the issue is no longer an issue within their organization, and even then encouraging other organizations to make sustainable and real change as well. Consistent advocacy is just as important! This isn’t a trend; this isn’t a discussion that should end because your friends stopped posting about it on their social media platforms. Racial inequality is something many have faced their whole lives and will continue to on a daily basis, so keep it relevant in your life too, even if it doesn’t affect you personally. Those that have been fighting peacefully in the protests, opening forums to share awareness, posting their frustrations, etc. are exhausted, but they’re not giving up on having this discussion so neither should we.

Below, Left: ” Chinatown” neighbourhood sign. Right, custom address sign, Art by Kiyana Nielson.