Artist Angle: A Language of My Own 

Cristian Fowlie, Columnist and Courier Royalty // Illustration by Cynthia Tran Vo

It’s challenging to write about my art because drawing always came more naturally than words. I fumble sentences, lose my train of thought and bite my tongue. Even now I’ve written, backspaced and rewritten this paragraph over and over again. As a voracious young reader, I was obsessed with the idea of becoming a child author, but couldn’t write more than a few pages. Gradually my attention shifted towards the pop culture that saturated my suburban childhood. Through anime, comics, video games, MTV and magazines I became fascinated by the power and potential of an image for storytelling. Early dial-up internet, art-sharing platforms like ConceptArt.org and DeviantArt.com introduced me to the commercial artists creating the series and worlds I so loved. More importantly the web showed me that the starving artist was a myth – anyone could make a living from their art, more than ever with the resources, tutorials and programs available online. At the age of 12 I started drawing obsessively, determined to make a career from my creativity. 

I’ve been hustling my art ever since, and have never shied away from being commercial. As a teen I sold commissions through PayPal, made cover art for family and shared my work in contests, library galleries and across the internet. I attended Capilano University straight out of high school, choosing the IDEA program for its short three-year duration and the industry success of its graduates. I was keen to start working, and dove straight into freelance illustration after graduation. Since then I’ve collaborated with clients across industries – publishing, design, music, public art and more. It’s almost been four years of illustrating professionally, and over a decade that I’ve focused on my art, but in many ways I still feel like a beginner. Each new project challenges me with more to learn about my craft, and uncovers new avenues for my art. Working with others’ stories has helped develop my own creative voice and crystallize what I want to say. 

I often think back to art and artists that have influenced me personally. I can vividly picture the first queer kiss I saw in the graphic novel Skim, beautifully illustrated by Jillian Tamaki. Or similarly, I recall my sheer excitement over gay characters in the Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley. In these images I saw myself represented when too often media reduces gay characters to stereotypes or punchlines, if they are included at all. These moments demonstrated the importance of representation in media, and how the arts could alter the perception of ourselves and of others. Mae Jemison, the first black female astronaut, was famously inspired to join NASA by the character of Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. Pop culture can seem frivolous in the harsh reality of world issues, but it has the power to inspire and influence change. 

Now in my own work I look for opportunities where I can I show diversity with thoughtful representation, in personal pieces like VCR or when illustrating a Courier cover feature on the dating lives of transgender people. I also look at the role artists play in social and political activism: artists like Keith Haring who championed AIDS awareness and safe sex through his iconic street art during the 80s, or Shepard Fairey whose ‘Hope’ poster of Obama became an integral part of the president’s 2008 election campaign.  

Art is part of our daily lives and our cultural narratives, and as an artist I have the opportunity to contribute to the conversation. Through my medium I get to impart meaningful stories like a Walrus magazine exposé on racial bias in AI. I can also create experiences that connect communities, whether through a tour poster for Hey Ocean! or a public mural at CapU. I can be eloquent, persuasive and inspiring to others, not limited by culture or language.  

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