Erla María

As we sit down with Erla María in her apartment, which she shares with boyfriend Jónas Valtýsson and his six year old son Gabriel, I do my best convincing her that this will be a very casual interrogation. Not to be outdone she informs me that she might just conduct her very own interview. What do yo do with your day Snoop? She says with a wry grin telling us that cheek will be met in kind. We flounder about with our answer, whereupon she laughs and jokingly tells us that she´s only just lightening the atmosphere.

Young lady! We say in what we hope is an authoritarian voice.

Yes sir. Back in the day you attended the Technical Collage of Reykjavík?  Yes, back when Iceland had an economy 2001 to 2004.

How did it come about you going straight from grade school into a design course without a stopover in another schooling establishment?

I’m just crazy like that. Well no, I always had a pretty fixed Idea of what I wanted to do. So at 16 it was supposed to be automatic for me to go to MR just like everyone else in Vestubærinn, but I didn’t see myself tolerating 4 years there and coming out on the other side relatively sane. Partly in opposition to my teacher and social norms I went straight into a 4 year art and design course in a vocational collage. That did not impress my teachers who openly said that I had the ability to go to a regular collage and shouldn’t be wasting my time on a vocational education which is only for bung heads and dropouts.

Thank you very much Mr. teacher! But you had by that time been drawing for a long time, isn’t that so?

Yes I’ve always been drawing. My uncle is an illustrator and one of the GISP (Guðdómleg Innri Spenna og Pína) group. He studied in France at the same time as my parents and as you can imagine I was inspired by him and the fact he was always creating comics. That’s probably where it started and it was the only thing I was better at than my older brother, that’s where I felt I got one over him and could get recognition and not just be the baby sister.

So this career choice has all been some sort of insane sibling rivalry?

Yes haha! My whole life is one long sibling rivalry and I will defeat him! No of course I enjoy my work. I really can’t see myself being able to do anything else.

You didn’t consider the more technical aspects of drawing i.e. architecture like your father?

No no, I tried that in collage and I think that I’m just too much into character creation/drawing figures, at one time I did consider fashion design and/or acting, then I got to know the fashion world and realised that it was not a scene that I wanted to be a part of. Backstabbing? Not backstabbing but maybe a bit false. Acting is just a bit to much attention seeking for me, in drawing I managed to combine everything into one, I could act through my creations and not having to be in you face all the time. Well I think so… sort of, you’re always analyzing yourself and don’t know whether your talking absolute bullcrap.

´´go out for lunch and have a beer or two and go back to class, not being the only one that’s a bit tipsy´´

Then you just got up and left for Sweden!

For a year… Yes only to go off again to Milan? I think my stopover was just about a month or so. Friends and family must have been real happy with that? Yes and Icelanders in general, I think everyone was just real happy to see the back of me. Yes I think that was the catalyst for the economic boom period. True, I was one of the people that moved away just when everything was fabulous and returned when the crisis came. I’m kind of like that, I follow bad times. Do we not need light to guide us through hard times? Oh that was nice of you to say.

In Milan you where a bit of a rebel from what I hear?

I tend to talk a fair bit and am often I’m rather exuberant so it was to everyone a surprise that I ended up being the silent type, which I’m nowhere else in my life. It might be because I was the only foreigner in the class, strange as I went to Milan rather than Rome where I could have learned the course in English. Sometimes you think you can do everything and it’s just a little bit harder than that, looking back it was easier than I perceived it whilst going throughout the motions.

Still when you go to a country and no one speaks English you just get on with it, you have to learn the language to get by so in that aspect it didn’t take to long to get into speaking, but you’re always aware of the fact that you speak like a six year old while everyone around you is in University. In the beginning I was a bit isolated in the first year but then I got to know a lot of people outside of the University. It wasn’t really until the last year of studying that the groups where all mixed up and then I met other strange people like myself.

What did attract you to Italy aside from the constant rail strikes?

They eat pizza and drink beer any and everytime of the day which you can’t fault, it’s just so chilled to be able to go out for lunch and have a beer or two and go back to class, not being the only one that’s a bit tipsy. And well yes the Italians there just really alive and really interested in getting to know you, which is in stark contrast to Icelanders who, like I’m doing now, know nothing better but to talk about themselves. That was one of the things I loved about being there, they are so genuinely glad for you to be there and speaking their language. They don’t hesitate bringing you into their world and their group and it takes practically no time for you to become a part of it. You get one friend and before you know it you’re being hugged and kissed by a grandmother and you still don’t know the lady’s name.

That seems different to Iceland where you go to a party and get interrogated by the person who’s the owner of the apartment. No! Not at all, and if you are it’s the fun kind, nothing like this that you are putting me through. So this is an interrogation? A stress interrogation… joke! I hope we’re not stressing you? Just a bit before you arrived, I just couldn’t imagine… well what I was imagining was you sitting at home googling me and calling people I know and asking for some dirt, which does not exist, there is nothing on me.

´´Myspace was always better than Facebook´´

There is nothing believe me, except maybe and this isn’t dirt, are you the last person left on myspace?

Ah yes I still have a myspace page but I think I haven’t been on there for ages. Myspace was always better than Facebook, yeah I’m probably one of the last people on there. But you where an avid user. Yes and that was before Facebook became anything. What I mean by that is you were networking and selling yourself (product) and getting work before the whole explosion of social media as we know it today started. Pimping yourself out on the internet, that just shows how cheap and commercial I am. This is the only way and it’s the best thing about the internet, there you have a platform to display yourself and your work in exactly the way you want people to see it. As with Myspace at that time you could (without creating a website that no one visits) create a profile that is yours and suited to your products specifications and due to people’s curiosity you are guaranteed to get someone that stumbles onto your page.

It might be mean to say it but in this, like in everything else, if you’re not visible and you don’t know how to promote yourself, you’re very unlikely to get anywhere. It’s not necessarily about talent any more than in other disciplines. You still need to make people notice you.

How are you working now, are you freelancing?

I have been doing that pretty much since I graduated, the level of freelancing has fluctuated in the past but now I’m back to doing it full time, which is going fine. The hardest part maybe is balancing the jobs you get paid for and your project i.e. the ones you most want to do and publish, and they are in your own opinion the more important ones, better ones but they are the ones that bring up the rear in work priority. That is the main reason the projects you want to do might take up to three years to complete rather than the two months that they should take.

You have been working on some really interesting project though, such as the board-game?

Yes that’s one of those projects that has taken about three years but shouldn’t have had to. It’s a really fun game, a form of a role playing game but one that has educational value too. In those three years there have been published around 20 board-games that are similar enough making us feel that when we bring out ours no one will notice. We’re looking into it, the plan is of course to put it out there, it’s supposed to be fun so that you can play it at home or in school, you should be able to adapt the game to the group in question

How did you come into this project and for that matter what is your function in it?

Erla Gísladóttir and me developed this game and I’ve been managing the look of the thing mainly whereas she has been more involved with marketing in this all, the adult work you could say while I’m just drawing. So we have been making and developing this from the start but funny enough this started as a short film about post-it so the journey has been quite long.

How is it with a project like this where you might decide to drop the dice (sorry for this obvious punnery) in favour of say using cards that must mean a awful lot of extra work?

Ohh so much it’s nearly never-ending but even worse when I’ve been brought in as a contractor, where everything is changed midway through, and that isn’t as easy as people think. When someone is paying you for your work you kind of have to just suck it up and do it. When it is a personal project though you just change it, if you’re not happy with what your doing you condition yourself to the fact that you might be adding a half a year to the lifetime of said undertaking.

Is there an understanding with your clients that this is work not just a passion?

That differs between client and client, some are used to hiring illustrators and therefore understand the process, they’ll ask what your hourly rate is and ask all the right questions, then there are others maybe doing this for the first time and sort of just expect you to enjoy this so much that you don’t care about payment much. I think this runs across the artistic spectrum whether your’e an architect or whatever, you will always find these individuals that say: Hey at least you enjoy your job so why should I pay you!? I’m really doing you a favour here.

How do projects come to you, what are the channels?

…Well… In your own time? Okay we’ll just edit this to make you look really clever.

As you should! Or I’ll sue you for internet bullying! Which seems to be the topic of the moment. It can be all kinds really, it can be through the website or through people picking up on me through sites like Behance Network or through magazines like Le Meca. Sometimes it just takes someone writing about you and then that has a domino effect and if your’e lucky you might get onto big sites like Behance or Computer Arts. The people hiring illustrators look to those sites, this is your advertising, this here interview is an advertisement for people like me, so as silly as it can get answering questions about yourself, this it the way you get people to know you exist. Now I’ve worked in a couple of countries and as soon as your there you kind of start from scratch each time and hence trying to let people know your there willing and able, then you might be in the situation where you’re sending out emails.

Every month you get these possible projects and it’s only ever one or two that materialize. You need to keep trying to have your work published so that it’s new and relevant. Also every now and then bigger companies will advertise for illustrators and if you’re into that and like money you apply.

You just illustrated a whole yearbook for the Commercial Collage of Iceland, how did that come about, was that something they advertised for?

They did and asked for quotes and so I got it, I probably had by far the lowest offer, I also did a few pictures for MR, and that came about because the had heard about me through the people in the commercial collage. The work comes from every direction you just have to be diligent.

How long did this take, there must be around 300 people in a graduation year?

It must have been about hour per picture and yes about 300 so it’s about 300 hours give or take 50. But you never know it might be 300 unhappy customers, that is always a possibility.

Is this project done?

It’s been printed and distributed, and the people I spoke to were all pleased. If I am to be fully honest I didn’t think it would be a fun project but it turned out to be. My initial thoughts were that this might drag on and become a bit dull. It was funny as these are all different kids, different personalities.

When I got my copy, they had a fair in the school and I had only ever seen them in photographs and I had drawn them so for me they we’re the drawings. Being there then was a bit like being in a room full of Donald Ducks and Mickey Mouses it was really surreal and I must have stood there like a idiot staring at everybody, I teetered on the border of becoming the strange girl that got thrown out of the building.

What happens to other projects while you work something long term like this? Your band for instance.

The band is coming along fine!! It’s just that Víkingur Kristjánsson (and you can keep this in your article) is always being a diva and not turning up! No no, we’re still going strong, we recently made a music video and everyone should check it out! The band is called Find A Dog. We recorded the video last summer and it was edited last autumn. We were going to premiere it at grand big party, big presentation and get Víkingur to pull all his mini celebs strings, but to him we’re such a side project he couldn’t be bothered with it. The Idea was that we wouldn’t be the band that put their video on YouTube to get it noticed but it was all a joke. This is not a joke band! We’re dead serious! World domination is around the corner.

In a household with three artists how do you keep a working order when the work might extend into the evening, well past dinner?

That can be a problem as usually we’re not working overtime at the same time and that can cause friction. Jónas is rather better than me at this as he can play computer games if I’m working whereas I get really bored if he’s working and I can’t be bothered anymore. I tend to be a bit less nice in those times I freely admit, I might watch a DVD. The same one? Again and again and drown my sorrows. The same applies to Gabriel he’s such a workaholic that he rarely wants to do anything other than draw and we’ll sometimes play computer games with his dad which is fine. He’s keeping up the tradition? Very much so, we often collaborate on projects.

Right this Spanish inquisition is almost over. There is just one thing, are you an artist or a mediator of peoples ideas/wants?

WOW relax on the intensity of your questioning man! Haha, the best way of putting it is that when I was a kid I always maintained that I was going to be a painter and my brother would say that was called being an artist. I didn’t want to be an artist that was to phony. He would then counter by saying that painters paint houses and artist do art. I want to be a painter that does paintings and drawings, not an artist and that is an Illustrator and contractor, in the end I’m a trade school graduate with a fake students cap, no frills and I’m kind of proud of that, it’s kinda cool to me.

With that we rather unceremoniously take our stuff and get out aware that a half hour blitzkrieg of questions and photography can mess up even the strongest constitution, but we know that a beer can cure anything here as in Italy.

Interview: Guðni Rúnar
Photographs: Nanna Dís