I don't know many Norwegian artists (I mean, I don't know any, except the one I'm about to introduce to you). But even if I were to study up and become an expert on Scandinavian culture, I feel pretty confident that Esra Røise is still the name I'd choose to write this piece about. Inspired by gangly, gap-toothed runway models, loudmouth punk rock front-women, and the kind of quirks that dudes love in their girlfriends but that girlfriends are always trying to hide behind entangled messes of hair or fix in Photoshop, Esra Røise's illustrations pack more mood than a gang of high-schoolers smoking cigarettes behind the bleachers. Her drawings have been commissioned for Vogue, Nylon, Russh, Vice, Nike, and Levi's, to name a few. And that's just the preliminary sketch. We caught up with Esra to talk about the influence of skateboarding on the art world and that convoluted place where fashion meets feminism.
You started out working in a skate shop in Oslo? Tell me a little bit about that experience and how it helped you get your feet wet in the art and weirdo world.
Esra Røise: The skateboard culture has been close to my heart since growing up with a skateboarding brother in a very small town. The relaxed way of life was something that I felt very attracted to, and it has stayed with me ever since. I worked at a skate shop for six years and it was the chillest, most fun job I ever had, and probably the first job I kept for more than a year that didn't bore the shit out of me. I probably could have stayed for longer had I not decided to take a leap of faith a focus on illustration full-time.
Getting to know the scene, I was introduced to a lot of creative, free-spirited and extremely talented individuals. And a lot of weirdos, obviously. But good weirdos, if you know what I mean. Some have gone on to become widely influential artists on the Norwegian art scene. But back then, we were just skate kids who hung out. I think the community makes room for creative thinking and gives you a sense that it's okay to be who you want to be, and gives you the confidence to push for your own things.
Working in the skate shop was also what brought me to Element. When they approached me to be an Eden Advocate last year, it felt like a great chance to keep in touch and contribute to the community, though I'm not out on the streets anymore.
What's the skate scene like in Oslo?
I'm more of an observer from the side line these days, but I'd say it's looking pretty good. There is a lot of emerging talent, and I'm stoked to see where it's going.
How did you go from working retail to becoming a full-time illustrator?
While working at the shop, I did illustration on the side. There was always someone who needed a flyer, or a poster or an ad or what not. Gradually, I started getting more and more requests, so I finally worked up the nerve to quit, and see if those wings really worked. It hasn't always been easy. I mean, I've had countless nights waking up in panic over how to pay the rent and why the hell I would choose a job like this. But it definitely feels worth it. It was scary as shit quitting my day job to pursue drawing full-time, but I have never regretted it. I have the best job, and the freedom of being your own boss makes it feel really worth-while.
So many skaters dabble in the creative arts. Where do you think that comes from?
Maybe it's the rebellion? Being a skateboarder is a bit rebellious, I think, and pursuing art and photography is most definitely a stupid idea (in terms of security and what not). But it is an idea fueled by passion and love for the trade, just like skateboarding itself. As previously mentioned, I also think the community has a greater acceptance of just doing your own thing, which makes it easier to just go for it, I guess..
I've noticed there are a lot of gap teeth, tattoos, and surreal quirks in your illustrations. Is it safe to say you're drawn to oddities and peculiar traits?
Most definitely. The odder and ganglier and weirder the better. Pristine and polished is just boring.
A lot of your work depicts models, musicians and cultural icons. Where do you find your muses?
In my friends, people around me and in popular culture. I'm very much into both music and fashion and my choices of protagonists are very much influenced by that.
I know you're a big fan of White Lung. What other music turns you on and gets you in the mood to make art?
No Age, Cold Cave, Primal Scream, Nu Sensae, White Fence, Nisennenmondai, Mogwai. Oldies like Fleetwood Mac and Sonic Youth... Ghah...so many. It really depends on what I am drawing though. Mellow music makes for moody work and hardcore is perfect for deadlines.
What is your process like when you are working on a commissioned piece?
Working on commissions is very different from doing personal work. If it's a commission, it's almost exclusively a brief and a deadline involved, which indicates your direction and time frame. From there I do a round or two of sketching, and then onto the drawing, then maybe adding some ink or watercolor before I scan it to Photoshop and play around with editing and do final tweaks there. If it's a personal project, I normally start off doodling being inspired by something I've seen (a movie, a person, a photograph, etc) or a song, a movement. It could be anything really... I'll doodle for a while and then the sketch will kinda just take on a life of its own. Or I'll play around with different techniques that I want to try out... most of it being left unfinished, or put a side for a week or two before it is picked up again. I get restless very easy, so drawing on the same thing for more than a week at a time is always a bit of a challenge for me.
You're a feminist who loves skate culture and high-fashion. Do you ever feel pigeon-holed or stereotyped as too much of one thing, or not enough of another?
Not gonna lie, being a feminist and a bit of a tomboy, I have, at times, felt awkward about my passion for the fashion industry. There have been time where I've questioned whether you can really be a "good feminist" and still indulge in an industry that fuels harmful stereotypes and is based around superficial values. I have come to terms with it, though. As long as I know who I am, and know what my values are, I can be into anything I like. I mean, if anything (and bare with me, as I know this might sound corny), feminism has actually helped me appreciate fashion in a better way. It makes it easier for me to acknowledge all the fucked up things (which, lets be real, there are many of), and appreciate the parts that I really, really love about the industry. For example, the craftsmanship and creativity that goes into it all. I love the fact that what you choose to put on says something about who you are as an individual, and is sort of an silent way of communicating.
Are you working on anything new right now?
At the moment, I'm in the midst of wrapping up a few projects for Nike and Nylon, and after that I am actually taking a little summer vacation. Planning a wedding (yikes!) and finally unpacking all those boxes in the new apartment. I'm really bad at taking time off, though, so I plan on working on personal projects in my own tempo throughout the summer as well.