Young Norwegian illustrator explores the darkness inside

Illustrator and artist Kjersti Johanne Barli tells stories of Norwegian folk philosophies in her illustrations.

Kjersti Johanne Barli is a Norway-based illustrator and artist with a masters in illustration and a BA in visual communication from the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. The young creative’s masters project, The Beast has already been exhibited in Oslo, Prague and Berlin, and was nominated for a Designblok award.

Her most recent collection, Inni granskauen (Peculiar Forest) exhibited at Oslo’s Galleri VIS in the summer of 2015 and told tales of the darkness inside us. Barli is particularly fascinated by the Norwegian philosophy of “Bygdedyret,” which in English translates into “The Beast”. Commonly equated with countryside societies, The Beast is a social condition that exacts punishment on those who stray from communal norms and diverge from the crowd.

Barli plans to explore this subject further in two illustrated books she is currently working on.

How would you describe the style of your illustrations?

Story-based and naïve.

What’s is the greatest satisfaction you get from what you do?

Succeeding in conveying the message. I'm always trying to find new and original ways of getting the message through. The best part of the process is when I'm working on ideas, when most of the project is still in my head. Everything is perfect when it's in there, just for me to see. It is the process of getting it out there and actually executing the idea that is terrifying, and it always changes and becomes something else. And maybe that is for the best.

Could you tell us about your second solo exhibition, Inni granskauen?

“Inni granskauen” is a Norwegian expression that we use to reinforce a message, but the direct translation is “far into the forest”. I found the phrase quite fitting for my exhibition, concerning people living among the mountains and the forest. For the past few years I've been working on a phenomenon called “Bygdedyret” or “The Beast”.

The exhibition was a collection of my work on the topic. The Beast is a social mechanism we can find wherever there are people, but especially in smaller communities. It occurs when someone stands out from what's normal. If you make untraditional choices, which make you look like you're trying to be better than your peers, you can hear the rest of the community whispering about you behind your back. There's growling in the shadows. You can feel it watching you. That is The Beast. 

Could you elaborate on what you mean when you speak of the  “darkness inside us”?

I'm talking about the darker part of nature that we possess. The Beast can be described as the famous Norwegian Law of Jante in practice. “You're not to think you are anything special.” A small part of The Beast lives inside all of us; it is in our nature. Jealousy, bitterness and xenophobia are typical feelings The Beast is feeding on inside of us, and sometimes we let it get the best of us. To be able to tame and befriend The Beast we need to start within ourselves. I believe The Beast can and wants to be a better beast. I'm still exploring and researching this subject, and I'm currently making a book about it.

How much of what you do is about storytelling? Can a single image tell a story?

Illustrators are visual storytellers. I think everything I do is about storytelling. Illustration is meant to supplement and add to something, my job is to convey or help convey a message. Of course, it varies on how much the drawings need to say – you need to find that balance for every commission or project.

Illustration is able to sum up big topics in a way that a photo can’t. It helps people understand the text, and it gives them visual references to remember it by. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and I agree. A single image can definitely tell a story. It can tell several stories. I wish that more grown ups would start reading picture books again. Picture books aren’t just for kids. Everyone should learn to read images, and open up to this fantastic world of possibilities, fantasy and imagination. 

Could you tell us about your upcoming picture book project?

I have two books in the making on the subject of The Beast. The first one is Inni granskauen, which contains stories of The Beast from every county in Norway, illustrated by me. The other book I'm making is a picture book about a character who decides to go looking for The Beast. And I also have yet another two picture books in the making, but I can't say much about them just yet. Exciting times!