Leap of Faith with Hanna Barczyk

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We always love it when Hanna Barczyk is in town. She visits us from Montreal, her schedule a joyful whirlwind of creative networking and friendly reunions, her presence always a breath of fresh air. Just like the bold colors and confident line work in her illustrations, Hanna exudes a serene self-possession and poise. 


Today, she breezes into the McCarren Parkhouse cafe lit up by her time in the city. She caught up with us over coffee on her exciting creative career so far.

Pictured (left to right): Katie Danforth and Hanna Barczyk.

Katie Danforth: How did you get your start as an artist?


Hanna Barczyk: I’ve been an illustrator artist for ten years. When I graduated from college, OCAD, Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, I just wanted to get rid of my student loans. So, I worked for about seven or eight years in many different jobs: hostessing, I worked in film, I did body double and stunt double gigs…. I was 29 when I decided, That’s it. I want to quit everything. I want to be an artist. I want to move to New York. 


KD: Ah, I have so many questions! I think that’s something a lot of people fantasize about doing if they don’t necessarily have the career or circumstance that they want, but they don’t know how to get out of the daily grind and move into that sort of risk-taking mindset. How did it feel actually doing that? Was there a period where you doubted it? 


HB: Oh my god, so many times. The first time I got an assignment from the New York Times I said, I don’t think they’re looking for me, I think they’re looking for another Hanna Barczyk. I had such imposter syndrome. I called my friend to ask, Do you think they really mean me? And he was just like, Get sketching.


I had to be supported at the beginning. Becoming an artist is a complete mystery. I always think about it — it’s a faith. It’s almost like you have to believe in becoming an artist, and I believe I need to be an artist.  It was full of a lot of doubts, and it was a mystery, but I had such a strong curiosity that I couldn’t leave it.

Hanna Barczyk for UN Women. Image courtesy of the artist.

KD: Was your initial thought just, I’m curious. Let’s just try this out and see how it goes. Now we’re 10 years later, of course and it’s going very well.


HB: I mean, there’s always setbacks. Nothing happens right away. There’s so much patience involved. And if you start and nothing happens, you get frustrated. You think, Oh my God, I’m not becoming what I want to become!  I had to constantly be patient and keep sharing with the world what I’m doing. It was a very slow beginning, to be honest.


KD: How do you maintain faith through setbacks or through insecurity?


HB: I have to take a step back and do other things. I love reading. I love riding my bike. I love meeting friends. I need to feel that new energy again. It’s nice to hear from friends and family too, having that support: “You did so good. You’re doing great.” Sometimes we need to hear that to be fired on again. And then I go to a museum or I see art books — I’ll look at the earlier periods of some of my favorite artists and remember that they were doing this and everything takes time. 

KD: Is there a particular artist or a few artists whose careers you look to for inspiration?


HB: I mean, I do love Picasso. 


KD: Problematic fave.


HB: Problematic fave! I’m hesitant to even say it. What I love about his work: you can see the production. The amount of work he has, and the amount of styles, and the amount of experience. There’s the blue period, there’s the rose period. He was doing realistic, he was doing cubist. Other contemporary artists that I would think of: a German artist, Eva Hesse. Marlene Dumas. I love her ink work, and again, it’s not just one thing. Louise Bourgeois — it’s not just her spider, even though people just know her spider — but I love her ink work, I love her installations. It always comes down to inspiration. It’s the amount of work and the amount of curiosity they had.


KD: I know you’ve got a long career ahead of you, but if we were to look at what you’ve done so far and contextualizing it in terms of like periods, the way we do with Picasso, how would you categorize the evolution of your personal style?


HB: My earliest period of my life was very simple: black line work with a little bit of color. Then I went fully into editorial and working digitally because things have to move fast — editorial is very fast. Now, I’m slowly going back to the simplicity of things: line work with a little bit of color here and there. I’m getting really into painting again. Acrylic paint and thinking bigger. How do I approach a small drawing and make it bigger? How do I translate it into canvas work? Translate it into mural work? How do I translate it into an installation piece? How can this become a sculpture? I’m in an open mind right now about expansion and exploring how my work translates into new forms of energy, and how do people interact with it, too. So, I guess from line work to editorial to graphic…but always movement. It’s exciting. It’s a mystery. 

KD: I’ve heard that quite a bit speaking with artists. Most of the artists that we’re in contact with do client and editorial work as their primary job, but use a much more tactile medium to express themselves personally and develop their style and do experimental work. There’s something so satisfying and visceral about working with tangible materials.


HB: Yes, especially now with so much computer advancement with AI and Blender. I look at it and I say, I gotta go more human. I gotta go more messy. I gotta go more imperfect. This idea of having everything close to perfection, it actually bothers me. This is also probably why I’m going back to more painting and ink work. I want to show the more humanist side of it: the tactile, the haptic, the bespoke. 


KD: Working digitally is definitely convenient, but there is something about approaching a blank computer screen or tablet versus a blank canvas. At least to me, it doesn’t inspire the same creativity. There’s no real accidents either, and accidents are sort of how experimentation happens.


HB: Exactly! There’s no torture. [Laughing] Just press delete or you just start a new page. It’s unlimited and infinite. 


KD: So, what are some of your goals? If you could have any kind of project or any kind of commission, what would you want to be doing next?


HB: I have so many goals. 


KD: Tell me everything. 


HB: Books. I’d love to write and illustrate my own children’s books. Murals. Installation — like a Lincoln Center takeover.  Stage design for the American ballet theater or something like that. Or even just placing a sculpture in a park. It’s just more thinking bigger and more personal storytelling. I want to have more authored work and more of my own voice out there and my own self out there. 


KD: Your work is so closely tied to narrative. I’m curious what stories you’re most interested in telling or illustrating through your art. 


HB: My most important goal is showing that we’re all human, we’re all connected. There’s always a sense of empathy towards each other, and also just showing that we’re in this together. It really is about unity. In terms of specifics, I’ve always felt really strongly about women’s movements, social movements.

Film poster for Period. End of Sentence. (Zehtabchi, 2019). Artwork by Hanna Barczyk.

KD: When you’re working, are you typically listening to podcasts or music? Are you in silence? 


HB: Lately, in silence. I think I need to hear my thoughts. When I’m listening to podcasts, sometimes I get so into it I need to research what they’re talking about. With music, I just start dancing. If it’s music, it has to be instrumental. So I listened to a lot of classical piano because there’s no distraction. But a lot of times it’s silent. 


KD: I always tell people that, because most of my work is writing, I can only listen to instrumental music because I have a constant narrative in my head going.  To hear you talk about how closely your work is tied to story and not being able to have words in your head while you’re making — it’s so interesting to hear that from a visual artist.


HB: Yeah, I’m always talking to myself. I think it’s important because it’s the inner world, right? If you want to make sense of our inner world, it needs to come out to the outer world. So I want to pay attention to what I’m feeling. 


KD: And stay in dialogue with yourself.


HB: Yes, absolutely. Because you need to have that conversation with yourself, as long as it doesn’t turn into criticism.


KD: Then we can get some music. Well, how do you deal with feelings of internal critique, if you have that?


HB: Oh, self-critique is the worst. I think it’s probably what keeps most people from painting or writing or dancing or any kind of expression. The world is filled with so much guilt and shame and we’re not supposed to do this. For a long time I thought, I’m not allowed to do this. I had to keep telling myself to be resilient and push through that faith.


KD: And give yourself permission. 


HB: Yeah, that’s a big one. Give my permission. Nothing needs to be shown right away. With social media, it’s a lot of pressure to show what you’ve done. Show me what you’re working on. Show me your process. And invite the whole world to critique it. I cannot do it. That self-critique is stronger when I am thinking about social media. Now, I talk myself through it. I take breaks.

KD: What would you say to somebody who’s 29 and wants to make a similar leap that you did, or what do you wish somebody had said to you?


HB: It sounds so cheesy, but believe in yourself. Life will figure itself out. Just start doing what you want to do. It’s never too late to start again, and to start again, and again, and again.

Hanna Barczyk with paintings for Vancouver Opera. Image courtesy of the artist.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

We’d like to thank our friend Hanna Barczyk (@hannabarczyk) for joining us and the McCarren Parkhouse for hosting this interview.

 To learn more about artist sourcing opportunities, email us at [email protected].

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