Flipping through Swedish artist Johanna Öst’s vibrant, fanciful illustrations is akin to curling up with a beloved book of favorite fairy tales and finding them now populated with B-movie dames, monsters from the pulpiest retro sci-fi magazines, and ghostly apparitions from other dimensions. Folk tales meets Weird Tales, if you will.
In Johanna’s portfolio one will spot swamp girls and jungle queens, moth ladies, spider women and mermaids. A closer look reveals sorceresses and witches, warriors and seductresses. Whether they’re haunting some poor jerk senseless, blasting their enemies with laser guns, or just chilling with their coven of devastatingly gorgeous cronies, one thing’s for sure: these are some tough broads who truck in badassery, and if you don’t watch your step, they will fuck your shit up.
A painter, sculptor, and a costumer with a sublimely extravagant aesthetic, Johanna keeps especially busy. We are thrilled that she took the time to talk with us about her art and her love for the brash characters and outlandish creatures that she paints.
Dirge: Has art always been a passion? When is your earliest memory of creating such things and how did it lead to the path you now find yourself on? I’ve read that you are not really a social creature as far as classroom settings are concerned–how do you think that affected your artistic training, such as it was?
Johanna Öst: Yes definitely, it’s probably the most important part of my life, and it always has been. I don’t have any specific early memories of creating since I’ve simply been doing it all the time since my first baby doodles.
Making art for a living was never a conscious decision when I was younger, just something I’ve always fallen back on. I never thought of it as a valid option or a “real job,” and I very much still struggle with that, but now it’s my dream to keep this my profession for as long as I can.
I don’t really have any formal art training. I have learned from constant drawing and from studying books and other people’s art. I did try going to an art class for a year when I was about 18, but for personal reasons I don’t think I was around enough to actually learn anything, which is a shame. Having had some formal art training would have probably been good for me, I’m definitely lacking in the technical areas.
You’re always into something! If it’s not your amazing illustrations, you are creating dolls and figures, or costumes. What fuels your creative drive?
I have far too many ideas than I will ever have the time and energy to make. I think I’m very lucky to never had experienced artist’s block or anything like that. I constantly have at least three big half-finished projects lying around the flat annoying my boyfriend, not counting all the paintings I’m working on.
I don’t know what fuels it really, but I’m constantly inspired by things I see and hear about, adding to the unending list in the back of my head of things I’d like to make
From the moment I laid eyes on your work I’ve been fascinated by the fairy tale meets pulpy B-movie world that you conjure: full of glamour and danger and lush, dreamy mythical scenes. Can you speak to your influences in this regard?
Thank you so much! Myths, folklore, and fairy tales of all sorts are some of the things that influence me the most, and I love mysteries, horror, and the supernatural. These things have probably inspired the majority of the narratives in my pictures.
Visually I am indeed very much inspired by pulp illustrations and B-movies, but also fairy tale illustrations and surrealists and symbolism.
Another aspect of your art that has always struck me as interesting is your focus on the tough broad, the dangerous dame, the bad girl. What is it that appeals to you about this archetype?
I have been fascinated by this type of woman since I was a small child. I guess she represents everything I would like to be, unafraid, independent, and not bothered by what anyone else might think, especially since in many ways I’m rather the opposite. Bad girls also tend to be over-the-top glamorous and unashamedly sexual with no concern for those loathsome concepts of “good taste” and “class.”
It’s obvious that you have a keen interest in fashion that spans several eras; one can see that your inspirations run the gamut from burlesque and pin-up beauties to crimped, edgy punk influence, to Marie Antoinette’s dreamy-rococo-confectionary fluf, to traditional motifs found in Swedish folk costumery. From where does this interest stem and how does it work its way into your art?
Painting a picture, making a sculpture or putting together an outfit and putting makeup on my face are just different aspects of my interest in everything visual and creative. Since I draw a lot of people I obviously also draw a lot of clothes and style, and I’ve been making or altering clothes for myself since I started picking my own outfits.
Recently I’ve also ventured into making some clothes and accessories to sell. I made a small collection of completely recycled, hand-sewn, and hand-painted tops last year, and I’ve started making different types of pins.
From murky swamps to outer space, crystal castles in the clouds to stairways descending into eerie darkness–the scenery in your works holds as much of a key to the mysterious images you present as do the characters who populate them. Do you build the piece around the background or the characters, which comes first?
It makes me very happy to hear that since I think I’m rather crap at backgrounds. I have made a conscious effort to get better at them during the last few years though, challenging myself to focus more on the scenery and add more detail even if it seems daunting.
Most of the time the characters definitely come first, but it depends on my initial idea. My pictures usually start as a sort mini-narrative in my brain, and most often the characters are the important part, but sometimes it can be the scenery. I think you can usually tell from looking at them!
Many of your works also focus on frightening, violent legends and folklore–The Geast of Gévaudan, for example, or Spring Heeled Jack. Others feature ghosts and mythological monsters, some familiar, some I suspect, entirely made up! I’d love to hear about some of your favorite tales in this regard–the ghost stories and creatures from legends that keep you awake at night and haunt you.
My favourite unexplained mysterious creatures are definitely the two you mentioned. Spring Heeled Jack possibly being my absolute favourite because he’s such an outlandish creature. The fact that the sightings were in plain sight in urban areas and Jack is such a brash character yet never found or explained, makes it especially fascinating. Another favourite tale of a similar type is the devil’s footprints in Cornwall; look it up! It’s such an eerie occurrence even if it could have a rational explanation.
Swedish and Nordic folklore of course has a special place in my heart since it’s what I’ve grown up with, but there are too many fantastic stories to pick favourites.
Tell us about your creative space. What is life like in your studio? Do you set aside a specific time to create or is your muse on full-time? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or have a movie on in the background or do you prefer silence as you create?
Oh I wish I had a studio! I live in a small flat so there’s no room for that. I usually work in the sofa or by the kitchen table. I try to be disciplined and work at specific times but I’m not always great at it. And of course I do lots of creating in my “free” time as well.
Most often I watch movies at the same time as I’m working, but I listen to audio books as well. I’m a bit picky with the readers, though. There was a period a couple of years ago when I listened to every Agatha Christie audio book read by Hugh Fraser I could find. They were perfect listening to while painting. At the moment I’m listening to Irish Fairy and Folk Tales by W.B. Yeats, and I think I’m going to look up some classic ghost stories next.
Where can we see your work right now? Are you involved in any current or future projects or collaborations that you can tell us about?
Me and my artist friends Liselotte Eriksson and Naomi Nowak are planning a big joint exhibition in Stockholm in March, and I’m working on some new things for that. I’l be releasing a new pin soon, and I was just contacted about possibly making a really exciting fanzine featuring illustrations to classic horror literature.