I remember the first time I showed my husband Alia’s Instagram. “Look at this artist, her stuff is rad,” I told him. I don’t show my husband too many of my creative finds, because we don’t usually have the same taste in aesthetics and he wouldn’t appreciate it the same way I did. But Alia Wilhelm’s work is universally cool. It’s probably because she is one of those artists who can do it all. Whether she’s working on collage work for huge fashion brands or as an assistant to Autumn de Wilde on the film set for “Emma,” Alia is a creative force. I’m really excited to introduce her to you, as I know you’ll be just as amazed by her as I am. Let’s get into the interview.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a half-Turkish, half-German artist based in London. I’m using artist as a kind of umbrella term for my indecision, because even as an almost 28-year-old, I still can’t choose what medium I like best, and don’t think I should have to. Photography, collage, film and writing are all part of my life and the work I do. There are so many different kinds of emotions, and they are all felt in different degrees depending on the person and the circumstances, so bearing that in mind, I think having an arsenal of different art forms to tap into is a useful and cathartic part of self-expression.
You have so many different creative talents. How did you get started in all your different endeavors?
Thank you! I was talking to my mum about this the other day. My brother works as a producer and sound engineer, and we were talking about how he has been obsessed with music since he was seven or eight years old, whereas I have been lucky to make a career out of art even though I didn’t grow up doing anything that creative. I was kind of a late bloomer, I think, and so it’s funny to me that I’ve ended up here. I think most of my friends and family would agree.
Growing up, I was interested in photography but too intimidated by all the knobs and dials involved in using a digital camera to feel like I had any control over the way the image would turn out. Eventually, encouraged by my uncle, I started experimenting with film photography instead. I liked that I was forced to rely on my intuition when taking pictures since seeing them wasn’t an option until after the moment had passed. I also wrote a lot. I was a diary-keeper who, as a teenager, would write dark poems in her journal, and now when I re-read them, I think they’re so funny and full of so much misplaced angst and self-pity. I had it pretty good! But the hormones…those are wild!
Rookie, Tavi Gevinson’s online magazine for teenage girls, was what kick-started everything for me, and I highly doubt I’d be doing what I do without it. I remember obsessively pouring through the beautiful film photos, hand-drawn illustrations and cut-and-paste collages. I always had a million tabs open when I was on the site. I’d never seen art like that anywhere and was very drawn to its DIY aesthetic. All of a sudden, I had a blueprint for the kind of work I wanted to do myself. It was so instructive, in a way, which is maybe a weird word to use, but I think it had me feeling so inspired that the inhibitions I had about using Photoshop and the fears I had around using a camera just evaporated. I did stick to making things by hand for a while, because it seemed more straightforward and there was less of a learning curve, and I think that kind of homemade, scanned look is still my favorite, even though I use Photoshop daily now.
When I was in my early 20s, after unsuccessfully submitting artwork to Rookie for several years, I had my first piece published on the site: a hand-drawn, black-and-white autobiographical comic about my move to London post-college. After that, I started contributing to the site regularly, and for several years, I made collages and illustrations for it. It was a really formative experience for me. I was creating work for an audience of young women. In other words, a group I strongly related to, and so I felt relatively free to create whatever I wanted. At the end of it, I had a portfolio of work I could show other publications, and I slowly started collaging for commercial clients.
A few years ago, I also started working in the film industry as a director’s assistant. I had my first gig on an amazing video ad called “Viva La Vulva,” and then the production company working on that put me forward for a position on an adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma”, to be directed by Autumn de Wilde. The movie came out in February, and it was my first time ever working on a film. It was a hard job, with lots of long hours, a fair amount of travel and a big learning curve, but it was also so much fun, full of movement and creativity. I was working on my second film this past winter, again as the director’s assistant, but three days before we were supposed to start filming everything started shutting down because of the pandemic. The camera equipment companies weren’t renting any cameras out anymore. The studios we were supposed to film in closed. Everything started crumbling, until it was clear we couldn’t make a film anymore. Hopefully that project will restart in early 2021, but for the time being, I’m grateful I have my collage work to keep me afloat and am feeling excited about it.
Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on to date?
I recently worked on making a series of collages for the Italian fashion brand Max Mara. The company has a smaller brand called iBlues where each collection it comes out with is designed by a different artist. That was a dream! I got creative license to do almost anything I wanted. I just got the clothes in the mail the other day and it feels so great to see the patterns come to life on fabric. It’s very different than seeing your work published in a magazine or looking at it on a computer screen.
Where do you find your creative inspiration?
I see rough shapes in my mind, and I get a feel for what I want something to look like. Usually I’m very driven by color combinations, so sometimes I decide ahead of time what the color scheme is going to look like, and I go from there. But it really depends on the brief. Magazines and brands usually have specific guidelines for the artwork, and I like working within those margins. Sometimes it’s harder when it’s more open-ended. It depends on my mood, too, though. During this pandemic, I’ve tended to make more things by hand. I bought a bunch of paint and coloring pens, and I’ve been making the background to my collages using those. But overall, I don’t think there’s a specific place I go to for inspiration. It just kind of arises from the project and its parameters. I usually don’t know what I’m going to make until I start image researching, and then it slowly starts to work itself out. That’s my favorite part of the process.
What does embracing your individuality mean to you?
Not letting other people’s biases or expectations get in the way of expressing yourself. Minimizing the distance between who you are when you’re alone and who you are when you’re around others. I think that’s part of being authentic, and you can’t embrace your own quirks, flaws or strengths without having a good grasp of your own identity.
Can you tell us about the Nearness Project?
Yes! I started Nearness back in April 2020 with my friend Anna White, as a response to the pandemic. Anna used to contribute to Rookie, too, and she illustrated a piece I wrote a few years back, and I have followed her work ever since. We got to talking at the beginning of lockdown and decided to create the website together. We both felt that during such a strange and turbulent time, we were missing an outlet like Rookie in our lives.
So we created a website that publishes artwork, collage kits, playlists, personal essays and interviews all to do with the pandemic and the artwork that people are making from home. A kind of digital archive of the work being created during this time, and also a form of group art therapy in a way. We wanted to encourage people who are stuck at home to download and print out our collage kits, to get their scissors and glue out and get to work on creating something, however small. And we also wanted to publish essays that were reflective and personal, that related to the mental health issues many of us are experiencing now.
That was the idea behind the name, too, because we wanted to cultivate a feeling of intimacy and “nearness” even though we’re all further apart physically. I think it has made both of us feel less alone, and on days when I wake up feel especially discouraged or disconnected, it gives me a reason to get out of bed. We’ve gotten more submissions than either of us expected, and it’s been so wonderful hearing from people all over the world and publishing their amazing work. It definitely makes me feel less alone, and I hope that’s how readers and contributors feel, too.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I just got back to London this week, after quarantining in the countryside for a few months. Nowadays, I wake up, make myself a cup of coffee, sit down with my laptop, go through my emails and put together Nearness web pages in the morning. I spend a few days a week making collages, either for brands and magazines, or for Nearness. Today, I’m working on a McDonald’s-themed collage for a food newsletter called Vittles, and also curating a playlist for Nearness and making the accompanying artwork for that. I try to stay active by biking to a friend’s house or going to the park. Some days my energy is low and I find it hard to get motivated, but I’ve been feeling more energetic since returning to the city. This has definitely been a difficult time, though, and I can’t say I’m always in a good mood! In the evenings, my boyfriend makes dinner and we watch movies. We have watched a lot of movies since lockdown! I have a list and I think we’re well past 100…
How would you describe your style? Do you have a daily uniform?
Right now, I’m wearing these kind of retro-looking pink and orange leggings from an Australian brand called Sage & Clare, and a pink sweater from this small London-based brand called SNACKS. My socks are also pink and very comfortable. I don’t put too much thought into what I wear nowadays. I spent the past few months in the same two or three outfits. I usually go for things that are easy to move in.
Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
When I was younger, my family and I moved around because of my dad’s job, so I changed school every two or three years. Appearing to be confident or relaxed in front of others is something I’ve gotten better at over the years. It’s probably forced me to be more of an extrovert than I naturally am, but deep down, I think I’m a closet introvert.
I like to laugh and be loud and I enjoy making bad jokes and making a fool of myself, especially with my friends, and I’m definitely not shy. But I often get tired from expending social energy and feel like I need to block people out for a little bit to recharge. It’s been interesting working in the film industry, where you’re interacting with at least 100 people on a daily basis, and then doing my freelance collage work, which is so solitary and quiet in comparison. I love having both in my life, and too much of one throws me out of whack.
Do you like to read? What are some of your all-time favorite books?
I love to read, so much! I’d say some of my favorite books are The Bonfire Of The Vanities by Tom Wolfe, Another Country by James Baldwin, Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. I couldn’t put it down when I was reading it, and it made me see the world so differently. And I hesitate to share this because Ayn Rand is kind of a controversial author, but The Fountainhead is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Shop Alia’s favorite reads:
Current beauty routine?
I don’t have one right! Most days, I don’t wear makeup. I brush my hair and my teeth and smile at the mirror and that’s about it. I used some rose petals from our backyard to make a cleanser recently, and that’s been fun to use at the end of the day, but this pandemic has made makeup seem like artifacts from a past life or something!
What does self-care look like for you?
I’ve come to realize that, for me at least, a big part of taking care of myself has to do with setting boundaries. Sometimes work is an escape from me, a way to avoid thinking about the rest of my life, and being productive often feels like it’s easier than being reflective. It’s easy to numb your emotions by choosing to ignore whatever is upsetting you and just looking at your computer or phone screen instead. But I think if our bad habits become our comfort zones, we have to make an active effort to disengage. And obviously you can’t do that without reflecting on what’s detrimental to begin with, so I think it took me a few months to really come to grips with the fact that I was avoiding feeling and thinking by working. Now it seems obvious, but it didn’t at the time. And, even though it might seem counterintuitive, I think sometimes it’s doing what I’m not used to that makes me happiest. Deciding not to work past 6 p.m. Giving myself time to go on a long walk without taking my phone with me. A lot of self-care for me right now has to do with switching my phone off and making a pact with myself not to go on my emails. Appreciating nature by reveling in it. Moving, even when I don’t feel like it.
Favorite way to indulge/guilty pleasures?
My boyfriend is a chef and the most comforting aspect of quarantine was eating his amazing food every day. He made this big log of cookie dough and we would eat a freshly baked cookie every afternoon. It was heaven.
What does your ideal Sunday look like?
I like to slow down on Sundays. It’s usually the only day off my boyfriend has, so we spend it together by lazing around, going for a walk, maybe going for dinner somewhere. I read and drink coffee and stay away from my computer. I catch up with family, do a yoga class. Sometimes I find that I’m subconsciously gearing up for the beginning of the work week again, and so I’m often a little quiet and reserved on Sundays.
Any podcasts you’re currently loving?
I love The Atlantic’s podcast, Floodlines, about Hurricane Katrina. It was recommended to me by a Nearness contributor and I love how beautifully it’s narrated. I also love Modern Love by The New York Times, which is a collection of different stories about love. And I used to listen to NPR’s How I Built This all the time, but these days I’m more into audiobooks than podcasts. Right now, I’m listening to How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell.
Are there any causes or movements you’re particularly passionate about?
Any movements that are fighting to outlaw injustice, systemic or otherwise. It’s been great to see the Black Lives Matter movement gain so much momentum over the past two months and I hope it keeps going, and that real change follows worldwide. I’m passionate about mental health and feminism, too.
This one’s a little dark, but I have it framed in my room, and I love how sad and true it is. It’s from The Hours by Michael Cunningham:
“We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep. It’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out windows, or drown themselves, or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us are slowly devoured by some disease, or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) know these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more. Heaven only knows why we love it so…”
Thanks, Alia! Connect with her on Instagram.