Have you spotted Camilla Engstrom on Instagram? The Swedish L.A.-based artist fills her feed with fun, colour and lots and lots of dancing. Creating art that celebrates the Earth while embodying female empowerment and positivity, we just had to speak to her about her journey to becoming an artist and to learn all about what makes her happy.
In fact, it is happiness that drove Camilla to becoming an artist in the first place. She initially moved to New York to work in fashion, but she realised it wasn’t for her and in 2015 she decided to commit to life as an artist. “Mostly, I felt empowered being my own boss,” she says. “I was super petty and resentful working in fashion because I felt like people didn’t notice my skills, I guess? Nor my creativity. There was just a lot of competition. I mean, everyone wanted to be the creative director so no one really needed my creative input. They just wanted me to assist them, or whatever.” She recounts one particular negative experience interning at Calvin Klein: “A woman aggressively took me to the printing room on my very first day and said ‘Why did you do this?’ She blamed me for making it messy, and I was so new I hadn’t even had time to see that room, let alone make a mess. I felt like she was taking her anger out on me for her not being recognized for her work at fashion week, or whatever.” And, while she acknowledges that her negative experiences of people being mean are not exclusive to fashion, but are found across many industries, Camilla is much happier working for herself. Now, she feels like she has purpose. “Working for myself, I can choose who I deal with, and I’m pursuing my own dreams,” she explains. “I mean, I’m definitely not happy all the time, but I feel like I actually get appreciated for the work that I put in.”
On her Instagram, Camilla lets us into her journey to happiness as an artist, writing: “When I finally surrendered to my new dreams, I felt like life had new meaning and that happiness wasn’t so far away.” And voila, you’ll be hard pressed to find an image or a video of Camilla without a smile on her face. After her negative experiences in a corporate environment, she first knew that she wanted to be her own boss. Her decision to become an artist came later. “I didn’t know if that meant I’d be making custom embroidered t-shirts, or candles, or whatever,” she explains. But, after getting her first studio she was offered a show at Deli Gallery in New York, and she has taken herself more seriously as an artist ever since. Her talent and energy have led her to exhibit across the United States and she has collaborated and partnered with brands like Alex Mill, Stella McCartney and Anthropologie on a variety of projects that include sponsored posts and product collaborations. That said, she does acknowledge that the road to making it as an artist is not always smooth. “You have to be okay with failing over and over again,” she explains. “It’s not a straight path, it’s very bumpy and all over the place.”
It is these experiences perhaps, that caused Camilla to create Husa, a pink cartoon-like figure who features throughout her work. With long black hair and big eyes, Husa is a free spirit, running around nude with her hands in the air and not a care in the world, and born following Camilla’s time in the fashion industry. “I felt tired of always drawing the same kind of fashion illustrations, which was always this like alien-looking skinny girl with strange proportions,” she explains. “I was just so happy I didn’t have to draw like that anymore.” It follows that Husa is the complete opposite of your typical model. She’s got curves, she’s got personality and she looks a hell of a lot happier than most fashion girls we know. Despite usually being painted alone, Husa looks completely content doing her own thing, being an individual instead of following the crowd, running around hills and lakes in paintings covered in full moons, rivers and boobs. When asked why she thinks female body-positivity is important, Camilla explained: “It’s hard to say because it was sort of intuitive for me. I think symbolically Husa represents mother nature or the source of creation in general. So I picture her being full of life, and I don’t see why she would be a skinny being or a representation of beauty norms. She just is.” And, this idea of “just being” is exactly why we love Camilla’s work so much, because she lets us know that it is OK to “just be” ourselves.
So, it shouldn’t be surprising that in addition to Camilla’s Instagram
(@camillamengstrom), Husa has her own feed too (@husasworld), where she spreads sunny and funny daily rhymes to make you feel better, as well as providing that motivation you need to be just as positive yourself. Her paintings spell out things like “Life is precious. Walk this Earth as if you’re kissing it with your feet” and “No need to analyze me. Just enjoy my gorgeous presence.” In these paintings Husa is always smiling, and sometimes accompanied by a dog or a friend to help spread her messages. Because, life is always better with animals and your pals to make you giggle and keep you company.
In addition to spreading good vibes, Husa (and Camilla) is an advocate of the Earth too, often painted with bowls of fruit or running through forests. In one painting Husa is literally knitting the Earth, redefining what it means to be an eco-warrior. In fact, Camilla’s paintings are nearly always set outside; there are no buildings or cars and not a hint of technology in sight. So it makes sense therefore, that for her 30th birthday, she hosted a fundraiser in support of saving the Amazon rainforest, drawing attention to ecological issues that are affecting the whole world. The silent auction was part of Camilla’s drive to create work with the purpose of giving back and protecting Mother Nature, who is probably the main subject in her work. “I think some artists’ jobs are to kind of mirror what is happening in the world,” she explains. “I mean climate change is a global emergency. It’s kind of hard to ignore it.” We couldn’t agree more, and we love that through the warm friendly demeanor of her characters, Camilla is drawing more people in to learn about the critical environmental issues of our time.
But, besides Husa, who are Camilla’s inspirations? “I draw my inspiration from being outside and experiencing nature,” she says, adding, “Georgia O’Keeffe is my number one inspiration. The others rotate, like right now it’s Luchita Hurtado and Ellsworth Kelly. I’m also actively inspired by my studio mates here in L.A.” Both Georgia O’Keeffe and Luchita Hurtado are women artists who are and were hugely inspired by nature just like Camilla. O’Keeffe’s floral paintings, that mimic the female body, are much like Camilla’s images that unashamedly celebrate the female form. Her colour palette, meanwhile, is sympathetic to that of Ellsworth Kelly’s, which is just as bright and attention-grabbing as Camilla’s. In addition, she is also influenced by Hilma Af Klint, a fellow Swedish artist, whose work was also full of colour, and she was also influenced by spiritual ideas.
Besides her gorgeous art, Camilla herself has an infectious and endearing personality. Her Instagram videos are iconic, dancing around her studio, brightening up our feeds with joy, and making us also want to get up and move. We see her bopping along to Mariah Carey and Björk, while also using a mop as a microphone while cleaning her studio to Fleetwood Mac. And while you might expect pop songs and lively beats to be on her current studio playlist, she surprised us by telling us that right now she’s mostly listening to audiobooks and that she’s currently listening to Autobiography of a Yogi.
We’ve got to admit though, even the happiest of people have bad, so what does Camilla do when she’s feeling sad? “Probably talk to someone and remind myself that it’s only temporary,” something that we could all do with remembering from time to time. She could even read over her own Instagram captions, as nearly everything she posts spreads love and motivation through quotes like “Take a deep breath and shower yourself in some well-deserved self love,” or one particular caption that reads “Listen! You are loved and you are enough,” which accompanies a painting of a fish whispering a heart into one of her character’s ears.
And what else makes Camilla happy? “A good night of sleep, Sweden in the summer, and being with my family.” In the future, she would like to show her work all over the world, but what would make her really happy? “To have a studio in Sweden so I can visit my parents more.”
So, with her clear positive vibes that overspill into her paintings full of rolling hills, boobs and lakes, we had to ask Camilla why she thinks it’s important to be fun in the art world, And her reply? “Is it important? I just want to make people feel happy, but that’s just my thing. I mean if you’re an artist whose work is sad or political, that’s good too. You do it for yourself first.” And that’s something we can all remember: do it for yourself first!
text by Lizzy Vartanian Collier
photographs by Christine Nguyen
Image credit by Christine Nguyen, Camilla Engstrom