Books

Motherhood challenged Sylvia Nickerson to rethink her place as an artist in Hamilton

Sylvia Nickerson's latest comic, Creation, is a story of transitions. She spoke to CBC Books about creating the comic.
Creation is a comic by Sylvia Nickerson. (Drawn & Quarterly)

Sylvia Nickerson's autobiographical comic, Creation, is a story of transitions. Set roughly between 2008 and 2013, Nickerson explores the experience of becoming a mother and of moving as an artist through a rapidly changing city. The book reckons with gentrification in Hamilton, Ont., and the art community's role within that process, as well as the many ways motherhood has disrupted Nickerson's perspective on life, relationships and neighbourhood.

Nickerson's illustrations have appeared in publications like the Globe and Mail, the National Post and the Washington Post.

She spoke with CBC Books about how she wrote Creation.

Art and gentrification

"I came to Hamilton looking to be an artist and I did find it to be an inspiring place. I wanted to write a story from here because it shaped me over time. As an artist moving in, I had dreams. I also participated in 'let's improve the neighbourhood' projects and 'let's make a mural' and a lot of community art projects. Over time, there have been changes in the neighbourhood in terms of more outside interests coming to the neighbourhood from developers, entrepreneurs and small business and people moving from Toronto because they're being priced out of that city. There's almost a domino effect in terms of how rent and land values affect people in a sort of economic migration.

A lot of the things you took for granted are redefined by your relationship with your child.- Sylvia Nickerson

"Before I lived in Hamilton, I lived in Halifax in the North End. It went through a similar cycle of artists moving in and then businesses following suit. As an artist, you can sometimes come in and devote a lot of free or cheap labour to these projects and then whatever capital that you build can be bought and sold through real estate markets or other kinds of markets, from which most of the time artists don't benefit. I was thinking about responsibility and both winning and losing on the part of the artists and the community at large and how complicated it gets."

An excerpt from Creation by Sylvia Nickerson. (Drawn & Quarterly)

From artist to mother

"I took a leap into motherhood. I was 30 and I found it quite a profound transition. I found it both inspiring and something that makes you vulnerable again in your life. A lot of the things you took for granted are redefined by your relationship with your child. I found it a profound time to question a lot of assumptions I'd made about myself, my relationships, the place I lived and even the world at large. I gave myself permission to write about that, even though it can be a difficult subject. Often as a mother, you feel like you want to do a good job. But sometimes we struggle with these difficult feelings in the transition to accepting this new identity. 

The book has three themes in terms of creation: my neighbourhood being the world, making art and then having a baby.- Sylvia Nickerson

"Hamilton, the seven square blocks around my house, was my world. It was a new engagement with that world after I had a baby. In the book, I chose to use that as a proxy to talk about a lot of different things — pollution, poverty, the value of human life. That's what I was thinking about in that year after I had my son — thinking about how none of those things felt safe and secure anymore. The book has three themes in terms of creation: my neighbourhood being the world, making art and then having a baby. All those things interrelate and can change you as a person."

An excerpt from Creation by Sylvia Nickerson. (Drawn & Quarterly)

Space and structure

"We pass a lot of people on the street, but how often do you really connect with those people or know them or let them affect you or impact you? There's not always that many people in life that you allow in that way. I tried to infuse that style in the book to convey that dynamic — alienation from others or maybe dehumanizing other people because we have to be defended against all the other enormous amount of people out there and their needs and feelings.

It's a tidy little structure inside the book. But in real life, it's a lot less tidy than that.- Sylvia Nickerson

"The book ends at the beginning. Both the first chapter and the last chapter explore that idea of birth and transformation or possibility in life. Even though the book gives a tidy arc where the city evolves into this gentrified restaurant-ridden culture, I find now that I've published the book, there are many things that haven't changed at all. I think sometimes you realize how much you create a structure in a book. It's a tidy little structure inside the book. But in real life, it's a lot less tidy than that."

An excerpt from Creation by Sylvia Nickerson. (Drawn & Quarterly)

Sylvia Nickerson's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can read more interviews in the How I Wrote It series here.

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