Every year, in the countdown to the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in October, we bring you a series of interviews with guests at the event. This “Festival Focus” for 2019 is with Milena Huhta, a Finnish-Polish artist with macabre inclinations, based in Helsinki.
Working on everything from record and book covers to editorial illustrations to tattooing, Milena incorporates a wide range of inspiration into her multidisciplinary work.
Some of those include 1990's Japanese manga and animation, sci-fi films and literature, contemporary and historical fashion, gothic subculture, Slavic and Asian folktales and many more.
Milena weaves a pastel-coloured web of dreamy landscapes filled with conflicted and melancholy characters.
With her work including both the magical and the mundane, she strives to tear down the thin veil between dreams and reality, making her illustrations a vessel of escapism.
More often than not, her female characters also channel a strong sexuality with a fetishistic flair.
Milena tries to portray the many layers of female identity, from vulnerability to monstrous energy, manifesting in the characters' metamorphic states.
In her most recent collaborative project 'Thaumaturgy', with photographer Diana Luganski, Milena transformed models posing against a dark background into omnipotent characters from Russian mythology, like the witch Baba Yaga or the prophetic bird Gamayun.
What are you working on right now, and when will it be published?
Milena Huhta: Most of my work is a constant stream of tightly scheduled commissions, with a big focus on editorial (eg. books and magazines and such). In between of those, I try to work on my own projects as often as possible.
At the moment, I'm working on a comic book composed of four short stories, in collaboration with a writer friend. It's still in its early stages, but the core idea of the project is to create sexy content for especially femme-identifying individuals. Hopefully it would be ready by 2020 and published the same year or the next.
Other than that, I'm always working on personal illustrations for my shop and continuing other collaborative projects.
Which art project you've worked on are you most proud of and where can people see it or buy it?
Milena: It's hard to choose a singular project. I tend to quickly move onto the next thing after finishing a project. I don't have much time for ruminating.
With that said, I'm quite proud of a collaborative project I made with photographer/friend Diana Luganski earlier this year. We decided to work together inspired by our shared Slavic background and kindred spiritedness. Our project combined photography and illustration bringing classic heroes and antagonists from Slavic folklore to life, resulting in large mixed media digital prints.
The process itself was invigorating, new and challenging for me. I got to participate in photoshoots (also brainstorming the references for them) and later on, creating new illustrative layers onto the photographs and their subjects, while also constantly discussing details with Diana. It was very rewarding to expand my usual MO of work.
'Thaumaturgy' prints will be soon available on my web shop and also at LICAF.
How do you plan your day as a creator? (Do you plan your day?)
Milena: I do try to plan my days ahead of time, at least a little. Usually that consists of me creating a ToDo list for the next day. Deadlines dictate my days and how much I will be working instead of having a normal social life (Ha, ha).
I'm very much a night owl, so I tend to sleep in a little (at least compared to morning people) and have a slow morning. I start my work properly in the early afternoon and oftentimes continue until the small hours of the night.
What's the best thing about being an illustrator?
Milena: Before anything else, I love the freedom that comes with it. To be able to be independent, to decide about my own schedules and not having to ask for a permission if I want to have a small holiday, is the absolute best. And of course, to be able to do what I love, although a cliché but a very relevant point.
Before doing freelance, I used to work as a full time graphic designer for many years but despite that, I could never get used to early mornings at the office. I just can't shake the fact that I work best during evenings and nights.
I'm very thankful that I've clients and people who trust me and choose to commission illustrations in my style. There's been couple of instances when I've received messages from younger followers on social media saying how I've inspired them and how, for example, they've decorated their room with cutouts from magazines I did illustrations for. That's the biggest win in my book, that I'm able to inspire young girls and that they actually took the time to write to me.
And the worst?
Milena: I would be lying if I said freelancing was easy. It takes a lot of self-discipline and flexibility. It's an unstable job in terms of income and I have to work hard to support myself and my two cats haha. Still, I consider myself lucky, and how I've been able to pay my rent by only doing freelance still baffles me.
Illustration as a profession is a weird in-between state of being an artist but also listening to the needs and wants of my clients. I need to have vision and a personal style, yet still be able to interpret whatever material comes my way, whether it's a music record or a serious essay for a magazine. That sometimes poses challenges.
Oh, and the paperwork, of course!
What most distracts you from getting your work done?
Milena: Mostly my cats when they want attention! They will twirl in front of my screen and meow at me until they get what they want.
No, but seriously, the hardest part of each project are the first steps when I'm still unsure about what the end result will be like. Researching, brainstorming and sketching out ideas is sometimes hard to focus on as it's the most crucial part of my work but in that sense also most taxing. In those moments, I'm easily distracted by seemingly less difficult tasks such as cleaning the in-betweens of my bathroom tiles with an old toothbrush.
Do you think it's easier or harder for young artists to get published today?
Milena: I'm not sure if I'm the right person to answer... I don't feel my career has been long or short enough, if that makes any sense.
Internet and social media have for sure democratised the creative field and in that sense it might be easier to catch the public eye or the eye of a publisher. It's easy to put your work out there but because of that there's a lot of competition too. And then there's social media algorithms that work in mysterious ways, at least I can never figure them out.
I don't really believe in anything falling from the sky onto your lap, everything requires energy, intention and effort put into it. I think that is something that persists, no matter the age we live in.
Have you ever been to the Lake District before and if so what did you think of it? If you haven't, what are you expecting?
Milena: I have not! It looks like a truly magical and beautiful place. I love nature and for some reason I have a preference for vast open areas, so Lake District to me seems like a well of endless inspiration. I guess, I'm a bit of a romantic in that late 1800's sort of way and Lakes District looks like it would be a good place for that mentality.
I'm not sure what to expect! I come with an open mind and hope to meet lots of lovely people, get inspired and experience an adventure.
Which one artist would you most like to meet, and why?
Milena: I'm very much looking forward to meeting Junko Mizuno. I've been a fan of hers since my teens. I remember browsing through her illustrations online when I was younger and being completely enchanted by them. She's been an inspiration to me in terms of combining femininity with a sexual and morbid flair in a very stylised and unique way.
I slightly freaked out when I heard she will also be there! I will try my best not to fangirl too much and act like a proper human being (haha).
How do Festivals and other art events help creators most, do you think?
Milena: It's a great way to connect with other creators that you wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to meet. Especially for me, since I live in weird place called Finland that is quite far away from the rest of the world.
Besides other creators, I think it's really important to meet just regular festival-goers who enjoy visual arts and are excited about comics etc. Meeting and having discussion with various people with different cultural backgrounds is a privilege, most of the times resulting in an elevated and better-informed mindset. I'm looking forward to connecting with new people. :)
What one piece of advice do you offer people looking to work in your industry?
Milena: I would say it's important to just draw, draw and draw. Don't be afraid to experiment with different styles and try to find one that suits you best and is different from what is already out there. It's important to look for inspiration but instead of staring too much at what other creators are doing, try to find new and unexpected sources of inspiration. If it comes from a true place of interest of passion, it will result in more personal and unique work, I think.
It's important to be resilient and not give up easily. Everyone will have setbacks and mistakes that they make, but all you can do is learn from those and move forward.
I would say it's also beneficial to gravitate towards finding a creative community, whether it's school or something else. That can result in fruitful collaborations and opportunities.
Knowing your worth is important as well. There's going to be tons of people offering gigs with no pay, just for exposure. Contemplate whether they are actually worth doing, or would you achieve the exposure some other way. A lot of people try to benefit from creative people, thinking that if it's their passion, they can do it for free. But we still need to eat and live! Paying artists for their work is important.
Do you read comics? If so, what's your favourite comic right now and where can people get it?
Milena: I probably shouldn't admit this, but I'm not the best at reading comics. I used to read them more when I was younger, especially manga, but now it's hard to find time.
My preference in comics, as in everything, is horror. Some of the titles I most recently read were I Am A Hero, Ichi The Killer, Parasyte, Junji Ito's work of course and Charles Burns' Black Hole.
I follow couple of artists on Instagram who make comics for that medium especially, and from those I really enjoy my friend Jaakko Pallasvuo's (@avocado_ibuprofen) insightful work. His comics do an amazing job in capturing the insecurities, vanities and concerns of our era and the creative industry.
Milena, thank you very much for your time and we look forward to meeting you in Kendal!
• The Lakes International Comic Art Festival returns to Kendal at various venues across the town 11th – 13th October 2019 | Buy Tickets | View the full Festival programme online or grab the Festival Guide as a free PDF download
MILENA HUHTA ONLINE
• Web: www.milenahuhta.com
• Instagram: @milenahuhta
• Twitter: @milenahuhta
Interview questions by John Freeman