Johan Lindström: A softer side of fatherhood
June 19, 2016
Happy Father’s Day! In honour of the day, I have something really special for you – my first ever interview! With Swedish illustrator, animator, and dad of three, Johan Lindström! I was struck by his giant, gentle, technicolour depictions of fathers on Instagram, and had to talk to him! We discussed his inspiration, his experience as a stay-at-home dad and a freelancer, and his beautiful way of challenging norms and raising the societal value of the softer side of parenting for dads. So good, guys!
First – though, I know, this day can be a hard one for a lot of people. For those of you who are missing someone today, big, big love. And for the good guys out there, raisin’ the babes, doin’ their beautiful best, here’s to you! You are such gold. It makes my heart swell.
Over the past year, I’ve banked a lot of time with a sleeping baby on my body, calling it “productive multi-tasking”, by flipping through Instagram in search of artistic inspiration at the same time. Like me, a lot of the creatives I follow are moms, and it’s not unusual for parenting themes to show up in their work, but Johan’s work struck me as something special. There just aren’t a lot of men showing fatherhood the way that he does. I was so curious about him!
I sent him an email and I am so, so delighted that he agreed to be my first ever interviewee! We met for a google chat; Johan was home with a sick little daughter, I had a very wiggly Alida on my lap for half the thing, and it was relaxed and fascinating as ever and I am sure you will just love him! You can follow him as @joxondesign on Instagram, he’s very active there, with a steady flow of playful, bright, heartwarmingly human (and sometimes canine!) works.
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Elena: So first, thanks so much for “meeting” with me! To start, could you say a couple of words about yourself? If you were sitting next to someone on an airplane and having a nice conversation and they asked you what you do, what would you say?
Johan: I would say something like: I’m a 36-year-old freelancing illustrator and animator based in a small town in the north of Sweden.
E: Nice. I came across your illustration on Instagram, and I was really taken with it right away. It’s kind of hand drawn or painterly in texture, usually of people, sweetly awkward in a way that is just so real, and full of emotion and colour. It’s beautiful! What would you say are your main influences or sources of inspiration? Both stylistically and in terms of content.
J: Thank you so much! Well style-wise I guess I’m very influenced by a wide range of different artists, mostly whom I follow on Instagram and other social medias. I have only been freelancing for a short period of time and consider myself still a newbie so I try to test new stuff and find something I’m comfortable with. I’m inspired by both digitally drawn art and more analogue stuff like gouache paintings. Right now I’m very inspired by art that has that screen print-ish feel to it and collage as well. I’m an Instagram addict and get most of my daily inspiration from there.
In terms of content I would say that I try to express myself, and my own life in my personal work. I’m very interested in parenthood, struggles of being a dad of today and also gender roles. What does it mean to be man, how is manhood defined today. I have been interested in equality and gender for a long time and we often discuss such matters so it naturally becomes a theme in my illustrations too.
E: Your images of fatherhood are actually what stood out to me the most. I follow hundreds of illustrators and artists, and although parenthood is a common theme for women, it’s kind of rare to see fathers depicting fatherhood in the tender way that you do.
J: Yes I have to agree, unfortunately. I wish it were more accepted among men to express their feelings in general and their love and affection for their children in particular.
E: What’s interesting is that we do see snippets of fatherhood in these men’s feeds in general, a picture of their partner with the child perhaps, or even a picture of them with the child, but it doesn’t often make it’s way into the work. Why is depicting fatherhood important to you?
J: Well I often feel that those more softer/emotional parts of parenting are considered low status or uninteresting among us men and I guess I want to show that it’s just as wonderful for dads.
E: You do that beautifully. Do you think men actually find those aspects of parenting uninteresting? Or just feel it will be to others?
J: Hmm that’s a great question. I think that yes, most guys are genuinely uninterested in taking full responsibilities like a mother would. Of course every dad loves his kids but we are not raised to feel fulfilment by caring and taking care of children, most men will rather work than staying home and taking care of kids and home. Even here in Sweden where we get almost two years of parents’ allowance to stay home, most dads choose to stay home only one or two months to save money. If we could raise the status of the “softer” values in society among men perhaps it would be more interesting for dads to take that responsibility.
I think people are missing out some of the coolest and most incredible things that life can offer by not being with their kids from the start. Get up in the middle of the night to feed and change diapers, being home alone with a small baby that’s totally dependent on you, cleaning tons of dirty baby laundry, planning and shopping for everything that a baby needs, taking long walks to make the baby fall asleep.
Hm did I get off topic? Haha.
E: Not at all, haha. I think to the casual observer, those things might not sound like much fun, but I get what you are saying, it’s the little gems that happen in the middle of all that. Like, I hear my baby just now and I am going to go in and get her, and I know that she is going to have this fuzzy head and sleepy face and give me this enormous toothy grin and even if I’m in a terrible mood that is just golden. Do you mean these golden little things, or do you mean something deeper… something that having this dependent being teaches or builds in you?
J: Both! Thanks for putting words on my ramblings. 🙂
E: You said “If we could raise the status of the “softer” values in society among men perhaps it would be more interesting for dads to take that responsibility.” Would you say that is something that you are trying to do, with your work? Or can you elaborate on that?
J: Yes, I guess that’s what I´m trying to do. I often try to challenge the norm, what it means to be man or a dad. In my latest project I’m planning to do a series of illustrations that in different ways portray dads in situations/moments/emotions that are often reserved for mothers. Like those examples I wrote earlier that can be tough in the moment but that you look back on with love. Or those intimate moments when you look your baby in the eyes and get all warm and proud and feel completely blessed and happy.
E: Oh I’m really looking forward to seeing that!
J: I like to play with contradictions; it can reveal norms and make people think. For example I have illustration with a dad holding a baby that say something like “unfortunately my wife can’t stay home ‘cause she earns a lot more money than me” not sure if that translates well from Swedish but its an common argument for men to not stay at home.
E: Totally translates. And so true. My husband and I talk about this a lot. We were recently talking about how much time is “normal” for a parent to be away from home, working, and we ended up looking up how many hours per week the average Canadian father is away from home. It’s 46 hours. That’s a lot of time, actually! I find myself thinking a lot lately, well, because it’s normal, does that make it good? We have to questions these things, these structures.
J: Yeah totally agree! But I’m aware that it must be even harder to fight injustice and norms in societies where the system is built on a sole provider. In Sweden we have public daycare so both parents can work and such.
E: Yes. For sure, that is so tough in North America, particularly in the US, where parental leave is so ridiculously pitiful. But I think you are doing a beautiful, positive thing. I think beauty is the artist’s gentlest, yet most powerful political tool. I knew an older priest once who said that the way towards positive change is through showing not just the truth, but the beauty in the truth. As an artist I’ve always remembered that.
J: That’s a great quote. Yes, it’s so easy to feel hopeless and only focus on the bad stuff. I usually try to focus on challenging my own masculinity. I’m brought up in a working class family with a pretty traditional approach to gender. Perhaps not that macho but with clear differences between my sisters and me. It was in my twenties I started to question what was expected of me as a man.
E: Did you stay at home when your children were small?
J: Yes I did. For our two oldest I stayed home about 6 months when they were half a year to one (that’s when they can start going to daycare) and for our youngest son I stayed home almost a year. My wife is a psychologist and she got a new job when she was pregnant so she stayed home a month or so, then I took over. It was lovely! And tough 😉
E: Oh, interesting. My husband is an academic (a microeconomist, which is all human behaviour and really not that far from psychology, actually!) and I am at home tinkering and working away at illustration in the middle of parenting. We are happy with the arrangement, mostly, but I can see how good it would be for us to reverse roles. To each have experience in each place.
J: Yeah, it´s hard to understand the responsibility without experiencing it first hand.
E: For sure. To leave off, let’s link the two – your work and your family life. I’m really interested in life balance and creativity. Do you have any insight or even just simple practical thoughts on making it work – balancing a creative/professional life and a satisfying family life?
J: Ah great question. I must say that being a dad and freelancer/running a business is a perfect match. I used to work at a game development studio, which is supposed to be creative but all you do is work overtime doing horrid macho sexist stuff. Now I can do what I love AND be with my family. I have the time to drop off and pick up the kids at school and daycare, make dinner and put them to bed. I usually spend about six hours in my office, and work a couple of hours after the kids fall asleep, if needed. I have always felt that having kids has made me more efficient and more organised in my career.
Ok, got one tip: get up super early before everybody else and spend an hour on your own stuff that you don’t have time to do in regular hours. This is how I try to grow as an artist and try out new ideas, do my own stuff and not only paid jobs.
Maybe not something you wanna do when you have a baby that keeps you up all night but works great now!
I actually get up at 5, haha.
E: Oh, the early morning wake up, that was my mother’s strategy too, I’m not there yet! lol. You can see how childcare makes a huge difference. So many freelancers in North America do it with kids at home, which is tricky. I totally agree it does make you more efficient!
Thank you so, so much Johan! This was really fun and interesting and thank you for being so generous with your time and thoughts!
J: Thank you, this was really interesting and fun. Thanks a lot for you interest (not that used to it ;)). I´m both proud and flattered that you wanted to interview me! Hope you will have a great week and a beautiful spring.
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What I love about this interview is Johan’s feeling that men are really missing out on something good. He elevates both the drudgery and “those intimate moments when you look your baby in the eyes and get all warm and proud and feel completely blessed and happy” alike! Achim is a very involved dad, but because he works outside the home and I tend to be the go-to girl, I have been guilty of occasionally angrily thinking that Achim JUST HAS NO IDEA. It’s been an intense spring, but at the moment, I am actually in a rare reversal of roles, away from my babes on my birthday trip to London for the weekend (more about that later!!!). When I talk to Achim, he seems tired, but also proud. It’s an interesting perspective, being Alida’s most wanted one, he says with a little smile on his face. And I get it. It’s hard, but it’s something pretty special, too. Maybe rather than HE JUST HAS NO IDEA (GRRR), it ought to be a little more aww, he has no idea. And wouldn’t it be nice for him, for all of us, if he did.
Once again, a huge thank you to Johan! This was wonderful. Be sure to show him some love on Instagram!