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Capturing our nostalgia’s selective amnesia: Kareena Zerefos

Kareena Zerefos

Kareena Zerefos
is the kind of artist school students say they want to be when they grow up. The 25-year-old has found herself starting to get the kind of recognition people only dream of, and unlike that of most people her age, it’s entirely deserved. With art getting more and more avant-garde than ever before, it’s nice to have someone take us back to the daydreams of our childhood, when the simple things in life were all we needed to ignite our imagination and stimulate our happiness. This is, incidentally, exactly what Kareena’s work does – it warms your insides up like a pot of chai on a winter’s day, and reminds you that the best things in life are far away from the fast lane that consumes so many of us today. As you flip through her drawings, you may as well be picking up faded postcards from your nostalgia’s selective amnesia, making things appear more innocent, more beautiful and more exquisite than they actually were.

“I have always had an interest in personal history,” she says.
“I have always collected vintage things and I often look back at old film from the days when I would run around in fields of wheat and my sister and I would play in acres of bush. It wasn’t a conscious decision to portray that in my work, really. I just wanted to escape from the hectic, independent city life back to something more simplistic.

“At the same time, there is this element of isolation to my work, because you want to escape to it but you can’t – it’s an unattainable, unrealistic view of childhood.”

But things are about to get a little darker in her art, as she is setting out to explore the other, more disheartening side of youth – the insecurity, the awkwardness and the obsession and simultaneous uncertainty with normalcy.
“Now I want to look at the things we were terrified of. I’m still going to explore the theme of childhood, but it’s going to be looked at a little differently,” she says.

Like many artists who have to come to terms with combining their passion with making a living, Kareena thought she had to be a graphic designer to support her illustration. While being a full-time illustrator had always been the dream, she never actually envisioned that today she would be doing just that from a studio space she shares with a few other artists in East Sydney.
“I worked as a graphic designer for three years, and while I enjoyed it, the reality was that I didn’t get to do what I wanted all the time – there was less creative freedom,” she says.
“At my last job I was freelancing on the side, and it got the point where I was having to divide myself so much that my boss found out and gave me an ultimatum – it was either the job or my freelance work.

“I was 24 and I thought, if I don’t do it now, then when?”

Not that the success came easy. Kareena was actually nervous about her art in the beginning and only really started drawing again after a four-year hiatus after she finished uni – when she got so sick of staring at a screen all day that she absolutely needed another creative outlet.

“At COFA, everyone was a really amazing artist. They were all the best artists at their respective school,” she says.
“When I was a graphic designer, I started drawing on the side for fun and would ask people what they thought. I emailed lots of magazines, including Yen and Frankie, and while some didn’t reply, some wrote back and were really excited about what I was doing. At the time, I was blown away.”

To date, Kareena has worked on an array of projects, from collaborations with musicians such as Bob Evans and Sparkadia and fashion labels as well as countless print commissions, in addition to her own solo and group exhibitions, one of the most recent of which was sold out. While she may well be considered one of the rarities who are able to do what they love for a living, it was not without a large amount of hard work, bravado and sheer determination to get to this point, and she urges any aspiring artist to do the same.

“Stop talking about it or worrying about your style – just do it. If you don’t show people, then no one knows about you,” she says.

Still, her lifestyle is definitely not without its challenges.
“Well, getting money in on a regular basis is always a challenge, as is constantly being in a creative mode and having the ability to make things work. Sometimes, you just have days where you can’t make it happen – particularly in winter, when my hands freeze up!” she says.
But Kareena confirms that the reward – being able to live the dream, draw for a living and get recognised for that – is worth anystruggle there is.

words: Seema Duggal
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