Sofie Birkin on Making Art That’s Feminist, Fantastical & Sprinkled with Animals
“I think the relationship between a woman and her animal companion can build out a character a lot — they’re more like witches’ familiars than pets.”
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Sofie Birkin’s art is a joy to behold. It is bold, colorful, sex-positive, feminist, fantastical, and fiercely queer. It also features a large number of canine, feline, and other furry, feathered, and sometimes even scaly friends. Based in Denver, CO, but hailing from Southend-on-Sea in the UK, Birkin is largely self-taught and got her primary experience on the job as the in-house illustrator for a marketing agency. Today, she is an in-demand muralist, illustrator, and installation artist. She has illustrated two books, Sex Ed: A Guide for Adults by Ruby Rare and The Art of Drag by Jake Hall, and she recently completed her first set of erotic tarot cards. We caught up with Birkin ahead of her first trip home since the start of the pandemic to find out more about her and her work.
Thanks for squeezing us in before the holidays! Are you excited to be returning home?
Yes! I’m heading back to the UK for a couple of weeks to see my family for the first time in two years. I can’t wait. Cross your fingers that the Omicron variant doesn’t scupper our plans. I’ve got my booster scheduled!
What’s it like where you’re from?
It’s a little seaside town called Southend-on-Sea. It’s very charming — lots of run-down Georgian architecture and malicious seagulls, abandoned chips smashed on the cobblestones. I think it’s actually considered an act of treason to write about it without using the phrase “decaying glamour.” I haven’t been back since the start of the pandemic, so I’m unspeakably homesick.
How would you describe your work?
Contemporary, playful, inclusive. I mostly work digitally — I use Procreate or Adobe Fresco on my iPad, or sometimes work in Photoshop with my Wacom tablet for larger pieces. Even if I’m painting a mural I’ll plan it out digitally first.
How did you get started?
I’m mostly self-taught as an illustrator. I got really lucky and snagged a job at a marketing agency in 2016, so I was doing commercial illustration for years there, which gave me plenty of opportunity to practice. I only went freelance full-time last year. I had so many other jobs before that. I’m quite industrious, really, which is a nice way of saying I’ll do anything for a buck. I will also do just about anything I can to avoid retail work (although I’ve done my fair share of that too).
I’ve been a terrible bartender, a worse server, bagged popcorn for Americans pleading with me to repeat the word “butter.” I’ve printed hockey-themed slogans onto hundreds of baby onesies, assembled thousands of tacky charm bracelets, and taught bachelorette parties how to make fascinators. (I got fired from that one for plucking a pheasant on the job!) I even worked as a glorified crafter at a wedding shoe company. My most soul-destroying act was daintily applying rhinestones in the shape of a pair of handcuffs to a pair of shoes intended for a police wedding. ACHATIBS: All Cops Have Appalling Taste In Bridal Shoes.
What made you decide to pursue illustration in the first place?
I was visiting my hometown in 2016 and my lovely, but drunk, high school friend said something along the lines of, “You know, I’m disappointed because we always thought you’d be the one to succeed.” Nothing motivates me like spite, so I came home, reduced my hours to two days a week, and lived off my savings for six weeks while I put a graphic design portfolio together. Then I applied for every job I could find. Eventually, I landed a paid internship at the design agency where I ended up becoming an in-house illustrator.
Any projects you are particularly proud of?
I finished a tarot deck this year: Intimate Intuition, published by Laurence King. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but it seemed like too huge of an undertaking to do alone. Working on it with a team of writers and art directors made it much more manageable. I’m really proud of how it turned out, and so much research and heart went into every single card.
You feature a lot of animals in your work, too.
Quite a lot. Some are realistic and some are more fantastical. I draw a lot of women alone, and I think the relationship between a woman and her animal companion can build out a character a lot. They’re more like witches’ familiars than pets, really.
Do you take commissions?
I do! I don’t always have a ton of availability, but I love doing pet portraits.
Do you have any pets yourself?
I have a dog. His full name is Sir Arthur Pendragon the Once and Future King, but I just call him Arthur for short, because that would sound unhinged at the dog park. He’s a rescue from a local shelter (RezDawg) and I’ve had him for about three years. His DNA test informs me that he’s mostly German Shepherd, with some Pit Bull, Catahoula Leopard Dog, Chow Chow, and Beagle sprinkled in. So, a big mutt, basically. When I got him, he was a six month old stray and I did not know the sleep deprivation that was awaiting me. Enforced naps truly saved my life. I would like to go door to door and preach the gospel of enforced naps to people with puppies.
We live in a gorgeous old mansion that’s been converted into apartments with a huge ramshackle yard. Everyone in the building has dogs, so we all hang out in the garden together. His two best friends, Mookie and Mia, belong to my two best friends, Courtney and Claire, and they are a full Pixar movie when they get together. He’s about three times the size of them both and he is a real dog’s dog. His favorite word is “friend” and he gets majorly sulky if he hasn’t seen them all day.
He sounds wonderful!
He’s a weirdo. I say that with all the love in my heart. He’s the kind of dog that requires explaining. He’s more like a sentient medieval gargoyle than a dog. He’s very sweet, but very independent, and a little neurotic. He hates camping — I mean what kind of dog hates camping? — and he loves to gather piles of bones on my bed and sleep on them like a dragon. (My allergic partner is eternally patient and eternally taking Benadryl.) He thinks his sworn duty in life is to protect me and he actually did save me from a really frightening situation once — I definitely have scary-dog-privilege.
His best quality is probably how great he is with other dogs. I’ve never met a dog who he couldn’t befriend. He’s protective of small dogs, too. I’ve seen him calmly shield puppies getting piled on at the dog park before. His worst quality is the high pitched whining he wakes me up with every day, because he is definitely starving to death. He’s also the fun police — I’m sure other GSD people will relate — if his friends are “misbehaving” he’ll try to come and get my attention, so I can put a stop to their shenanigans.
So, would you consider yourself a “dog person?”
Oh yeah! I’m an obnoxious dog person. I spend a lot of time reading and learning about dogs — it’s one of my more reliable ADHD hobbies! I’ve also had a very sweet elderly Black Lab called Angus and a rescue Golden Retriever called Rupert, both of whom I loved more than anything. I think the companionship a dog provides is one of the best parts of the human experience.
Does Arthur do any tricks?
Yes! He’s really smart, although he does require bribes. I only use positive reinforcement training with him. I’m really proud of his recall. My favorite trick I taught him is “side.” It’s super useful to have him roll on his side on command so I can access all his paws in case he gets snow or a thorn or something stuck in one.
And what has he trained you to do?
He is very insistent when he wants ear scratches, so I have mastered the art of simultaneously drawing and petting him with my foot.
Do you think you and Arthur look alike?
No. I look like my downstairs neighbor’s Dachshund, Dank. He’s a peaceable, chatty old man with curly red hair, a long torso and short legs. He likes attention and stolen meat. I can relate.
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Charles Manning is an actor, writer, and fashion/media consultant living in New York City with his two cats, Pumpkin and Bear. Follow him on Instagram @charlesemanning.