Nicole Zaridze: Comforting Through Characters

February 12, 2021

Illustrator and comic artist Nicole Zaridze has hit quiksilver—the kind creatives spend entire careers mining for. The Toronto-based talent began to garner widespread acclaim at the end of 2019 for her colorful comics that transpire in a warped, whimsical reality. Zaridze’s creations craft honest accounts of our present moment in history from her parallel universe—one of apathetic maximalism, found family, and fun in mundane daily drags.

Zaridze’s biography offers four simple facts: “She loves to create colourful and humorous work about everyday life. She constructively channels her emotions through the variety of characters she creates.  She has a Bachelor of Design from OCAD University. You can find her drinking McDonald’s iced coffees in her room.” Over Zoom, Zaridze told me she was always “the art kid” growing up, but rarely took her role too seriously.

Nicole Zaridze, Raise Karma, Art Collective, Love

“I always drew cartoons, I always had a sketchbook,” she recalled. “I was always a very vulnerable person privately.” Through the symbol of the sketchbook, she seems to sense some barometer of her relationship to her own creativity. “Interestingly enough, when university started, I stopped using my sketchbook,” the artist remarked. “Then towards the end of it, I went back to being vulnerable.”

At university, Zaridze began to consider her craft her profession, elaborating on her own visual sensibilities and those of influences like Michael DeForge and Polly Nor. Regarding the former, Zaridze said, “He inspired me to do comics. He has a very simple style, very bright colors. I learned a lot about colors from him.” Polly Nor hails from the Tumblr fame of Zaridze’s high school era. As such, Zaridze’s efforts to artistically expose what’s behind society’s proverbial mask through flat, absurd images harkens back to this digital icon of the modern era.

“First and second year of university, we weren't allowed to do anything digital,” Zaridze told me. “I was just doing whatever I could in any medium, and I hated it.” Relief arrived by her third year, when she took a comics class with a professor who praised her cartoony-ness. “She was the one who really influenced me and inspired me to continue,” the artist intimated, a sensation which self-propagated in further classes. “I was really supported through the last couple of years to find my style. But it has shifted a bit since three years ago.”

“I don't even know how to describe how the style changes,” she conceded. “Now I am a little more on the nose with what I draw.” As she’s progressed through her career, the artist has sought tighter linework, sleeker sheens. However, her subject matter remains constant. “We’re just talking about everyday life and trying to be vulnerable, but not too vulnerable for me to be uncomfortable,” she smiled.

Nicole Zaridze, Raise Karma, Art Collective

Zaridze’s work toes an unspoken, enigmatic line between “too much” and “just enough,” relying on discretion to maintain its balance. Today, her Instagram has tens of thousands of followers, and each post fields dozens of comments from fans who enthusiastically interact with her oeuvre. Sometimes, the hype can place a strain on her process. Zaridze noted that friends and fans are always trying to figure out who her drawings are about, especially those from her series Black Pants Club, with narratives that ravenous outsiders have grown readily invested in.

“I really try to not base my characters or my comics on anybody, unless its super vague“ she explained. She sticks to creating from, rather than about, experience. “It's kind of weird to air out whatever I'm thinking towards a person if I don't tell them that directly.” Like this, she hovers in the twilight zone between “too much” and “just enough.”

Nicole Zaridze, Raise Karma, Art Collective

This is Zaridze’s route to universal truth—glossing over personal experiences allows her work to aim for greater resonance. She posits that perhaps her popularity expanded all at once on account of several inputs—first and foremost, consistent creative output. Steady work ethic transforms success from fleeting fortune to a simple numbers game. The succinct, profound truths encapsulated with punch throughout Zaridze’s comics caught wind on their own eager time. One comic about the moon caught a massive wave while making multiple statements at once—about our desire to offload responsibility onto celestial bodies, about our desire to understand why we’re handed our experiences, about the simple pleasure of crawling in bed to complain with your best friends. “It’s been a slow and steady snowball from there,” she summarized.

“When I started gaining an audience and seeing people's reactions to the work, and seeing how the work touches them in ways that I would have never thought, then it started becoming important,” she asserted. Zaridze was struck by the power a simple sketch could wield. Newfound fans regularly reach out to the artist to share how her work touches them, or how it makes them think. She recognizes art’s incredible ability to create bonds, to foster understanding and dialogue.

Nicole Zaridze, Raise Karma, Art Collective

“I am dogboy, always,” I joked to Zaridze, an air of solemnity obscuring my jest. “Your characters are stronger than the Myers Briggs test,” I joked further, this time solemnity supporting the whole statement. “I don't think that's the first time I've heard that,” Zaridze laughed in reply. There have been times this turtlenecked pup’s face has popped up on my Instagram timeline to embody my precise emotional state at that precise moment, a deeply healing externalization. Of all the characters in Zaridze's binge-worthy Black Pants Club, he is the one who feels mine—lovelorn and high strung. Each member of Black Pants Club is a comfort character in their own right, united by a deeply human, modern maladaption.

“They all have different personalities,” Zaridze mused. “I think that's why people relate.” Self-recognition through the other poses many spiritual benefits. “I think people are always stuck in their heads about things, at any given moment, and we act like we’re the main character of our lives." Sometimes struggle swallows a person by virtue of isolation. “To be heard is to be comforted,” she continued. “I think people should be comforted any chance they get because, well, it feels good. We suffer enough already. Making someone feel not only comfort but any good feeling, for even just a minute, is cool.”

The artist theorizes that her intrapersonal capacity to level with herself allows her work to strike strong nerves. “Not to bring astrology into this, but I’m a Pisces,” she smirked. “We’re very intuitive. I think I'm always honest with myself.” To that end, Zaridze elaborated, “Being honest with yourself will leak into your work. I think people really appreciate honesty, especially when it's not coming from them, someone else's saying it for them.” This is the root of the catharsis.

Nicole Zaridze, Raise Karma, Art Collective

Zaridze takes her expansive platform seriously, and continually seeks to nurture it. During more anxious beginnings, she focused on bolstering Black Pants Club because that project grabbed the most apparent digital traction. Meanwhile, she felt guilty neglecting her other work, the many creations trapped throughout her treasured sketchbook. “I started posting a few random stream of consciousness comics from my sketchbook, and people really enjoy those. I think I'm experimenting through that now, slowly trying to put out things that I already want to put out, but I'm nervous about the reaction.”

“I think I'll always be humble,” she decided. After all, she draws cartoons.

Still, she acknowledges that society at large quantifies success in terms of likes. “It’s natural, we've been doing it forever and ever,” she allowed. “If you're younger, obviously likes are everything.” Where likes are more arbitrary, measuring success in terms of work and accomplishments converts ideas to material reality in a manner that provides a service and  actual resources beyond ephemeral eyeballs and superficial validation. She seeks security on her own terms, through a marriage of creative mission and personal ambition. “I feel like I will be only successful if I become super stable, stable enough to also support my family,” Zaridze told me herself.

Nicole Zaridze, Raise Karma, Art Collective

Most of the followers she speaks with are her age or older—“I don't even know what generation I’m a part of, because I was born 1997.” As an artist at the cusp of Milennialism and Gen Z, Zaridze noted a stubborn hope separating whatever nebulous subsect she subscribes to. “I’ve seen Gen Z memes,” she laughed. “They're just riding the wave. Everything is hell, but they're going through it, whatever. My generation is kind of freaked out. I think Gen Z is better at hiding their fears.”

No matter how dicey circumstances have become over the past year, Zaridze holds fast to that hope. “When I'm in a good mood, I'll draw about it, and then I'll post it, and then maybe I'll comfort someone else,” she offered. “I hope I'm comforting people.” Throughout all uncertainty, around the world and within herself, this force continually drives her development. “Everything is connected,” she concluded. “If I help one person, then that person may help another, or might share my work with another person. I'll say that it does help the world. Not on a huge scale, obviously. But I think even on a small scale, you're helping the world in some way. Even if you help one person, you're helping the world.”

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