London-based illustrator, author, and artist Sarah Lippett has made a career out of telling the stories that we never hear—those that their tellers can’t, or won’t, necessarily tell themselves—and the beauty of her work lies in its deeply human origins. If “human-centered” and “storytelling” are inescapable design agency buzzwords, Lippett’s approach effortlessly shows them how it’s done.
We first fell in love with the Royal College of Art graduate’s distinct, fluid style back in 2014 with Stan, the seeds of a graphic novel sown at university that told the story of the grandfather Lippett never knew, pieced together through letters, conversations with her Nan, and interviews with family members. In the words of the artist, it’s “a true story of love, life, living, and the importance of family.” The comic was later extended into Stan and Nan, a glorious hardback graphic novel published by Jonathan Cape in 2016.
In this way, Lippett’s expressive, sketchy linework and limited color-palettes become conduits for stories untold, and mouthpieces for the unheard. Her stories reveal the little guys, the underdogs—those people who assume their stories aren’t what we want to hear, and whose stories are often the ones we need to hear most. In Lippett’s work, this has meant meeting people in UK seaside town Margate; “reminiscence workshops” with people across Lancashire, in northern England; and engaging with patients and staff at Royal Stoke University Hospital.
While these stories have mostly focused on little pockets of England, in the past year or so Lippett’s work has drawn from further afield, thanks to an artist residency in the Ukraine that came about at something of a tumultuous time politically. “Back in June 2016, the day after I had become a published graphic novelist, and our country had decided to leave the EU, I felt both ecstatic and depressed all at once,” she says. “I went for a run to clear my head, accusing every pedestrian and cyclist I ran by of voting against my wish, and against my country. When I returned home, I received an email from British Council Ukraine, asking if I might be interested in applying for a one month residency in Ukraine.”
At the time, all she knew about the country was that it was at war with Russia, and had once been part of the Soviet Union. She applied, assuming nothing would come of it. Naturally, something did come of it, and in September last year Lippett spent a month in the country along with five other artists, each placed in a different area. Lippett was sent to Muzychi, a small village 40 minutes’ drive from Kiev, where she stayed with artist Alevtina Kakhidze and her husband, plus their three dogs and two cats.
“I stayed in a studio to the side of the Alevtina’s house where I had a large space to make work, and a small kitchen, bathroom and bedroom space,” Lippett explains. “I spent the month trying to meet and speak to as many people as possible about Ukraine, to try and understand the country’s turbulent history, the war in Crimea, and to gain insight into what it’s like to live in present-day Ukraine.
“The first question I was asked whenever I met an English-speaking person was ‘why have you decided to leave the EU?!’ and my answer was often ‘I DIDN’T VOTE FOR THIS.’ I became so worn out from hearing the same question, that I turned the question on a participant and asked, ‘why do Ukrainians want to join the EU?’”
The answers she received ended up becoming the fuel for one of the most interesting pieces of work she created there, a zine called One Month in Muzychi. As is Lippett’s style, the work is weaved from the stories of strangers, and formed of multifarious viewpoints and perspectives that we don’t often get to experience. Lippett attributes a new dimension in this storytelling to her host. “Alevtina has so much fire in her,” says Lippett. “The kind of work she made was incredibly political, she’s very brave. It’s very inspiring. I like the parallels between her work and mine: she’s also a storyteller, but tells stories in different ways to me, and I found that very interesting.”
The area she was staying in proved equally rich creative soil. “It was non-touristy and quite unusual, a real artist community,” says Lippett. “There was another artist in the village who was a sculptor and painter, and his work was absolutely enormous. It was so cheap that you could have a whole studio there. Then next door to him was a lady who was a total outsider artist—she’d just do replicas and paint them onto the walls, she even painted the outside of this totally mad house, with all these glorious scenes. It was all very Watercolour Challenge, but in this otherwise very normal little Ukrainian village.”
Despite language barriers, garnering stories, characters, and understandings for her work came quite organically for Lippett, often thanks to introductions from her hosts or the British Council, and just as often thanks to chance encounters. “I’d be walking down the road and the conversation would happen naturally,” she says. “I’d judge whether the questions I wanted to ask were appropriate, as some things are quite sensitive—especially when it came to speaking about Crimea or the Soviet era.”
So what were the most surprising things she learned? “I think it’s just realizing that everyone is really the same: we all want the same things, and have the same needs,”she says. “People just want the freedom to go where they want to go and live full lives and afford healthcare and not be worried that when you’re sick you won’t get treatment. Just the basics of life. I realized that really we have so much in common.
“I also realized how lazy artists can be in the UK compared to the Ukraine. Maybe it was the ones I worked with, but I felt they were so driven and wanted to fight for everything. For example, there was a space that had a long history of artists working there that was connected to the university, where graduates could stay on and work. They wanted to turn it into flats—a similar situation to London, really—and they campaigned so hard that they physically barricaded themselves to the buildings so that it couldn’t be bulldozed down, it’s that important to them. Everything comes from the heart, and I was so inspired by them.”
“I think it’s just realizing that everyone is really the same: we all want the same things, and have the same needs.”
The fruits of Lippett’s residency were realised in an exhibition of her work in progress at her studio in Muzychi. As well as showing her progress studies, the show also “sold” local produce purchased from the villagers in the form of a stall decorated with a design of leaves and herbs drawn from Alevtina’s garden. “I wanted to give back something to the community that had been so welcoming from day one,” says Lippett. “Alevtina kindly paid for a bus to deliver visitors from Kiev to the show. I decided to create my own downloadable ‘Muzychi’ money for people to print out and use to pass down the bus as their fare, and to purchase goods once they arrived. We even had a printer set up for visitors to print money if they hadn’t managed to print their own.”
The final exhibition of all the residents’ work took place in March this year, organized by the British Council and held at Mala Gallery in Kiev. For this, Lippett created a 16 foot wide, 13 foot high drawing of her favorite spots in Muzychi, a 30-page zine (in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag) of comics and drawings that reflected her conversations and observations, and a souvenir stall that was her take on Ukraine, with items such as key rings stating that more people are speaking Ukrainian in the city these days (during the Soviet years most people spoke Russian in the cities, and more people in the villages spoke Ukrainian), Russian dolls painted yellow and blue to reflect the current de-Communization of the country, and magnets and tea-towels that portrayed unusual places and objects that she had discovered during her time in the country.
The large-format piece was a reflection of the artist’s sense of being dwarfed by Ukrainian architecture: “everything felt massive. Obviously they were part of the Soviet Union, and Soviet architects did that to make you feel small. So there was this giant, incredible architecture and murals that were enormous. I felt I would try and do that but instead of representing the Soviets it represented Muzychi; you could feel those same feelings, but in the countryside.”
The zine format was an obvious result for a number of reasons: “It’s the way I like working; making sketches as I was going along and then expanding them when I was listening back to all my dictaphone recordings and going though all my notes,” says Lippett. But another moment informed that choice, too: “I gave a talk at some studios, and when I started talking about graphic novels, someone asked what a graphic novel actually was. Not that many books have been translated into Ukrainian, so I thought it would be good to show what a graphic novel is, rather than just talk about it. “I wanted to show the students that there was this whole other way of telling stories and using images and text together.”
There’s such a warmth to the work that goes beyond the artist-as-tourist vibe that some residencies can produce, and into something of a deeper understanding and commonality. Lippett’s work is that of a listener, and a faithful yet skillful teller of tales. “I found Ukrainians to be generous, resilient, open, and welcoming people,” she reflects. “Neighbors in the village gifted me home grown vegetables and greens, strangers offered free guided tours of the city, invited me to parties, and made me feel like their best friend and sister all in one.”
“I wanted to show the students that there was this whole other way of telling stories and using images and text together.”