The Fashion-School Defector Who Charmed NYC’s Art World

Camilla Engstrom. Photo: Ricky Chapman

“I dropped out of fashion school because I didn’t like what they were teaching, specifically how a body should look and how clothes fit to that body,” says Swedish-born artist Camilla Engstrom. Still, her path to a life of full-time painting and drawing involved a brief detour in the fashion world, where she worked as an assistant before embarking on her artist’s journey.

I saved up a little bit of money and quit my job with no clear plan,” says the Brooklyn-based artist, who is now known for her whimsical illustrations, embroideries, and paintings. “I started to embroider vintage shirts, made weavings and drawings,” she remembers, “To survive I took on freelance jobs here and there. I knew I wanted to draw and paint but I didn’t have the confidence so I stuck to working with textiles for a while.”

Two years later, the ever-stylish Engstrom (boredom with fashion aside, she certainly has a flair for it) has fully embraced her creative powers, and devotes herself to painting and drawing full time. The topic of the body, part of what turned Engstrom off from fashion, is very much present in her work, which largely features nude, rotund human figures in comically lewd positions or situations. (A naked female character called Husa — consider her the anti-model — is a regular in her oeuvre.)

The Cut caught up with the artist during her recent trip to Mexico, where she visited the pyramids of Teotihuacan and told us about her first drawing, enduring love of Seinfeld, and dream dining partner.

How would you describe your work?

Playful, dreamlike, a lot of plants, figures, animals.

Do you remember the first thing you ever drew?

A horse that looked more like a rectangle with 14 legs. My grandfather framed it he loved it so much.

What’s on your desk?

My desk has mostly simple things to make drawings with. This is also where I keep my goals.

What are you working on currently?

I’m working on my upcoming solo show at Cooler Gallery, which in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It will consist of paintings, tiny sculptures, and drawings.

You’re in Mexico right now — is the trip for work or fun?

I’m here for fun. I needed inspiration and a break from New York before I lock myself in to my studio painting for my show. The highlight has definitely been the people, the food and visiting the Teotihuacan pyramids.

Where in NYC do you live?

I’ve been living in New York since 2011, and I currently live in Bed-Stuy. I’m pretty new to the neighborhood but I like Clementine Bakery a lot. I’m ready to move soon but haven’t decided where to yet. Maybe L.A.

What’s your fashion uniform?

Anything comfortable goes. I like big shirts and high-waisted pants. I do enjoy dressing up and putting on nice shoes from time to time, but the moment I get home they fly off!

What inspires you?

Brave women.

Who would play you in a movie about your life?

My younger sister, Jessika. She is about to graduate high school in Sweden.

What’s in your bag?

I don’t carry bags, but if I do it’s mostly practical things like my phone, keys, wallet, Kindle, headphones. I’ll often carry red lipstick, too.

What’s a recurring dream you have?

My dreams are kind of stressful these days so I try to forget about them as soon as I wake up.

What’s the first thing you do after waking up in the morning?

I have some coffee, listen to some meditative music; maybe meditate for ten minutes. Then I look over my goals and to-dos before I get up and eat breakfast.

And what’s the last thing you do before going to bed at night?

To unwind at the end of a packed day I watch an episode of Seinfeld. It makes me fall asleep so fast, because I’ve seen the episodes several times and the characters are comforting at this point.

What’s your hidden talent?

I’m pretty good at cutting hair.

Who’s the person you’d most like to have dinner with, living or deceased?

Georgia O’Keeffe. I wish I could have had dinner with her at her house in New Mexico.

The Fashion-School Defector Who Charmed NYC’s Art World