Illustrator and ‘part-time Jedi’ elevates fan art to icon status

When her collage featuring fierce profiles of famous pop culture heroines went viral last year, artist and illustrator Karen Hallion wasn’t quite prepared for it.

Her celebrated “She Series” came about by accident, originally a collage designed to showcase the various pin options available when she boothed at conventions.  After con-goers began asking for the collage itself,  the demand compelled Karen to quickly expand her Etsy operation. The “She Series” has since become a joyous symbol of geek girl power.

Long before the series was born, Hallion was already elevating fan art to exciting and inspiring new levels. There’s something irresistible about her classic, colorful mashups of beloved franchises — think Disney meets Doctor Who, or Haunted Mansion meets Star Wars — not to mention her pins celebrating strong female characters, loving homages to real-life icons like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and nods to classic films like White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life.

A former elementary school art teacher, Karen gravitated toward imagery that reflected her personal interests, which included Geisha, mermaids, and steampunk, as well as geekier obsessions, like Star Wars, Disney, and Wonder Woman.

After losing her teaching job, she determined to pursue a successful freelance career, which she’s accomplished spectacularly. Karen has created licensed art for Star Wars, Disney, Her Universe, and author Hank Green; contributed illustrations to the recently released book Star Wars: Women of the Galaxy; illustrated a variant cover for the BBC’s Thirteenth Doctor comic book; and tackled an ambitious personal Kickstarter project. She’s also scheduled to appear at Star Wars Celebration in April.

Once you’ve seen her art, you’re going to want to own it. You can make that happen by visiting her shops on Etsy, Society6, RedBubble, and TeePublic. If you’d like to support her work, you can join her Patreon and keep an eye out for the Kickstarter she plans to launch soon.

You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter

You’re an illustrator who creates inspiring, vibrant, woman-focused fan art, including the viral sensation “She Series,” as well as licensed art for Star Wars, Disney, Her Universe, and more. What led you to focus on fan art and pop culture imagery?

I have always just drawn what I love. I used to draw Geishas, mermaids, steampunk and more. Then I started moving into what inspired and excited me as a fan: books, movies, television, strong female characters, fantasy, and science fiction. My work is a reflection of my personal interests; the artists, pop-culture, and emotional experiences that inspire me are what I aim to reflect in my work.

Tell me your geek origin story. How did you discover and embrace fandom as part of your identity?

It’s just always been there since I was a little girl. I grew up loving Star Wars and Wonder Woman, was obsessed with Battle of the Planets, and always had a book in my hands.

I love all your work, but my favorite is the “She Series” collage, which went viral last year. It features iconic characters — favorites and more unexpected figures — from geek culture, accompanied by one-word inspirational “slogans.” How did you come up with the idea for the series?

I had the idea to do an “empowering women” series for a while but I didn’t know what that was going to be. It was scribbled on my white board of ideas for almost a year. I did the Leia piece first, with the word “Rebel,” and I did her in profile because I wanted to practice my profile skills and I really liked that image of her looking up defiantly.

It was a design for a pin, so it was kept very simple. It was really well received so then I thought I’d do a few more in that style, still just designing them as pins and keeping it simple. Pins don’t have any shading and are just flat colors, but I went back in later and added shading so we could make them into notecards and prints for my Etsy store because we got a lot of requests for that.

I kept doing them, in batches of three or four and when we went to conventions, we started to run out of space in our portfolios on the table to display each character. We thought that if we put them all on one page, people could see them all and choose what they wanted.

All of a sudden, people wanted the full page with all of the characters, which we were unprepared for (we only brought 5 of that page to that first convention). Putting them all together on a page was originally to save space but it ended up adding so much more to the series.

How did you decide which characters you wanted to include and what word should accompany each one?

I have a spreadsheet and brainstormed all my favorite characters, as well as a list of empowering/fun/inspiring words. I also ask for suggestions on social media, so I go back and read all the comments and add to my spreadsheet.

Matching the right word with the right character is tricky; one word is never going to be able to describe a complex character, but I try to find the one that describes what I love about that particular character. Sometimes, I just go for something fun; “thwip” for SpiderGwen, for example, which was my son’s suggestion.

What was the experience like when the collage went viral on social media? What kind of impact has that made on your career?

That was pretty crazy and overwhelming. Like I said before, these were intended to be individual designs, pins mostly, and while they had been all together on a page for a few months at conventions, I am not sure I had ever posted them like that on social media. When it went viral, we got more orders than we could handle in our Etsy store. We had to hire help, and then hire a fulfillment center to help out.

Are you going to keep adding to the series?

Yes, definitely.  I already have a huge list of potential characters and words to include. I also plan on incorporating some real-life women of inspiration and potentially doing a series of just everyday little girls with motivational words as well.

Another exciting project you were involved with last year was illustrating eight pieces for Amy Radcliffe’s gorgeous book, Star Wars: Women of the Galaxy, including iconic ladies Padme Amidala, Rose Tico, and young Jyn Erso. How were you selected for this project?

I was sent an e-mail asking me if I was interested and had to restrain myself from sending an e-mail back that said, “OMG YES I AM SO EXCITED.” We basically said that, just more professionally.

What were some of the challenges of tackling these illustrations?

I had eight characters, and there was only two that I wasn’t very familiar with: Bo Katan and Queen Trios. It was nice to do some research and learn more about them. Queen Trios was tricky because I couldn’t find a lot of reference for her. I wasn’t sure what her outfit was supposed to look like and I didn’t want to copy what the comic book artists had done themselves. I didn’t want to make a mistake and draw something that didn’t fit with her story.

Your illustration of General Leia Organa is so stunning. You perfectly capture Carrie Fisher’s melancholy yet regal demeanor in The Last Jedi. Tell me a little about the thought process that went into creating that piece.

Thank you! I was thrilled and terrified to draw her. They gave me a little bit of art direction for that piece, and while I worked on it, I switched between having the movies on in the background and listening to “Leia’s Theme” on repeat. She’s so strong, so hopeful, but has always had a little bit of sadness in her eyes, and I tried my best to capture that.

As an artist, you have a special relationship with Leia. You illustrate her a lot, and I read that it was one of these pieces that brought you to the attention of the Star Wars “geek girl” community. What is it about Leia that you love?

Princess Leia has been an inspiration for a very long time. Growing up, there were not a lot of strong female characters like Leia. She stood out. Now, as an adult, getting to see her story all the way through, see her become a General, it’s just incredible. As an artist, there is no shortage of inspiration to be found in the Star Wars Universe and I love that.

I also really appreciate your Women of the Galaxy illustration of R2KT! That looks like a fun one to do …

Yes, I was thrilled to be able to do that one, with such a sweet, sad backstory:

You describe yourself as an “artist, illustrator, and part-time Jedi.” How did you discover George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away? Why has it stuck with you into adulthood?

I was born in the early ‘70s, so I have been a Star Wars fan from when I was a little girl. I had the action figures, I remember in particular playing with Luke’s landspeeder.

Is it a dream come true, then, to create licensed art based on the franchise?

Yes, I often ask myself if this is real life.

How did you first become interested in art and illustration? Why did you decide to pursue it as a career?

It wasn’t until I was 16 and saw the movie “The Little Mermaid” that I became interested in being an artist. I walked out of the theater and thought, “I want to do that.” I had always loved Disney movies, and had dabbled in drawing, but for some reason, this one really just jumped out at me. I went home and started drawing, and twenty plus years later, I am still going.

I went to Ringling School of Art and Design and ended up teaching elementary school art for many years. About six years ago, I lost my teaching job. Up until that point, I had been doing a lot of mermaids, Geisha, and art nouveau work in my spare time. When I wasn’t teaching, I had already started to think about trying a freelance career in art.

After I lost my job, I looked around at some of my favorite artists and I thought, “I am going to focus all of my efforts to make this work as a successful career.” I started doing some pop culture designs and ended up subbing some work to TeeFury. That was my introduction into t-shirt design, and it kind of took off from there.

You just returned from a trip to Disney World. How was that?

It was great, we had a blast! I always come back from WDW with tons of inspiration, eager to get back to work.

I also love that you’ve created some pieces based on classic movies, like White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life. Are you a classic movie buff?

I wouldn’t say I’m a buff, but there are some classics that I have grown up watching and love. Every once in a while it’s fun to find inspiration in those movies and to draw something from them.

A couple of your recent pieces feature Spider-Gwen and Captain Marvel. What’s your reaction to these two characters, who are currently enjoying the Hollywood spotlight?

Yes, its super exciting to see more and more strong female characters in a typically male-dominated medium such as superhero movies. I can’t wait for the Captain Marvel movie to come out. It looks so good.

You’re working on a children’s book. Can you tell me more about that?

Celara is a character that I have been working on for a few years. Celara is a name that was born out of my love of a series of books by author David Eddings. Back when I was in my twenties, I took two of my favorite characters from those books and made a new name from them. Polgara and Ce’Nedra were combined to make Celara and it has been my online alter ego ever since. Her little companion’s name is “Reverie.”

I created Celara because I want every little girl who has been bullied for wearing a geeky shirt or told they couldn’t like something because it’s “for boys”  to know that they’re not alone. Also, I want to celebrate what being a geek really means; to explore why we create fan art, participate in cosplay, and engage in dialogue, discussing the minute details of the characters and stories we love. Celara is my homage to how we all connect with each other through these things.

We successfully Kickstarted a calendar featuring Celara as a young woman in 2017 and then this past summer, I took those illustrations and put them in a book with text for each page; it’s called “A Year in the Life of a Geek Girl” and, this spring, I am hoping to Kickstart a children’s book featuring Celara as a young girl.

What other future goals/plans are you working on?

Right now, I am mainly focused on finishing the children’s book and getting the Kickstarter launched. Between that, trying to do some more variant cover work, as well as some freelance work I am doing, and my spring travel schedule, that’s enough to keep me busy for a while.

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