Our blogs posts in February and March feature public scholars working across various media who are pushing for creative, inclusive, and ethical means of representing the ancient world. All of these individuals will be presenting at our upcoming colloquium, “Presenting the Past: Responsible Engagement and Ancient Mediterranean History”. This colloquium asks how we as educators inside and outside the academy can more effectively participate in public discourse about the ancient Mediterranean. How do we engage in responsible public scholarship that is more inclusive of past diversity and modern audiences? We’re excited to feature the work of several public scholars who are creating innovative and compassionate answers to this question.
Can you introduce us to your background as both a scholar and artist? How have these backgrounds influenced your current work as a freelance artist?
I am a self-taught artist with an academic background in ancient history and heritage. I received my undergraduate degree in Ancient Studies (focusing on Ancient Rome) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and my masters in Museum Studies at Durham University. In between these degrees I conducted research on Roman imperial coin imagery in Cluj Napoca, Romania with the Fulbright Program. During the latter project, I began developing my current artistic style and imagery.
This background is what inspires me to create accurate and aesthetic depictions of the ancient world and its myths. As I learned during my research on coinage, art was rarely created in the ancient world without some importance behind it. From graffiti on latrines, to the imperial propaganda on the Roman emperor’s coins, people used art to communicate and make their mark on the world. I like to think my art continues this human legacy in a way that is authentic to the cultural identities of the ancient Mediterranean world and its neighbours.
What motivates you to create art based on the ancient world?
Honestly my main motivation for creating art of the ancient world is that it’s fun! Each illustration is a little research project, and allows me to show what I’ve learned in my studies. I also enjoy that my illustrations have helped introduce ancient artefacts and sites to new audiences, from social media, to classrooms, to museums.
What media and materials do you work with?
I create my professional work digitally, using Affinity Suite and a ‘One by Wacom’ tablet with a desktop computer. In my free time, I like to play around with pen and paper and occasionally gouache paints and colour pencils. If I need time away from a screen, I like to take my sketchbook to one of the local museums or parks and sketch out some still lifes.
Your works are really vivid – what choices and inspirations lie behind the colour schemes in your art?
Much to everyone’s delight and dismay, we are constantly learning more about the garish colours the ancients (Romans especially) loved to paint their buildings and statues with. Having grown up believing everything was as pearly white as the British Museum and the Washington DC mall, seeing my first Greek polychromy reconstruction completely changed the way I viewed the ancient world. They no longer seemed as alien and sterile, but instead ordinary people who also enjoyed filling their space with bright colour and life.
I like to continue this zest in my art, but also ramping it further with my access to digital colours. Some colours like deep purples and blues on screen can’t be replicated in physical pigments. I think sea cultures, especially the Minoans (whose primary colour schemes are just gorgeous), would have loved having access to these vibrant blues. I enjoy playing around with modern-ifying ancient palettes with these new colours, and continuing their legacy of decorating the world with eye-catching visuals.
Your work also animates the personalities of deities and other beings from the ancient world in really striking ways – how do you “decide” what they should seem like? In other words, how do you interpret their personalities through your art (I’m thinking of characters like Hecate and Styx, among many others)?
I find my depictions of deities are often based on my gut feeling at the start of the illustration/what I am aiming to show. It’s largely based on my familiarity with the deity’s depiction in the ancient world, and how interpretive I am feeling at the time. For example, I always illustrate Mercury/Hermes as a lithe young man, but with Dionysus I go from a Disney-esque satyr-like depiction, to a Roman youth, to a yaksha-esque man based on his mythic origins in the Indian subcontinent.
For the goddesses you mentioned, I aim to capture the feelings their intangible presence in daily life would have inspired. For example, Hecate’s illustration was based on her aura of a powerful female presence, not inherently evil, but not to be messed with either.
“For the goddesses. . . I aim to capture the feelings their intangible presence in daily life would have inspired. For example, Hecate’s illustration was based on her aura of a powerful female presence, not inherently evil, but not to be messed with either.”Flora Kirk
How do you see yourself bridging both scholarly and popular audiences with your art?
As anyone who’s interested in the ancient world can agree, there’s something mythic about knowing the lives of people who lived a millennia ago, yet were instrumental in shaping the modern world. I believe this initially attracts both audiences to my art, and that my attention to historical accuracy encourages viewers to learn more about the subject.
“I first fell in love with the ancient world at school, and I would be honoured to know that I am inspiring a new generation of ancient history enthusiasts. “Flora Kirk
How do you see your art as a teaching resource for the ancient Mediterranean world?
While I incorporate historical authenticity into each piece, I recognise that most of my work presents as quite modern through the medium and palettes that I use. I believe this helps “bring the ancient world to life” for many viewers who might have previously seen ancient history as a bit beige and boring. Quite a few teachers have even told me they have used my art to inspire their students, which I absolutely love to hear! I first fell in love with the ancient world at school, and I would be honoured to know that I am inspiring a new generation of ancient history enthusiasts.
What are the responsibilities of the creative/visual arts in animating the past for modern viewers?
As creatives focusing on the past, I believe we have a responsibility to depict the ancient world accurately and to be transparent with deliberate anachronisms. Not to say all creative endeavours must be limited to a strict box, but it’s important to realise that many people will take our work as fact unless stated otherwise.
I also believe that it is important to challenge popular misconceptions of history in our work. For example, I always ensure that my “Roman daily life” scenes stay away from the usual classist and white-washed portrayals of patricians and emperors, and instead reflect the everyday life and diversity of the culture. Even along Hadrian’s Wall we had soldiers and civilians from all over the empire, which has often not been reflected in the visual interpretations of this site.
Prints are also available for purchase on Flora’s Redbubble shop.
Flora is a UK-based freelance illustrator specialising in visual depictions of the ancient Mediterranean world. She loves to create art inspired by archaeology sites, ancient myths, and visuals that echo the aesthetics of a time long past. Much like the Romans with their statues, she is a fan of bold colours, and wants to break the convention that archaeology is primarily muted earth-tones. She currently lives along Hadrian’s Wall, in Newcastle, with a focus on bringing local museum archaeology collections back to life through illustration.