221A Interview Series: Sabrina Symington

April 21, 2023

This is the second installment in our new interview series with tenants of 221A. Sabrina Symington is a graphic novelist, artist, actor, and podcaster. We spoke with her at her studio at 222 East Georgia St.

Thanks very much for speaking with us today, Sabrina. Maybe we could start by hearing a little more about yourself and your background?

I grew up on Gabriola Island. My mom was an opera singer/painter/printmaker, and my dad was a university professor. They always encouraged me to do art. I liked to act and perform as well. But I was drawing from an early age, especially dinosaurs. My mom says my first word was diplodocus. Since I grew up on the island near the sea and the mountains, nature has always played a big part in my art. In my teens, I got super into martial arts; it basically became my gender. I’m trans, and I wasn’t really jiving with traditional masculinity, so martial arts became this alternate masculinity I could express myself with. That ended up having a really big effect on my life; I got into Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, and started studying Chinese and Japanese martial arts. Those things influenced the stories I wanted to tell; I always made up these stories in my head, that had this sense of adventure and action, but also these science fiction elements, y’know, like dinosaurs and stuff. When I graduated high school, I wanted to be a kung fu action star, but this was pre-Youtube, and I didn’t know if it was such a good idea to go into movies. So I thought about writing a story, specifically a comic book. 

I took a year off after high school to practice art and build up a portfolio. I got into Emily Carr and graduated 2011. Halfway through the program, I got pretty fed up. I was having a hard time being in university, and I ended up traveling to India, Nepal, and Thailand. My experiences on the trip formed part of the inspiration for my first graphic novel, Time Tourists, which is sort of a commentary on inequality, capitalism, and colonialism. 

I got stage four cancer at 24. So that was a big touch and go, with the 50/50 survival. That made me examine my life and think about what I really wanted to do. I remember waiting for test results, to see if I was in remission, and thinking about how I wanted to live. And I thought if I’m going to die, maybe I want to die the way I want to live, which is as a woman, as I’ve always wanted to be. I didn’t come out until 2015, when I was living in Thailand. I started my transition there, and when I moved back to Canada, I started living as myself. And I thought, if I’ve done one impossible thing, maybe I’ll try another and be an artist. 

How your work has evolved as you went through the process of transitioning?

When I first started, I had no intention of talking about trans stuff. I just wanted to do comics; I went through a phase, like many other trans people, where I just wanted to be “normal.” But the thing about being trans is, politics comes at you whether you want it to or not. I eventually started putting my feelings into my comics; 2016, Donald Trump, and the massive backlash against LGBTQ people pushed my comics to be more political and centered on the experiences of trans and queer people. That became my main focus for a while, and I wrote a couple different graphic novels about trans and queer people. The more political comics kept me going for a while, but I don’t do them anymore, partially because I don’t know if I have too much more to say about how transphobia is bad. It takes a long time to draw comics, y’know? And I’ve been less interested in spending my whole artistic career refuting awful people’s bad faith arguments. At this point, I’m trying to be more of my authentic self. I try to do more for the community as well; I record voice lessons for trans women and I work on a health board specializing in LGBTQ/Indigenous/neurodivergent health. I also work in theatre; in December I was in a show about the AIDS crisis in Vancouver. So yeah, trying to find other avenues of expression that aren’t, y’know, labouring over a comic about some transphobes. 

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced as an artist?

Definitely getting traction on things that don’t feed into the social media algorithm. Nowadays, you have to really finetune your presence on Instagram and Facebook if you want clicks. It’s very frustrating; I just want to work on my art, not do PR. So I’ve been trying to disinvest myself from social media and find new ways to get myself out there. It’s hard, y’know. It’s a weird to me. There’s a bit of a paradigm shift happening with AI art, and people are trying to do more stuff online. It’s difficult to know if this pivot will work, especially as things get more precarious. 

Thanks for speaking about that. If we could go back, maybe we could talk about how you initially started renting with 221A.

Life of Bria comics began in 2015. I was just starting fresh in Canada and I didn’t know what to do with my life. I happened to meet an artist, Brigitte Potter-Mael, who told me there was an opening at her studio at 222. I went to visit the space, because Brigitte said that renting a studio space would be a really good way to develop my practice. I shared the space with two other girls; I dusted off my art table and just moved it in. I took the sky train every day and started drawing, and to be honest, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I just tried it out to see what I could do. Honestly, 2015 to 2016 was one of the happiest times of my life. I was just sitting in my studio and drawing whatever I felt like drawing. It was a scary time too, because I didn’t have a career for a following yet. But I also treasured that time in my life, because the only pressure on me was the pressure to go and do what I wanted to do, y’know?

I wanted to ask about working in Chinatown; how has your relationship with the local community changed over the years?

I’ve always loved Chinatown. As soon as I moved to Vancouver, I went out of my way to visit Chinatown and get steamed buns and shop for things for my apartment at the local little stores. Since I’ve had the studio space here, it’s been difficult watching the neighbourhood become more and more gentrified. The other week Kent’s Kitchen closed down, and I was heartbroken. I’ve always made an effort to support local businesses. I’ve also tried learning a bit of Cantonese, which I’ve not given up on yet. I want to be able to actually talk to people a little bit, y’know? Like hello, please, and thank you. I’ve done some work with the organization Chinatown Today. I’m proud to say my studio space is in Chinatown. I’ve tried helping people out too, members of the Downtown Eastside population. They see me and I’m just another bougie arty-farty kid. But I’m also here because it’s hard to be an artist. 

It’s good to be conscious and mindful of those things.

I would also say that as a trans person, y’know, I try to make an effort to care about and understand other people’s struggles. As a member of a marginalized community, you should have solidarity with other marginalized peoples. 

You’ve spoken about it a bit already, but I wanted to ask if you had anything more to say about making or having made art that deals with issues of politics and social justice.

I remember making a conscious decision early on in 2016 or 2017 that I wouldn’t feel good about just being an artist and not caring about other people. That felt selfish to me. It’s a really scary time for a lot of people, especially trans and LGBTQ people. And although I’m not doing too much political work right now, I do think everything I do is in some ways political, because just being a trans person who’s happy and doing what they want to do, that’s showing everybody that’s possible. At one time, I didn’t think this would be possible. And then I was inspired by seeing other trans people living their lives, and artists who were succeeding, and I thought, maybe this is possible for me.

To end, maybe you could speak about some work that’s on the horizon for you.

I have a bunch of acting roles lined up, which is exciting. I also have a new podcast I’ve been working on, Obsessive By Nature, that I’m doing with a friend of mine, Jenna. It’s just a place where we unpack what’s been going on for us and any ideas we’ve been happening. Jenna also co-edits the voice training videos I do for trans women. I’m also returning to my graphic novel Starfish Gemini. It’s a fun, sci-fi adventure that combines a bunch of stuff I’m interested in: kung fu, dinosaurs, politics, and queer characters. I recently got all these toy parts, and I want to make a bunch of custom models and make little dioramas and sets and props. I’m going to use it to stage scenes for the story and do a little photoshoot and use that as the basis for storyboarding the graphic novel. 

All of that sounds so exciting. Thanks so much for speaking with us today, Sabrina.

Thank you, this was great. 

You can find Sabrina’s voice training lessons here, and her podcast here.

Interview conducted by Jastej Luddu. Photos by Sungpil Yoon. This interview has been edited for clarity.